Senate debates

Wednesday, 7 September 2022

Statements by Senators


12:53 pm

Photo of David VanDavid Van (Victoria, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

The situation in Ukraine affects us all. Russia's unjust and illegal invasion has upended Europe and the globe through food shortages, fuel shortages and inflation. The knock-on effects are reverberating around the world, yet only a handful of countries are assisting. Many are not, and some are not even condemning this heinous breach of international law. As a major exporter of critical food supplies such as wheat, barley, corn and sunflower oil, we will likely see an increasingly volatile and unstable world as food shortages increase. This will affect our security more directly, as many of our closest neighbours are heavily reliant on Ukrainian wheat, and they will be impacted by not only the high prices but also the lack of supply. One only has to look at Sri Lanka to see the effect that poor economic conditions and food shortages have had on that nation's stability.

As some will be aware, I recently travelled to Ukraine, not just to Kyiv for a photo-op but into the theatre of operations in Donbas, to see where the Australian-built and donated Bushmasters are being used by the Ukrainian troops. I was able to gain an immense amount of first-hand knowledge by being there, speaking to the people and seeing the war unfold before my eyes. That is why it is an absolute travesty that this government has not reopened our embassy in Ukraine. Some of you will know that our embassy in Ukraine shares a building with the Canadian embassy. It was truly a sad sight, on my morning jog the first morning I was in Kyiv, to see the Canadian flag flying above that building but not an Australian one. Many, if not most, other countries have returned their embassies to Kyiv, and I call on this government to send our wonderful ambassador, Bruce Edwards, back from Warsaw to Kyiv, along with the defence attache and a large defence contingent. Why? Because there is a lot to learn from this war, and, in this increasingly complex strategic environment in which we find ourselves, we should be doing everything possible to learn as much as possible about how this war is being fought.

In fact, that is why many embassies in Ukraine have sent in a somewhat large defence contingent, located in country: not only so they can support Ukraine to the best of their ability but also so they can learn as much as possible and incorporate that knowledge into future fighting plans. One of the major lessons I learned from my time in the Donbas theatre of operations was the importance of combined arms fighting and how this is shaping the battlefield. Despite what many analysts are saying, combined arms is working incredibly effectively in that area. This just goes to show the importance of having people in country, learning firsthand from the events on the ground. One of the things I learnt is that the Ukrainians are using our Bushmasters more like an infantry fighting vehicle than a protected mobility vehicle, which is what they were built for. But they are proving effective in battle and saving lives, even though this is something they were not made for. Yet, in the meantime, this government is sitting on its hands and not making any decision on the LAND 400 Phase 3B project, a project that would put our troops in much safer vehicles than the current Bushmaster or Boxer.

Let us not forget that if Russia stops fighting then the war will end, but if Ukraine stops fighting, because of a lack of support, Ukraine ends as a country. However, Ukraine needs firepower to end this war. This means Australia and other countries, particularly European countries, in whose part of the world this war is being fought, must provide more weapons to Ukraine. From Australia, this should include more Bushmasters—at least 60 more than have already been committed—to arm another brigade. I met with the commanding officer of the 80th Brigade, the air assault troops that are using them to plug the lines when the Russians try to break the battle lines. But, as Ukraine's ambassador suggested this week, we should be sending Hawkeis, another protected mobility vehicle. We should be sending M777 howitzers and the 155-mm ammunition that's fired from them, as well as high-technology weapons such as the DefendTex drones that we've sent in there, and the DroneShield air defence system—all made in Australia.

Other countries should be sending air defence materiel as well, including fighter jets and guided missiles, as well as more armour, especially tanks, like the German Leopard tanks, of which there are thousands sitting idle, as well as IFVs and more artillery. Yes, helmets are helpful, but they won't help Ukraine win this war.

We must also reassess whom we look to in the future to complete defence deals with. The war in Ukraine has highlighted how many countries in Europe have been unwilling in meaningful ways to help one of their closest neighbours in this fight. If we are to shore up our own security, we cannot be relying on those who won't protect their neighbours, let alone a country on the other side of the globe.

As Ukraine comes into winter we must also start looking at providing them with more humanitarian aid. The word that everyone is using over there right now is winterisation. How do they protect their people who have been damaged by the war, their homes destroyed by Russian missiles and rockets, during the cold of a Ukraine winter? Ukrainian winters get down to minus 10 quite often, and the fear is that more people will die of cold than from Russian bullets and missiles. With temperatures like that, provisions such as materials for housing repairs—which we don't need to ship; we could pay for—or replacement shelter like flat pack housing, warm clothes that they've lost when their houses have been blown up and energy such as more coal and gas shipments are desperately needed in the coming winter.

The Ukrainian people are warm, generous, resilient people and are dedicated to defeating the army of Putin's murderous regime. Virtually everyone I met there, from cab drivers to baristas to hotel workers, were all saying to me how much they were looking forward to joining the fight when they are called up, and all of them were disappointed that they hadn't been called up by that point in time. I think Australians share many if not all of the traits and values of the Ukrainian people, so I call on this government to learn what it can from this war, feed that into the upcoming defence review so it's not just another talkfest and start arming our defence forces with everything they need to defeat an autocratic, aggressive force. I wrote for the Lowy Institute before the invasion:

Of course, if Europe does not stand up to Russia in Ukraine, a clear message will be delivered to China on the question of strategic ambiguity over Taiwan. It will signal that the West does not have the strength—or the will—to defend smaller liberal democracies and that, if you push hard enough, the West will capitulate.

I think that point is arguable more now than it was then. This is not something that we can allow to happen here in our region, and we should be doing more and more to assist the Ukrainians to defeat the Russian army, push them back over the borders and restore the rules-based order.