On February 2, 2023, Austria declared four Russian diplomats, two at the Russian Embassy and two working at Moscow's mission to the UN in Vienna, personae non gratae.
The diplomats allegedly acted "in a manner incompatible with their diplomatic status," the Austrian Foreign Ministry statement said. Austria, given its neutrality, has rarely resorted to diplomatic expulsions, and its relations with Russia were close prior to the invasion of Ukraine.
Russian Ambassador to Vienna Dmitry Lyubinsky criticized the decision of the Austrian authorities to expel four representatives of the Russian diplomatic mission. He warned that the decision would have an adverse impact on Austria's international status. "This, of course, cannot but affect the authority of the Austrian capital as a neutral international negotiating platform, we see changes in Austria's foreign policy course, more precisely, we have increasing questions regarding the independence of this course," Lyubinsky said. The Russian ambassador added that the expulsion of diplomats would necessarily undermine Austria's reputation as a mediator.
Political scientist Vadim Trukhachov, an associate professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities, addresses the topic in a column titled "Time to Forget About Austria's and Switzerland's Neutrality." He concludes that both Austria and Switzerland can no longer be regarded as neutral states but as a part of the "collective West." They may be more inclined towards dialogue than other Western states but they are still part of the hostile coalition.
Trukhachov's article follows below:
Austrian President Van der Bellen with Volodomyr Zelensky during the Austrian leader's visit to Kyiv (Source: Inosim.ru)
Over the course of many years, Austria and Switzerland (especially the latter) have been touting themselves as model neutral states. However, over the past year and the beginning of this year, they have made it clear that there is not even a trace of neutrality regarding Russia's actions in Ukraine. They condemn them [these actions]. Recent events have provided new reasons to deeply question whether the two Alpine states can still be described as neutral.
For example, four Russian diplomats were expelled from Vienna. Two of these diplomats were not even working at the Russian embassy in Austria, but at the offices of the UN institutions located in the city. All this occurred at a time when Austrian President Alexander Van der Bellen paid a visit to Kyiv, bringing with him heat generators. His trip was accompanied by a statement that Russia was, allegedly, waging a "colonial war" in Ukraine. This didn't sound like statements made by the president of a neutral state.
Switzerland did not lag behind its neighbor either. For instance, the country's leadership has declared its desire to review and downgrade its relations with Russia which allegedly had refused to let the Swiss represent Ukraine in Moscow.
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Furthermore, the security committee of the country's parliament authorized the transfer of Swiss ammunition used by other states to Ukraine. True, this decision has yet to be approved by the government, but there is no doubt that the government's consent can be secured.
These events demonstrated that although Austria and Switzerland are not among the ranks of NATO members, it doesn't mean that they maintain strict neutrality in their assessment of the current developments, and that their approach is somehow fundamentally different from that of most European states.
Both states are part of the collective West, constituting quite a rich and prominent part of it. The two states cooperate with NATO. Neither the Austrians nor the Swiss have confronted it [NATO] even once over the last year, nor have they said anything about treating Russia as somehow "special."
The fact that the Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer is still the only Western leader who visited Moscow since the start of the Special Military Operation [hereafter – the SVO] says nothing about Austria's predisposition towards Russia. The head of government came to us not as an intermediary, but as a representative of the EU and of the collective West in general. This country has fully supported all nine packages of EU sanctions against Russia, and not just supported them, but took an active role in their formulation. One cannot talk about neutrality here.
Austria simply has peculiarities in its foreign policy. The country aspires to play the role of one of the world's main negotiation platforms. Its specialty is a long tradition of diplomacy. So, the EU uses Austrian diplomatic skills to its advantage. Others can provide weaponry, but not everyone can operate on the diplomatic front as skillfully as the Austrians. It's not advisable for a country- mediator to supply arms as it could result in the loss of its reputation.
Austria's absence from the ranks of the North Atlantic Alliance does not say much either. Some 20 years ago, there was a lot of talk [in Austria] about whether to join NATO or not. The fact that the discussions have now subsided does not mean that they will not resume.
Moreover, there is every reason to believe that with the rapprochement between NATO and the EU, and as discussion of many issues regarding the European future moves to the alliance's platform, the Austrians, following Finland and Sweden, may be drawn closer to it.
How can such a prospect be reconciled with neutrality? The answer is quite simple. Austria can join NATO's political structures without joining the bloc's military organization. This was the case with France in 1966-2009. In this way, the Austrians would enjoy a special position in NATO, retaining somehow the status of "military neutrality." Austria, by the way, has once departed from it [military neutrality] by sending their troops to Afghanistan as part of the alliance mission. So, it is still a matter of conjecture, but not at all unfounded.
We should recall that Austria became a neutral state not of its own free will, but in exchange for the 1955 termination of the country's Allied occupation, based on the German model [with Austria split between Western and Soviet occupation zones]. The country's neutral status had been insisted upon by the USSR, whose legal successor is today perceived by the Austrian authorities as an opponent. Breaking the "Cold War-era shackles" could, thus, also be an incentive for Austria to seek membership in NATO. So far, it is not on the agenda, but Austrians are not used to being bystanders when big decisions are made.
Unlike Austria, Switzerland is a country with a more consistent neutrality. It reaffirmed neutrality during the two world wars (although with some reservations). Membership in the EU and NATO is not even being discussed by the local elite. The people do not want it either and in Switzerland such decisions can only be adopted via referenda. It took Switzerland until 2002 to join the UN. The Confederation has also been playing the role of a global negotiating platform for years. However, Swiss diplomats, unlike Austrian ones, are much less involved in working out agenda of such talks.
In turn, the Swiss, unlike the Austrians, are quite good at providing "ambassadorial services." For example, they undertake to represent the interests of countries that have broken off diplomatic relations with each other – Switzerland represents Georgia in Russia (and vice versa), Iran in the U.S. (and vice versa). There is also an American section at the Swiss Embassy in the DPRK. So, when Russia refused such Swiss interposition by not allowing it to represent Ukraine's interests, it was perceived in Switzerland as a direct challenge to its interests.
It might be noted that Switzerland is less involved in current Ukrainian affairs than Austria. For instance, unlike its neighbor, it does not accept servicemen from the ZSU (Armed Forces of Ukraine) and from [Ukraine's] national battalions for medical treatment, nor does it supply Ukraine with helmets and personal protective equipment. The Swiss have even abstained a couple of times during the UN General Assembly votes on anti-Russian resolutions. Be that as it may, Switzerland, following the EU, has also consistently voted for all the [EU] sanctions against Russia. Thus, one cannot talk about neutrality.
A separate issue is that Austria and Switzerland are not yet ready to confiscate property of Russia and its citizens. The statements of the two countries towards Russia are less harsh. Most likely, upon meeting all the SVO goals, our country will enter into negotiations first with the Swiss, then with the Austrians. Only we will negotiate with them not as with neutral mediators but as with part of the collective West that is the least belligerent, saner, and more inclined towards dialogue. There should be no illusions about the neutrality of the two Alpine countries.
Vadim Trukhachov (Source: Ruvera.ru)