Anthony Albanese faces a testing trip to the NATO meeting in Lithuania’s capital, Vilnius, this week. And it shouldn’t be like this. Australia has been included in recent NATO meetings because it has provided much-needed military supplies to Ukraine and because of its leading work on the security challenge from Beijing.
But you don’t keep getting into influential leaders’ meetings if you stop backing your words with actions. A gap between Australian government policy and action began to emerge when Mr Albanese travelled to the G7 meeting in Hiroshima back in May and it’s been widening since.
In May, surrounded by G7 nations’ leaders who were setting out their new ‘de-risking’ approach to reduce economic dependence on China, Mr Albanese kept very still hoping not to be asked why his own China policy seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, aimed at rebuilding market access for Australian goods that Beijing had banned – like lobsters, wine and barley.
And on Ukraine, while G7 leaders acted to increase military support to Ukraine, commit to its reconstruction, tighten sanctions on Russia and introduce a price cap on Russian oil, Mr Albanese joined in on additional sanctions but fell back on what the previous Australian government and he had already done when it comes to military support.
At Vilnius, it looks like Mr Albanese is poised to experience deja vu all over again. NATO’s agenda there, like the G7 meeting in Hiroshima, is focused on the war in Ukraine and the China challenge. On China, NATO will expect to hear ideas for dealing with an increasingly aggressive China from regional leaders – Japan, Australia, South Korea. Mr Albanese will be able to talk about being calm and constructive and disagreeing where we must, but have little more to say beyond his hopes of visiting Xi Jinping later this year.
On Ukraine, other leaders will be announcing new military support for Ukraine and be able to discuss their efforts to get F-16 fighter jets, modern tanks and missiles to the Ukrainian military as the war enters a critical phase. They will be making plans to meet Ukraine’s military supply needs in the short and long term – signalling real, practical commitment by both words and actions.
Mr Albanese will be left trying to talk up his recently-announced package of some obsolete personnel carriers, retired special forces vehicles and a few trucks and trailers. His audience – well-informed national leaders – will know the package was received with domestic disappointment and criticism for its underwhelming contents.
The announcement that Australian Wedgetail airborne early warning and control aircraft will do surveillance and control missions around Russian borders with NATO is a welcome practical step. But it is all about relieving tired NATO and US aircraft and crews, not the Vilnius meeting’s focus – which is on supplying Ukraine with the urgent military supplies given dwindling stocks and struggling Western production.
No doubt we’ll hear more of the rhetorical defence that foreign minister Penny Wong has been making of the government’s efforts, saying ‘there are many ways to support Ukraine’ and ‘one of the central ways in which I want to and have supported Ukraine is to build and maintain the international solidarity with Ukraine’.
This sounds heart-warming and strong, but it doesn’t do the single thing that President Zelensky and every member of his government and military has told us is key from the beginning of the war: provide military supplies. President Zelenksy put this best a couple of days into the war when he said “I need ammunition, not a ride”. 500 days later, he still does.
Even the ever-gracious Ukrainian Ambassador to Australia, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, couldn’t disguise his disappointment with our government’s failure to provide what Ukrainian troops know would make a practical difference on the battlefield when he thanked us for the recent package. He said he was ‘optimistic about further working with Australia’, including on ‘further progressing Ukraine’s requests for Australia’s proven and life-saving Bushmasters, available Hawkeis, and tanks’. Translation: thank you, but can we have what we really need soon?.
So, whatever words of solidarity and encouragement may come from the Australian Government, we know Ukraine’s single overriding priority for help from us. And we are failing to respond in any way that lets us look in the mirror and say we’ve done what we can.
If we think what we do doesn’t matter because Australia is just one of many partners helping Ukraine, we’re wrong, as Mr Albanese will hear in Vilnius. Every NATO and EU nation, including the US, is under strain to supply Ukraine’s pressing needs for military vehicles, air and drone defence systems, missiles and ammunition. And a country like Australia that has very capable things to offer can make a real difference by doing so.
Maybe Mr Albanese has a rabbit under his hat and will tell the assembled NATO leaders and President Zelensky that he has ordered our Defence Department to send 300 Bushmaster vehicles and 300 Hawkei vehicles to Ukraine as urgently as they can be shipped there. And maybe he’ll also get the Army to release 50 of the 200 or so new counter drone weapon systems that are sitting in a shed in Canberra so they can be used to protect Ukrainian troops from drone and missile attack as they advance into Russian-held territory.
If so, he’ll also be doing what every Australian government over the last decade has been trying and failing to do: beginning to build a domestic defence industry that has enough production scale to meet our own needs in a future crisis, through defence exports. It’s odd that achieving this elusive policy success will also help Ukraine prevail in a war right now.
And perhaps Mr Albanese will foreshadow a visit to Kiev by foreign minister Wong, accepting the invitation from Ambassador Myroshnychenko. That visit would be a physical example of standing with Ukraine. It would also be the ideal opportunity to reopen our embassy there, joining 67 other countries whose embassies have returned after temporarily relocating at the start of the war.
Standing with Ukraine is about much more than sombre statements and pledges of support. And getting a seat at key international tables doesn’t come for free.