It took less than 24 hours from the time Russian President Vladamir Putin announced the invasion of Ukraine to the emergence of predictions that the country’s fall, and its rapid fall, was a fait accompli.
But after weeks of theorizing about Putin’s strategic objective; whether it was just about stopping Ukraine joining NATO, or something more; about his military capability, and assessments of whether Ukraine’s capabilities had improved in the last decade, it was not just the speed of Russia’s attack but its widespread nature that came as a shock.
This was no assault confined to a couple of eastern regions but a comprehensive attack from all directions designed to wipe out any military resistance quickly and, presumably, overthrow the government.
There was talk in that first 24 hours of resistance. And there was still talk after that of resistance in western Ukraine that might make Putin’s occupation more costly or contested, particularly if it was being supported by ‘the West’.
But Ukraine has been left to fall by the United States and NATO.
The nature of Putin’s strike has made very clear his strategic intentions: Ukraine’s expected rapid collapse, and the fact the US and NATO were not able or willing to do anything about it, is what makes this such a profound turning point in Europe.
If Putin’s aim was to demonstrate declining United States power and influence, it is hard to imagine a more effective way of doing it. And it happens at a point in time when other powers in Europe are divided and weak.
A new testing point in Europe
In particular, the public debate in Germany about lack of preparedness or capacity to do anything about Ukraine has been bitter, even if Germany has ultimately been the country that has provided the most significant sanction with its decision to halt the massive Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline .
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Thursday said that “Putin should not underestimate NATO’s determination to defend all of its members”.
“That expressly applies to our NATO partners in the Baltic, in Poland, in Romania, in Bulgaria and in Slovakia. It applies unconditionally. Germany and its allies know how to protect themselves.”
It is this assertion which will be the new testing point in Europe in coming months: it is one thing to stand by and watch a country which is not an ally being invaded; it is another to not support your treaty partners.
Few analysts believe Putin has ambitions to take over large swathes of Europe, but some are concerned that his very success in Ukraine might embolden him to move on some of the Baltic states — to really test NATO, if nothing else.
Putin’s language in announcing what he was about to do was unequivocal: countries that intervened in Ukraine would face “consequences they have never seen”, he said, comments that could only imply his willingness to use nuclear weapons.
There is not a lot of optimism that the sanctions the US, Europe, Australia and many others have imposed will actually work.
A particular reason why they might not work is China’s position. China has described the sanctions as “illegal” and opposes them.
It’s decision to buy wheat from Russia — and likely more oil and gas — will obviously undermine the potency of western sanctions on the Russian economy.
The US won’t always step up
Defense Minister Peter Dutton told breakfast television on Friday that “there’s one leader in the world, frankly, who can exert pressure on President Putin and that is President Xi”.
At a time when there has been so much debate on whether a Chinese takeover of Taiwan would become the testing point of US power, Putin’s move on Ukraine appears to have given a highly uncomfortable answer, without Beijing having to do a thing.
Speaking about China at the National Press Club in November, Dutton said, “in my view, acquiescence or appeasement is a tactic that ends in a cul-de-sac of strategic misfortune or worse”. Australia should “call out actions that are destabilizing and contrary to the interests of Australia and the region”, he argued:
“While the current debate is about Taiwan, the analysis must be more honest. Yes there would be a terrible price of action, but the analysis must also extend to the price of inaction. If Taiwan is taken, surely the Senkakus are next. Please don’t rely on your imagination. The Chinese government could not be any clearer; not always with their words, but certainly with their actions.”
This week’s events mean we really don’t need to rely too much on our imaginations to envisage an aggressive takeover of another country.
The reality is always sobering, much more sobering, than the prospect.
But this week’s events also serve as a reminder that while tough talk may well be worthwhile, it doesn’t necessarily stop events. And they also provide a clear warning that we can’t presume the United States will always step up, or that we can simply follow its lead.
How will war influence the federal election?
Most of the Press Club questions to Dutton last November were about whether Australia should, or would, follow the US into a conflict over Taiwan.
After this week, the alternative question should be even louder: What would happen if the US didn’t enter such a conflict?
Dutton has been the figure espousing the most aggressive line against China, even as the PM has recently stepped up his rhetoric to attack Labor.
The rhetoric reflects deeply held concerns, and a deeply held strategic view, about our regional situation — not just in the government but across the political spectrum and within the national security community.
But it has, of late, also had a sharp political edge.
Against the backdrop of the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine, it is worth contemplating the specter of war on the climate in which the federal election will be held, particularly given the Coalition’s belligerent line on national security.
This is a different war to some that have served as backdrops to elections in the past. It is a war that does not directly threaten Australia. It is one in which we are not taking any direct role.
This week’s Essential poll, published in The Guardian (and which predates the invasion of Ukraine), showed a majority of voters see China and our bilateral relationship as a complex issue to be managed, rather than a threat to be confronted and, significantly, that more voters trust Labor than the Coalition to manage that complexity.
That is perhaps not an outcome that would have been expected given the political attack of recent weeks.
It suggests national security was not playing out exactly as planned before the invasion of Ukraine. In turn, that suggests there are good reasons to keep politics out of the continuing domestic discussion of this grim and horrendous war on the other side of the world.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.