Since Russia’s invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine last year, President Putin has continued to have a belligerent and threatening stance. Although the West has imposed punishing economic sanctions on Russia, Putin shows no signs of removing his military presence from the Donbas region of Ukraine. Instead, he has adopted a decidedly provocative stance towards the West. In recent months, Moscow has boasted about Russia’s nuclear weapons capabilities and has mounted provocative military incursions into NATO airspace.
Russia now poses a serious threat to the existing European security order, which Moscow no longer recognises. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has shattered the comfortable belief that the use of force among leading European powers had been banished.
There is growing anxiety, especially in the Baltic countries and Scandinavia, about the dangers of further Russian military provocations. There is a growing realisation that Moscow’s new military strategy relies on the early recourse to tactical nuclear weapons in the event that it has to defend what it defines as its sovereign territory against a superior conventional military force.
Serious questions surround the issue of whether any NATO country, including Germany, would have the fortitude to defy Russia militarily. Although Russia’s military forces are still not comparable with those of the former Soviet Union, there is little doubt that Moscow can now use decisive military force in what it terms “the near abroad”.
Little of this seems to be understood in Canberra, where we have seriously rundown our Russian analytical capabilities. Our political leaders seem to be of the view that Russia is a weak country that is far away and of no strategic consequence. That is a seriously mistaken view in my opinion and I will seek to demonstrate that there are significant Australian strategic interests at risk here.
Professor Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of strategic studies in the College of Asia and the Pacific at the ANU. He was Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre from 1991 to 2004. Before that he held the positions of Deputy Secretary of Defence, Director of the Joint Intelligence Organisation and Head of the National Assessments Staff.
He studied the former Soviet Union for over 20 years both as a senior intelligence officer and ANU academic. His book the Soviet Union – the Incomplete Superpower was published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London in 1986, reprinted 1987 and second edition 1988.