There have been calls for New Zealand to expel Russia’s ambassador in response to the war in Ukraine. But is that the right step to take? Or is it better to keep those diplomatic channels open?
What can we do about Russia?
One option – as advocated by National’s leader Christopher Luxon, National’s foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee and Green Party foreign affairs spokesperson Golriz Ghahraman – would be to expel the Russian ambassador to New Zealand, Georgy Zuev.
It wouldn’t be an unprecedented move. New Zealand has expelled senior diplomats before. Russian ambassadors have also been expelled from other countries in the past – most notably after the attempted poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury.
While it’s easy to suggest, such a move carries quite a bit of diplomatic heft and potential consequences.
As international analyst Geoffrey Miller explains, ambassadors play an important role.
“The advantage of an ambassador is that you’ve got someone who’s actually in the country,” he says.
“To take a current example, we have a Russian ambassador based in Wellington, so we’ve got a top official from Russia based in New Zealand, that we can talk to.
“You know he’s got the direct link to the Russian foreign ministry, to his boss – Sergei Lavrov, in this case – and that’s the case for all the ambassadors and high commissioners.”
New Zealand is no stranger to diplomatic spats: just in the past decade we’ve expelled a diplomat from the United States and seen another, from Peru, recalled. In one infamous case, we requested a Malaysian diplomat be extradited back to New Zealand to face charges of indecent assault, for which he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to nine months’ home detention.
But these are more cases of individuals misbehaving, rather than countries: expelling an ambassador to express disapproval of their nation’s actions is altogether more rare.
Even in the aftermath of the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985, New Zealand didn’t expel the French ambassador – though that scandal did result in the French Defence Minister’s resignation.
Robert Muldoon also expelled two ambassadors during his time as prime minister – the Soviet Union’s Vsevolod Sofinsky in 1980 over donations Sofinsky allegedly made to the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party; and Argentina’s ambassador Alberto Aden in 1982, over the Falklands War.
But such decisions aren’t taken lightly and can pose a serious, long-term threat to relations between countries.
On the question of whether the Government should follow the advice of National and the Greens and expel Russia’s ambassador Georgy Zuev, Miller is tepid.
“It would show your anger at what Russia has done … but I’m not a fan of the idea of expelling the Russian ambassador.
“I think you lose that communication channel, the ability to have that dialogue with Russia.
“We need a ceasefire in this war … I think we need more dialogue, not less, if we’re going to stop this war in Ukraine.”
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