Austria rolls out red carpet for Putin
Austria has criticised Western sanctions on Russia and signed a contract to build a Russian pipeline despite EU concerns.
The developments came on a visit to Vienna by Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Tuesday (24 June).
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The Russian president, who was recently snubbed by G7 leaders over Ukraine, met Austrian President Heinz Fischer and Chancellor Werner Faymann. He also laid a wreath at a WWII monument in the city centre and met business chiefs in Austria's Chamber of Commerce.
He said the US is trying to derail the pipeline project - South Stream - which is to pump half of Russia’s gas exports to Europe from 2016, bypassing Ukraine.
“They [the US] themselves want to supply gas to the European market. But I assure you, it will not be cheaper than Russian gas. Pipeline gas is always cheaper than liquefied gas … they are doing everything possible to break up this [South Stream] contract."
He claimed South Stream will increase Europe’s "energy security" in "the context of the current developments in Ukraine”.
Amid EU accusations he poured arms, special forces, and mercenaries into Ukraine, he said “we did not use the [Russian] armed forces directly for any combat operations".
He added that criticism of human rights abuse in Russia is based on “stereotypes" which are "to a large extent … a fictional idea”.
His Austrian hosts did not challenge his remarks.
Fischer instead criticised EU sanctions on Russia, saying: “Nobody benefits from sanctions … They aren’t helping to produce any profit for anybody”.
He defended South Stream, saying: “No one can explain to me - and I can't explain to the Austrian people - why a pipeline that crosses EU and Nato countries can't go 50km into Austria”.
Faymann praised Putin’s “recent de-escalation measures” on Ukraine.
According to a Reuters report, Christoph Leitl, the head of the Austrian commerce chamber, quipped that Austria has a territorial claim to Ukraine because part of it belonged to Austria in 1914.
Putin, who annexed Crimea in March, also joked, saying: "What is that supposed to mean? What are you proposing?"
On the business front, the head of Austrian energy firm OMV, Gerhard Roiss, and Gazprom chief Alexei Miller signed a contract to create South Stream Austria - a joint venture to build the €200 million Austrian bit of the pipeline.
“Europe needs Russian gas and it will need more Russian gas as its own supply dwindles”, Roiss said.
The OMV-Gazprom deal is a challenge to the European Commission, which says EU states must renegotiate their intergovernmental agreements with Russia in line with EU law.
Words and deeds
Putin’s visit came after he told his parliament to rescind a mandate for Russian soldiers to enter Ukraine to protect Russian speakers.
But pro-Russia rebels in east Ukraine the same day shot down a helicopter with a heat-seeking missile, killing nine soldiers, despite Ukraine’s unilateral ceasefire.
Some of Putin's remarks in Vienna also indicated that his politics has not changed.
“Of course, we will always protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine and the part of the Ukrainian population, the Ukrainian people, who feel not just an ethnic but also a cultural connection to Russia, who feel themselves part of the greater Russian community”, he said.
EU leaders will at a summit in Brussels on Friday decide whether to impose further sanctions on Russia.
For his part, Swedish FM Carl Bildt at an EU meeting in Luxembourg on Monday criticised Austria’s invitation of Putin. He said Moscow is "trying to split the European Union … that’s what the Russians always do when they are in a cornered position”.
Three separate EU diplomatic sources told this website there is no appetite for tough sanctions against Russia at this stage.