Interview with Sabra Lane, ABC AM

Subjects: Russia-Ukraine War; Wagner mercenary group; Military and humanitarian aid package.

Sabra Lane, Host: Minister, good morning and welcome to AM. If I could start with the events in Russia. President Putin says the organisers of the attempted rebellion will be brought to justice. What do you think's going on?

Penny Wong, Foreign Minister : Well, firstly, good morning and good to be with you again. Look, obviously we're monitoring the situation very closely, as you can see from events every few hours. We see the situation continuing to unfold. What I would say is that these events do provide what is a rare opportunity for Russians to see that they've been lied to about this war, and those divisions are on display.

Lane: The head of the Wagner mercenary group, Yevgeny Prigozhin insists he wasn't trying to topple Vladimir Putin. He describes the weekend actions of his mercenaries as a protest. How stable is President Putin's leadership?

Foreign Minister: Look, that is a question which will be resolved by events over time I suspect. But as I said at the outset, what this does show is divisions in a strategy to wage an illegal and immoral war against Ukraine. And that's what we have been seeing, and that is what the people of Ukraine have been battling for months now. We see a Russian President engaging in a war which is illegal, immoral, contrary to the UN Charter. And over the weekend and overnight we've seen the divisions in his camp on his strategy.

Lane: There are reports UK intelligence is warning the British Government must prepare for the sudden collapse of the Russian Government. Are you aware of that? Are you being briefed along similar lines?

Foreign Minister: Well, I obviously wouldn't comment on intelligence and security briefings. But what I would say is we are monitoring the situation very closely. There's obviously a lot happening at a very fast pace in relation to events in Russia.

Lane: Can I turn to the latest Australian military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine. The Opposition points out this package doesn't include any of Ukraine's key three requests, being the Hawkei protected mobility vehicles, Abrams tanks or additional Bushmaster four‑wheel drive vehicles. What do you say to that?

Foreign Minister: It is disappointing, isn't it. That Mr Dutton's negativity really continues to operate, even in this area where, as you might recall, until now there's been bipartisan support including when we were in Opposition. This package is being worked through between Defence, between the Deputy Prime Minister, the Minister for Defence, and the Department of Defence and the ADF, and the Ukrainians. We've worked through that with them, and I note how President Zelenskyy as well as the Ambassador have articulated their support for the package the Prime Minister announced yesterday.

Lane: It's not just the Opposition's criticism. Michael Shoebridge, a former senior Defence Department official says some of the armoured vehicles we're giving are "obsolete boneyard vehicles" and another analyst, Michael Davis says the package is pretty insubstantial, and the Ukrainians would have been expecting more.

Foreign Minister: Look, I'd make this point, since June of last year, Australia, the Australian Government, Australians, have more than doubled the dollar amount we've spent on military support for Ukraine. So let's be clear about this. We understand how important this is. We obviously have been working through this with the Ukrainians, and as I said yesterday, the conflict, the war in Ukraine matters to us and to all countries. Because we cannot allow a situation where a greater power believes it can invade and redraw the boundaries of another territory.

Lane: The Prime Minister is going to this NATO conference next month. Is it possible he'll announce further assistance then?

Foreign Minister: We've announced this package yesterday. It's a package which, as I said, is more than doubling the military support for Ukraine. It puts us in a very substantial position in terms of our contribution to Ukraine as a country in the Indo-Pacific. We've also increased the humanitarian support, which I also announced. Obviously, the majority of the package is military. But we have worked through this with the Ukrainians, and we're pleased that we have been able to continue to provide the support from Australia and from Australians.

Lane: So on the criticism being “obsolete boneyard vehicles”?

Foreign Minister: All I can say is I understand that people on the outside may come up with ideas. We work in the real world, and the ADF and the Defence Department have worked with Ukrainians in terms of what we have been able to provide them, and we're pleased that President Zelenskyy and the Ambassador have both responded to it positively.

Lane: When will Australia's Embassy in Ukraine reopen?

Foreign Minister: We've been asked questions about this in the Parliament, and in Senate Estimates. And as the Department has said, there are security issues and the safety of employees that the Department has to consider. We'll continue to monitor the situation, and if and when it's judged to be appropriate and safe for us to return, we will do so.

Lane: Foreign Minister Penny Wong. Thanks for joining AM.

Foreign Minister: Great to speak with you.

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