As the war continues in Ukraine, Australia and other allies are shoring up security agreements closer to home.
One year on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the world looks different. The war has triggered what German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has called a zeitenwende, or “epochal tectonic shift”. It has been an inflection point, the end of an era, and in this “new multipolar world, different countries and models of government are competing for power and influence,” Scholz said.
Scholz’s plans to deepen connections with Russia and open the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running through the Baltic Sea for a surge in cheap gas, consolidating Germany’s economic dominance in Europe, have been suspended.
But what more has the West done to back Ukraine? Will tanks and precision technology arrive soon enough to terminate the tidal wave of incoming Russian troops? What’s playing out in the Pacific and where does Australia stand in this brazen new world?
The war was supposed to happen quickly and the Ukrainians were supposed to fold. But unlike Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president who chose to flee Kabul in the last few hours before the Taliban took over in August 2021, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy declared he would stay and fight. This had an electrifying effect on Ukrainian resolve and aroused a spectacular surge in international support, particularly from western European, North American and other ‘First World’ countries such as Australia and Japan.
The contrast to the carefully measured and tepid response to the Russian seizure of the Donbas and Ukraine in 2014 was stark. The Ukrainians proved much more adept than most had anticipated, having spent the intervening eight years preparing for what they could see coming. Meanwhile, the European and North American countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) demonstrated more cohesion and resolve than pundits had ever imagined possible. Sweden and Finland joining NATO points to a deep failure in Russian foresight.
The initial Russian surge echoed the failed early days of the Soviet invasion of Finland in late 1939, when Russian tank columns were soundly defeated by the Finnish defenders. But what most forget, is that the Soviets adapted and adjusted their ways, reverting to a far simpler but more deadly approach to industrial-scale warfare. The meat grinder effect of massed artillery firepower accompanied by tanks, aircraft and incremental advances saw the Finns suffer heavy casualties, lose ground and sue for peace in early 1940.
Today in Ukraine, Russia looks set to launch an industrial-scale offensive that eerily echoes the approach they took in Finland in 1940. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has doubled down, determined not to let his nation lose, if not win outright, by mustering hundreds of thousands of additional troops to overwhelm Ukrainian defences by weight of numbers.
Tanks have been promised to Ukraine by Britain, Germany and the United States to provide firepower, mobility and protection. However, Putin will likely try to force the issue before they can be brought to bear on the battlefield.
To avoid a repeat of what happened to Finland will be costly and difficult. Ukraine is already being pounded into the ground. It is their fight, but support from NATO and like-minded countries, such as Australia, remains critical if Russia’s offensive action is to be blunted. Precision Western technology including 155mm artillery used by ground forces, armoured vehicles and High Mobility Artillery Rocket System will certainly help, but ammunition stocks are low and require significant supplementation to avoid being rolled by sheer volume of Russian firepower and troop numbers.
Expect decisions on the supply of Western fighter aircraft to Ukraine soon too.
There will be more seesawing across the Ukrainian battlefield in the weeks and months ahead. One thing seems clear, though: Russian victory would likely give confidence to their ‘no limits’ friends in China, at the other end of the Eurasian landmass, to entertain similar adventurist behaviour.
Putin’s friend President Xi Jinping of China has ratcheted up rhetoric, force size and resources in anticipation of a clash over Taiwan. Wary of the implications of a Chinese subjugation of Taiwan, Japan is looking to double its military capability and bolster security ties with Taiwan.
Similarly, the United States (US) is engaging more closely with Japan and the Philippines. But with a navy and air force that has shrunk considerably since the Cold War, the US is not well placed to fend off an attack, assuming they decide to commit to defending Taiwan. With the searing experience of Iraq and Afghanistan in their consciousness, US military planners know they are not in a position to risk escalating matters. The days of such hubris have passed.
As for Australia, the 800-word essay that is the ANZUS treaty never offered any cast iron security guarantees, leaving us with a niggling fear of abandonment. However, the ties that bind the US and Australia today are multifaceted and span not just ANZUS but a plethora of working level agreements, as well as the AUKUS and Quad arrangements.
AUKUS is a technical agreement between Australia, the United Kingdom and US, forged in 2021 and now poised to deliver a plan for Australia to gain access to, and eventually participate in, a nuclear propulsion submarine industry. This is coupled with an initiative to deepen and broaden Australia’s defence industrial capacity for high-technology munitions and weapons systems to ‘muscle up’ and bolster deterrence.
The Quad is a partnership between Australia, Japan, the US and India for cooperation on a range of initiatives, largely focused on competing with China for influence across the Indian and Pacific oceans. Expect to see more of India actively engaged with Fiji, Papua New Guinea and elsewhere. Having patched up the relationship with France after the nadir that accompanied the cancellation of the submarine contract, Australia looks set to be a constructive security partner in the Pacific and beyond.
We are currently awaiting public release of the Defence Strategic Review, which is expected to emphasise the AUKUS nuclear-powered submarines as a priority, along with guided weapons and explosives.
Meanwhile Australia’s activist Foreign Minister, Penny Wong, will continue to engage closely with counterparts in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, seeking to ensure AUKUS and Quad ties actually work to our advantage. Her mission, it seems, is to make sure these security partnerships do not lead to Australia being seen as retreating from Asia. With a much more diverse and multicultural community than ever before, that’s not going to happen.
Convincing neighbours of Australia’s sincerity and the utility of these arrangements will continue to be a challenge.
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