The focus at the Australian Open tennis shifted briefly this week from the players to the spectators when a small group, including Serbian champion Novak Djokovic’s father Srdjan, staged a protest in support of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
The actions of the dozen or so protesters, who posted a video on YouTube which has garnered 100,000 views, were in breach of Tennis Australia rules which ban public displays of national flags or any other actions which drag tennis into politics.
The support the men expressed for Putin’s murderous regime – the group even flashed a “Z”, the official logo of the Russian invasion – is shocking to us here in Australia. Opposition Leader Peter Dutton called it “bizarre”.
But in Djokovic’s native Serbia large sections of public opinion have a historical empathy for Russia, which many regard as a fellow Slavic Orthodox big brother. Srdjan Djokovic in the video appeared to say “Long live Russia”.
The mercenary army Wagner, which has taken convicts from Russia to fight Putin’s war in Ukraine, has claimed it was also recruiting in Serbia.
Ukrainian ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko has called for Tennis Australia to ban Djokovic from the Australian Open where his son could well add to his 21 grand slam titles.
The Australian Open is certainly within its rights to exclude people who break its rules.
It now seems that Djokovic has voluntarily decided not to attend the semi-final on Friday but TA should ban him if he wants to be there for the final, especially if there is any evidence that he plans to repeat his behaviour.
The Australian government should look not just at Djokovic senior but at those who were protesting around him.
The protesters on the video sent a greeting to Alexander Zaldostanov, the leader of the Night Wolves, an ultranationalist Russian bikie club.
Zaldostanov, who rode next to Putin in a motorcycle parade in 2011, led a group of Russian “volunteers” during Russia’s occupation of Crimea and the separatist unrest in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The US, the European Union and Canada have already imposed sanctions on Zaldostanov and the Night Wolves as an organisation for their support of Russia’s criminal aggression.
But even though the Night Wolves have a local chapter with close links to Moscow head office, they have not been added to Australia’s sanctions list.
The main risk in this incident, however, is that it will be blown out of proportion and hand Putin a propaganda victory. If Australia comes down too hard, it will be open to accusations by Kremlin mouthpieces that our defence of free speech and multiculturalism is hypocritical.
The condemns in the harshest terms Putin’s invasion of Ukraine but there must be space for legal expression of diverse views.
This incident should not obscure the fact that Russia is only pulling stupid stunts like this because it is losing the bigger propaganda war.
Putin’s indiscriminate attacks on Ukrainian civilian targets have shown the world that it holds human life in contempt.
The consequence was that this week Putin suffered a major diplomatic defeat when Germany removed a veto on exports of its cutting-edge Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Germany has resisted sending these and other heavy weapons to Ukraine because of its close commercial ties to Russia and a confused foreign policy still handicapped by the legacy of World World Two.
But even German Chancellor Olaf Scholz this week decided that Russia had gone too far and must be defeated. The tanks to be supplied by Germany and a half a dozen other European countries will be on the battlefield in a few months and could play a decisive role in Ukraine’s spring campaigns to regain its territory.
In a fit of pique, Putin on Thursday dispatched another wave of more than 50 deadly missiles at Ukraine, killing 11 people.
The best way for Australia to show its support for Ukraine would be to increase its military aid.
Dutton has called on the government to offer a new package beyond the $475 million announced so far.
Even though NATO announced its new package of arms last week, Australia has not offered anything new since October.
Defence Minister Richard Marles is travelling to Europe next week where he will be briefed on the situation on the ground. He should come back and show that Australia is playing its part.
Many Australians will see the events at the tennis as an annoying distraction. They wish that the players and fans would not bring their political feuds here to Australia.
Certainly, there is a delicate balance between sport and politics which is constantly being tested.
But as a country Australia must make clear that it supports Ukraine in its fight for freedom and another aid package is overdue.
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