John Besemeres: Perhaps we mark the end of the period of Western passivity in the face of Russia's increasingly impudent acts

John Besemeres: Perhaps we mark the end of the period of Western passivity in the face of Russia's increasingly impudent acts

By Ivan Yusypiuk

Australia was the only country outside the EU and NATO to support the international campaign to expel Russian diplomats in response to a chemical attack in Salisbury. It caused a significant squall of criticism from the Russian side. The Russian Embassy in Canberra accused the Australian side of destroying the "the relatively small but substantial positive asset in relationship, which was created by a joint effort during the last years." Russia expelled two Australian diplomats in response.

Despite the fact that Canberra consistently supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, there are many Putin's apologists in Australia. Ukrinform spoke with leading Australian expert on Eastern Europe, Research Fellow of the Australian National University's Center for European Studies Dr John Besemeres about why it happens, what attitude to Ukraine and Russia prevails in Australian society today, and how Australia tackles Russian propaganda.

Q: Mr Besemeres, I'd like to start the interview with your assessment of how Australia, the most distant continent, now assesses world events and Russia's role in them?

A: Before answering your question, I'd like to make some introductory remarks, which hopefully will also serve to address your question.

Q: Yes, of course, I'm sure it will be interesting for our audience.

A: Australia traditionally had a very Eurocentric view of the world, following closely the views and national/imperial interests of the United Kingdom. Though Australian people of Irish origin sometimes took a negative view of the UK, most Australians thought of it as "home" up until roughly World War II. But since World War II, Australian policy-makers look primarily to the U.S. as our key ally, and primary security guarantor. In recent decades, and particularly since the Paul Keating government of the 1990s, the Australian foreign policy establishment sees Asia as its main security priority, sometimes to the point of neglecting our important, indeed vital continuing links with Europe.

Indeed in recent decades, Europe has become almost "unfashionable" in this country. Australians' knowledge of Europe and European issues, despite the huge postwar influx of European migrants, has fallen away markedly. Their knowledge of Russia and its neighbors in particular has declined from inadequate to something much worse.

Q: Is the situation so bad indeed?

A: Some of the already few and modest university departments devoted to Russia and its western neighbors were closed down or starved of funds. And Australian intellectuals of the left (few Australian intellectuals these days confess to being right-wing) tend to have a residual sympathy for Russia as the natural adversary of right-wing governments in Australia, a sympathy not coupled with any clear picture of the reality of Putinist Russia. Such was the backdrop against which many Australian intellectuals viewed Russia's illegal seizure and annexation of Crimea, and its violent subversion of parts of the Donbas: a poor understanding, with a tendency sometimes to see Russia as a victim of   resurgence of "Cold-War" attitudes.

A prominent ABC journalist interviewing me in the early phase of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, which I was depicting and criticizing, responded by saying something like: "But wasn't that all our fault for trying to take away their ally, Ukraine?" I replied by saying that Ukraine since independence was not an "ally" of Russia, but had rather sought to keep some distance from Moscow, while building better relations with the West, so as to have a hedge against any Russian pressure or aggression. I was not invited back to her program again. Our ABC, the national broadcaster, often has apologists for Putin's Russia on its programs, both Russian and non-Russian, and at best tends to favor "balance" - avoiding making judgements about conflict situations, but rather reporting what each side said as though they were equally to blame for any violence that was occurring. This doctrine of "balance" is a problem in Western journalism more broadly.

Despite the above, as a result of Moscow's continuing aggression against Ukraine and its military intervention in Syria in support of the brutal Assad regime, Australians have started to gain a better understanding of the nature of Kremlin policy. The shooting down of Malaysian flight MH17, in which some 39 Australian citizens and permanent residents perished, sharpened both Australia's perceptions and its policies. Even so, some Australian "realists" still saw then PM Tony Abbott's public comment that he would "shirt-front" (a rough tackle in Australian football) Mr Putin at the G20 summit in Brisbane as reckless, and ill-advised. Prime Minister Turnbull seemed to take a more "moderate" approach to Russia that his predecessor, Abbott. But over time, he too has hardened his line, and the Skripal case has had the effect of further strengthening Australia's policy towards Russia, as in other Western countries.

Q: In your recent comments to ABC News, you said that "the West has been too soft on Russia" for too long and the recent response of the international community to the attack in Salisbury is an "unprecedented show of strength." Do you think that at last we are witnessing the turning point in global policy when the world realized that the concept of resetting relations with Russia at this historic stage is hopeless?

A: I do indeed think the West has for far too long been pitifully inadequate in its responses to Russia's aggression against many countries of Western orientation. Well-off democracies tend to be pacific by inclination, though they have in recent decades embarked on military interventions, sometimes ill-judged. That liberal international system was finally solidified, as it seemed, by the fall of communism in 1990-91. Western countries have reduced their military establishments radically, and downsized many of their soft-power institutions aimed at reaching the populations of aggressive tyrannies like Russia, China and Iran. As a result most Western countries are now politically and militarily ill-prepared to deal with external aggression. The USA, with its worldwide interests and commitments, has of course retained a great military capacity, though under the eight-year Obama administration, that capacity was seldom used, even when the president's own words suggested that it would be. But Putin's serial aggression against the Western strategic community has finally provoked more robust responses, even from the Trump administration, whose leader has been repeatedly emphasizing his heartfelt desire for a warm relationship with Putin's Russia.

Europe, for its part, has been going through a series of enervating crises, which accentuate the self-imposed military weakness it has chosen for itself since the end of the Cold War. Its leader is now Germany, a country which for historical reasons has chosen to become a programmatically pacifist country. Some German leaders have continued repeatedly to call for "dialogue" with Russia despite Moscow's aggressive behavior.

But the Skripal outrage and the barrage of lies and threats with which Russia responded to being called upon to explain itself seem to have mobilized the West into a surprisingly vigorous and unified response. UK Prime Minster May handled the situation with skill and leadership, Macron contributed vigor and decisiveness, Trump offered an unexpectedly high number of expulsions, and Merkel contained, as she often succeeds in doing, any impulse by some of her fellow-countrymen to adopt a more accommodating position towards Moscow. Then soon afterwards, the reaction to yet another clear case of chemical weapon use by Assad with Russian support and complicity evoked a similarly unified and robust response from many of the same players.

Q: How long and strong can this unified policy of Western countries towards Russia be?

A: Recent response of the western countries to the policy of the Russian Federation gives me reason to assume, the end of the period of Western passivity and disunity in the face of Russia's increasingly impudent acts of aggression. But a big question mark remains on whether the new resolve and solidarity can be sustained, as Russia probes further, and tries to divide wedges into the Western alliance. President Trump has again abandoned the further sanctions which were in active preparation by his administration, and which had been publicly foreshadowed by the US ambassador to the UN in New York. Despite Russia's totally unjustified "retaliatory" expulsions, no further such action has been taken by any Western countries. Moscow has in fact now expelled nearly double the number of UK diplomats as London had expelled Russians from London. And we all know that the proportion of KGB and GRU operatives among the Russian expellees would have been close to 100%, and nothing remotely like it in the case of Russia's supposed counteractions.

The West should have had painful follow-up measures ready to impose on Moscow, but there is no sign of them. Instead we have President Trump again publicly longing for a lovely relationship with Putin. Any significant boycott of the World Cup, for example, seems out of the question. For Western leaders, producing surprising and damaging responses is, of course, far more difficult politically than for Putin. And trying to deprive democratic voters of their footy, it seems, is more than most Western leaders are prepared to risk. Most of them have given up on yet another reset for the time being. But the number of Russlandversteher we have in leading positions in the Western alliance is disheartening.

Q: Let us now switch to Ukraine. You are known to the Ukrainian audience first of all due to your book "A Difficult Neighborhood" published last year. At that time you wrote that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict was a turnsole of European and world's ability to respond adequately to current challenges. What is the perception of Russian aggression against Ukraine in Australia today?

A: I continue to believe that Ukraine is the central challenge that the West faces from Moscow, and for the West to become distracted and fail to hold the line on Ukraine would be a major disaster, not only for Ukraine, but also for the West as a whole. Any attempt to carry through some grand deal at Ukraine’s expense would be even worse. That said, I have been for the most part encouraged by the way in which the West has reacted in the last year or two. Minsk was not a well-drafted agreement, but both Kyiv and its Western supporters have interpreted it and stuck to it in such a way as to make it more difficult for Moscow to embark on fresh territorial grabs. But its military aggression against Ukraine continues, and the Kremlin clearly has the capacity and the intention to ramp it up when they judge that to be advantageous. Western support for Ukraine on the ground, though expanding, is still not sufficient. And the Western reactions to such issues as Nord Stream 2 and Russia's abusive response to the recent Stockholm decision on Gazprom are still much too weak.

As for Australian attitudes to these matters, I think we are now seeing broadly sensible responses from the government and most of the public. Unfortunately the coverage of Ukraine in the Australian media is less than it used to be, as other issues have impinged more on the public's attention. There is also a tendency as in other Western countries, for more criticism of Ukrainian internal developments to surface, not all of it balanced or well-informed. Nor do such voices always remember to make the rather basic point that for a country to have a difficult corruption problem for example, is not reason for the West to accept that a much larger country with a much more toxic corruption problem which, moreover, it actively exports to its neighbors, is any the more entitled on that account to continue to attack those neighbors. And we still have an irritating number of Putin apologists, including many imported from abroad, being granted access to our media spaces to spread Moscow's messages. But nonetheless there is a growing awareness of the threat Russia poses to the international system, including through its "strategic partnership" with China. The government's attitude to Moscow now seems appropriately robust. The Skripal case did much to bring greater clarity on that front. On these issues, our national policy is essentially bipartisan.

Q: In your publications, as well as in your book, you pay significant attention to antecedent facts and describe historical background of the events that antecede this or that decision of the Russian government. Do you consider that your audience has a misconception of Russian intentions and behavior, or you deliberately "knock out" the opportunity to spread Russian propaganda slogans from under the feet of Western elites?

A: In whatever I write or say, I do always try to give Australian readers a tutorial on basic historical facts, as even university-educated Australians are unlikely to know much about the history of Russia's neighbors, unless they themselves have family links to one of them; and even then, their knowledge may be restricted to that one country, with limitations and biases regarding the rest. They may have some basic knowledge of Russia, and because of Russia's recent prominence in the news, that knowledge may be growing. But even a basic grasp of Russia can't be taken for granted.

Now we are being overwhelmed by waves of identity politics, gender wars, at the expense of what was once the basic curriculum.  And what students do know about Russia's neighbors is often affected by a Russocentric approach to these matters.  Many Australian Russia specialists lack a sufficient grounding in the neighbors' perspectives on Russian history and behavior. If I were a benevolent dictator in these matters, I would require all students of Russian language, literature or history to spend at least a few months in one of the former colonies - Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, Georgia, etc. And incidentally, it is in Ukraine's long-term interests, that it should become more of a center of Russian studies itself, where such a perspective would be obtained by a natural osmosis, with lasting effects on the student, and potentially lasting benefits for Ukraine and international understanding.

Q: This is a very interesting idea, and I think we should take advantage of it. How would you describe Australian experts and their perception of Russia? Do you feel the efforts of Russian propaganda machine in Australia? How does Australia resist that?

A: I have already commented on the shortcomings of the Australian expert milieu as regards Russia and Ukraine. We have too few genuine experts on either country, especially on Ukraine. By contrast, the eruption of Russian violence against Ukraine in 2014 suddenly revealed that we had an unexpected abundance of instant experts who understood the situation perfectly in their own estimation; Russian patriots who sometimes had a startlingly weak understanding of Ukrainian realities, even whether Ukrainians existed, but seemingly felt no need to correct this deficiency; "realists" who argued that Russia is bound to dominate Ukraine, and that we should simply capitulate unresistingly to that fait accompli; anti-Western tribunes who say that anything Russian does now that we don't like is our own fault because we were so mean to Russia and didn't let it keep its empire etc. All of these types are present in our mix of commentators. Australia has a relatively small community of students of the region, and standards are perhaps accordingly not as high as they should be. The Russian propaganda machine does indeed operate in Australia, aided by what are sometimes unkindly described as useful idiots, some of whom still feel that loving Putin is a more legitimate position than supporting Washington, or even their own elected government. Our very own Julian Assange, hiding away from Swedish justice in a leftist embassy in London, and Moscow resident, Edward Snowden, both of whom almost unfailingly serve Putinist interests are still viewed as heroes by an uncomfortably large number of people in Australia as in the West generally. One resists all this (Russian propaganda) as best one can.

Q: In your book, you mentioned that because of Russia's devastating policy towards its neighbors and itself during the last decades, Russia has become an expelled country on an international level. Taking into account recent world events, don't you think that it is not bad governance but essence of Russia? Given an old European "record of sickness" and collisions between the closest neighbors, given West dependence on social media and democratic openness, has Russia been able to succeed in dividing the world and strengthen its positions?

A: At the launch of my book, I drew attention to the remarkable disjuncture between Russia's immense contribution to most fields of European intellectual and cultural life, and its dismally negative role in governance and international relations. Most of its history since 1917 has been deeply regrettable. Even the event it celebrates as its crowning achievement, the victory over Nazi Germany, was a task undertaken against the will of its leadership. Even that victory was in per capita terms more the achievement of Ukraine and Ukrainians (and some other captive peoples of the Soviet empire). Its contribution to European culture is often severely distorted by its perverse governance. As Guy Verhofstadt has said, the internet was devised and many of its greatest applications were developed by the West, whilst Russia's current regime, and other regimes like it, have reduced it to a cesspool of disinformation.

But while a country's political culture can often be highly durable, countries can and do often change rapidly for the better as well as for the worse.  Gorbachev and the early Yeltsin-era reformers fell in large part because of the movements in oil and gas prices. People who know ordinary Russian people are always aware of the difference between the official anti-Western xenophobia that they may partly reflect in conversation and the warm hospitality and interpersonal generosity that they otherwise display. There is therefore brittleness to Putin's stability, partly for these very reasons, which is something that Russia's adversaries can affect deeply if they summon the resolution to do so. The more that Russia's largest neighbor, Ukraine, can succeed in its post-Maidan project, the greater will be the pressure on Russia to reform itself. None of this is pre-ordained, though the legacy of the Bolsheviks and the Stalinists, and now the neo-Stalinist Putinists holding it back from progress, modernization and normality is a very heavy one.

Q: In conclusion, I cannot refrain from asking you to predict the development of events in Europe. As an expert of world politics, who had been shaping the world's tendencies for so many years, how do you see the future of Europe, in particular, Ukraine?

A: You've saved up the easiest question till last. Despite its enormous post-war achievements, Europe's social cohesion and democratic culture are under serious threat. President Putin sees Russia and himself simultaneously as the main source of that threat and the embodiment of all that is worth saving in European civilization. He is wrong on both counts, though the danger his neo-Stalinism poses is certainly a very real one. But Europe and the global West must also and above all overcome problems, which are basically of their own making, for all that they are often exploited by the Kremlin's hybrid warfare. I will mention a few that strike me. Despite your kind words, I must confess that I am not an expert on all these matters.

Europe, like the West generally must address such problems as high unemployment, especially among young people, as well as extremes of inequality, which alienate the poor, providing ready targets for populist politicians, and which, incidentally, technological advances threaten to make much worse.

Europe should check and perhaps partly reverse its tendency to excessive centralization.  It can be argued that the only priority areas really demanding coordinated and centralized decision-making and enforcement at all costs are internal and external security, and loyalty to basic European values, above all the principles of democracy.  These should ipso facto rule out the emergence of rulers determined to bend the rules to achieve total control and interminable periods in office.  They should also exclude any flirtation with, as opposed to necessary communication with the Kremlin under present management, or any other government which declares itself the enemy of European institutions.

It must humanely but with determination regain full control of its borders (and accept some consequential modifications of Schengen internally) so that the existing European populations and cultures know they will be protected from uncontrolled influxes that cannot be integrated. Failure to achieve this leads to situations like the current configuration of German politics, where suddenly the largest opposition party is an overt admirer of President Putin.

More generally it must it must somehow check the rising tide of populism in its politics, caused in large measure by the failure to protect its borders.

That will probably involve dealing with the deadly constraint on freedom of speech posed by political correctness. Europe's political culture, which has devised so many altruistic ideologies, above all Christianity (though all, including Christianity may be vulnerable to perverted distortion) must somehow place checks on the me-now tendencies which are now so rampant in Western society.

It must also try at least to slow down the tendency for Western countries to abandon many of their traditional values and apologize for ever having held them. To take one example, Christian observance and the language of Christian observance should not be virtually abandoned in deference to the supposed sensitivities of non-Christian immigrants.

If these and other issues can be ameliorated, Mr Putin and his allies will have far less material with which to work.

Unfortunately, none of these "ifs" are small "ifs."



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