The emerging partnership between the West and Russia against the Islamic State is a stunning triumph for President Vladimir Putin and will further entrench his already immense hold on domestic power. So too will it bring momentum to Russia’s reinvigorated global influence. Unfortunately, Australia remains flat-footed in the face of Russia’s resurgent international activism that will eventually embrace the Indo-Pacific.
The collapse of the Soviet Union provoked a profound identity crisis for Russian society that emerged out of the Cold War. What was Russia without its Soviet Empire? What was to be the role for this ‘new’ Russia in the world? To Putin and his Chekist brethren the answer was that Russians were still the great and virtuous people they had always been and that, one way or another, the ‘new’ Russia would continue to seminally shape the future of humanity. For decades they have been working to convince the Russian people of this view, persuading them that the Soviet Union was simply one route to Russia’s destiny and that, while that route ended in emasculation, the Russian people still had alternative avenues to explore.
Glancing in from abroad, the longevity of Putin’s Russia seems perplexing. How can Russian voters tolerate their husk of democracy, where opposition leaders are murdered in the street? How can the oligarchs stand behind Putin when their foreign assets are frozen? How can Russian businesses tolerate foreign embargos and a plummeting ruble? Simply put, Putin’s Russia holds together because for all the tyranny, isolation and discomfort, Putin’s Russia still “wins”. When examined through the lens of its state-influenced media, Putin’s government has restored Russian sovereignty to Crimea and has been ‘liberating’ the Russian diaspora in Ukraine – all despite Western protestations, economic sanctions and subversions. As such, the more Russia is reprimanded by the West, the more the hardship that is experienced by ordinary Russians has become an experience of defiance and national pride. All well and good for Putin, so long as there are external outlets for Russian victory. Enter the Syrian sojourn and Russia’s protracted fight against jihadism at home and abroad.
Russia’s intervention in to the Levant has been a circuit-breaker to the calcifying strategic malaise that was otherwise taking hold. Russia has successfully positioned itself as a vital partner in any amicable solution to the chaos now consuming Syria and Iraq. The West not only sees Russian forces in Syria as exceptionally useful but there is a growing realisation that Russia will be essential to any sustainable political settlement. As such Russia’s utility in the Middle East has given President Putin invigorated leverage in Europe. Not a month ago the Obama Administration was being pressured to place more NATO forces across Europe’s frontier with Russia in an effort to deter Putin’s belligerence. Today, in the wake of events in Paris, a scenario where NATO/European forces fight alongside Russia’s is not inconceivable. Russian maritime capabilities in the Mediterranean have already been tasked with supporting their French counterparts in bombing Islamic State targets. All this will do will make future Europe-Russia tensions more complex and harder to navigate for Western actors, thus undermining the potency of NATO, Russia’s greater curtailer.
Russia’s Syrian adventure has the additional utility of contrasting Russian decisiveness with Western hesitancy. Constraining itself to airstrikes and limited ground activities, the American-led campaign against Islamic State was always subject to an equation of diminishing returns. As the tide turns against Islamic State’s territorial gains, Russia can tout its Syrian operations as breaking the deadlock into which the West had entrapped itself. Should Russia continue to expand its projection of force into the Levant and should it strike a political bargain that stabilises Syria, it is quite likely Putin can successfully cast himself domestically as the man who solves the problems that the West cannot. Such a role will not be confined to the Middle East. Russia is emerging from its recent isolation and will seek to grow even more proactive globally.
What is at hand is the germination of a new period of Russian internationalism. The momentum of this new period has been building ever so gradually in recent years but has now crescendoed into a potent and vivid global program. Russia’s endeavours in Ukraine and its provocative incursions into Europe were the early indicators of this obtuse foreign strategy. Russia is arguably bolder and more confident today than it has ever been since the evaporation of the Soviet Union; particularly given Russia spent much of the last two decades ensnared in costly regional conflicts in Chechnya, Kosovo and Georgia.
Putin’s endeavour, to ‘fix’ the problems that the West has hitherto failed to rectify will not be limited to the Middle East and North Africa. Russia has long considered itself a natural Pacific power and the Indo-Pacific’s continuing centrality has important ramifications for Russia, just as it does for the rest of the world. The immense flow of trade and capital that filters through the region as well as the expanding import demands of Asia’s emerging markets makes the Indo-Pacific a region loaded with strategic value for a Russia seeking to reinvigorate its economy and, at a minimum, maintain its international influence.
Sino-American brinkmanship over freedom of navigation in the South China Sea gives Russia good cause to expand its maritime presence in the region and once again hold the decisive cards in another international quagmire.
Russia’s emerging internationalism will increasingly make the state of the Russo-Australian relationship evermore untenable. Australia’s diplomacy with Russia has been quite limited since the downing of MH17 over Ukraine, in which 27 Australians died. Russian envoys in Canberra have been kept at arms-length, often only interacting with low-level DFAT officials. However, the distance now placed between Australia and Russia seems to be more to Australia’s detriment than to Russia’s, with Foreign Minister Julie Bishop being excluded by Russia from recent high-level talks in Vienna regarding the conflict in Syria. Some now talk of a ‘Moscow gap’ with regards to Australia’s strategic policy and indeed Australia does seem to be oblivious to the strategic possibilities of deeper Russian involvement in the region.
If Australia wishes to maintain its signature middle power influence on international affairs its diplomatic tactics towards Russia will have to be more nuanced and seek practical cooperation on common issues. Islamic terrorism is an obvious starting point, where intelligence sharing and joint training could offer tangible gains for each nation.
However bitter it may be to conduct pleasantries with the government responsible for MH17, estrangement will never produce any admissions of culpability let alone concessions of justice.
William Stoltz is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow at Young Australians in International Affairs.
Image credit: Wikimedia