Jacinda Ardern, Nanaia Mahuta condemn Russia's recognition of Ukrainian states as independent

The Prime Minister has called Russia's latest act against Ukrainian territory "deeply concerning", while the Foreign Affairs Minister has expressed concern it is a "calculated act" to create a "pretext for invasion".

Russian President Vladimir Putin was condemned globally on Tuesday morning after declaring two Ukrainian separatist states as "independent" and ordering troops to cross into the regions under the guise of 'peacekeeping'. There are reports of tanks and other military equipment being moved across the border.

New Zealand's Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta was among those speaking out, tweeting that Aotearoa supports Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity and that Russia's actions "violate international law and cuts (sic) across diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution".

In a further statement released on Tuesday afternoon, Mahuta said there is "no basis under international law" to recognise the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic.

"Recognition by Russia further undermines Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, erodes efforts towards a resolution of the conflict and is a violation of international law," she said.

"We are concerned that this is a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion, which would be a clear act of aggression. We again call for urgent diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution."

Both Donetsk and Luhansk are in the Donbas region and have been sites of fighting between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatist forces since 2014. They broke away during insurgencies in the aftermath of Russia's annexation of Crimea and, despite ceasefire agreements, continue to see frequent conflict. The separatist leaders were at the Kremlin with Putin on Tuesday.

"We are concerned that this is a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion," says Mahuta.
"We are concerned that this is a calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion," says Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand shared global denunciation of Russia's actions.

"Everyone wants to see a de-escalation. Everyone wants to have seen diplomacy work. It is deeply concerning to see that ongoing escalation," Ardern told reporters.

Putin's declaration was rapidly followed by promises of sanctions by nations like the United Kingdom as well as the European Union. The United States won't unleash its full set of sanctions yet, but President Joe Biden has halted all US activity in the region and put a ban on importing goods from the areas. 

On how New Zealand will respond, Ardern said the "first port of call" was to look at the "message that can be sent" through actions like travel bans. 

"That is a way for us to demonstrate there are strong views on what we are seeing happening in the region and share, alongside our partners, the strength of feeling we have on the escalation." 

As New Zealand doesn't have an autonomous sanctions regime, it's limited in the actions it can take outside of those which gain United Nations Security Council approval - something that's unlikely due to Russia's veto powers on the council. 

National's Gerry Brownlee introduced a Bill last year to establish such a regime, but it was voted down by Labour, with Mahuta saying it wasn't up to standard and had too narrow a focus on issues in the Asia-Pacific region. Noting the escalating situation in eastern Europe, Brownlee tried to introduce it again last week, but Labour objected.

Ardern told reporters "autonomous sanctions aren't the only things you can do" and she wanted to ensure New Zealand had a "suite of measures" to respond.

Mahuta earlier told AM that other actions that could be taken include travel bans, export controls and ceasing government-to-government diplomatic relations. 

Speaking just prior to Putin's decree, Mahuta said she had had conversations with her international counterparts about the crisis and believed a diplomatic solution was possible.

Newshub has contacted the Russian Embassy in Wellington for comment, but in a statement last Wednesday, the embassy said Russia was concerned "about the international disinformation campaign waged against her in the West". It maintained Russia was "not going to attack anyone".

"Talks about a soon-to-begin imminent war are provocative and Russia has refuted such accusations at all levels. We hope that NATO countries will stop fueling the conflict in Eastern Ukraine and abstain from interfering in the domestic affairs of that country."

Around 150,000 Russian soldiers have amassed near the Ukrainian border in recent months, initially creating fears Moscow will order an invasion if Western countries don't agree to a set of security guarantees wanted by Putin, including that NATO won't admit Ukraine to the military alliance.

New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) chief executive Chris Seed last week said there was no question the situation between Ukraine and Russia was "one of the most significant security challenges and risks to international peace and security since the end of the Cold War".

Kiwis in Ukraine were earlier this month advised to leave the country immediately.