When Vladimir Putin visited Australia for the APEC summit in 2007, a journalist asked him "What do you think of Australia?
"I never think of Australia,'' the great horseman responded. It was a cruel blow to our national pride, given the influence of Russian affairs on Australian history. We spent much of the later part of the 19th century regarding Russia as a likely invader. On that account there are still cannon at Watsons Bay in Sydney and at Port Phillip Bay, designed to repel Russian boarders. Putin's hero, Vladimir Lenin wrote learnedly in 1913 on the results of an Australian election more than 100 years ago, before concluding that the idea that the Australian Labor Party was socialist or a potential menace to capitalism was a joke. In another of his polemics he called for one of his ideological enemies, Karl Kautsky to be put in a cage and exhibited alongside the Australian kangaroo.
Putin was also obviously unaware that Australian soldiers had invaded Russia, at Archangel in the North, in Ukraine, still part of Russia, and in Siberia, 103 years ago, as a part of British forces against the Bolsheviks during the Russian Civil War. Our forces included at least four navy vessels operating in the Black Sea, sometimes from Sevastopol. Two Australians won Victoria Crosses. To be fair to Putin, few people in Australia, even at the time, knew of our involvement. We left in early 1920 without having made much difference, and not many of the engagements would figure in the Russian official histories. Twenty years later, we were sending sheepskins to clothe Soviet soldiers fighting the Germans, eucalyptus seedings for re-afforestation, and after the war, a place of refuge for many displaced people - a substantial majority of whom proved to be fiercely anti-communist.
I doubt that Putin lost a great deal of sleep this week from the fierce denunciations of his invasion of parts of Ukraine by Australia's Prime Minister, Scott Morrison. He ought to have met Morrison at more recent G20 meetings, though it is possible that our Prime Minister made no more impact on his consciousness than he did on the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel or the American President, Joe Biden, both of whom had to be reminded of his name.
This was not for want of strident assertion of Australia's interests, at least as interpreted by Morrison. But the volume of our international declarations is in inverse proportion to the distance of the receiving capital from Hobart, particularly when the subject concerns things happening on the other side of the world. Scott Morrison tore strips off Russia, and it will be a long time before the Bear dares skulk back into his presence, assuming Morrison's prime ministership survives the May election.
Thank heavens for Morrison, because he was getting little help from his Foreign Minister, Marise Payne, whose "quiet diplomacy" went largely unheard and who attended many meetings in Europe without earning her travel allowance. Her silence sits alongside the fact that other statespeople and diplomats are never much interested in anything she (or for that matter, Scott Morrison) has to say.
What is said, usually, will echo, or sometimes eagerly anticipate, the US or Britain, even when our own interests, or perspective from a hemisphere away ought to be different. As it happens, long and concerned meetings of our national security cabinet were able to produce a sanctions package against Russia that is almost identical to, if slightly weaker, than that of Britain. That is, when it comes into operation, because Australia has given everyone affected ample time to make other arrangements.
Some think there is a general principle in the conduct of Australian foreign policy, on both sides of the political divide, that one can be the more strident the further the recipient is away, the less there is at stake and the smaller the intention of actually doing anything to back up one's fighting words. It might be said to follow the maxim of Neville Chamberlain after his betrayal of Czechoslovakia during the 1938 Munich Crisis: "How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas-masks here [in Britain] because of a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing!"
On this account, politicians are mostly more interested in and knowledgeable about what is happening in Britain than among any of our neighbours, including China, Korea, Japan and India. Leftists expel each other over different attitudes to Israel, or once, Russia, Timor-Leste and the Baltic states. Once the right wing of the Liberal Party was united only around unswerving support for South Africa, fanatical support for Rhodesia, which is to say white supremacy. Now some are in thrall to Trumpism.
One can be derisive about the noisy resolution of Morrison, and his efforts to craft the Ukraine crisis into the narrative about Anthony Albanese being too weak and inexperienced to be put in charge during this crisis. After all, there is nothing - not one thing - that Australia is saying or doing, even in the way of sanctions, which will have the slightest impact on the determination of Putin. If sanctions are to have any effect in reversing or bringing the invasion to a halt, Australia's contribution is as a piece of string in the thick rope intended to strangle Putin, perhaps literally.
We could do more if we wanted. The Australian economy is about 87 per cent the size of Russia's even if Russia has a landmass twice as big, a population six times the size, a defence budget (only) twice Australia's, an armoury of nuclear weapons, nuclear missiles, ships and submarines, which could easily overwhelm Australia. That is, if it ever occurred to Vladimir Putin, who does not have us high on his list of priorities.
But if Australia has little capacity to affect outcomes, even as a loyal ally of the West, we have good reason to think that an invasion of Ukraine could affect its vital interests, regardless of the depth of Putin's spiritual attachment to a country that was a creation of the Soviet Union, without a long history of independence from Russia.
The best examples are ones of cold realism, having little to do with the unalienable rights of self-government and freedom of alliance of Ukraine citizens. War in Ukraine has the potential to get very nasty, and very quickly.
Although the Western neighbours seem determined that only Ukraine blood be shed in defence of its freedom, they are eagerly supplying munitions, missiles, and intelligence designed to do maximum damage to the Russians, just as the US supplied weapons to its friend Osama bin Laden and the mujaheddin when Russia invaded Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, when Russia supplied military services to the Syrian regime so as to defeat an American intervention designed to cause regime change in the last decade.
The Western strategy is based on deep doubts about whether Ukraine can survive, and determination not to be there when the balloon goes up on that . But it hopes its supplies and assistance can prolong the conflict and bleed the Russian effort. America hopes Russia will end up in the sort of quagmire that US and NATO interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan were in over the past two decades.
But it could get worse than that. Russia has nuclear arms, and in any conflict, particularly in its own backyard, people must make calculations about whether Russia might use them if things went bad, particularly in eastern Ukraine (which is Russian-speaking, and never particularly subservient to Ukraine speakers to the West). Russia might well judge that reverses in the Crimea and the Black Sea would affect its vital interests. Putin's rhetoric justifying his interventions, and his clear statements that Ukraine must remain in the Russian orbit, not as a member of the European Community or NATO, suggest that he is prepared to gamble his all, in a total rather than a limited war. He has certainly seemed indifferent about risks to Russian energy supplies to Europe, or to the trade income he desperately needs to modernise and further develop his economy. His is an emotional cause, not a merely pragmatic one, and that must be taken into account.
It is likely that his war aims boil down to two things. First, a promise by Ukraine that it will not ally itself with NATO or Europe, or do anything against Russian security interests, even if it is to retain its right to look West for its economic and cultural development. Second, it seems clear that he wants to continue to control, through proxies, most of the Russian-speaking eastern side of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula and its access to the Black Sea.
Claims that his interventions are to preserve order, or protect Russian-oriented populations are spurious, and he has no case at all in international law for his spectacular breach of the peace. International law may allow a grudging and limited right of intervention across borders to protect groups with close affinities to one's own population - as India did with East Pakistan, or Bangladesh, in the 1970s. Likewise, America's invasion of Iraq with allies, but without United Nations sanction, is a precedent for crossing borders to stop misbehaviour, genocide or (as with alleged weapons of mass destruction) serious threats to the regional peace.
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Putin points out, rhetorically and angrily, that Ukraine was a part of Russia for 1000 years, until a somewhat artificial division of the Soviets into a quasi-federal system 100 years ago. The Viking rulers of Kyiv were called the Rus, from which the very word Russian comes. He claims there was a quasi-legal understanding that an independent Ukraine would remain within the Russian orbit, and not become a launching pad from which Russia's traditional enemies could attack Russia itself. But these are points for diplomacy and politics, not justifications for unilateral war.
Conflicts of this type have a great capacity to get out of control. It was a local assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Serbia, over essentially local disputes, (and the Tsar's mobilisation as a result) that brought on the long and bloody World War I, as well as the communist revolution in Russia. Recent Russian conflicts with former Soviet republics in the Caucasus have been sparked by chance events. The risk of a breakout could come from instabilities in the Hindu Kush, the Middle East, the Balkans, the nervousness of former Iron Curtin nations such as Hungary and Poland, as well as old wounds in Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, or even opportunism or overreach by old NATO countries. The risks are enlarged whenever Putin sees the hand of the old enemy - the US - behind the conflict. He is, however emboldened by his knowledge that he has much shorter lines of communication, and the likelihood that America will face humiliation and failure if it gets directly involved. All the more so if American rhetoric and threats can be shown to be bluster, and the limits of American power are made obvious.
If the conflict were to spill over Ukraine's borders and involve its western neighbours, they will claim treaty rights to NATO support. One can assume the players are well aware of the dangers, but not all can control events even if they want to. An all-out war has every potential to become a world war, and even if Asia could exclude itself, it might well drag in Australia.
Whatever happened would be catastrophic for world trade, world growth and hundreds of millions of civilians. Australia has every reason to engage itself, as loudly as it can, in efforts to hose the conflict down. It has no reason to hold back on criticism of Russia's illegal act, but so doing is only for our own good feeling, not for a censure that sticks or is even remembered. We might, were we differently disposed, be in a position to present our good offices to help mediate a solution. Small hope of that, however, when we are regarded as but a delegate for Washington, or, perhaps worse, Boris Johnson.
Meanwhile, relations with China remain tense, despite overtures from the Chinese, including invitation by the new Chinese ambassador to discuss particular grievances. As things stand, Morrison is trying to frame an election around the idea that only he is strong and courageous enough to stand up to Chinese bullying. A "weak" Labor, he says, would sell Australia out. Incapacity to stand up to this slur has made Albanese adhere strictly to Morrison's policy, automatically endorsing whatever Morrison says, even though Morrison has not consulted about a common front. The invasion of Ukraine, and the nervousness that provokes, adds to Morrison's opportunities to demand that the population, including Labor, fall in behind him. Labor, at least, is cravenly doing so.
In the right circumstances, one might have thought that an alternative leader, leading a party that sees the world differently, could wonder aloud if Australia might move gently away from non-stop contrived economic and political conflict, mostly through insult. The aim would be the reopening of trade talks and cultural links, as well as ordinary mutual politeness and respect. It need not involve any retreat from Australia's criticism of China's human rights record, or its mistreatment of the Uighurs, actions in Hong Kong or intentions with Taiwan.
China may have the front door closed, not least because Australian representatives have gone out of their way to attack it. But it is signalling that there are open doors to the side, that Australia need not (nor should not) eat crow, and that it now needs again many of the goods and services it once took from us. It's an opportunity we should not forego, least of all in an election battle of the hairy chests. After all, it was our closest allies, particularly the US, which rushed in to supply the goods we used to supply. As Australia so often does, our stand on our rights and our dignity shot only ourselves in the foot, without advancing our actual interests.
It would be so easy to do the same in Ukraine. We know that nothing we can conventionally do - such as imposing minor sanctions - will make a jot of difference to the outcome. Why do we not experiment with independent actions that help lower the temperature, create flexibility or prepare to help the casualties and civilian victims on both sides. It could be an Australian way. It has happened before - in Cambodia and Namibia for example without anyone being called weak or a traitor.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
Jack Waterford is a former editor of The Canberra Times.
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