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Waltzing With Putin

Waltzing With Putin

Austrian politicians are increasingly receptive to Russian manipulation, and Putin sees an opening.

Jeffrey Gedmin

In August 2018, Austria’s foreign minister Karin Kneissl invited Vladimir Putin to her wedding in Gamlitz. The reception took place in a picturesque village tucked into the rolling hills of southeast Austria, near the Slovenian border. Putin waltzed with the bride. Kneissl curtsied. 

The marriage collapsed. In spring 2020, Kneissl accused her husband, Austrian businessman Wolfgang Meilinger, of domestic violence. There was no estrangement between the Austrian foreign minister and Russia’s president, however. Kneissl became a contributor to RT, Russia’s state-controlled media outlet. She joined the Moscow State Institute of International Relations as a visiting professor. And in June 2021—by now out of government—Kneissl followed in former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s footsteps by becoming a board member for the Russian energy giant Rosneft.

It was a year ago last month that the International Criminal Court issued an arrest warrant for Putin for the unlawful deportation of children from Ukraine to Russia. Yet Kneissl fawns over Putin, “the most intelligent and accomplished gentleman I’ve ever met,” she says. We live in times when nothing really shocks anymore.

Last fall, Kneissl moved to Russia, where she now heads up a think tank attached to St. Petersburg University devoted to advancing Russian foreign policy objectives around the world. In December, Kneissl told the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg, “I can work here in a kind of academic freedom which I started missing when I was still teaching at various universities in the European Union.” She’s been joined by her boxer dog Winston Churchill and her two ponies, the ponies having been transported to their new home aboard a Russian military aircraft from Syria. Kneissl had been living in Lebanon until summer 2023. 

Kneissl has been widely condemned in mainstream Austrian media and politics for her pro-Putin PR. There was even a debate at the time of her wedding whether the curtsy to Russia’s ruler—the bending of a knee being customary at the end of a Viennese waltz—was traditional Austrian charm or an ingratiating deep bow. But then things can get quickly confused and convoluted in Austria.

Austria claims to side with Ukraine in the fight against unprovoked Russian aggression. While the country sticks to its 1955 Constitutional Law on Neutrality—unlike the Swedes and the Finns, there’s no sign Austrians want to join NATO—it allows weapons for Ukraine to pass through its territory. Austria takes in Ukrainian refugees. It has largely supported EU sanctions against the Putin regime. 

At the same time, though, this small nation of nine million has fought mightily to protect its financial and energy relationships with a country led by an indicted war criminal. Austrian dependence on Russian gas increased to 98 percent in December. Before Christmas, Vienna threatened to withhold support from the EU’s twelfth package of sanctions because of Ukraine’s refusal to take Austria off its blacklist of “sponsors of war.”

Austrians have been known for a shaky moral compass. 

In 1986, former United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim had considerable support as presidential candidate, despite evidence he had concealed his work as an intelligence officer for the German military during the Nazi period. There was reluctance to pay reparations to slave laborers used by Austrian companies during World War II. There was resistance to the idea that the country should return to rightful owners art looted by the Nazis from Jewish families and collectors.

Today, things are getting complicated again. Last month, U.S. Treasury officials traveled to Vienna to notify officials that Austria might be shut out of the U.S. financial system if the government doesn’t get Raiffeisen Bank out of Russia. The Austrians say they need more time. The Americans suspect the Austrians of slow rolling in order to keep ties in place with Moscow once the Ukraine war ends. More than half of Raiffeisen’s profits have been coming from Russia.

The United States has also been cautioning Raiffeisen against buying a stake in the Vienna-based construction company Strabag, which is owned in part by sanctioned Russian businessman Oleg Deripaska. Last week, Deripaska’s $1.62 billion stake in Strabag was transferred to another firm registered in Russia whose ownership is unclear. 

There’s a notable shift afoot in the Austrian political landscape. As an independent, Karin Kneissl owed her post as foreign minister to the right-wing populist, pro-Russian Freedom Party (FPÖ). A year ago, lawmakers from the FPÖ walked out of Austria’s parliament during a speech by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Just as Zelenskyy began his address via video, Freedom Party MPs placed signs with "Neutrality” and "Peace” on their desks before standing up in unison and leaving the chamber.

Austria is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in September. Polls suggest that the FPÖ may be on course to take as much as a third of the vote. This would mean an increase of a dozen points over the party’s 2021 election result, when the FPÖ topped its 1999 record of 26.9 percent. It’s impossible to predict the vagaries of coalition politics, but it cannot be excluded that Austria will soon have an explicitly pro-Putin chancellor.

As is the case with a number of Western democracies, Austria’s establishment parties are getting weaker. The political center is wobbly and shrinking. The perception of self-dealing elites keeps growing. Last fall, a powerful justice official’s suicide rocked the nation. Christian Pilnacek had been under pressure by senior politicians to ease up on investigations of political corruption. 

I confess to a fondness for Austrian history and culture. I once worked as a tour guide in Vienna. I studied music in Salzburg. I was positively impressed how modern, vibrant, and sparkling the town looked when I visited Mozart’s birthplace briefly last summer. I was dismayed to learn that the hedge of some Salzburg voters against the rise of the far Right is the far Left. The Marxist publication Jacobin calls it “a glimmer of hope.”

In Salzburg's state elections last spring, thirty-four-year-old museum tour guide Kay-Michael Dankl helped the Austrian communists secure nearly 12 percent of the vote. The communists will have a role in the new Salzburg city government. Dankl had a shot at winning a runoff election for mayor last month. The Austrian communists already have the mayorship in the country’s second-largest city, Graz. That’s in idyllic Styria, where Mr. Putin danced with Frau Kneissl. 

Where traditional center left and center right parties founder, political space opens up. The Putin regime keeps capitalizing on this.

Watch for Russian propaganda and disinformation to ramp up this year with narratives about corrupt Ukraine and little independent Austria being bullied by the United States, NATO, and the EU. There’s fertile ground for such narratives. Peter Gridling, head of Austrian intelligence from 2008 to 2020, told the Financial Timeslast fall he was concerned about money flows to the FPÖ and cabinet positions being divvied up in a future coalition government. “The Russians,” Gridling observed, “have a very long perspective.”

There’s a housing crisis in Austria. Some voters worry about immigration, security, and national identity. An increasing number of voters seem to be drawn to authoritarian populists. Others may just be agnostic about how problems get solved. It’s a regional problem and trend. Austria shares a border with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary in the east and with Robert Fico’s Slovakia to the northeast; there’s plenty of pro-Russian sympathy in this neck of the woods. There’s ample moral relativism and increasing pro-China sentiment, too.

Graz mayor Elke Kahr has condemned Putin for his invasion of Ukraine. She also holds all sides, including the United States, responsible for the war. Kahr offered an implicit defense of communist China’s political system recently. “It’s not appropriate,” she opined, “to judge how people in other countries live and choose their governments.” 

Our moral compass is going haywire. Across the liberal democratic world norms are breaking, with the U.S. certainly in the mix and examples materializing in Central Europe. Bizarre and outright disgraceful behavior is becoming normalized. Dangerous old ideologies, on far-right and far-left, threaten a comeback. Austria fits the mold in its own unique, disturbing way.

Jeffrey Gedmin is co-founder and editor-in-chief of American Purpose.

Image: Vladimir Putin offers a bouquet to then-Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl at her wedding in Gamlitz, Austria, 2018. (Source:

AuthoritarianismCultureDemocracyEuropeRussiaPolitical PhilosophyUkraineU.S. Foreign Policy