14 Nov 2014

Australian Ambassador to Russia Paul Myler: We are going to see some changes in Russia‘s food policy by February-March

Australian Ambassador to Russia Paul Myler has given an interview to Interfax ahead of the G20 summit in Brisbane in which he speaks about the MH17 crash, the reasons for joining the West‘s sanctions against Russia and explained why Australia expects changes in Russia‘s food policy by March 2015.

Question: Mr. Ambassador, the history of Russian-Australian relations is more than a century long. However, it‘s obvious that the situation in eastern Ukraine has had a negative influence on them. What is your assessment of the current state of Russian-Australian relations? Is there confrontation or have Moscow and Canberra continued dialog?

Answer: Certainly, there‘ve been really good people links over a long time. You know there was good cooperation on all sorts of levels prior to the developments in Ukraine. Certainly fr om Australia‘s perspective we‘re trying to maintain a dialog. We‘ve seen Russia taking an increasingly confrontational approach to the West over some months now since [Ukrainian] President [Viktor] Yanukovych left power in Kyiv and it seems to be escalating with all the reports of Russia’s quite provocative military actions by the air force and NATO having to intercept planes and the like. Certainly fr om Australia‘s perspective we‘re trying to maintain a dialog but we are not seeing a real interest in that fr om the Russian side. There seems to be a determination to continue confrontation.

Q.: Can you say that the relations were more open and more comfortable before the crisis in Ukraine? Can you say that we really lost something? Russian society was really surprised when Australia announced sanctions. It seems we didn’t really have any relations between the two countries, even trade and economic relations were not so large…

A.: Last year we had what seemed to be great a bilateral relationship. Our trade and economic links are relatively small. Australia has so much economic opportunity closer to us – in China, in South East Asia, in India, with our traditional partners in Europe and the U.S. – that really the risks associated with trade and investment in Russia, even last year, probably meant that the trade wasn’t huge. But what we were seeing was significant growth and a lot of interest, particularly fr om our mining sector, not in actually mining in Russia but in providing Russian companies with advice, technology, equipment, and software that they don’t have and in helping Russian companies improve their efficiency and the like. So, we were starting to see a significant interest fr om the Russian side and fr om the Australian side in increasing that trade and investment relationship. Certainly, there’s been really good people-to-people links for an awful long time. We have Russian communities in Australia: fr om before the Revolution, fr om Harbin, fr om the Russian Jewish community. A lot of young Russians, professionals have been moving to Australia. So there’s been lots of good links, cultural links, and other links. And I think you could say we were all feeling pretty optimistic last year. Certainly, we’d had a great year working with Russia on APEC in 2012, and then another good year working on G20 at the St Petersburg Summit. And certainly, at that stage we planned to have our trade minister come – he was due two weeks after we announced sanctions – we had to cancel that. And even Mr. Patrushev, the Secretary of the Security Council, was flying to Australia for a bilateral talk. So, you know, there was good cooperation on all sorts of levels prior to the developments in Ukraine.

Q.: Could you comment on the promise of Australia‘s Prime Minister Tony Abbott to ‘shirtfront‘ President Putin? What did he mean by this?

A.: Well he means that Australians are grieving for 38 of their citizens who were shot down and that demanding our respectful response from Russia to cooperate, to assist with the investigation and help bring the perpetrators to justice, we are not getting there. So Australians are getting angrier and angrier about Russia and about the fact that there‘s not been cooperation that‘s been promised now over and over again.
So I think the prime minister was very clear that he is going to confront President Putin about this lack of cooperation about our expectations. He used some powerful language but it conveyed the real meaning. This is not about diplomacy any longer, this is much more passionate than that. We have been very angry that Russia is not cooperating.
‘Shirtfront‘ is a very aggressive collision between two players in football. I don‘t think my prime minister is going to run straight at President Putin and try to physically knock him to the ground. But he does want this to be a robust discussion, he does want it to be a real discussion, he does want people to understand that this is not about diplomatic steps any longer. This has taken too long and we need to get some responses and we need to get some action.
It will be a robust meeting perhaps.

Q.: Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott also suggested barring the Russian president from some events of the G20 summit. Will the Russian president attend all of the G20 events?

A.: Australia is simply the host of the G20. So the G20 as an organization, or as group, has to make decisions about who gets in and who does not. What Australia did was to ask G20 members whether they felt it was appropriate for President Putin to come. Obviously there has been a range of meetings of organizations like the G8 which have suspended Russia‘s membership. And it was important for us as chair to ask this question.
But we have no ability to prevent or ban just by ourselves. So we asked the question and so President Putin will be coming. I think that‘s important because to get to your first question, we do want to keep on talking with each other. We do hope that over time President Putin will understand that what we gained from cooperation and from confrontation and we hope over time he will realize that it‘s not in Russia interests to have one of its neighbors destabilized and frankly now looking more and more anti-Russia.

Q.: Is Australia going to put a complaint to WTO against Russia‘s anti-sanctions measures? Is it possible that this issue will be under consideration at the G20 summit?

A.: I don‘t think that the decision about initiating a case against Russia will be under consideration at the G20. Clearly trade is under consideration of the G20 and one of the biggest disruptions to the world trade at the moment is being posed by Russia so I think there will be some people commenting on it, but I don‘t think it will be a formal part of the discussions.
This issue is still under consideration. As I said, Russia‘s sanctions primarily punish Russian citizens themselves, because we are already seeing food price increases. I‘m not convinced that we will decide to add further punishment to Russian citizens by taking a WTO case. Hopefully the Russian government will realize that it was a very short-sighted measure and would reverse it in due course. But certainly we will continue to keep it under consideration. It‘s clearly a violation of the WTO system. We will continue to discuss it.

Q.: Australia seems to be pretty far from Ukraine, in this light what was the purpose of sanctions against Russia? What is Australia‘s interest in this area?

A.: I think a lot of people in Russia have a very confused view about the sanctions. Everybody in the globe has an interest in maintaining international law and norms of behavior. We came through the Cold War, we’re trying to rebuild relationships in a situation wh ere people could be confident that their sovereignty, their borders would be respected. And Russia violated this in an extraordinarily blunt way with the illegal annexation of Crimea. That is our interest. The interest is not that we have great trade relations with Crimea or huge relations with it. The interest is in protecting international law and promoting norms of appropriate international behavior. That is the reason why we joined sanctions against Russia.

Q: Is it correct that Australia‘s sanctions against Russia are in place mostly because of Crimea?

A.: No, no. We followed exactly the same progression as the EU. When Russia illegally annexed Crimea we imposed sanction in response to that, when they started destabilizing eastern Ukraine, we imposed sanction in relation to that, when it sent troops and weapons across the border into eastern Ukraine, we imposed sanctions in response to that, when those weapons shot down a Malaysian airline killing 38 Australians, we imposed sanctions in response to that. So the sanctions have been imposed in response to each activity taken by the Russian government.

Q.: Don‘t you think that it is not in the interest of Russian and Australian people to introduce sanctions? Have you been pushed to introduce the sanctions probably by Washington or London?

A.: Nobody pushes us on these issues. You know Australia is a part of the G20, it‘s a big country with the twelfth biggest economy - we can through all the stats. We are a big, important, significant country. But as a significant country we are also willing to sacrifice to ensure that the international law and global norms of appropriate behavior are defended. So if there needs to be a sacrifice by Australia to emphasize to Russia that its activity in eastern Ukraine and Crimea is unacceptable then we will do that. I have to say that it‘s not particularly a big sacrifice. Obviously the biggest thing that we have suffered is the banning of our beef trade by Russia. That‘s your decision. The only people that are suffering are Russian who cannot eat Australian steak. Australian beef exports reached record levels still this year - looks to be 17% growth on last year globally. So Russia is not going to get some beef but Australian farmers are still selling it all over the world.
But again we are not feeling any particular pain on this. I think it‘s much more self-inflicted pain in Russia and the food import ban is a classic example of that. I don‘t know what the rationale behind this is but I expect by February or March, after a long winter, we’re going to have to see some changes to that because Russia will struggle

Q.: Have you seen any results of the sanctions against Russia? Have they helped to push Russia to some decisions?

A.: To be honest we haven‘t yet seen the ideal outcome. What we need to see is Russian troops and weapons withdrawn from eastern Ukraine, we need to see Russia‘s deliberate destabilization of the government in Kyiv stopped, we need to see the borders appropriately secured and the OSCE allowed to monitor that, we need to see Russia again choose to engage with the global community with respect, transparency and honesty. That would be our ideal outcome. We certainly haven’t seen that.
We may have seen some moves ahead in helping calm the situation in eastern Ukraine, help at least negotiate the Minsk agreement, and the ceasefire – although they’re not holding, they are violated but at least there are some agreements now. Perhaps it helped to get some of those important meetings underway. I don’t know, I cannot read the president‘s mind. But we certainly hope that they will have an impact because it‘s not our desire to have sanctions against Russia. They are there for serious reasons because we consider some important principles are under threat.

Q.: Speaking about the crash of Malaysian Boeing, flight MH17, do you have any proof that it is separatists in Ukraine who are responsible for the MH17 tragedy? Why do you think Russia is responsible for this?

A.: Australia is very, very confident that the MH17 was shot down by a missile fired from the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists. We are reasonably confident that the missile came from Russia, was supplied by Russia. We understand that it was probably a mistake. We don‘t necessarily believe that it was a deliberate act. But if it was a mistake, it was allowed to happen by Russia putting this sort of weaponry into that environment. Now we expect that the investigations will come to the same conclusions, we have our basis for making that assessment and we expect that the investigations will come to same conclusion.

Q.: Do you expect the investigation to blame Russia for this tragedy?

A.: I‘m not going to foreshadow what the investigation will get to, because I‘m not a part of the investigation. It‘s being conducted by the Dutch. And it‘s independent and credible. From what I can see even on the social media, the line of connection between the Buk missiles crossing the border, being seen in the position similar to the position wh ere it would have fired from and then crossing back to the border. We got this material just on social media, on Twitter, on Facebook, on VKontakte, it‘s all there. So I imagine that the Dutch investigators will be able to find the same material as we, the embassy, can see just on social media - Russian and Ukrainian citizens taking photos of this missile launch.

Q.: But do you have any proof that it was really Russia‘s missile because investigators in their preliminary report that they published didn’t tell directly that it was a missile, they just said that it was some force that caused the crash. They didn’t say whether it was missile or another plane…

A.: The preliminary report was quite clear in its task which was to describe the damage done to the plane and the cause of the plane’s accident, downing. And so you are right, it said explosion outside of the hull, with the projectors into the hull causing explosion. And it didn’t go any further because it’s a preliminary report but what we know from that is consistent with SA-11 Buk missile. It’s not consistent with [ ] …being shot down by another plane, just completely inconsistent with that. And the preliminary report also listed all of the air traffic control transcripts and radar information that says there were no military planes in the area and there was no other commercial plane for 30 kilometers so all of the nonsense suggestions that have been put forward by the ministry of defense have no credibility following that preliminary report

Q.: So you are still waiting for …

A.: Oh yes, we will always wait with interest for the final outcomes of the investigations.

Q.: Just this morning there came new information about this investigation, this report by Dutch investigators. They told the new report wouldn’t have any details about the country, the part to be blamed. It will just give new information about the case.

A.: I think, we’ve got to be clear that there are two different investigations. One investigation is the air traffic safety investigation, it’s just the accident investigation which goes to what made this plane crash and that’s the one that we have seen the preliminary report and its job is to rule out any mechanical failure, any pilot error, any other factors and focus down on the fact that it was an explosion outside the plane that caused this plane to crash. Then, there is a criminal investigation as to who caused the explosion outside the plane. That’s a separate investigation being conducted by the Dutch. That’s the investigation that we will expect to point, to make clearer findings about the fact that it was a missile fired from the territory controlled by pro-Russian separatists, and may or may not, depending on the evidence, depending on the access to the intelligence information and the veracity that it gives to some of the material on social media – may or may not then point to direct Russian involvement, Clearly, Russia’s culpable because they created the environment wh ere that the missile was fired and we believe that the missile was of Russian origin. There’s certainly no evidence that the missile was of Ukrainian origin. So we expect the second investigation to be the one that would deal with these issues.

Q.: Did Australian investigators receive the access to the crash site after Australia‘s Foreign Minister Julie Bishop spoke to President Putin?

A.: We are still waiting. We are desperately keen to get to the site. Obviously we need the security and safety of our investigators to be provided for. President Putin said he would facilitate that. So far we haven‘t been in a situation wh ere we’ve deemed it safe... Clearly there is still shelling happening, pro-Russian separatists are still firing mortars and others in that region. There have been visits in recent days by local emergency services people with the OSCE. On those occasions they‘ve been able to identify and remove more human remains, but there was also shelling happening and there was not a particularly safe environment. We wait for safety and security. Obviously if Russia has nothing to hide then we should be looking at everybody‘s working as quickly as possible to provide a safe environment around the crash site so that the investigations can be concluded as quickly as possible.

Q.: Was it your own decision not to go to the crash site before the situation is stable there? Or was it the Russian side who advised you against going there?

A.: It‘s our decision not to go. Until shelling persists in this area we are not going to put our police in the situation wh ere they can be potentially fired upon. There has been a history of hostage taking in this conflict and we are certainly not going to put police in the situation like that. And the OSCE as well.

Q.: Do you have any evidence that Russian tanks crossed the Ukrainian border several times? Do you have any evidence from NATO?

A.: We have obviously had access to the whole range of intelligence material. But NATO has publicly released pictures of Russian tank columns in eastern Ukraine. You see it all over the news media, all over western news media and all over Russian news media, tanks crossing the border, tank columns going across the borders. We don‘t even need the intelligence material to know that Russian tanks are crossing the border into eastern Ukraine. That‘s just very obvious. We also have our independent intelligence that provides us with a lot of access to a lot of information on what Russia has been doing in eastern Ukraine. We are confident in our judgments that Russia is actively sending troops and weapons across the border to deliberately destabilize situation in eastern Ukraine.

Q.: Australia decided to expand it‘s cooperation with NATO at the recent summit in Wales. Does this mean that you are going to host the U.S. missile defense elements on your territory?

A.: What it means is that we have continued to build our relationship with NATO. We cooperate with NATO in a whole range of different arenas; Afghanistan is obviously the biggest one, on issues like piracy and other areas. With the Afghanistan mission coming to an end - although we will remain committed to it - we simply announced our continuation of our collaboration with NATO and the fact that we would look at building cooperation in other areas. Our military alliance with the U.S. is completely separate to that. We have been a member of the ANZUS Treaty for 65 years or so. And we are committed to working with the U.S. on military and strategic issues. I‘m not going into ballistic missile defense or any specifics but we have a commitment to work with the U.S. from that treaty.
I‘m simply not going to talk about the missile defense. You can make your own judgments about whether it makes any sense to have missile defense in Australia. But I‘m not going to get into discussion about what particular elements of cooperation we have with the U.S.

Q.: Will sanctions against Russia be lifted if the situation in Ukraine stabilizes?

A.: Let‘s say, we have no intention of punishing Russian people. The sanctions are not designed to do that. And they are specifically targeted to avoid doing. Nobody wants to punish Russia that is not about getting rid of President Putin or destroying the Russian economy. This is purely about emphasizing that we will not accept Russia undermining Ukraine‘s sovereignty in the way it has done so. If Russia stops doing that then obviously we would have to look at rolling back some of the sanctions. Everybody has been very clear, there are no permanent sanctions, we want to be rolling aback, we want to be removing them, but we have to see real evidence of change and it needs to be implemented and committed to and seen through before we can consider them.

Q.: It‘s obvious, that the situation with Crimea won‘t change, so it will be part of Russia...

A.: It‘s not obvious that‘s the case. I think that Russia wants to say it’s obvious. I don’t think anybody is going to go to war with Russia over Crimea again. We‘ve done Crimean wars before. But it‘s not obvious that Crimea should forever be a part of Russia. It is a part of Ukraine and the international consensus is that it should be a part of Ukraine. The only person who is saying that that Crimea is a part of Russia is Russia.
I don‘t want to be there any miscomprehension that the international community accepts that Crimea is a part of Russia, it does not. And I see no evidence from anybody that suggests that this is going to change.

Q.: Don‘t you think it‘s similar to Kosovo situation…

A.: Kosovo is a completely different situation. Seven years of conflict led to the outcomes in Kosovo inducing many, many Security Council resolutions. This was not the situation in Crimea. I‘m sure, as is a lot of the world, that if Crimea had over a number of years like Scotland discussed with Kyiv and developed a platform for a national referendum under Ukrainian law to choose whether or not to be a part of Ukraine or Russia and that was all done with the agreement of Kyiv, it may well have been that Crimea would have chosen to separate from Ukraine. But it didn‘t. It was done by a limited referendum with a portion of the population that remained in Crimea and did not flee once the Russian annexation started, with gunpoint at the election box completely lacks any credibility as an indication of the true wishes of Crimean population. In that situation the international community cannot accept the Crimean annexation by Russia.
We would like to see Russia start a process or dialog with Kyiv about a discussion on Crimea‘s future in Ukraine. That‘s what I would like to see. And if it goes any further than that and gets to a stage wh ere there is a legitimate referendum down the track under Ukrainian law, we can consider that if we can get to.

Q.: Following your logic is it correct to say that sanctions against Russia will never be lifted because of Crimea?

A.: That is a part of the problem that we have. At the end of the day some of these sanctions, the initial rounds of the sanctions, were in response to the annexation of Crimea. If that stays in place, it is very difficult to see how the sanctions could be removed. It is. I don‘t know what the solution to that is. That is very difficult to see how we could remove the sanctions if Crimea remains part of Russia.

Q.: A number of Australian companies have previously voiced their intention to cooperate with Russian companies? Are these plans still on the table? Has the attitude of Australian businessmen to the idea of investing in Russia changed as a result of the Ukrainian crisis?

A.: Let me put it this way. The sanctions do not impact the trade for the most part, so nothing‘s legally preventing most of Australian companies from continuing do their commercial activities in Russia. But frankly a lot of them choosing to commit their capital to other markets because they are uncomfortable with the risks associated with Russia at the moment. Russia was really a good market and had a lot of potential. Russia has huge deposits, huge reserves of everything essential, and there was going to be really good cooperation. But now I think the risks associated with Russia are starting to have little more limitation on the purely commercial decision about wh ere do you invest with your company. It‘s certainly not sanctions related, it‘s just a perception of the Russian economy not doing well, that the Russian government making so strange decisions about how it‘s going to reform the economy, a big focus on the state, the government-run economy, not much room for independent businesses.
We are clearly seeing a lot of business decisions put on hold. People are not willing to make investments there were intending to make because of the situation in Russia at the moment. I think you are seeing that globally. Everybody is going through the same process thinking about Russia.

Q.: Did Australia finally stop to supply uranium to Russia? Don‘t you think that this decision has not had any visible effect on Russia, as there was no such a commercial cooperation between two countries on this issue: the uranium was supplied to Russia just twice?

A.: Yes. Uranium shipments to Russia were a great example of the really good relationship that Australia had with Russia not so long ago. Because shipping uranium is a very political act at the end of the day. You only trade uranium with people you have confidence and there is a range of various safeguards and security requirements that are associated with that. So we agreed that we will sell uranium to Russia. We have the biggest uranium reserves in the world, we have 31% of the world‘s uranium and we are the third largest producer behind Kazakhstan and Canada. This was a big commitment by Australia and it was a little bit politically delicate in Australia. It‘s not really a commercial matter for us. We sell much of our uranium to the U.S. China, the EU, Japan and others, so Russia was not going to be a big commercial opportunity for us but it was important symbolically that we trusted Russia with our uranium.
It‘s not the matter of punishing Russia. It‘s a matter who you willing to trade in uranium with. Because you need to be guaranteed, you need to have confidence in your trading partners that they are going to respect all the safeguards, that none of the uranium is going to be used for weapons, proliferation or anything like that. In situation with Russia wh ere we cannot trust Russia to not put military weapons across into eastern Ukraine, how can we trust it with uranium exports? So it‘s not a commercial issue, it‘s an issue of reputation and respect for Russian safeguards and proliferation. That‘s the point, we did have confidence in Russia, and we don‘t have the same confidence now.

Q.: Under what condition may Australia and Russia continue cooperating if you don‘t lift sanctions?

A.: That‘s really easy. You make a decision to cooperate and afterwards we make decisions about lifting sanctions. We don‘t lift sanctions and then hope that you cooperate. Russia needs to make a decision about how it is going to interact with the international community and if it decides that the path it‘s taken for the past ten months or so is perhaps the wrong path and that it would be better for Russia‘s economy, for Russia‘s people when were all talking to each other, when we were cooperating, when we were not threatening each other, then let‘s withdraw troops, withdraw weapons from eastern Ukraine, don‘t recognize the shame elections on November 2 in Donetsk and Luhansk that have no credibility at all, support Kyiv and provide access to the crash site to our investigators. If we do that, we can say we back on the track for a normal international player. All the things at the moment are going the opposite direction.

Q.: Is it correct to say that Australia will follow its Western partners and will not recognize the elections in Luhansk and Donetsk?

A.: Yes. There was a provision for local elections that was supposed to happen on December 7 under Ukrainian supervision. That is what the Minsk agreements were. These elections violated the Minsk agreement in the spirit and in the letter of what the Minsk agreement said. If the elections had happened on December 7 with Ukraine‘s involvement and supervision, it would be a completely different issue.

Q.: Do you think that the Verkhovna Rada election in Ukraine was credible given all the violations and some candidates being thrown into litter bins?

A.: Yes of course. Because it was done by professional election commission officials, it was done with professional international observers – ODIHR has gone through - it was a credible, professional election, run by professional election officials under Ukrainian law. Just as election in Russia are run with elections officials, international observations.
As for litter bins, that‘s horrible and should never happened. Elections need to be held in a much more polite way. It was terrible and I clearly the passion of people in Ukraine at the moment. People are passionately against some views connected with the old regime, with corruption, with Russia, etc. It happens, it happens everywhere. It was just a messy form of political protest.

Q.: How do you assess the situation wh ere some far right parties passed to the Rada? Are you going to cooperate with this parliament?

A.: I think any independent look at the outcome of the Ukrainian election shows that the parties and organizations that Russia‘s characterizing as being neo-Nazis were not particularly successful. There were one or two candidates, one or two leaders that did manage to get themselves elected but the overwhelming majority of the parliament are democratically minded and people that we can deal with. It‘s not inconsistent with the presence of far-right parties in other European parliaments. Political parties evolve and develop. I think there is nothing preventing Australia from dealing with the Rada at all. And I think it is disingenuous of Russia to continue to rely on the Nazi line. There is very little evidence of anything that looks like Nazism in Ukraine. The important thing is that it is a democratically elected parliament and Australia will certainly work with that parliament.