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.


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