BERLIN (AP) — The president and government of Austria are at odds over whether the country should offer Ukraine help with civilian demining, with the defense minister and a major opposition party pointing to concerns over the implications for Austrian military neutrality.
President Alexander Van der Bellen, who is formally the military’s commander in chief but has no say over day-to-day policy, told the Austria Press Agency he doesn’t understand why the government continues to hesitate on the issue.
“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,” Van der Bellen said in a statement to APA.
Defense Minister Klaudia Tanner disagreed, telling Oe1 radio on Thursday that “the situation is currently so unclear that we are not in a position to be able to distinguish between humanitarian and military demining.”
She also said Austrian is currently providing demining expertise in the western Balkans, and “it really makes sense after the end of the war.”
Tanner said Austria would give financial support to a Europe-wide humanitarian demining mission, if one is put in place.
Austria, a European Union member, has engaged in a delicate balancing act since Russia invaded Ukraine last year, trying to maintain its longstanding military neutrality while condemning the invasion and joining in imposing sanctions on Moscow.
The resurgent far-right opposition Freedom Party, which has led recent national polls and has criticized EU sanctions against Russia, accused Van der Bellen of completely ignoring Austria's military neutrality. "Conducting a military deployment in a belligerent country certainly cannot be reconciled with our neutrality," party leader Herbert Kickl said in a statement Wednesday.