While Russia may not have featured heavily in Australia’s recent foreign policy White Paper, the country is still a source of concern for Canberra.
As far as 2017 goes for Russia-Australia relations, the year has been marked by the celebrations of anniversaries. These include the 210th anniversary of the first Russian vessel to reach the Australian mainland, 160 years of consular relations, and 75 years of diplomatic ties.
In Russia, for post-Soviet graduates of the late 1990s and early 2000s like myself, Australia has long been associated with idealistic perceptions of an advanced Western country – one arisen from classical European heritage, and artistically illustrated in The Thorn Birds and Return to Eden series. The peaceful, liberal, rules-based green continent (in contrast to non-democratic Russia) always appeared an attractive destination for immigration.
For most Russians, Australia is still perceived as a Western democracy, albeit one which is increasingly turning to the East. As the recent White Paper demonstrates, Australia is making the ‘Indo-Pacific’ a priority. Russia has similar regional aspirations, as reflected in its 2016 foreign policy concept. The end of the Vasco Da Gama Era and the shift toward the multipolar world with the re-appearance of Asian powers of China, India and others has made such adjustments inevitable for Russia and Australia.
However, the same approach does not mean the same strategy. Australia’s White Paper adopts a markedly negative image of Russia, a country seen as aggressive,volatile, and one that refuses to comply with international law. Moscow’s coercive and belligerent actions in the eastern Ukraine put Russia in the same category as North Korea with its nuclear crisis, and Syria with its use of chemical weapons.
On top of that, Australia remains particularly concerned by the downing of flight MH17 in 2014, a tragedy which might be an insurmountable obstacle for improving relations until justice can be found in an international tribunal. The issue of cybersecurity is another concern, with Australia’s White Paper making a direct claim of Russian interference in democratic processes during the 2016 US presidential election.
On the other hand, it might be that as the Asian Century unfolds, Putin is looking for opportunities in the region to restore Russia’s image in the eyes of the West – perhaps by restarting diplomacy with North Korea. With Russia’s struggling economy, declining population, and insecurity of its Far East, Moscow is afraid of being left behind or even buried under the rising economic powers of Asia.
Improving Russia’s image with the West will be difficult, not least due to the current volatility of US foreign policy and the Trump administration’s neglect of America's diplomatic corps. Deeper differences, including contrasting attitudes towards democracy, human rights, and freedom of speech, make repairing Russia’s relations with the US – or Australia – especially problematic.
In the Pacific, Australia retains its leading role in providing development assistance to the smaller island states. At the same time, Canberra is also aware of other powers with rapidly growing aid budgets attempting to buy influence in the Pacific. While China is the most obvious cause for concern, Russia might also have to be factored into Australian strategic thinking, as it too has tried to spread its political influence in the South Pacific in recent years.
If Russia-Australia relations are to improve, Moscow will have to work hard to restore its image and improve its national branding. Perceptions of an aggressive and violent country are no basis for maintaining a mutually beneficial partnership.
Even in the more benign area of scientific cooperation, where Australia and Russia might have found common ground and where Russia enjoys a leading reputation, Russia is not officially considered a partner. Scientific cooperation regarding security in space, space exploration, climate change, and Antarctica should have been officially recognised as crucial aspects for normalising relations between the two countries.
Soft power and people-to-people interaction remains the most realistic pathway back to friendly territory for Russia and Australia. Diplomats and non-state actors in both countries should seek opportunities to cultivate such interaction. There is an immense potential at least in cultural, science, and sports diplomacy for the strengthening of bilateral ties in a multi-polar world.
As published at ANU APPS Policy Forum on December 3, 2017.