TONY KEVIN. A successful reawakening of serious Russian studies in Australia ?

Aug 29, 2016


Doctor Dorothy Horsfield of Australian National University is to be congratulated for her vision and hard work in mounting the first serious academic Russian studies conference in Australia for many years, ‘Putin’s Russia in the Wake of the Cold War’, on 24-26 August, under the auspices of the Australian National University’s Humanities Research Centre in Canberra.

No doubt there have from time to time been specialist strategic studies agency events, viewing Russia through a Cold War or post-Cold War us-and-them lens, but to my knowledge this is the first time for many years that there has been a serious general academic revisiting of the present, now firmly locked-in, received Western wisdom on Putin’s Russia, this time from a refreshingly non-axegrinding perspective. Horsfield persuaded and cajoled the remaining practitioners in academic Russian political and economic studies in Australia to come together in Canberra for three days’ broad-ranging discussion of issues in contemporary Russian life. As she introduced the project:

‘The primary aim of the conference is to help promote timely, sophisticated and wide-ranging engagement with the received wisdom about the nature and intentions of post-Soviet Russia under President Vladimir Putin.  Its aim too is to promote a transnational conversation inclusive of influential Russian and Russia-based researchers.

‘The conference will be officially launched by Professor the Hon Gareth Evans AC QC Chancellor the Australian National University.  The eminent scholar, Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at the University of Kent, UK will be a keynote speaker.  Professor Sakwa’s books span the period from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the rise of Putin and the oligarchs, to the conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East. He is currently working on a book for Cambridge University Press, entitled ‘Russia Against the Rest: Problematizing the New Cold War’.

‘Russian scholar and prominent commentator Dr Andrey Kortunov will also give a keynote address on Russian perspectives on contemporary East/West relations. Dr Kortunov is Director General of the Moscow-based International Affairs Council and a member of the Educational Board of the Open Society Institute. He is author of more than 120 papers on Soviet/Russian-American relations, global security and the foreign and domestic policy of the USSR and Russia.’

Topics of papers ranged widely, with the emphasis on foreign policy and economy rather than reading the tealeaves of new Kremlinology and military balance hardware-crunching. An 80-strong audience heard and discussed excellent papers on Russia’s relations with former Soviet republics Byelorussia, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kirghizstan, Tadzhikistan, and relations with China and in the Middle East; and on prospects for the Russian economy in the wake of current EU and NATO sanctions.

The guru of the conference was Dr Kortunov, who brought long foreign policy think-tank advisory experience, humanist wisdom, gravitas and balanced counsel to the discussion: a long-range thinker, his watchword was patience – it will be a long time before things get better in Russia’s present cold relations with the West, there are now entrenched deep-seated problems and prejudices to be overcome on both sides. Kortunov acknowledged that real economic reform is yet to come in Russia, in the direction of a more flexible small- business-based economy, from which base political reform towards greater pluralism must over time follow. But he counselled patience, in this as in other areas.

The gadfly was Professor Richard Sakwa of the University of Kent, author of well-regarded recent books on Putin and on the Ukraine. Sakwa marvelled at the new political fluidity in Western Europe: a lot of national issues that it was thought had been buried for many years in NATO and EU centralist orthodoxies were now resurfacing. Brexit and Jeremy Corbyn in the UK were only the beginning. Poland was now wrestling again with old nationalist demons, even at risk to its economic dynamism. The EU had made the mistake of not opening itself after 1991 to being transformational, open to change from potential new members as it expanded itself. New members had been offered non-negotiable terms by the Brussels hierarchy : ‘we are what we are, we do not need to change to suit you’. An opportunity had been lost to invite Russia in as part of the European space after 1991. The EU and NATO had become solidified as anti-Russian projects. These chickens were now starting to come home to roost and Europe’s future direction was again quite uncertain.

Gareth Evans, Chancellor of ANU gave us an astringent reminder in his opening address of how serious the present Russia-West estrangement is. He opened the conference with an uncompromising series of axiomatic statements of the current received Western wisdom on Putin’s Russia, at times staying just within the boundaries of international courtesy. . Some examples I noted: Putin has moulded a combative, uncompromising Russia around himself. Putin is authoritarian, grievance-driven, and confrontational. His annexation of Crimea was shameless. He has walked Russia away from serious nuclear arms control dialogues with the West. He is encouraging China by conducting joint naval exercises with them in the contested South China Sea. His consistent foreign policy themes: intense hostility to the US, a desire to see a collapse of NATO and a weakening of the European Union, and an attempted expansion of Russia’s sphere of influence in the Baltic region and among Russia’s near neighbours. Not a bad few years’ work , Evans commented, for a country so weak in population and gross domestic product. So what drives Mr Putin? Mostly, large chips on his shoulders. He sees the breakup of the Soviet Union as a disaster, and his foreign policy is mostly about the aggressive reassertion of national interests.

The challenge for the West, suggested Evans, is how to respond to Putin’s Russia? Where are they coming from? What common ground might be found? Do some of their grievances have some factual foundation? Certainly the West’s triumphalism after 1991 during the early post-Cold War decade exacerbated Russia’s intense sense of humiliation. NATO could not bring itself to embrace the idea of inviting Russia into the alliance: the ‘beast from the East’ had to be excluded, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It’s important, Evans conceded, not to focus relentlessly on the negatives. Putin’s Russia had cooperated on the Iran nuclear arms deal, on the removal of Syrian chemical weapons stockpiles, in Libya, and on the 2010 New Start strategic arms treaty. Russia’s record on Responsibility to Protect was by no means all bad. The West must maintain firm sanctions over Ukraine, but we should look for areas where national interests might converge. It is not beyond hope that lessons since the end of the Cold War might be learned by both sides.

Evans, to his credit, attended major plenary sessions in the conference, including the illuminating public-access forum with Kortunov and Sakwa , which is to be broadcast by ABC Radio National ‘Big Ideas’, chaired by the AFR’s Laura Tingle. He generously supported ANU funding assistance to meet costs of Dr Kortunov’s visit from Moscow. I would hope he might have left the conference with a more open mind on the Russian side of the story than suggested by some of his opening remarks.

It turned out that the conference really was not primarily about psycho-analysing Mr Putin, or even about the roots of present Russian anger and hurt towards the West. Wisely, it did not get bogged down in those contentious issues. The mood of speakers and audience was quite respectful towards Russia’s current challenges of economic and political modernisation, and in stabilising mutually beneficial non-threatening relations with the nations of the former Soviet Union and near neighbours. Everyone agreed Ukraine was and will remain a fiendish problem for Russia-West relations : the tragedy of Ukraine is that its economy is now smaller and weaker than in 1991, it is still in post-Soviet transition and still endures 26 years of post-Soviet depression and political trauma. But apart from that hotbed of national rage and pain, there were promising areas of normalisation of Russia’s international relations in the Middle East, in the former Soviet Central Asian republics, and in Russia’s relations with China.

Some random memories from a conference too rich in insights to try to summarise: A picture emerged of Russia as essentially now a status quo power, not revisionist at all, trying to defend the UNSC-based rules-based and national sovereignty-based international security system that is the modern equivalent of the 1815 Concert of Europe which Russia did so much to create after the upheaval of the Napoleonic Wars.  The Russian-Chinese contiguous land border in Siberia is now entirely peaceful. Russia’s demographic nightmares of the 1990s years of Russian weakness have been laid to rest apart from a few discredited ideologists in Russia like Dugin. In post-Soviet Central Asia, Russia and China have settled into a sensible division of labour: Russia looks after the collective security framework, China focuses on infrastructure building and trade expansion. They are not in competition there. In the Middle East, Russia proceeds from a principled Orthodoxy-based vision of protecting what is left of religious multiconfessionalism, hence their unwavering support for Assad’s Alawite –based religiously tolerant secular rule in Syria, and their newfound pragmatic friendships with Israel and Turkey. There is little Russian respect for Obama’s indecisive ‘dithering’ and confused objectives in the Middle East region, yet a well-founded apprehension about Hillary Clinton’s liberal hawkishness and about the questionable wisdom of some of those advisers she is likely to lean on as President, as she did as Secretary of State. In Europe, the East Europeans are now setting the NATO agenda, as moderate German, French and Italian voices are being drowned out by the anti-Russian clamour of the Poles, Baltics and Ukrainian centralising nationalists.

The conference had little to say about Russian-Australian relations, because there is little of substance to say. These relations have atrophied. Australia is not currently important to Russia, or vice versa, given Australia’s self-definition especially under Tony Abbott as the most vociferously loyal member of the wider US-led global alliance. Kortunov had a quiet suggestion for Australia: your experts should look to build areas of practical cooperation, for example in earth sciences, in climate change, in international environmental cooperation – try to rebuild some real commonalities of interest. Russia still has much to contribute to world problem-solving, he counselled.


Tony Kevin’s first posting in 1969-71 was to the Australian Embassy in Moscow, in years when the Cold War was beginning to stabilise. His forthcoming book Return to Moscow is to be published by University of Western Australia Press in February 2017. It is essentially a travel memoir built around comparative impressions of his return visit to Russia in February 2016, but with serious reflections on contemporary Russian culture, history and foreign policy.

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