Payne wearing a red jacket and dark-rimmed glasses looks across frame.Marise Payne says the government’s priority is making sure Australians in Ukraine are safe.(ABC News: Adam Kennedy)The federal government has defended its decision to urge Australians to leave Ukraine and begin making arrangements to get the families of diplomats out of the capital.

On Monday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade updated the travel advice for the country to “do not travel” because of the “increased risk of armed conflict”.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne said there were around 1,400 Australians in Ukraine at the moment, who had been advised to leave while they still could.

“We are conscious that flight availability could be changed or stop at short notice,” she said.

“There are certainly still flights available and operating and that is why we have taken the prudent step of suggesting they make arrangements to leave now.

Australia’s decision to join other allies like the United States and the United Kingdom and withdraw the family members of diplomats and issue travel warnings has been criticised by Ukraine’s foreign ministry spokesman Oleg Nikolenko as “premature”.

An activist in Kyiv holds up a sign saying "say no to Putin".
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have been escalating as Russia continues its military build-up on the border.


Senator Payne said she understood the point raised by Mr Nikolenko.

“But importantly, my role and our role as a government is to ensure we are protecting the dependents of our [agency] staff and ensure Australians are taking steps to protect themselves,” she said.

“Importantly, this decision does not change one iota our absolute and steadfast support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Concerns advice will make invasion seem ‘inevitable’

Ukraine’s most senior diplomat in Australia, Volodymyr Shalkivskyi, said he did not think Mr Nikolenko had criticised Australia, but instead was worried about how the government’s actions would be perceived.

“This step sends a little bit of a wrong message but again I believe that those steps are taken in close coordination with Australia’s allies,” he said.

“Of course … the major concern is protecting life of your countrymen so this is of course your right and your responsibility of Australian officials.

“Ukraine will facilitate and assist in every possible way.

Senator Payne said while Australia had ruled out any military assistance if Russia did invade Ukraine, it would continue to offer cyber security help against online attacks.

She said she had asked Australia’s Cyber Affairs and Critical Technology Ambassador, Dr Tobias Feakin, to speak to the Ukranian government about how Australia could help.

The US military has put around 8,500 troops on alert to be ready to deploy to Europe on short notice if an invasion does occur and it is asked to step in by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

While Ukraine is not part of NATO, the alliance has put forces on standby and reinforced eastern Europe with troops, ships and fighter jets in the face of Russia’s military buildup on the border.