23 Sep 2022

Expelling Russian ambassador 'least meaningful' diplomatic option - Ardern

10:42 am on 23 September 2022
Jacinda Ardern at the UN in New York on 20 September 2022.

Jacinda Ardern at the UN in New York on 20 September 2022. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Craig McCulloch

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has downplayed the likelihood of the Russian ambassador being expelled.

Russian President Vladimir Putin sparked fresh outrage this week, making more veiled threats of nuclear war, and sharing plans to hold referendums on whether occupied regions of Ukraine should become part of Russia.

A decision on whether to expel Russian ambassador Georgy Zuev has been under active consideration by the government, with any such move likely to result in New Zealand ambassador Sarah Walsh getting the boot from Moscow.

Speaking to media in New York, Ardern said sanctions against Russian oligarchs and support for the Ukrainian war efforts were more important.

She said all options, including expelling the ambassador, remained on the table, but she was firmly of the view that it was one of the least meaningful tactics.

"Amongst all of the options for our strong response to Russia's illegal invasion of Ukraine we've always had a range of options on the table, expelling the Russian ambassador has always been one of those options. We like most of our like-minded partners have not exercised that option because that is one of the least meaningful in this situation.

"As the Foreign Minister [Nanaia Mahuta] has said it's always been on the table, always been under active consideration but having met just yesterday with the Prime Minister of Ukraine I really am firming up the view that in their mind the most important thing we could be doing is first and foremost sanctions and also supporting them as we have in the ongoing fight in Ukraine," Ardern said.

Ukraine had never asked New Zealand to expel its Russian ambassador, she said.

"Sanctions send the strongest message, you know we as politicians have all been banned from travelling to Russia for our sanctions not because of diplomatic expulsions."

Meanwhile, the National Party says there is little value in New Zealand having an ambassador in Russia, and it would be prepared for their removal.

National Party foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee told Morning Report sending Zuev packing was the minimum stance New Zealand should take, given Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

He said while this was not a step other countries had taken, New Zealand should not be looking at others for direction.

National MP Gerry Brownlee

National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee. File photo. Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

"We shouldn't be necessarily looking at what other countries are doing to make their statements about how we view the aggressions of Putin's government and this man represents that government, sending him packing is the minimum position we should take given the abhorrent view most New Zealanders would have of the consequences of this dreadful invasion," Brownlee said.

Although any such move would almost certainly see New Zealand's ambassador to Russia expelled from the country, Brownlee said New Zealand's presence in Russia held little value in the current situation.

"You're looking at people exiting [Russia] at such large numbers that it'd be hard to imagine that any New Zealander who might feel threatened would be in any way advantaged by having an embassy presence in Russia."

If New Zealand's ambassador was expelled from Russia, a consulate service could be maintained in the country, he said.

Brownlee said he doubted New Zealanders remaining in Russia would be used as political pawns.

"Given the number of months that have gone by since the beginning of the invasion and the gradual sort of escalation in rhetoric ... anybody living in Russia who does not want to be there or who feels fear I think would have moved out by now."

The Labour government had made it clear there were no ongoing diplomatic discussions with Russia which defeated the purpose of avoiding the expulsion of the Russian ambassador, Brownlee said.

"I think we should make a statement, a very big statement for us, we can't send troops we can assist with training but we have to do everything alongside other countries and I think asserting our independent position by saying we don't want that representation in New Zealand and we're concerned about our representation in Russia is the right thing to do at the moment."

Although Russia could respond to such action with targeted cyber attacks, Brownlee said these attacks would happen regardless of whether the Russian ambassador was expelled or not.

'Believer in power of diplomacy and dialogue' - Ardern

If Ardern were to meet with Russian authorities she said she would not engage in pleasantries.

"If that occasion ever arose I would share directly what I'm saying to you right now, that their war is illegal, that it is immoral, that it is taking the lives of civilians. Russia needs to hear that from every corner of the international community."

When asked if people in New Zealand should be fearful or anxious due to the escalating threats of nuclear war by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Ardern said she believed in the power of diplomacy.

"I will always be a believer in the power of diplomacy and dialogue, I can only reflect the sense of responsibility as a leader to protect and care for the people who have put me in this privileged position and I hope that the Russian president feels that same sense of duty and care for his own people."

Ardern said she wanted New Zealand to take part in any conversations around how Ukraine could be compensated for the damage caused by Russia's invasion.

"Our view is that there must be accountability, the only question is what form it takes," she said.

Ardern said she would not label Russia as a terrorist-state, claiming that what was needed was action not words.

"Whether or not we've had questions of genocide, terrorism it is illegal, you can use whatever language you want it is illegal, it is immoral, it is wrong, it needs to end."

With the White House playing down Russia's threats of nuclear escalation in the war in Ukraine, Ardern would not be drawn on whether she believed Putin was bluffing or not.

"It's not for me to comment on their perspective ... there are those who have different sources of information that they'll base their own judgements on.

"Our perspective is quite a simple one, whether it's words or actions the threat of escalation or indeed the use of nuclear weapons is wrong ... we have been fighting as a nation for a long time to remove nuclear weapons in totality so we don't even have the threat hanging over people that these could be used."

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