Interview with Neil Breen, 4BC Breakfast

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Ukraine and Russian aggression.
25 January 2022

Neil Breen:
Foreign Minister Marise Payne joins me now. Good morning to your Minister. There was serious news overnight when the Australian government advised Australians who are in the Ukraine to leave.

Marise Payne:
Good morning, Neil. How are you?

Neil Breen:
I'm very well, thanks. So, you want Australians out of the Ukraine?

Marise Payne:
Well, we have made a decision that dependants of our Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other government agency staff should leave Ukraine in light of the uncertain situation and, consequent to that, also advised Australians who are in Ukraine now to leave now, if they wish to do so, and to use commercial flights, which continue to be available. We regard this as a cautious and prudent approach in a period of great uncertainty. But I want to be very clear: this in no way whatsoever changes Australia's support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, which we've been very clear in restating in recent weeks and days.

Neil Breen:
Are you concerned that by withdrawing Australians from the Ukraine it appears as though on the international stage we're not supporting them? Is that why you're making that statement?

Marise Payne:
No, I think our position in support of Ukraine is very clear. I spoke to the Foreign Minister myself last week. I had a long conversation with Australia's ambassador in Kyiv as well on Friday night, and we are in regular contact with Ukraine's chargé [d'affaires] in Canberra. Our support for Ukraine is very clear, but I do think that as the United States and the United Kingdom have done, it is prudent and cautious to ensure that we are prioritising the safety of Australians, our diplomatic staff dependants in particular, and of course, Australians who are there in Ukraine at the moment.

Neil Breen:
So the diplomatic staff will stay? Just clarifying that.

Marise Payne:
Yes, the staff themselves, the Australian-based staff, are staying in the Ukraine. It is a very small post for Australia, but their dependants …

Neil Breen:
Yeah, their family and everything come out.

Marise Payne:
Yes, that's right.

Neil Breen:
So Russia reportedly has 120,000 troops or 127,000 troops on the border of Ukraine. They're denying that they plan military acts and all these things are happening, and that's what they're saying on the world stage. But why are we withdrawing now when those troops have been amassing for weeks? What's created the urgency?

Marise Payne:
Neil, I think that the uncertainty of the security situation has moved to a point where it is prudent, as I said, to make this decision. We are, and have been, deeply concerned by the Russian military build-up on the Ukraine border, and we have certainly consistently called for them to de-escalate the situation. But the job of my Secretary and my job, in terms of our staff, is to make sure that we are taking a prudent and cautious approach, and that's what we have done in making this decision. We've been in constant contact with our partners, whether it's Canada or the US or the UK, the European posts across Kyiv, in terms of the situation – we're working very closely together, but ultimately no one else has responsibility for the diplomatic staff and families, other than the Secretary of my department and myself. And so, in making this decision, we are taking the prudent approach to looking after their safety.

Neil Breen:
My special guest is Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne. If Russia does invade, you know the US could retaliate. The UK could retaliate. We know about the AUKUS deal. They're our allies anyway, and have been for a century. Do we send troops?

Marise Payne:
Neil, we have said that we would not be engaged in military action in relation to these issues, and both the Prime Minister and I have referred to that in recent days. We have been discussing with Ukraine support in the cyber context. They have been the victims of a very significant cyber attack in the last week or 10 days, understood to have potentially come from Russian sources, perhaps not Russian Government sources, but sources more broadly. Cybersecurity and cyber affairs are an issue on which we have worked with Ukraine previously and provided cybersecurity training and advice and my cyber affairs and critical technologies ambassador Dr Toby Feakin will be working with his counterparts in the Ukraine on ensuring, as best as we are able, that we assist with cyber security issues.

Neil Breen:
They might try and attack us in a cyber way. Russia, they've done it before.

Marise Payne:
Well, I would always encourage all Australians to follow the Australian cybersecurity steps for protecting their own position online. We should always be refreshing ourselves in relation to that, and I'm sure the Australian Cyber Security Centre would echo that view.

Neil Breen:
Marise Payne, it's sort of pretty heavy times for Australia. We're on the nose with China. We're going to be on the nose with Russia. It kind of feels like the 50s and 60s all over again.

Marise Payne:
Well, Neil, I'm not quite that old, but if I look at the circumstances in which we find ourselves, we certainly do see authoritarian regimes trying to test the resolve of countries like Australia who are Liberal democracies, but also countries around the world, no matter what their political system, who really, ultimately, want to maintain their own sovereignty and to get on with their own business. We do not accept that as a mode of operation, and we will call it out and we will oppose it wherever we see it.

Neil Breen:
Marise Payne, before you go, has our Prime Minister tried to talk to Vladimir Putin? Have we had any discussions at that level?

Marise Payne:
I don't believe that Prime Minister Morrison and President Putin have spoken that, no. We have, of course, engaged with many of our like-minded counterparts, including the US and the UK. And as you would be aware, the US Secretary of State has sat down in the last couple of days with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and discuss these issues. We work closely with our partners on such matters, and I think it is important that Australia is in regular communication with them.

Neil Breen:
Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne, thanks for your time this morning.

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