A former German intelligence chief says NATO secrets aren’t safe to share with Austria, adding his alarm to growing concern among Western intelligence agencies about close ties between senior Austrian ministers and Russia.
Fears have mounted about the security trustworthiness of Austria since a police raid last February on the headquarters of the country’s domestic intelligence agency, during which classified files were seized. The raid prompted allegations that Austria’s far-right government ordered it for political reasons.
“There is, of course, extreme caution when sharing information,” August Hanning, a former head of Germany’s foreign intelligence service, the BND, told the German newspaper Bild. “It is essential for international intelligence-sharing that all sides can be sure their sensitive information is secure with a partner service. Secrecy must be maintained. That is, of course, incredibly difficult when you have such a situation in Austria,” he added.
Senior figures in the Freedom Party, which is in a coalition government with the conservative Austrian People’s Party, or OVP, have called for the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia, imposed for the 2014 annexation by Russia of Ukraine’s Crimea. Austria shunned the coordinated Western expulsions of Russian diplomats following the poisoning earlier this year of a former Russian spy and his daughter in Britain, which has been blamed on the Kremlin.
The increasing closeness between the Freedom Party and the Kremlin was underlined last week when Russian leader Vladimir Putin was the star guest at the wedding of Austria’s foreign minister, Karin Kneissl, held at a vineyard in the picturesque Styrian hills of southern Austria. Putin’s attendance transformed the private event into a highly political one and prompted a storm of media criticism for Kneissl for curtseying before the Russian president.
“Kneissl’s kneeling in front of Putin is a disgrace,” the Austrian daily Der Standard said, adding: “The foreign minister has lost all credibility by the way she handled Vladimir Putin.”
The Washington Post reported last week, the day before Kneissl’s wedding, that several Western intelligence agencies had stopped sharing sensitive information with their Austrian counterparts, alarmed that their secrets could be shared with Moscow. Police officers during the February raid removed classified documents packed in crates and plastic bags.