Austria seeks to play the East-West mediator

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Vienna (AFP)

In 2010, Vienna airport saw the biggest spy swap since the Cold War. Among those Russia deported was Sergei Skripal, poisoned with a nerve agent in Britain on March 4.

Eight years later, Austria's refusal to join most other EU nations in expelling Russian diplomats shows it once again wants to be the conduit for East-West mediation.

The exchange on July 9, 2010 could have been lifted from the pages of a spy novel, happening as it did in Vienna, the imperial city of waltzes and chocolate cake that was also a murky Cold War nest of spies.

The Russian and US aircraft parked next to each other on the tarmac of Vienna airport and both took off within 15 minutes of the swap, well away from the media.

Ten agents including glamorous tabloid darling Anna Chapman were swapped by the US for four men freed by Russia, including Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer.

In 2006, Skripal had been sentenced in Russia to 13 years in jail for betraying agents to Britain's MI6 secret service.

The 10 sent back to Russia were members of a "deep cover" network of spies posing as ordinary Americans arrested in an FBI swoop in June 2010 after a decade under surveillance.

- 'Military-grade' agent -

Skripal and his daughter Yulia remain in a critical condition after being found unconscious on a park bench in the English city of Salisbury earlier this month.

Britain says a military-grade nerve agent was used to poison them, pointing a finger at the Kremlin, which has angrily rejected accusations of being behind the crime.

Twenty-four countries including the United States, Australia and 17 European Union member states have expelled almost 150 Russian diplomats.

But Austria, an EU member, has not followed suit, stressing its "neutrality" and saying it wants to act as a "mediator" between Russia and the West.

"Indeed, we want to keep the channels of communication to Russia open," Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl said in a joint statement.

"Austria is a neutral country and sees itself as a bridge-builder between East and West."

- 'Frozen ambition' -

"If you want to build bridges, it seems to be the interpretation of the Austrian government that (expelling Russian diplomats) would be excessive," Paul Schmidt at the OeGfE think-tank told AFP.

He also suggested Austria's new right-wing government did not want to risk harming its sizeable commercial ties to Moscow.

Kurz visited President Vladimir Putin in late February and Putin, last in Vienna in 2014, will reportedly return the favour soon.

The far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), junior coalition partners since December, has a "cooperation pact" with Putin's United Russia party.

Stefan Lehne, a former Austrian diplomat now at Carnegie Europe, said that there is a tradition in Austria dating back to the 1950s of reluctance to irk Moscow which resonates with voters.

However, Lehne said that any ambition to be the broker in the current crisis was likely misplaced, a "slight disconnect from geopolitical reality of today".

"Nobody else looks at Austria as a bridge-builder any more. It's sort of a frozen ambition from the past which has never really survived but has very few links to reality," he told AFP.

- Brits 'not unhappy' -

Emil Brix, former Austrian ambassador to Britain and until July 2017 to Russia, agreed that the chances are "limited" that Austria can play a big mediator role between Moscow and the West.

"But Austria does enjoy trust in Russia when it comes to relations with Europe," Brix, now the director at the Diplomatic Academy Vienna, told AFP.

Moreover, some European countries find Austria's current ambivalent position "very useful", he said.

"This is also my impression from my British contacts that they are not unhappy at all that Austria supports EU Council decisions but also wants to keep talking to Russia," Brix said.

"That is kind of Austria's special role."