Austria's President Alexander van der Bellen (left) and Russian President Vladimir Putin inspect a military honor guard at the Presidential palace in Vienna, Austria, on Tuesday.
Moscow CNN  — 

Russian President Vladimir Putin visits Austria on Tuesday, and he says he wants to build bridges to Europe.

Some fear he seeks to drive a wedge in it.

The official reason for the trip, Putin’s first foreign visit since he won a landslide re-election in March, is for talks with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz and President Alexander Van der Bellen. Trade and economic cooperation are at the top of the agenda: Putin is slated to attend a meeting with Russian and Austrian business representatives to discuss investment opportunities and economic cooperation.

But the Kremlin leader is looking for an opening to a Europe that is witnessing a rise of right-wing, populist governments, with a clear aim of easing sanctions and ending Russia’s political isolation.

Austrian vice chancellor opposes sanctions

Austria is an interesting case in point. Late last year, a new coalition government took power in Vienna that includes the far-right Freedom Party as a junior partner.

Heinz-Christian Strache, Austria’s vice chancellor and leader of the Freedom Party, is an opponent of sanctions, which were imposed by the European Union and the US over Russia’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.

In a recent interview with the newspaper Oesterreich, Strache made his position clear.

“It is high time to put an end to these exasperating sanctions and normalize political and economic relations with Russia,” he said.

The Austrian government has also done another major favor for Putin. It opted not to join over 20 other countries in expelling Russian diplomats over the March 4 nerve agent attack against Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia Skripal, in Salisbury, England.

That’s raised questions in Austria about the real agenda for Putin’s visit.

‘We want a united European Union’

In an interview with Austria’s ORF television channel on the eve of his trip, Putin was asked if his trip was “a kind of incentive for a benevolent policy toward Russia” by the Austrian government.

“It is not our aim to divide anything or anybody in Europe,” Putin said. “On the contrary, we want to see a united and prosperous European Union, because the European Union is our biggest trade and economic partner. The more problems there are within the European Union, the greater the risks and uncertainties for us.”

Still, it’s an interesting move by Putin, who has looked for new partners amid frosty relations with Washington and Brussels.

Putin shakes hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a signing ceremony in Beijing's Great Hall of the People in 2016.

Later this week, Putin will pay an official visit to China for a meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in the eastern city Qingdao. Putin has nurtured close ties to Chinese President Xi Jinping, and he has looked for greater economic support from Beijing in the face of sanctions.

The shifting political winds in Europe may also give him a new opening. Italy, which has wavered in the past about sanctioning Russia, has a new coalition government led by populist, euroskeptic parties, League and the Five Star Movement. Both are broadly pro-Russian.

Following Hungary’s lead?

But it’s still too early to say whether goodwill in Austria or other European countries can translate into a real easing of sanctions for Putin.

Some fear that the presence of the far-right Freedom Party in government could push Austria to go down the illiberal path blazed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Writing after the election of the new Austrian government for the Carnegie Moscow Center, political scientist Stanislav Klimovich said, “Observers fear that the Freedom Party will radicalize its new coalition with the center-right Austrian People’s Party. They worry that the Austrian government will close the country’s borders, fraternize with Russia, and drag the political system in the illiberal direction taken by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.”

Such moves, Klimovich added, would be tempered.

“Both the People’s Party and the Freedom Party have since distanced themselves from these politicians,” he said. “And after the election, Chancellor Sebastian Kurz unequivocally stated that his government ‘will be pro-European or it will not exist.’”