Could Australia's Constant Niggle with Russia Ever Get to Full-Blown Beef?

After 18 months of mutual swiping, we asked an expert if escalation is in the cards.

by Maddison Connaughton
03 December 2015, 4:35pm

It's not like Australia and Russia were ever going to be best friends. However, over the past few years relations between the two countries have sharply declined. Most notably, there was Russia's response to the downing of flight MH17, which killed 27 Australians. Russia has frustrated Australian diplomats by continuously denying any involvement in the crash, despite findings by US and German intelligence that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists. There was Tony Abbott's infamous threat to shirtfront Russian president Vladimir Putin at the G20 meeting in Brisbane. Putin's response? He casually sent warships into the Coral Sea, which is just off the Queensland Coast, during the summit.

Now in the past month alone, Athletics Australia has called for the Russian Federation to be banned from next year's Olympic Games in Rio after it was revealed their government supported systematic doping of Russian athletes. Then for no apparent reason, Russia objected to Australia's involvement in the Syrian peace talks, excluding diplomats from a meeting in Vienna. So could this bickering spill over into something more extreme? And if so, what would that mean for the world? We asked Dr Alexey Muraviev, who is an expert in Russian-Australian relations at Perth's Curtin University.

VICE: Let's start with the big question. If Australia and Russia went to war, how would you rate our chances?
Dr Muraviev: If Australia and Russia were to shirtfront themselves in a military hypothetical, Australia wouldn't stand a chance. Russia is the world's number two military power. It has shown a significant military potential in Syria that took many by surprise because the overall perception was that the Russian military has been weakened and they couldn't operate outside the former Soviet borders.

What would a war mean for the rest of the world?
We need to remember that militarily we're aligned to the United States. So any hypothetical conflict with either Russia or China would bring the United States into the equation. The US, being a nuclear superpower, would extend its conventional as well as unconventional—in other words nuclear deterrents—to its regional allies, including Australia.

That would prove a reason why such a conflict effectively is impossible. The danger of nuclear confrontation would keep all parties at bay and impose a great degree of self-restraint on their actions.

So the only place conflict between the two is likely to occur is in the media?
There is no real reason for the Russians to attack Australia. Nor are there real reasons for Australia to attack Russia. Obviously, Australia attacking Russia would be equivalent to committing suicide.

Generally speaking, what do Russians think of Australia?
Australia doesn't get much coverage in Russia. It gets coverage when, for example, there is a major bushfire.

Certainly the 'shirtfront' comment caught the eye of the Russian media. I think it was the most-discussed Australian issue in all of Russia last year, although the majority of comments weren't hostile. The degree of hostility that exists in the Australian media towards Russia is disproportionate to the way Russians think of Australians.

The way the shirtfronting got translated in Russia sounded a bit different to how it was intended. It was as if Tony was planning to wrestle Putin down to the ground. The Russians reaction was basically, "Yes, try and wrestle someone who is a black belt in judo."

Do you think Australia's hostility is directed broadly at Russia or at Putin in particular?
The media has chosen to make Putin a bad guy. Compare for example Australian media reporting on China.

I can tell you, and I can even bet you some money, that in 90 percent of cases when media runs story on Russia—be it about Russia's involvement in Syria, Ukraine, whether it's about puppies, tigers, conflicts in the Bolshoi Theatre or Russian Ballet, there will always be a reference to Putin. You know, Putin has a New Lover, Putin Gets a Puppy. You wouldn't see the same sort of level of coverage of any other foreign leader, be it Indian Prime Minister Modi or Chinese President Xi Jinping.

I don't want to describe it as deliberate but certainly there's a trend that whatever news is coming out of Russia needs to be negative. Then public opinion is formed around the notion that Russia means trouble, and Russia means trouble because Putin is in power.

Is the Australian media harder on Russia than it is on China?
Well, China is our largest trading partner. [It] has a significant political lobbying capacity in Australia and as a result, the Australian political establishment is very careful when talking about China.

With Russia the story is different. I can't say whether losing $2 billion [$1.5 billion USD] a year in annual trade—[Australia and Russia's bilateral trade before sanctions were imposed in 2014]—is affordable or not. Clearly, the Australian government made the conscious choice to sacrifice this amount. Canberra believes Russia is somehow expendable.

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