Wednesday, 30 March 2022
Statements by Senators
I rise this afternoon to speak about Russia's invasion of Ukraine and the need for the global community to pressure Russia to end the war and withdraw its forces. For those senators who are not aware, my surname, Bilyk, is Ukrainian. It comes from my husband, Robert, whose father emigrated decades ago from Ukraine. Not only does Robert have family ties to Ukraine, but he is an active member of Tasmania's Ukrainian community, and I'm a regular attendee and speaker at Ukrainian community events. I speak to Ukrainians on a regular basis. I hear them speak with patriotic pride about their motherland, but I also hear their anguish and their grief about what their families and close friends are going through. So the situation in Ukraine, as you might imagine, is a very personal one for me.
While Ukraine used to be part of the USSR, most Ukrainians have always had a sense of their own unique identity and culture, and Ukrainian language is clearly distinguishable from Russian. Sadly, the recent invasion of Ukraine is a culmination of a long series of attacks by Russia on the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity since it gained independence in 1991. Russia was suspected to be behind the poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko before he was elected President of Ukraine in 2005. In 2010 Russian backed Viktor Yanukovych was elected President in an election fraught with allegations of fraud and voter intimidation. He was removed from power by the Maidan revolution in 2014. Millions of Ukrainians protested and they were met with batons, tear gas and bullets. More than 100 died and over 1,000 others were injured. Shortly after the revolution, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and gave support to separatist militia in Donetsk and Luhansk. It was these Russian-backed rebels who illegally shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 on its way to Kuala Lumpur from Amsterdam, killing 298 passengers and crew, including 38 Australians.
Since the invasion of Ukraine it is estimated that over 6,000 civilians have died, according to Ukrainian authorities. The civilian death toll is so high because Russian forces have targeted areas clearly identified for use by civilians. They've destroyed apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, civilian vehicles, ambulances and shopping centres, and fired on civilians trying to flee to safety. It's these actions that prompted US President Joe Biden to call Vladimir Putin a war criminal. While I understand the difficulty of gathering evidence of war crimes in the midst of war, it is vital that every effort is made to investigate these hideous crimes and to bring the perpetrators to justice.
To give you an idea of the hell that Ukrainians are going through, I will share a few stories that came to me through the Tasmanian Ukrainian community. I advise anyone listening that they might want to stop now, because some of these stories are more than distressing. The first story is that of Sergei, who was staying with family in Cherkasy. Sergei and a group of friends tried to flee the Kyiv region after staying in an underground shelter for days. The group was caught by Russian soldiers and they were tortured. The soldiers had checked their mobile phones and after finding patriotic messages on their phones, shot one of Sergei's friends in front of the rest of the group. Sergei was released, but only after having his teeth smashed with a rifle.
Another story is that of Olga and her seven-year-old son. After the war started they sheltered in the basement of their apartment building every day. It was dark and cold there. It's winter in Ukraine, and I'm sure everyone can appreciate from the images of the snow covered streets on TV, exactly how cold it was. In this ordeal, Olga's seven-year-old son stopped talking; he just remained silent for the whole time. They were running low on food and supplies but couldn't find transportation to leave. Driving away was way too dangerous. What eventually prompted them to come out of the basement and to leave was the terror of a missile striking their apartment building. So they managed to get on a bus full of civilians heading for the Polish border, but the bus also came under attack by Russian forces. They changed buses six times in their journey and finally arrived at the border, thankfully uninjured, after two days of travel. During those two days, they had no food, no sleep and stayed overnight in a tent by a fire in subzero temperatures, all the while with the constant fear of another attack. Thankfully, Olga and her son are now safe. I was also told of another family in Kherson. Kherson was captured early in the war and has been occupied by Russian forces for weeks. During the early days of the invasion they saw Russians shooting at cars. They are now too afraid to leave their apartment, despite running low on food and medicine. Some of the locals have held rallies to protest the invasion, but Russian soldiers have used tear gas and fired bullets to disperse crowds.
I actually think that a lot of these stories would horrify many ordinary Russians. But, of course, Russians don't get to hear them. Russians who rely on broadcast television as their main source of news are being fed a steady stream of propaganda, including from Russian state TV, which is a mouthpiece of the government. Television and radio broadcasters who have had the courage to report the truth have been shut down. A new law threatens journalists with jail if they report anything about the war that goes against the reporting of the official Russian sources. In fact, media outlets can go against this law simply by referring to the military operation as a war or an invasion. Russia is also censoring social media at a phenomenal expense and it begs the question: would Vladimir Putin's actions be tolerated by a truly democratic Russia with a free media?
Despite the Russian government's efforts to control the narrative, many Russians know that what is being done in Ukraine in their name is wrong. According to human rights groups, more than 8,000 Russians have been arrested for publicly protesting the war in Ukraine. It's a small number compared to Russia's population, but, when protesters face the prospect of being imprisoned for up to 15 years, it takes a tremendous amount of courage to speak out. I commend the bravery of those protesters, and I recognise that not all Russians bear responsibility for the actions of the Russian state committed in their name. Russia is a democracy in name only, and many ordinary Russians are also victims of Vladimir Putin's despotic regime. It's right and it's just that Australia has stepped up and joined its allies in not just opposing the invasion diplomatically but also putting real pressure on Vladimir Putin's regime.
This conflict is happening on the other side of the world, but it's still Australia's concern for a number of reasons. Australia has a responsibility to its citizens, who include thousands of Australians of Ukrainian descent, just like my father-in-law, whose friends and family are in peril. We also have a responsibility as good global citizens to do our part to maintain peace and order in the world, not just in our region but across the globe. But those are not the only reasons.
Russia's unprovoked aggression is an issue that concerns Australia for the same reasons it should concern every sovereign nation. Its actions go against the rules based order that has maintained relative peace and stability in the world since World War II. Not only does the global community need to send a strong message to Russia that their actions will not be tolerated; we need to ensure that the price they pay economically and militarily is so high that they are pressured to withdraw and they and other countries are effectively deterred from taking similar action in the future. Labor stands shoulder to shoulder with the government in applying pressure on Russia in the form of targeted economic sanctions and providing support to Ukraine through the creation of special humanitarian visas and the supply of lethal and non-lethal aid.
I also thank the Ukrainian diaspora. Through their representative organisations, such as the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organisations, the work they are doing to support their community—I have witnessed it firsthand—is just amazing. The Association of Ukrainians in Tasmania, an organisation which is entirely volunteer run, has done an excellent job providing information and updates on visa options and application processes and where to go for financial assistance, counselling and other support services. They've been raising funds to support their countrymen and holding weekly rallies on the lawn of the Tasmanian parliament and in Launceston.
The ultimate responsibility for this war and the bloodshed and suffering that has followed and will follow rests squarely on the shoulders of Vladimir Putin and his regime. The global community have shown they will not just stand idly by while he invades a sovereign democratic nation. They will act, they will not forget and they will ensure that Mr Putin and his supporters pay the price. (Time expired)