‘Black Hawk Down’ highlights Doubts on Austrian neutrality

Black Hawk Helicopter (Wikimedia CC)

It has happened yet again in the peaceful Alpine republics, this time in Austrian territory. A US military helicopter had to carry out an emergency landing on the 28th of July.

The incident happened when the helicopter was on its way home after the NATO exercise “Sabre Guardian 2017”, which took place in Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, where over 25.000 soldiers from 22 nations took part. On the way back, a squadron of American Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters flew over the Austrian capital Vienna, creating a stir in social media, and further over Austrian territory to their base in Germany.

The war game, which ended on July 20th, was widely seen as a signal to Russia, and included such elements as amphibious landings, maritime interdiction operations and demonstrated how efficiently massive forces with rapid reaction spearheads could be deployed.. Russian media have widely criticized the exercise as a Western provocation.

The pilots flew so low that he crashed into the treetops and damaged the cockpit and the tail. The Black Hawk was therefore no longer able to fly and landed on a meadow in Bergern in Lower Austria.

The weather conditions were reported to be bad during the overflight and the pilot had lost sight of the ground. There were seven American soldiers on board, who luckily did not receive any injuries during the emergency landing.

In June, on the way to the exercise, large number of military equipment and troops transited through the country, both rail and road. Approximately 550 tanks and other vehicles with 1100 soldiers travelled in convoys on predetermined routes across Austria. The transit was approved by the Ministry of Defense, in agreement with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The fact that such transports are not a rarity, is evident from a parliamentary request from the Austrian Freedom Party from 2015. Between January 2011 and September 2015 there were 5,592 transports of foreign troops by Austria which were approved. In 2016, the number was around 1,200. The huge majority of these were NATO-troops.

According to the Declaration of Neutrality, enacted on 26 October 1955, Austria is a ‘perpetually neutral’ country. After the incident, a spokesman for the ministry of defense explained how this neutrality should be interpreted in regards to transit:

«If a UN mandate is a humanitarian operation, or if a foreign army is on its way to an international exercise, the transit will be approved.» According to him, this is allowed several hundred times per month. The major exception is «There will be no permit for troops that are on their way to a war zone. Here the neutrality of Austria is decisive»

After the crash, several pertinent question might be asked:

Why did US military helicopters get approval for the flight over ‘neutral’ Austria? They could just as easily have travelled to their home bases in Germany via the NATO countries Slovakia and the Czech Republic, without violating any ‘neutrality’. One gets the impression this is a planned policy to draw Austria into this exercise.

Why did the pilot fly so low that he crashed into the trees, in what was supposed to be a straightforward transit, not some part of a combat simulation? Also, will the pilot now be prosecuted by the authorities for reckless violation of flight regulations? (The helicopter was repaired and flew on a few days later. No word on the pilot.) And most intriguing: Why does the Austrian government cooperate with NATO in an exercise that is a preparation for aggressive warfare? The exercise practiced several elements that could be interpreted as a dry run for an attack on Russia. How is this in accordance with Austria’s proclaimed ‘perpetual neutrality’?

Partnership for Peace or Partnership for War?

On the website of the Austrian embassy in Washington, one can read:

”Austria has been partner (Partnership for Peace – PfP) since 1995 and since 1997 it has been a member of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). It contributes to NATO-led crisis management and peace operations, most notably to KFOR in Kosovo, where Austria with currently 400 troops [..]. Moreover Austria is deploying soldiers to ISAF in Afghanistan. The Austrian Federal Armed Forces take part in a large number of training exercises open to non-NATO members, which is indispensable for the transformation, interoperability and modernization of its armed forces. Austria also contributes actively to the conceptual development of security, especially in the framework of the “5 Western European partners” (WEP-5), which consist of the two alliance free countries Finland and Sweden as well as the three neutral countries Ireland, Switzerland and Austria [..]Together with NATO, Austria furthermore implements a number of jointly defined partnership-goals in the military and in the political field.“

The renowned Swiss peace researcher Dr. Daniele Ganser, commenting on these developments, suggested «Switzerland and Austria should return to strict neutrality, send no more troops abroad and leave NATO’s so-called ‘Partnership for Peace'», calling it in reality a part of NATOs wars of aggression, a «Partnership for War”.

As can be seen from above, the drive to integrate Austria in NATO-structures is persistent.  Of course, part of this is a legacy from the cold war, where there never was any doubt on which side the Austrian security apparatus stood on. These «jointly defined partnership-goals in the military and in the political field“ square badly with neutrality, considering NATOs constant wars. How Austria would react to a war with Russia is unclear, but by seeing the close cooperation in places such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Mali and Bosnia, one can clearly see a trend.

But why does the US care about Austrian NATO-membership? The answer may lie in a (of course less dramatic) version of why Yugoslavia was destroyed, the concept of a ‘Grand Area’, essentially Europe as an undisputed backyard, where even neutrality is perceived as too independent. As Noam Chomsky explained the concept:

«Grand Area goals extended to as much of Eurasia as possible, at least its economic core in Western Europe. Within the Grand Area the US would maintain “unquestioned power,” with “military and economic supremacy,” while ensuring the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. [..] It was always recognized that Europe might choose to follow an independent course. NATO was partially intended to counter this threat.»

Some constitutional jurists argue that Austrian neutrality has already become obsolete by participating in the foreign and security policy of the EU. But this argument would make the Federal Constitution a historical document without legally binding force. Also, neutrality is very popular in the population, that is why politicians are forced to try to sneak Austria in through back door mechanisms. One approach is to get the country into NATO through EU.

The Austrian Foreign Ministry describes the partnership with NATO as a logical consequence of its EU membership. The argument is that Austria’s participation in Partnership for Peace is crucial for its full involvement in the military aspects of EU’s European Security and Defense Policy.

The push to integrate Austria in NATO structures has recently suffered some surprising setbacks. Turkey blocked Austrian participation in the PfP in retaliation for Austria wanting to cancel the negotiations for Turkish EU-membership. How much Austrian politicians desire to be part of the team, can be deduced from their statements (and where they are made). As head of the Austrian delegation to a meeting of the NATO parliamentary assembly in Tbilisi, Georgia in May 2017, Hannes Weninger (Social Democratic Party) declared, regarding the Turkish move: «We demand the solidarity of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the international appreciation of the Austrian foreign operations.» Defense Minister Hanspeter Doskozil (SPÖ) condemned the Turkish actions sharply. Turkey is threatening «the security interests of Europe,» he thundered.

As a result of the Turkish decision, Austrian officers are not able to take part in NATO-led training courses for ‘deployment preparations’ until the situation has been resolved. A spokesperson for the pact tried to reassure, “NATO will not end its cooperation with Austria. Austria is a long-standing NATO partner and we value its valuable contributions to our common security. We hope that the bilateral issues between Austria and Turkey will be resolved as soon as possible.»

An EU-NATO agreement is in the offing; the European Council says it «welcomes the continued close and mutually reinforcing co-operation with NATO in areas of shared interest, both strategically and operationally, in crisis management in support of international peace and security». The Council’s mention of a «single set of forces» that amongst other things will combat ‘hybrid threats,’ is a barely veiled allusion to Russia.

Austrian elections are to be held in October this year. To remove or water down neutrality in the constitution and join NATO through EU-security structures, the Austrian federal government will need a supermajority of two-thirds in parliament. This majority is possible with the traditional voting patterns in Austria, where the big parties, the Austrian People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party and (new part of the mainstream) the Greens will make up this majority.

The election results for the right-populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) will be crucial to know if this option is within the realm of the possible or will be too contentious. According to opinion polls, it can look forward to a very good election. The controversial party, especially known for its strict policies on immigration, is also the only big party that is reliably for a genuine neutrality. It is loathed by the political elites in the EU, which last time it was part in a coalition government, in the 2000s, started a diplomatic boycott which lasted 6 months. A similar situations will no doubt cool relations between Vienna and Brussels concerning any security pacts.

Whilst a full membership in NATO is not on the cards, the danger – or opportunity – lies in the fact that all the agreements and day-to-day cooperation that ties the country to NATO comprise a de facto membership. This is a similar, but less intense, version of the attempt to get rid of Swedish neutrality. In the Swedish case, as described by this author earlier, the military apparatus and a clique of politicians, with heavy wooing from NATO top brass, are doing everything they can, with fair means or foul, to make sure Sweden with dead certainty will be drawn into the next major conflict in Europe. In both countries, the population is by a large majority against this. Austrian elites suffer from the same syndrome, but it remains to be seen if the military ties are strong enough for this to be successful.