The Russian Navy is getting closer to Australia than we're used to, and beyond the bluster of 'shirtfronting' we don't seem to have a coherent policy response to a more active Russia in our 'near abroad'.
As my colleague James Brown wrote earlier this week, Russian ships have conducted live fire drills in the South China Sea, visited Indonesia and now a convoy of four vessels is in international waters near Queensland. The three separate task groups are an unusual demonstration of the Russian fleet's surface capability in the region.
Russia has also been flexing its muscle globally, leading many commentators to ask whether we're facing a 'revanchist' Russia intent on reasserting itself in world affairs. There are signs beyond the flotilla in the Coral Sea that Russia is becoming more activist, at least in the Asia Pacific. As Russia's Ambassador to Washington said last week, 'You are pivoting to Asia but we're already there.'
So what does it all mean?
Regardless of the debate about how much hard power the Russian Navy's ships actually represent (though this is the largest uninvited fleet off Australia's coast in several decades) Russia has been behaving in a manner not seen since the Cold War. It is consistently sending a message to the West that it retains global reach and expects to be treated as a global player. We should take note that it expects to be treated as power with Pacific interests too.
Moscow has already begun its reinvestment in its Pacific military assets, part of its very own rebalance. From 2014, the Pacific Fleet is scheduled to acquire large-scale deliveries of new equipment and warships for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union. The upgrade includes one of the two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships (although France has delayed delivery due to heightened tensions), several new corvettes, and at least two of the new Borei-class nuclear ballistic missile submarines.
According to US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert, the Russian Air Force is 'probably more active than they've been in a decade'. In May, US forces intercepted a Russian strategic bomber near Guam and Russian long-range aviation has skirted the coast of California, according to then Pacific Air Forces commander General Herbert 'Hawk' Carlisle. The Russian military is also conducting reconnaissance flights and aggressive probing throughout the Pacific. This has included a sharp increase in air patrols around Japanese islands and Korea, and testing the US ADIZ over Alaska. Greenert warns that Russia has been busy in the undersea domain too. Although it's difficult to track the location of submarines, they form a considerable portion of Russia's Pacific Fleet.
Australia's narrow policy bandwidth on Russia belies the fact that it is transforming into one of the most competent military forces in the world, considers itself a global power and is led by an interventionist revisionist who believes in restoring Russia to its true place in the international order.
Although the rise of China will be one of the single biggest determinants of stability and security in our region, Russia has also arrived and the policy community seems to have missed its resurgence. In the last Defence White Paper published in 2013 there were only six mentions of Russia, three in one sentence, which is the most substantive statement of Russia's role in our strategic neighbourhood:
Building on already deep and extensive relations with India and China, Russia is seeking to expand its influence in the Indo-Pacific beyond traditional partners, both politically, through consolidation and potential expansion of the Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) grouping and, in line with Russia's economic potential, as a supplier of oil and gas, nuclear technology and conventional arms.
The most concerning part of all the recent coverage is that the deriding of Russia causes us to miss significant strategic developments and fail to ask how to deal with Moscow. Our Russia policy is underdone. There's no ignoring that Russia is more prominent in the region and less interested in playing within the global rules-based system. On its current track, the relationship is only likely to be adversarial and unproductive.
The good news is that with a new Defence White Paper due next year, and with this recent maritime reminder from President Putin, we have the opportunity to adjust course. These events should serve as a signal to our defence and foreign policy makers to include a longer term consideration of Russia, and encourage the provision of resources to understanding it. Here's hoping the Government takes notice, and that the media also sees the moment as strategically significant.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Kenneth Lu.