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Austria's ex-Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl moves to Russia — with ponies flown in from Syria on a military transport plane

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In a post on her official Telegram channel, former Austrian Foreign Minister Karin Kneissl, now living in Russia, confirmed that she had brought two ponies and other belongings into the country last year, adding that the ponies were flown in on a “Russian transport flight” from Syria. As previously reported by The Insider, the animals were transported using a military-cargo Il-76MD aircraft linked to the Russian Defense Ministry's 224th flight detachment, which is under US sanctions for transporting Wagner Group equipment and personnel.

Kneissl's statement indicates that she had changed her place of residence in recent years, managing her “involuntary relocations” independently. When it came to moving to Russia, she claimed to have encountered challenges due to sanctions and limited air travel options:

“Here are the facts. In June 2022, I moved my books, clothes and ponies from Marseille to Beirut with the help of DHL. The reason was exile from France. Lebanon was a temporary solution, just to wait it out. I traveled to Russia every 6 weeks for classes. Now I am setting up an institute in St. Petersburg. If the security situation in Syria had been different, I would have hired a ground carrier. Because of the sanctions, neither flights nor DHL are available. Therefore, I had the opportunity to use a Russian transport flight on my way back from Syria to Russia, for which I am very grateful.”

Kneissl concluded by writing that she has been attacked “daily” for several years and has never ceased to be “amazed” by the hatred against her “that emanates from Austria.”

The fact that a Russian military transport plane was used to transport two ponies from a military base in Syria was first reported by Russian pro-war channel Fighterbomber on September 7. Other details of the incident were revealed thanks to a social media post by a horse club from the Leningrad Region, which reported the arrival of two ponies that started their journey in Austria and “crossed six international borders.” Notably, this publication included photos of an IL-76MD aircraft with a clearly visible flight number, but it has since been deleted.

Soon after, the Veterinary Department of the Leningrad Region officially announced on its website that Karin Kneissl's ponies had indeed arrived in the region. Kneissl had also personally informed Russian state-owned news agency TASS that she was relocating to St. Petersburg, as the G.O.R.K.I. (The Geopolitical Observatory for Russia's Key Issues) think tank, which she had established in March 2023 at St. Petersburg State University, was headquartered there.

A Russian cargo transport company, as confirmed by The Insider, reported that a cargo plane flight covering a distance of approximately 3,000 kilometers (equivalent to the distance from Syria to St. Petersburg) would cost 15 million roubles (approximately €145,000). In this context, arranging the transportation of two ponies separately from chartering an entire plane would likely have been impossible to arrange. This is primarily due to the fact that transportation companies typically handle cargo shipments with a minimum weight requirement of several dozen tons, while the average weight of a pony is only 150 kilograms.

Who is Karin Kneissl and why is she hated in Austria?

Karin Kneissl, now 58, was born in Vienna and spent part of her childhood in Amman, Jordan, where her father served as a pilot for the local monarchy. She studied law and Oriental languages at the University of Vienna, attended universities in Jerusalem and Amman, and earned a dissertation in international law. Kneissl claims to be fluent in Arabic, along with several other European languages.

In 1990, the 25-year-old Kneissl joined the Austrian Foreign Ministry, but left the diplomatic service eight years later, and began working as a freelance journalist with German- and English-language publications. As noted by the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung, Kneissl became widely known as a political observer and Middle East specialist. She also worked at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Vienna, taught at educational institutions in Austria and Lebanon, and wrote several popular science books.

In late 2017, Kneissl re-entered the Austrian Foreign Ministry, this time assuming the role of its head. She had never been a member of any political party, and joined Sebastian Kurz's coalition government as an appointee of the right-wing populist Austrian Freedom Party (APS), which has faced regular criticism for its Kremlin connections. Kneissl has also faced scrutiny for her close relationship with Vladimir Putin. When the minister got married in August 2018, Putin attended the wedding in Austria. A widely circulated photo captured Putin dancing with the bride, who was adorned in traditional Austrian attire, garnering extensive coverage in both European and Russian media. Putin's presence at the wedding raised objections among the Austrian opposition, with political analysts suggesting that Austria might be perceived as excessively aligned with Russian interests.

In March 2019, Kneissl gave an interview to Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, in which she revealed that she met Putin back in 2001. This happened at the first meeting between Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with Kneissl attending as a journalist. However, their friendship remained unkown until Putin attended Kneissl's wedding.

According to Kneissl, before becoming minister, she visited Russia three times, but only in Moscow and St. Petersburg. During her tenure as foreign minister, she visited Russia at least twice. Kneissl advocated dialog with Russia even when many European countries began expelling Russian diplomats after the poisoning of Sergei Skripal.

  • Karin Kneissl dancing with Vladimir Putin at her wedding
  • Karin Kneissl with her husband Wolfgang Meilinger

In 2019, Kneissl stepped down as foreign minister amid a scandal involving Austrian Freedom Party leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz Christian Strache, which led to his resignation and the dissolution of the government.

Following her brief political career in Austria, Kneissl strengthened her connections with Russia. In 2020, she took on a columnist role for RT and joined the board of directors of state-owned oil giant Rosneft in 2021. However, with the onset of the invasion of Ukraine, she had to leave the country due to a European Parliament resolution warning of potential sanctions against EU citizens holding positions on Russian corporate boards.

In December 2022, Kneissl shared winter photos of Moscow on her Twitter page. Earlier that summer, she spent time in the village of Petrushovo near Ryazan, participating in the Makushka Leta Summer festival and giving an interview to local publication Vid Sboku. Kneissl mentioned her departure from France, citing work restrictions and banking issues. Regarding her contact with Putin, she claimed that they hadn’t met since 2019. In September, she attended the Eastern Economic Forum (EEF) in Vladivostok.

In July 2022, Kneissl told The Washington Post that she left Austria due to alleged “death threats.” In a subsequent RT interview, she revealed that threats and physical attacks occurred in Austria, with the media accusing her of espionage, Russian intelligence connections, and animal cruelty.

“I also received letters in my mailbox, but no one wanted to take [them] seriously. The content was something like this: you Russian pig, you should be hanged, Putin's prostitute, you should have your throat ripped open and buried alive, [...] we’ll make sure you are buried exactly like this.”

According to Alexander Christiani, vice president of the NGO Österreichisch-Britische Gesellschaft (Austrian-British Society), who describes himself as a longtime acquaintance of Kneissl, the former politician lived on a farm in southern France after leaving her homeland, and regularly complained to him by phone about her dire financial situation, saying she was “cut off from everything” in Austria and would be “mercilessly persecuted.” Christiani said Kneissl's close ties to Russia stemmed from ideological closeness as well as financial dependence on that country.

“I am at a loss as to what must be going on in a once respected expert in international relations, a member of the government of the Republic of Austria and a thoroughly pleasant and likeable woman to place herself so uncritically at the disposal of a dictatorship,” Cristiani writes. According to the author, he became disillusioned with Kneissl and stopped communicating with her.

Personal life

Kneissl is known for her rural lifestyle and love for animals. In 1998, she settled on a farm in the municipality of Seibersdorf, Lower Austria, even serving on the local council. Judging by Kneissl's Instagram page, in addition to two ponies, she owns a cat and two large dogs, often sharing photos of horses, cats, chickens, and countryside landscapes. Her Telegram channel indicates moves to France in September 2020 and to Lebanon in May 2022, with geotags suggesting her animals accompanied her.

Kneissl, who reportedly has no children, first got married at the age of 53, marrying 54-year-old businessman Wolfgang Meilinger in Styria, southern Austria. Putin presented the newlyweds with a painting, an antique oil press and a Tula samovar, and brought along a Cossack choir that performed for the guests. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin and the groom “shared a passion for judo.”

Meilinger, as per Austrian newspaper Kurier, began his career in banking and later hada successful spell as a financier on the stock exchange. However, his financial career faced a setback when his license was revoked in 2008 due to loan-related issues and trustworthiness concerns. Meilinger then attempted to launch a biogas production facility in Austria’s Burgenland, but couldn't secure €30 million in investment, while the project's financial partner, Pronovis AG, was liquidated in 2017. KKneissl tried to support her partner's endeavor by giving a lecture to potential investors about the difficult state of the energy market. At the time of the wedding, Meilinger answered questions about his affairs by saying that he was engaged in a “foreign financial project,” as well as “green energy” projects.

However, their marriage faced difficulties, as Kneissl reported domestic violence to the police in spring 2020. She claimed she was injured while separating their dogs, leading to an argument and Meilinger slapping her. Meilinger argued that Kneissl was “hysterical,” initiating the altercation and hitting him first, and he was only trying to calm her down. Meilinger claimed his wife was under a lot of stress as she had lost her income due to the coronavirus pandemic. The police sided with Kneissl and issued a warrant, forbidding Meilinger to approach his wife until the end of the proceedings. Whether they officially divorced remains unknown, but Kneissl appears to have left Austria alone.

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