The Press editorial:
At last count, 26 countries have expelled Russian diplomats and intelligence agents in a remarkable response to the nerve agent attack on former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
The leaders of the UK, the USA, Germany and France made a rare joint statement that stressed there is no plausible alternative to Russia being responsible for the attack on British soil. They described a wider pattern of “irresponsible behaviour”. Russia’s denials have not been taken seriously.
But so far, New Zealand has not joined the other 26 countries in solidarity, although all four of our Five Eyes partners – the UK, the US, Canada and Australia – have led or followed in the mass expulsion of agents and diplomats. The Security Intelligence Service (SIS) has instead assured Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern that there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating in New Zealand.
We don’t actually know what the SIS said. We just know what the PM has said, which may not be the same thing. The SIS could well have identified Russian staff who do intelligence work, but the Government may have decided they don’t meet the level of being an intelligence officer.
In other words, no Russian diplomats are gathering intelligence, or spying, at the level of those expelled by our friends and allies.
This sounds naive to some, especially given our central role in the Five Eyes network. As security expert Paul Buchanan has noted in the Guardian, the UK Government directly asked New Zealand to join the action, which is largely symbolic. Some genuine spies will be caught by the expulsions but many will be diplomats who can be reassigned in future. Assessing the pros and cons, Buchanan sees New Zealand missing out on being “a good diplomatic partner that supports international norms”.
Yep. Missing in action.
It is more likely that the Ardern Government’s motivations are submerged in murkier politics as far as the wider public is concerned. The public is more likely to share the UK’s worries about the Vladimir Putin regime and to recognise the symbolic value of expulsion.
Some may even see more cynical thinking behind our neutral stance. Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters has been keen to reopen negotiations with Russia for the Free Trade Agreement that was scuppered after the Ukrainian crisis in 2014. Even this month, Peters seemed unwilling to condemn Russia after news emerged of the Skripal poisoning. He also doubted Russian involvement in the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and US election meddling.
Rather than idealism, then, it is possible that a different kind of pragmatism drives New Zealand’s reluctance to join allies in acting against Russia this time.
It is definitely pragmatism, probably donor driven. There has to be a reason why a party that has voted against almost every other free trade agreement, is so insistent on wanting one for Russia.