In the 17 months since Moscow ordered soldiers into Ukrainian territory, countries across Europe have moved with surprising speed to reduce their long-standing dependence on cheap Russian gas.
Germany, which got 55 percent of its supply from Russia before the war, now import is zero. Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic have stopped or are about to stop flowing. And Italy continues to cut imports, and promises to be free of Russian natural gas by the end of this year.
By contrast, Austria, which received nearly 80 percent of its gas from Russia before the invasion, still got more than half of its total from Russia in May. And in March, when demand was higher, the number reached 74 percent. As long as Russia sells gas, Austria will buy it, the chief executive of Austrian energy company OMV Group said this month.
The government’s difficulties in withdrawing gas from Russia, which it has promised to do, have drawn complaints from critics who say Austria’s gas payments help to finance Moscow’s war machine.
“I don’t think they’re doing enough,” said Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “The government is among the friendliest in Russia.”
Austria, the first Western European country to sign a gas contract with the Soviet Union in 1968, has for decades been heavily dependent on gas imported from Russia.
A major reason why the European Union has not introduced any formal sanctions against Russian gas imports, such as those applied to Russian oil and coal, is that Austria and other major buyers have argued that they need it. And some European countries remain buyers of Russian liquefied natural gas, which arrives by ship, even though the total amount sold is a fraction of the volumes that once reached the continent by pipeline.
An immediate cutoff would lead to economic collapse and mass unemployment, Chancellor Karl Nehammer of Austria warned last year.
Leonore Gewessler, the energy minister and a member of the progressive Green Party in Austria’s coalition government, said the government remained committed to ending Russian natural gas imports by 2027.
But “it is not easy to undo years and decades of wrong policies in just a few months or a year,” added Ms. Gewessler. And as a landlocked country, Austria, unlike Germany, Italy or Greece, cannot simply build terminals for ships to transport liquefied natural gas.
The question of whether the government in Vienna is working fast enough is as much a political problem as it is a logistical and economic one.
Austria has remained officially neutral — a principle written into its Constitution since 1955, when the end of its postwar occupation was negotiated with the Soviet Union. As a result, it is not a member of the American-European military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The country strongly condemned the invasion of Ukraine, took in refugees and allowed arms shipments to Ukraine to cross its borders. But while Russian energy giant Gazprom suddenly stopped supplying many European countries, Austria continued to receive its full distribution and got approval from Russia to pay in euros instead of rubles.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary is clearly Russia’s closest ally in the European Union. But Vienna’s reluctance to move more quickly to other energy sources has prompted concerns that Austria remains too closely tied to Russian interests.
“The political elite in Austria, I think, is among the most sympathetic to Russia,” said Grzegorz Kuczynski, director of the Eurasia program at the Warsaw Institute. “Therefore, I think Vienna will try to influence a less confrontational policy of the EU towards Moscow.”
Mr. Kuczynski referred to figures such as Karin Kneissl, a former foreign minister who, at her wedding in 2018, caused a sensation by dancing with Vladimir V. Putin, the Russian president, and accepting his gift sapphire earrings worth 50,000 euros. In 2021, he joined the board of Rosneft, Russia’s state-owned oil company, though he left under pressure after sanctions were proposed in May 2022.
Other Austrian politicians also had ties to Russia before last year’s invasion. some former top national leader served on the boards of Russian enterprises and organizations. Wolfgang Schüssel, a former chancellor, is on the board of Lukoil, Russia’s largest private corporation. He resigned a month after Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
The far right Freedom Party, which had close links in Mr. Putin’s United Russia party and gaining ground in public opinion polls, left Parliament in March with a speech from Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“There are political players who are not fully on board” when it comes to denouncing Russian policy or accelerating the transition to renewable energy, Ms. Gewessler, the energy minister.
The current deal with Gazprom, whose signing in 2018 was attended by Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor at the time, and Mr Putin, calls on Austria to buy six billion cubic meters of gas per year, and remains with effect of unusual length. period — until 2040. The company is also a financial backer of the now defunct Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany,
Since the invasion began, OMV, the Austrian energy company, has spent €7 billion, about $7.7 billion, on Russian gas.
Alfred Stern, the chief executive of OMV, said recently interview with The Financial Times that “we will continue to take these quantities from Gazprom” as long as they are available.
OMV did not respond to repeated requests for comment. But on Friday the company announced a 10-year agreement to buy gas from energy giant BP starting in 2026, to “advance our continued diversification of sources of supply,” Mr. Stern said in a statement.
The Austrian government owns about 30 percent of OMV. The United Arab Emirates owns 25 percent.
Georg Zachmann, a climate and energy expert at the Bruegel think tank in Brussels, said strategic decisions about the country’s energy supply should be made in government offices, not in boardrooms.
“OMV is a private company, and they try to make as much money as possible for their shareholders,” Mr. Zachmann said. “It would be in the interest of the Austrian government and European policy makers to hinder their ability to do business.”
He admitted that reducing supplies from Gazprom would inevitably mean higher prices.
Official decisions can be overtaken by events in any case. The current five years contractwhich allows Gazprom to continue sending natural gas from Russia to Europe through pipelines running through Ukraine despite the war, will expire at the end of next year, and the government in Kyiv has indicated that it will not renew that deal.
Ukrainian pipelines carry about 5 percent of the European Union’s gas imports, according to Ms. Corbeau, from the Center on Global Energy Policy. Ending their use would leave TurkStream, the direct link between Russia and Turkey, as the only entry point for piped gas to Europe.
“The clock is ticking,” said Ms. Corbeau about Ukrainian transit arrangements. When it comes to gas supplies from Russia, Austria is “living on borrowed time.”