All Australian Eyes On Ukraine, But What's Our Goal Again?

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It’s a funny business, this politics stuff.

Just ask Julie Bishop. At the start of her tenure as Australia’s first female foreign minister, she would not have expected a civil war in Ukraine to dominate a good part of her first year in the job.

Nor would she have expected to be spending quite so much time in Kiev, where she’s been logging hour after hour in meetings with a fractured and unstable Ukrainian government.

She certainly couldn’t have predicted she’d end up responsible for an international police mission to secure a plane crash site, featuring 150 Australian police officers, in a war zone, under fire.

But that’s where recent international events have taken her, in the wake of the shooting down of Malaysian airliner MH17 over Ukraine.

The tragedy of the MH17 disaster was initially a positive for the Abbott government. As many noted, Australia’s deft diplomacy at the United Nations allowed an unusual level of international pressure to be bought to bear on a conflict that had been simmering for months with relatively little attention.

By securing a Security Council resolution, Bishop scored a big win for Australian diplomacy. But, as many a foreign minister has found, translating a UN resolution into action on the ground can be a tricky and dangerous business.

Swept up in the moment, few stopped to ask whether committing unarmed Australian police officers to a war zone in the middle of eastern Europe was really so wise.

The Australian Labor Party, for instance, was only too happy to offer its “full support”.

On Sunday, Bill Shorten and Tanya Plibersek issued a media statement in which they declared that “Labor has full confidence in the skill and professionalism of the Australian Federal Police officers undertaking this task.”

But as the security situation in the Donetsk region deteriorates, questions are starting to be asked.

The international mission to secure the crash site has tried three times to get to the wreckage. Each time it has been forced to turn back by heavy fighting.

On Monday night the ABC’s correspondent in Ukraine, Stephen McDonnell, told viewers on Lateline, “I can't stress just how dangerous it is and how fluid the situation has become.”

He reported heavy rocket and artillery fire in the vicinity.

“Those AFP officers and other international police officers, they could've been killed in their attempts to get to that crash site.”

Foreign Minister Julie Bishop is concerned that Russia is working against the international effort to investigate the MH17 airline crash in eastern Ukraine.

“My great fear is Russia is actively undermining this process,” she told journalists this morning.

Something tells me Bishop’s fear will be realised.

Big stakes are at play in eastern Ukraine. Russia under Vladimir Putin is a corrupt autocracy that has repeatedly used foreign wars to quiet domestic unrest and repression.

Ukraine has been either occupied by Russia or a constituent part of the Russian state for centuries.

Putin clearly considers Ukraine part of Russia’s sphere of influence, and appears willing to incur considerable western opprobrium to ensure it stays that way.

This was the strategic imperative that drove Russia, just months ago, to invade and annex the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine.

Since then it has been openly destabilising its neighbour.

The United States has accused Russia of arming the rebels fighting a civil war against the Ukrainian government in the nation’s east.

The very fact that a large airliner was shot down, probably by a sophisticated surface-to-air missile, points to the level of military support the Donetsk rebels have acquired.

The rebels also have tanks, artillery and rockets. That kind of hardware can only really have come from one source. 

Bishop now has the makings of a major crisis on her hands. As her own comments indicate, Australia is sending unarmed civilians into a war zone, where they are being exposed to artillery and rocket fire.

“We sent out a team in advance and they get halfway down the road… sometimes three quarters of the way… and then the shelling starts,” Bishop said this morning.

“Whilst I can’t point the finger at who starts the shelling, we get absolute assurances from the Ukraine government that it’s not them.”

Does anyone else think that maybe it’s time to reconsider our mission in Ukraine?

The grandiosely titled Operation Bring Them Home has played well in the commercial media. But it is now manifestly putting lives on the line.

It’s worth pointing out that this is not, in fact, an Australian-led mission. It is being led by the Netherlands, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

But the OSCE is itself deeply involved in the current crisis.

It will be a party to crisis talks in Belarus, brokered between Russia's ambassador to Kiev, Mikhail Zurabov, and former Ukrainian president Leonid Kuchma.

Bishop is still in Kiev, where she is in the best position to lobby the Ukrainian government for a cease-fire to allow the police mission to go ahead.

But so far, there are no indications the Ukrainian army is stopping.

“We've had the strongest possible support from Ukrainian government,” she told the ABC’s Chris Uhlmann this morning, “but still the fighting goes on and there is no ceasefire.”

Far from calling a halt, the Ukrainian army has renewed its offensive.

Overnight, the Ukrainian army claimed it had recaptured the strategically important town of Avdiivka.

Regional officials in Donetsk said 19 people had died in the past 24 hours.

Donetsk itself, the regional capital and the stronghold of the rebel resistance, looks as though it may fall.

That puts the police mission right in the middle of the worst of the fighting.

At no point in the current operation has anyone in the government stopped to explain the relevance of the MH17 crash site to Australia’s broader national interests.

Bringing back the bodies of Australian victims is politically attractive for a government that badly needs some positive media coverage. But is it actually in the best interests of Australia? And is it worth risking the lives of Australian police officers?

As former Foreign Affairs official Matthew Del Santo argued today, “it says a lot about the priorities of modern Australian foreign policy that the country should subordinate other relevant considerations to the exigencies of a consular case”.

Operation Bring Them Home has a nice ring to it. But foreign policy can’t be conducted on the basis of catchy slogans.

As Jonathan Green observes today, this is politics for the lowest common denominator, driven by tabloid headlines in the absence of evidence or just cause.

The Abbott government is overly fond of the trappings of militarism, as its Boy’s Own penchant for calling things “Operations” confirms.

A three-star general is in charge of our immigration detention system, and a former top general in Angus Houston is in charge of Operation Bring Them Home.

But the corollary of militarism is war. And that’s what’s happening in the Donestk region.

At the very least, Australia deserves a proper debate about whether and why we should get involved in a civil war deep in eastern Ukraine. So far, we’re not getting one.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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