Russia and Ukraine’s Australian proxy war

Australian universities are a new front in a charm offensive

Elizabeth Buchanan

International relations, National security, Education | Australia, Asia

22 November 2018

Russia is a rising power in the Asia-Pacific region, but a lack of country-specific expertise in Australia’s universities is making it hard to hear counter-narratives, Elizabeth Buchanan writes.

Australia has become a proxy of sorts for the Russia-Ukraine war, with academic institutions hosting peace offensives from representatives of both sides. Just last month, a series of public lectures in Canberra highlighted how these soft power initiatives have the ability to shape our domestic political discourse.

On Tuesday 23 October, Russia targeted students at The Australian National University with a talk from Russia’s Ambassador to Australia Grigory Logvinov. A likeable man, Logvinov delivered an engaging address to a demographic primed and receptive to his pointed remarks and clear agenda aimed at our ally the United States.

His talk, ‘The place and role of Russia in the modern world’ fanned the collective frustration towards Trump’s America and tabled an attractive alternative – the concept of a multipolar future. This has merit.

The reorientation of global power towards Asia provides a window of opportunity for Australia to revisit its global power architecture. Australia should seriously consider what role it should and could play in a multipolar system. We share the region with India and China, powerhouses of economic growth and future poles of power.

More on this: Putin's re-election poses a continuing headache for the world

Russia, meanwhile, is actively deepening ties with both Delhi and Beijing. As a relevant Asia-Pacific power, Canberra must be capable of dealing with Moscow in our region. But this will require dialogue.

Through the Ambassador’s talk, Russia served up a range of ideas and arguments aimed at shaping the beliefs of Australians. Peppered throughout the lecture were accusations of Western framing in the Skripal case, a rejection of election interference accusations, as well as claims of Russia having defeated the Islamic State.

Preaching to students who are largely disenfranchised with Trump’s style of world stewardship, and who are also witnessing the cultivation of far-right populist movements across the globe, is a tactical move. Will young Australians soon find themselves questioning the impulse to blame Russia for all that is wrong in the world?

The evening prior, on Monday 22 October, the ACT Branch of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (AIIA) welcomed Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze, Ukraine’s Vice Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration.

It is not immediately clear how Australia falls within her ministerial remit, but nonetheless, she was billed to speak on ‘Ukraine’s perception of the world today’. The audience was comprised less by students and more by seasoned public servants and diplomatic core members. This audience was an easy sell for Kyiv’s agenda – harnessing international support and maintaining an active profile in the face of ongoing Russian aggression.

More on this: Russia is expanding its influence over the Middle East and North Africa

Of concern was the Ukrainian effort to frame the conflict with Russia as a clash of civilisations. This is an unhelpful narrative which distorts the path forward in finding any semblance of a resolution. Klympush-Tsintsadze then departed for Melbourne, the next stop on her Ukrainian Embassy-supported lecture circuit.

Exchanging ideas and providing a platform for robust debate are notions at the heart of academia. The fact that Australian institutions are hosting representatives of Russia and Ukraine is not an issue in itself – despite the tense bilateral relationship between the two and between Moscow and Canberra.

The real problem with these peace-offensive lectures is that our academic institutions lack the ability to counter these sermons and provide the general public with informed counter-narratives.

This problem is a result of the turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Australian funding for studying Russia evaporated, leading to an absence of Australian Centres for Russian Studies within our universities. This is not a challenge confined to Australia, with US institutions increasingly experiencing the slow death of Russian studies.

At The Australian National University – Australia’s leading university, at least for now – Russian language and literature specialists have migrated to linguistics departments, while Cold War ‘warriors’ and other academics working on Russian politics have burrowed away in international relations faculties – or moved to another security-orientated field altogether.

Today, in order to learn the ins and outs of Russia’s domestic politics, an ANU student will need to enrol in the unit offered by the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies. The ANU School of History offers a study of the Soviet Union and the ANU School of Literature, Languages and Linguistics offers avenues for studying the Russian language. Clearly, the knowledge gap is in the international relations and security sphere. An ANU Centre for Russia Studies is the obvious answer, but who will pay for it?

More on this: China and Russia’s uneasy dance in Eurasia

The trickledown effect of the stagnation of Russian studies expertise is that Australia is now lagging behind other Western nations in terms of cultivating a new generation of experts on modern-day Russia who can inform policy.

This reality is of dire concern. Russia is a rising power with ambitious plans in the Asia-Pacific region. We need our universities to understand the shifting sands of global power and inform policymakers to help them make the right choices. It is perhaps telling that the Russian Ambassador was hosted by the ANU College of Business and Economics and not the obvious alternatives – the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific or the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences.

The battle for Australian hearts and minds is underway within our academic institutions. This should matter. The line between public policy debate and international propaganda fashioned to influence our community is increasingly blurred.

Recent developments in the US regarding China’s engagement with academic institutions should be impetus enough for the Australian government to recognise we are not immune either. The failure of our government is not that it fosters academic freedom and free speech, but that there is simply not enough of it.

Canberra’s viable counter-strategy rests upon facilitating an increase in Australian academic engagement in international security debates. Australian strategists, scholars, policymakers and students of international affairs are held in high regard well beyond our borders. This is something to be protected and nurtured.

Of course, recognising that our academic institutions are well within the cross-hairs of a new soft power offensive is the first critical step in meeting an apparent foreign effort to shape Australian thinking.

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One Response

  1. Jon Richardson says:

    Would strongly disagree on two points Elizabeth. Firstly Australia has never had dedicated centres of Soviet or Russian studies. What it did have was separate Russian language departments, and its true in the case of ANU and others some/most of these were merged into departments of modern European language. But political scientists and historians specialising in Russia were all in general departments covering those disciplines. The only place with a slight concentration of Soviet specialists was the Political Science Department in the ANU’s then Research School of Social Sciences, which in the 1980s had three academics, led by the great Harry Rigby, supported by two research assistants, and two postgrad students, of whom I was one. But Soviet/Russian specialists at other universities were lone wolves in their departments.

    I’d also disagree with characterisation of the Ukrainian Deputy PM’s talk as presentating the conflict with Russia as a clash of civilisations. Rather she portrayed the root result of the problem as Russia’s disregard for democracy. You might disagree with this but it is a widely held view outside Ukraine that Russia’s actions in Crimea and the Donbas were in large part prompted by the prospect of Ukraine moving closer to the EU with its democratic standards and helping undermining the legitimacy of the Putin regime. As well as appealing to lingering great Russian chauvinism towards Ukraine as a way of papering over the domestic democratic deficit and economic problems. I fail to see why this is an unhelpful framing of the problem and why it should be the job of universities to counter this “narrative” as you suggest.

    Otherwise I would agree with the nub of your argument that Australia isn’t as well equipped with Russia-expertise as it was in the Cold War and it would be nice if it could be strengthened again as Russian influence becomes more salient globally. But also worth being aware that our expertise was never that great at a time when Russia’s importance was much higher than today.

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