The U.S. should recall its ambassador to Austria to protest its government's disregard for western security interests.
The primary concern here is the Austrian government's increasingly overt and covert cooperation with Vladimir Putin. The latest example came last weekend when Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl invited Putin to her wedding party last weekend.
This propaganda gift to Putin comes just a few months after he directed the assassination of a British agent and caused the death of an innocent woman. It also comes in the context of ongoing Russian cyberoperations against the midterm elections, and a few days before a new Russian-supported slaughter of Syrian civilians.
Still, it reflects a deepening relationship between Austria's coalition government and Putin. The concern is especially urgent in relation to Austria's intelligence operations. Under the ministerial authority of Austria's far-right Freedom Party, Austria's BVT domestic intelligence service has come under increasing fire. The most public incident came in February, when the Freedom Party ordered politically motivated raids on the BVT headquarters and accused its leadership of misconduct. Those accused included Peter Gridling, the agency's well-regarded director, who has previously visited FBI and CIA headquarters.
Why, you might ask, would ministers gut the intelligence agency they themselves are responsible for?
The answer is simple and of serious concern: because the BVT represents a challenge to the Freedom Party's ideological and political motivation to support Putin and other far-right domestic interests. Yet there is increasing suspicion that Russian motivations may have been behind the raids. For one, the man who leads Austria's interior ministry, Herbert Kickl, adores the Russian president and is determined to weaken Austria's already lax enforcement of European Union sanctions on Russia. The party Kickl serves is openly aligned with Putin's United Russia party (which means the FSB and SVR intelligence services).
It gets worse. After all, Girdling confirmed back in June that the prosecutor responsible for the BVT targeting raids sought access to the BVT's servers. While this move was successfully blocked, it reeks of Russian intelligence activity. The Russian services are always working to find their way into western intelligence files and Vienna is a center of international espionage activity, retaining active FBI and CIA stations.
That said, things could be worse.
Although the BVT has been forced by its foreign partner organizations to take steps to prevent the loss of intelligence material to Russia, Girdling has returned to work after the investigation against him was shown to be a joke. Nevertheless, the U.S. should recall our ambassador for consultations. Doing so would politely but firmly signal to Chancellor Austrian Chancellor Kurn (who leads a more moderate party to the Freedom Party) that the U.S. knows what his coalition partners are up to and won't accept it with a smile.