'The closest thing to war' for a generation: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemns Russia's 'illegal' invasion of Ukraine

Russia's invasion of Ukraine is the "closest thing to war" for a generation, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has said in an address from the Beehive. 

"As you'll be aware, yesterday afternoon New Zealand time, Russia began a military offensive and an illegal invasion of Ukraine," Ardern said during the impromptu press conference on Friday. 

"The UK's Ministry of Defence communicated this morning that more than 80 strikes have been carried out against Ukrainian targets and that Russian ground forces are 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. 

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

"By choosing to pursue this entirely avoidable path, an unthinkable number of innocent lives could be lost because of Russia's decision. 

"New Zealand calls on Russia to do what is right and immediately cease military operations in Ukraine and permanently withdraw to avoid a catastrophic and pointless loss of innocent life. 

"The invasion poses a significant threat to peace and security in the region and will trigger a humanitarian and refugee crisis with reports already of large numbers of people in Kyiv making their way towards the western border. 

"In the lead-up to the invasion, Russia has demonstrated a disregard for diplomacy and efforts to avoid conflict and must now face the consequences of their decision to invade. 

"As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, Russia has displayed a flagrant disregard for international law and abdicated their responsibility to uphold global peace and security. 

"They now must face the consequences of those decisions."

It was only a few months ago that Ardern hosted Russian President Vladimir Putin virtually as part of the APEC Informal Leaders' Retreat. 

'The closest thing to war' for a generation: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern condemns Russia's 'illegal' invasion of Ukraine

Ardern said the situation in Ukraine was "the closest thing to war that my generation and many generations will have seen". 

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.

Ardern said Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) officials will also provide the Government advice on humanitarian response options. The latest death toll in Ukraine was 137. 

"Our thoughts today are with the people in Ukraine impacted by this conflict. Decades of peace and security in the region have been undermined. The institutions built to avoid conflict have been threatened and we stand resolute in our support for those who now bear the brunt of Russia's decisions," Ardern said. 

"We repeat our call for Russia to act consistently with its international obligations, to cease military operations in Ukraine, and return to diplomatic negotiations to resolve this conflict."

Ardern denied New Zealand was constrained by the lack of an autonomous sanctions regime. National's foreign affairs spokesperson Gerry Brownlee has been urging the Government to adopt his proposed law that would allow New Zealand to join in coordination with sanctions being used by our traditional partners.  

The United States and Britain, for example, have cut finances for large Russian banks and frozen assets of key Russian individuals.

Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern said New Zealand had traditionally applied joint sanctions through the United Nations. 

"The difficulty here is we have a member of the Security Council blatantly undermining the international rules-based order," she said, referring to Russia, which is a permanent member. 

"There are additional measures that we can take. Already you'll see those targeted travel bans. We do have the ability to extend those as required and as those involved with this activity grows.

"We also have the ability to continue to restrict the amount of diplomatic engagement that we may have and we have the ability to provide humanitarian support. 

"An autonomous sanctions regime is just one lever of many that New Zealand can pull and obviously the autonomous sanctions regimes that have been proposed in the past don't for instance cover situations of human rights violations. 

"We do continue to get advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as to the additional tools we may be able to use and we want them all to be on the table. As this conflict escalates, we want the ability to continue to send a very strong message around our view on this invasion. 

"What I would point out is that at present, what we are doing as a nation is very much in line with other countries. 

"But what is standing out to me out of almost any conflict I've seen before is the strength and unity in voice - the world is speaking and sending a very clear message to Russia that what they have done is wrong and they will face the condemnation of the world."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Getty Images

Ardern said the alternative was "to do nothing and that is not acceptable". 

"Our fragile peace internationally relies on there being that engagement in an international rules-based order. What we are seeing here is the direct undermining of that pact."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta on Wednesday called in Russia's 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 Putin recognised two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine - Donetsk and Luhansk - as independent entities. 

Ardern said there would be implications with expelling the Russian Ambassador. 

"It is on the table as a potential prospect. It's not a decision we've taken at this stage because we do have our own people in Russia and they are able to provide support to New Zealanders who are in-country, so it's one of the things that countries are able to do and will consider, but not a decision you take lightly given the wider ramifications."

There were about 40 Kiwis in the region and a number were supported by MFAT to depart prior to the conflict after the Government urged them to leave, Ardern said. 

The Government is aware that commercial flight options have reduced, so MFAT has a consular team based in southeast Poland, which is the most likely route for people trying to leave Ukraine. 

Russian troops photographed in Mariupol, a city of regional significance in south eastern Ukraine.
Russian troops photographed in Mariupol, a city of regional significance in south eastern Ukraine. Photo credit: File

Ardern said the conflict will impact the international markets. The local sharemarket slumped to a two year low and the New Zealand dollar fell after reports of the invasion. 

"At this stage it is fair to say that we would expect an impact on the international market as a result of this and not just fuel supply, but the role that Russia plays within Europe on gas and products like wheat, so there will be impacts, but there will also be strong economic impacts on Russia with the range of sanctions that are now being considered by those that do have strong economic ties to Russia," Ardern said. 

Luckily, New Zealand doesn't rely on Russia for oil. New Zealand's supply tends to be dominated by the Middle East and Asia. 

"New Zealand does not purchase any oil or oil products from Russia so would not be directly affected if Russian oil supply is curtailed," Energy Minister Megan Woods said on Friday. 

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has assessed that world oil production capacity is more than sufficient to meet demand due to any disruption that may arise from the situation in the Ukraine.

"We are actively consulting with its IEA partner countries and would expect to take part in any collective action called by the IEA to release strategic oil stocks in order to reduce any disruption in the market and reduce price impacts," Woods said. 

"Strategic reserves of oil are held for exactly this reason; to ensure there is as much fuel security and price stability as possible when there are global disruptions to oil production."