Beware the bear in the Pacific
19 Mar 2021|

In 2007, I was invited by the United Nations to address a regional conference on multilateral cooperation in Pacific Rim ocean governance. The conference was hosted by the Admiral Nevelskoy State Maritime University in Russia’s Far Eastern city of Vladivostok, which lies closer to Darwin than to Moscow.

Arriving on a two-hour flight from Tokyo, itself only seven-hours from my home in Cairns, I was struck by the beauty of the thickly forested hills surrounding the city, spread around the shores of the sparkling Peter the Great Gulf and flanked by Russky Island. On a latitude similar to the Californian coast north of San Francisco, Vladivostok is often referred to as Russia’s ‘potential bay city’.

The grey hulls of several Soviet-era cruisers of the Russian Pacific Fleet were clearly visible. In the harbour was the Australian frigate HMAS Arunta on a diplomatic and trade visit after a multinational Proliferation Security Initiative exercise off North Korea.

Our hosts were gracious, the organisation impeccable, and the catering and entertainment lavish. During a cruise on the university’s training yacht, we passed the rusting hulks of abandoned Soviet-era nuclear submarines along the shore, and dilapidated radar towers, observation bunkers and missile and gun emplacements on hills, headlands and points around the bay.

Vladivostok then was a city in flux, a mixture of unmaintained but still exquisite French Renaissance–style buildings in the rustic old quarter, decaying Soviet-era apartment blocks in the inner suburbs and a few, brand-new glass and steel office towers fed by new money from the nearby Sakhalin oil and gas fields.

While this was the headquarters of the Russian Pacific Fleet and associated air and ground units, it appeared to be in an advanced state of decay, suffering from the collapse of the Soviet Union and a lack of Moscow investment. That’s no longer the case.

Before hosting the 24th APEC Summit in Vladivostok in 2012, President Vladimir Putin poured vast sums into the area’s development, including building the world’s longest cable-stayed bridge to Russky Island, a bridge intended to rival San Francisco’s Golden Gate. Russia has also extensively modernised and expanded its military forces in and around the city.

Today, the Russian Pacific coast, spanning the same range of longitude and time zones as eastern Australia and only 10 to 12 hours’ flying time away, hosts a military force that in some aspects outguns the Australian Defence Force. Russia has done this with a GDP no larger than Australia’s and the forces in its east are smaller than those in its five other districts.

With 15 new warships and support vessels added in 2020, this force includes the first two of six ‘improved’ Kilo-class submarines, optimised for anti-ship and anti-shore attack with Kalibr missiles. It also includes three Oscar II nuclear-powered guided missile submarines, with two more being upgraded, and one Akula I nuclear-powered attack submarine, with four more in the class in various phases of upgrade. Russia’s Pacific Fleet also has six ‘original’ Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines.

These 22 nuclear and conventional submarines are based directly north of Australia and adjacent to Japan. Australia has its six Collins-class conventional boats and the first Attack-class sub won’t be operational until at least the mid-2030s.

Russia’s surface vessels include the dated but still powerful Slava-class cruiser Varyag, six large destroyers (compared to Australia’s three Hobart class), four latest model multi-role frigates, eight anti-submarine corvettes, some patrol corvettes and four large landing ships.

The east also hosts a powerful air force, including long-range, nuclear-capable and anti-ship-missile-carrying Tu-95MS and Tu-22M3 bombers, and substantial ground forces, including two amphibious assault naval infantry brigades and a maritime special forces battalion.

Pacific-based Russian forces have exercised with their Chinese counterparts in the Sea of Japan, East China Sea and South China Sea, including practising amphibious ‘island-seizing operations’.

In December 2017, two Russian Tu-95MS strategic bombers and two Il-76MD transport aircraft visited Biak Island in Indonesia’s Papua province only 540 nautical miles from the Northern Territory.

In January 2016, two Russian ships delivered arms and combat equipment to the Royal Fiji Military Forces in Suva and also sent a team of ‘trainers’. In May 2018, a Russian naval vessel visited Port Moresby for the first time, with rumours that it also delivered arms.

In recent years, the Russian Miklouho-Maclay Foundation has been increasingly active in Papua New Guinea, and Russia has made overtures to several other Pacific island countries and sought recognition of the Georgian breakaway states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Last month, the ABC 4 Corners program ‘Putin’s Patriots’ highlighted current ‘influence operations’ within Australia.

Despite the presence of this powerful, expanding, modernising and increasingly active military and political force in our region, at least publicly Australia’s government appears blissfully unaware and/or unconcerned. Russia is seen as being far away in Europe.

And despite the relative proximity and significance of the Russian Far East, Australia doesn’t have a diplomatic presence in Vladivostok, instead maintaining a consulate in St Petersburg, 15,000 kilometres away and only 600 kilometres from its Moscow embassy.

Australia’s 2017 foreign policy white paper cites Russia only in relation to Ukraine and cyber actors and doesn’t identify it as a Pacific nation, except to mention briefly that it’s a member of the East Asia Summit. Similarly, the 2016 defence white paper mentions Russia only in relation to Ukraine and Syria, and neither the 2020 defence strategic update nor the 2020 force structure plan contains the word ‘Russia’ or ‘Russian’.

The Australian defence organisation, preoccupied until recently with Afghanistan and the Middle East, and now with China, doesn’t appear to have any explicit plans relating to Russia’s Pacific presence, including how to deal with the 22 Russian submarines based in our region.

In November 2014, the Russian cruiser Varyag and a small flotilla of three other vessels appeared in the Coral Sea to support Putin’s presence at the G20 summit in Brisbane. Despite the vessels sailing past South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Indonesia, the ADF was reportedly unaware of the approaching naval force until it reached Papua New Guinea. Without any major naval assets in the northeast of Australia, the ADF had to ‘crash sail’ two Anzac frigates from Sydney north to shadow the Russians.

It’s folly for a potentially vulnerable and isolated nation like Australia to blindly ignore a major strategic player. The government needs to urgently develop foreign and defence policies and plans to respond to Russia’s increasing presence and capabilities.

The prognosis is not all bad, and the potential for increased trade and cooperation with the Russian Far East should also be explored.

As Australia seeks to diversify its exports, there’s no reason why Australian wine, lobsters and other products couldn’t be sold in Vladivostok, or why Australian companies couldn’t cooperate in mining, oil and gas, fisheries and other ventures in the Russian Far East. There’s also scope for cooperation on issues such as pandemic prevention and response, climate change, ocean governance and marine resource management, maritime security, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and transnational crime across the Pacific.

Russia will not leave the Pacific and it is not beyond imagination that one day it could again be a partner, even an ally. But to achieve that requires vision, courage and action, and recognition that Russia is a Pacific player. It’s now 14 years since HMAS Arunta visited Vladivostok and high time for another ‘defence diplomacy’ visit to start melting the ice.