In the 1850s at the height of the Crimean War – fought primarily between Russia and Britain –Australia was gripped by paranoia of a Russian invasion. As rumours spread that the Russian Navy had invaded the port of Melbourne, the British colony started building coastal fortifications to repulse the invasion – that never came.
Russophobia is back in fashion in Australia. It almost reached a crisis point at the December 2014 G-20 summit in Brisbane when the Tony Abbott government said it wanted to ban Russia. The Australians backed off after India and China reminded them the G-20 wasn’t a private western club.
Abbott then said he would “shirtfront” Vladimir Putin at the summit. Shirtfront is defined in Australian Football Rules as an aggressive front-on body check challenge. The irony is that had Abbott implemented his threat, it would have been Putin the judoka who would have come out on top.
At any rate, instead of wasting words Putin despatched a Russian Navy flotilla towards Australia ahead of his visit.
It is clear that Australia’s political leadership doesn’t tend to view Russia favourably. Russia has returned the favour by blocking Australia’s involvement in the Syrian peace negotiations.
Australia’s place in the world
Australians are an easy going people, but their problem is the country’s leadership which is way over its head in events it can’t begin to understand. This was best illustrated by author David Horne, who wrote in 1960, “Australia is a lucky country, run by second-rate people who share its luck.”
Indeed, the Australian political class tends to react to the rapidly transforming world order around them with hysteria rather than level headed thinking.
Take the sudden end of the Cold War. Australians were initially thrilled with the unexpected decline of Russia’s global power, which had left the West supreme. But the euphoria didn’t last long because the rise of China and India among other countries plus the re-rise of Russia checked the West’s expansion. Australians watched with dismay the world go multi-polar and the western economies crumble in slow motion.
For a country of just 23 million, Australia has outsize global ambitions. Despite the fact that the Royal Australian Air Force can barely find enough pilots to man its existing squadrons, Australian leaders like to think of their country as integral to the maintenance of the West’s hegemony. Over the decades, they have blindly followed the US and have been loyal foot soldiers in a string of American-inspired conflicts around the world — Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and now Syria. Plus, with old co-hegemon Britain’s defence forces shrinking because of budget cuts, Australia is keen to take over the role of America’s closest ally.
America’s adversary is, therefore, Australia’s adversary. During the 2008 Georgian War, the Christian fundamentalist Prime Minister Kevin Rudd threatened to cancel a 2007 agreement on the sale of uranium to Russia. The Rudd government’s argument was specious – that Moscow would use Australian uranium to make nuclear bombs.
Only someone belonging to the Flat Earth Society would have made such an argument. Russia not only had enough nuclear warheads to destroy all NATO countries, but it had thousands more in cold storage. In fact, the Russian government is in the process of dismantling these stored warheads as a security measure.
Again, during the Ukraine crisis, Australia joined the US and Europe and imposed sanctions on Russia. This included asset freezes and travel bans on 50 individuals and 11 Russian companies, including SMP Bank, Bank Rossiya and the Volga Group.
However, while Russia is targeted for acting entirely within its area of influence, Australia looks the other way when it comes to China. According to Saleem H. Ali, Chair and Professor of the University of Queensland, “the moral outrage being exhibited on the matter needs to be tempered with some broader perspective on what gets tolerated in the annals of Australian foreign policy”.
Ali explains: “Ultimately, nation states make decisions on relations based on a balance of economic expediency and national security. Australia’s ambivalent relationship with China is perhaps the most direct comparison in this regard. Marginalization of dissent, lack of democratic institutions and regional hegemonic tendencies are appropriately tolerated by Australia as well as many other western nations because the broader importance of engaging with China trumps such matters. A similar modicum of care is in order when dealing with Russia.”
To be sure, Australia has legitimate security concerns. Most of its limited population is concentrated on the east coast while the sparsely populated north and west are closer to crowded Indonesia than Sydney or Melbourne.
Fuelling Australia’s paranoia are other strategic developments in the region. China’s naval expansion is a big worry for the Australian defence forces and curiously the Australian political and military leadership at one time viewed India as a threat. The Indian Navy’s current high-octane growth will no doubt be in Canberra’s calculations. Add in the fact that Indonesia is re-arming – with the deadly Sukhoi Su-35 aircraft – right next door, and you can see why the Australians are getting jittery. (It is worth mentioning that during World War II, more bombs were dropped on Darwin than were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, during 1942-43 the Japanese launched as many 100 raids on Australia.)
In this backdrop, the Australians feel only an alliance with Anglo cousin America can ensure their security.
However, Australia needs to relax about Russia. It’s been over 200 years since the invasion scare and there’s still no sight of a Russian fleet. The reality is that Moscow has never had designs on Australia. Even during the height of the Cold War, Russians were content with a minor presence in the region. It was almost a career dead end for a Russian diplomat posted to Australia.
Being small and a lightweight in diplomacy, Australia could benefit from Russia’s friendship. As Ali says, “For all his many dismissals of smaller states like Australia, President Putin made a gesture in 2007 to visit Australia on an extended visit for the APEC summit, making him the first serving Russian president to give the country a measure of diplomatic respect.”
On the flip side, Moscow can squeeze Australia where it hurts as it showed by elbowing out Canberra from the Syrian negotiations. Both countries are commodities exporters to China but it is Russia that holds more leverage with Beijing. Describing Australia as a “Paper Cat”, a Chinese newspaper says Beijing should attack Australia if it enters the borders of the South China Sea.
Australia is currently waiting for the Americans to supply the F-35 stealth fighter to replace its aging F-18 jets. However, Russia is supplying the stealth-killer Su-35 to Indonesia and China. If Australia had any friends in Moscow, these sales may have been blocked or delayed just like Russia had delayed the sale of the S-300 anti-missile system to Iran and Syria partly because of Israeli pressure. Once bitter Cold War adversaries, Tel Aviv and Moscow enjoy an easy relationship today. There is no reason why Russia-Australia relations cannot be on the mend.