Throughout the Christmas-New Year break, The Interpreter will be featuring some of its best pieces from 2014. More to come between now and January 12 when The Interpreter will be back for 2015.
Russia-Ukraine: What is Putin up to in Crimea?, by Matthew Sussex, 3 March.
Russia’s 'hardline' behaviour stems directly from its experiences after the Cold War. As the leading republic of the former Soviet Union, Russia lost a great deal of territory and resources and a unifying national idea. The breakup also created a sizeable ethnic Russian diaspora population, much of which was subsequently mistreated. When Western suspicions of Russia lingered, Boris Yeltsin rebalanced from an initial 'friends with everyone' foreign policy to a more muted multipolarism. Domestic pressure, economic mismanagement, war in Chechnya and widespread corruption also reinforced a line of thinking favouring hard-nosed pragmatism over plastic principles.
Hence, well before Putin came to power there was already broad consensus on Russian interests. Importantly, it encompassed liberals as well as nationalists. And once Putin turned Russia into a petroleum powerhouse, he had the wherewithal, as well as the will, for a bolder policy line.
Threatening Russia with G20 cold-shoulder won’t solve anything, but may hobble G20, by Mike Callaghan and Hugh Jorgensen, 5 March.
The idea of threatening Russia's involvement in the G20 is a hollow one. Yet Julie Bishop's threat to exclude Russia from the troika arrangements, which in itself is of little meaning, would set a precedent. If (or when) political or security tensions arise between G20 members in future, the incumbent chair might call upon 'the Ukrainian precedent' and say this has implications for a particular country's involvement in the G20. If this approach gained momentum , it would likely lead to the demise of the forum.
Furthermore, while the G20 agenda is focused on economic issues, this does not mean foreign policy and strategic issues are ignored at summits. Witness the St Petersburg Summit last September, when the main topic of discussion was developments in Syria. There was domestic pressure for Obama not to attend because of the Snowden affair. Obama cancelled his trip to Moscow, but he did attend the G20 Summit. And just as well, because his attendance allowed what is reported to have been an open and frank discussion between leaders on Syria. Moreover if Obama had boycotted St Petersburg, it would have set a precedent with implications for the current debate over Russia's membership.
The global strategic consequences of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, by Rory Medcalf, 5 March.
Do not assume that the leadership in Beijing will be rejoicing that strategic partner Russia has poked a stick in America's eye and got away with it. China and Russia are partners of convenience, not allies, and have their own long-term currents of mistrust, including over Russia's far eastern territories (which, incidentally, have a large and growing Chinese population).
For now, China will draw some comfort that American attention has been distracted away from the maritime disputes on China's eastern edge. But Russia has now blatantly breached a bedrock principle of China's declared foreign policy: non-interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It will now be harder for Beijing to deflect future international interest in what goes on in Tibet or Xinjiang.
Yet for China to support some kind of international mediation or monitoring of the Ukraine situation or to keep up its earlier call for 'respect for international law' would raise awkward questions about its present rejection of an international legal process over its maritime dispute with the Philippines. No wonder the current Chinese 'objective, just, fair and peaceful' propaganda line can't do much better than the exquisitely anodyne ('There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today').
Meanwhile, China's rapid military modernisation proceeds apace: today, it announced yet another double-digit annual increase in defence spending.
Hanoi watches Crimea crisis with interest, by Elliot Brennan, 7 March.
Moscow has long stated its desire for an agreement with Hanoi for a naval base on Vietnam's south-eastern coast at Cam Ranh Bay. Strategically placed, the port is one of the best deep-water ports on the South China Sea.
In late February, Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu again noted — somewhat provocatively — Moscow's desire to expand its permanent military presence outside its borders, including in Vietnam.
Moscow is supporting the upgrade of facilities in Cam Ranh Bay and will create a maintenance facility for Russian ships there. But a permanent presence by way of a naval base (as the USSR had in Cam Ranh Bay for 23 years until 2002; pictured is a 1985 Pentagon depiction of the base) remains elusive.
Russian investment in Vietnam has long been significant and Moscow is Vietnam's main supplier of military hardware. In recent years, this has included orders for six Kilo-class submarines, a dozen SU-30MK2s fighter jets and six Gepard-class light frigates – the most recent order for the frigates was placed last month.
In 2001 a strategic partnership was signed between the two countries, and Prime Minister Medvedev visited in 2012 followed by President Putin late last year, during which a new wave of cooperation agreements were signed. Moscow is also courting Vietnam to enter into its Customs Union.
As such, Russia's assertive stance in Crimea to protect its interests – notably its large naval facility – is being watched by Hanoi. Would Russia be similarly assertive in supporting Vietnam if it were to allow Moscow a permanent naval presence in Cam Ranh Bay?
Photo courtesy of Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs.