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analysis: As much of the world mourned Queen Elizabeth II, Ukraine and Putin took a darker turn

By Laura Tingle
Posted , updated 
If Queen Elizabeth II had not died two weeks ago, would Vladamir Putin have made the same moves?(AP: Scott Heppell/ Russian Presidential Press Service)

While much of the world – and our media – have spent the past fortnight eulogising a woman who represented dignified stability and certainty, things have been taking a much darker turn into instability and uncertainty.

You have to wonder how we would be thinking about the world if Queen Elizabeth II had not died two weeks ago.

For within that fortnight we have seen events in Russia and Ukraine take extraordinary turns: huge territorial and military gains by Ukraine for sure but as a result, on the downside, an alarming picture of an autocrat under intense pressure, Vladamir Putin, becoming more desperate in the measures he has been prepared to take, and the rhetoric he been prepared to use, to maintain control.

It's been a while since the head of a nuclear state actually threatened to use tactical nuclear weapons in a conflict already underway.

But somehow, a combination of the fascination with the death of a British monarch, and a disbelief that anyone would actually do anything that utterly insane has somehow meant Putin's clear threats have not received quite the coverage you might have expected in other times.

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Putin 'getting desperate' after mobilising Russian reservists.

"In the event of a threat to the territorial integrity of our country and to defend Russia and our people, we will certainly make use of all weapon systems available to us," Putin said.

"This is not a bluff."

US President Joe Biden responded: "Don't. Don't. Don't. It would change the face of war unlike anything since World War II."

A statement which would seem something of an understatement, really.

Military capabilities misjudged

The ominous nature of developments in Moscow have to be considered in the context of all that analysis at the beginning of the year that said Putin wouldn't actually launch a full scale invasion of Ukraine because it would be nuts to do so.

While both the Ukrainian and Russian military capabilities seem to have been wildly misjudged, there is even more darkness here in the reports – and videos that have gone viral – of the private mercenary army, known as the Wagner Group linked to close Putin associate Yevgeny Prigozhin.

Yevgeny Prigozhin (left) pictured with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a dinner in 2011.(Reuters)

Prigozhin is seen in the videos that emerged last week promising convicts release from prison in return for a six-month combat tour in Russia's war against Ukraine. Some estimates are that there are thousands of such prisoners now engaged in operations in Ukraine.

This is worth reflecting on when you think about the subsequent announcement by Putin this week of a partial military mobilisation, along with attempts to stage sham referenda in parts of eastern Ukraine as a pretext for their annexation.

It all leads to the view that Vladimir Putin is a guy who seems prepared to do pretty much anything.

Knock-on effects should not be underestimated

We may not be directly involved on the ground, though we are providing material support to Ukraine.

But the knock-on effects from the uncertainty Putin is now creating in Europe – and the world – should not be underestimated as the fog of royal mourning lifts.

It doesn't just pose a geo-strategic threat but an economic one too, as the European winter approaches and Putin gambles that Western solidarity will be shaken by a lack of fuel supplies across the continent.

Just how this will play into our domestic politics and conversation is uncertain.

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Australia will continue to urge Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.

The hitting of the "pause" button that happened with the Queen's death means it is always a little unclear how politics resets itself.

The stampede of our politicians – including all the atheists and republicans — to be conspicuously seen on the mourning monarchists' side of the ship feels like it has left things a little unbalanced, to say the least.

When Parliament returns to a more normal sitting on Monday, maybe we will just see a resumption of the day to day discussions we would otherwise have been witnessing: debates about a national integrity commission, parlaying about the state of the government's finances, ahead of Jim Chalmers' first budget next month.

An ill-defined dividing line historically

But the Queen's death has raised a whole range of complex issues behind that stability she represented to so many people. They are bubbling closer to the surface in her absence, amid a sense of regime change.

So much of the commentary about the Queen has been about her as a symbol, not about her institutional role in the British system, let alone the Australian one.

This is not just about whether we become a republic or not. There is such an ill-defined dividing line historically between the monarchy and the governments that have acted in its name.

The past decisions of that monarchy – and/or its governments — are completely central to our national story, and detrimentally central to the lives of our Indigenous people.

Yet we seem unable to contemplate what a strange vacuum there seems to be in all the national mourning for a foreign monarch who was our head of state, and what that monarchy actually means to any of us in 2022 or in the future.

Monarchy certainly doesn't mean as much in Australia as it once did. But neither does "the" church or the idea of military service.

The memorial service for the Queen was held in the Great Hall at Parliament House. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

Hence at the national memorial service in Canberra on Thursday, politicians and national leaders had to take part in a made-up ceremony involving sticking wattle in a wreath for the Queen.

By comparison, think of all the symbolism of the Queen's funeral march. On one level, everyone can marvel at how well the Brits do ceremony and admire the colour and splendid uniforms

But consider the staggering extent to which the Queen's coffin was surrounded by the military, and symbols of past empire, in its final journey.

The military myth

Military history is also central to Australia's myths. Yet in the same week we have been watching the passing funeral parade, there have been more reports from my colleague Mark Willacy about alleged war crimes by Australian troops in Afghanistan.

The tarnish that these reports of the actions of the few put on the reputations of the thousands of troops who served there is not just distressing for the troops, but only raises further questions about the priorities involved in spending $500 million on rebuilding the Australian War Memorial to document these conflicts.

The Australian War Memorial records the names of more than 100,000 Australian armed forces. (ABC Canberra: Louise Maher)

In 2020, the incoming director of the Memorial, Matt Anderson defended the spend saying:

"We've created 100,000 veterans over the last 25 years, and yet we devote about 4 per cent of gallery space to them".

Well yes, but as the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide continues to document, more of them have died at home by suicide than died on active duty with not enough support in place.

What is also not present at the Memorial is any reference to the tens of thousands of people who died in the Frontier Wars in Australia, that occurred under the fiction of Terra Nullius declared in the name of the British Monarchy.

Elizabeth II with her much respected stability and decency may have gone. The pageantry may have passed. But even amid these dark times, regime change should be an opportunity to confront our history more honestly.

We are yet to see how Anthony Albanese delivers on a pledge to truth telling, as well as to a Voice to Parliament for Indigenous Australians

Laura Tingle is 7.30's chief political correspondent.

Posted , updated