11 Jun 2023

NZ entering Ukraine conflict 'at whim of govt' - former Labour general-secretary

9:21 pm on 11 June 2023
L119 105mm Light Gun

NZDF is going to train Ukrainian soldiers in UK to use the L119 gun. Photo: Supplied / NZDF

A former senior Labour Party member says New Zealand has effectively gone to war without consulting the public by joining Nato's efforts to defeat Russia's military objectives in Ukraine.

Mike Smith, who served as general-secretary of the party from 2001-2009, told RNZ the government was helping to put back a negotiated peace settlement indefinitely by sending Defence Force personnel and resources to Europe as confrontation between Russia and the Western military alliance continues to escalate.

Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February (local time) claiming its "special military operation" would remove anti-Russian neo-Nazi elements entrenched in Kyiv's institutions of state and protect Russian-speaking populations in the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk after eight years of civil war. It wants a security guarantee its neighbour won't join Nato, which it views as a hostile threat to its borders.

Smith fears New Zealand could now find itself "on the wrong side of history" by helping prolong a conflict in the interests of waning US hegemony while risking its own interests in the Asia-Pacific region, and increasing the risks of a nuclear war.

New Zealand is also inadvertently helping to arm neo-Nazi militias and far-right groups in Ukraine with modern weapons, which could be used elsewhere, he said.

Former minister in Helen Clark's Labour coalition government, Matt Robson, echoed his concerns, and called for an informed debate in Parliament over the country's increasing involvement in the conflict.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Monday announced 30 more New Zealand soldiers were being sent to the UK to train about 230 Ukrainians to use the L119 light artillery gun.

NZDF personnel had already been deployed to the United Kingdom and Europe to provide intelligence, liaison, transportation and logistics backing to Nato's support of Ukraine.

New Zealand has given the UK $15.7 million to purchase military equipment for Ukraine and commercial satellite access for Ukrainian Defence Intelligence. The government has also targeted Russia with sanctions and has established an across-agencies Russia Sanctions Unit.

The country's military involvement had not been debated in Parliament and the Cabinet's use of discretionary powers was of major concern, Smith said.

The US-led Nato alliance was now in a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine and New Zealand's involvement had huge implications, he added.

"My expectation is that the analysts that we've supplied are using intel from the spy planes that are flying around Ukraine and from satellites to provide targeting information to the Ukraine forces. We've made those decisions without any procedure as to how they would be authorised.

"We should not just be able to enter into war at the whim of the government of the day.

"The present situation is disastrous because it's removed any chance of a negotiated peaceful settlement and any chance of a continued independent policy."

Relationship with China

New Zealand's military intervention aligned it closer to US foreign policy, which did not bode well as tensions between China and the US increased in the Indo-Pacific, Smith said.

US President Joe Biden finished a seven-day visit to the region this week, meeting leaders of Quad nations India, Japan and Australia, where discussions where held on cooperation and ways of containing China's power and influence.

China has accused the US of helping to create the crisis in Ukraine, ignoring Russia's security concerns after Nato expanded to eastern Europe, and of immorally "adding fuel to the fire while blaming others".

New Zealand's military response had signalled to China and others wanting to see a multipolar world under the United Nations that New Zealand backed a unipolar world, one where the US continued to write a rules-based world order in its own interests, Smith said.

The position risked having serious consequences for New Zealand-China relations and the economy, he added.

"We're being very stupid because we're betting on the wrong team. That's my worry. We didn't have to do that. We were doing quite well with a free trade agreement with China. We had good relations and that's all being sort of thrown away. We're still heavily dependent on China economically and we are much more vulnerable than we realise.

"We've sanctioned Russia, so as far as Russia is concerned, we're an 'unfriendly country'. They're close allies with the Chinese, who are concerned about where we are going to fit in with this.

"My personal view is the centre of the world is shifting to Asia ... so we should be focused on that. The line that 'we can talk to them and it doesn't matter what we do' - it's not like that anymore. They're looking at us and they're thinking 'where are you going to end up?' If you see it at the moment, you'd say, we're in bed with the Five Eyes countries, with the whiteys."

Threat of arming far right

Smith also said some of the billions of dollars worth of weapons being sent to Ukraine by Nato nations was falling into the hands of far-right extremist groups, who could use these to commit acts of terror in the future. He compared the situation with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan, which the US armed and trained to fight Russia in the 1980s, many of whom later morphed into jihadists committed to terrorism against the West.

Groups like the Right Sector and the Azov Battalion - now part of the Interior Ministry's National Guard of Ukraine - were previously viewed by western media as dangerous neo-Nazis who trained far-right extremists from around the world.

Hundreds of Azov soldiers last week surrendered to Russian forces after being dug in at the Azovstal steel works, after being lauded for their bravery in defending the city for months.

'Lack of balanced discussion'

Labour Party member and former associate foreign affairs minister, Matt Robson, said few people wanted to make such points, to avoid the accusation of being a fellow traveller of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"I've been accused of that... But there's a risk of a third world war, a nuclear war, so politicians should speak out regardless," he said.

The former Progressive Party deputy leader has been a vocal critic of Nato expansion east towards Russia's borders, as well as New Zealand's role in the current conflict. He said Russia had legitimate security concerns and that there was an imperative to facilitate dialogue and a negotiated peace settlement that addressed these, as well as Ukraine's concerns.

The media and politicians had ignored the historical context of the conflict, Robson said. He pointed to US involvement during the Maidan protests in 2014, which turned bloody as neo-Nazi elements helped topple the elected government of Viktor Yanukovych, who was friendly with Russia, leading to further polarization and political repression in the eastern region.

"I don't believe that there has been balanced discussion in our Parliament, or the government and Cabinet, on what's happening with the complex situation of Ukraine," he said.

"For instance, the Minsk Agreements of 2015 were very important. These set out a policy of autonomy for the Donbas regions, the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine ... a peace process, a ceasefire, and that was undermined before President [Volodymyr] Zelensky, by the various Kyiv governments, who refused to follow through on their commitment under this, and by the United States. The neo-Nazis threatened Zelensky, who then accommodated them.

"I've not seen evidence that one single member of our Parliament or in Cabinet particularly, has read these agreements, or studied the complexity of it."

Robson said the US had effectively turned Ukraine into a quagmire and lured Russia into it, and that talks were needed to extricate the neighbouring countries.

"You're not going get a negotiated settlement if you're supporting Nato countries adding more and more and more weapons, advanced weapons, to the conflict," he said.

"My position and growing position in the Labour Party membership, is that New Zealand has joined the war party, not to get a negotiated settlement, but to use the Ukrainians for the almost stated policy of the United States, which was like the policy in Afghanistan, not to win the war as such, but to bleed Russia."

Russia 'can't dictate Ukraine's foreign policy'

Security analyst Paul Buchanan rejected claims New Zealand's role was making the prospects for peace worse.

"The idea that New Zealand's contribution would somehow worsen the situation or prevent negotiations over peace, that's farcical," he said. "The reasons there aren't seriously negotiations to agree to a ceasefire and a peace settlement is that neither party wants them at this point, because both parties belief that they can win."

Buchanan, who worked at the Pentagon during the early 1990s, said eastern European countries pushed for Nato expansion after the fall of the Soviet Union, not the US, and those neighbouring nations now posed no real threat to Russian today.

He said US intelligence during that time foresaw Russia would respond in the way it had now to that expansion, but politically it had been misconceived as a good idea to support those nations.

"I happen to think, both then and now, that it was a mistake, that it would provoke Russia, because I happen to be a student of geopolitics and Russian strategic thought. But the invitation was out there. And the idea that Russia can somehow dictate, via bullying, what a sovereign state's foreign policy should or should not be is ludicrous on the face of it."

Buchanan - who runs the consultancy service 36th Parallel Assessments - said the bellicose behaviour of both Russia and China was disproportionate to any threats facing the countries and Russia was committing war crimes "on an industrial scale".

As a Nato regional partner, New Zealand was expected to respond with support when requested, but debate in Parliament must taken place in the interests of transparency, he said.

There was a threat of weapons falling into the wrong hands and it should be taken seriously, he acknowledged.

"The weapons that are being sent to the Ukraine, should they not be expended in battle, run the risk of falling into the hands of non-state actors, criminal organisations and the like."

However, any Ukrainian neo-Nazi threat could be contained, as the West's security apparatus was focused firmly on countering white supremacist terrorism, Buchanan said.

Victoria University's director of the Centre for Strategic Studies and Professor of International Relations, David Capie, said New Zealand was acting in its own interests, and not anyone else's.

"A small state like New Zealand just can't sit by and do nothing when a large power launches a war of conquest against a neighbour," he said.

"The idea that Cabinet has somehow taken New Zealand to war on a whim isn't very persuasive when you look at the positions of the opposition and ACT. Most of Parliament is firmly behind this. Frankly, I think the government is actually responding to public pressure to do more."

National's defence spokesperson Gerry Brownlee was in agreement and said the relevant issues had been discussed in Parliament.

"The expression of support from across Parliament has been strong," he said.

"I don't think Parliament has in anyway been blindsided by any of this. The overwhelming view of the current Parliament is that we should be doing exactly what we're doing and certainly from the National Party perspective we think the effort so far has been proportionate and appropriate."

Mahuta - We back Ukraine's sovereignty

RNZ sent questions about New Zealand's role in the conflict to the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet, which were redirected to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta in a statement said New Zealand had been clear and consistent in its support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty.

"Russia's actions are a flagrant attempt to undermine international law and the international system on which New Zealand relies," she said.

"It has misused its veto in the Security Council, ignored the will of the United Nations General Assembly, and ignored the binding decision of the International Court of Justice ordering it to cease its invasion of Ukraine.

"We have joined the international community in applying sanctions as a means to severely limit the Putin regime's ability to finance and equip the war in Ukraine and to influence people with power in Russia to break their support for the war."

An early version of this story published on 26 May 2022 lacked balance. An editorial review took place that day and resulted in the article being amended later in the day to include quotes from Paul Buchanan, David Capie and Nanaia Mahuta. This is the updated version of the story that has been available on the RNZ website since that review process was carried out. This article was temporarily taken down on 10 June 2023 while RNZ carried out a further review and was republished on 11 June 2023.