Australia “will not hesitate” to ratchet up sanctions against Russia amid growing tensions over the military buildup near Ukraine’s border, a senior federal minister has warned.
The finance minister, Simon Birmingham, said the Australian government was staying “in close contact with many allies, with countries across Europe and the United States” and directly with Ukraine to “provide what assistance we can”.
The comments come as a Ukrainian diplomat in Australia accused the Russian ambassador of offering “false” and “strange” arguments for Russia’s troop buildup, as western countries step up their warnings to Moscow against invading Ukraine.
The UK has offered to deploy land, air and sea forces to bolster the defence of Nato countries on their northern and eastern borders. The US has also promised to send a small number of troops to eastern European and Nato countries “in the near term”.
Birmingham said Australia had been “very clear” that it would not deploy its military if war broke out in the region, but was involved in talks about what other assistance it could provide.
He called on Russia “to remove its military buildup along the Ukrainian border, to de-escalate tensions and to engage comprehensively in diplomatic dialogue to avert conflict”.
Birmingham noted that Australia already had sanctions in place against Russian figures – first imposed in 2014 and extended in 2015 – and was prepared to expand them.
The sanctions list indicates the measures target Putin allies who had publicly supported the deployment of Russian forces to Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea.
The existing measures also sanction defence companies linked to the manufacture of the “Buk” surface-to-air missiles used by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine, believed responsible for the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014.
“Those sanctions remain under constant review,” Birmingham told reporters in Adelaide on Sunday.
“And of course, we will not hesitate to upgrade them and undertake further sanctions if that’s warranted should Russia escalate this situation.”
Western countries have voiced increasing concern about Russia’s buildup of more than 100,000 troops near the border with Ukraine but opinions differ on if, or when, Vladimir Putin plans a full-scale military invasion.
The Russian president has made a series of security demands including a promise that Ukraine never be admitted to Nato, which the US has rejected. Russia has argued it is Nato that is fuelling the tensions.
Volodymyr Shalkivskyi, the chargé d’affaires at Ukraine’s embassy in Canberra, said Ukraine was “grateful to its international partners, including Australia, for the unwavering support of its sovereignty and territorial integrity especially during these challenging times”.
“As a sovereign country, Ukraine has every right to choose its foreign policy priorities and join any alliances it finds necessary,” Shalkivskyi said in a statement on Sunday.
Russia’s ambassador to Australia, Alexey Pavlovsky, held a press conference in Canberra on Friday to hit back at the defence minister, Peter Dutton, for calling Vladimir Putin an ageing and irrational dictator.
Pavlovsky said if that was “the level of analysis informing Australian policy then it is definitely a worrying sign” and argued that some western politicians had been “convinced and hypnotised by their own propaganda”.
The Russian ambassador denied the troops were a threat, saying they remained on Russian territory.
Pavlovsky instead characterised the buildup as a “a warning to Ukraine not to try any reckless military adventures, not to interpret the support they have from the west as carte blanche to do such crazy things”.
The Russian ambassador also argued that the international investigation into the downing of MH17 – an incident that led to the deaths of 298 passengers and crew including 38 Australians – was “hijacked by a politicised agenda”. He cited what the called “discrepancies” in the evidence.
But Ukraine’s representative in Australia dismissed those comments. Shalkivskyi said Pavlovsky’s attempts “to question integrity and credibility of the international investigation on MH17 with false narratives is aimed at generating confusion and distracting conversation from the Moscow’s role in this tragedy”.
Shalkivskyi said the Russian ambassador “falsely portrays his country as a victim of the western propaganda and the Russian aggressive actions as a forced response to the alleged aggressive intentions of Ukraine and our international partners”.
“In fact, this is Russia who violates norms of the international law and threatens its neighbours,” Shalkivskyi said in the statement on Sunday.
Shalkivskyi said on Friday the Russian ambassador’s comments were “a game of words”, and any country would feel threatened if more than 100,000 troops were stationed at the border.
But Ukraine’s leaders have also played down the idea that a further Russian invasion was imminent and have urged the west not to fuel panic, because of the potential economic damage.
On Monday the Australian government encouraged any Australian citizens to leave Ukraine immediately due to the deteriorating security situation, and it has joined with the US and the UK in withdrawing the families of Australian diplomats.
Australia is considering supplying extra liquefied natural gas to Europe and the government has said it is willing to help Ukraine to fend off cyber-attacks.