Diplomacy in the Ukraine. US defence cuts. Submarine program. China’s Ukraine response. By Hamish McDonald.

Diplomacy required in Ukraine

Russian soldiers with their insignia removed march on a Ukrainian military base near Simferopol on Thursday.
Russian soldiers with their insignia removed march on a Ukrainian military base near Simferopol on Thursday.
Credit: Benjamin Hiller/Corbis/APImages

Ah, the Ukraine: the land where one politician can turn green and mottled with dioxin poison, and another, as beautiful as the Ice Queen, can go from leader to jailbird; the granary of Europe where the merchants of grain like Dreyfus and Cargill started; excellent tank country as the armies of Hitler and Stalin proved; and unfortunately a land just a bit too far for the Atlantic powers to look a convincing threat to Moscow.

For sound political reasons, Barack Obama could hardly avoid warning Russia’s Vladimir Putin of consequences if he went ahead with occupying Crimea last weekend. But George Bush hardly did any better with Georgia in 2008. Likewise Putin could hardly avoid calling the American bluff, especially when it became clear the immediate “consequences” would be non-attendance at the G8 meeting in Sochi.

What should have been done that wasn’t and what was done right in the Ukraine crisis? One wrong move was immediately spelling out the consequences and applying the weak sanctions to hand; that is, cutting off dialogue. Instead Moscow should have been flooded with upset Western leaders.

More thought should have gone into reading the signs: why did Putin send in troops with their insignia removed? Why did the increasingly respected (from the Syria chemical weapons deal) Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, state immediately the troops would be there until certain assurances were gained?

Let’s remember that under the agreements of the Soviet Union break-up, Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s territorial integrity, got nuclear weapons handed over, and was given access to the Black Sea for its navy. Ukraine’s pro-Russian president deserved to go (especially after the sniper shootings of protesters) but the former opposition hardly played the right card by banning Russian as an official language as its first move once in power.

There’s a diplomatic deal here, for a Russian retreat. After that, turning Ukraine into a well-run state will be an expensive task for Europe. Obama has, meanwhile, been wise to leave the deep diplomacy to Germany’s Angela Merkel. Raised in East Germany, she knows how to get through to a former KGB agent once embedded in the land of the Stasi.

1 . US Army takes hit in defence cuts

Obama’s budget for the 2015 fiscal year (starting this October) underlines that Washington won’t be getting into any big new land wars, anywhere. The defence allocation starts the first tranche of the sequestration deal to cut $US450 billion over 10 years.

The US Army will be scaled back from its recent peak of 566,000 personnel to 490,000 this year, and may be cut further to 430,000. By next year it will be the smallest army since before Pearl Harbour. Under John Howard, Canberra geared up the Australian Army to join US expeditions. Later it detached an Australian general as deputy chief of the US Army’s Pacific Command. But there may not be any expeditions for a long while.

Still, the US military will be a mighty machine and strong where Australian strategists on Russell Hill, Canberra, want it to be. Secretary of Defence  Chuck Hagel has sacrificed the US Army to save a strong navy, marine corps and air force. His Secretary of the Navy, Ray Mabus, is confident a 300-ship navy will survive, including the existing 11 aircraft carrier groups. The newest and best will be sent into the western Pacific, including updated Virginia-class attack submarines with underwater drones.

The F-22 Raptor stealth fighter is already in Japan, the first F-25s will soon join the carriers, and the first laser weapons will be fitted to US Navy ships “very soon”.

As for the marines spending the dry season in Darwin, they will be gearing up to a 2500-strong amphibious brigade strength, with much more equipment to deploy them into trouble spots, such as a new 80,000-tonne “mobile landing platform” ship and a high-speed transport vessel.

Will we have any say on what operations might be launched from Australia?

2 . New subs the next strategic decision

But to listen to Richard Armitage, Bush’s former deputy secretary of state, these re-assuring boots on the Northern Territory ground have a tendency to make Canberra politicians slack off.

Not so, says former Howard defence minister Brendan Nelson, who assured me at a recent gathering of the US alliance trustees in Washington that the Australian Navy’s new amphibious and helicopter carriers would be a game changer. But the real interest in the Pentagon is in Australia’s replacement program for the Collins-class submarines.

As one Washington navy expert pointed out in a background briefing, Australia is one of only two allies to share US submarine technology (the other is Britain). The Americans were willing to help the French develop their nuclear weapons, this expert said, but not share their submarine know-how.

 The moment of decision for the navy’s submarine program is approaching. It will be the biggest defence spend in Australia’s history, $36 billion at a common count. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute is holding a two-day event in Canberra next month and charging $1755 for those interested in a piece of the action. It’s already sold out.

Why are the Americans so keen? There is a shortage of “platforms” looming in the East China Sea and South China Sea. Our ultra-quiet conventional subs would be invaluable in the looming battle with China for control of the underwater space. For an Australian Navy that once put its old Oberon-class subs into Haiphong and Vladivostok on spy duty, the lure would be almost irresistible.

3 . China’s response to Ukraine a work in progress

Back to Ukraine: the Russian move has put China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, in a bit of a pickle. Russia is the biggest ally in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the pact between all the former and current communist states in the Eurasian landmass, a natural gas and oil source out of reach of the US Navy, and the major source of modern weapons as well.

Yet only last December Xi was in Kiev vowing that if ever Ukraine were threatened with nuclear weapons, China would respond “in kind”. An “extended deterrence” from China? The wording is obscure.

Still Ukraine is an important source of weaponry, too. The Antonov aircraft factory is there, knock-off designs of Russian fighters have come via Ukraine as well, and of course China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, came from Crimea as a hulk ostensibly destined for a theme park.

 The Chinese foreign ministry’s statement of support for Putin was remarkably weasel-worded, even for Beijing. Is this the start of a new Great Game?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 8, 2014 as "Diplomacy and deep pockets required".

A free press is one you pay for. Now is the time to subscribe.

Hamish McDonald is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.

Sharing credit ×

Share this article, without restrictions.

You’ve shared all of your credits for this month. They will refresh on August 1. If you would like to share more, you can buy a gift subscription for a friend.