18 July 2018
Hours after he finished hosting a football World Cup that he allegedly secured through bribery, Vladimir Putin flew to Helsinki for a summit with US president Donald Trump, whose election he helped to secure through electoral meddling.
Since becoming leader unexpectedly in 1999, Putin has been on a quest to restore Russia’s status as a global power. He has been aided by his mastery of the dark arts of statecraft and the unusual servility of Trump, and has become more brazen even as his economy weakens.
Today, no country, including Australia, is beyond his reach. But this only highlights the need to resist, rather than feed, his pretensions.
Putin’s first brutal war was in Chechnya, and he has since intervened in Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine and Syria. His forays have moved beyond his neighbourhood as he tries to demonstrate his nation’s reach and ensure his illegal exploits do not result in complete international isolation. This has led to increasing Russian activity on Australia’s doorstep, including in Indonesia and in the South Pacific.
In December 2017, Russia sent two long-range nuclear-capable bombers on a five-day visit to a military base at Biak, a small Indonesian island off the coast of Papua. The reason was unclear – some analysts suggested the exercise was designed to improve ties with Jakarta and to facilitate arms sales – but it was enough to prompt alarm in Canberra. The Australian Defence Force’s air base in Darwin was put on heightened alert, possibly due to concerns that Russian planes would try to spy on the United States marines stationed nearby.
In May this year, Russian forces edged closer, docking a 7000-tonne ship in Papua New Guinea. This was the first Russian naval visit to the former Australian colony, a point noted by Moscow, which described it as a “historic business port call”.
Russia has also attempted to build ties with small South Pacific countries such as Nauru and Tuvalu, partly to win diplomatic support for its interventions in Georgia and elsewhere.
In Fiji, Russia has pursued military ties, a development revealed by the arrival of a mysterious shipment of twenty containers in Suva in 2016. Inside, allegedly, was a stash of Russian weapons. Weeks later, a team of Russian soldiers turned up, apparently to train Fijian troops in the use of the unidentified hardware.
Putin’s South Pacific adventures have been partly motivated by his souring ties with the West and his search for new friendships. They demonstrate why Australia needs to maintain close, respectful ties with its immediate neighbours. But a weakening of Australia’s influence in the Pacific would also mark a victory in Putin’s effort to undermine the post–Cold War dominance of the United States and its allies. In this, Trump, who has demeaned friends and weakened alliances, has proven to be a gift for Putin – albeit one the Russian president helped to give himself via his cyber-meddlers.
Putin’s global capacities are limited and he does not pose an immediate threat to Australia. He inherited a nuclear stockpile and a strong military complex as a legacy of the Cold War and has spent large sums on maintaining them. But Russia is hardly equipped to be a superpower: its economy is smaller than Italy’s, and not much bigger than Australia’s.
Instead, Putin, with his relatively cheap forms of disruption, pursues theatrics. He dispatches forty-year-old ships to Port Moresby or arrives late to a “summit” with the US president in Helsinki, a site that recalls numerous grand Cold War meetings between Moscow and Washington.
His antics call for a united show of global disapproval, such as those that followed the Russian-backed rebels’ attack on a Malaysia Airlines plane above Ukraine in 2014. Malcolm Turnbull was right to point out this week that Putin can never be trusted, even as Trump opted for flattery and a wink in Helsinki.
The extent to which Putin seems powerful is perhaps a measure of how the world is faring in preserving a cooperative, stable order. In Helsinki, Putin escaped censure for his conduct in Syria and Crimea and for his meddling in the US elections. “Better than super,” Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, described the talks. “Magnificent.”