New Zealand Risks Sending the Wrong Message on Ukraine

Under scrutiny: New Zealand Prime Minister Christopher Luxon and Foreign Minister Winston Peters at a press conference in November 2023. Image: Australian Associated Press / Alamy

New Zealand’s government has misjudged the strategic significance of the Ukraine peace summit, and needs to consider greater engagement.

The New Zealand government has got its strategic priorities wrong by confining its representation at the recently concluded Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland to just Mark Mitchell, its Minister of Police.

Invitations were sent to heads of government and senior government officials around the world, and more than 90 attended the summit.

The event, on 15–16 June, was tasked with beginning the process of advancing a lasting and comprehensive solution to the conflict started by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Organisers have stressed that this diplomatic initiative is based on the UN Charter and a rules-based order of international relations enshrined in institutions like the UN and norms such as multilateralism.

It is no surprise that Russia and China declined to participate, but it is disappointing that the New Zealand government was not represented by its prime minister, foreign minister or defence minister at this important peace summit.

Such a stance not only seems to downplay the challenge presented to New Zealand’s strategic interests by the Putin regime’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, but also indicates it is not being clear-eyed about the linkage between Wellington’s regional security concerns in the Indo-Pacific and Russian expansionism.

Many Indo-Pacific states are acutely aware that regional heavyweights China and India remain important partners of Moscow.

China has abstained on crucial UN resolutions condemning Russian involvement in Ukraine, and has repeatedly blamed NATO and the US for provoking Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ there.

The best way for New Zealand to contribute to countering the prospect of Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region would be to significantly upgrade its diplomatic and military support for Ukraine’s efforts to defeat the Russian incursion

Beijing has massively expanded trade with Russia since its invasion, and continues to deepen military ties with Moscow.

This support includes the supply of military-related technology to Russia, as well as the provision of components to Iran for use in drones sold to Russia.

The Modi government in India has also abstained on key UN resolutions criticising the invasion of Ukraine.

And while tensions between India and China have increased, the Indian government shows no signs of reducing its dependence on spare parts and technical support for the many Russian weapons platforms used by the Indian military.

Further, India’s trade turnover with Russia has risen by over 300% since the annexation attempt, including a tenfold increase in discounted Russian oil bought by India.

At the same time, Indo-Pacific countries are carefully monitoring the response of the US and its allies to the Russian invasion, and will no doubt be interested in whether liberal democracies have the political will to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

To date, New Zealand governments have contributed more than NZ$100 million in humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine.

It should be emphasised that Ukraine is a liberal democracy which gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, and also shares New Zealand’s goal of reforming the UN Security Council through constraining or abolishing the veto powers of its five permanent members.

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But New Zealand’s support pales in comparison with the scale of assistance provided by the likes of Australia and Canada, and seems distinctly modest given the possible fallout for the Indo-Pacific region if Putin succeeds in annexing land from Ukraine.

Since 2017, New Zealand governments have become increasingly concerned about China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, and it is highly likely this trend will intensify if Putin’s invasion succeeds.

The best way for New Zealand to contribute to countering the prospect of Chinese belligerence in the Indo-Pacific region would be to significantly upgrade its diplomatic and military support for Ukraine’s efforts to defeat the Russian incursion.

And if this can only be done by the National-led coalition government in Wellington ending decades of under-investment in the defence sector, such a move would be fully justified in the current situation.

If Putin’s troops are defeated or forced to withdraw from Ukraine, this would be a serious blow to Xi Jinping’s leadership and complicate any plans he might have for annexing Taiwan. It would also go some way towards bolstering the rules-based order in the Indo-Pacific that is so clearly in New Zealand’s interests.

Unfortunately, the absence of high-level New Zealand representation at the Ukraine peace summit in Switzerland seems to convey the message that Wellington does not fully grasp the connection between its own strategic interests and the current struggle to preserve Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity.

This contribution is adapted from the original initially published in Newsroom on 14 June 2024.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Robert Patman

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