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Karl von Habsburg, an Austrian politician and current head of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, speaks about the Russian aggression, Europe’s borders and Ukraine’s role in the EU
The current head of the House of Habsburg-Lorraine, politician, public figure, journalist. Son of Otto von Habsburg; grandson of the last Austrian Emperor, Charles I.
Karl von Habsburg began his career as a military pilot. In 1996, he was elected a Member of the European Parliament for the Austrian People’s Party.
From 2008 until August 2020, he was president of the cultural protection organization Blue Shield International, a cultural protection organization. He is also the president of the Austrian branch of the Paneuropean Union, which aims to unite all Europeans in a strong Europe.
— What do you predict will happen in Ukraine over the next months?
Karl: I don’t think I can really answer that question, I don’t think anybody can I think nobody can answer what is going to happen in the next 48 hours (ed. – interview took place in April 2022).
We just know that certain attacks are planned, and indeed we see some action, but we don’t know what is going to happen in the long term. But these conversations can only bear fruit if they are conducted with honesty. And the only thing we received from the Russian are fake promises and lies. This makes these negotiations extremely difficult.
We have seen this type of behaviour before on the Belarusian border and it resulted in the interruption of the negotiations. They were broken from the Russian side. And we can already notice it from history, we all have seen the incredible promises of Budapest memorandum in 1996, where Russia guaranteed to respect Ukrainian borders. And what happened next? Russia threw it out of the window the moment it became inconvenient. Russia sees honesty as a weakness. And this makes these sorts of negotiations absurd. I wish I could offer some way out, but I just do not see any. And anybody who made predictions on it at the beginning of the war was wrong.
Nobody predicted that the Ukrainian people would resist with such a courage and resolve, Russians less than anyone..
— What do you think should be the next steps from the United States and European Union?
Karl: It is hard to say whether parties agree to negotiations for humanitarian reasons or to buy time. I truly believe that it is the former for the Ukrainian case. The extent of the suffering provoked by the Russian offensive is downright shocking.
One thing which only works in negotiating with dictators like Putin is that they should be shown a credible red line they cannot overstep. How it is going to look is very complicated, because Russian is a nuclear power. Still, Russia is a big country, but it has a very weak economy. Apart from nuclear power and a rather strong military it doesn’t have so much to rely on. This increase the risk of nuclear weapons being actually used. And here I think it is very important to distinguish between tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Strategic weapons have the potentially to end the world and I do not think Putin is so mad that he will use them. But it leaves the question of the use of tactical nuclear weapons open. I don’t know how the West would react to this.
And that is probably also one thing the dictator in the Kremlin is relying on, that he thinks that people will be shocked. Because if Putin uses even a comparatively small number of nuclear weapons, nobody will know how to react and that would give him time and power. That is why I see a danger that it could be used this way.
Delivering weapons to Ukraine helps in a way without running the risk of an escalation. It is an approach that has its limits, I am aware of it.
— Is there anything else we could do?
Karl: What is done now is not enough. The real solution would be to influence the side of the political spectrum in Russia that has a stake in a prolonged war.
The problem is that Russia has established a complete authority over the flow of information to control anyone who is telling the truth about the so called ‘special military operation’.
You know it is so Orwellian, it is completely like Orwell 1984 – when certain words are downright forbidden. In Russian if you use the word ‘war’, you go for 15 years to jail. It is just incredible.
And the strange thing – it should not come as such a surprise to us! We all have been critically observing what is going on in Russia. Whether it was Nemtsov’s assassination, the poisoning and incarceration of Navalny are all a clear sign that you are not dealing with the government that can be held to western standards, with any human humanitarian standards! Putin sees any moral standards as a weakness to be exploited.
— What red line you have mentioned earlier you think could work?
Karl: Putin has been shown one red line (at least Joe Biden is constantly repeating this): that any square inch of NATO territory that he attacks will be defended with all means possible. And I think Biden really means it. But I don’t know how credible this is in the long term. Is this credible for a year from now? Let’s assume a worst case scenario – Ukraine falls and becomes a second Belarus, a Russian vassal. If that happens that could be an invitation to for an escalation in the foreseeable future, for example a possible aggression of Moldova.
I am also thinking about the Baltic countries, especially since they stand between Russian and the Kaliningrad exclave. Russia has always been clear it wants to bridge the gap between its territories and its occupied territories both in the North and in the South. And we all know, NATO stands in the way. If Russia is successful in Ukraine, it may feel invited to go and get another bite!
For Putin the threat comes as much from the Ukrainians than from NATO. Which is kind of astonishing to think what a twist the situation has taken. I can imagine he was expecting a swift success in Ukraine, because otherwise he would not have taken the risks he has.
– Do you see any positive sides in this horrific war?
Karl: I am very glad to see how Europe reacted towards the refugee stream that were coming from Ukraine.
Europe has displayed a sense of solidarity not seen in decades. It has shown a unity with NATO that we have not seen in a long time. It is very important here that we don’t mindlessly use certain talking points which are basically Russian propaganda.
When someone is driving thousands of soldiers, tanks, missiles, and planes into a different sovereign country, yes, it is a war. Let’s just call it what it is. But one word that is constantly used and I always try to call out is ‘NATO enlargement’. It is completely wrong because NATO does not enlarge. NATO is an institution that certain countries, which have specific needs in terms of security can join if they wish to do so. NATO by itself is not annexing others. God knows that we can see that there is a necessity for a secured area by what is happening in Ukraine, and so it is fully understandable for Ukraine to say ‘we would like to be part of a security arrangement that would take care of our need’.
We should therefore not talk about any NATO enlargement, but we should definitely talk about the possibility of a Ukrainian application for NATO membership, which I think is something very important. Same for EU membership. I know that this will not happen tomorrow, it is clear, but as a PAN-European myself, I hope for it. This is also an economic necessity. Europe is never going to be complete without Ukraine. It is very important to repeat it.
– What do you mean by economic necessity?
Karl: I think people tend to forget what a huge potential Ukraine actually has. I am talking on one hand of human capacity, which is huge!
The EU was not founded on the idea just to create a big supermarket. The point was that after the second world war, there was a clear need for a political arrangement that would render war in Europe unconceivable, at that time specifically between France and Germany. The founding fathers had this issue in mind. Of course, they could not start with a union based on a common security because of Germany’s direct involvement. That is why they prioritised the economic aspects – if we create a combined economy, then politics and security will follow.
– Do you think that the Russian aggression could push the European Union to move forward on the issue of security, perhaps through an integration in an EU-USA security sphere?
Karl: I could imagine that certain analysts in NATO are very happy about the current situation, because they can bring up a lot of old concepts from the Cold War. How can we fall into this old pattern, where the Soviet Union was an opponent?
The issue of how Europe is going to be perceived and what is its will not change much. The war just gives it another dimension.
Usually if you talk with someone and they say ‘Europe’, they usually mean the EU. And this is where we have to bring these two concepts together. Here we are coming to the question – what are the borders of Europe? I would say one thing, which I think everyone will agree upon – there is a list of countries, which should be in the EU and are not in yet, and that needs to change. There are Balkan countries on one side. They should economically and politically be part of Europe. These countries are the next channels for external aggressions. For instance, in Bosnia, where we see the influence of Saudi Arabia or Turkey. But also in Serbia, which is a playground for Russia.
– And what solution you see in the light of current events?
Karl: My father always said that the further we expand the border of the European Union, the higher the security inside the EU. Of course, we will have a successful economy, and it will work for all citizens. But if you have a secure area in which this economy can develop then all the better for the economy.
The point is that the EU is the most successful and everlasting peace project that has ever developed in humankind. Of course, there are problems, and I am happy to talk about them, because I want to work to improve it.
If we are aware that the EU is a functioning peace project, we have to bring in the countries that are in the danger. And by giving them safe harbour we are also fulfilling its economic mission. The EU has been extremely successful over the decade, and I really hope it is going to continue.
– Austria is and was famous for its role as a mediator in foreign affairs, unfortunately it seems that in this war it has failed to play this role. Where do you see the role of Austria in this war and what could have been done differently?
Karl: I think Austria must wake up to the fact that it cannot eat its cake and have it too. The country must choose what it wants. Austria wants to enjoy the economic benefits of its continuous relationship with Russia and at the same time be a neutral observer.
It has worked for some time quite nicely, but in a situation of outright war it is untenable.
That is why Austria has to take a stand, and of course I wish it will be on the side of European values.
– I would like to talk about identity. Do you think the concept of nation and identity will change following the current events?
Karl: Considering that Russia has consistently repeated that Ukraine is not a nation, but an artificial construct, it is rather ironic that this has proven, if needed be, that Ukraine is a nation indeed. There is no doubt that Ukrainians are a European nation.
I think there is a fundamental difference between nationalism and patriotism. These are two distinct concepts, and people are wrong to confuse them. Patriotism is in fact the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is the rational view that you are superior to your neighbor and that therefore you should dominate them. This completely idiotic view has brought us over the last 200 years of war.
Then there is a patriotism, it is a positive emotion of love that you feel for your own territory. And it does not need to align with borders, because you can be an ardent patriot of Kharkiv, Kyiv, Lviv, Vienna, Potersdorf etc., while also being a patriot of the country you are living in or the district you are living in. I see myself as a typical European patriot, but it doesn’t stop me from being Austrian at the same time.
– And how can we cultivate more patriotism while avoiding nationalism?
Karl: We need to cultivate patriotism to overcome nationalism. We need to strive towards this patriotic European identity, which is multi-layered. Of course, I identify myself very strongly as a Central-European and of course my Central European identity is growing strong since the invasion of Ukraine. That is because it has always been a historical a part of Central Europe. It is where so many cultural backgrounds and different languages have lived together, and this has resulted in a unique spring of creativity. If we are just thinking about Lemberg and its Jewish community, it was literally a fountain of the most amazing works done for centuries in Europe. What has come from this area is part of the broader European cultural heritage, it is very important for European identity. Appreciating it is not incompatible with being a Patriot for another region.
– The Russian propaganda trope about the denazification of Ukraine seems to have got some traction in Western Europe. Why?
Karl: As I observe, Nazis in many countries are a rather abstract concept. Older generations understand what the conversation is about, as they have been living through it. The idea that Ukraine needs denazifying is just absurd. Ukraine has a Jewish president and you have working, democratic, elections. I don’t know whether I have ever seen something like that in my life. Given his background, you would not expect him to become an icon of the resistance of Ukraine. And yet we are.
– Why was it possible then for Russia to make this move without the world preventing it?
Karl: Historically, and since the times of the French Revolution – the spirit of nationalism has taken us from one war to the next.
Of course, nationalists always find excuses for whatever it is they are doing. Whenever I am thinking about the bunch of Austrian intellectuals who went as international observers to Crimea without having the slightest idea of what professional electoral observation entails, just to give credence to the ridiculous referendum that was happening there, and all of this just to try to make themselves important. For me it was just not serious, but pathetic.
– What could have Ukraine say to make the world pay attention when it all started in 2014?
Karl: I don’t think it is Ukraine’s fault. They did everything they could. I think the West was deaf. We had a Russian occupation going on in Eastern Ukraine, in Crimea, all of it completely illegal, breaking any kind of international law and treaty that were signed. And people were still thinking that the best way forward was to appease the Kremlin tyrant.
– Why were these signs ignored by Europeans?
Karl: A lot of them still believed the lies coming from Russia. And they were thinking that there was still a way out from the conflict by just looking away.
We have to say also that Ukraine was not prepared for what happened in 2014, the military was in shambles. There should have been another reaction from the Ukrainian side. The ability of the Ukrainian military of course has changed since 2014. What we are seeing is nothing short of heroism.
– How do you think the EU project will function after a possible Ukrainian victory? What are the perspectives for Ukraine?
Karl: The EU has certain standards to admit new members. And let us not delude ourselves, Ukraine has still a lot of work to do, especially regarding corruptions etc. I am for speeding up the process, but I am not for changing the process.
— Still, has anything changed after the aggression of Ukraine?
Karl: Ukraine was not on a map of a lot of countries. It was the border of Eastern Europe, where Russia started. Ukraine is on the map now. This a big progress.
– Do you think this war will change how Europeans perceive their own security?
Karl: You can imagine there will be some developments in the future. In my own small lifetime things have changed a lot.
I am a typical child of a Cold War, which was a bipolar world. Where you had a confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw pact, and this was basically the reality of our everyday life, Then the downfall of the Soviet Union led to a complete monopolar world dominated by the US. Then we saw a very strange American president getting elected, who decided to spread American influence on the entire world. The world is currently moving to a more multipolar order with many regional powers gaining influence in their specific region. If I am talking about Turkey or India or Iran or these sorts of countries, which have a strong regional influence.
China and Russia combined face a western world comprised of the US and Europe. And perhaps we are thus getting back to a bipolar world. I am always trying to keep this in mind, despite the danger of accepting the arguments excusing Russia by highlighting its supposed encirclement by NATO and other forms of whataboutism.
We are talking about a conflict of value systems. One value system is about creating liberty to protect individual freedom, free from oppression, social blackmail, and other social ills that we see in China or in Russia. So literally we have a conflict of two value systems. So, when someone tells me Russia is only defending itself, I just ask them “Do you have children? If you have children, would you like to send them to the University of Wisconsin or Vladivostok”? There is no need even to answer, of course they would send them to the university, where they experience the liberty and quality of life that is brought about by system of freedom. And this is what the West has to offer. And this is what brings me back to Ukraine. Ukraine fights for us and our freedom.
– Do you think we are in a bipolar world divided along systems of value?
Karl: We are not there yet, but we can see the waves. My prediction was that this is where China will go for Taiwan.
— Do you still feel the connections of your family with Ukraine?
Karl: Of course, I do, especially when I travel through Western Ukraine, where I see that architecture and this atmosphere that is almost Austrian. The society is very Central European or has this vibe that reminds me of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Vienna coffee-house spirit, I felt it there.
– Where do you see the role of your family in the 1918’s events when the modern Ukrainian state was formed?
Karl: It is difficult to answer, because the person that comes to my mind is larger than life – it is Wilhelm. He is a fascinating character. He was a link between my family and Ukraine and has incarnated its traditions there. I have great admiration for him. I am always amazed when I find a street named after Vasyl Vyshyvanyi (ed. from the word Vyshyvanka, Ukrainian traditional embroided cloth he used to wear under his uniform) – his Ukrainian nickname. From the other side, when I am looking at the politics of my father – he was always emphasizing that Europe is larger than the European Union, and that Ukraine is a part of Europe. And how much he was horrified by the iron curtain that split it in half.
I think in many parts of Ukraine you don’t have a feeling that you are on the Eastern border, because you are not, you are in Central Europe. That spirit is very strong there. That is of course our common history, and it has nurtured that feeling.
Lidiia Akryshora for the Centre for Strategic Communication and Information Security
Interview edited for length.
Edited by Stanislas Richard