Is there anything our Government could do in response to Russia’s attempt to recast international boundaries through the use of force? Robert Ayson lays out nine potential options.

Swift condemnation has followed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that Russian “peacekeeping” forces will be sent to breakaway areas of eastern Ukraine whose claims for independence his government has now recognised.

In Paris for a meeting on Indo-Pacific developments, New Zealand Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta has already indicated the New Zealand Government’s serious concern, releasing a statement saying “that this is a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion, which would be a clear act of aggression”.

Sadly the dangerous course announced by Putin could be just the beginning. Sending additional Russian forces to the Donbas region to make life more difficult for Volodymyr Zelensky’s government is far short of the worst outcome.

Putin may be banking on a Ukrainian reaction to his initial move from the east, which he will then use as a pretext for what comes next (and if not, a fabricated reaction may do). Russian ground forces could come hurtling from the north towards Kyiv, preceded by intense cyber-attacks, aerial bombing, and missile salvos. Such an invasion would comprise one of the most harmful acts of military violence Europe has seen since World War II.

Lacking its own autonomous sanctions legislation, New Zealand will be left watching many of its close international friends place additional restrictions on Russia’s financial and trading connections. While Joe Biden’s administration pushed back on Kyiv’s request that the frequently telegraphed measures be adopted before an attack has begun, the United States will be leading that coordinated effort. And by the time Mahuta gets to London, Boris Johnson’s government will have announced new sanctions on Russia, if the comments by Foreign Secretary Liz Truss are anything to go by.

New Zealand’s close ally Australia is likely to be quick out of the sanctions blocks. Of course Wellington’s foreign policy doesn’t consist of copying and pasting Canberra’s reactions. In recent years, I‘ve sometimes thought Germany’s contemporary foreign policy philosophy to be similar to New Zealand’s, although for very different historical reasons. But even Olaf Scholz’s new government is now indicating that the Nordstream 2 pipeline, designed to bring natural gas from Russia, is on the sanctions table.

The chances are that these economic measures will not change Putin’s calculus. But they will be looked to as evidence of a unified response among a community of countries wishing to avoid taking more violent responses which would guarantee war with Russia. Knowing that it can’t join in fully on this sanctions strategy, New Zealand has been getting in some of its unity in advance. That includes a set of conversations with Five Eyes partners, including the call that came to Mahuta from an airborne Antony Blinken and agreement on broad principles with other Five Eyes partners advertised on the foreign minister’s twitter feed. Defence Minister Peeni Henare was included in a photograph of Five Eyes togetherness taken at the British High Commissioner’s residence. Meanwhile, the National Cyber-Security Centre’s recent advice to New Zealand companies to take steps to avoid a repeat of “the widespread disruption resulting from indiscriminate cyber campaigns conducted by Russia” points readers in the direction of suggestions from the United States and Canadian agencies.

To date, New Zealand’s main focus has been to emphasise the need for de-escalation and the pursuit of diplomatic negotiation. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s (MFAT) readout of Mahuta’s conversation with Ukraine’s foreign minister a week ago mentioned New Zealand’s support for the Normandy Format, a quartet that brings together France and Germany with Russia and Ukraine, the co-signatories of the 2015 Minsk Agreement. One has every reason to believe Jacinda Ardern’s Government would have been a strong supporter of French President Emmanuel Macron’s last-ditch efforts to forge a more peaceful pathway by laying the groundwork for a summit between Putin and Biden.

But what does New Zealand do now in the face of Putin’s latest aggressiveness, which appears to have completely overtaken these diplomatic efforts? Having dealt itself largely out of the sanctions game, does Ardern’s Government have any real options in response to Russia’s attempt to recast international boundaries through the use of force? The answer is yes.

First, as we will see in the coming days, New Zealand will be able to join a range of international partners in collective condemnations of Russia’s aggression. Don’t be surprised if New Zealand’s Five Eyes colleagues have in mind an especially stern statement. And it seems a good bet to think New Zealand would say yes to a Truss-Mahuta statement. There will also be opportunities to join in with some of New Zealand’s partners in Europe who see their security on the line. And there will be at least some Asia-Pacific partners who will join in on collective denunciations. New Zealand should also be alive to opportunities at the UN General Assembly to join wider statements of protest. The more who sign on the better.

Second, Wellington should be encouraging its partners in regional multilateral fora to express their strong opposition to Russia’s actions, in full public view. In the Asia-Pacific this includes talking with multilateral partners in groups where Russia is also a member: the ASEAN Regional Forum, the ASEAN Defence Ministers Plus format, and the East Asia Summit.

To enter the most recently established of these, Russia signed ASEAN’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation. Invading Ukraine is in direct contravention of Moscow’s treaty commitment to show “mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, territorial integrity and national identity of all nations, the right of every state to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion or coercion; non-interference in the internal affairs of one another; settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful means” and “renunciation of the threat or use of force”. Getting movement here won’t be easy. Perhaps there will be prospects closer to home: would New Zealand’s Pacific Islands Forum partners be amenable to a public vote of no-confidence in Moscow?

Third, there are steps New Zealand can take to adjust its bilateral diplomatic interactions with Putin’s government. Wellington could issue a demarche, or diplomatic note of protest to the Russian government. While Mahuta has indicated that as Foreign Minister it is not her role to ask the Russian Ambassador in for a telling off, that task could be undertaken at senior MFAT levels, and be followed by a read-out on the ministry’s website. And if it wishes to underline its grave concerns about Russia’s violation of international norms, New Zealand might consider recalling its Ambassador in Moscow for consultations in Wellington.

Fourth, New Zealand should already be preparing to offer humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians affected by Russia’s military action. That could include support for efforts on the other side of Ukraine’s western borders for civilians fleeing the conflict with their families. Working with well-regarded Non-Government Organisations which are providing comfort to distressed and displaced Ukrainian citizens could be part of that planning.

Fifth, while New Zealand’s autonomous sanctions gap rules out financial sanctions against private individuals closely connected to the Putin government, New Zealand could still place travel restrictions on leading Russian officials. How senior that list becomes an interesting question given the speculation the Biden Administration might think of including Putin on theirs.

Sixth, and it’s a long shot, but the Government might signal that officials have been asked to see what they might find lurking in New Zealand’s export control regime. Is there something there that might reduce the small chances of New Zealand-made components ending up being used as part of Russia’s war effort? Drones used over Ukraine are known to have been assembled from componentry coming from all manner of original suppliers.

Seventh, as Russia looks for alternative sources of goods after facing additional sanctions pressure, Ardern could signal to New Zealand businesses that it would be improper for them to exploit any new gaps that open up. The Key government delivered a similar message in a previous stage of Russia’s campaign against Ukraine. It might be a point that bears repeating in public.

Eighth, the Government would have every reason to reverse its position and introduce autonomous sanctions legislation to the House of Representatives. That measure would be opposed by the Greens, but Labour could expect cross-bench support from National. Russia’s aggression is unlikely to be a short-run thing, and so legislation passed in a few months could still allow for some better-late-than-never sanctions. But even if the legislation was not enacted soon enough for the current crisis, a New Zealand version of the Magnitsky Act could be used to address other urgent priorities, including for financial and travel restrictions on overseas individuals responsible for human rights abuses and corruption.

Ninth, a major announcement explaining these steps as a package of measures could be announced by the Prime Minister, co-signed by the Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister of Defence. Their language, individually and collectively, would need to be firm and unambiguous. And it wouldn’t stop there. In the coming weeks and months Ardern and her Cabinet colleagues will need to consider more steps as Russia’s war against Ukraine evolves. That means making space in a schedule already packed with urgent domestic priorities demanding the Government’s attention.

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