Opinion: Why has New Zealand isolated itself in the Russian spy saga?

OPINION: The Labour government's refusal to join international collective action against Russia over the nerve agent attack in the UK on former spy Sergei Skripal is perplexing.

New Zealand fashions itself as a good international citizen and honest broker in international affairs, so it seems odd that it would not join its closest diplomatic allies in what is largely a symbolic gesture of disapproval of Russian misbehaviour abroad.

The decision was made all the more idealistic by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's claim that there are "no undeclared Russian intelligence operatives" in New Zealand and hence there was no need to expel anyone.

She claimed to have assurances from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade that was the case, even though it has no counter-intelligence function nor the ability to ascertain who is and who is not a Russian intelligence officer.

Her comment that if there were such spies in New Zealand they would be expelled produced derisive headlines around the globe but more importantly, raised questions about Ardern's competence when handling security matters.

So why has New Zealand chosen to isolate itself?

New Zealand's foreign policy in recent years has been trade-obsessed, and New Zealand and Russia opened talks on trade before the sanctions were imposed, then suspended them afterwards.

Talk in Wellington is that some in the Labour-led government are keen to resume negotiations, so taking a contrary stance on response to the nerve agent assassination attempt is a means of currying favour with Putin at a time when other competitors are not.

Is the move a push to garner some favour with domestic audiences?
Is the move a push to garner some favour with domestic audiences? Photo credit: Getty

Given that Foreign Minister Winston Peters has questioned claims that Russia was involved in the shoot-down of the Malaysian airliner over the Ukraine, and that it interfered in US and European elections, what once seemed to be an unhinged rationale for resuming bilateral trade negotiations is now being given credence.

It is also possible that Labour is attempting to stake out its "independent and autonomous" foreign policy credentials after nine years of the previous government's rapprochement with the US and the other Five Eyes partners [Five Eyes is an intelligence sharing network made up of New Zealand, Australia, Canada, the UK and the US].

And yet, pragmatic assessment of the situation would advise the Labour-led government to address the short- and long-term costs and benefits of alienating its most important foreign partners by refusing to join in the symbolic repudiation of Russia.

By any objective measure, to include the possibility of securing bilateral trade with Putin's regime, the costs of doing so will clearly outweigh the benefits.

On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favour with those outside of the "exclusion coalition" as well as domestic audiences.

The consequences of being short-sightedly contrarian will not be determined by New Zealand, by those countries who were refused support by New Zealand. On the other hand, standing up to great power partners may win broader appeal among those in the global community who are averse to the machinations of the mighty.

With that in mind, the question remains: what exactly were the reasons for this move and what does the New Zealand Labour government expect to gain from its contrarian - even if principled - stance?

Paul Buchanan is director of 36th Parallel Assessments, an Auckland-based geopolitical risk analysis consultancy.

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