As co-chair of the Australian-Ukraine Parliamentary Friendship Group I take a keen interest in Ukrainian issues. Recently, I had the pleasure of celebrating Ukraine Independence Day with members of Hobart’s very active Ukrainian community at the Ukrainian hall in Moonah. I would like to thank the organisers of that event for making me, my husband and my son so welcome. The fact that Bilyk is a Ukrainian surname might have had a bit to do with it! We do a lot with that organisation and they are a very welcoming group.
Tasmania has a significant Ukrainian community, with many Ukrainians emigrating to Tasmania in the 1950s to work on the Hydro-Electric Scheme. My father-in-law was one of those immigrants, although he did not work on the Hydro-Electric Scheme. He was an immigrant to Tasmania in the 1950s and originally went to the West Coast to work. Members of the community celebrated Ukraine Independence Day with an informal lunch of traditional Ukrainian vereneky, which, for those who do not know, is a kind of dumpling with sour cream, followed by a BBQ. While the Ukrainian-Australians were happy to see old friends again and to catch up on each other’s lives, there was concern amongst the group as they thought of events that continue to happen back in Ukraine. They were thinking of friends and loved ones and the places that they knew when they were younger. Gathered together, they also raised a small but very welcome amount of money which is being used for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.
The 24 August holiday is a commemoration of the Declaration of Independence of 1991 from the USSR. It marks the day when they left the USSR and arose as a new nation that is proud of its history and its culture. Unfortunately, though, it is a nation that has been racked recently with conflict and unrest. In particular, over the last couple of years, Ukraine has become the scene of a number of conflicts. The internationally recognised Ukrainian territory of Crimea was annexed by the Russian Federation in March 2014. It was done illegally and with the condemnation of the international community, including Australia. Crimea was annexed simply for its military potential, being the home of Ukraine’s major Black Sea port, which before the collapse of the USSR was a major military asset that they have been wanting back ever since. It was a blatant political power grab by Russia.
In addition, beginning in March 2014, demonstrations by pro-Russian and antigovernment groups took place in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts of Ukraine, together commonly called Donbass. These rapidly expanded into armed conflict and have become known as ‘The War in Donbass’. While officially Russia just sympathised with the separatists, at one point there were thousands of Russian troops inside the borders of Ukraine. Russian backed separatist fighters themselves talked about the thousands of Russian troops that they were fighting alongside. The leader of the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, admitted that there were serving Russian soldiers among his fighters, but claimed they were volunteers who were taking a holiday in the region. He said:
Among the Russian volunteers there are many former soldiers, who are fighting alongside us and understand that it’s their duty … we also have current soldiers, who decided to take their holidays not on the beach, but among us.
This would be a laughable statement if it were not so serious. Militaries around the world do not have a habit of letting their soldiers fight wars on their holidays. Also, satellite imagery showed Russian heavy weaponry inside the borders of Ukraine. We know that the Russians have supported, financially and militarily, this separatist movement.
Since then, there has been significant progress on the road to peace. In February, a ceasefire agreement was signed between Ukraine, Russia and pro-Russian separatists in the Belarus capital of Minsk. However, implementation of the peace agreement has been slow and members of the Ukrainian community expressed concern at the lack of progress on the peace agreement. They were also concerned at continued violence from both separatists and nationalists in the country’s east and in the capital, Kyiv.
As recently as Monday, 31 August, nationalist protesters clashed with police outside parliament. The Interior Ministry said one officer was killed in a grenade blast and more than 130 police officers were wounded. In early August, over a three-day period, Ukrainian separatist rebels killed three soldiers and wounded 35 others in 127 distinct separatist attacks reported by Ukraine. This was the greatest escalation in violence since the peace agreement was signed. In total, Ukraine’s conflict has killed some 6,400 people since April 2014. Tragically, this figure includes 38 Australians who lost their lives when Russian backed rebels shot down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine. It is extremely disappointing that Russia vetoed a United Nations Security Council draft resolution to prosecute those suspected of downing the Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 in Ukraine. The families of the Australian and Dutch passengers and those of other nations deserve full justice for the unforgiveable attack on a civilian aircraft that left their loved ones dead.
These are some of the reasons why the thoughts of members of the Ukrainian community in Tasmania are troubled. I am, however, heartened by comments made by Ukraine’s President, Petro Porojshenko, on Saturday that over the past week the peace agreement had, for the first time, been respected in the east. He said soldiers were still perishing in the conflict zone in the east by stepping on landmines or being involved in car crashes, but none had died in combat, although pro-Russian rebels claimed a civilian had been killed. This peace is still tentative. There are media reports from some frontline soldiers that say light weapon fire can be heard at night. I urge restraint by all parties to ensure that the ground gained towards peace is not lost.
In another positive move for peace, the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, will make his first visit to Ukraine later this month as that country enters a critical period which is supposed to see Russia and Ukraine fully implement February’s ceasefire agreement. The Secretary-General’s visit was announced by Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, during his visit to the alliance’s Brussels headquarters on Tuesday. The visit was confirmed by NATO, although no other details have been announced yet. It is expected that the Secretary-General will sign an agreement that would allow the alliance to set up an office in Ukraine and increase cooperation on strategic communications, demining, naval issues and special operations. I am concerned about reports from earlier today that Russian military units have been scrambled from their bases as part of snap drills ordered by President Vladimir Putin. The Russian defence ministry said the manoeuvres that began on Monday will last for five days and will involve forces of the Central Military District, a group of forces spreading from the Volga River all the way to eastern Siberia, along with air force and airborne units.
General Sergey Koshelev briefed foreign military attaches about the exercise, saying they are aimed to check the troops’ combat readiness and do not threaten any country. Despite the Russian military’s assurances, these drills could be seen to be provocative at such a fragile time in the peace process, and I hope the Russian President will cancel these drills.
In other positive signs for moving the peace process forward, French President Francois Hollande on Monday offered to host talks with German, Russian and Ukrainian leaders. President Hollande told reporters the talks could take place in Paris before the United Nations General Assembly opens at the end of September ‘so that we can evaluate the process’. According to sources close to Hollande, the French leader will hold telephone talks with Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday evening. The four countries’ foreign ministers will then meet in Berlin on Saturday. Hollande said several ceasefire commitments still had to be honoured. I look forward to seeing what the outcomes of continued talks are, because it is time for this conflict to be over. It is time for the posturing to end. The 6,400 people that have perished from this conflict are 6,400 too many.
Ukraine is a strong independent nation. It has a distinct identity from Russia, and the recent interventions by Russia into its territory have helped forge a new national identity. It deserves to stand on its own two feet and be allowed to decide its own destiny. I hope that the peace agreement holds and that the people of Ukraine can rebuild a nation that has been torn by conflict, because Ukraine deserves a bright, peaceful future. And I wish them all the best.