G20: feelings about MH17 and Ukraine will have to be put aside for any productive discussion to happen

If Ukraine is to be a cohesive, peaceful, prosperous country, the pro-Europeans and the pro-Russians will need to cooperate together and learn the art of compromise

Russian President Vladimir Putin.Photograph: Darko Vojinovic/AP

If the G20 is to operate as an effective organisation, its membership must learn to behave with civility to each other.

How Australia’s prime minister Tony Abbott and Russia’s president Vladimir Putin react to each other in Brisbane this month will be interesting. It may be more difficult for Abbott than for Putin: so many words have been used on the Australian side, words which in normal circumstances would be construed as quite unfriendly to Russia and particularly to Putin.

When Australia sits down as chairman and calls the meeting to order, how can it guide a productive and useful discussion? It will be essential for all participants to put aside rhetoric, to try and look at the facts, and to understand each other’s point of view.

Western aggression in Ukraine

If Ukraine is to be a cohesive, peaceful and prosperous country, the pro-Europeans and the pro-Russians will need to learn the art of compromise.

Australia reacted demandingly, and even aggressively, to the shooting down of the Malaysian MH17 aircraft. Russia has been blamed almost universally in the Australian media, described not as the one who pulled the trigger, but as the one who carried ultimate responsibility.

As I see it, that’s a mistake. After the collapse in the Soviet Union, president Mikhail Gorbachev believed he had a firm guarantee from US secretary of state, James Baker, that NATO would not move east. This was the other side of the bargain for Russia agreeing to the reunification of east and west Germany.

America, in particular, has acted provocatively. As we now know, NATO did move east. I believe President Gorbachev misinterpreted words used by secretary of state Baker, but I also believe he genuinely felt he had a commitment that NATO would not move east. He believed that the US and NATO broke their word, as did most Russians. NATO was a military organisation hostile to the Soviet Union and consequently, hostile to Russia. To move such an organisation to the boundaries of Russia was certainly an unfriendly act. This event triggered an unproductive rivalry between NATO and Russia lasting to this day.

Battle for Donetsk continues amid failed talks of ceasefire

A soldier of the Ukrainian volunteer battalion Dnepr-1 loads a machine gun at a checkpoint near Donetsk airport.Photograph: Petr Shelomovskiy/Petr Shelomovskiy/Demotix/Corbis

Ukraine is a new country, only 23 years old. It is bitterly divided into two major factions – those in favour of an alliance with Russia and those who want membership of NATO. Eastern Europe had been a traditional area of Russian influence over centuries. America was now seeking to become the most dominant player. How was Russia to react to these American and NATO overtures? Clearly, Russia would react and support the pro-Russian elements in the Ukraine.

Russia’s actions to prevent war

One of the consequences of NATO’s move east was the Russian takeover of Crimea. Russia may well have done NATO a good service by doing so. If Ukraine one day does become a member of NATO, and if the Crimea was still a part of it, the next step would have been for NATO to require Russia to remove its naval and military facilities. That could well have been a trigger for war between NATO and Russia. By using pre-emptive action, Putin has avoided that possibility.

John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago, has written that the west must carry its responsibility for current events in Ukraine. This is not the way Tony Abbott, Barack Obama and many others look at Ukraine, implying that Russia is responsible for the conflict . That common western interpretation, however, is wrong.

On the question of responsibility, NATO’s move east was the prime and most important factor. Support for pro-western elements by NATO and by the US in the Ukraine was the second problem, in these circumstances Russia was bound to support the pro-Russian Eastern Ukrainians. None of these rivalries would have occurred if NATO had not been moved east.

The MH17 controversy


Malaysians hold a candlelight vigil for passengers and crew of crashed flight MH17 in Kuala Lumpur.Photograph: STR/EPA

While in the western press blame has mostly landed on Russian shoulders, civil aviation authorities who allowed airlines to over fly an active theatre of war – where both parties have ground to air missiles that could shoot down aircraft at over 40 thousand feet – was also a major error and must carry with it significant responsibility. Such airspace should simply have been closed to civilian aircrafts. The west is silent on this point because the west wants to continue its allegation: that Russia is at fault, and that Russia’s the aggressor.

How will this affect the G20 meeting? If there is an attempt to take sides, to isolate president Putin and Russia, no productive results will emerge from what should be an important meeting.

The meeting should seek to understand the motivations and the circumstances both present and historic, which influence the players on both sides of the equation. If there is understanding of the motivations of both sides, then stability will have a much greater chance of success, and the meeting a greater chance of making progress in a world that sorely needs effective leadership.

Whatever feelings Australia may have over Ukraine and the Malaysian aircraft will need to be put aside. The chairman, in many ways, needs to be a moderator if a productive outcome is to be achieved.

Malcolm Fraser, former Prime minister of Australia

Source: The Guardian, 24 October 2014

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