Central Europe’s Austria would be the first Western country to officially deploy troops to play an active role in the Ukraine war if the President gets his way, against opposition from Parliament.
Austria should deploy soldiers to Ukraine to detect and safely dispose of landmines and other unexploded ordinance, the nation’s President Alexander Van der Bellen has said. The notion is opposed by members of his own government, and the Freedom Party, the right-populist group which is the country’s main right-wing opposition, who assert it would contravene the country’s long-held military neutrality.
President Van der Bellen — who is the titular head of Austria’s armed forces — said he could not understand why the government was hesitating to deploy troops to Ukraine for demining, reports the nation’s top-selling newspaper Kronen Zeitung. He remarked: “Support in demining civilian areas such as residential buildings, schools, kindergartens or agricultural areas certainly doesn’t contradict Austrian neutrality; it is a humanitarian matter.”
Many other Western countries have troops in Ukraine already, mostly for embassy protection, and not for getting directly involved in the war. A handful of others go further, such as the United States which has soldiers in-country to track the enormous quantities of military aid being delivered to Ukrainian forces and make sure nothing goes missing. The United Kingdom has even quietly admitted special forces soldiers have undertaken “covert” missions in Ukraine during the war, but the nature and purpose of these have not been revealed.
The President and his supporters, including the Liberal-Globalist NEOS party, say demining operations is a humanitarian mission and while performed by soldiers in a warzone, is not military involvement. The Austrian Minister of Defence Klaudia Tanner of the centre-right OVP disagrees, however, and says the war is presently in a state where the distinction between military demining operations and humanitarian demining is blurred and meaningless.
Austria would help fund a pan-European demining operation but would not deploy to the county unilaterally she said, defying the President.
Right-populist Freedom Party leader Herbert Kickl, who heads up the largest non-government right-wing party in Austria, said the President has a constitutional duty to protect Austria’s military neutrality and the call to deploy to Ukraine was not compatible with this. He said, per OTS: “Not too long ago, Van der Bellen wanted to abolish our army, now he’s acting with his green friends like [vice-chancellor Wener Kogler] as warmongers… our neutrality cannot be shaken. A Federal President who questions this and our freedom of association is out of place.”
While the President ordering the military into Ukraine over the heads of the government would certainly trigger a constitutional crisis, the President is directly elected in Austria and is more consequential than other ceremonial presidents in some European nations. He has the power to dissolve the government, and even to appoint military officers.