CAVAN HOGUE. Russia and Australia: The Empire strikes back?

Apr 4, 2018

Russia is the prime suspect in the poisoning but cannot be convicted on the basis of the circumstantial evidence before we get the report of the independent commission. But this article is concerned about what this exercise tells us about Australian priorities. We have joined 28 NATO countries to put sanctions on Russia and ignored the165 countries that did not. We made no attempt to discuss our action with our Asian friends. Where do our priorities lie? Russia is a Pacific power so might it not have been a good idea to discuss things with some  Asian powers?

My concern here is not what Russia has or has not done but what Australia has done and not done.

Unless you buy some of the wilder conspiracy theories, Russia has to be the prime suspect in the Scribal poisoning even though there is no smoking gun and the independent commission has not yet presented its report. Russian motives may be unclear but there is no evidence to convict anyone else even if countries like Ukraine might have a motive to set up the Russians. Putin is certainly capable of ordering the poisoning if he sees it in his interests but it does not necessarily follow that he did it this time. There may be just enough circumstantial evidence to charge Russia but not yet enough to get a conviction. It would be wise to keep the lynch mob at bay until the independent commission presents its findings just in case we end up with another Iraq. So far the main effect of the NATO action has been to help consolidate Putin’s domestic support as he racks up the nationalist frenzy against the wicked witch of the West.

My concern is with what Australian action tells us about Australia. Our initial statement was that we were showing solidarity with our traditional partners and intelligence brethren. After diplomats were expelled and the Russians retaliated in kind, Julie Bishop said that “Australia’s action was in concert with 28 other nations expelling a total of 153 Russian diplomats in an unprecedented demonstration of global solidarity with the United Kingdom”.  Bill Shorten said the Government’s action was appropriate and proportionate. The media has, on the whole, supported the official approach.

There are 193 member states of the United Nations which means that 165 countries did not join this global action. Presumably, the reference to global solidarity referred to the Globe Theatre in London? More importantly, all except Canada, USA and Australia were European so it was basically a NATO group plus a few hangers-on. Russia is a Pacific power but no Asian country was involved even those with common borders with Russia. New Zealand did not expel diplomats but expressed solidarity with Britain; no other Pacific countries got involved.  The only Commonwealth countries to support the mother country were Canada, New Zealand and Australia. Australia is further away from Russia than every country in Asia.

We do not appear to have even pretended to consult any of our neighbours before taking this action. So what does this tell us about Australian foreign policy priorities? Clearly, NATO is more important than ASEAN and Australia looks to the past rather than our future. History is more important than geography or perhaps ideology is more important than strategic realities. Luckily for us, Australia is not important to Russia so we will probably not suffer much if at all. However, this approach does tend to support Dr Mahathir’s claim that Australia is a European enclave in Asia at least in strategic terms.

On the wider front, the action by both NATO and Russia heats up a new Cold War. Both sides try to claim the moral high ground and threaten the others. So far the action has been restricted to withdrawal of diplomats which in itself does not suggest war is imminent but continued escalation brings to mind WW1 rather than WW2. The USA, UK and others have assassinated enemies without trial so they are hardly in a position to claim the moral high ground over Russia which also has a history of this kind of thing. The bombastic rhetoric by all sides cannot be taken too seriously and nobody is in a position to cast the first stone.

So where to from here? Australia seems set to follow the NATO pack come what may. NATO will blame Russia come what may and Russia will deny involvement come what may. Hopefully, hot air will be the only weapon used but there is always a danger of escalation with someone like Trump in the White House egged on by John Bolton against an equally determined Putin who will not back down either. Australians should look at this situation in the light of wider and long-term Australian interests. Where does our future lie? Why should Australia get involved in something which does not directly affect Australian interests? How long can Australia rely on a declining West to protect it against a rising East? Might we not ask why countries like India and Japan chose to stay out of this fight? Hopefully, our Asian neighbours will not take our posturing too seriously. Most of them have no interest in supporting Russia nor in antagonising the Russians so they will just want to stay out of this exercise. Getting into a fight between leaders like Putin and Trump is not the kind of thing you want to take sides in.

Cavan Hogue is a retired Australian diplomat who was Ambassador in Moscow but specialised in Asia including five Asian posts.

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