Traditional Russian humour is a very effective means of dealing with adversity, particularly the abuses and absurdities inherent in what passes for governments in that benighted country.
One classic joke from the Soviet era tells a tale requiring no elaboration. Two dedicated communists are having an earnest discussion. One is worried about the future and asks his colleague, “Comrade, is it true we are standing in an abyss?” His colleague tries to be reassuring. “No, comrade. We were standing on the edge of an abyss, but then we took a great step forward.”
There are no jokes about the war in Ukraine. The Russian dead are already many and the horror of the war crimes committed by Vladimir Putin’s troops – orcs, as the Ukrainians call them – is only slowly emerging.
Australia is absolutely right to stand firmly and openly with Ukraine, and Bushmaster vehicles are impressive capability. Twenty Bushmasters have been specified to date and some have been dispatched, but a better and more symbolic place to start would be 38, representing a protected vehicle for every Australian citizen and resident murdered by the Kremlin’s drunken thugs when they shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in 2014. This would not only be appropriate but it also would serve to bind more closely the Ukrainian people with Australians.
Fittingly, the first Bushmasters being sent to the war zone have been marked “United with Ukraine”. The Ukrainian ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, made the simple but telling observation, “This is mateship that we now understand, and support we can appreciate.”
The horror that is the Ukrainian war as it is fought by the Russian army can be adequately characterised only in Shakespearean terms. Act IV of the Scottish play furnishes us with a perfect description, powerful in its poetry. One of the weird sisters observes: “By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.” There is no more convincing way to describe the predatory approach of Putin’s army in the Donbas and the sheer and unmitigated violence that it perpetrates against helpless Ukrainian civilians.
There is a powerful link between the bodies that fell from the sky on to the tortured terrain of Donetsk and the bodies scarring the streets of Bucha and other communities. As a matter of fact, the bodies in Bucha now link Australia to Ukraine through “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart”, as Abraham Lincoln once eloquently put it. Australians have not forgotten MH17 and all the 298 innocents who died there, and Ukrainians will never forget the massacres that now dominate this war.
It is not possible to imagine the slaughter in Bucha without understanding the significance of the destruction of MH17. There are few certainties in life, but one absolute certainty is that dictators are never sated, and once blood has been spilled there is no turning them around.
Putin’s war on Georgia in 2008 and occupation of Crimea six years later must be bracketed with the war being fought in the east of Ukraine that brought on the senseless destruction of MH17. The time to challenge Putin’s aggression was when his army moved on Georgia. Everything that has followed is a natural consequence of the West’s reluctance to confront the Russian empire.
Tony Abbott talked about “shirt-fronting” Putin after the MH17 atrocity. He was right, but the lesson for the future is that if we try to ignore blatant threatening international aggression, that behaviour will grow only worse and more pronounced. The salient lesson for the Indo-Pacific does not require further comment and we should appreciate what this means in Honiara right now.
The Bushmaster is a triumph of Australian engineering, backed by France and outstanding military performance. Manufactured by Thales at Bendigo in Victoria and serviced at Eagle Farm in Brisbane, it is an incredibly resilient capability that performed superbly in Afghanistan with Australia and our allies, particularly the Dutch. (Full disclosure: the writer is the deputy chairman of Thales Australia.) The dispatch of the Bushmasters could not be better timed or better placed to assist the Ukrainian military.
One story should underline the robust nature of a Bushmaster in action. In Afghanistan, a Dutch patrol was ambushed by the Taliban. The resulting firefight saw casualties and a difficult situation for our allies. Dutch reinforcements stabilised the situation, but a Bushmaster had to be abandoned. An airstrike was called in and it required two Hellfire missiles to destroy the vehicle. One of the Dutch soldiers was so impressed by the performance of the Bushmaster under fire that he paid a visit to Australia to thank those involved.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute, where I serve as a senior fellow, has recently detailed the history of the Bushmaster from concept to combat, and it is worth reading.
None of this is to suggest that a Bushmaster is not vulnerable to anti-tank fire. They are. But the robust nature of the capability means many soldiers survive firefights that would have gotten them killed in other vehicles. In any event, President Volodymyr Zelensky knew what he was asking for when he addressed the Australian parliament, and the Bushmaster will see many Ukrainian motorised missions completed successfully.
The Russian war in Ukraine now assumes the proportions of the Second Chechen War of the late 1990s, or Russia’s intervention in support of the appalling Assad regime in Syria. Mariupol now resembles Grozny or Aleppo or Homs, subject to intense bombardment of civilian areas and the targeting of hospitals, clinics and schools.
The sight of a residential area in ruins in Ukraine simply confirms that this is who Putin happens to be and what his army routinely does. This reality was perhaps put best by Alexander Pushkin, who understood Russia better than most, in Eugene Onegin where he mused that culture was a despot and would always prevail. We are witnesses.
The end of the war remains uncertain. However, Ukrainian resistance continues to be magnificent, and the mobilisation of NATO now acts as a guarantee against spreading Russian aggression. In the Kremlin, the decision of Germany to reassert its military capability must have shaken the cutlery as well as the foundations. This was never anticipated by Putin’s regime and represents an extraordinary geo-strategic shift. This single decision in Berlin may mean Russia has actually lost the war already.
Putin caused NATO to rediscover its raison d’etre. The alliance was not falling apart. Rather it was merely waiting for an American president to mobilise it in a crisis. Diplomatic sources hold that Finland and Sweden are about to join NATO. Both Finland and Sweden are de facto members right now. But the consequences of Finnish membership of NATO, if it happens, is that Russia will have an additional 1287km of border facing the alliance. For Putin, this represents an astonishing security challenge.
Disaster does not adequately describe the consequences for Moscow that this potential NATO expansion represents. And the Great Dictator did it all by himself.