Cavan Hogue. Russia and the G20

Nov 19, 2014

Contrary to some media reports the G20 did not mention Russia in any of its documents and criticism came only from the West. Nothing happened which is likely to change Russian attitudes or actions.

The Russia bashing by Australian politicians and media is not likely to worry Russia and the criticism by Western nations is not having any effect either. It is worth noting that claims about “world criticism” of Russia is in fact criticism by Europe and North America with Australia trotting along faithfully behind or indeed jumping out in front.. Countries in our region have not joined in and China has got closer to Russia as a result of the sanctions. Australian attacks, especially about MH17, have of course been for domestic consumption. Our media tends to equate the world with Europe and North America.

Criticism of Russia at the G20 was restricted to a minority of those present and even they were more interested in economics, Ebola and climate change. The final communique did not mention Russia nor did any of the agreed supporting documents. So perhaps the G20 showed how little the rest of the world is interested in this issue? Tony Abbott’s pathetic opening address can only have given him less credibility with those present about anything.

Sanctions have not deterred Russia and its counter sanctions are having economic effects on some other countries. Australia lost agricultural markets and recent reports claim that German industry has been affected. Subsequent statements by Putin and the continuation of Russian military supplies to the separatists in Ukraine have not changed in any way as a result of the G20 which is not surprising since it is an economic organisation. Criticism of Russia came from countries which have been saying the same things for some time and were made outside the framework of the Meeting. The only comment from outside Western countries came from UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon who urged Russia to use its influence with the separatist for peace. Mr Abbott’s unusual claim that he has intelligence linking Russia to the downing of MH17 has been matched by an even more dubious doctored photo from Moscow claiming it was Kiev.

Vladimir Putin is an authoritarian nationalist who wants Russia to be respected throughout the world as a great power and a major player in world politics. He also wants friendly states around Russia’s borders and sees Western criticism of Russia as a resurgence of Cold War attitudes. This is why he gets 87% approval rates in domestic polls. While polls always need to be taken with quite a few grains of salt, like it or not this is how a majority of |Russians see things. True not all Russians agree with him and, while not quite a new Stalin, he does not deal kindly with opponents. What politician is going to change an approach which gets strong domestic support because of foreign criticism?

Australia is not a serious player in Europe and Ukraine is a European problem. The main result of European pressure on Russia has been a rapprochement between Russia and China and greater Russian interest in the rest of the world. We may ask how this serves Australian interests? Instead of identifying ourselves with the West and its problems might we not be better advised to focus on our own neighbourhood? Unfortunately the answer is that despite all our talk about Asia and our growing Asian population, our leaders still see us as a far flung extension of Europe or perhaps as the 51st state of the union.

Australia should not try to make a big noise about issues that are not of direct interest to Australia but should focus on promoting clearly identifiable Australian national interests. We do not have to like the kind of Russia that Putin likes but why do we have to make a big issue of it? The G20 did not reveal great public concern by countries outside of the West. Hairy chested attacks on Russia may play well with the shock jock boviators who, to borrow Hamlet’s expression, are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb show and noise but they do not enhance Australia’s reputation as a responsible country.

Cavan Hogue was formerly the Australian Ambassador to USSR and Russia.

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