Bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities at a time when it is resisting Russian annexation is fully consistent with an independent New Zealand foreign policy and a worldview based on multilateral cooperation, writes Robert Patman

Comment: The Putin regime’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24 was a defining moment in the evolution of the 21st Century world.

The definition that emerges will depend on the outcome of the brutal conflict the authoritarian regime in Moscow has unleashed on its democratic neighbour.

If the aggression of Russia succeeds in annexing more territory from Ukraine – Moscow had already annexed Crimea in 2014 – the prospects for a stable international rules-based order will be decidedly weakened.

Since World War II, New Zealand has been a firm supporter of the international rules-based order enshrined in institutions such as the UN and embodied in norms such as multilateralism.

It should be emphasised that Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a flagrant violation of the UN Charter and an act of aggression completely at odds with the UN’s prohibition on the use of force against the territorial integrity or sovereign independence of any state.

However, if Putin’s forces are squarely defeated and forced to withdraw from Ukraine, the possibilities for small states and middle powers to exert more influence in strengthening the rule of law globally will increase.

In an impassioned address to the UN Security Council on April 5, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said the invasion was the latest example of how the right of veto enjoyed by the council’s five permanent members had undermined an effective system of international security. “Ukraine has the moral right to propose a reform of the world security system,” he said.

Zelensky is right. The UNSC is dysfunctional and has been largely reduced to bystander status in a world where there are currently 22 inter-state and intra-state conflicts.

The invasion of Ukraine therefore is not just about the future of that country, but whether the rules-based international order, which serves the interests of the majority of states, will wither or strengthen in the face of an onslaught from an authoritarian regime.

In that sense, the courageous Ukrainians are fighting for all of us in the liberal democratic world.

New Zealand initially responded to Ukraine’s plight by providing $11 million in humanitarian and non-lethal military assistance. 

But the dynamics of the conflict changed decisively in early April when Russian troops were forced to withdraw to eastern Ukraine after failing to seize Kyiv, the capital of the country.

In the wake of the retreat, shocking and gruesome images emerged of how the Russian army had treated Ukrainian civilians under their brief control of cities like Bucha and Borodyanka.

Clear evidence has been found of summary executions, mass graves, industrial scale looting of property, the widespread use of rape as a weapon of war, forced deportations, and torturing men and women to death.

Following the discovery of what appears to be war crimes by Putin’s troops, the scope for a diplomatic solution in which the Russian leader would be given an off-ramp to extricate himself from the global crisis he created has virtually disappeared.

For the Zelensky government and its many international supporters, the reprehensible behaviour of Putin’s army increasingly means the war in Ukraine will only end when the Russian army is comprehensively defeated and the territorial integrity of Ukraine fully restored.

It is in this context that Jacinda Ardern’s Government announced this week a significant boost in New Zealand’s military aid to Ukraine.

The new package includes the deployment of one of the country’s five C130 transport planes and nearly 70 military and intelligence personnel to Europe – the biggest deployment of New Zealand troops since Bosnia in the mid-1990s. It also includes an additional $13 million of support, within that a $7.5 million contribution to be spent through the UK on weapons and ammunition for the Ukrainian military.

The toughening of the Ardern Government’s response to the Russian invasion has been broadly welcomed in New Zealand, Ukraine and other democracies.

While some New Zealand commentators and politicians depict this week’s military aid package as the our Government simply falling into line with its Five Eyes partners, it could be argued bolstering Ukraine’s military capabilities at a time when it is resisting Russian annexation is fully consistent with an independent New Zealand foreign policy and a worldview based on multilateral cooperation.

Humanitarian assistance will help to cushion the suffering by Putin’s attempt to build a Greater Russia at Ukraine’s expense, but the quickest way to help ensure peace and security in that devastated country is to win the war against the Russian army.

It is in New Zealand’s interest that Putin’s expansionism fails, that a democratic Ukraine preserves the right to make its own choices in foreign policy, including its right to pursue a non-nuclear security policy, and Kyiv remains free to campaign for UN reform and the reinvigoration of an international rules-based order.

Robert G. Patman is a Sesquicentennial Distinguished Chair and a specialist in International Relations at the University of Otago.

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