In mid-August, Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl danced with Russian President Vladimir Putin at her wedding – an act of bonhomie that, a few months after an alleged assassination attempt on a former Russian spy in England, raised eyebrows about a continent that was deeply skeptical about the Russian foreign policy.
But now Austria is outraged by its own claims about the Kremlin's escape. And on Friday, the Austrian government announced that Kneissl had canceled a trip to Russia scheduled for next month and called on the Russian charge agent.
Austrian authorities claim to have discovered that a retired Army Colonel had been spying on Russia for several decades, beginning in the 1990s and continuing all the way to this year. The Krone newspaper reported that the unnamed colonel had received the equivalent of $ 340,000 for confidential details about Austria's air force and artillery systems. He can be in jail for up to two years if he is found guilty.
Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said at a press conference Friday that if the allegations were confirmed, this would not improve the already tense relationship between Russia and the European Union. "Spying is unacceptable," he said, according to the Austrian news agency.
Kneissl also offered a warning that if the Austrian Government's allegations were correct, this would constitute a serious burden on the bilateral relations between Austria and Russia & # 39 ;.
Russia has denied any knowledge of the espionage scandal and called on the Austrian ambassador to demand a statement. Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov told reporters that Austria exceeded the standards of international communication and carried out "megaphone diplomacy" by making the accusations public as soon as possible.
"They blame us publicly and then demand public explanation of an issue we know nothing about," said Lavrov, according to the Russian news agency.
The scandal could be a turning point in relations between Russia and the new Austrian government. Vienna had previously sought neutrality in foreign affairs in an attempt to maintain ties with Russia and its allies in the European Union. But when a coalition of the center-right People's Party and the far-right PVV got control over the government in the past year, the country took a number of positions aimed at bringing it closer to Moscow.
In the aftermath of the poisoning of double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury, England, many Western nations expelled Russian diplomats this year. But Austria does not – and it has opposition to E.U. sanctions against Russia.
Kurz also took positions on migration and other European problems that have countered powerful European leaders such as Angela Merkel in Germany – movements that were not only greeted warmly by a Kremlin that was often at odds with Europe, but also by the Ambassador of President Trump in Germany, Richard Grenell, who is the young Austrian Chancellor a & # 39; rock star & # 39; called.
The country was seen as a possible link between Moscow and Washington and was cited as a location for a meeting between Putin and Trump. Finland was finally chosen.
The Austrian Defense Minister, Mario Kunasek, said Friday that the alleged espionage had come to light only a few weeks ago, after a tip from a friendly intelligence service. Although the Austrian authorities did not mention the country that provided the information, the Der Standard reported that it came from German intelligence officials.
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