30 years today
by James O’Neill*
Diplomatic relations between Ukraine and Australia were established in 1991, but it was not until February 2015 that Australia established an embassy in Kiev. Trade between the two countries is minuscule, amounting to about $40 million a year, mainly in minerals, chemicals and their by-products.
Politically, Ukraine was barely on the Australian radar. That changed in July 2014 when Malaysian Airlines MH17 was shot down over Eastern Ukraine, killing all on board, including 38 Australian citizens or residents.
The Australian government and media were quick to blame Russia for that tragedy, despite the lack of evidence, and have maintained that stance notwithstanding a wealth of information that points the finger of responsibility at Ukrainian government forces as the responsible party.
Not for the first time Australia has taken a stance that reflects political imperatives rather than national interests, logic and the weight of evidence. The relevant imperative here is the American alliance with its requirement that Russia be demonized.
Even with that background it is difficult to understand some recent developments in the Australia-Ukraine relationship that range from the bizarre to the dangerous.
In December 2014 for example, the Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko visited Australia, the first such visit by a Ukrainian President. That he should have been welcomed here is a mystery. Poroshenko came to power in February 2014 in an American organized and financed coup d’état, overthrowing the democratically elected government in the process. Under his government’s misrule the overtly Nazi Pravy Sektor and Svoboda parties have risen to positions of dominance.
Notwithstanding these unsavoury developments former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott accepted an invitation to join Poroshenko’s “International Advisory Council” along with other dubious characters such as former Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili, wanted in his native country on criminal charges and currently a Ukrainian regional Governor; Tony Blair, ex British Prime Minister and unindicted war criminal; and former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, well known for urging NATO to wage war on Russia.
The development that has caused the most astonishment and concern however, is the announcement by Foreign Minister Julie Bishop on 1 April 2016 that Australia had signed a Nuclear Co-operation Agreement with Ukraine to sell them uranium.
This deal is a follow up to the “preliminary agreement” signed by Poroshenko when he visited Australia in December 2014.
Bishop may or may not have been aware that April 2015 is the 30th anniversary of the meltdown at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in Ukraine. The contamination from that disaster has spread into Belarus and Russia. Its effects are ongoing, and to say that control and containment of the nuclear contamination is unsatisfactory is to seriously understate the scale of the problem.
The DFAT media release announcing the uranium supply deal refers to Ukraine as one of the world’s top ten generators of nuclear power.
As is often the case with government pronouncements, there is a complete absence of mention of any problematic issues associated with a deal whose only other supporter appears to be the Minerals Council of Australia.
There are however, a number of serious issues with Ukraine’s nuclear power generating industry that the Australian government presumably does not want its citizens to know about. The problems include the following:
- Ukraine has 15 active nuclear energy reactors, four of which have already passed their design lifetimes. A further six will reach that stage by 2020. Ukrainian government policy is to keep all of them operational for at least a further ten years beyond their use by date. No independent observers are in the least bit confident that Ukraine has the money to ensure the reactors are operationally safe.
- International conventions governing the use of nuclear power stations require their operators to consult with neighbouring countries that could be affected by prolonging the life of out-dated and potentially dangerous (as with Chernobyl) reactors. The Ukrainian government has refused to enter into such consultations with its neighbours.
- The relevant conventions also require the carrying out of environmental impact assessments. Even though the European Union has made it a condition of its multi-billion Euro loans that such assessments are done, Ukraine has failed to do so.
- Internal quality control mechanisms have been made more difficult. In January 2015 a government decree prevented the nuclear energy regulator from carrying out inspections unless authorised to do so by the government. Activists within Ukraine who pointed out the risks associated with Ukraine’s out-dated reactors were sued for defamation.
- Ukraine is quite possibly the least secure, most corrupt and economically disastrous country in Europe. It continues to wage war on its own citizens in violation of the Minsk agreements.
None of these problems, and it is far from an exhaustive list, appears to trouble the Australian government. That none of this is deemed worthy of public debate, thanks to an extraordinarily supine mainstream media and political Opposition, is also of major concern.
The gap between a principled foreign policy and our actual behaviour grows ever wider, and the Ukrainian uranium deal is only the latest manifestation of this.
*Barrister at Law. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo adapted from bntva.com