Commentary |
1 April 2022

The right lessons to learn from Ukraine

Australia should be careful in evaluating the impact of the Ukraine crisis on its strategic outlook. The crisis has not altered many of the key facts about our international relationships. Originally published in the Australian Financial Review.

Susannah Patton
Susannah Patton

Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Australia’s Parliament on Thursday was characteristically courageous, forthright and powerful. It reinforced the message that Vladimir Putin’s disastrous and illegal invasion matters greatly to Australia.

Australia has interests that go beyond our immediate geographic neighbourhood – such as the maintenance of an international order in which actions like Russia’s are unacceptable. The broader global ramifications of the crisis – from the humanitarian impact to the impact on the global economy – will also affect Australia.

Yet Australia should be careful in evaluating the impact of the Ukraine crisis on its strategic outlook. Zelensky’s claim that Russia’s aggression threatens Australia too, because evil can “instantly cross any distance, any barriers”, should be taken with a grain of salt. The crisis has not changed Australia’s geography, nor altered many of the key facts about our major international relationships.

First, it is not clear that Russia’s invasion means we are now in an era where “might makes right”. Vladimir Putin will not be able to secure his original political objectives through the invasion.

European countries have rallied in response to the crisis, going much further than analysts expected to bolster their own defences, support Ukraine, and punish Russia. The overwhelming support for resolutions in the United Nations General Assembly that condemn Russia and call for the protection of civilians has been described by the US ambassador to the UN as an “outstanding success”.

Moreover, Russia’s invasion does not signal imminent peril in the Indo-Pacific. The Biden administration has sought to paint Russia and China as working hand-in-glove. Yet China’s calculations are more nuanced, as Jeremy Fleming, the director of Britain’s GCHQ, observed this week.

Beijing’s criticism of Washington and its allegation that the United States’ policy sowed the seeds of the conflict has been much louder and clearer than its support for Russia.

Even in turbulent times, some things are constant, and Australia should not lose sight of them.

More importantly, no straight line can be drawn between Russia’s invasion and the potential for further territorial aggression or encroachments by China in our region. Prime Minister Scott Morrison sought to draw such a line in his speech to the Lowy Institute when he said, “This is what autocrats do.” Yet autocracies take many forms and seek power in different ways.

This kind of generalisation does not aid our understanding of the different challenge posed by China in the Indo-Pacific, highlighted most recently by evidence of its intent to seek a military foothold in Solomon Islands.

China’s economic influence continues to expand; in much of Asia it could feel reasonably confident that time is on its side. In relation to Taiwan, most experts judge that China would prefer to win without fighting, and that its timeline will be set by domestic factors rather than events in Europe.

It also wrong to assume, as some have argued, that Russia’s action has helped raise awareness about the risks that China poses in Asia.

It is too early to know for sure how China’s reputation will emerge from the current crisis. But it is far from certain that attempts by the US and its allies to pinpoint China for its advance knowledge of the invasion or subsequent support for Russia will gain traction outside the West – for example, in key regions such as south-east Asia.

Russia’s invasion has consumed Washington’s focus for months, raising fresh questions about US commitment to Asia. Yet here too, Australia is contending with more continuity than change.

The US is a global power, with competing priorities. Its efforts to genuinely prioritise Asia were doubtful before this crisis. As before, Australia will need to continue its efforts to embed the US in Asia through our bilateral alliance, as well as other regional institutions and frameworks.

European countries were never going to play a decisive role in balancing China in Asia; their renewed focus on security at home merely brings this into relief.

The Quad, too, has come in for scrutiny, given that New Delhi’s approach to Russia diverges sharply from that of the other three members, leading India to be described unhelpfully by President Joe Biden as “somewhat shaky”.

Yet the Quad is knit together by interests in Asia, not global values. Its ability to issue strong statements on events in Europe should not alter our judgments about its capacity to present a credible alternative vision for the Indo-Pacific.

It’s too soon to tell how Europe, Russia, China and the US will emerge from this crisis. Australia will need to navigate great turbulence in international affairs. But even in turbulent times, some things are constant, and Australia should not lose sight of them.