Defence personnel's Cold War service recognised

11:24 am on 10 April 2018

Defence Force staff sent to the New Zealand Embassy in Moscow at the height of Cold War tensions have been officially recognised for their service.

The New Zealand embassy in Moscow in 1980.

The New Zealand embassy in Moscow in 1980. Photo: AFP

It was the apex of the spying war between Russia's state security agency, the KGB, and the United States CIA and other Western intelligence services.

Relations between New Zealand and the former Soviet Union were strained after the Muldoon government expelled the Russian ambassador in 1980.

New Zealand's former deputy ambassador to the Soviet Union, and later ambassador to Russia, Gerald McGhie, said it was a delicate time, and New Zealand defence staff were in the thick of it.

"Moscow at the time was in a state of controlled upheaval. There were many marches through the middle of Moscow, sometimes with up to a quarter of a million people in them," he told RNZ.

Gerald McGhie

Gerald McGhie Photo: supplied

About 150 defence personnel were sent between 1978 and 1992 as guards and to help with construction work.

Defence Force said they can now qualify for the support and services offered by Veterans' Affairs.

A spokesperson said the decision to recognise the New Zealanders' service follows a review by Veterans' Affairs, prompted by material received late last year from a serviceman who had been in Moscow.

"This period, towards the end of the Cold War, was a difficult operating environment for the defence personnel living and working in Moscow, and the Chief of Defence Force recommended to the Minister for Veterans, that the deployment should be considered qualifying operational service," the defence force said in a statement.

Veterans Affairs' Minister Ron Mark has approved the recommendation.

Mr McGhie's diplomatic career included two postings in Moscow - during the Brezhnev Cold War years, and later during the fall of Gorbachev, the rise of Yeltsin and collapse of the Soviet Union.

He said he was pleased the New Zealand staff have been recognised.

"They did a good job in my time.

"My deputy and I, along with the Minister of Foreign Affairs decided we could well put our own staff in to get some experience of on-ground life in Moscow," Mr McGhie said.

Mr Mark said in his recommendation that he was satisfied that those covered by the declaration were at significant risk of harm.

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Ron Mark Photo: RNZ

Although, Mr McGhie said he personally never felt unsafe.

"Well ... perhaps one might say I'm naive but I would say no, I don't thing so. I jogged around the Lenin Hills on my own, and with my dog.

"In my second posting I was the only diplomat that was attending the impeachment of Yeltsin proceedings."

New Zealand veteran Wally te Ua served in Vietnam and said it was a sign the focus by Veterans' Affairs and the Veterans' Minister was widening.

Mr te Ua was instrumental in a class action for troop exposure to defoliants including Agent Orange. He said Cold War veterans have every right to the same health care services and support as other veterans, and he is encouraged by the move.

"Some of the veterans deployed to various campaigns who were previously limited by the legislation ... it seems to me like they're opening the doors and making things fit a bit better."

The Defence Force said Veterans' Affairs is now looking at other historical deployments to see whether those who took part qualify for cover.

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