RIGA, Latvia — A Russian embassy staffer has been squatting for days on the planned construction site of a new embassy building in Canberra, the Australian capital, after the government last week evicted Russia from the site for security reasons.
“This is just wild. It’s almost unheard of,” opposition lawmaker Keith Pitt told Sky News. “You can’t just occupy territory and then claim it,” Pitt said, drawing a comparison to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine where the Kremlin aims to annex four regions.
Russia plans a high court challenge on Monday to overturn legislation rushed through the Australian parliament last week canceling Russia’s lease on the site for national security reasons because of its proximity to the Australian parliament.
Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said his government anticipated that Russia would be unhappy about the lease cancellation and doubted the legal challenge would succeed.
“We’re confident of our legal position,” Albanese told a news conference. He dismissed opposition demands to force the Russian to leave the site, saying that a “bloke standing in the cold on a bit of grass in Canberra is not a threat to our national security.”
“Particularly when it’s so cold out there,” he added. Australian officials have not stated if the embassy staffer has diplomatic immunity.
Australian Minister for Home Affairs Clare O’Neil told the news conference that Australia had to deal with the national security threat in Moscow’s plan “to build a second Russian embassy a stone’s throw from Parliament House.
Concerns have grown over Russian espionage in Australia, a member of the Five Eyes intelligence alliance, after news in February that Canberra’s intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, had expelled “a major spy network” of Russian diplomats and undercover agents who had been operating for 18 months. The Five Eyes alliance includes the United States, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.
ASIO security director Mike Burgess did not disclose how many Russians were expelled during a February speech on threats to Australian security. But he said the Russian group was “bigger and more dangerous” than a previous major spy ring dismantled last year.
“Proxies and agents were recruited as part of a wider network. … Among other malicious activities, they wanted to steal sensitive information,” Burgess said, referring to the larger spy ring. “We watched them. We mapped their activities. The hive is history.”
Burgess said in a February media interview that Australia was experiencing the highest level of security threats in its history, including spying, foreign interference and terrorist plots.
Senior opposition lawmaker, Barnaby Joyce, former leader of the National Party, on Friday mocked the Russian occupying the construction hut, known in Australian slang as a donger and which is located in the upscale Canberra suburb of Yarralumla.
“Hang around your donger mate and I reckon you’re going to get sick of the frosts pretty quick,” Joyce said in comments broadcast on Sky News. “Just turn the power off. Let him sit out the front, smoke his bungers,” he said, referring to cigarettes.
Russia last week accused Canberra of “Russophobic hysteria” over the canceled lease and the Russian Foreign Ministry summoned the Australian ambassador in Moscow, Graeme Meehan, to protest, threatening retaliation. Moscow called the move “a frankly politicized and unfriendly step,” adding that relations with Canberra “have reached their lowest point in history.”
The Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry on Thursday sanctioned 48 Australians, including politicians, military contractors and journalists, in addition to hundreds already barred from Russia, adding that more Australians would be banned in future.
State-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported Russia’s new court challenge. Last year, the embassy took successful action in court to overturn moves by Canberra’s National Capital Authority to cancel the lease which Russia signed in 2008.
After Russia built one small building on the site, the authority had argued that partial building works there undermined the “aesthetic, importance and dignity” of the area.
Russian diplomats have breached local laws in the past, with Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade chasing almost $90,000 from the Russian embassy for diplomats’ unpaid speeding tickets, parking and traffic fines dating back 15 years, according to a report in the Guardian, based on a freedom of information request. In the United States, 49 Russians, all diplomats or their spouses, were charged in 2013 over a Medicaid fraud scheme dating back to 2004.