Interview with Patricia Karvelas, ABC Radio National
Patricia Karvelas: Australians still in Ukraine are being urged to leave without delay after Russian troops rolled into the break away regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. US President Joe Biden has a message to the world this morning – Vladimir Putin has paved the way for a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Joe Biden: He's setting up a rationale to take more territory by force in my view. This is the beginning of a Russian invasion of Ukraine. President Putin has sought authorisation from the Russian parliament to use military force outside of Russian territory. And this set the stage for further pretext for further provocations by Russia to try to justify further military action. None of us – none of us – should be fooled. None of us will be fooled.
Patricia Karvelas: The US President Joe Biden speaking a short time ago. Australia is now working with other nations on a raft of economic sanctions against Russia which Foreign Minister Marise Payne warns will be swift and severe. I spoke with the Foreign Minister Marise Payne earlier from Prague.
Marise Payne: Good morning, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: How many Australians are still in Ukraine, and how long do they have to get out?
Marise Payne: Patricia, we've been very, very clear that all Australians should leave Ukraine immediately. We have been saying that for a number of weeks now. In fact, we have also directed our officials to temporarily leave Ukraine given the security situation. It's difficult to ascertain exactly how many because we are able to deal with those who are registered with Australia, and that number is just over 100. But there have been broader family groups, as I think I've mentioned to you before. We've deployed Australian officials to eastern Poland and to Romania to assist Australians who may be seeking to depart Ukraine now as well.
Patricia Karvelas: Australia's embassy is now closed. All diplomatic staff have left for Poland or Romania. Does that mean Australians still in Ukraine are on their own? They'll have to find their own way out?
Marise Payne: Well, we have been, as I said, explicitly clear that those who wished to leave – in fact, every Australian in Ukraine – should leave for their own safety and security. But we still have our 24-hour consular emergency centre available. We have those Australian officials in eastern Poland and Romania. And they are separate officials from our diplomatic staff from Kyiv itself. They are officials that we have deployed particularly to support on these consular issues. The diplomatic staff from Kyiv who had moved to Lviv have had to go into Poland for a period of time. And I want to thank the Polish government very much for the support they have provided for those of us who have needed to do. But we will continue to provide as much support as we can for Australians. But, of course, we are limited in the circumstances, and we've been very clear about that.
Patricia Karvelas: The Russian parliament has met to rubber stamp a request by Vladimir Putin to deploy Russian troops abroad. NATO Secretary-General says it's now beyond doubt that Moscow is planning a full-scale attack on Ukraine. Is that your assessment? There is now no stopping a comprehensive invasion?
Marise Payne: I don't agree that there is no stopping a comprehensive invasion because Russia still has – always has – the option not to proceed. And that is what we have been calling for. That is what like-mindeds have been calling for. I met with the Secretary-General of NATO this week in Munich and we discussed these issues. So that continues to be an option.
But we do see an ongoing military build-up, that is correct. And we see a range of activities, including the completely unacceptable decision that President Putin has made in declaring that the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine are independent states. None of these things are contributing to security or stability in any way. And with our partners we are identifying options that are available to us to address this. But we've strongly condemned those.
Patricia Karvelas: Well, I just want to go to those options. You are working with other countries on coordinated economic sanctions. But we have a very small trade relationship with Russia and we are not a haven for Russian money. So what do you have in mind? Is it banning travel, freezing assets? How can we hit them where it hurts?
Marise Payne: I understand the question is an important one given the different equities that countries have in relation to Russia. And each country is also in a different position when it comes to sanctions. So we are looking at what is available to us specifically in relation to Donetsk and Luhansk. I see the executive order that President Biden signed on the 21st of February. That is an approach that we are determining the implications of for our system. The UK, of course, has also made announcements, and we will work with them on the package of sanctions that we might be able to implement.
I understand, though, that it's important to remind Australians that we have existing sanctions in place and they have been imposed since 2014. And we will use whatever tools we have available to us to the greatest degree to ensure that we are applying sanctions in conjunction with our counterparts. That is something which senior members of the government in Australia are discussing amongst colleagues now.
Patricia Karvelas: Can you give us some examples for our listeners who just want to get a sense of how far those sanctions could escalate?
Marise Payne: So I don't think it's appropriate to forward-run sanctions options because what you do if you forward-run sanctions options is that you give those whom you intend to sanction a chance to make their own decisions around – moving assets or whatever it might be. But we have been working with counterparts in my Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, with partners around the globe, particularly, as I said, the US, the UK. I've been discussing this with EU colleagues all day today in France and over the weekend in –
Patricia Karvelas: And is it right that an announcement on this is imminent? This is something that will be forthcoming today, that we will hear more details on this?
Marise Payne: We will make announcements as soon as possible.
Patricia Karvelas: If the sanctions have no effect on Moscow, what will be next? How will you escalate the action against Russia?
Marise Payne: I don't think speculating on what happens if the sanctions, as you say, are ineffective is necessarily helpful. We have to take the steps that we have available to us, apply those sanctions, work with our partners to maximise the effect of those sanctions and continue, frankly, the advocacy that has been occurring in the diplomatic sense. I can understand that is something which seems not to have had the outcome we wish it would. But what we have seen, frankly, is disinformation from Russia, misinformation from Russia, and we need to be very clear that there will be an impact and clear penalties for Russia should they proceed with this.
Patricia Karvelas: What about the Russian ambassador in Canberra? Will he be expelled or at least hauled in for a dressing down?
Marise Payne: Well, dealing with diplomats in that way, whether it is expulsions or recalls is always an option. Our focus at the moment, though, is on targeted sanctions that will have an impact on those responsible. So whilst there are other options and other tools, if you like, in the tool kit, such as how we deal with diplomats, that's a matter I'll turn my mind to at an appropriate time.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister Payne, Europe is on the brink of a major war. If Vladimir Putin gets his way in Ukraine which country could be next? Is Tony Abbott, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott, right when he says a new iron curtain will soon bring down on Europe if we don't do more to defend Ukraine?
Marise Payne: Well, again, I don't actually think it's helpful to speculate in that way because the territorial integrity, the sovereignty of the countries of this region is obviously an absolute – of the absolute primary focus of so many of the nations with whom I've met in recent days. We have to be absolutely clear that there is a cost to Russia for such behaviour – that is severe sanctions that will target key Russian individuals and entities that are responsible for these actions.
And we have to ensure that we are standing with our counterparts across Europe, whether it is the countries that I have been meeting with in recent days, many of whom understand the vulnerability particularly that Ukraine is facing, and themselves see troop build-ups along long borders with Russia, see what is happening in Belarus and are deeply concerned. We share those concerns and we are united across many partners in Europe, as I've said, in the US, the United Kingdom, in Canada, other governments around the world in supporting their sovereignty and their territorial integrity.
Patricia Karvelas: And, Minister, is Australia considering now supplying extra liquified natural gas to Europe given what we're seeing unfold on the Ukraine border?
Marise Payne: Well, we will – we've obviously seen tensions in Europe adding to the global price pressure. And we will work with partners to see what is necessary in that regard. We clearly have to ensure our own and continue to do our own local supplies of gas, but these are matters which will be discussed amongst colleagues and partners internationally in the coming weeks. They've certainly been an issue of discussion in my meetings in Europe this week.
Patricia Karvelas: Given all the uncertainty in Eastern Europe and the possible consequences for our own region, isn't it now time to drop the hyper-partisan attacks on Labor over national security? Don't the times demand the type of national unity we usually see only in wartime?
Marise Payne: Well, I think that in my public statements I have indicated that bipartisanship is preferable in national security, in foreign affairs, as you say. But it is not an end in itself. It does not cancel out the need for debate. And from a government's position we can and we should make criticisms of the opposition's positions if we think that they don't pass the test or do not meet the levels of consistency and delivery that we have been focusing on.
Our absolute focus is on national security, on Australia's national interests. We have seen attacks on the government over a range of issues, including, for example, our relationship with China. But ultimately I am endeavouring to ensure that Australia's position is clear in relation to Russia's moves now in Ukraine and that we are providing the strongest possible support we can to our partners and counterparts in this region.
Patricia Karvelas: Minister, thank you so much for your time.
Marise Payne: Thanks, Patricia.
Patricia Karvelas: Foreign Minister Marise Payne there.