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Tony Abbott on the Russian dictator's war of subjugation in Ukraine

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From the Honourable Tony Abbott AC

Every time he has addressed a national parliament, the Ukrainian leader has made a request. Only one country has immediately delivered: that’s Australia, which has now slapped punitive tariffs on all Russian imports and is preparing swiftly to dispatch Bushmaster armoured vehicles to Ukraine’s heroic defenders after Volodymyr Zelensky’s plea on Friday. While Britain also has been very forward-leaning in its help to Ukraine, frankly, it was pretty timid of the US to veto the Ukrainians’ request for MIG jets from Poland (that the Poles wanted to meet) and Australia’s more robust response should prompt a rethink.

It’s right that Australia should be as ready as any to succour Ukraine in its fight to survive because Ukraine could not have been better to us when we needed help. We should never forget that the Russian dictator’s war of subjugation actually began in 2014; and the 38 Australians who died when a Russian missile destroyed Flight MH17 were among Vladimir Putin’s early victims. When my government moved to secure the site and to recover the bodies, the Ukrainian parliament unanimously approved the presence of armed Australian military personnel on Ukrainian territory.

In the end, this task was accomplished without the need to dispatch the thousand troops that might have been necessary (as part of a joint expedition with the Dutch) but I will always be grateful to the Ukrainians for their forthright response to this never-to-be-forgotten atrocity. In recognition of their help, my government provided winter clothing to the Ukrainian army and invited Ukrainian officers to join our staff college.

There’s no doubt that the Ukrainian people and armed forces have excelled themselves in this conflict. Under attack from a military superpower, they’ve so far more than held their own; inflicting very heavy casualties and taking a punishing toll on the invaders’ tanks and aircraft. The Ukrainians are now regaining ground around Kyiv and even seem to have mounted one highly successful cross-border sortie. Bizarrely, the Russians have denounced this as interference with their sovereignty.

We need to remember, though, the Winter War of 1939, which Finland eventually lost despite initially holding its ground and inflicting massive losses on Soviet forces. For the Ukrainians, the best outcome would be the complete expulsion of all Russian forces, including from the Donbas and the Crimea, with reparations to pay for the rebuilding of the country. But even with a pledge never to join NATO, this would be a fatal humiliation for the Russian dictator who can’t afford to lose; and who, unless removed, would almost certainly feel the need to escalate just to survive. The more the Ukrainians succeed on the battlefield, the greater the risk of an even more cataclysmic assault on their cities.

It’s this prospect of nuclear escalation that’s held back NATO from providing more assistance to its embattled fellow democrats. No one wants to provide the trigger for World War Three, even if the consequent devastation were to be all Putin’s fault; yet without more assistance, it’s hard to see the Ukrainians long maintaining their current battlefield ascendancy nor avoiding slow pulverisation in a vicious war of attrition. It would seem unconscionable to allow Putin yet again to emerge a winner from such wanton evil and NATO can’t let itself be paralysed by nuclear brinkmanship; so somehow a path must be navigated through these vast and fraught consequences.

In my judgment, the Ukrainians should be helped further to improve their position on the battlefield with more anti-tank, anti-aircraft and anti-ship weapons. As well, consideration should be given to declaring some red lines the invader should not be allowed to cross, such as the use of thermobaric weapons against cities, without triggering the creation of NATO-protected safe havens inside Ukraine.

After all, if there have been red lines drawn in Syria and the Balkans, for instance, that when crossed triggered a military response from NATO or its individual members, why not in Ukraine too, or does principle only apply where the risks are low? This should further raise the costs of invasion and perhaps create misgivings in some of Putin’s domestic allies.

In all this, there’s no doubt the arrival of Bushmasters from Australia will be a huge morale-booster for the Ukrainians – the more, the bigger – so I hope we’re planning to send at least a hundred of the just over a thousand we have. Certainly, they’re going to do more for freedom there than mouldering away in a giant yard near Brisbane Airport. In my judgment, as a NATO partner, we should be prepared to consider helping to buttress our allies’ vulnerable eastern flank, were a contribution of tanks and jets to be requested; because if Putin eventually prevails in his current war of conquest, there’s little doubt the Baltic states and Poland would be the next targets of his quest to recreate Greater Russia.

Back in 2014, a few hours after the destruction of MH17, I told our parliament “the bullying of small nations by big ones, the trampling of justice and decency in the pursuit of national aggrandisement, and reckless indifference to human life, should have no place in our world”. There can only be one satisfactory ending to Putin’s war of aggression against Ukraine and that’s its comprehensive failure. The challenge is to bring this about without providing him with the excuse he may be seeking to wreak further mayhem.

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