Russian Ambassador to New Zealand summoned by Government over Ukraine escalation

Russia's Ambassador to New Zealand has been summoned by the Goverment to "hear New Zealand's strong opposition" to the superpower's recent actions towards Ukraine.

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has also threatened to respond with a "suite of measures" if there is a "full invasion of Ukraine". She said Russia's actions on Tuesday "looks to be the beginning of a Russian invasion". 

But National's Gerry Brownlee says the Government needs to stop "merely issuing press releases" and introduce a regime to let New Zealand impose sanctions like other Western nations are. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday declared the two eastern Ukrainian separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as "independent" and ordered forces to cross into the areas.  The order was made under the false guise of peacekeeping and reports has since emerged of tanks and other military equipment being moved across the border. 

The announcement by the Russian leader has been condemned globally, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern calling it "deeply concerning" and Mahuta saying it appeared to be a "calculated act by President Putin to create a pretext for invasion". 

On Wednesday, Mahuta said Russian Ambassador to New Zealand Georgii Viktorovich Zuev had been summoned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT). Mahuta is currently in Europe meeting with her foreign counterparts.

"The Russian Ambassador is being called in today 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," Mahuta said. 

"We repeat our call for Russia to act consistently with its international obligations, and return to diplomatic negotiations as a pathway to resolve this conflict."

Mahuta said New Zealand has consistently expressed support for Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. The actions of Russia could have "far-reaching and serious humanitarian, security and economic implications for the region, and globally", she said.

"A military invasion is an act of aggression, and a violation of one of the most basic tenets of international law. New Zealand is ready to take further measures."

Nanaia Mahuta has condemned Russia's actions.
Nanaia Mahuta has condemned Russia's actions. Photo credit: Getty Images.

If there is a "full invasion of Ukraine", Mahuta said New Zealand is prepared to respond with a "suite of measures in line with those of our partners". Those available include travel bans, controlled export bans and diplomatic measures.

"We are very clear: any act of Russian aggression in Ukraine poses a direct threat to global peace and security, and would represent a further violation of international law," Mahuta said.

A number of Western nations have already retaliated against Russia with sanctions. That includes against large Russian banks and by halting a gas pipeline between Russia and Germany. Russian politicians have also been blacklisted, while the US has prohibited the importation of goods from the occupied Ukraine regions. 

"To put it simply Russia just announced that it is carving out a big chunk of Ukraine," US President Joe Biden said on Wednesday. "This is the beginning of a Russian invasion."

New Zealand has fewer options through which to respond due to the lack of an autonomous sanctions regime, which would allow Aotearoa to take certain actions without the approval of the United Nationsl Security Council. Russia is a permanent member of the council and has veto powers. 

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. He tried to introduce it again last week in response to the growing tensions in eastern Europe, but Labour objected.

Brownlee on Wednesday said his Bill would have provided "for the asset freezes and trade embargoes that would allow New Zealand to join our traditional partners in punitive action against Russian entities".

"Any issues with scope could be easily amended on advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade," he said.

"This Government must stop merely issuing press releases and statements. It is not too late for New Zealand to stand with our traditional partners in defence of our values."

The National MP agreed Russia's "military invasion into Ukraine" was a "blatant violation of international law and of Ukraine’s sovereignty, threatening the peace and stability of Europe".

The Prime Minister on Wednesday said New Zealand has "traditionally always used a multilateral approach, so the UN as the mechanism to trigger that sanction regime". 

"But that's not the only thing we can do. Travel bans, export controls, diplomatic measures like calling in ambassadors, those are all measures that sit within New Zealand's toolkit and we are willing to use."

Newshub has contacted the Russian Embassy in Wellington for comment. After asking for a response to New Zealand's reaction on Tuesday, the embassy simply sent through a transcript of a speech by Putin.

The world has watched on with concern in recent months as more than 150,000 Russian troops amassed on the nation's border with Ukraine. The situation has been called "one of the most significant security challenges and risks to international peace and security since the end of the Cold War," by MFAT boss Chris Seed last week.

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.

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