Australia has told Russia it is deeply concerned by increasing tensions in Ukraine but Vladimir Putin’s man in Canberra denies his country is staging an invasion.
The federal government on Monday summoned Ambassador Vladimir Morozov to explain Russia’s decision to allow troops into Crimea, a region of Ukraine with strong historic ties to its powerful neighbour.
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop has called for Russian troops to be withdrawn, and instructed her department head, Peter Varghese, to register Australia’s concerns with the Russian ambassador.
But Mr Morozov defended the military presence in Crimea, claiming they were invited by the newly-elected government there and the Russian fleet had long been located in the region.
“Nothing is going on with any invasion to Ukraine,” he told reporters through an interpreter, following his meeting at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade in Canberra.
“There are self-defence troops created in Crimea which are trying to stabilise the situation and secure the Crimea.”
The Russian parliament had only given consent to President Vladimir Putin to send troops into the Crimean peninsula but no such decision had been taken yet, he added.
Ms Bishop played down the possibility of Australia recalling its ambassador in Moscow, saying the government was taking its diplomacy step by step.
Australia also holds the presidency of the G20, of which Russia is a leading member, and is hosting the leaders’ summit in November in Brisbane.
She repeated calls for Russia to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine during this volatile situation.
“This must be resolved by Russia withdrawing its troops and all lines of communication should remain open,” she told reporters at DFAT on Monday.
The government has upgraded its travel advisory to Ukraine, warning Australians to exercise a very high degree of caution in the country and avoid Crimea altogether.
Mr Morozov said the newly-elected Crimean government has asked for Russia’s support and wanted to hold a referendum on gaining independence.
He told Australian officials during his meeting at DFAT that it was in Russia’s deep interest to keep Ukraine united, but Crimea did not fully accept the interim authorities in control there.
Opposition Foreign affairs spokeswoman Tanya Plibersek said preserving Ukraine’s territorial integrity was paramount.
“Any threat to that is completely unacceptable,” she said in a statement.
By Nick Perry and Katina Curtis
IMAGE: Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop arrives at Foreign Affairs in Canberra, Monday, March 3, 2014. The Russian ambassador, Vladimir Morozov, has been called in for talks with the federal government to explain his country’s actions in the Ukraine. (AAP Image/Alan Porritt)