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No country can stay on sidelines of Ukraine crisis, says Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg

India has a special responsibility in Indo-Pacific and South Asia, says delegate

March 22, 2022 02:04 pm | Updated 07:10 pm IST

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg is one of many officials and ministers visiting India from European and U.S. ally countries that are part of the sanctions regime against Russia, in an attempt to discuss India’s position on the issue. In this chat, Mr. Schallenberg, who travelled to Delhi from Islamabad this week, says India and Pakistan should open up trade and build South Asian connectivity.

Your visit to Delhi comes amid a string of visitors, mostly European, U.K., U.S. allies who are already part of the sanctions regime against Russia over its actions on Ukraine. Did you come to Delhi with a specific message?

Yes, I came to Delhi with a couple of ideas in mind that can be wrapped up in one sentence: to put Austria more firmly on India‘s political and economic map; and, vice-versa, to put India on Austria‘s map. Austria is a very export-oriented country, so I am glad that a high-level delegation from the Austrian Economic Chamber and from Austrian businesses has accompanied me to explore India‘s potential. As the tectonic shifts we are now seeing in Europe will have long-term consequences for our businesses, we need to look for new markets and reliable partners. I hope that India could be one of them.

You said you’re looking for new markets, you flew into Delhi from Islamabad. What was the purpose of your visit there?

My visit to India and Pakistan had a geopolitical as well as an economic purpose. It is important for me to highlight that in both countries I had very productive talks. While we are fully aware that there are issues at stake, economically both India and Pakistan would have an enormous potential if they started trading and started opening borders. That was also the message during my visit.

Is that something that you conveyed to the Indian side?

This is something we have been discussing all along. And I believe India is fully aware of this reality. An Indian company will always look at the European market as a whole and not single out a European country. Similarly, European businesses have the tendency of looking at the whole of South Asia as a market.

To the other part of the geopolitical discussions you’ve had in Delhi, Austria as a part of the European Union, as part of countries trying now to “isolate Russia.” India, on the other hand, keeping up its contacts, continue to abstain on any vote that criticises Russia at the multilateral sphere, and is in fact increasing its intake of oil from Russia over the last week. Tell us about your discussions in Delhi?

My message was very simple: everybody who believes that this is purely a European war is wrong. What we are witnessing now is a massive attack against the rules based international system that we have built together after the Second World War, after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain. I believe that there is a common interest of Austria and India to keep this system up and running.

We do not want the law of the jungle, we want the rule of law. The shockwaves of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine can already be felt all around the globe, just think about the rising prices for imports of oil, sunflower oil or wheat. These can be felt from South America to Africa and South Asia. So, looking at these economic repercussions, it is clearly not a European war.

Do you sense any kind of shift in India’s position vis-à-vis Russia?

It is not up to me to give any suggestions. I am only pointing out the global implications – this war will leave nobody untouched; nobody can stay at its sidelines. We are aware of the close cooperation within the Quad and India‘s key role in a very important region. If you want to keep peace and security in the Indo Pacific and in South Asia, India has a special responsibility and a particular role to play.

Later this week, the European Union has extraordinary meetings of the Foreign Affairs Council, to review relations with countries based on how much they have responded to EU appeals over Russia. Does India stand to suffer in the short term or the long term, if it does not actually curtail its relations with Russia?

As the European Union, we have been very adamant that our sanctions have no extraterritorial effects on third parties. Our aim is to get the President of the Russian Federation to stop this war and at least to be prepared to embark on a serious discussion about humanitarian corridors, the ceasing of hostilities and the protection of civilians. We will hold him accountable for the violations of humanitarian international law.

Will sanctions be withdrawn if there is a ceasefire? Turkish officials say that a truce is possible...

We are extremely thankful for everybody who tries to establish channels of dialogue – be it the Israelis, the Turks or a number of other states that are currently active. Also, Prime Minister Modi had several phone calls with President Putin. What we want to see is an immediate ceasefire. For the first time since the Second World War, we are witnessing the bombing of cities by another state in our region. From what we have heard publicly, it is hard to imagine where a common landing zone could be. However, it is a good sign that talks are taking place.

President Zelensky has said repeatedly that he is ready to meet President Putin, he is ready to meet him without any preconditions. And that’s a very important signal. We all have a common goal – we want the cessation of hostilities as there is an incredible amount of human suffering. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, has stated that with 10 million people on the move, we are seeing the biggest migration movement since the Second World War.

You made these parallels to the Second World War, but given EU actions to isolate Russia economically, do you think comparisons to a “Second Cold War” are also apt?

We are entering a new and a more confrontational phase. That is true. But do we like what we are seeing? Absolutely not. Austria is economically extremely exposed in Ukraine and in Russia. The biggest foreign bank in Russia is Austrian. Russia is very important for us in regards to gas and energy. We have a long-standing partnership and we have a shared history, as Russia is part of European history. So, we do not have an issue with Russia or the Russian people. But we have an issue with the policies pursued by the leaders of Russia. The economic price we are paying is enormous. But it is a matter of principle.

As I said, we do not want the law of the jungle. We do not want that simply because of the size of an army, Russia can dictate others what is going on. During the last 75 years, we have tried very hard to establish the system of international law. In Austria – a small country, which is dependent on treaties and laws – we cannot be politically neutral in this struggle. And it is necessary to understand…this is a very emotional moment for Europe.

But wars have happened in many parts of the world. There have been unilateral actions by the United States, by the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and other countries, as well…

Nobody is without fault. But does it mean because you made a mistake once, you have to make it over and over again? History has shown that wars in Europe do not tend to stay in Europe. That is why I am extremely thankful that President Biden and NATO Secretary-General Stoltenberg made it clear repeatedly that there will be no NATO interference, with no NATO planes safeguarding no-fly zones and no boots on the ground. Because, just imagine, what it would mean if suddenly a Russian soldier and an American one would meet on Ukrainian soil?

Government officials say that they are being asked to cut down on getting oil from Russia at discounted prices at a time when many European countries continue to take oil and gas from Russia, including Austria’s OMV. Is there a double standard there?

We are all aware that these links cannot be cut in just one day. Within the European Union, the European Commission has put forward a proposal to phase out our dependency on Russian gas and oil by two-thirds within the next two years. For countries like Austria, 80% of our gas comes from Russia. However, for the past couple of years, we have been speaking about moving towards renewable energies and I believe the recent events have been a further push for many countries in Europe in this direction.

In your conversations in Delhi, did you discuss the possible contours of what would be acceptable to Europe, when it comes to any kind of a cessation of hostilities or an Austrian-style neutrality that is being discussed?

I believe this is something for President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine to decide. I have been asked whether the Austrian model would be suitable. However, it is not up to us to decide for a country which is at war, which is putting up an impressive fight. What is important now is that the talks between Ukraine and Russia continue. If we want this nightmare to stop, coming together, talking to each other and seeing where common grounds might be is the only way forward.

You said South Asian countries like India and Pakistan must open trade with each other, yet Europe is cutting off all ties with Russia, and creating a deglobalised economic situation, back to the Cold War. Could we see a dollar world and a non-dollar world of transactions?

One month into the war, it is too early to [predict], but it is true that the world has cooled down a couple of degrees. We will most certainly have a more confrontational phase, even within multilateral organisations, like the UN and others. For countries like Austria, that is earning six out of ten Euros thanks to exports and that has benefited massively from globalisation, it would be a very bad development if we tried to turn back time.

However, the past two years of the pandemic have also shown how vulnerable long supply chains are and have probably added to a regionalisation of globalisation. It has shown us that we need to diversify – and that is where countries like India come in.  

Yet, India-Austria bilateral trade barely tops $1 billion…

It is important to say that regardless of the pandemic, bilateral trade has passed the threshold of $1 billion. It shows the enormous potential in regards to greening the economy, transition of energy markets, infrastructure, hydropower and railroads. Safe drinking water is a big issue here and Austrian companies have a lot of expertise and technology in this field. We could enter into partnerships, which would create a win-win situation for both sides.

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