A suspected lone Russian diplomat is apparently squatting on the site of Moscow’s proposed embassy after the Australian government vetoed the plan on security grounds. Prime Minister Anthony Albanese dismissed the Russian act of defiance, saying a “bloke standing in the cold on a bit of grass in Canberra is not a threat to our national security.” Parliament passed emergency legislation last week blocking on security grounds Russia’s lease on the largely empty block because the new embassy would have been too close to Parliament House.
A man has been living on the site in a portable building since Sunday when passersby first saw Australian Federal Police outside the fenced block in Canberra’s Yarralumla diplomatic precinct.
The Russian Embassy refused to comment on a report in The Australian newspaper that the man seen smoking cigarettes outside his accommodation was a Russian diplomat.
The embassy also declined to explain why the man was on the site, saying in an email: “The Embassy does not comment (on) this.” Albanese said the issue would be “resolved,” but did not detail how.
“Australia will stand up for our values and we will stand up for our national security and a bloke standing in the cold on a bit of grass in Canberra is not a threat to our national security,” Albanese told reporters in a courtyard outside his Parliament House office. The outdoor temperature at the time was 8 degrees Celsius (46 degrees Fahrenheit).
Australian National University international law expert Don Rothwell said occupying the site gave Russia no advantage in any legal challenge to their eviction.
“What they’re doing is diplomatic civil disobedience in terms of indicating their displeasure with the action of the Australian government,” Rothwell said.
Russia’s only potential for legal challenge was over the amount of compensation that Australia offers for money already spent on construction and earthworks, Rothwell said.
Russia says it has spent $5.5 million on the site since it was granted the lease in 2008. Completed works include fencing and a single perimeter building that was to be part of a planned complex of several buildings.
If the man is a diplomat, he could claim diplomatic immunity if detained by police, who would then have to set him free.
The government could declare him persona non grata, which would mean his diplomatic immunity was revoked. Such people are then usually given 48 hours to leave Australia or face arrest.
Russia could then send another diplomat to take his place, said Rothwell, who lives in Yarralumla and had noticed police outside the site on Sunday.
“That’s the sort of scenario that I think the government would be keen to avoid,” Rothwell said.
Albanese did not directly answer when asked if the government were considering revoking the man’s diplomatic status.
“We’re confident of our position that it will be resolved,” Albanese said.
Albanese said he was not concerned by the possibility of a Russian court challenge.
“We actually support the law. Russia has not been real good at the law lately,” Albanese said, referring the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Australian Federal Police did not immediately answer why the man had not been removed for trespassing.
Russia last week accused Australia of “Russophobic hysteria” for canceling the lease, which follows a deterioration in relations since the Ukraine war began last year.
In February, a newspaper reported that Australia had quietly expelled a large Russian spy ring whose members were posing as diplomats.
The spy ring comprised purported embassy and consular staff as well as other operatives using deep-cover identities, The Sydney Morning Herald reported, citing unnamed sources with knowledge of the operation.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organization, the nation’s main domestic spy agency, revealed days earlier it had “detected and disrupted a major spy network.” ASIO has not named the country responsible.