Topic(s): Ukraine

Narelle Graham: What to expect from the situation unfolding in the Ukraine? Well, Senator Simon Birmingham is the Liberal Senator for South Australia. He is a senior Liberal figure. He is, of course, our current Minister for Finance in the Morrison government and also a former Minister for Trade. But he also sits on the National Security Council, so he’s a good brain to pick on what might happen for us here in Australia. Senator Simon Birmingham, Good afternoon.

Simon Birmingham: Hello, Narelle. Great to be with you, as always.

Narelle Graham: What are the most urgent orders of business for the National Security Council in responding to Russia sending troops into Ukraine?

Simon Birmingham: We have been planning for and working towards this sad moment for some weeks now in working with European allies and partners, American allies and partners and others around the world to ensure that we have coordinated responses to what appeared to be likely. And that is the tragic, unwarranted and illegal invasion of Ukraine by Russia and by President Putin. And this war, now that he is waging on Ukrainian people, is totally unwarranted. We have been very clear about that in all of our language. We have now gone through the first couple of rounds of sanctions and actions that we can take against Russia in concert with other countries. These target influential individuals in Russia, particularly in their defence establishment. They target Russian banks and financial institutions and Russian companies with defence and military ties, and across the board, they freeze assets, stop financial transactions, limit the ability to travel. And as President Biden has indicated, all of that constitutes trillions of dollars of assets that are suspended and no longer in reach of those financial entities or Russian individuals. But we’ve also been providing practical support to the Ukraine in areas of cyber security and defence, coordinating with NATO in terms of the provision of other supplies to help them and of course, continue to work through the UN and other vehicles, particularly as we as we look at possible humanitarian relief that may be necessary.

Narelle Graham: In what ways, if any, does the National Security Council shape how Australia responds? What decisions do you make?

Simon Birmingham: Our cabinet the constitutes a number of different committees that then sit within the Cabinet and National Security Committee of Cabinet brings together the defence and foreign ministers, relevant financial ministers, the prime minister. But also then we receive constant briefings and updates from our head of Foreign Affairs, Head of defence, the chief of the Australian Defence Forces and the national intelligence agencies that that monitor closely what is happening in Australia and around the world, engage with their counterpart, intelligence agencies from other nations. And so they give us the best analysis of what’s happening on the ground in the Ukraine and in Russia. They give us, of course, also analysis as to what threats exist to Australia. And that is why listeners may have heard the prime minister talking about the need for Australian companies to review again their cyber security, resilience and preparedness, but that Russia initially launched its attacks against Ukraine through elements of cyber warfare and various attacks. And we have seen Russia as a source of some such disruption on Australian companies and business in the past. And so we’re very conscious of providing that support through our different agencies to Australian banks, energy companies and the like, as well as, of course, we’ve been looking at the economic implications which Australians are seeing at the bowser in terms of petrol prices.

Narelle Graham: I’ll pick up on what you say, what you’re saying there about cyber security, because people would have heard the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison speaking yesterday and reiterating that again, and he’s said it since that the risk of Russian cyber-attack for Australia organisations is high. How would. Given that we have this knowledge of it being a tactic that was used against their Ukraine in the early days? How would those attacks likely look or play out in Australia?

Simon Birmingham: You get these attacks. Some are called a denial of service attacks that really seek to disrupt the ability of entities to continue their online operations, which of course so many entities rely upon nowadays. If you think about financial institutions, banks and so on they are high risk target’s there

Narelle Graham: Just wondering how it might look like. Are we talking about if there was a cyber-attack? Does that mean that my power goes out or that the banks bank accounts are frozen? What are we talking about? That might happen for people just living their day to day lives in Australia? If those if those attacks are successful

Simon Birmingham: As a worst case, they are exactly the type of consequences that can happen that that. Electricity grids are disrupted and people lose power that that banking systems are disrupted and people lose ability to undertake transactions or to access their cash, or, of course, in a range of other ways that supply chains are disrupted, meaning that the types of shortages that we saw when people couldn’t go to work due to the American variant earlier this year could materialise because companies can’t run their machinery or equipment in different ways. Now we’ve foreseen a lot of this in Australia and have prepared for it to be put world leading legislation in place to protect critical infrastructure. And we defined that not just as areas of water or power or telecommunications, but also in terms of food and grocery supply chains and those sorts of sectors. And companies under that legislation have to meet certain standards in terms of their cyber security preparedness. And we have plenty of advice available to help companies do that. So whilst this is an area where technology keeps evolving and you need to be ever vigilant, there’s no need for Australians to panic either. They should have confidence that we’ve got the systems and the preparedness across many Australian companies, all of the big ones in those sensitive areas to be able to withstand that. And we just ask for their constant vigilance in that regard.

Narelle Graham: Sure. Senator Simon Birmingham, Liberal Senator for South Australia, is my guest. We’re talking about his role in the National Security Council in and how it pertains to what is happening in Ukraine. How visible is Australia on Russia’s radar in these tensions? I mean, the US would be front and centre, wouldn’t it? Europe also very prominent. Is Australia very prominent?

Simon Birmingham: No, no. We shouldn’t overstate our place in in this in this conflict, in the war that is now being engaged in by Russia on Ukraine. You know, Australia’s trade and investment relationship with Russia is relatively limited. That’s why the actions we’re taking, we’re doing in concert with others. The ambition is to make Russia as isolated as possible. The US and NATO and Europe have been fairly clear that they weren’t sending troops into Ukraine and nor, of course, is Australia. But they are seeking to extract a very heavy price that that makes Russia think about the consequences of what it’s doing, where consequences and pain from what it’s doing and certainly, we hope, reconsider and withdraw ultimately. And so working with those countries, as I reference President Biden earlier indicating the type of sanctions that he’s applying in the US, which are consistent with what we are doing in Australia. Impact trillions of dollars of assets in Australia. Those figures would be far, far smaller. But nonetheless, the more countries that do this, the more impact it has.

Narelle Graham: But Australia would be in China’s sights on their radar, and there’s been reports Chinese President Xi Jinping will be watching the West’s response to Russia in the Ukraine to determine how it could affect Beijing’s claims over Taiwan.

Simon Birmingham: China’s reaction has been not only disappointing, but concerning. To date, China has indicated publicly that they understand some of Russia’s alleged territorial claims and security concerns in relation to Ukraine. We couldn’t be clearer. There are no grounds for territorial concerns or security concerns from Russia as it relates to Ukraine. Ukraine was a peaceful, democratic nation and living adjacent to Russia without posing any military or security threat to Russia. The actions are completely unwarranted. And China, if they have respect for the territorial sovereignty of others for the borders and independence of other nations, should be very clear in their condemnation of this and perhaps no other country could with their size and economic scale. Aside from the US, exact real pressure on Russia like China could and we would urge China to reconsider their position. There’s an opportunity for China here to show global leadership and global responsibility in the way it responds to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But there is a real risk equally, that China is seeing this as a potential model. And it’s why the investment that we’ve scaled up in our Defence Forces in recent years and the deepening of partnerships with the likes of the US and the UK is so important for Australia’s future security and that of our region.

Narelle Graham: Is Australia likely to send troops to Ukraine?

Simon Birmingham: No, we’re not. And we’ve been very clear on that for quite some time, and so too have European nations, NATO countries, the US that they’ve all been clear that they aren’t about to put boots on the ground in Ukraine. You can see a repositioning of military forces across Europe that some of those NATO countries in the in the eastern parts of the NATO membership. Nations like Poland have now got increasing military presence along their borders as they become concerned that if Ukraine falls, there could be further action from Russia. And so that’s driving a change military posture. From Australia’s perspective, we’ve been cooperating with Ukraine where we can in areas of cyber security and so on. As I’ve said before, but also we’re working in lockstep with NATO in terms of using the systems. They have to provide some practical support through non-lethal means, but other practical support that we can give to Ukraine from Australia and will respond constructively to any request that we get from the Ukrainian leadership. Prime Minister spoke to Ukrainian PM only a couple of days ago, most recently, and our foreign ministers remain in close contact.

Narelle Graham: Is there a threat of nuclear war?

Simon Birmingham: Well, I don’t think we should speculate or exaggerate the potential there. I guess the question you just asked me before the fact that Russia pursuing this invasion, but Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and so other countries have not responded by putting troops on the ground and providing those sorts of support mean that that type of escalation would seem highly unlikely. But what none of us know is what President Putin’s ultimate objectives are and how far he would seek to push this. And that is that is the risk when we’re dealing with dictators and autocrats in this sort of way. I mean, many of us grew up as the idea through the period of glasnost and the falling breaking of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of countries and economies, and a period of real hope that these sorts of conflicts and wars were behind us. And to now be in an environment where we see Europe with war happening on the continent again, with Russia behaving in this way with China and the attacks they’ve undertaken on their own people, the undermining of rights in Hong Kong and the militarisation of the South China Sea, these are all pointers to a much more troubling times than we had been expecting or hoping over the previous decades.

Narelle Graham: You and Prime Minister Scott Morrison met with the Australian Ukrainian community this morning. What did they ask of you?

Simon Birmingham: They asked us to be firm and clear in our language to call it out for what it is in terms of an assault and a war on Ukraine to make sure that we don’t have any curry with this idea that there is any justification at all. And we’ve been very firm in that, and they asked us to keep pushing other nations in terms of sanctions. Australia will go as hard and as far as we can, acting in concert with others, as we’ve discussed before. Australia acting on our own in this space is not going to achieve terribly much given the limited scale of economic engagement between Australia and Russia. But we will continue to give maximum support to the US and other countries across the Americas and Europe to go as hard as they can in terms of those financial sanctions against individuals, those travel bans against individuals and extending that out. The prime minister has called for to financial transactions and systems that could really hurt and cripple financial transactions across Russia if the swift payment system were brought to a standstill for Russia or pressure. The Russian people will see in terms of the cancellation of major events that the Formula One Grand Prix should not go ahead in Russia and that we should see leadership from those international sporting organisations to extract the type of reaction from the Russian people that occurred. If we go back in time in South Africa dealing with apartheid, these sorts of responses can peacefully yield results. They may not do so in a matter of days, but over time they can apply the type of pressure that the best outcome.

Narelle Graham: Simon Birmingham, thank you. We’ll have to leave it there, but I appreciate it.

Simon Birmingham: Thanks, Narelle. My pleasure.