Press conference, Sydney
Marise Payne: I do want to acknowledge and thank the President for his visit. President Aingimea and his government are a good friend of Australia's. And we've had a very valuable discussion today on a number of key issues around the Pacific. But particularly I wanted to refer to our announcement about the work we're going to do together to upgrade Nauru's international airport and to strengthen Nauru's connectivity safety and security.
We are going to provide a $40 million grant finance package, including $30 million through the Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific and providing a very practical demonstration of our commitment to supporting critical infrastructure in our region.
These are two areas of infrastructure with which I'm quite familiar in Nauru, having been there in 2018 for the Pacific Island Forum meeting. We are going to support the resurfacing of the Nauru runway and the provision of vital air traffic equipment to enable critical air transport for decades to come. Given that Nauru is a country which lives on its connectivity and particularly air connectivity, this is essential.
That funding is also going to enable climate resilient upgrades to sections of the Nauru ring road. These are engagements we're going to make in close partnership with the Nauruan government. Importantly, they are projects that are going to employ Nauruan locals and use local materials wherever possible to also help to stimulate Nauru's economy.
This builds on the joint announcement that we made in December between Nauru, Kiribati, the Federated States of Micronesia, Australia, Japan and the United States about the construction of the east Micronesia cable, which will provide Nauru with internet connectivity through a submarine cable for the first time. I've seen it firsthand the difference that these submarine cables make. We know that we just experienced a significant trauma to the cable in Tonga, but it has been repaired and that is back operational. Still more work to do in Tonga on the domestic comms but we are working and helping with that.
But also in relation to the Coral Sea cables, to Honiara, Port Moresby, the Palau spur cable, which I turned the sod on in December in Palau myself with the representatives of Japan and the United States as well.
I can also say, and you'll see in our joint statement, that we discussed Australia's support for Nauru's Covid response and their progress on vaccinations and also, given circumstances globally today, we have also shared our concerns about the enduring and emerging international security threats, including our deep concerns about Russia's aggression towards Ukraine. And we reaffirmed both countries' support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Now, President Aingimea is also here to open formally the Nauru High Commission in Canberra. So we're very pleased that he has been able to come and to do that with his High Commissioner Her Excellency Camilla Solomon.
Can I also say in relation to the Ukraine, as you know, our sanctions in relation to Russian President Vladimir Putin and key figures in his inner circle have come into force overnight. We have welcomed the significant international financial measures that have been taken, including restricting access to the SWIFT system.
We have, as you're aware through the Prime Minister's statements, committed the provision of both lethal and non-lethal military equipment and medical supplies, and the non-lethal aspect of that is being negotiated through support to NATO.
I want also to remind Australia and Australians that we now advise Australians not to travel to Russia due to the security environment and the military conflict with Ukraine. We have raised our travel advice to level 4 – 'do not travel' and to leave by commercial or private means if it is safe to do so. I am advised that both France and the United States have upgraded their travel advice in relation to Russia to leave immediately. I have just been given that advice, and I will ask DFAT to similarly upgrade our travel advice.
Means of departure from Russia are contracting significantly daily, including through restricted airspace and commercial air carriers who are not continuing to operate. So it is important knowing how flights between Russia and Europe have been disrupted that opportunities to fly are taken now. We also know that airports in Russia are now closed to the public and there are internal disruptions to those flights between airports from Moscow – between airports in Moscow and other cities.
I want to reinforce that for anyone who is in Russia or Ukraine and who has concerns for their welfare or that of another Australian that they can contact the consular emergency centre on 1300 555 135 in Australia or overseas on + 61 2 6261 3305 from outside Australia. Thank you. And I'm happy to answer questions.
Journalist: Marise, why have you upgraded travel advice to 'do not travel' to Russia? Do you believe Australians in the country have real risk? And do you believe there is a chance of financial chaos and mass protests breaking out in Russia?
Marise Payne: Well, we have advised Australians not to travel to Russia self-evidently because of the deteriorating security environment and also the military conflict with Ukraine. We know that there have been demonstrations and protests in Russia. We advise Australians to avoid those places and to be very aware of their own security. But it is certainly in the interests of Australians who are in Russia to take this travel advice seriously and to leave by commercial or private means as soon as they are able to.
Journalist: Hi Marise, still on Ukraine. The UK's Liz Truss has voiced support for the British nationals to join the fight in Ukraine. Have you had any discussions with Ukraine's representatives in Australia about the foreign legion that they're establishing?
Marise Payne: The first thing I would say is that Australia's advice for travelling to Ukraine is 'do not travel'. Do not travel. That is clear. We are aware of the potential for Australians who may seek to do that, though, to travel to Ukraine and we will continue to monitor that. But Australian law, existing Australian law, prohibits Australian citizens and residents and holders of Australian visas from engaging in hostile activities overseas unless serving in the armed forces of a foreign country. So Australians who travel to fight in Ukraine with a non-government armed group on either side of the conflict or who recruit someone else to do so may be committing a criminal offence.
So I think it is very important for individuals who may seek to do this to be clear of the provisions of Australian laws that may apply to their activity. And, frankly, I would strongly encourage them to observe the travel advice, which is 'do not travel'.
Journalist: Can you provide us with a rough estimate of the number of Australians currently living in Russia? And how many have reached out for consular assistance?
Marise Payne: We are always engaging with Australians overseas, and Russia would be no different in terms of those who seek consular information or support. So I'm sure that that is the case – I'm sure there are Australians who have sought that advice. There would be many hundreds of Australians in Russia and then over and above the individuals themselves there may be families and permanent residents as well. But we will work through our post and through officials in the consular emergency centre in Canberra to support any Australians as best as we are able to in these circumstances.
Journalist: Minister Payne, are there any key Russian oligarchs who have significant financial ties to Australia?
Marise Payne: I understand that question arising out of our decisions to place those sanctions in recent days. We're working with financial institutions on that, but the importance of the sanctions decisions we have made is about ensuring that we remove any possibility of safe havens for people who have been either providing advice to or engaged in the decision-making of President Putin in his unlawful and wholesale breach of international law in his invasion of Ukraine.
Journalist: On sanctions, will Rusal have to divest its share of the Queensland Alumina refinery in the wake of the sanctions?
Marise Payne: I'm not going to comment on individual investments and details like that. They will all be worked through according to the provisions that are determined in the sanctions press and with the financial institutions involved and businesses involved.
Journalist: So there are calls to further target key Russian oligarchs who hold significant assets on behalf of Vladimir Putin. Are you in discussion with other allies who can freeze the assets of these key oligarchs? And when will this be done?
Marise Payne: Well, as I've said in my comments consistently in recent days, we are coordinating very closely with counterparts in the European Union, in the United States, in the United Kingdom, Japan is now engaging as well as on these issues, and we welcome that. We will continue to do that and our sanctions procedures are still underway. They are not completed.
Journalist: And what is Australia's response to Mr Putin's move to put his nuclear forces on high alert? Is this an alarming move which should concern Australians?
Marise Payne: This is deeply concerning. It's deeply concerning for the world. To be absolutely clear and to reiterate the points that I've made in recent days, this is, as I said, a wholesale breach of international law. It is a breach of the United Nations Charter. It is not justified or validated in any way, shape or form. And to continue with the sorts of behaviour we have seen from the President, including raising concerns in relation to potential nuclear activity is only compounding, frankly, the list of offences that have been committed thus far.
We have been very clear with Australians in terms of our condemnation of Russian behaviour, and that would extend to the most recent statements by the President as well.
Journalist: Going back to your Nauru announcement. How much of this is about countering China's influence in the region?
Marise Payne: Well, I think if you look at the details of what we have announced today, this is about the resurfacing of the Nauru airport runway and the provision of air traffic equipment. These are essential functions for Nauru as a country in a remote area of the Pacific. And it is absolutely the sort of thing that a partner like Australia would always do. It is about what we can do with and for Nauru as partners, overwhelmingly.
And secondly in terms of the ring road itself, the sections of the ring road that need upgrading obviously are impacted by climate events in Nauru. We want to ensure that those upgrades are climate resilient, and that is part of our partnership. It is also part of the stream through the Australia Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific, which is focused on climate adapted and climate resilient programs and ensuring that we are responsive to the needs of our partners. And that is the priority that Nauru has set out for us.
Journalist: Minister, there has been reports that Micronesian countries have halted its [indistinct] process of the [indistinct] in mid-February. Did you and the President talk about this issue today and is there any update you can share with us?
Marise Payne: We did talk about that today. And I regularly talk with my colleagues who are members of the Pacific Island Forum about these issues. We certainly appreciate the decision by our Micronesian friends to pause their withdrawals. That will give more time for discussions amongst Pacific Island Forum members. As the President knows from our conversations over many months, we are the strongest supporter of Pacific Island Forum unity, and we will continue to support Fiji's efforts towards achieving a resolution. We are also very grateful for the efforts of President Aingimea as the leader of the Micronesian group and the work that he has done there. And I hope to see very productive, hopefully in-person meetings of leaders and foreign ministers of the Pacific Island Forum very soon. It has been a deeply frustrating period of time to not be able to engage with our friends and family across the Pacific. It's over two years since I've seen President Aingimea in person, although we are very well-acquainted by Zoom. And it has been a great pleasure to welcome him here today. Thank you very much.