Conflict is looming between Russia and the Ukraine. This is why it matters to Australia

The reason for a potential conflict in Ukraine goes back centuries.

The reason for a potential conflict in Ukraine goes back centuries. Photo: AAP

On the surface, one might be tempted to think what is happening between Russia and the Ukraine is simple: A bully is picking on a small neighbour.

What is really happening is much more complicated and far more important than that – even to Australia.

So, let’s start by figuring out what is Russia doing and why is it doing it?. I stress here that the West needs to understand Vladimir Putin, but not necessarily agree with him, if policy response settings are to be right.

To get some context, think back to the Cuban missile crisis of the 1960s. Were the Americans right to object to the Soviets (read Russians) threatening military equipment in America’s back yard? The Australian Government certainly thought so, and most Western governments supported Kennedy in the nuclear stand-off with Khrushchev (more on Khrushchev later).

Consider also that Cuba is not ‘ancient history’, given that the American embargo is still in place today. And before we talk about Russian invasions of Ukraine, think Bay of Pigs. Oh, and the Americans still occupy part of Cuba against Cuban wishes. Guantanamo Bay anyone?

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The Cuban missile crisis took the US to the brink of war with the USSR. Photo: Getty

If you think the Americans were right to feel threatened by the Soviets in Cuba, even using a proxy army of exiles attempting to invade it and still occupying part of the country, how do you think the Russians would feel now that American troops, weapons and missiles are in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, and facing the prospect  that Ukraine might one day join NATO?

After all, America has such a great track record as peacemaker, doesn’t it?

I stress here that I am not saying the Russians are right and the Americans are wrong, I am just saying they are similar in the way they act.

In Russia there is enormous importance placed on what is known as the Rostov-on-Don line. It stretches from St. Petersburg down western Russia to Rostov-on-Don, linking Russia’s two ‘warm water ports of last resort’, roughly where the Russian border with the West and Ukraine is now.

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Source: TND

Russia’s historical push back

When Russia is at its weakest, the Rostov-on-Don line is historically the furthest east that Western influence has reached. Think Napoleon, Hitler, and many other times in history. When Russia is pushed that far east, it always pushes back. The eastern part of Ukraine is over the Rostov-on-Don line. When Russia is pushing back. But why now?

At the end World War Two, Russia was at its strongest and occupied half of Germany. Think Kaliningrad, the Russian exclave stuck between Lithuania and Poland pinched from the Germans in 1945. When Russia reaches that far, the West always pushes back. Think the fall of the Berlin Wall and NATO expansion.

The West pushed back until the Yeltsin years, when Russia was at its weakest, with many former Soviet states joining, or seeking to join, the West’s military bloc: NATO.

Putin feels strong enough now to push back, partly because of China distracting the West and partly because of the West’s mis-steps in Crimea.

The 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea is critical to the current escalation.

In Soviet times, Crimea had been governed by Russia as a province of the Soviet Union – until Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine to govern.

Crimea was never Ukrainian until Khrushchev.  Maybe this had something to do with the fact that Khrushchev was born in what is now the border regions or Russia and Ukraine. Maybe not. Either way, if a free and fair referendum had been held in 2014, most commentators agree the vote would have seen Crimea leave Ukraine and join Russia.

Some of us argued for a different approach at the time. We argued that with a new referendum, free and fair and monitored by the OSCE, the result could have been recognised.

But there was no free and fair referendum. There was an invasion instead, and violence should not be rewarded, even if historically correct. Think Taiwan. Even the Taiwanese say there is ‘only one China’. More on China in a moment.

Impact on Australia

Of the three great powers in the world today – China, the US and a relatively small Russia – either Russia and the West could gang-up to counter China, or China and Russia could gang-up to counter the West.

The West and China were never going to gang-up against Russia, as Russia is too small. Russia is the king-maker here, not the king.

This is why Russia and Crimea, and now Ukraine, are important to Australia. It all impacts on China.

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Russia and China are moving to an ever-closer relationship. Photo: Getty

What does Russia want? Over the longer term it wants to keep Ukraine unstable, push back the West beyond the Rostov-on-Don line, and assert its influence. In the short term it wants a land-bridge from Russia through Ukraine to Crimea. The land bridge would extend from Russia, roughly from where Khrushchev was born, through the Donetsk region of Ukraine to Crimea.

Russia may still invade if the West doesn’t resist, but Russia does not have to invade to win. It just needs the Russian minority rebels in Ukraine to extend their territory, perhaps using the current exchange of artillery fire as an excuse, and create a ‘breakaway region’ that no one recognises but Russia controls.

Coincidentally there is a model. The Russian majority breakaway region of Transnistria set itself up as independent from Moldova with – Surprise! Surprise! – Russian peacekeeping soldiers. Transnistria borders Ukraine and the stalemate there continues.

It has happened before, and it will happen again. Transnistria has been a stalemate for decades. So will Crimea be, and so could a land bridge through Ukraine. Putin wins without invading.

In the meantime, the West shakes a finger and pushes Russia further into China’s hands. This is why Ukraine really does matter to Australia.

Andrew MacLeod is a visiting professor to Kings College London, Chairman of Griffin Law, a non-executive director to Australian and US companies, a former high level UN official co-founder of He can be followed on @AndrewMMacLeod.

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