Month: March 2018

Call Putin’s bluff and end his lethal game

Putin May

Australia’s recent foreign policy white paper laboured the phrase “rules-based global order”, citing its preservation and maintenance as the lodestar of Australian foreign policy.

Many saw it as code for opposing aggressive Chinese action, particularly in the South China Sea, and this was part of the purpose. But this rules-based global order is a broader concept than upholding freedom of navigation on the high seas. It encapsulates a system, now fraying, that has served our interests well for more than 70 years. The most flagrant challenger to this system is present-day Russia.

Under President Vladimir Putin, who steadily has turned the Russian state into a vehicle for his personal ambitions and grievances, Russia has broken or flouted nearly every important principle that underpins the postwar global order: the acquisition of territory by force as seen in the annexation of Crimea; gross meddling in the internal affairs of another state as seen in Russian interference in US (and other) elections; indiscriminate use of force against civilian populations and targets in Russia’s air campaign in Syria; reckless provision of sophisticated anti-aircraft missile systems to Russian-supported Ukrainian separatists, leading to the downing of a civilian aircraft and the deaths of all on board.

A fortnight ago in the English town of Salisbury, Russia added two further norm violations to its catalogue of misdeeds, with its attempt at an extrajudicial assassination of a political dissident on foreign soil using a proscribed chemical weapon. Britain, rightly, has been outraged by these actions and by the subsequent Russian disdain — a metaphorical shrug of the shoulders — that greeted British demands for an explanation.

British retaliatory steps, including the expulsion of Russian spies and diplomats, are welcome. But they quickly will be reciprocated by Moscow and will do little to alter Russian behaviour. For this the West, especially the US, needs to make clear that this sort of Russian statecraft is no longer acceptable.

It must demonstrate its resolve to retaliate in ways that truly hurt Putin. The joint statement from the leaders of the US, Britain, France and Germany condemning the attack and ascribing Russian responsibility is a welcome first step. The leaders state plainly that the attack is not only a clear violation of international law but also an act that “threatens the security of us all” — as it does — and fits a pattern of irresponsible Russian behaviour elsewhere.

Overnight the US also strengthened its sanctions regime against Russia, placing sanctions on five groups and 19 individuals, the toughest measures against Russia since Donald Trump took office.

People often mistake Putin for a chess grandmaster of statecraft, acting strategically and with foresight and clear purpose. But Putin is a poker player. He plays a weak hand aggressively. He probes what he can get away with, relying on the unwillingness of others to call his bluff. And he has proven remarkably successful in this approach because he has found such unwillingness abundant.

Barack Obama made the mistake of not treating Russia as a serious adversary during his time in office, treating Putin as the “bored kid at the back of the classroom” — an irritant but not worthy of serious attention.

Trump risks making the mistake that what Putin craves is respect, and that if he gets such respect his behaviour will moderate. But the record shows that Putin responds only to concerted and united pressure, pushing until the moment he meets resistance.

The West has more forceful options at its disposal. Not only can it introduce crippling new sanctions or put NATO on a more aggressive posture towards Russia, it also can play at Russia’s game, revealing intelligence that will embarrass Putin, and hurt his domestic support base (much as the Panama Papers did).

Russia needs to be convinced of the seriousness of the West’s resolve, especially as — after sham elections on Sunday — Putin will rule Russia until 2024.

Australia should be adding to the diplomatic pressure on Russia. Malcolm Turnbull and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop issued a strong joint statement condemning Russian actions. We should summon the Russian ambassador in Canberra and seek an explanation, making clear we share the outrage of our allies at this attack. We should consider expanding our own sanctions regime against Russia, following the US lead.

The Prime Minister should raise the issue this weekend with his visiting Association of Southeast Asian Nations colleagues, all countries that share our interests in upholding international norms, and attempt to forge consensus on the unacceptability of Russian actions of this nature. And we should support British efforts to hold Russia accountable in international forums. This is what defending the rules-based global order looks like.

Published in The Australian, 17 March 2018

Post-script: Australia announced the expulsion of two Russian diplomats (engaged in intelligence activities) from Australia on 27 March 2018, part of a globally coordinated move which saw Western countries expel over 100 Russian diplomats worldwide. This sort of unity and resolve is exactly what is required.


Iran’s Ambitions Threaten to Ignite the Next Major Middle East Conflict

Last weekend there was high drama on Israel’s border with Syria across the Golan Heights.

In the early hours of Saturday, an advanced Iranian drone penetrated Israeli airspace. Within minutes, the drone was intercepted and destroyed by an Israeli attack helicopter. The Israeli air force then conducted a strike inside Syria, destroying the mobile command vehicle that guided the drone. On its return, the Israeli F16 fighter jet was hit by Syrian air defence batteries. The jet crashed inside Israel and both crew members ejected. In retaliation, Israel struck against 12 further targets inside Syria, including three air defence batteries and four Iranian positions.

Given the amount of conflict already under way in the region, not least in Syria and Yemen, this may seem like a small incident. But its significance is much larger.

For several years now, Iran has been exploiting the opportunity of the Syrian civil war to build a presence along Israel’s northern borders. Iran has established a significant military footprint inside Syria, sending military advisers, “volunteer” Shia militias and hundreds of fighters from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. Indeed it was Iranian ground forces, coupled with Russian air power, that rescued Bashar al-Assad’s regime from near oblivion two years ago and have since restored it to the strongest force inside Syria.

Iran also has used its base inside Syria to funnel increasingly advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, its military proxy in Lebanon.

Hezbollah today is a formidable military force. It possesses tens of thousands of rockets, including several advanced, medium-range, Iranian-made mis­siles that can strike targets anywhere inside Israel. Though Israel frequently destroys Hezbollah-bound weapons transfers in transit, this effort depends entirely on the quality of intelligence. Inevitably, some shipments make it through.

Finally, Iran has been building military infrastructure and facilities inside Lebanon and Syria, designed to threaten Israel.

The command post that launched the Iranian drone was one such facility. Active attempts are under way to establish factory production lines for precision-guided missiles inside Lebanon.

Iran’s goal is the ability to project power and make its presence felt throughout the Middle East, and to create assets that can threaten Israel. It is seeking to build a land corridor stretching from Tehran to the Mediterranean to do this. Israel, quite justifiably, is alarmed by Iran’s ambitions, and is taking steps to frustrate Iranian goals.

The two nations have been engaged in a quiet, low-simmer conflict for several months now. Israel frequently attacks Iranian targets inside Syria, including advanced weapons shipments bound for Hezbollah. Iran, meanwhile, continues to probe Israel’s defences and test its readiness and red lines.

As Iranian efforts to entrench its presence become more advanced and more aggressive, the tempo of these clashes is accelerating and conflict is spilling out in the open, as it did last weekend.

As the Islamic State-Daesh presence in Syria is slowly vanquished, the question of what takes its place becomes more and more pressing, with outside powers increasingly intervening to shape the new Syrian landscape.

Russia wants to retain a client in Damascus and access to air and naval facilities. Turkey wants to prevent a de facto Kurdish state emerging along the length of its southern border. And Iran wants to retain a permanent military presence inside Syria.

Iran’s regional ambitions are alarming not just Israel but most of the Sunni Arab states in the region.

While crowds in Tehran, Damascus and Beirut were cheering the first downing of an Israeli fighter jet since 1982, you can be certain that in Riyadh, Cairo, Amman and Abu Dhabi leaders were (albeit behind closed doors) cheering the fact Israel gave Iran a bloody nose.

This is the new fault line at work in the Middle East: a Sunni Arab-Israeli bloc seeking to constrain Iran from redrawing the regional map in its favour.

Though they lack formal diplomatic ties, behind the scenes there is a great deal of co-ordination under way between Israel and countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which suddenly find themselves sharing existential security interests.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has ceased to be the defining feature of the region’s security. Instead it is Iran’s ambitions — and the moves and countermoves that accompany them — that are driving regional developments.

The Iranian nuclear deal, while it succeeded in constraining Tehran’s nuclear program, has not managed to alter Iranian ambitions or behaviour.

And this behaviour is threatening to ignite the next major conflict in the Middle East, one that will involve several major powers, and that inevitably will embroil Australia.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 13 February 2018