Diplomatic efforts to cool mounting tensions in Ukraine have come to nothing, and New Zealand’s being told this is one we can’t afford to sit back and watch. 

Russian troops are gathering on Ukraine’s border and diplomatic efforts to resolve the situation have done nothing to cool things down.

Western powers fear this is preparation for war.

Even New Zealand has issued statements about the escalation. But why wouldn’t we just be sitting back quietly and watching developments on the other side of the world?

Victoria University of Wellington’s Professor of Strategic Studies, Robert Ayson, says it’s not in our interests to have our European allies feeling as if they’re in a war-like setting.

And if we believe, as the Government says we do, in a rules-based order – we should be acting.

“One of the cardinal rules of the UN Charter is that states may not use force except for in self-defence in their relations with each other … this is a flagrant challenge to that.

“New Zealand does have an interest in having a strong United States committed to supporting other democracies – New Zealand wants the EU to work, you want NATO to work. You want Europe to be confident. Do we want a world where the strong bully the weak?”

We’re not about to send soldiers, but there are other things we can do to show where we stand, especially if travel restrictions are imposed on Putin’s mates.

“New Zealand’s not on the top of their list – but that’s not to say if they’re shut out of other places … we can put names on a list even if they don’t intend to come here.

“I think this is one of our ‘us too’ moments, you’re showing a concrete sense of unity with our partners.”

Then we can help if there’s humanitarian distress in Ukraine in the event of an invasion.

Ayson says Russia’s increased troop presence is one of the largest build-ups Europe has seen since the World War II, and for some it’s evoking tragic memories of what happened 70 years ago.

Putin was warning about this last year, but one reason for his timing could be the fact the Ukrainian leader Volodmyr Zelensky has got Moscow’s attention with his attempts to build up connections with Western partners and emphasise his democratic credentials.

Putin may also be trying to test the fortitude of the Western Alliance – and trying to fracture it. The less united they are, the happier he is.

He will be relying on the US and Europe holding back from a violent conflict. And Russian domestic politics will be a part of it.

Ayson says it comes down to what’s in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s mind here – what is his intention, and what actions will move him, what values does he hold dear.

“Putin wants a buffer zone of countries around Russia to in a sense feel secure, but also to flex his muscles … and feel there is almost a kind of return to a greater Russia with Imperial kind of aspirations. A Russia that is the dominant European power.

“A Ukraine that turns to the West, and a Ukraine that enters NATO, is one of Putin’s great fears.”

Ayson says Putin would like to take the clock back a bit to where Russia’s interests were more prominent and NATO wasn’t expanding to include former republics of the Soviet Union – like the Ukraine but also Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania.

The US and Europe may be talking about massive consequences for moving into Ukraine, and intimating that the cost of invasion will be high – but Putin might be thinking it’s worth it.

Sharon Brettkelly is co-host of The Detail podcast.

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