Russia’s flagrant invasion of Ukraine has provoked strong condemnation from a number of nations, including New Zealand – but the conflict will force the Government to consider what to do when words aren’t enough, Sam Sachdeva writes

Comment: “You think things are quite normal on the street, and then suddenly you hear these deep booms like – one just went off. Oh God, one just went off then. That was much closer.”

The words of Mark Wright, New Zealand’s honorary consul to Ukraine based in Kyiv, in a phone call recorded by foreign affairs officials offer a sliver of insight into the plight facing Ukrainians as Russian troops continue their advance into the country.

Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade the country has led to a cascade of global outrage, along with fear of the likely bloodshed to come.

“By choosing to pursue this entirely avoidable path, an unthinkable number of innocent lives could be lost because of Russia’s decision,” Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said in a speech on Friday further decrying Putin’s actions.

But while the US, UK and others have frozen the assets of Russian banks and other individuals and entities to implement a financial squeeze, the Government here has not – and cannot – follow suit.

Ardern has brushed aside the idea that New Zealand’s lack of an autonomous sanctions regime has impeded its response, noting the imposition of targeted travel bans on Russian officials and others tied to the invasion, as well as the prohibition of exports to Russian military and security forces.

But as National Party’s foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee has pointed out, a travel ban is close to meaningless at a time when even New Zealand citizens do not enjoy unimpeded entry into the country.

And of the more than 2400 export permits granted by the Government for military and dual use goods between 2018 and 2020, just 11 – or 0.5 percent – were for products headed to Russia, suggesting the new prohibition will have a minimal impact.

A non-existent lever

An autonomous sanctions regime was “just one lever of many that New Zealand can pull,” Ardern said – but the point is that such a lever doesn’t currently exist within Aotearoa’s foreign policy framework.

The Prime Minister’s other concern, that the member’s bill being touted by National is outdated and insufficient, has more merit.

The legislation as put forward by National would have allowed the imposition of sanctions  in response to either a threat to peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, or a breach of international peace and security where the UN Security Council has failed to act under Article 41 (which covers sanctions).

Russia’s invasion would fall short on the first clause, while it’s unclear how much time the Security Council would have to act (or not act, as the case may be) before the second clause could be triggered.

Brownlee has likened his bill to “Magnitsky laws” in place in the US, EU and elsewhere – but those regimes tend to have a broader remit, covering anyone involved in human rights offences or corruption.

But it would hardly be difficult to develop such legislation using overseas counterparts as a model. It seems reasonable to wonder why Labour did not deal with such technical concerns in its first three years in government, when the sanctions legislation gathered dust on the order paper before finally being put out of its misery.

In fairness, Ardern has indicated autonomous sanctions are “may be something worth considering”, with the understandable caveat that the Government does not want to rush into a poorly conceived regime.

“We need to do that with our thoughts turning to wider conflict, not just this moment here in time.”

The other objection, raised by the Greens and other progressives, is that such a move would undermine New Zealand’s commitment to multilateralism and the rules-based order.

“One of the things that does stand out currently with this conflict is just the degree to which there is unity, unity of voice that what is happening here – the blatant breach of international law, our rules-based order – how that stands in the face of everything that countries have worked so hard for in the wake of World War II.”
– Jacinda Ardern

Indeed, it was that breach which Ardern forcefully spoke of in praising the global response.

“One of the things that does stand out currently with this conflict is just the degree to which there is unity, unity of voice that what is happening here – the blatant breach of international law, our rules-based order – how that stands in the face of everything that countries have worked so hard for in the wake of World War II.”

But while New Zealand should continue to prioritise multilateralism, and encourage reform of the veto powers held by the Security Council’s five permanent members, that shouldn’t preclude the development of an autonomous option for when those channels prove insufficient.

Given growing Great Power rivalry and associated struggles for influence, it is hard to imagine many serious conflicts where no P5 member would hold an interest in vetoing proposed sanctions – and equally difficult to foresee them voluntarily giving up those veto rights in the near future.

The Ukraine conflict could raise other difficult questions for New Zealand, such as how to respond should China align itself with Russia and against the US and others in the West.

Beijing has been circumspect so far, with Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying avoiding any explicit condemnation of the military invasion and instead referring to ‘complexities’ and calling “on all sides to exercise restraint and prevent the situation from getting out of control”.

But China’s lifting of wheat import restrictions on Russia, announced after the invasion began but reportedly agreed when Putin visited Beijing earlier in the month, has angered some in the West who see it as undercutting their sanctions.
There have also been concerns in the past over whether the Chinese government would take advantage of a Russia-Ukraine conflict to make its own incursion into Taiwan, stretching any US response across two fronts.

That seems unlikely, but the global response to Ukraine could influence the approach China takes on the Taiwan issue in future.

Such are the ripple effects of a war which may be taking place on the other side of the world from New Zealand, but in a broader sense feels all too close

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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