Why Australia should be ‘embarrassed’ by its AWOL Ukraine embassy TWO YEARS after Russian invasion

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Sarah Blake
The Nightly
4 Min Read
In today’s episode, what James Packer told The Nightly about life after Crown, and why he’ll never do business in China again. Plus, Australia’s Ukraine shame and why NSW Police Commissioner Karen Webb can’t get out of her own way.

When Canada’s embassy in Ukraine wanted to fly a rainbow flag to celebrate Pride Week, they turned to the darkened doors of Australia’s embassy in Kyiv to borrow their flagpole.

With Australia among the world’s longest holdouts to reopen our diplomatic post in the country — more than two years after Russia invaded — the move last year by the Canadians was another stark reminder of what some have labelled an inexplicable abandonment of Australian support for Ukraine.

“It was extremely embarrassing,” said one Australian national security expert who frequently visits Kyiv.

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”We can’t afford to forget about it. Otherwise, the people that are currently suffering will suffer even more.”

With declining donations of aid, she asked the federal government to step up military support, improve pathways for displaced Ukrainians to come here, reopen the embassy and develop a “whole of government” approach to supporting the country.

It is not only an embarrassment to not have representation in Kyiv, but it results in Australia receiving less intelligence.

Australia lags behind 67 other countries, including Indonesia, Japan, Canada, the US and UK, to reopen the embassies that shut down when Russia first invaded in February 2022. Our Ambassador designate is currently stuck working from Poland because Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky has been unwilling to swear him in given Canberra has for the past 12 months ignored his plea to re-open the embassy.

Foreign Minister Penny Wong’s office referred queries about the shuttered embassy to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade “because it’s a WH&S issue”.

FOREIGN POLICY PAPER LAUNCH
Penny Wong and her opposition counterpart Simon Birmingham. Credit: AAP

Military strategist and retired Australian army major general Mick Ryan is a regular visitor to Ukraine and said the Australian government’s continued closure of the embassy was “mystifying”, that the risk to operate an embassy in Kyiv was minimal and that Minister Wong was able to overrule the department ruling.

“When it comes to risk, 60 plus other countries are happy to assume the risk and open their embassies there,” he told The Nightly.

“We have embassies in places like Israel that are getting rocketed so it’s hard to understand why we wouldn’t return to Ukraine.

“We get these bureaucratic answers about a risk assessment. Given so may other countries have returned there it’s hard to credit that as a reason.

“The Foreign Minister needs to explain the reasons why we have an ambassador sitting in Warsaw cooling his heels when he could be living in Ukraine and providing consular assistance to Australians there.

“It makes us look unserious. It makes Australia look interested but not committed to supporting Ukraine.”

A Ukrainian soldier fires an RPG toward Russian positions
A defiant Ukraine is appealing for more western support to continue its fight against Russia. (AP PHOTO) Credit: AP

Carl Ungerer, a former intelligence analyst and national security advisor to the previous Labor government, said reopening the embassy should be a priority, given the New Zealand honourary counsel had recently been forced to step in to help a wounded Australian in Kyiv.

“Ukraine is in the fight of its life. It’s a important democratic ally,” he said.

“And there are currently Australians fighting in the international legion inside Ukraine and when one of them was recently injured ...it was the New Zealand diplomatic representative who had to go out and get them and provide consular assistance.

“There are lots of good reasons we should reopen the Kyiv embassy.”

Shadow foreign affairs minister Simon Birmingham said the government should “ditch the excuses and reinstate an Australian embassy in Kyiv, joining the more than 67 diplomatic missions which have already returned”.

“Previous Australian governments operated embassies in Kabul and Baghdad, so surely we can join our allies by having Australia’s embassy to Ukraine actually in Ukraine,” he told The Nightly.

“This week marks 12 months since President Zelensky himself called on Australia to reinstate our embassy in Ukraine’s capital, yet the Albanese Government has ignored this request as they are so many other requests from Ukraine.

“It is not only an embarrassment to not have representation in Kyiv, but it results in Australia receiving less intelligence, having weaker relations and making poorer decisions on how to help Ukraine beat Russia.”

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese
Anthony Albanese defended Australia’s contribution to Ukraine. Credit: AAP

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Wednesday defended Australia’s contribution to Ukraine.

“We are certainly one of the world’s largest non-NATO contributors to the struggle of the Ukrainian people in defence of their national sovereignty, in defence of their democracy, but importantly as well, on behalf of the global community, in support of the international rule of law,” Mr Albanese told the ABC.

“That is the support that we are giving to Ukraine. And we’ll continue to provide support for as long as itakes.”

A DFAT spokesperson said: “The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex and challenging. The safety and security of staff is paramount. In light of rigorous assessments, the Embassy continues to operate from Warsaw.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade keeps this decision under review.

“The Embassy is managing Australia’s interests effectively from Warsaw, including the provision of consular services to Australians and their immediate families. “

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