16 February 2022
Australia and Ukraine
The build-up of Russian troops along its border with Ukraine is either an extraordinary bluff by Vladimir Putin to force the United States into negotiations for a new European security bargain or the prelude to an invasion. Either way, recent history has shown that instability in Ukraine is likely to have consequences far beyond Europe, including in Australia.
Relations between Ukraine and Australia grew closer after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 by pro-Russian Ukrainian rebels in July 2014. Ukrainian officials helped identify and repatriate the thirty-eight Australian citizens and permanent residents who were killed in the incident. Australia opened its embassy in Kyiv in November that year.
On Sunday, as tensions increased, Australia temporarily moved its embassy to the city of Lviv, further west from the Russian border. Despite the limited economic relationship Australia has with Ukraine, Canberra hasn’t abandoned the embassy completely, signalling that it remains committed to the relationship, and that it is increasingly concerned about the possibility of an invasion.
Earlier this week, Scott Morrison warned that Russia and China are forming a “coalition of autocracies”, as the Morrison government prepared to back international sanctions if Russia attacks. The one major card Australia had with which to punish Russia – suspending the sale of uranium – was played by Canberra in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. Although sanctions to limit Russia’s gas exports to Europe could prove an opportunity for Australia’s gas industry, this is an opportunity Australia – which has broader concerns about supporting territorial integrity and limiting autocratic aggression – could do without.
Dealing with India
After a difficult decade of free trade agreement negotiations between Australia and India there has been some small and much-needed progress. Last week, Dan Tehan, Minister for Trade, Tourism and Investment, travelled to India and reached an interim agreement that is expected to cover sectors including textiles, pharmaceuticals, education and renewable energy technology.
Agriculture remains the major sticking point in these negotiations and is a politically sensitive issue in India as evidenced by the country’s recent year-long farmers’ protest. Over 40 per cent of the population directly earn a living through farming. India has a highly inefficient state-led system of purchase and distribution, which limits farmers’ income but is fiercely defended by them due to its minimum price guarantees. Reforms to the system – like those proposed by the Modi government last year – and greater international competition, are both viewed as threats.
The interim Australia–India deal is scheduled to be signed in March, followed by a more comprehensive agreement to be finalised within eighteen months.
As an indication that India may be becoming more flexible, over the weekend New Delhi removed its tariffs on lentils in what should be a boon for Australian growers. The move is a response to the rising local costs of the Indian staple, and the need to diversify its sources. But it demonstrates that greater market access for Australian agriculture could, for some goods, prove mutually beneficial, smoothing the way for the two countries’ trade negotiators to finally reach a comprehensive agreement.
The Twitter feed of Afghanistan’s embassy in Australia does not include the standard promotion of government initiatives and services that is common for foreign embassies. Instead, in an unusual phenomenon, the Afghan embassy is using the platform to highlight problems with the new Taliban regime, often actively seeking to undermine it.
While the Twitter feeds of the Afghan embassies in the United Kingdom and United States went dead in August and September respectively, others, such as those in Australia, Canada, Italy, Switzerland and Norway remain highly active, with a notable coordination of content between them. These embassies appear to be functioning as a decentralised government-in-exile.
As no country has yet formally recognised the Taliban, embassies that have continued to operate remain loyal to the previous regime. The Taliban has made attempts to seize control of several embassies, issuing letters that diplomats must return home, but without assistance from host countries they are powerless to enforce their will. In one notable case in January 2022, a man claiming to be the new Taliban ambassador walked into the embassy in Rome, got into a fist fight with the current ambassador, and was escorted out by Italian police.
It is not yet clear whether any Afghan diplomats in Australia, including Ambassador Wahidullah Waissi, have sought asylum, or whether Canberra has made arrangements that would ensure their safety. In the United States, where about fifty-five diplomats and their family members are expected to seek asylum, the State Department reportedly plans to give embassy staff thirty days to seek asylum if the embassy closes due to a lack of funds.
I attempted to contact the embassy in Deakin, Canberra to discuss their plans and funding, but received no response. Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade informed me that Australia “recognises states, not governments; the Afghan embassy represents Afghanistan. The Australian government is unable to comment on the functions or funding of the Afghan embassy.”