The suspicion of espionage against a now retired federal army officer, who is said to have supplied Russia with information for years, has promptly caused political upset with Moscow. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was „unpleasantly surprised,“ even by the „megaphone diplomacy“ of Austria.
More detailed information on the allegations in Moscow from the Austrian Foreign Ministry appointed Austrian Ambassador Johannes Eigner, as Reuters reported with reference to Russian agencies. Moscow will point out to the Austrian ambassador „which methods have to be applied if one has questions to Russia“. Instead of addressing Moscow directly on these issues, Austria has used „megaphone diplomacy,“ Lavrov was quoted as saying.
Federal Chancellor Sebastian Kurz (ÖVP) and Defense Minister Mario Kunasek (FPÖ) had informed the public about the suspicion of espionage Friday morning in a press conference scheduled for a short time. According to Kunasek, the case has been known for several weeks, according to him, the reference to an „information outflow“ came from a friendly foreign service.
How burdened is the relationship with Russia now?
According to Kurz, the espionage activity in the room had started in the 90s and lasted until 2018. According to Kunasek, the suspect has been retired for five years. Repeatedly, the Chancellor spoke of a „suspicion“, but in the face of other cases of Russian espionage in Europe, he assumed, „that the suspicion is confirmed.“ It is also out of the question that this will „not improve“ relations with Russia. The Moscow visit planned by FPÖ Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl for the beginning of December has already been canceled.
Austria wants „transparent information“
At the moment, the Russian side is asking for „transparent information,“ Kurz said when asked by journalists about the relationship with Russia. Everything else will be discussed together with the European partners. The chancellor did not want to speak of expelling Russian diplomats from Austria. Unlike many other EU countries, Austria had also rejected diplomatic measures against Russia in March in connection with the Skripal affair in the United Kingdom, because it claims to have opened channels of talks to Moscow.
Kurz and Kunasek provide information about the „suspected spy case“ that has been known for weeks
Foreign Minister Kneissl, who a few weeks ago had welcomed Russian President Vladimir Putin as guest at her wedding, was seriously concerned by the allegations about the future relationship with Russia. „If the suspicions now present confirm, then this would be a serious burden for the bilateral relations between Austria and Russia,“ said Kneissl on Friday.
Prosecutor’s Office Salzburg on the train
At the public prosecutor’s office in Salzburg, the notice of the ministry of defense announced by Kurz and Kunasek was received on Friday and is now being examined. „The subject of the presentation is the charge against a 70-year-old Salzburg officer in peace of the Austrian army, after which this information has been passed on to a foreign intelligence service,“ it said in the release.
The public prosecutor’s office is also looking into the crime of betraying state secrets (Section 252 (1) of the Criminal Code). No explicit mention is made in the broadcast allegations under Section 319 of the Criminal Code (military intelligence service for a foreign state), of which previously had written the „Kronen Zeitung“ (Friday edition).
Search for possible accomplices
The suspect, who was spied on by the Abwehramt, according to the Minister of Defense handed over devices like his laptop, whose evaluation is currently underway. In addition to information about weapons and the „migration issue“, the man should have also supplied personal profiles to Russia. Whether it was an isolated case was „not yet clear“.
The case makes it clear, according to Kunasek, that there will continue to be espionage after the Cold War and that appropriate awareness-raising must take place. According to Defense Ministers, this concerns, among other things, the human resources and cyber issues. He has already issued a corresponding directive with security checks in the IT area, said Kunasek. It is now necessary to „tighten even more tightly the security net within Austria, but also within the Ministry of Defense“.
According to the „Kronen Zeitung“, the officer suspected of espionage should have received about 300,000 euros for his espionage activity. Russia was particularly interested in „for army jets and the refugee situation“, it said in „Austria“. According to „courier“ information, the suspect should already be confessed. According to the „press“ should be a Salzburg officer.
The newspaper also reported on the alleged way in which the information exchange took place. Russia had „provided the technical equipment,“ and „a communication path should have been a simple world receiver.“ The „courier“, however, was referred to initial doubts from observers. The view of the affair of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and Counter-Terrorism (BVT) suspected „distraction maneuver“ had been denied by government circles, however, even before the Kurz Kunasek press conference – the spy allegations were „quite serious“.
Mushroom locates topic for BAT committee
The Opposition Party referred both to the Greens and to the List of Mushrooms (LP) in a first reaction to the relations of the FPÖ and the Russian ruling party United Russia. For the Green MEP Michel Reimon, the FPÖ, „which represents the Minister of Defense and whose interior minister wants to bring the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution and the fight against terrorism under her control,“ is a „security risk for Austria“.
According to NEOS defense spokesman Douglas Hoyos, the case that has now become known shows „once again clearly the problem of uncontrolled spying in Austria“. As a consequence, Hoyos demanded „now also a clearer language towards Russia“ and from short „a power word“ direction FPÖ.
Peter Pilz (LP) identified a topic for the current BOM Committee of Inquiry. „There is a reasonable suspicion that the entry of the FPÖ into the Federal Government has led friendly Western intelligence services to show the red card to the BVT,“ says Pilz. According to SPÖ-Verdigigungssprecher Rudolf Plessl Kunasek was meanwhile already in front of the secret subcommittee on national defense in Parliament invited: „We urgently need information about the consequences.“
„No great spy“
The intelligence expert and university professor Siegfried Beer was surprised in the Ö1 noon journal, „that the Austrian government from the espionage case makes such a big deal.“ In view of the 300,000 euros that had been paid for the spy services Beer questioned their quality in this context.
The allegations themselves are unsurprising, Beer continued. Austria was in a geopolitically very interesting place and was because of this and because of its connections in the Cold War so interesting. What Beer was very surprised about, is the time when the policy went public with the case – especially, since the case is actually not yet clarified.