By Geoffrey Miller*
Analysis - Nanaia Mahuta's visit to Europe this week gained new significance after Russia's deployment of troops to eastern Ukraine - a development that US President Joe Biden has called "the beginning of a Russian invasion".
New Zealand's minister of foreign affairs had just arrived in Paris to attend an EU-hosted Indo-Pacific Forum when Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that he would officially recognise the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in Ukraine's Donbas region. Putin later ordered 'peacekeeping' troops into the area.
A live TV interview with Mahuta, conducted just before Putin's speech on Tuesday morning (New Zealand time), focused solely on the Ukraine crisis - an illustration of how the escalation in Europe has overshadowed the minister's original focus for her trip.
Indeed, until the current crisis, neither Ukraine, nor Russia appeared to be particularly high priorities on New Zealand's foreign policy agenda. The latest annual report of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) - presented in October 2021 and running to 163 pages - cites Russia only twice in passing and makes no mention of Ukraine. And MFAT's latest 'Strategic Intentions' document - essentially a roadmap of the ministry's priorities - does not address either country at all.
This might seem surprising. While tensions over Ukraine have been building over recent weeks, the story has been a long time in the making. After all, Moscow has been supporting the breakaway 'republics' in Ukraine's east since 2014, when Russia also illegally annexed Crimea. And a smaller, yet still major troop build-up by Russia on the border with Ukraine provoked tensions with the West in April last year - one outcome of which was the Geneva summit between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin in June 2021.
While Australian foreign minister Marise Payne was issuing tweets of concern about the Ukraine situation as early as November and December, Nanaia Mahuta's first significant written statement on Ukraine did not come until 26 January. Mahuta's first tweet to mention Ukraine came only on 4 February; the first to mention Russia was on 17 February.
Prior to the current crisis, the last major official comment by a New Zealand minister on Russia-related matters had been made by Andrew Little in April 2021. In that statement, Little, the minister responsible for the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB), called out 'Russian state actors' for allegedly committing a major international hacking incident the previous year.
The new escalation in the Ukraine-Russia crisis has seen Mahuta release a flurry of tweets and statements - which culminated yesterday in the calling-in of Russia's ambassador in Wellington to MFAT's offices to "hear New Zealand's strong opposition to the actions taken by Russia in recent days".
One obvious tool that could be deployed as part of New Zealand's response could be to follow other Western countries and impose heavy sanctions on Russia. But Wellington is currently hamstrung by its lack of an autonomous sanctions regime, which means it relies solely on UN sanctions. However, these are not an option in this case because they would inevitably be vetoed by Russia, a permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Labour last year blocked a member's bill that would have introduced an autonomous sanctions regime. Instead, Mahuta can currently only propose lower-level retaliation against Russia, such as "travel bans, controlled export bans and diplomatic measures".
Mahuta has previously applied these kinds of penalties to rogue regimes in Belarus and Myanmar, but New Zealand's partners may deem this level of response inadequate when it comes to Moscow. Indeed, Australia strengthened its pre-existing autonomous sanctions regime even further in December, by passing Magnitsky-style legislation that enables sanctions based on a wider range of human rights violations.
On the other hand, the imposition of sanctions by New Zealand against Russia would be more about solidarity than their actual impact. While sanctions imposed by the EU, UK and US will inflict real financial pain on Moscow, even the harshest of sanctions imposed by New Zealand would always be chiefly about symbolism.
There is of course value in solidarity - as a small state, New Zealand relies on multilateralism and working together with like-minded countries. Wellington also has a great interest in upholding an international system in which everyone plays by the rules. And by not matching the sanctions imposed by other Western countries, New Zealand may even be perceived by some to be condoning Russia's behaviour.
But the risk of adopting a sanctions-based approach is that it could turn into a box-ticking exercise under which New Zealand simply copies and pastes whatever punishments its much bigger Five Eyes partners decide to impose - and does little else.
Arguably, New Zealand could add the most value by turning the absence of an autonomous sanctions regime into an advantage. Wellington's inability to threaten Russia with a big stick means that New Zealand is perhaps more likely to contemplate potential diplomatic options instead.
Mahuta certainly took this approach in her Newshub interview on Tuesday morning. Perhaps aware of New Zealand's lack of credibility on the threat of sanctions, she instead heavily focused on diplomacy. In a five-minute interview, Mahuta mentioned variations of "diplomatic" or "deescalate" no fewer than 17 times.
In this context, Mahuta said she wanted to "acknowledge the leadership of France". And indeed, in recent weeks French President Emmanuel Macron has embarked on numerous rounds of shuttle and telephone diplomacy in a bid to avert war.
Macron is now feeling somewhat bruised after Putin decided to go into Ukraine barely 24 hours after the French president thought he had secured an agreement from his Russian counterpart to meet with Joe Biden. And as things stand, the diplomatic route may appear to be fading: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has cancelled a scheduled meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov.
But war should never be seen as inevitable; the need for diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the crisis is greater than ever. This is especially true if direct communication between the US and Russia is breaking down.
Interestingly, Mahuta revealed last week that she herself had requested a meeting with Lavrov. Mahuta told Newshub on Tuesday that she had yet to hear back from her Russian counterpart, but if she does, she might want to consider offering up New Zealand to play some kind of role in de-escalation efforts, perhaps in partnership with France.
After all, with the easing in March of coronavirus-related border restrictions, New Zealanders will soon be able to travel again - including Jacinda Ardern, who has already built up a good working relationship with Macron over the 'Christchurch Call' initiative.
Despite a gloomy outlook ahead, diplomacy is far from dead.
*Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project's international analyst and writes on current New Zealand foreign policy and related geopolitical issues. He has lived in Germany and the Middle East and is a learner of Arabic and Russian.
- Democracy Project