What, one wonders, goes through the head of a Russian diplomat assigned an ambassadorial posting to Australia, the country the Russians inexplicably call the “green continent”? He would know that it’s not a sought-after position: Canberra registers only faintly on the radar screen of Russia’s priorities. He would recall immediately that Australia is part of zapad, “the West,” and moreover, is in a military alliance with the country presented by the Russian state-controlled media as Russia’s main enemy. That could be a plus, because it means that the Russian military and security agencies do take an interest.
As he prepared for his new post the Ambassador would soon learn that he would spend a lot of time flying over water, as the embassy in Canberra is accredited to an array of South Pacific island states. These suddenly acquired outsized importance in Russia’s eyes after the Russo-Georgian war in 2008, as Moscow energetically sought UN member states’ recognition of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as “independent states.” Offered inducements, mainly money, some complied (today, only Nauru remains as one of four states that still does). Most important of these South Pacific states is Fiji, with which Russia now has military-to-military ties.
The Ambassador-designate would recall that ties with his host country are thin and strained: Apart from an unhealthy dependence on raw materials exports and the problem of how to deal with a newly powerful China, Russia and Australia have little in common. Commercial links are weak, with each country so far down the list of the other’s trade and investment partners that there’s no friendly business lobby to speak of.
Worse, intractable disagreements beset relations: over the annexation of Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, the downing of Flight MH17, the serial assassinations of regime critics, and Russia’s policy of subverting democratic politics. The designate would also learn that for most of the seven decades of relations since 1942, espionage scandals have regularly strained them—in 1954, for instance, the defection of Soviet spy Vladimir Petrov to Australia ruptured ties for five years.
More recently, in a 2019 New Year’s address, former Ambassador Grigory Logvinov appealed to Russophone Australians in the following terms:
Never before in its recent history . . . has Russia been subjected to such a coordinated, aggressive campaign of vilification, abuse and slander . . . on various anti-Russian themes, be it the MH17 disaster, the so-called Skripal Affair or the use of chemicals (weapons) in Syria. . . . we in the Embassy would be most grateful for any support, moral and political, that our compatriots can give, within, of course, the bounds permitted under Australian legislation.
The charge of vilification, that Russia is a victim of information warfare waged by “the West,” is a leitmotif that runs throughout Russian official history. But the salience of this theme in the official narrative has been much enhanced over the past decade or so, as Russian military strategists, analyzing such disparate events as the Gulf Wars, the “Arab Spring,” and “color revolutions” in former Soviet states, have recast the Russian understanding of interstate conflict. General Andrei Kartapolov, one of the most incisive of these strategists, has summed up the new view, arguing that if conflicts were once 80 percent violence and 20 percent propaganda, today they consist of 80-90 percent propaganda and 10-20 percent violence.
Senior Russian military or intelligence figures tend to couch the victimhood theme in apocalyptic terms. In a wide-ranging interview in September 2019, Sergei Shoygu, Putin’s Minister of Defence since 2012, said “the West has set itself the task of destroying and enslaving our country.” Such bellicose statements suggest a paranoia of pathological dimensions, which would obviously make Western governments nervous about dealing with their authors. Any Russian Ambassador in Australia, then, would face a daunting task in seeking to persuade an Australian government that his political masters are sincere in seeking closer cooperation.
But he’s not alone. Among the 85,000 Australians who claim Russian origins, some would doubtless wish to help the Motherland—for instance, by posting helpful comments on social media; supporting Embassy-sponsored functions; carrying Russian and Soviet flags in ANZAC Day marches; reminding Australians that the two countries were wartime allies (and implying that they should be again); and taking any opportunity to persuade other Australians that their government’s policies towards Russia are ill-informed and misconceived.
Some Russians or dual citizens employed to teach in Australian universities believe that to publicly support official Russian stances is in the best interests of both countries. In a democratic society, they should enjoy that right. And some non-Russian Australians are also well disposed to Russia, and may be positioned to influence public attitudes. These “well-wishers,” as the Russian media sometimes dub them, tend to be of two types.
Some Australian Russophiles passionately identify with the grandeur of Russia’s history and culture. For them Russia is a transcendent entity, “the righteous land,” in Maxim Gorky’s memorable phrase. They endorse the Russian official narrative of victimhood and proclaim themselves Russia’s allies. For this group, all Russian policies in dealings with the West are defensive responses to aggression, while the destruction of MH17, for instance, was an anti-Russian conspiracy.
Another type of well-wisher appears to have been swayed by the theories of John Mearsheimer: They designate themselves “realists,” arguing that Australia must seek common ground with Russia simply because it is increasingly powerful. Morality and values have nothing to do with it. Consider the following key quotes, drawn from a selection of many such commentaries (emphasis mine):
“Establishing a defence dialogue could be the next step forward. Russia is the only major military power with which Australia has no formal or informal defence-to-defence contacts.” (February 2018)
“Russia is a permanent feature of Australia’s neighbourhood, and its footprint is only going to increase. This reality merits a rethink, a recalculation, of Canberra’s Russian policy toolbox.” (October 2019)
“An area of mutual interest, ripe for further bilateral cooperation, is the Indo-Pacific. Russia and Australia will find a convergence of interests here. . . .” (May 2019)
“As a relevant Asia-Pacific power, Canberra must be capable of dealing with Moscow in our region. But this will require dialogue.” (November 2018)
The key word here is “dialogue,” and the key message is that there is none. Noteworthy, too, is the fact that the onus is allegedly on Australia to identify common ground, whereas for the Russian side it’s enough simply to profess to want dialogue, which is seen as a good thing in and of itself.
Of course, given that both countries have Ambassadors in their respective capitals and are co-members of innumerable multilateral forums, there’s actually quite a lot of dialogue. But for the Russian side, there’s never enough of it, or it’s of the wrong type: “Bewildered” Australian governments, as one commentator put it, fail to recognize a strategic congruence with Russia that should prompt a reversal of their policy of limited engagement. That policy was recently summarized in the government’s latest Foreign Policy White Paper:
We will deal carefully with Russia to advance our interests where we see scope. Equally, Australia will work with partners to resist Russia’s conduct when it is inimical to global security. Australia remains particularly concerned by the downing of flight MH17 and Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine.
For the authoritative Russian commentator Ivan Krivushin, this passage demonstrates that Australian policy towards Russia is “quite pragmatic.” The Russian Embassy would presumably disagree.
In any case, the realists’ assertion that Russia’s regional involvement is rising is valid only from a low base: It’s well down the list of patrons in the region, and its prospects of being more than another source of paper-bag money and weapons are dubious. That said, following its success in inducing Nauru, Vanuatu, and Tuvalu to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, Russia has devoted much more effort to cultivating what it calls “small island states in the southern Pacific Ocean”: especially Fiji, but also Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau, Vanuatu, and the Marshall Islands. Officials from some of those are studying at the Russian Diplomatic Academy in Moscow, presumably with all costs being met by the hosts. After Foreign Minister Lavrov’s visit early in 2012, Fijian officers have trained at the Frunze Military Academy in Moscow under a bilateral agreement on military cooperation. Lavrov now holds an annual meeting with the representatives of the South Pacific island states at the UN.
Moreover, Russia has staged two demonstrations of military power in the region. To coincide with a G20 summit in Brisbane in October 2014, a small flotilla of naval vessels, including the formidably armed missile-cruiser Varyag, was deployed to the Coral Sea. According to Krivushin and other Russian sources, this was a riposte to then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s “undiplomatic comments about Vladimir Putin,” specifically, Abbott’s assertion that he intended to “shirtfront” Putin at the G20 (a rugby term, meaning to forcefully confront an opponent, which at first had official interpreters baffled).
The second was more significant: In December 2017, two nuclear-capable Tupolev-95MS strategic bombers, staging out of Biak airbase in Indonesia and supported by about 100 Russian personnel, flew a sortie through the Torres Strait. This was the same type of aircraft used to launch cruise missile strikes against targets in Syria a year before. In other words, Indonesia provided a base and logistical support for a flight clearly designed to intimidate Australia. Six months later a Russian navy training vessel made a port call to Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, Australia’s nearest neighbor, the first such visit in history. Russia has recently opened a “Russian Office” in Port Moresby and has invited the Papua-New Guinea Prime Minister to visit Moscow.
In their sustained effort to get Australia to “rethink” its policy towards Russia, well-wisher commentators coyly tend to avoid a key question: the economic sanctions applied in response to the annexation of Crimea, the de facto seizure of 10 percent of Ukraine in Donbas, the destruction of MH17, and the assassination of opponents abroad. This glossing over is natural, as to initiate new forms of dialogue now would, as Russian journalist Aleksander Golts put it, “work to legitimize Russian behavior.”
Lifting sanctions is a priority of Russian policy. The Russians reckon that the current U.S. Congress will not do away with sanctions, but the EU, divided over the policy, is a more promising quarry. The prisoner exchanges with Ukraine, initiated by Russia, are clearly designed to show that Putin is now seeking compromise with Ukraine and so should be rewarded with an easing of sanctions.
Some Australians have warmed to the idea. At least one well-wisher has claimed, without evidence, that the sanctions have hurt Australia: “Tit-for-tat sanctions since 2014 have dealt a blow to Australia’s agricultural export industry. It is fair to say Canberra has felt the sting of bilateral sanctions more acutely than Moscow has.” In fact, with a few exceptions, Australian agricultural producers gave up trying to export to Russia long before the sanctions, because of Russian agricultural regulators’ ceaseless resort to phyto-sanitary pretexts for protectionist and self-interested ends. The Russian economist Krivushin has calculated that the cost of its sanctions to Australia has been modest: “export losses . . . amounted to only about 0.4 percent of (the value of) total sales. . . . Because of its very modest engagement in commercial exchanges with Russia, Australia was incomparably less sensitive to Moscow’s (counter) sanctions.”
There’s a broader debate about the impact of sanctions on the Russian economy. Aleksei Kudrin, a leading liberal economist who is connected to Putin and currently Chairman of the Accounts Chamber, has calculated they are taking 0.5 percent per annum off GDP. Other estimates have been higher—about 1 percent to 1.5 percent per annum in 2015 and 2016. There’s general agreement that the main effects have been to reduce access to and increase the cost of capital, along with a sharp decrease in foreign direct investment.
But the major barrier to foreign investment in or exports to Russia isn’t sanctions but comprehensive corruption and crime. Its legal system has a record of jailing investors rather than protecting their rights; its businesses are plagued by the threat of state-backed expropriation, often facilitated by business competitors, Kremlin-friendly Chechens, the FSB, and organized crime. Those Russian economists and businessmen who wish to see the country embrace reforms know this and have long made representations to Putin to do something about it.
Whatever the impact of sanctions, it’s not serious enough to cause Russia to grant major concessions to end them. And to argue about the economic costs of sanctions misses the main point, which is their political optics. The prime reason for sanctions is not to chasten the Russians, but to make a statement about unacceptable behavior. Had the countries that applied sanctions wanted to cripple Russia economically, they could have implemented far more comprehensive industrial and financial-sector sanctions.
In any case, the burden is on critics of the sanctions to offer a viable alternative. As David J. Kramer has put it:
The question [critics] never seem to answer is what they would do in place of [sanctions]. They criticize sanctions for either being ineffective, for rallying Russians around Putin, or causing hardship for Western businesses. But they also don’t seem to have alternatives to offer, and doing nothing as Russia invades Ukraine is not a serious option.
The burden is on the well-wishers, too, to explain why closer engagement and cooperation with Russia is an imperative even as Russian state media continue relentlessly to depict Australia as a cynical, undemocratic hireling of the United States. A recent Russian TV documentary about Australia was hosted by Anna Chapman, a shapely officer of the Russian external intelligence service (SVR) who was deported from the United States in 2010 along with a group of long-term sleeper agents. The documentary accuses Australia of supporting terrorist organizations, including ISIS; and purports to explain Australia’s role in an Anglo-Saxon conspiracy to foment war in Syria, inundate Europe with migrants and terrorists, and force wealthy Europeans to shift their wealth to Anglo-Saxon countries, such as Australia.
A common charge made by well-wishers is that Australian decision-makers just don’t “understand” Russia. In fact, Australia has a core of officials who are well versed in Russia: The last five Ambassadors to Moscow have been Russian speakers, either with a previous posting in Russia or tertiary study of Russia’s history and culture behind them, or both. Their job includes seeking common ground for dialogue with the Russians; if this has been hard to do, it’s not because of ignorance and prejudice. Like the well-wishers, they have trouble coming up with something concrete and of clear benefit to Australia’s national interest.
Of course, dealing effectively with Russia requires an understanding of the Russian frame of reference. Like most countries, but more insistently than some, the Russians demand respect, for their cultural and martial achievements especially. Like other peoples, they respond to empathy—a genuine, disinterested curiosity about their past and present. And experience suggests that they value candor and firmness, as long as these are applied consistently, and couched in terms of the national interest.
The problem is that much of what Russia now does earns it respect nowhere other than at home. Moreover, too often when the Russians demand respect, they appear to mean that we should defer to their wishes. True, unlike the Chinese, the Russians do not claim that when we disagree with them we “hurt the feelings of the Russian people.” But some of the well-wishers assert that only Russophobia can explain Australia’s policies. Thus, to seek to claim the moral high ground is usually a waste of breath; for them, that higher ground is already occupied—by the Russians. But any special pleading that Russia is owed a unique debt of gratitude and exceptional treatment, and that it has a right to tutor smaller states, should always be rebuffed.
Obviously, Australia needs to talk with Russia, regularly. It does so via its embassy and in numerous multilateral settings, including regional ones (like APEC and the East Asia Forum). Recent additions are two UN-sponsored groups formed to consider “responsible state behaviour in cyberspace.” But were Australia to invest the relationship with significant new substance in the form of a “strategic dialogue” or formal military relations, such steps would be tantamount to ignoring the issues that prompted sanctions. They would signal that Australia had decided to accept Russia’s annexation of Crimea, overlook its aggression in eastern Ukraine, and set aside the matters of MH17, the policy of assassinating Russians abroad, and an imposing record of striving to undermine social cohesion in other countries.
It’s not said by the well-wishers, but in return for new dialogues the Russian side would presumably expect at a minimum the end of sanctions, without any concessions on the issues that brought them about. One can reasonably ask whether the well-wishers would see giving up sanctions as part of the “dialogue,” whether they believe we should end sanctions on this basis, and what benefit to Australia—beyond dialogue for the sake of dialogue—they would see in doing so.