View from The Hill

Abbott is now the cautious one as US and EU step up pressure on Russia

Prime Minister Tony Abbott is showing caution on Russia. AAP/Paul Miller

As the United States and the Europeans impose fresh sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the Abbott government is notably out of step.

The Prime Minister is not ruling out further measures later – Australia already has some financial sanctions and travel bans on named individuals and entities – but says that for now Australia’s attention is focused on getting access to the MH17 site to search for remains. There is no plan for more Australian sanctions.

This is understandable. But, given all that was said about Tony Abbott “leading the world” after the plane’s downing, it sits rather oddly with his initial stance that was especially tough on Russia.

On Monday of last week, after a round of calls to leaders, Abbott said: “The mood of the leaders that I spoke to is firmer and sterner now than it was in the 24 hours immediately subsequent to the downing … as it should be as more and more facts emerge about this terrible, terrible event.”

That he was censorious of their initial caution was clear. Some of the Abbott cheer squad in the media strongly praised him for getting out in front and attacked other leaders for taking a more timid approach saying some were driven by dependence on Russian resources for their energy supplies.

But now the boot is on the other foot.

Barack Obama has announced that, building on previous measures, the United States “is imposing new sanctions in key sectors of the Russian economy: energy, arms and finance”.

America is blocking the export of specific goods and technologies to the Russian energy sector; expanding its sanctions to more Russian banks and defence companies; and formally suspending credit that encourages exports to Russia and financing for economic development projects there.

The EU is acting against Russian banks; imposing an embargo on the import and export of arms and related material from and to the Russian military; and imposing restrictions on certain energy exports to make Russia’s development of oil resources more difficult.

Asked about Australia’s attitude, Abbott noted Australia already had some sanctions on Russia.

“I’m not saying that we might not at some point in the future move further, but at the moment, our focus is not on sanctions, our focus is on bringing home our dead as quickly as we humanly can.

"So, I know that various things are happening in Europe and elsewhere – that is a matter for the Europeans and others. We are just focused on getting onto the site as quickly as we can. We want to get in, we want to get cracking and we want to get out.”

The Netherlands, the country that lost the most people in the plane’s downing, is leading the mission to get to the site and so (like Australia) involved in delicate negotiations with the various parties.

But as part of the EU the Dutch are signed up to the sanctions.

Dutch foreign minister Frans Timmermans said they would send a strong signal to Moscow that “you are on the wrong path”.

The EU and the US have shifted from the specific incident to intensifying efforts to deal with the wider situation in Ukraine, as Abbott has narrowed his attention to retrieving the rest of the remains.

He is taking the course that he believes will have the best chance of achieving the objective (although on Wednesday the government was advised by the police that the mission could still not get to the site).

But Abbott has opened himself to the charge that his actions are not consistent with his early tough words.

He has left himself the out of doing more later. To be logical, however, that surely would require a new trigger – such as a finding of Russian culpability out of the investigation into the crash. But by then, Abbott would seem to be playing catch up.