Aus­tria con­demns Rus­sia over colonel it says spied for Moscow

The Irish Times - - World News - IS­ABEL GORST in Moscow

Aus­tria con­demned Rus­sia for es­pi­onage yes­ter­day af­ter launch­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion of a re­tired army colonel sus­pected of spy­ing for Moscow for many years.

Se­bas­tian Kurz, the Aus­trian chan­cel­lor, de­manded an ex­pla­na­tion from Moscow, say­ing that the re­tired colonel – who has not been named – was sus­pected of work­ing un­der­cover for the Rus­sian se­cret ser­vices from the 1990s un­til 2018.

The case – com­ing one month af­ter the Nether­lands re­vealed it had caught four Rus­sian mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cers red-handed in The Hague – would “not im­prove re­la­tions” be­tween Rus­sia and the EU, Mr Kurz told a press con­fer­ence in Vi­enna. “Rus­sian spy­ing in Eu­rope is unac­cept­able and is to be con­demned.”

Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov ap­peared to have been caught off guard by Mr Kurz’s an­nounce­ment and com­plained that Moscow had been given no warn­ing about the un­fold­ing spy scan­dal. Rus­sia’s west­ern part­ners were in­creas­ingly fre­quently us­ing un­pro­fes­sional “mega­phone” diplo­macy, “ac­cus­ing us in pub­lic and de­mand­ing an apol­ogy over ques­tions we know noth­ing about”, Mr Lavrov told re­porters in Moscow.

Es­pi­onage in­ves­ti­ga­tion

The es­pi­onage in­ves­ti­ga­tion marks a se­vere test for Rus­sia’s re­la­tions with Aus­tria, a coun­try it counts as an abid­ing ally in Eu­rope even as re­la­tions with the EU have frayed over Ukraine and the at­tempted as­sas­si­na­tion of Sergei Skri­pal in the UK this year.

Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin has cul­ti­vated ties with the Aus­trian leader in the hope that Vi­enna, which took over the ro­tat­ing pres­i­dency of the EU in July, will per­suade Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ments to ease sanc­tions on Rus­sia. Mr Kurz, who leads a coali­tion gov­ern­ment with Aus­tria’s far-right, pro-Rus­sia Free­dom Party, re­fused to fol­low other EU coun­tries in ex­pelling Rus­sian diplo­mats over the Skri­pal poi­son­ing.

Karin Kneissl, Aus­trian for­eign min­is­ter, who in­vited Vladimir Putin as guest of hon­our to her wed­ding in Au­gust, sum­moned the Rus­sian charge d’af­faires yes­ter­day and called off an of­fi­cial visit to Moscow planned for early De­cem­ber.

‘‘ Sergei Lavrov com­plained that Moscow had been given no warn­ing

Aus­tria’s de­fence min­is­ter Mario Ku­nasek said a “friendly” in­tel­li­gence agency had sup­plied Vi­enna with in­for­ma­tion about the re­tired colonel that led to the in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Rus­sian po­lit­i­cal an­a­lysts said ei­ther the US or a west­ern Eu­ro­pean gov­ern­ment ir­ri­tated by Aus­tria’s loy­alty to the Krem­lin might have ex­posed the re­tired colonel’s al­leged spy­ing ac­tiv­i­ties to un­der­mine the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Moscow and Vi­enna.

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