Historically any exacerbation of relations between Western and Russian Governments take Australian officials and it’s mainstream media to the anti-Russian camp: from moderate criticism and banal “Cold War” era jokes to harsh rhetoric. The events in Ukraine during 2014 triggered a new wave of a long-aged crisis.
Tom Switzer, the Executive Director of The Centre for Independent Studies in Sydney is one of the few political experts in Australia who distances himself from the usual blatant anti-Russian chorus and constantly raises the question: “Is everything so univocal in West-Russia relations?
– Mr Switzer, your recent public report was dedicated to Russophobia in the West.
– I think it has been rife in the West especially since the Ukrainian standoff in February/March 2014, it seems to me many Westerners, particularly Western political commentators, lump Russians in one camp, and they fail to distinguish certain views of other people.
– The western segment of the Internet is full of the mantra “The Russians did it”. It seems like the mainstream media and politicians in the West always have a presumption of guilt towards Russia, irrespective of the subject.
– You can be critical on Putin domestically and even on what he has been doing on some foreign policy issues but try to explain why he has been doing it. You do not have to like it but have to understand it. Only by understanding Putin’s behaviour and motivations, we will have the chance to resolve tensions between Russia and the West.
– In case of MH17 tragedy, there was a kind of international investigation to justify sanctions against Russia, even though there are still enormous numbers of important but unanswered questions to investigators. Recently we see this with the Skripals’ case and a so-called chemical attack in Syria. Both cases look pure profanation but it seems like the West does not need any proof nor proper investigation in order to action as it wants: Trump launches missiles in Syria and with other pro-USA countries, expel their Russian diplomats.
– In the case of the Skripal controversy I strongly believe that at this stage there is still absolutely no evidence to indicate the Kremlin was solely responsible for the hit on that double agent and his daughter in England.
– It seems like the Skripals’ case was all about showing that the West is united in its ability to act against Russia even the grounds for it are completely absurd.
– Certainly, the West appeared to be united against Russia but I think it is merely symbolic, some countries decided to expel Russian diplomats but some states still wish to have close relations with Russia and the classic example is the German Government negotiating the gas pipeline connection with Russia. If Germany is so outraged by Russia’s conduct, why is Germany still doing lucrative business with Russia?
– You stated that once the West starts showing respect and understanding to Russia, the relations would get rolling. But it means the West will have to recognize the existence of Russian national interests and consider it.
– Unfortunately, there is a mindset on left and right in Washington DC and Brussels about the expansion of NATO or the EU right up to Russian doorsteps or former Soviet Union doorsteps. Again, we have seen a failure by the West to look at matters from the standpoint of Russia. NATO was created to contain the Soviet Union, which has not existed for nearly 30 years! So what is the justification of NATO if the Cold War is over?
– How serious are today’s tensions?
– I think we are one step away from a new Cuban missile crisis. This is a view shared, for example, by my friend Professor Stephen Cohen from New York University who he has been stridently making this point for several years. We currently have three wars against Russia: in the Baltics, Eastern Ukraine and Syria. It is not inconceivable that an accident or miscalculation could result in war between the USA and Russia. We are talking about two nuclear powers! Even at the height of the Cold War, there was no conflict between Russia and the USA. Why the USA is doing this over Syria or over Russia’s backyard? Why poke the wounded bear, why push heavily to expand NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, on Russia’s borders where Russia has a huge military superiority? Why does the USA Government want to play with fire in Russia’s backyard? This is manifest of madness! I do not think Trump has anti-Russian position but he is a minority voice in Washington DC and he has to take anti-Russian position.
– The West says that the Russian Government tries to undermine the global international order.
– First of all, we live in the world of sovereign states. In recent years, we constantly hear how China or especially Russia try to upend “liberal international order”. This term was hardly used before the Crimean crisis in March 2014.
– During the Cold War, the West stated that it fought the evil communist ideology. Yet, communism has not existed in Russia for almost 30 years, yet Western pressure on Russia is on the rise. Probably we need to talk about the historical confrontations between West and Russia irrespectively of the political order or ideology in Russia?
– During the Cold war the Soviet Russia was interested in promoting its ideology of communism but today, I think, Russia is not promoting any particular ideology but is all about defending its national interests. And what is wrong with that? All great powers, particularly in their spheres of interests, fight tooth and nail to protect their vital strategic and economic interests. This is precisely what Russia has been doing in both Ukraine and Syria.
– In the preview to your recent speech you called Mr Putin a thug who runs a gangster regime. Do you really think so?
– My using of this language is just an indication of how bad it has got in the West. In order to have legitimate views on the subject you need to attack or make it clear that you are not a supporter of Putin. I rarely considered to use it in a tough way as I am not qualified enough about Putin’s domestic politics. Most likely my characterization of Putin as a thug is overstated but there is some truth in what I said – there are locked up journalists and Putin’s political opponents in Russia. But I do not want that to undermine my broader point. The West, whether it be Washington, London or Brussels, have completely mismanaged relationships with Russia throughout the post-Cold war era.
– Western media heavy hitters have created a very negative image of Putin. At the same time, even Russians living in the West massively voted for Putin at the presidential elections in March this year. Do you see potential danger of the Western media demonising not only Putin but all Russians?
– Not at all. Yes, the western mindset says that Putin is a menace and he is bent on reviving the Soviet Union or his foreign policy has been aggressive and expansionist. But I think many ordinary Russians and many Westerners think differently about Putin – he is running defensive foreign policy, it has been reactive to the Western foreign policy and Russia under his tenure is determined to defend its national security interests.
– Putin got 76% at the elections. Are you surprised?
– No. They feel that Putin is reacting to provocative Western policy throughout the post-Cold War era. It tells you that Putin is a very popular politician and he reflects the thoughts and attitude of the majority of ordinary Russians at least on foreign affairs.
– Yet the Australian Government maintains a vehement anti-Russian position.
– The relations between Russia and Australia are negligible and so economically it does not really affect Australia. But Australia has had longstanding alliance relations with the USA and it will be part of its national security and defence foreign policy for the foreseeable future. My view is that Canberra should not directly contradict the US position but, at the same time, it does not need to forcefully demonise Russia the way this government has been doing. Bear in mind that the Australian position is not shared by our cousins in New Zealand. The New Zealand Government has not expelled Russian diplomats. I think it would be a better position to take.
– A number of Western countries expelled the Russian diplomats whereas the Australian Government says it expels “spies”. It sounds like profanation.
– I think Australia is the only country outside the EU or NATO that has expelled Russian diplomats, so the countries from the rest of the world have not done it. But I do not know enough about this case anyway.
– Likewise, the Australian Government had put forward very harsh rhetoric after the tragedy of MH17.
– I think rebels in Eastern Ukraine should have made more efforts to help to retrieve bodies and help the Australian diplomatic representatives there. I do not think they have been fully accountable. I have no doubt the rebels shot it down and obviously, it was an accident. But they did not handle aftermath very well and that understandably explains why many Australians are very upset with the rebels.
– Are you confident that the rebels shot down MH17?
– I know that some people say that there is still no evidence that the Russian-backed rebels played a role. It is debatable but on the other hand, I do believe that Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten overstepped the mark by calling this “cold-blooded murder” because it means intentional! I do not see any evidence supporting that position.
– Can we expect the normal relations between Russian and Australian Governments?
– Sure! I think eventually they will come to that point and I hope it is soon rather than later.
– You are a political expert in the leading Australian media and know well its inner workings. Why is it almost impossible to find any positive information about Russia in the Australian media?
– I had a sentence earlier in my speech: whenever something goes wrong in the world, you need to be sure the Russians are blamed. This is just ridiculous. I have always been taught that in all tensions there are two sides at least in every story.
– Sometimes it seems like the Australian media still seriously think that there is a communist regime in Russia. The recent episodes of “My Kitchen Rules” was dedicated to the Russian contestants and the “communism” image was used heavily.
– I am surprised that “My Kitchen Rules” used it but I have never watched it and I think young Australians do not have this association. In my view, modern Russia does not have any ideological links with communism.
– The press-tours to Syria from Australia have been organised for the last few years and journalists and activist have had opportunities to see for themselves what is happening in Syria. Once they were even invited to have a meeting with Syrian President Assad. However, the organisers say the Australian mainstream media always refuse to join such press-tours.
– I do not know about the real reasons for that. When we are talking about the Syrian conflict, the pretext and context is important. I do not deny that Assad targeted towns with, for example, cassette and barrel bombs but those anti-regime rebels had strong backers in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and they got funded and equipped very well from overseas. For example, Obama’s administration openly supported regime change in Damascus! So, what is Assad supposed to do!? If his regime and army were to collapse, the Alawites, Shias and Christians would be ethnically cleansed! What is the real alternative to Assad today? Those religious fanatics we have been fighting in Iraq for many years? I would rather do a deal with Assad to make sure he defeats all of those. I think it is madness to make a fight with Assad. Have we learnt some lessons from Iraq?
– What are your thoughts on RT?
– I watch RT probably once a week. I think it is biased in favour of Russia but no more so than CNN or BBC are biased in favour of western coverage of Russia. But definitely it is important for anyone who is interested in Russian affairs to hear, read and listen to what Russians themselves say about contemporary events.
– Have you ever been to Russia and where do you get knowledge about Russia?
I have never been to Russia and I hardly know any Russian people. But I did study Russian history in high school and in 1988-1989 I studied Tsarist and Soviet Russia. I have always been intrigued by modern Russian history! So when I look at contemporary events in the post-Cold war era, I always try to place them in historical context.