After days of refusing to join its allies in taking action against Russia, New Zealand has finally decided to ban spies expelled elsewhere from travelling to New Zealand. Thomas Coughlan reports.

Facing accusations of being soft and becoming isolated on Russia, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has moved to take some concrete action in solidarity with New Zealand’s allies. Ardern announced late on Thursday that New Zealand would impose travel restrictions on individuals expelled by other countries after a recent nerve agent attack in Britain.

She said New Zealand would ask its security partners to provide names of those expelled.

“Those names will then be placed on a travel ban list to ensure that individuals who have been found to undertake activities incompatible with their diplomatic status in other countries do not enter New Zealand.”

Ardern announced on Tuesday New Zealand would not expel any Russian diplomats because the SIS had advised none were spies. The comments sparked derision overseas from security experts and former KGB spies, who said New Zealand was being naive and appeared isolated. The Opposition questioned why New Zealand appeared soft on Russia and was not joining with its allies in a more concrete condemnation of Russia.

Concerns about New Zealand’s stance have grown after Foreign Minister Winston Peters refused earlier this month to accept that Russia had been involved in the shooting down of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine, despite internationally accredited reports to that affect. Peters has also advocated further trade negotiations with Russia, forcing his Prime Minister to say any talks were suspended indefinitely because of the nerve agent attack.

Peters denies the undeniable

Peters again muddied the waters on Thursday in Parliament when he was asked whether Russia was responsible for the attack, appearing not to back Britain’s more robust assessment. He responded the nerve agent looked like it was manufactured in Russia and came from Russia, but the attack itself was still part of a substantive investigation in the UK. 

Britain went much further. British Prime MinisterTheresa May told the House of Commons on 13 March the British Government “has concluded that it is highly likely that Russia was responsible for the act against Sergei and Yulia Skripal”.

This condemnation was reflected in a statement issued by both Ardern and Peters on 16 March. The Government has faced criticism on the wording of the statement, which included quotations from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, but not Peters.

National leader Simon Bridges told Newsroom said he would feel comfortable blaming Russia for the attack itself, not just for the manufacture and distribution of the poison.

“Winston Peters has continued to deny what is really the undeniable,” Bridges said.

“He’s suggesting some other party other than the Kremlin might be responsible for the Skripal poisoning. We’re back to where we were a couple of Fridays ago,” he said. 

Peters also said the Government had been “the recipient of a whole lot of accolades” from its partners, including the UK. He visited the UK High Commissioner as recently as  Thursday morning.

“A prime target”

The Government faced increased scrutiny as the Prime Minister’s assertion the Government could not find any spies in New Zealand was ridiculed in the international media.

Former KGB agent Boris Karpichkov told Newshub Ardern was either naive or misinformed if she thought there were no spies in New Zealand. Karpichkov believes he was himself targeted for assassination in Auckland.

He said there was likely a small number of spies connected to the Russian Embassy, most probably military personnel. Karpichkov said New Zealand was a “prime target” as a member of the Five Eyes intelligence sharing agreement with the UK, US, Canada, and Australia. Those countries had all found intelligence officers to expel. Karpichkov said New Zealand would be of particular interest as a potential weak link in the intelligence sharing chain.

Ardern has said she would expel undeclared Russian intelligence officials if there were any.

“I am very happy to say that we did ask the question around those who fit the bill of what other countries have been expelling and we have no-one of that sort in New Zealand,” she said on Tuesday.

Ardern deflected when asked by a journalist if New Zealand would expel diplomats out of solidarity. She said if New Zealand had similar agents to Australia, it would expel them too.

She said the advice she had received from the NZSIS was there were no Russian spies in New Zealand. That information had been verified by New Zealand’s partners.  She said she believed our actions were consistent with our partners.

“If you’re seeking for me to randomly remove people who do not fit the criteria that our other partners have based their decisions on that would be inappropriate,” she said.

It was never about spies

University of Waikato Professor Alexander Gillespie said the Prime Minister had been poorly briefed on her response.

“She’s getting some very bad advice somewhere along the line,” he said. “Someone in Foreign Affairs should have explained to her that this is not about whether we have spies in the county or not. This is a question about solidarity with our allies”.

Gillespie said the Government could find the lowest order person in the embassy and ask them to leave as an act of solidarity. He said it would not strain long-term relations and that person could return in a matter of months as relations returned to normal. 

“This was never about looking for spies in your country or not. This was about solidarity with Britain,” he said.

Australia has expelled two diplomats and Canada has expelled four. Both countries are Five Eyes partners.

Bridges said New Zealand’s decision not to expel diplomats made it look naive.

“When you put it all together, particularly there being no expulsions, it creates a very clear picture of this overall quirky, unconventional and isolating position,” he said.

National leader Simon Bridges told Newsroom New Zealand was swiftly gaining a reputation as being soft on Russia.

“We are in an increasingly quirky and isolated position on Russia generally and the spies issue specifically,” he said.

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