15 June 2024


Given in Odesa, Ukraine


Amended version published in The Australian

Ladies and gentlemen, it is an honour to be here. Even though Australia is a far away country, but I will take every chance I can, to be here in Ukraine, to show solidarity with the Ukrainian people; and admiration for the Ukrainian armed forces, who have defeated the Russian navy in the Black Sea without actually having a navy themselves – just one of the many ways in which Ukraine has amazed and impressed the entire world.

Now this is actually my fourth trip to Ukraine. The first was in 1982, in the company of an American of Ukrainian background. For him, coming to Ukraine for the first time in his life was an almost mystical experience. For me, it was an insight into the survival of Ukrainian nationhood and into the Ukrainian people’s yearning to be free.

Now one of the hardest things for the citizens of a democracy to grasp is the mindset of a dictator. Of necessity, democratic leaders focus on getting elected. They deliver better schools, hospitals, roads and public transport; they build a stronger economy so that wages rise and taxes fall; they support the police so that citizens feel safe in their homes and their streets.

By contrast, dictators don’t have to worry about losing elections, so they can seek national glory and their place in history, especially when there’s a messianic commitment to imperial or to religious dominion deep in their national cultures.

Now not long after a Russian missile battery shot down a civilian airliner over Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 people, including 38 Australians, I had an exchange with Vladimir Putin that I’d earlier likened to a “shirt-front”, or rough tackle on the sports field.

It went something like this: because that missile battery must have had his permission to be in another country, I insisted that he, Putin, owed the families of the dead an apology plus compensation. His retort –and this was back in 2014, during his first invasion of Ukraine– was that the plane was brought down by provocateurs, that Ukrainians were all fascists, and that Ukraine had no right to exist anyway.

And when I added that I knew about Kievan Rus and had read Tolstoy and Solzhenitsyn, but that Ukraine had a right to be free, he repeated his slurs, only more forcefully.

Then, as we were walking back into the conference, that we were attending at the time, he suddenly turned, grabbed both my elbows, and said in English: “you are not a native Australian, but I am a native Russian” before trying to shove me away.

I’m sure this extraordinary mini-assault was meant as a warning, to me, the citizen of a settler society, of my utter incapacity to grasp his blood and soil passion for every inch of Russian land, as he saw it.

So clearly, all of the Russian dictator’s previous interventions, in Georgia and Armenia, plus that initial attack on Ukraine, were just incremental steps towards remedying the greatest geo-political disaster of the 20th century, as he saw it, namely the demise of the old Soviet Union; because Putin’s mission from God, as he sees it, is to recreate the Russia of Peter the Great.

That’s why Ukraine isn’t just fighting for its own freedom; it’s fighting for the freedom of all the countries that would be Putin’s subsequent targets, should he succeed here: Moldova, the rest of Georgia, the Stans, and ultimately the Baltic States and Poland.

At the very least, the fall of Ukraine would mean a new iron curtain in Europe, and a new Cold War stand-off between two heavily armed camps, if not actual Russian hegemony over eastern and central Europe, based on a decadent West’s inability to muster the resources and the will to keep its freedom.

As Trotsky is supposed to have said, you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you. What’s almost unthinkable to us is what’s constantly on the minds of the dictators now on the march.

We have to get used to the prospect of war, if we are to avoid it, and make the changes that we find unpalatable, like military, industrial and cultural rearmament; resisting the allure of business as usual, sleep-walking through lotus land, because major war is now more likely than in nine decades. 

Because it’s not just Moscow that’s geared up for war. Beijing burns to overcome its “century of humiliation” by seizing practically independent Taiwan, on the way to resuming its destiny as the world’s Middle Kingdom, or global hegemon. As the commissars have told us countless times, that’s their plan. And in convulsing the global order and deranging the economy, including the potential for nuclear escalation, an attack on Taiwan would be several orders of magnitude greater than the war here.

Then there’s Tehran, set on uniting the Muslim world under its brand of Islam, and then securing Islam’s foretold triumph by laying waste to Israel and ultimately to the United States too. Why else would Tehran be desperate to acquire nuclear weapons? But as the mullahs have told us countless times, that’s their plan.

So Ukraine is but the first fight in a global struggle that we would prefer to avoid but that the dictators are determined to have.

One day, of course, they will be at each others’ throats, as in the past, but for now they’re in a self-declared “no limits” partnership: with China’s thirst for Russian oil and gas funding Putin’s war machine; and Iranian drones part of the bombardment raining down nightly on Ukraine’s cities.

Between them, they are exploiting every vulnerability to shake the Pax Americana. The Pax Americana made the world more free, more fair, more safe and more rich than ever, but that is the chief obstacle to their global ambitions.

Now, no one votes with their feet to live in Russia, in China or the Middle Eastern theocracies yet that’s what this new arc of dictatorship wants: a world that’s more like them. With people in thrall to the leader, to the party, or to a brutal version of Islam.

That’s what’s at stake here in Ukraine, not just the right of Ukrainians to decide their future for themselves, but the right of all people everywhere to choose their own destiny, rather than have it set for them by a president-for-life, a party state, or a perverted version of religion.

This is not a struggle that can be abandoned, just because it’s hard; because it’s much harder on the Ukrainians than it is on us.

Our best hope of keeping the global peace is not to abandon today’s struggle to prepare for tomorrow’s. It’s not to forget about eastern Europe in order to worry about East Asia. It’s not to put America first, or Australia first because it’s not America or Australia that’s currently most in trouble. But it will be if Ukraine falls.

When barbarism triumphs anywhere civilisation is diminished everywhere. The most perfect welfare state, and the best developed human rights protection, and the most elaborate measures to get to net zero emissions, are entirely useless if our trade is disrupted, our standard of living eroded, and our freedom coerced by newly ascendant hostile powers.

That’s why Ukraine is the frontline for freedom and why this war should only end with the resounding lesson that aggression does not pay.

The Russian tyrant needs to know that his bid to extinguish Ukraine does not pit 140 million Russians against 35 million Ukrainians but decency versus barbarity and ultimately democracy versus dictatorship.

Ukraine needs to be given all the weapons it needs, no longer enough-not-to-lose but, finally, enough-to-win – which means driving every last Russian soldier from every inch of Ukrainian territory – and if that’s an un-survivable humiliation for the Russian leader then so be it.

It means allowing Ukraine to mount the attacks on Russia’s infrastructure and supply lines that Russia has constantly mounted against Ukraine. And if at some point, the Ukrainians choose to bid for peace, it should be with the guarantee that Ukraine will henceforth be in NATO so that Putin can’t use any ceasefire as a pause to regroup and to renew his assault.

Now at last, the US congress has woken up to the folly of denying Ukraine the weapons it needs to help the world by helping itself. And the Europeans have finally given Ukraine access to some of the Russian wealth it deserves, after all it’s suffered.

Yet it’s embarrassing, even shameful, that Australia has not done more – especially after all the Ukrainians did, in Petro Poroshenko’s time, to help Putin’s victims on Flight MH17. There are literally hundreds of Bushmaster and Hawkei armoured vehicles that would be much better in action here, than rusting in depots in Australia; and the fact that our embassy still has not returned to Kyiv, along with some 70 others, makes us look like cowards.

If the horrors that have befallen Ukraine are not to be repeated elsewhere, all the leading democracies, including Australia, need to rethink what it means to be secure. And to remember that other countries won’t leave us in peace because they like us but because the alternative is simply not worth it.

After all, countries aren’t protected by wishful thinking but by military strength. And Alliances don’t flourish through goodwill but but through a willingness to fight.

So, my friends, we owe it to the Ukrainians to help them to keep their country; but even more so we owe it to ourselves to heed this wake-up call and to win this new civilisational struggle against those wanting a darker world where only might is right.

Thank you very much. Again, I pledge whatever I can personally do to keep its freedom. Slava Ukraini.