Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:31 | SYDNEY
Thursday 07 Oct 2021 | 00:31 | SYDNEY

Let not get lost in Putin eyes


Rory Medcalf


2 September 2008 13:55

A curious flurry of political, media and diplomatic activity yesterday over Australia’s proposed uranium exports to Russia. Since the story has immediately gone global, and since any conversation in Australia that contains the word ‘nuclear’ generates more heat than light, it might be timely to offer some background.

By all accounts, this enigmatically-worded press release from Australian Foreign Minister Stephen Smith was simply a response to the tough talk from Labor parliamentarian and chair of the Treaties Committee Kelvin Thomson, who yesterday morning suggested that Australia could have no faith in Russia’s undertakings to use future Australian uranium exports for purely peaceful purposes:

"I don't know if you've looked on the TV into Vladimir Putin's eyes - he is one tough son of a gun and I don't think that he cares about what we think," Mr Thomson said during the hearing. "I think that we could supply uranium to him and if he changed his mind about the uses to which he was going to put it, I don't think we'd have any effective comeback at all."

What is it about Putin’s eyes? Some years back, George W Bush looked into them and saw a man he could do business with; now Kelvin Thomson looks into them – well, via television – and finds himself agreeing with John McCain.

Anyway, the main flaw with Mr Thomson’s concerns and analysis is that Russia simply does not need Australian uranium for weapons. If it wants a new arms race, it has something like 9,000 surplus warheads to hand, not to mention the 5,000-plus still deployed (and in terms of Russia’s real security needs, most of these are strictly surplus too).

My reading of the Smith press release is this:

  • Australian uranium exports to Russia will depend on a satisfactory safeguards agreement, and there is no evidence that Russia has any interest in breaching such an agreement.
  • But now that Mr Thomson has rocked the boat, the Australian Government needs swiftly to send out multiple diplomatic and political signals, tailored for different audiences. The first message is an assurance to Russia, and indeed other current or prospective uranium customers (notably China), that Australia is a best-practice uranium exporter, basing its decisions more on safeguards and non-proliferation credentials than on the geopolitical winds of the hour. The second message – to everyone who is appalled by Russia’s aggressive version of defence – is that the Australian Government realises it can’t ignore Russia’s behaviour, and that finalising the bilateral uranium supply deal soon would be a bad look.  

I would be surprised if, ultimately, Australia does not proceed with the deal – although any Russian bullying is only going to increase any small chance of Canberra pulling the plug. But I'm surprised that it has taken almost a month since the start of the Georgia war for the uranium-to-Russia issue to hit the headlines – after all, it is about the only part of the generally lightweight Australia-Russia relationship where Canberra could cause Moscow real if modest pain.

How to proceed? By all means, the Government should go slow on ratifying, with a close eye on how the diplomatic face-off between Russia and much of the West develops. Of all the uranium deals forged or mooted under the Howard Government (including with China and abortively with India), the Russia deal is geopolitically the most expendable for Australia, even if it is potentially lucrative. But some other considerations to keep in mind:

  • A frequent and valid criticism of Russia is the way it uses energy (gas) supplies to Europe as an on-again, off-again lever of diplomatic favour or disfavour. Does Australia want to start going down that path? How would such a precedent affect Chinese perceptions of Australia as an energy supplier? (To my friends in the disarmament lobby who were disconcerted by my quotes in this article: yes, uranium and gas are different, given uranium’s potential nuclear weapons applications; but if said uranium exports are satisfactorily safeguarded, then the distinction diminishes – and anyway, we are talking here more about how Australia is perceived by, say, China than about how we perceive ourselves.)
  • Australia’s axing of the nuclear deal with Russia as a sign of displeasure over the Georgia issue would be (given the smallness of the Australia-Russia relationship) a far more profound economic sanction than anything Europe is contemplating: Europe’s moral outrage is not, for instance, extending at this stage to a high-minded refusal to accept any more Russian gas.
  • The Georgia conflict, and current chill in Russia-West relations, makes the need for progress on global nuclear disarmament all the more pressing, even if it makes the prospects of near-term advances depressingly less likely than they seemed earlier this year. The Australian Government needs to appraise whether and how a uranium supply relationship can be exploited as a way to get Russia’s ear on wider non-proliferation goals, such as pressure on Iran and North Korea, the need for US and Russian leadership in further cuts to nuclear arsenals, or the need for greater international control of the nuclear fuel cycle.

So thank you, Mr Thomson, for prompting this debate. But it does not begin and end with Putin’s eyes.