We explain why Vienna has been a paradise for Russian spies for years

Vienna has been known as Europe’s spy capital since the Cold War. A year and a half after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the capital of Austria is still called the “Wild West” by foreign intelligence services, with Russian services being the most prominent. Despite Western countries’ unity in helping Ukraine, the issue of Moscow’s spies in one of the key EU countries still needs to be resolved. 

Vienna, Austria, photo Leonhard Foeger/Reuters/Forum Collage: Vot-Tak

Spy traditions

Soviet spies were drawn to the Austrian capital after World War II, turning it into a main invisible battleground between socialist and Western intelligence services. It continued even after the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In Austria, espionage against the Austrian state and its institutions is considered a crime, while espionage against other countries is not clearly defined or punished. Economic intelligence has vague definitions and lenient penalties. Moreover, Austria is part of the Schengen Area, allowing for easy travel throughout Europe. Additionally, Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Relations stated in an interview with Vot Tak that there are numerous offices of international organizations in Vienna where various employees, including spies, can be accredited.

Furthermore, he contends that the Russian intelligence agencies have acquired the extensive Soviet spy infrastructure established in Vienna during the Cold War, including real estate and a broad network of connections in political, business, and financial circles.

Nothing more but business

The geographical location of Austria made it strategically valuable during the Cold War due to its neutral status and proximity to critical countries from both the socialist and Western blocs.

– The Austrian government aimed to preserve its neutrality by creating a comfortable and beneficial atmosphere similar to business. According to Siegfried Beer, founder of the Austrian Center for Research on Intelligence, Propaganda, and Security, espionage is a business that lures individuals with significant wealth and connections to the country

Austria was the first Western nation to establish economic ties with the USSR. In 1968, it became a massive hub for Soviet gas to reach Germany, France, and Italy. Today, Russian President, Vladimir Putin, uses this gas as a weapon.

According to Gressel, the darkest pages of Austria’s history were written in the 1970s, when Bruno Kreisky, the leader of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), came to power and served as Federal Chancellor for 13 years.

The Socialist Party’s informal links have blurred the boundaries between branches of power, leading to widespread corruption and unprecedented levels of communist intelligence infiltration into state structures. In the 1980s, the United States threatened Austria with sanctions for its role in Soviet technological espionage in the West- experts explain.

However, despite international turmoil, Moscow and Vienna maintained close economic ties. By the end of 2021, Russian companies’ total value of assets in Austria exceeded $22 billion, making Russia the second largest investor in the Austrian economy after Germany.

Bruno Kreisky, photo Image/Forum

In Austria, corruption is a significant issue that has allowed Russia to confidently promote its interests abroad, leading to frequent corruption scandals involving Russians and even the dissolution of the government in 2019.

In 2019, the Austrian government, led by Sebastian Kurz, the leader of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), fell apart after the coalition with the Freedom Party failed. Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the Freedom Party and vice-chancellor of Austria, became embroiled in a scandal after journalists obtained a video in which he offered political favors to a woman claiming to be the niece of an unnamed Russian oligarch. Early elections were called, and the ÖVP won a majority once again and formed a coalition with the Greens.

The war changed next to nothing 

Following Russia’s attack on Ukraine, igniting a new Cold War with the West, Moscow has increased its activity in Vienna. Thus far, Austrian authorities have not taken significant action.

– The conflict in Ukraine had a significant impact on espionage activities in Vienna. The Russians have aggressively increased their espionage efforts in all countries to influence decision-making. However, this has led to increased awareness in the West. Many people realize that Russian spies pose a severe threat that requires more active measures to combat, argues Sergey Zhirnov, a former high-ranking Intelligence Officer of the KGB of the USSR and Russian Intelligence, an expert on International Relations and Intelligence Special Services.

Local intelligence services know Russian spies in Austria and other Western countries. At least a third of Russian diplomats in Vienna are believed to be spies, while others extract secret information. Every Russian embassy is required to work for the Russian security services, according to expert Zhirnov.

– In Austria, Russian spies target government buildings, including the Presidential Palace, Prime Minister’s Office, Cabinet of Ministers, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of the Interior, Ministry of Defense, and military units. They also attempt to infiltrate political parties and establish connections with journalists and other influential individuals. International organizations in Vienna, particularly the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are drawing attention due to their involvement in actions against Russia. The IAEA makes important international decisions and has sent missions to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. Zhirnov shares his observations.

Despite the large number of Russian spies operating in Austria, the likelihood of their deportation or punishment is extremely low. Only four Russian diplomats were expelled from Austria during the year and a half of the war in Ukraine, compared to over 400 from the European Union. The basis for the expulsion was that their actions did not correspond to their diplomatic status. Currently, 180 of their colleagues remain in Vienna.

Embassy of the Russian Federation in Vienna, Austria, photo Wikimedia

Political nuances

Local politicians in Austria have not yet succeeded in removing the stigma of “Wild West” espionage from their territory.

In the spring of 2023, opposition parties initiated a law to criminalize spying against other countries and international organizations on Austrian territory. However, despite intense pressure from the European Union, the government continues to block its consideration.

The ruling coalition of the conservative ÖVP and the Greens is more concerned with domestic issues, such as the government’s falling ratings and the growing popularity of the populist and pro-Russian Freedom Party of Austria, ahead of the 2024 parliamentary elections. As a result, the law criminalizing espionage is seen as of little importance by politicians from the ruling parties.

-Corruption is rampant in Austrian politics, with most parties affected. The ruling conservatives (Austrian People’s Party- belsat. eu) have been implicated in corrupt practices. At the same time, the opposition parties, including the Freedom Party and some social democrats, have strong ties to Russia, according to Gustav Gressel from the European Council on Foreign Affairs.

Sergey Zhirnov notes that Austria historically had friendly relations with Russia, and its citizens cooperated willingly, first with the Soviets and then with the Russian security services. The pro-Russian lobby in Austria makes it easy to recruit sources, even those willing to work for free.

MPs from the Freedom Party of Austria left the plenary hall while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to the Lower House of the Austrian Parliament via video link. The group declares “neutrality” in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Vienna, Austria. March 30, 2023, photo LISA LEUTNER/Reuters/Forum

-If you observe any far-right or far-left organization, you will find that they can efficiently recruit members. Many individuals dissatisfied with their government are willing to sell secrets to anyone. And the Russians naturally take advantage of this, according to the expert.

The complexity of Austrian politics is highlighted by its multiple parties. The Austrian People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party, and the Freedom Party of Austria have each garnered more than 20% of the votes in the last three parliamentary elections. However, in 2019, the pro-European Greens surprisingly won 13.9% of the votes, allowing them to form a coalition with the ÖVP in 2020.

A repeat of such a result is unlikely in 2024 as the ratings of the Greens, and ÖVP declined while the pro-Russian Freedom Party’s popularity rose, giving them the upper hand in forming a ruling coalition and potentially allowing Russian spies to operate for an extended period in Vienna. And think of this city as a home sweet home.

Yevgeny Chernukhin/vot-tak.tv, ksz/belsat.eu

Translated by PEV