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Looking Beyond Ukraine: A View From Australia

04 Feb 2022
By Dr Elizabeth Buchanan
Vladimir Putin speaks  in the Alexander Hall of the Grand Kremlin Palace. Source: Kremlin

Russia continues to expand its influence in the Asia-Pacific. Although thousands of kilometres away, the tension in Ukraine will be felt in Australia.

Writing on current geopolitical affairs, let alone trying to predict what 125,000 Russian troops will do tomorrow, is a challenge. Void of an ability to look inside the Kremlin’s “black box” of policymaking, and in lieu of a direct line to Vladimir Putin, most of us (led by the Twittersphere) are desperately seeking to make sense of the strategic fog amassing over Ukraine. Given that these current tensions began with Moscow’s provocations in 2014, why now is Russia increasing military pressure on Ukraine? Which in turn begs the bigger question: what strategic opportunity is Putin’s Russia chasing right now?

Despite Australia’s island-nation geography and strategic culture, Australia is not isolated from Russia’s latest strategic play. While Australia is over 10,000 kilometres from Russia, any student of international relations knows distance matters very little in our hyper-globalised and deeply connected world. Yet, for most Australians, Russia remains essentially a “Europe problem” ‒ locked in enduring competition with Washington.

In Soviet times, Moscow’s footprint was closer to home, given the Red Navy’s vast operations in the Indian Ocean. Go back further, to the 19th century, and colonial Australians were wracked with misguided fear of an impending Russian invasion of the continent. Somewhat tragically, Australia’s supply chain insecurity was also on show in the 1860’s when a Russian ship, Svetlana, arrived in Melbourne’s Port Phillip Bay. She fired a cannon salute, but those ashore failed to reply in kind as the port was out of gunpowder.

Today, Russia takes a shadowy position as the (not so silent) backer of arms and energy in Australia’s backyard. Attracted to the ethos of ASEAN’s “non-interference” principles, Russia has built robust ties throughout Southeast Asia. Militarily, Moscow enjoys a roaring arms trade throughout Australia’s sphere of interest. Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam are key Russian arms clients. Canberra’s coveted multilateral security bodies aren’t out of reach for Russian arms – just look to the Quad. Since 2016, India has emerged as Russia’s largest military arms customer. Delhi leases its nuclear submarines from Russia, which means India partakes in naval exercises with Australia using Russian hardware. The Quad, a key regional security forum,  therefore runs partially on a Russian toolkit.

Across the Asia-Pacific energy sphere, Russia’s footprint remains robust, and in some cases, is growing. Half of the Quad – Japan and India – import Russian liquefied natural gas (LNG). India and China are key stakeholders in Kremlin LNG projects along Russia’s new energy frontier, the Russian Arctic. South Korea and Japan have long-held energy ties with Russia, are key Asian import markets for Russian LNG, and are stakeholders in Russian energy ventures. Russian-built nuclear power plants are proliferating throughout the region, including in China, India, and Bangladesh. Russia is also set to compete with Australia beyond LNG, given their mutual interest in exporting hydrogen.

Despite clear avenues of competition, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) characterises the Australia-Russia bilateral relationship as a “mature relationship” which “allows us to confront our differences directly when necessary but work constructively where our interests intersect.” Of course, it is a challenge to count on one hand where interests intersect. Most recently, the DFAT approach to “directly” confronting differences was underscored by the 24 January 2022 decision to recall dependents of Australian Embassy staff in Kyiv, citing increased the threat posed by Russian troops amassing nearby.

Enter Ukraine

For the most part, focus and analysis on Ukraine fixates on who is to blame. Ukrainians argue little “green men” intervened following civil unrest and Kyiv’s attempts to solidify ties with NATO, while the Russians claim they acted to protect persecuted Russian nationals in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of Ukraine. Indeed, this is a Russian playbook of sorts we have already witnessed in Georgia.

If we stick to the facts of Ukraine, then three truths are relevant. First, Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 – securing the coveted warm-water port at Sevastopol, delivering Moscow year-round maritime security. Second, Russian-supported forces have kept the eastern provinces of Ukraine destabilised enough to scare off any real Western intervention or support. Third, there are over 125,000 Russian troops, armed to the teeth, sitting on the border staring down Europe.

But Ukraine is a proxy for Russia’s bigger picture grievances with the West – primarily Washington. While many ruminate on tales of broken promises related to NATO eastward expansion (towards Russia), this won’t solve the current security situation. In Ukraine, Moscow sees an opportunity to press Washington on Russia’s long-held security interests in Europe. Russia has pinpointed some wriggle room in a domestically fragile US – divided at the seams on almost everything. Moscow has also noticed a European Union over-extended on Russian energy imports and at war with itself. To round out the strain on the West, Chinese growth economically and militarily has turbo-charged the international community’s transition to a multipolar global order while necessitating a more “present” Washington in the Indo-Pacific. Europe might yet have to defend itself.

Putin’s Russia thus sees an opportunity to force Washington back to a discussion on Europe’s security architecture. We know full well the Russian interest here is an end-state where Washington “exits” Europe: a lofty ambition indeed. Tensions in Ukraine also coincide with the French presidency of the EU Council, and it is likely Moscow foresees, via French President Emmanuel Macron, a period of warmer Russia dialogue, and perhaps even an enhanced European interest in taking care of its own security. In less than a month, a French-presided EU Council has already heard various calls from Paris to re-establish dialogue with Moscow.

Ukraine, in the Big Picture

While Russia might vocalise demands for “legally binding” agreements that NATO will “close the door” on admitting states like Ukraine and Georgia, Moscow’s Ukraine strategy is about more than shoring up a more palatable European security architecture. Perhaps in the frenzy for “reading” the Kremlin and following social media accounts of Russian military build-up in Ukraine, we miss the wood for the trees. Could this current show of strength be, in fact, a reflection of Russia’s weakness?

Lashing out in fear of feeling encircled is not a new phenomenon for Russia. However, shifts in the security landscape appear to have sharpened Moscow’s anxieties. Russia is losing control of its buffer zones, a traditional security blanket. Ukraine has long gravitated towards a US orbit, the Caucasus remains a tinderbox of extremist activity, and Kazakhstan is increasingly wedded to Beijing in lieu of Moscow.

Indeed, Russia has a history of rising and falling, growing and shrinking. Should this current use of force in Ukraine be a smokescreen for Russian insecurity, then the West must query the potential for a Russian implosion. If Putin removes his troops void of any substantial “win” to present to Russian nationals, the state will need to further clamp down on civil society to hold power. It is unlikely this will end well for the Putin administration. Whether a replacement is primed and ready, let alone which direction Russia will head in, are questions we simply can’t answer. However, policymakers should be considering the bigger picture: should Russia fail, what fills the vacuum? Who controls criminal trades through Central Asia? Who brokers discussions with Iran, Pakistan, and North Korea? What does all this mean for Australia? Hopefully, we are already considering such questions. This current European security crisis is much bigger than Ukraine.

Dr Elizabeth Buchanan is Lecturer of Strategic Studies at Deakin University for the Defence and Strategic Studies Course at the Australian War College. She is Fellow of the Modern War Institute at West Point. All views are her own. @BuchananLiz

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.