Australia on the losing side again: “We see you as an easy lay”

Nov 8, 2022
Ukraine painted in colour of national flag next to map of Russia.

Sooner or later, probably later, NATO plus Australia will be contemplating the consequences of not having won the war in Ukraine.

For a while, the prospects seemed uncommonly good. Ukrainian soldiers were pushing back Russians from Eastern Ukraine land they had occupied, and Russian soldiers were seeming to show no anxiety to fight. But the Russians appear to have regrouped and have renewed a bombing campaign that is stretching Ukraine’s power and industrial capacity, as well as its civilians. Moreover, winter is approaching, and fighting will soon slow. No-one who knows how Russians and Ukrainians survived and fought on during the German invasion 80 years ago will say that the weather will be a decisive factor for either side. However, the Russians have the better prospects from a heated winter breather, a comprehensive resupply, and a greater capacity to reinforce in a war that is primarily about attrition.

Anything that can be said of the morale and fighting capacity of the Ukrainian Army and of the success they have had will probably be true, for what that is worth in consolation. Because the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky has a formidable public relations machine, and some enthusiastic media coverage, and it has sometimes been difficult to work out what was true and what was propaganda. But Ukraine has always been the underdog against a ruthless enemy. The west has looked on with admiration at the political and military leadership shown, its success in mobilising world opinion and more than $US 100 billion in military aid, mostly American. Ukraine has been supplied with modern weapons by nations who have wanted them to win, even if they have been totally unwilling to fight alongside them. Their allies have feared, with some reason, that getting directly involved might bring on all-out war with Russia in eastern Europe, with an extra risk of nuclear miscalculation. They have also sensed correctly that while the sympathies of their populations stand in solidarity alongside the gallant Ukrainians, their support does not extend to a willingness to put the lives of their own soldiers or civilians in jeopardy.

God’s not with the big battalions

Russia has won itself few friends or admirers in the west, and much of the propaganda directed at the west has been ineffective in winning it any sympathy or support. But it may well have been more effective in the third world, and among countries which did not sign up against Russia. That includes all of Africa, the Middle East, China, the Indian subcontinent, and South-east Asia other than Singapore. In South America, only Chile is involved in sanctions against Russia, although some nations, such as Argentina have condemned the Russian invasion, but some others, such as Cuba, Venezuela have given Russia passive support.

Zelensky has been forthright in asking for international support, whether from heads of state, or directly to their populations. He has received, particularly from Britain and the US, some of the most sophisticated artillery and anti-aircraft, anti-tank and anti-missile equipment in the NATO armoury, as well as any amount of training and advice in its deployment. Some of it has been very effective, although it has not prevented massive devastation to Ukrainian cities, industrial capacity and energy networks, damage that cannot be quickly made up while the war is going on. Ukrainian economic activity is down to about 50 per cent of normal. The distribution of food, living resources, and the wherewithal of war is continually bedevilled by widespread corruption, distance and coordination problems.

Russian war aims appear to be focused on retaining (and re-seizing) eastern areas it has annexed, and easy access to the Crimea, which it had annexed earlier. And it wants to keep Ukraine out of NATO, the primary cause of war. Since the war began, Ukraine has formally applied to join NATO, while Scandinavian nations have joined, thus further encircling Russia. But it is likely that western Europe will hold back on the question of NATO entry for the Ukraine, recognising it as a bargaining chip for negotiations, when it comes to them. The European Community will have difficulties enough in any event. There are significant differences of opinion among some nations – particularly France and Germany – about how to proceed, and, for that matter, how to cope with a winter oil and gas crisis caused by Russian retaliation for European sanctions against it. While Ukraine is increasingly dependent on NATO and the US for arms, it has by no means ceded any of its sovereignty about negotiations with Russia, and, so far, is refusing to contemplate any loss of land or freedom of action. Its animus against Russia has been massively increased by the death and destruction caused by the war, as well as specific atrocities and campaigns against civilian populations.

With or without Ukraine, the war will end by a political settlement. Ukraine can’t fight without western arms

It is doubtful that Ukraine could survive long – even hold its lines – if NATO cut or reduced its support. But no one wants to abandon the nation, and many are already committed or committing to helping it rebuild once hostilities end. However, such assistance, past and present is leverage on Ukraine once the wider west sees a negotiated settlement as desirable or inevitable. There’s not much payback, military, diplomatic or economic in seeing a much bigger Russia slowly grind Ukraine into the dust.

The Russian will to fight has been doubted, and the war seen as being “owned” by Vladimir Putin, rather than embraced by the population or the state. In that sense Ukraine or NATO might hold on either in the hope of enmiring Russia in a war that it cannot decisively win, or in the hope that eventually the will to fight on collapses. Some think Putin is ill, or in political trouble. It is dangerous to depend on speculation about the Russian capacity to fight.

It is, of course, yet another war on the other side of the world in which Australia is deeply committed, if not with actual soldiers on Ukrainian ground. So far, Australia has spent at least $1 billion in supporting Ukraine, and has responded positively to calls for re-supply. Australia is also strongly supporting sanctions, the more virtuously than most of Europe because we are not dependent on Russian oil or gas. Indeed, some Australian gas producers, mostly multinationals, are making fortunes from increased energy prices. Australia’s investment in the war is being handsomely subsidised by increased royalty income. There is the prospect of even more, if government intervenes, as it threatens to, with whopping taxes on super-profits as a way of maintaining our domestic gas supply at reasonable prices.

There is talk that in the aftermath of war, the United States might move a Patriot Missile system to Poland, close to the Russia border, as a polite warning to it to keep away. There are certainly some Russian neighbours who have been spoiling for a fight with Russia, though a good deal of the calculation has assumed that it would be a debilitated Russia. Others might be restrained or cautious, if only from the fear that a triumphant Russia might be in no mood for minor provocations from neighbours who have been annoying it for some time, including in encouraging the Ukraine confrontation.

Australia can be proud, thinking that again it stood alongside the forces of good in standing up, albeit unsuccessfully, to aggression and invasion. Just as we did in Iraq. And Syria. And Afghanistan. And, for that matter, Vietnam. Even, 72 years ago, Korea. All military disasters. All diplomatic disasters. None, at the end of the day, leaving the people of the nation being saved from aggression in a better position than they had begun. Will the final outcomes in Ukraine be ones we regret as much as some of our other unsuccessful interventions?

Doubtful that China much impressed by the west’s intervention on Ukraine

In all cases, the people on whose behalf the interventions occurred were worse off on three separate counts. First, the scale of conflict automatically increased, as did the casualty rates. Notional efforts to reduce civilian casualties were rarely successful. Second, the wars, or the interventions, quickly assumed wider characteristics and aims, with the leaders and people of the country concerned having less and less control, power or even influence over the way the war was conducted. In many cases the conflict was seen as a proxy for super-power conflict. In Afghanistan, Iraq and Vietnam, for example, the US made only the most token pretence of consulting the leaders of the nations concerned, or its own allies, in determining its strategies and tactics.

Finally, a time would be reached when the leading intervenor, usually the United States would tire of its involvement, usually for domestic political reasons having only the most casual association with what was happening on the ground in the country concerned. Abandonment of promises, commitments of troops and diplomatic protection would follow, inevitably to the advantage of the country or cause the original intervention had been designed to stop. With the consequence, as we are seeing in Afghanistan now that our deserted allies and friends are actively punished by the new regimes.

Of course, it may well be that sometimes the possibility of an intervention from the western world acted as a deterrent to some acts of international bullying or invasion. Yet it would be difficult to show a history of the threat of force or sanctions operating to stop a tyrant or an ideologue. And, of course, in many cases, such as Rwanda, the rights of innocent people were ignored because the people, or the part of the globe they occupied, were simply not important enough to rate the attention of major western nations.

Has Western intervention in Ukraine deterred China?

There were some who, in the beginning, believed that giving generous assistance to Ukraine sent an important message to China, particular about Taiwan. One-China policy or not, the west would regard a Chinese invasion and conquest of Taiwan as if it were an invasion of a neighbouring country rather than a province. It would assist the people of Taiwan to resist aggression. With arms certainly. Perhaps with direct involvement.

Initially the US had a policy of strategic ambiguity. This involved lots of warnings and vague threats, without actually saying what the ultimate reaction of the US would be. As tensions developed this year, and the Chinese began adopting more belligerent rhetoric, the message became clearer. The US would certainly get involved. And so, willy nilly, would Australia, apparently. This was being made increasingly clear by ourhosting more and more US soldiers directly on our soil, ready for quick deployment if necessary. And by creating air strips and parking aprons for American b-52 bombers, if the US wanted to station them closer to the conflict area. All the while, the Australia Navy has been exercising with the US Fleet near the Chinese coast, including engaging in provocative sailings through the Taiwan Strait.

Does Labor have the guts to disentangle itself from America’s plans?

No one has yet directly said that Australia has decided to get involved. But it would be very difficult to disentangle ourselves now, particularly with the added complication of (possible) nuclear sub acquisitions. It is already clear that the Labor government lacks the guts to say no to the US, and that Morrison thought that committing us to fighting alongside the US was in our best interests, if only because it showed America what a stalwart, tame, and loyal ally we are. What a senior US Defence official said, commenting very much off the record, about Australia as an ally: “We see you as an easy lay”.

There are many reasons why Australia should not get involved in the defence of Taiwan. The first is akin to the reasons for hesitating to intervene in Ukraine. If China wants to take Taiwan, it can. It might involve a bitter battle across more than 100 km of the Taiwan Strait, but China would inevitably win, and quickly. We can, if we want, help Taiwan to up the ante, thus delaying the day when China feels itself so powerful that it can overwhelm all Taiwanese defences. Committing any soldiers to the exercise would expose them, and us, to no good purpose, because it would not extend by a day the freedom of an island that has been politically separated from the mainland for 73 years.

To say this is not to suggest mere appeasement, handwringing or acceptance of the doctrine that might is right. There are many things diplomatic that Australia, and the world, can do in efforts to persuade China that invasion would do its reputation and its position in the world more harm than good. China must see and understand the consequences of such breaches of the peace. But not all diplomacy should be regarded as a preliminary to war, if only because it is madness to become engaged in wars one cannot hope to win. More so when any active Australian involvement would be unable to make any significant difference even as it exposed us to special retaliation that China might be reluctant to visit on the United States.

Not all the spruiking from Australian intelligence lobbies and foreign-funded think-tanks is over the future of Taiwan. Some of it involves China’s trade tensions with the US, although Australia’s triangular trade position with China and the US gives us entirely different interests from the US. Some of it involves a judgment that the pushing and shoving between the powers for domination and influence in Asia and the South China Sea requires Australia to take a side. If only because they think that struggle must end up as war.

It does not have to end up as war, and Australia would be far better positioned by taking a more independent stand than as a mere surrogate for US interests. While it is quite true that China is now more openly critical of Australia, if mostly in response to our own criticism of it, the Chinese anger seems focused on the way we cosy up to the US rather than speak for our own interests and perspectives. The problem of too many of the spruikers for war is that they are entirely captives of their intelligence interests, where Australia’s interests and perspectives count for very little. It was sickening to hear the head of ASIS speak positively this week about how the international focus on China might lift our profile a bit among Five-Eyes spooks in the western alliance. The intelligence view is rarely informed by wider views about trade and commerce, and the possibilities of Australia finding some unique niches exploiting our geography and our resources. And, in the national security committee of cabinet, the wider view gets all too little weight.

It is not a matter of avoiding necessary fights. But it is about not getting involved in fights that we cannot win. We have been doing it for too long.


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