Australia's presence in Moscow at stake as Ukraine urges government to eject Russian diplomats – ABC News

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The number of Australian diplomats in Moscow has shrunk substantially as ties with Russia have become more frayed, due in part to the invasion of Ukraine. 
The Albanese government is still considering if it will expel staff at the Russian embassy in Canberra as punishment for the Kremlin's recent atrocities in Ukrainian cities, but it is also mulling what the move would mean for its own, reduced diplomatic presence in Moscow.
In the years before the pandemic, Australia regularly had five or six "A-based" staff — staff with diplomatic credentials who were recruited in Australia — in its Moscow embassy, along with some locally engaged staff.
But a combination of COVID, maternity leave and problems securing visa extensions, as well as the closure of international schools in Russia following the invasion, have contributed to reducing the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's current presence in the country to as low as one A-based staff member.
Among A-based staff, the ABC has only been able to confirm that ambassador Graeme Meehan is currently still in Russia with his wife, and that he is working out of his residence, not the Australian embassy.
Within diplomatic circles in Canberra, Russia is known as a difficult posting, which has become steadily tougher over the years since Flight MH17 was downed over Ukraine in mid-2014.
In recent times, at least one Australian diplomat had to work on Russia from a European city due to unexpected delays getting a visa.
The size of Australia's contingent in Moscow will contribute to the Albanese government's deliberations about how to react to Russian atrocities in Ukraine.
It has labelled recent deadly missile strikes on cities "reprehensible" and condemned the Kremlin's rhetoric about the potential for nuclear warfare.
Since the election in May, the government has been repeatedly urged, particularly by Ukrainian groups, to either expel Russian ambassador Alexey Pavlovsky or trim the number of diplomatic staff Russia has in Canberra and Sydney.
In response to questions from the ABC, a spokesperson for Foreign Minister Penny Wong would only say, "We do not comment on the numbers of Australian diplomats at individual overseas posts and their personal circumstances".
"Matters relating to the Russian diplomatic presence in Australia remain under consideration by the government."
Several Russia experts believe some staff that have been based at the Canberra embassy and Sydney consulate have collaborated with anti-Western voices in the Australian-Russian community, adding to the workload of security agencies like ASIO.
"Reducing Russia's diplomatic presence in Australia makes sense on two levels," said Robert Horvath from La Trobe University.
"First, it would reinforce our condemnation of the Putin regime for trampling international norms and for its atrocities in Ukraine. Second, it would reduce the capacity of those diplomats to meddle in Australia's internal affairs.
"I think, however, that it is important to stress that this measure is being taken against the Putin regime, not against the Russian people.
"It would be good to complement it with positive measures towards Russian opponents of the Putin dictatorship, such as support for political refugees and for Russian independent media in exile, like Dozhd television.
Australia is considering a request from the Ukrainian President to provide military training support to the war-torn nation.
"This would make it harder for Putin's propagandists to accuse the Australian government of Russophobia."
Russian diplomats are often quoted saying "reciprocity" is the golden rule for international relations — a warning that any expulsion would be responded to in the same way — and stressing that they would prefer lines of communication remain open.
Last month, Senator Wong indicated the expulsion of the ambassador was under consideration, a move which would almost certainly end Australia's current diplomatic presence in Moscow.
But given the current Australian staffing situation in the Russian capital, it's not entirely clear how the Kremlin would react if more junior staff were expelled from Australia.
Ukrainian community groups have been urging Prime Minister Anthony Albanese to act, arguing it would send a strong symbol to the rest of the world about Australia's views on Russian atrocities.
The Ukrainian ambassador in Canberra, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, has been campaigning to get the government to provide additional military equipment to his country.
He said the Russian presence in Canberra and Sydney was a matter for Australians and the Australian government, but added, "Australia should be aiming to make sure the numbers are equal".
"Russia currently has more people," he said.
"It's up to the Australian government to decide if they wish to expel the ambassador, but expelling some Russian diplomats so that numbers are equal in both countries would be rational. It would be symbolic."
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