The most dangerous days of Russia’s war in Ukraine lie ahead

Whether it wins or loses its war on Ukraine, Russia is likely to become more dangerous and unpredictable, and Australia needs to prepare better to deter an increased threat of nuclear conflict.

That grim conclusion is contained in a report by a top Australian analyst of Soviet and Russian affairs, Paul Dibb, emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, who writes that the risk of nuclear conflict is now higher than at any time since the Cold War.

He warns that the Pine Gap intelligence-gathering base near Alice Springs in the Northern Territory could become a priority nuclear target and says Australia should begin serious discussions with the United States about the status, purpose and credibility of extended nuclear deterrence in this much more worrying strategic environment.

Russia’s war on Ukraine is at an extremely dangerous moment for global security because Europe’s security order is being fundamentally challenged, Dibb says in the report, The geopolitical implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, released today by ASPI.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered the worst international crisis in decades and there’s a real risk of escalation into a major war involving Russia and the US, he says. ‘The ugliest days of this war are in front of us, not behind us.’

In both the Cold War and more recently, Russian authorities have made it clear that Pine Gap is a priority target. Australia needs to understand what the implications of that are for Alice Springs, a town of 32,000 people just 18 kilometres from the base. It has long been supposed that major Australian cities—such as Sydney and Melbourne—wouldn’t be targeted, Dibb says.

He says the invasion has brought the spectre of a new cold war but also the prospect of a wider general war in Europe erupting, while an increasingly authoritarian China is working with its strategic partner in Moscow to remake the international order. ‘This deeply disturbing picture is made all the worse by Putin’s now frequent references to the potential use of nuclear weapons,’ he says.

‘We need to plan on the basis that Pine Gap continues to be a nuclear target, and not only for Russia. If China attacks Taiwan, Pine Gap is likely to be heavily involved. We need to remember that Pine Gap is a fundamentally important element in US war fighting and deterrence of conflict.’

The most dangerous scenario for America would be a grand coalition of China and Russia united by complementary grievances. Washington could for the first time face the threat of a two-front contingency of nuclear war.

‘We need to focus on the friendship between the authoritarian leaders of those two countries, their mutual disdain for what they see as a rapidly declining West, and their shared sense of historical grievances,’ Dibb says.

‘The conjoining of the strategic ambitions of Beijing and Moscow highlights the differences in the current global competition for power with the West and increases the potential for miscalculation and conflict.’

Whatever the outcome in Ukraine, Dibb says, ‘Russia will continue to exist as a geopolitical entity unless it’s totally destroyed by an all-out nuclear war.’

Russia’s attack on Ukraine demonstrated that Putin intends to re-establish Russia as a major power at almost any price, says Dibb. He notes that as the Soviet Union disintegrated, Ukraine was effectively the world’s third-largest nuclear weapons power after Russia and the US. Its nuclear weapons were destroyed by agreement in 1994.

Under Russia’s ‘escalate to de-escalate’ strategy, it could use relatively small tactical nuclear weapons if it faced an overwhelming threat from a superior conventional military force that threatened the existence of the state. And Dibb says it’s of more concern that Putin might do so either in Ukraine or against NATO allies supplying Ukraine’s armed forces with conventional weapons. Putin might use a tactical nuclear weapon for its demonstration effect in Ukraine or to show that he’s had enough of NATO’s interference. Much of the munitions NATO supplies to Ukraine pass through Poland.

‘My view is that there’s little doubt that Putin is the sort of person who won’t resile from the use of nuclear weapons, particularly if it looks as though he’s losing this war,’ says Dibb. ‘But he must surely realise that there’s no such thing as the limited use of tactical nuclear weapons in isolation from their escalation to a full-scale strategic nuclear war.’ Washington needs to make that much plainer to Putin and his advisers.

‘Once we enter the slippery slope of even limited nuclear exchanges, the end result will be escalation to mutual annihilation—something about which both Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping may need reminding.’ Unlike in the Cold War, Russia and the US no longer enjoy the extensive confidence-building measures such as nuclear arms control agreements, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty.

The habit of talking to each other has largely disappeared, which can only add to the risks of nuclear miscalculation, says Dibb.

A severely weakened, isolated and smaller Russia might then become more—not less—dangerous for the world. If the war in Ukraine extends to a direct conflict with NATO, all nuclear bets will be off, Dibb says.

European members of NATO, such as Poland, might seek additional protection by stationing US nuclear weapons on their territory.

Dibb says Australia should continue to help Ukraine as much as possible with further supplies of military equipment, but he stresses that there’s ‘little compelling reason’ for the Australian Defence Force to structure its forces for ‘high-intensity land warfare operations in Europe against Russia’.

NATO and Australia have recognised China as a major strategic challenge and that’s now combined with the threat from the de facto alliance of Russia and China. So, Dibb says, Australia and NATO should more closely share strategic analysis.

Australia needs to put much more effort into examining Russia’s military intentions in the Indo-Pacific and replace skills that were downgraded at the end of the Cold War, Dibb says. ‘Today, in the Australian intelligence community, there’s little expertise on Russia (for example, the Office of National Intelligence has only one officer dedicated to analysing Russia).’ A review into how Australia can repair this serious policy and intelligence gap should include what roles universities can play in training relevant academic and policy expertise about Russia. Australia also needs to strengthen intelligence and policy engagement with European countries that maintain high-quality analytical assessment capabilities about Russia, he says.

Australia also needs to be much better informed about the scale and depth of the relationship between China and Russia and how they aim to change the balance of power in the region, including their regular joint military exercises in the region and Russia’s supply of advanced weapons to China that may be used against us. Russia’s exports of military equipment to India, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and, to a lesser extent, Fiji need closer scrutiny and analysis.

Dibb doesn’t believe that the Ukraine war is likely to be stopped by a coup among Russia’s leaders to topple Putin. Unlike in the former Soviet Union, there’s no politburo in the Kremlin now to organise a challenge among the leadership, he says.