Paul Komesaroff, Michael Komesaroff and Roger Mendelson: Australia’s response to the Ukraine crisis is a missed opportunityApr 8, 2022
Not only did diplomacy fail spectacularly but the responses of governments around the world was, perversely, to turn away from the search for a solution and instead to engage, unintentionally or otherwise, in deliberate and sustained actions to inflame the conflict further.
Australian society is made up of many communities with disparate origins, perspectives and interests. Indigenous populations and those derived from the repeated waves of immigration over the centuries have accumulated unique and distinctive bodies of knowledge and experience; they have also come to express themselves in multiple voices that together compose a rich and dynamic tumult.
In the public discussions about the present conflict in Ukraine not all the voices have been heard. Indeed, it is widely acknowledged that mainstream media reporting about the war has been largely limited to a single point of view. The protagonists on both sides have been presented in crude caricatures, and no room for contrary or nuanced interpretations has been allowed. Public policy, in Australia, as in other western countries, has been shaped on the basis of the interpretation of events presented by this controlled information regime.
Curiously, the absent voices include expert foreign policy analysists, from all sides of politics, who have been warning for years about the mounting risk of a disastrous conflict if the relentless pursuit of NATO expansion continued. They also include communities with personal links to the region whose understanding of both the potential costs of a brutal war and the possible conditions for peace may have helped generate more nuanced and effective policy outcomes.
The family of the authors of this article had its origins, in part, at least, in the Donbas region of Eastern Ukraine that is at present being contested so vigorously. Tired of centuries of persecution and injustice, massacres and pogroms, our ancestors fled the country of their birth in search of safety and prosperity, for themselves and their children, on the other side of the world. A century or so later, we remain grateful for their decision to take on the risks and uncertainties of migration and for the richness of the country they helped to build, with its cultural and economic wealth, its democratic institutions and its sometime commitment to non-violent resolution of social conflicts.
Like many other families with distant origins, we have not lost an awareness of events in our ancestors’ homeland, and we have retained a deep sympathy for those who continue to labour, and sometimes suffer, there. We have an abiding cultural memory, of places we have never known and may never visit, along with an enduring sense of responsibility for the hardships that perdure there. We retain the awareness that cruel dictators can unleash widespread terror and unthinkable suffering among ordinary people trying simply to survive in their everyday lives. We remember that barbarism can erupt unpredictably against a background of apparently staid stability.
We are also aware, however, that conflicts have complex roots, that wars emerge from decades of unresolved challenges, and that a resort to simplistic moral narratives rarely yields viable long-term solutions. The current conflict in Ukraine amply reaffirms this deeply ingrained wisdom. Despite the caricatures, the easy allegations and the recriminations on both sides, with the harsh, oft-repeated language of victims and perpetrators, and despite the undeniable horror of the crimes being committed, the terrible challenges faced by the people of the region seem to become only more intractable.
The absence of a nuanced understanding of the roots of the current conflict has practical consequences, even for Australia. In particular, it obstructs and frustrates any authentic search for a way out. This is clearly manifested in the narrow and unconstructive response of the Australian Government.
Every conflict has to have a solution, even if in the darkest moments what this will look like is often hard to distinguish. Ultimately, in all cases, there has to be some process of mutual acknowledgment of contending concerns, of conflicting values and contrary purposes. In the present case, the only possible solution will involve, at the least, an agreement guaranteed by parties outside the conflict that provides an assurance of enduring security on both sides. It is only with an acknowledgment of the shared sense of threat that any chance of a pathway out of violence and bloodshed will become possible.
Because the way to a resolution is always obscure, those caught up within a conflict often need assistance from outside. As a middle power with an occasional history of ethical and creative diplomacy that has in the past acted generously to help resolve longstanding conflicts overseas and has enjoyed cordial relations with all sides, Australia was arguably in a position to offer such assistance. We have no dispute with any of the protagonists, and no direct interests to protect, apart from an abiding commitment to the values our mutual ancestors laboured so hard to create.
At the outset of the conflict, Australia was, therefore, presented with a unique opportunity, from an independent position, to encourage the parties to come together in good faith in the hope of averting the terrible threat looming before them. There was an opportunity for us to advocate to our closest friends and allies, not for intensification of the crisis but for reconciliation and peace, for negotiation and compromise, for the bravery and determination that are needed ultimately to achieve a sustainable solution. Such a path would have been consistent with our diverse origins and our current multicultural composition. It would have reflected the deep wisdom that is expressed in the multiple voices that echo from the shared pain of our collective histories.
Sadly, however, the opportunity was missed – as it was also by the rest of the international community. Not only did diplomacy fail spectacularly but the responses of governments around the world was, perversely, to turn away from the search for a solution and instead to engage, unintentionally or otherwise, in deliberate and sustained actions to inflame the conflict further.
Rather than assist the warring parties to find a way out of the labyrinth into which they had drifted, the Australian Government committed to pouring in lethal aid, in full knowledge of the inevitable consequences: unspeakable suffering and the destruction of lives, not of the oligarchs in their comfortable opulence in Europe, the United States or Australia, but of ordinary, innocent people helplessly swept up in the catastrophe.
Opportunities have been lost and the death and destruction now continue unabated. However, it is not too late for a change of course. It is still possible – for the present government or its imminent successor – to redirect its efforts from exacerbating the horror towards infusing a breath of reason and moderation. It is possible for Australia to offer its services as a potential agent of peace, to support current negotiations and to provide encouragement and hope for a durable solution.
Those who came to Australia fleeing persecution and oppression learnt the hard way what the consequences can be of an obdurate refusal to pursue dialogue and reconciliation. Their families, generations later, still bear the scars of these failures. Maybe it is a forlorn hope, but perhaps the current calamity might generate a learning process, whereby future governments act on the historical lessons and start the process of recreating Australia’s international role as an ethical global citizen.
Paul Komesaroff, a physician, Michael Komesaroff, an engineer, and Roger Mendelson, a lawyer, are members of a family which emigrated to Australia from Ukraine in the early decades of the twentieth century.