Australia blind to Russian power in Asia Pacific, expert warns | Australia news
Australia’s recent excoriation of Russia shows it still views the relationship as expendable and “severely underestimates” the Kremlin’s increasing projection of power into the Asia-Pacific region, a close observer of Russian foreign policy has warned.
Curtin University’s Alexey Muraviev said Australia’s “China-centric” view of the region was obscuring Russia’s growing influence and importance.
He said recent warnings for Australians to rethink travel to Russia, including for the football World Cup in June, were completely unfounded, because most Russians had little to no knowledge or interest in Australia, its politics or the views of Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop.
“First of all, the majority of Russians don’t think about Australia apart from kangaroos ... They would be thinking Sydney, they would be thinking wonderful beaches,” Muraviev said.
“If you read Russian media, you would struggle to find an article on Australia, let alone about the foreign minister or prime minister’s references. Russians wouldn’t even know who is our prime minister, who is the foreign minister.
“I think what the [Australian] government is doing is applying indirect, not pressure, but effectively trying to scare people away from going to the World Cup.”
Relations between Russia and Australia have been strained over the Sergei Skripal affair in Britain. The foreign affairs department updated its travel advice over the weekend, advising travellers to Russia to brace for “anti-western sentiment or harassment”.
On Sunday night two Russian diplomats, whom Australia alleges of being spies, boarded a flight out of Canberra. They were expelled from the country as part of a unified action with other western nations designed to punish Russia over the nerve agent attack on Skripal.
Muraviev said the expulsions were a “massive embarrassment” for Moscow’s ambassador to Australia, Grigory Logvinov. He was tasked with improving bilateral relations after tension with the Abbott government over Russia’s involvement in the war in Ukraine and the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.
Muraviev said Australia’s handling of the Skripal affair showed it still viewed its relationship with Russia as of little importance. That approach was reflected across the Commonwealth, including defence and intelligence agencies, which often simply recycled American assessments of Russia and lacked basic language expertise, he said.
But Russia was increasingly projecting its power into the Asia-Pacific region, Muraviev said. Vladimir Putin’s government has been developing closer relationships with Vietnam, Myanmar, Pakistan and the Philippines, and Russia’s navy is calling into ports in the region more frequently.
Late last year Russia flew bombers from an airfield in Indonesia over neutral waters close to Australia, prompting an Australian air force base to be put on alert.
Muraviev said Australia had become “China-centric” in its view of the region. He questioned whether Australia would have taken a similar approach to Chinese diplomats had their country been implicated in a nerve agent attack on British soil.
“We consider our relations with Russia expendable, because there is not much to lose – this is what we think,” he said.
“We severely underestimate Russia as a power and certainly as a military power. We still live on the established stereotypes that we have created for ourselves, thinking that the Soviet Union has gone, Russia withdrew its presence from south-east Asia and the Indian Ocean and thus we can disregard them.”
Russia last week announced it was retaliating against Australia and other western nations for the expulsion of its diplomats.
At a rambling press conference last week, Logvinov accused Australia of blindly following its allies and attempting to smear Russia without proper evidence of its involvement in the attack on Skripal and his daughter.
Muraviev said the episode would have been highly embarrassing for Logvinov. Russia had viewed Turnbull as a more moderate figure than Tony Abbott and welcomed his election. The Russian government had been hoping to rebuild the relationship with Australia, Muraviev said.
“Now everything that was rebuilt, all of the positive signs that were rebuilt over the last two years, will now be effectively washed down the drain,” he said. “The Russians don’t consider Australia to be their priority when it comes to Indo-Pacific affairs. They’re not going to make any concessions, they’re prepared to sacrifice relations.
“But obviously, for the ambassador, whose key performance indicator says to see the relations improve, it’s a major setback.”
Muraviev, an associate professor of national security and strategic studies, is one of the few Australian-based academics with expertise in Russia.
He was the inaugural scholar-in-residence for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and recently published a report for the institute on Russia’s projection in the Asia-Pacific region.
He is a non-residential fellow at the Australian navy’s Sea Power Centre, a member of the Russia-Nato experts group and was four times nominated by the Australian Research Council’s college of experts as an “expert of international standing”. He has advised members of state and federal governments on foreign policy and national security.