Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow

Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer on Monday will become the first European leader to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin since Moscow began invading Ukraine six weeks ago.

Nehammer’s trip to Moscow is part of an effort to promote a “dialogue” between Russia and Ukraine, according to Chancellor officials, who specifically agreed raise the issue of war crimes with Putin.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel were briefed on the trip along with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyj, who met Nehammer this weekend in Kyiv, was also informed about the Austrian Prime Minister’s plans.

The visit will almost certainly cause an uproar across the West at a time when Europe, the US and their allies are scrambling to present a united front against Russian belligerence. It follows a week from accumulation of evidence of atrocities perpetrated by soldiers against Ukrainian citizens in areas from which Russian forces have withdrawn.

Additionally, Austria’s diplomatic overture stands on the cusp of a new Russian military offensive against Ukrainian forces in the eastern Donbass region, which Western defense and intelligence officials fear could mark the start of a new and potentially even bloodier phase in the conflict.

Austria, which is not a NATO member, has long been a sympathetic voice for Moscow in Europe. The officially neutral country has often sought to present itself as an intermediary between Russian and European strategic interests.

Although it has strongly condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine and acted in lockstep with European allies to impose punitive sanctions on Russia, it has continued to press for dialogue with Moscow to resolve the conflict.

Austria is also heavily dependent on Russia economically: 80 percent of its gas needs are supplied by Russia, and its banking sector is closely intertwined with Russian financial and trading institutions as well as those in Ukraine.

Other European allies have viewed Austria’s links with Moscow with suspicion in recent years. During former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s first coalition government, forged in 2017, members of the country’s far-right Freedom Party – which had forged close ties with the Kremlin – were given sensitive ministerial posts, leading many Western intelligence agencies to suspend intelligence sharing with Austria in Vienna .

Since that government’s collapse in 2019, Austria has been scrambling to convince European allies of its ties to Russia, albeit with mixed success.

Nehammer’s visit to Kyiv on Saturday was praised by many as an example of Austria’s changing relationship with Moscow.

“This is a very important signal for us. A signal to all of Europe that Austria supports Ukraine, the Ukrainian people in their resistance to the aggression of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said at the beginning of the meeting with Nehammer.

Western leaders, including Germany’s Scholz and France’s Emmanuel Macron, have spoken to Putin on the phone since the February 24 invasion, but none have been to Moscow. Austria’s Chancellor Karl Nehammer meets Vladimir Putin in Moscow

Adam Bradshaw

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