Geoffrey Miller: What to expect from Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to the New Zealand parliament

8:31 pm on 12 December 2022
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks to world leaders via a video link as they attend the during the 77th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) at the UN headquarters in New York City on 21 September, 2022.

(File photo) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaking to world leaders via a video link as they attend the UN General Assembly on 21 September. Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP

By Geoffrey Miller*

Opinion - As New Zealand's foreign policy year draws to a close, it seems fitting that Volodymyr Zelensky will have the final word.

Ukraine's president is scheduled to address the New Zealand Parliament in Wellington by video link early on Wednesday morning, local time.

New Zealand is something of a latecomer when it comes to inviting Zelensky to speak to its legislature in 2022. Zelensky did the rounds of most Western countries during the first half of the year, especially in March and April.

Parliaments in the UK, US and EU countries were first in line, but Australia took its turn on 31 March, when Scott Morrison was still the country's prime minister. If outspoken National MP Simon O'Connor had had his way, New Zealand would have followed suit around the same time.

O'Connor lodged a motion in April that called for New Zealand's parliament to extend an invitation to the Ukrainian President to speak to it.

However, in response, Chris Hipkins - the Labour government's Leader of the House - poured cold water on the suggestion. Calling Zelensky a 'busy guy', Hipkins said O'Connor's proposal risked being 'undiplomatic' because Zelensky might have to turn it down. And even O'Connor's own party leader, Christopher Luxon, seemed unenthusiastic about the idea.

The real reason was probably the government's fear that Zelensky would only add further fuel to the fire when it came to calls for New Zealand to do more to help Ukraine.

At the time, Wellington was coming under enormous pressure to provide greater assistance to Kyiv, including weaponry now commonly referred to as 'lethal aid'.

Zelensky had been refreshingly direct in his speeches to foreign legislatures. The underlying message was always simple: Thank you for all the help you have given Ukraine so far - but please do more.

But far from being boilerplate stump speeches, the Ukrainian president's calls for more assistance always showed sophistication in the way they were tailored to foreign audiences.

They were carefully crafted to appeal to the recipient country's own history and instincts.

When speaking to the US, Zelensky invoked the spirit and solidarity of the American response to 9/11 and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941.

For the UK, it was the Battle of Britain of 1940.

For Australia, Zelensky reminded his audience of the 38 Australian citizens and residents who were killed when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down by Russian-led forces in 2014.

It remains to be seen exactly which buttons Zelensky will press in his speech to New Zealand this week. The address will no doubt serve as an opportunity to thank New Zealand for the historic shifts it made to its foreign policy this year because of Russia's war on Ukraine.

In the immediate aftermath of Russia's invasion on 24 February, New Zealand overturned its longstanding UN-only sanctions policy by introducing the Russia Sanctions Act.

Moreover, Wellington eventually yielded to domestic and international pressure to provide lethal aid by sending a small, mainly symbolic $NZ7.5 million contribution to the UK to purchase weapons for Ukraine on New Zealand's behalf.

But since the landmark lethal aid decision was taken in April, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her Labour government were keen to steer clear of further weaponry-in-kind contributions.

Instead, the focus had been placed on sanctions, money for non-lethal and humanitarian aid and on sending New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) personnel to the UK to train Ukrainian soldiers there.

To this end, the government recently extended a NZDF training mission that will see up to 66 New Zealand soldiers deployed to the UK until July 2023.

This was in addition to a smaller contingent of 29 New Zealand military intelligence analysts, logistics specialists and other personnel also to be stationed in Europe until the middle of next year.

More broadly, the government issued no fewer than 34 press releases in relation to Ukraine this year - more than on any other foreign policy issue, by some margin.

Zelensky will no doubt express Ukraine's gratitude for this commitment when speaking to New Zealand parliamentarians on Wednesday.

As winter set in, Ukraine was largely holding its own or gaining ground on the battlefield. But Kyiv faced a constant barrage of Russian missile attacks on Ukrainian cities that were often targeting energy infrastructure - causing the lights and heating to go out amidst freezing temperatures.

On Saturday, Zelensky said Russian attacks on energy facilities in Odesa (Ukraine's third-largest city) had left 1.5 million people without electricity. The damage could take months to repair.

Against this grim backdrop, Zelensky will almost certainly call on New Zealand to redouble its efforts before its parliament heads off on its traditional extended summer break.

When it comes to material support, the government has actually quietly reduced New Zealand's contribution to the war.

The 66 New Zealand troops now training their Ukrainian counterparts in the UK were deployed as part of a single 'infantry training team', a reduction in size from the 120-soldier, two-team deployment sent from August to November this year.

Moreover, as the nearly 10-month old war continues, Ukraine has started to fade from New Zealanders' view.

In contrast to the early months of the war, Ukraine now rarely features near the top of New Zealand television news bulletins - and many of the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flags that had sprung up around New Zealand cities in the aftermath of the invasion have since been taken down.

Of course, continued inflation and cost-of-living pressures are a constant reminder that New Zealand is not immune to global geopolitical forces.

But a modest fall in oil prices and New Zealand's relatively high level of energy independence in electricity and gas has spared the country its own version of the particularly acute energy crisis now being felt across Europe.

A recent visit to Auckland by Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin - the first EU leader to visit New Zealand since the pandemic began - sought to push Ukraine further up Wellington's agenda.

At a joint press conference with Jacinda Ardern, Marin emphasised weaponry and Ukraine's need for 'hard power to win that war'.

The European Union's Ambassador to New Zealand Nina Obermaier has also been keen to remind New Zealand's foreign policy community of the importance of showing solidarity with Europe and backing Ukraine.

In a recent speech to the New Zealand Institute of International Affairs (NZIIA) headlined 'Partners in Turbulent Times', Obermaier cited the 'common values' such as democracy, human rights and multilateralism that united New Zealand and the EU.

The ambassador told her audience 'Europe can count on New Zealand, New Zealand can count on Europe', adding 'we stand together'.

This might sound like thanks for a job well done.

But it was also a not-so-subtle hint that further support would be a good idea.

As Zelensky is likely to remind New Zealand parliamentarians this week, the war is far from over.

New Zealand can expect to be asked to do more.

* Geoffrey Miller is the Democracy Project's geopolitical 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.

This article was first published by the Democracy Project.

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