Ukraine eyes Russia embassy site amid $10 million battle

PM Anthony Albanese and Russian President Vladimir Putin inherited a dispute from the Brezhnev era.

PM Anthony Albanese and Russian President Vladimir Putin inherited a dispute from the Brezhnev era. Photo: TND

Russia is suing Australia over a long-running stoush about its embassy, claiming the federal government is trying to “unreasonably” cancel a 99-year lease in the heart of Canberra’s prime diplomatic quarter.

In court documents published on Wednesday and seen by The New Daily, Russia asks the Federal Court to tear up a lease termination for its Yarralumla embassy site, or alternatively, approve a hefty compensation bill for more than $10 million it has spent on the land since it was leased back in 2008.

The court case might be a concluding chapter to Russia’s quest to construct new buildings in Canberra’s diplomatic quarter, now past its fourth decade.

It was back in the Brezhnev era that negotiations began over building a new embassy on the prime land adjacent to Lake Burley Griffin and a stone’s throw from Parliament House and the social club of choice for the diplomatic set: The Commonwealth Club.

But after it was finally awarded the land in 2011, the country has protested that labour issues have been the cause of delays on the site.

The Russian government said a previous builder contracted on the site had gone broke in 2017 and more recently protested that immigration authorities had forbidden the embassy from flying in its own tradies.

Decade of delays

Australia moved to kick Russia off the land in April following more than a decade of building delays.

It comes as Ukrainian diplomats push to be granted the land for their embassy in Canberra, following Australia’s military support for the nation.

Russia claims the National Capital Authority (which oversees planning and development in the capital’s diplomatic district) has “unreasonably” tried to give them the boot from the property, despite recent building work.

It claims Russia has spent $US5.5 million ($8.14 million) constructing a consular building on the land over the past two years, an asset that would amount to “wasted” expenditure if it was unable to open an embassy.

Russia also paid $2.75 million to lease the land in 2008, which is rented at a cost of just five cents per year.

Australia terminated the lease on the basis that Russia failed to finish the construction of its embassy within three years from the 2008 lease start.

But Russia claims Australia is partly to blame for building “difficulties” since planning documents were approved in 2011, reportedly because Canberra pushed back on anti-spying measures Russia wanted to install.

It also blamed COVID-19 lockdowns for delays in constructing the first part of its new embassy complex between 2020 and 2022, court filings reveal.

Russia acknowledged it has failed to finish construction by the deadline imposed in its 2008 lease, but argued Australia “affirmed” the agreement after that point “by its own conduct”.

“Thereafter the GRF [Russia] had a reasonable period of time to erect a building on the land,” lawyers for Russia claimed in Federal Court filings.

Russia points to a statement from the NCA in 2020 that it, “look[ed] forward to working with the [Ambassador] during the planning process”.

Russian occupation

A spokeswoman for the NCA said the Russian government would retain its occupation for the duration of the court case.

“There is a range of agreed conditions in place to protect the site and the Commonwealth from liabilities or loss,” the spokeswoman said.

Plans for Russia to shift from its current embassy in Manuka and opposite a lively pub and a service station, to the leafy and prestigious surrounds of Yarralumla were first made in 1978 but have often been  frustrated by politics and diplomacy.

Almost a decade on the issue had grown to a size that warranted prime ministerial attention.

When Bob Hawke made a trip to Moscow the items on his agenda included securing space for Australia’s diplomatic mission to that country, which had been held up as part of a niggling tit-for-tat dispute.

In articles published in the 1980s the late ANU Professor Des Ball identified the roof of the current Russian embassy as a hotbed of electronic surveillance activity.

The NCA has long been irked at the disuse of prime real estate by foreign governments such as Iran, but has not cancelled leases.

Kuwait advised in 2010 that construction had begun on its new diplomatic outpost. In 2019 it insisted it was very near completion.

Pakistan’s embassy was completed in 2016 after a 60-year delay.

Ukraine’s ambassador to Australia Vasyl Myroshnychenko had said he would seek to apply for the space after Russia’s lease was torn up.

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter.
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.