Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern reflects on her first reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was "in absolute despair" when she first heard about Russia's military invasion of Ukraine. 

Ardern made the comment during an interview with Newshub Nation's Simon Shepherd on Saturday, when asked what her first thoughts were when she heard bombs were dropping on Ukraine.

Ardern said with the build-up of multilateral institutions and international diplomacy over the decades, "people thought that the work had been done to try and prevent anything like this happening again, so it is with great despair I saw that". 

In a speech from the Beehive on Friday, Ardern said more than 80 strikes had been carried out against Ukrainian targets and that Russian ground forces were advancing across the border on at least three axis from north and northeast and south from Crimea. 

"There are reports of attacks in a range of locations around Ukraine, including heavy shelling in eastern Ukraine, and fighting in some areas, including around airports and other targets of strategic importance," Ardern said. 

"New Zealand joins our international partners in the condemnation of this attack and have immediately taken a range of measures against the Russian Government."

New Zealand has imposed travel bans on Russians associated with the invasion, prohibited the export of all goods intended for use by the Russian military and security forces, and suspended bilateral engagement until further notice.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Wednesday called in the Russian Ambassador to "hear New Zealand's strong opposition to the actions taken by Russia in recent days, and condemn what looks to be the beginning of a Russian invasion into Ukraine territory". 

It came after Russian President Vladimir Putin recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine - Donetsk and Luhansk - as independent entities. The full invasion of Ukraine came just days later. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to Newshub Nation.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern speaking to Newshub Nation. Photo credit: Newshub Nation

Ardern is cautious about expelling the Russian Ambassador in response to the invasion due to the implications it could have for Kiwis in Russia

"No decisions of that regard have been taken at this stage but these are all options that are available to all countries, in what are extraordinary circumstances," Ardern told Newshub Nation. 

She said the Government would assist Kiwis in the region to get home. 

There are 26 New Zealanders registered with SafeTravel as being in Ukraine, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). 

The New Zealand Embassy in Warsaw has made contact with all New Zealanders registered on SafeTravel as being in Ukraine and has helped several depart. 

"So already we made contact, as you will have seen very early on, with New Zealanders registered as being in the Ukraine, somewhere in the order of 40 registered with SafeTravel - my recollection is about 17 since we said to them we believed it was time to leave [on February 12]. Around 17 have been assisted or supported to leave," Ardern said.  

"Some have decided to remain and we continue to provide as much assistance as we can on safe routes to exit Ukraine. But as commercial options disappear, it does get more difficult. 

"We have got our people stationed in the area, for instance, working around the surrounding area, working with others and the likes of Poland, should New Zealanders come into the area needing our support.

"The most important thing we could do is give the advice to leave when people had the option to leave. We are now supporting people at this time when they can see the seriousness and the escalation, to also leave, and the numbers now are relatively small."

Ardern said it was difficult to predict how the invasion could go, and whether war might spill into neighbouring countries. 

"It is a significant hypothetical to say what would happen, if other countries are drawn into a military campaign, for New Zealand. Our focus at the moment is sending that strong, clear signal to Russia and to think about what support we can provide New Zealanders and also the refugee crisis that is likely to ensue."

Ardern said it was too soon to say if New Zealand would take in refugees from the region. 

"These are very, very early days in this conflict. But we do know that within the EU, they are looking at the wider support that can be provided to those nations bordering the Ukraine who are likely to feel the pressure of people movement, so we'll look at what support can be provided more widely."

China has so far refused to condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine. China's Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Hua Chunying called for parties to "exercise restraint" and accused the United States of "fueling fire" in the tensions.

Putin and Chinese President Xi Xiping released a joint statement around the time of the Winter Olympics, saying that there were no forbidden areas of cooperation.

When asked what Russia and China's relationship meant for New Zealand, with China as our largest trading partner, Ardern said she would not assume their position on the invasion.

"I would caution about us making large assumptions at this point and I think the most important thing that we can continue to do is encourage diplomatic engagement and discussions that ensure that we don't see a any further escalation with Russia," Ardern said. 

Referring to diplomatic engagement, she said: "Obviously, that window has closed and the world is taking a very strong position, and condemnation was continuing to reinforce the importance of diplomatic engagement.

"This was totally avoidable. Totally. And so any loss of life that we see from this point forward must squarely sit on the shoulders of Russia choosing to take this action."

Watch Newshub Nation 9:30am Saturday/10am Sunday on TV3, and follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Newshub Nation is supported by NZ On Air.