Michaela Cullen | Australian Foreign Policy Fellow
Diplomatic tensions between Australia and Russia have sunk to a new low following Russia’s legal action in the High Court to continue the construction of its new embassy in Canberra.
In June 2023, the Australian government introduced legislation aimed at blocking the project on national security grounds. Despite Russia’s legal challenge, buttressed by the presence of a diplomatic ‘squatter’ on the property, the validity of the legislation was upheld, ending one of the more unusual episodes in recent Australian politics.
In 2008, the National Capital Authority granted the lease for the Yarralumla site in Canberra, with approvals to build the embassy granted in 2011. In 2022, the lease was terminated as Russia failed to complete construction within the three-year deadline. While Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine was not the leading cause for closure of the embassy, it is Australia's condemnation of the conflict that has elevated tensions, which have been simmering since the 2014 Malaysia Airline crash over Ukraine, attributed to Russian separatist forces.
Russia’s existing embassy in Griffith, located 2.5km from Parliament House, will continue its diplomatic presence.
Last year, Foreign Minister Penny Wong affirmed that Australia may expel Russian Ambassador Alexey Pavlovsky, while also condemning Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear aggression towards Ukraine. During an interview with ABC’s Sarah Ferguson, Pavlovsky challenged Ferguson’s comments on a report from the United Nations, which detailed the wide-ranging war crimes—from torture, rape and execution of prisoners—committed by Russia since the conflict began. Pavlovsky chastised Ferguson for not having “done her homework.”
“The public hears loud words about evidence, about footage, about anything, but they never had the opportunity to fact check about what they are presented with,” said Pavlovsky.
Australia, along with 140 other UN member states, rallied support for a fair and peaceful resolution at an Emergency Special Session of the UN General Assembly earlier this year. Australia has also offered an outpour of bipartisan support to Ukraine, providing Uncrewed Aerial Systems and imposing more than 1,000 sanctions on “entities engaging in activities of economic and strategic significance to Russia or that threaten the territorial integrity or sovereignty of Ukraine.”
“The Australian Government knows our position… the more you give weapons to Ukraine, the longer this war is projected, the more casualties and destruction of Ukraine,” Pavlovsky told Ferguson.
Now, the Federal Government is closely observing the diplomatic profile of Russia in Australia, examining visa applications due to potential intelligence operations carried out by the Kremlin.
Australia’s lack of insight into Russia has been concerning to intelligence specialists, who have emphasised the importance of monitoring geopolitical risks between the two countries, warning of the Kremlin’s propaganda campaigns to foster dissent among Russian-speaking communities.
Specialists are urging the Government to act cautiously, particularly relating to Moscow’s interest in Australia’s military capabilities and its security ties with the United States. The Security Council of Russia has expressed concern over the threat of nuclear proliferation and the creation of an “Asian equivalent of NATO.” Russia’s foreign policy strategy relies heavily on its economic position in the Asia-Pacific, with aims to leverage resources in energy, space, and nuclear.
While the success of the legislation has alleviated concerns over espionage and political influence, particularly with its proximity to Parliament House, it does not fundamentally address or resolve the ongoing tensions between Australia and Russia, leaving Canberra vulnerable to strategic competition in its future.
Australia’s continued role in aiding Ukraine and publicly criticising Russia’s aggression (particularly with threats by Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong to expel the Russian Ambassador) as war intensifies would further stagnate Australia’s relations with Russia.
While Australia should continue to defend Ukraine amidst the illegal and brutal destruction of the country, we cannot discount the might of Russia given its strong ties to China and economic presence in the Asia-Pacific region.
Michaela Cullen is the Australian Foreign Policy Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs. She is currently studying journalism at the University of Technology Sydney, where she often contributes to the student journalism hub Central News. She is a current Facilitator, Development Officer and Editor for United Nations Youth NSW and brings a passion for international affairs and politics to her work. Her role as Editor-in-Chief of the Global Advocate for UN Youth has allowed her to work with a diverse team of editors and contributors to explore human rights and global relations.