Nikolai Beilharz: We’re joined by Senator Simon Birmingham, the Finance Minister. Good morning, Senator.
Simon Birmingham: Good morning Nikolai, Stacey and listeners.
Nikolai Beilharz: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us. What is the Australian Government doing in response to this?
Simon Birmingham: These are indeed very troubling times, and together with our partners around the world that we’ve been collaborating and working on potential responses with for some weeks now. We are making sure that Russia will pay a very high economic cost by targeting Russian banks, Russian financial institutions, Russian companies and key Russian individuals for an extensive range of sanctions. Those sanctions across the globe freeze different assets, stop different financial transactions from taking place. As you may have seen President Biden putting figures on that in relation to the US sanctions of which Australia is mirroring that these have implications for in excess of a trillion dollars’ worth of Russian assets held by these financial entities.
Nikolai Beilharz: How much of that business occurs between Russia and Australia?
Simon Birmingham: Australia does not have high levels of financial interaction with Russia, so we are acting in solidarity with our European partners, American partners. Others have been taking action such as Japan, and we encourage all nations to do so. The more we can isolate Russia, the more effective these measures will be. And that is why it’s so crucial that every nation who wishes to have respect for their own sovereign territorial borders ought to respond in this way and ensure that Russia is seen not only a clear message, but faces significant consequences.
Stacey Lee: What else can Australia do down the track if things don’t ease? Are we looking at troops on the ground combined with allies, or is that just not going to happen?
Simon Birmingham: We’ve been clear for some time, Stacey that we haven’t been looking at sending Australian troops into the Ukraine. We have been collaborating with the Ukraine in other areas of security cooperation. It’s known that we’ve worked in areas of cyber security cooperation. Our prime minister spoke with their prime minister in the last couple of days and asked foreign ministers continue to be in regular touch and we look at other areas where we can assist constructively. But the European nations have been clear that whilst they are bolstering defences along the borders of NATO countries and that you can see movement of troops across Europe taking place at present that they are not intending to send troops into the Ukraine. But there have been payloads and military assistance that have gone in from a range of different countries to help bolster the Ukrainian government’s ability and people’s ability to defend themselves.
Nikolai Beilharz: Does that include Australia?
Simon Birmingham: As you said, Nikolai, we’ve helped in in other practical ways, particularly in terms of cooperation around cyber security. This is a modern conflict and whilst much of the focus not unreasonably in terms of loss of life is on troops and the firing of missiles and those impacts we saw at the very earliest stages that the Russian government launched a range of different cyber-attacks and to try to cripple different Ukrainian systems. They’ve shown enormous resilience against the Russian might in that space. And we’ve also been very clear that Australian companies and entities should be operating at a heightened state of alert and preparedness in terms of their cyber defences, given the uncertainty all of this creates.
Stacey Lee: So what other areas are there where Australia can assist constructively? Is this something that would we be looking at helping arm Ukrainians or is that totally out of the question?
Simon Birmingham: We will respond thoughtfully to any requests we get from the Ukraine. As I said, this is a case of engaging in listening carefully to them. Whilst we won’t be sending troops, we will work through sensibly any other suggestions or requests that they may make, really, collaboration with our international partners, given the Ukraine is right there in Europe. It’s not too part of our region, so it’s what we can do working in sync with Europe, with America, with those who are most closely engaged with the Ukrainians.
We’re equally working up plans in terms of the support for humanitarian agencies that we can assist in terms of an international response, as we’ve seen how thousands of people swarming across borders into Poland and the nation. We also have, of course, been issuing for some time clear warnings to Australians who were in the Ukraine to leave the Ukraine and continue to work through the escalation and rapid processing of visas and other processes to help individuals who may have reason to seek to come to Australia.
Stacey Lee: How many Australians are still in Ukraine?
Simon Birmingham: So it’s a relatively small number, Stacey. I did have that to hand just before, but DFAT has 235 Australians registered with them, of which a number hold dual citizenship, so they are both Ukrainian nationals and Australian nationals, and that’s a symbol of the fact that whilst we’ve encouraged people to leave, the reasons that people stay are often very legitimate in terms of their family, their business interests there, their homes there. So we continue to do what we can, whilst Australian embassy officials were relocated out of Kiev some days ago now, we do also need to provide all of that consular assistance to anybody to be able to. What they still can do is make safe land passage out of the Ukraine. Air transport is largely restricted, but land passage heading to the West into those western European nations is still largely safe and available at this point.
Stacey Lee: It’s four minutes to 8:00 on ABC Radio Adelaide. We’re speaking with Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, who’s also drafted some of the sanctions that Australia’s imposed on Russia. And you also sit on the National Security Committee. You’ve been messaging over the last few weeks for diplomats and bureaucrats, Australian diplomats and bureaucrats in Ukraine. Are they all out now?
Simon Birmingham: Yes, Stacey. We initially moved families, non-essential staff and have ultimately relocated, so we have still Australian embassy officials operating in those eastern parts of Europe. But those countries, sort of the NATO countries that border the Ukraine to be able to provide continued consular assistance to Australians who need it to exit the country. But those warnings and messages have been very clear for some time. The support continues to be in place for anybody in Australia who is particularly concerned about individuals, DFAT does have a hotline number, and people should go to their website to get details, get in touch with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in that regard. But what’s most important is that we continue to work and we will escalate those sanctions you referenced in a series of rolling measures. The initial action we took yesterday morning against eight members of Russia’s National Security Committee has been added to, with actions against further deputy ministers of defence, military leaders and leaders of different Russian organisations. We’ve targeted a number of different Russian companies now, as well as Russian banks and financial institutions, and we continue to make sure we work very closely sharing all of that information with European friends and allies, American friends and allies to be able to all work in sync in terms of who we are all targeting and how much we can isolate them, and as I said the most powerful thing is for other nations, including what would be most effectively China to heed those messages and follow suit.
Nikolai Beilharz: Senator, thank you for your time this morning.
Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Nikolai. Thanks, Stacey.