Russia And The Ukraine: A Bipartisan March To War


Amidst the bipartisan war cheerleading that is leading us into yet another conflict in Iraq, it’s been easy to miss the growing hawkishness of both Labor and the Liberals on the Ukraine conflict.

Earlier this week, Bill Shorten told Fairfax that he had the “gravest reservations about President Putin coming to Australia” for November’s G20 summit in Brisbane.

This followed earlier comments from Shorten of a similar nature, and an attempt by Julie Bishop to lobby NATO countries to ban Putin from the G20 at the alliance’s recent summit in Wales.

The Australian response to the Ukraine crisis has been sadly indicative of the incapacity of Labor and the Liberals to even debate foreign policy issues before blindly toeing the US and NATO line.

What our politicians think perhaps wouldn’t matter so much if it weren’t for the fact that Australia is hosting the G20, and now it appears that Putin may well attend after all, given Russian officials have arrived in Australia for the finance minister’s meeting in Cairns.

Nonetheless, the shortsighted calls to ban Putin from the G20 betray a complete lack of diplomatic tact and a dangerous miscalculation of the risks associated with isolating Russia on the world stage.

This isolationist approach ignores the West’s role in fuelling the conflict, and it has ultimately precipitated one of the worst security crises in Europe since World War II.

It is staggering how quickly political parties of all persuasions in the countries of NATO and its allies have wilfully forgotten that the West backed a coup stoked by ultra-nationalist groups on the former Ukrainian government of Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych may have been corrupt, but he was elected, and the coup on his government was the trigger for the current crisis. The new government of Petro Poroshenko is in full-scale war mode, having reintroduced conscription and held a large military parade in Kiev on Ukraine’s independence day last month.

Undoubtedly, Putin has played a part in the Ukrainian mess, but he has also been under immense domestic pressure to assist East Ukrainian citizens, many of whom speak Russian and are in favour of Ukraine remaining close to Russia.

As has been reported extensively by human rights organisations, but only scantly by the Western media, it’s not just the so-called pro-Russian rebels who have been committing atrocities in Ukraine. The Ukrainian military and, particularly, groups of nationalist volunteer battalions have been committing what Amnesty International has described as war crimes in East Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government is only inflaming the crisis in its calls for NATO membership, and though it is unlikely that Ukraine will be admitted into NATO in the short term, many NATO countries are taking an extremely hard line position on Russia’s involvement in Ukraine.

This approach is a bona fide recipe for a renewed, Cold War style arms race between the West and Russia, and, shamefully, the Australian government appears to be in full support of it.

NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War – despite an agreement that there would be no such expansion – has long been debated within the alliance, and is the contextual underpinning of the Ukraine crisis.

Unfortunately, it appears that the NATO faction in support of further expansion and militarisation is winning the debate.

The bipartisan Australian consensus in tacit support of this expansionist strategy demonstrates the intellectual poverty of both major parties’ approach to foreign policy.

It’s a relief that the howls for Putin to be barred from the G20 will likely amount to nothing, but keeping Russia inside the G20 tent is the bare minimum that’s required to de-escalate the Ukraine crisis and begin to repair relations with Russia.

In an Australia where important foreign policy issues were properly debated in the parliament and in civil society, we might hope for a country like ours not to mindlessly borrow its foreign policy talking points from the US State Department and NATO hawks.

But that is not the Australia we are living in; instead, Labor is in complete agreement with the Liberals on the Iraq conflict, and, if Shorten’s G20 pronouncements are anything to go by, is advocating an even more hard line approach on Ukraine.

It’s an all too familiar indictment on the state of politics in Australia, but also a worrying microcosm of the ascendancy of war hawks throughout Western politics.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.