Press conference

  • Transcript, E&OE
Subjects: Further sanctions on Russia; international response to Russian invasion of Ukraine; Australia-China relations.
26 February 2022

Marise Payne:

Thanks everyone for joining us here this morning on this very wet Sydney day. As you'd be aware, I returned from Europe and Southeast Asia overnight and have spent a great deal of that period in broad discussions particularly on Russia's aggression against Ukraine. There is very strong agreement and determination to ensure that Russia faces a high cost for what is a completely unprovoked and unjustified attack on its neighbour.

This unity of partners is extremely important. The invasion is a wholesale breach of international law. It is a breach of the UN Charter, and the most flagrant violation of sovereignty and territorial integrity that Europe has seen in decades.

The international community is responding particularly through coordinated sanctions and measures to inflict a cost on those in Russia who bear responsibility or who hold levers of power. I can announce some additional measures as part of the next round of Australian sanctions today.

Last night Minister Birmingham as Acting Foreign Minister signed the necessary instruments to put financial sanctions on eight Russian oligarchs who are close to President Putin and who deserve to bear the economic punishment and cost for Russia's destructive behaviour. And also sanctions on 339 members of the Russian Duma, who are the political facilitators of this action. We will today take steps to sanction key figures in the Belarussian government who are allied with Russia and who are abetting the invasion.

The next priority is to continue sanctions on Vladimir Putin's inner circle and on Russia's defence industry. We've seen overnight announcements by the UK, the EU and this morning by Canada that they will sanction Vladimir Putin himself and Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov given the gravity of what they are doing and their key roles. I am seeking advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to enable Australia to take similar steps.

It is an exceptional step to sanction leaders, but this is an exceptional situation. We need to be absolutely clear Vladimir Putin has unparalleled personal power over his country, and he has chosen to go to war against a neighbour that posed no threat to Russia because he wants to reverse history and take away the freedom and the democracy that the Ukrainian people chose for themselves.

He will be personally responsible for the deaths and the suffering of innocent Ukrainians. He has lied, he as deceived, he has fabricated and he has shown no interest in genuine dialogue. It is clear that the only way to exact a cost for those actions is to ensure that he himself shares some of that cost and some of the pain that he is inflicting on everyone else around him in Ukraine.

Separately, we are also looking to support Ukraine and its people. Overnight the Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths briefed UN members on the humanitarian situation, and that meeting finished a few hours ago. The humanitarian situation is serious and it is likely to escalate.

The UN says that because of the rapidly evolving situation in Ukraine it remains extremely difficult to assess and to determine the numbers of people in need. And, of course, those assessment efforts continue to be impacted by the difficult security situation. But we will be ready to provide humanitarian assistance as the situation in Ukraine and in surrounding countries becomes clearer.

We have, as you'd be aware, committed cyber assistance and the provision of non-lethal military equipment through NATO. And I conclude by saying that Australia has consistently condemned these actions, that we reiterate our calls to stop this violation, and we seek the withdrawal of the Russian military and this military action. Thanks.

Journalist:

Minister, the new sanctions, what will they actually achieve?

Marise Payne:

This third tranche is about targeting, as I said, eight oligarchs, people of key economic and strategic significance, and sanctioning 339 members of the Duma, which is the Russian parliament. That is being done in close consultation with partners – with the US, the UK and Canada. I can list the oligarchs themselves. These are senior figures in mainly state-owned banks and companies, and they are all very close to the President. They have influence over decisions and they have amassed great wealth through their positions of power. I can either go through them or provide you with a list.

Journalist:

Minister, can we just – first of all, do you have an update or an accurate update about the death toll and some of the humanitarian costs happening in Ukraine at the moment, and of that military technical assistance, the stuff that we provided, while I can appreciate you might not be able to go into too much depth, are you able to outline how much we spent, roughly what we're trying to provide or where we're providing it for?

Marise Payne:

Well, we will be working with NATO to provide non-lethal military equipment and medical supplies that will support the people of Ukraine. That is in response to the request from the Ukrainian Foreign Minister which he raised with me and which has been reiterated in our call between the Prime Ministers.

We're going to provide funding to NATO to provide the supplies. That is the most effective and efficient way us to do that given the distance and the time that it would take us to deliver such supplies. But we will be guided by the requirements that the Ukrainian government and NATO together advise us of their needs, and we will determine the costs as and when that is settled.

Journalist:

Minister, will Australia be expelling any Russian diplomats? If so, who?

Marise Payne:

I've said on a number of occasions that the option of expelling diplomats remains a live option. It is not something that we are considering currently. It enables us to have a direct line of communication with the Russian government. We did call in the ambassador to meet with the Secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to make absolutely clear our views, as I have reiterated here this morning. And at this stage, as I said, it remains an option but not something that we are proceeding with at the moment.

Journalist:

Minister, you've been quite critical of – or the Australian government has been quite critical of Beijing's response. India – it's been reported that India is exploring ways to set up an rupiah payment mechanism to soften the blow of Western sanctions and has stopped short of outright condemnation of Russia to date. Are you concerned about India's stance and would you encourage India to take a stronger stance?

Marise Payne:

Every country will make its own decisions about how it deals with these issues. I've also made that comment in the last couple of days. It is, however, Australia's clear view that we should call out illegal war and coercion and aggression for what they are. And we will discuss with and are discussing with a range of counterparts their views.

I note Prime Minister Modi has advised of the appeal to President Putin for the immediate cessation of violence. But it is crystal clear that these actions are the responsibility of the Russian government and the Russian President and them alone.

Journalist:

Minister, you've just met with your European counterparts. How concerned are they that the Russian offensive will extend beyond Ukraine?

Marise Payne:

Their absolute focus at this point is on the support of Ukraine, its sovereignty and its territorial integrity. Of course, there are concerns about the barbaric Russian behaviour that we are seeing, but I think the point that I made earlier about the unity of purpose that we are seeing amongst like-mindeds at this point in time is extremely important. And that is through the European Union, through the G7 in conjunction with partners from Australia to New Zealand to Korea to Japan. That unity is absolutely essential to deliver the hardest and strongest message that we can.

Journalist:

Minister, what would sanctions against Vladimir Putin actually look like?

Marise Payne:

That is a matter that we'll now discuss with our counterparts. Every country has a different sanctions regime. They manifest differently, they're constructed differently. And we will determine what steps that the US, the UK and Canada are taking specifically in their own systems and, as I said, seeking advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade on that.

Journalist:

Minister, Beijing is refusing obviously to condemn [indistinct]. What message does Australia take from that?

Marise Payne:

We think that – and we have said, clearly – that the behaviour of an authoritarian state of this manner to breach completely the sovereignty and territorial integrity of another country for -- no provocation, with no legitimate reason and, in fact, in pursuit only of, it would seem, power and blatant power at that is something that should be condemned. It should be condemned by all members of the permanent – P5 UN Security Council. There is a UN Security Council resolution which Australia is co-sponsoring which will be discussed shortly. And that is an opportunity for those members to make clear their views, and we've encouraged them to do so.

Journalist:

Minister, can you talk about the state of readiness of any military assets in Australia to help with the humanitarian effort or such like? Are we looking to see people getting closer to leaving this country?

Marise Payne:

At this point in time – and my discussions in Europe certainly concerned a number of people moving into European neighbours in the first instance – Australia would always be ready to support if that was required. And we've shown that we are able to do that through the challenges of 4,000 people being airlifted from Afghanistan only last August. However, at this point in time our discussions have been overwhelmingly with European neighbours, particularly, for example, Poland, where I visited in Warsaw last week for that purpose.

If we are able to – we will work with the UN, with OCHA in particular on our humanitarian support and determine the best way to do that accordingly.

Journalist:

Minister, with access to the greatest intelligence through Five Eyes and through NATO, what's next for Ukraine and for Russia? We've heard that the expansion into Poland, into some of the NATO states is highly unlikely, and we heard dialogue about potential cease fire, Putin wanted unconditional surrender from Ukrainian forces. What's the intelligence telling us?

Marise Payne:

I'm not going to speculate on intelligence, and you know that.

Journalist:

Minister, has the US President done enough to pressure China here?

Marise Payne:

Sorry, I didn't hear the beginning of that?

Journalist:

Has the US President Joe Biden done enough to put pressure on China here?

Marise Payne:

I think the partners that are involved in addressing these issues, particularly through the sanctions process, have been emphatically and explicitly clear about what the international community expects, whether that is through the United States the United Kingdom, the European Union, as I said, the G7, and President Biden addressed the G7 meeting early this week in relation to extending sanctions. I think there can be no doubt – absolutely no doubt – about the view of the international community overwhelmingly in relation to this matter. Not for anyone.

Journalist:

Are these sanctions too little, too late though?

Marise Payne:

Well, sanctions have been progressively rolled out and they take an amount of time to come into effect. That is the nature of the mechanism. But they are impactful and significant sanctions. They are highly targeted. They are highly focused, and they are coordinated. And that is part of the significance of their effect. Going back to that question of unity of purpose that the international community is focused on here, it is a very important aspect of these actions.

Journalist:

Minister, there are marches planned today. The Ukrainian community here in Australia, they're calling on the government to help get their loved ones to safety. Your message to them?

Marise Payne:

My message to them – and I've spoken before I travelled last week to Stefan Romaniw the head of the Ukrainian community in Australia; I know that the Prime Minister and Minister Hawke have met with Ukrainian leaders around the country – is that we are – we share their very deep concerns and their fears for their family and for their friends. We have been supporting Australians in Ukraine and, importantly, encouraging them to leave for an extended period of time. I first spoke about this in January and encouraged Australians to leave at that time, and we have continued to do so.

Many have, some have chosen to make other arrangements in Europe. Some have chosen to stay with family. Most importantly, they must stay safe. They must shelter in place and not leave or not endeavour to leave unless it is safe to do so. I understand the confronting nature of this situation, and I know that these families are feeling desperate about their relatives in Ukraine. This is a sadness shared by members of the Australian government and I know the whole Australian community.

Journalist:

Minister, can I ask about a different diplomatic matter? Earlier, a few days ago –

Marise Payne:

Can we finish on Ukraine?

Journalist:

Sure.

Journalist:

Are you able to elaborate a bit on the cyber assistance we've been providing? Have we directly stopped any Russian attacks and does our cyber assistance extend to offensive cyber operations?

Marise Payne:

Again, you know well that I would not speculate on matters of that nature. I will say that the Australian Cyber Security Centre is highly alert to the fact that Russia is major cyber actor and is very – is working very closely with other elements across the government but, importantly, in directing its messaging to business in Australia to ensure that the security they need to have in place is a message that is reinforced with them.

In terms of our engagements with Ukraine, we had previously provided cyber security support through defence training in the last year. We have undertaken a cyber dialogue now and also further training, and that is ongoing.

Journalist:

Sorry, just to clarify, are you able to provide an update on Australia's situation? Is there still no direct attacks and no direct threats against Australian businesses?

Marise Payne:

None that have been reported.

Journalist:

Minister, what discussions is Australia having with other countries about cutting Russia off from SWIFT?

Marise Payne:

Well, SWIFT is not something that is in our gift to implement. But we have indicated that we would strongly support cutting off Russia's access to the SWIFT international payments system. It is an international cooperative, as you know. But if it were to exclude Russian banks, it would make it harder for Russian individuals and Russian companies to make international payments, and that would add to the high cost that Russia faces and that it should pay for its invasion of Ukraine.

I'll come back to this last question.

Journalist:

So, a few days ago the new Chinese ambassador to Australia said that China was prepared to meet Australia halfway. What significance, if any, do you actually draw from that statement, and are you planning to meet the new Chinese ambassador?

Marise Payne:

I will meet the ambassador in due course, and I will have a conversation with him.

Journalist:

Is it scheduled?

Marise Payne:

Not at this stage, no. But I did only return last night, so it will be.

Journalist:

So, you do place significance on that statement?

Marise Payne:

I will meet with him then and we'll have discussions. Thanks everyone.

Ends

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