Ukraine crisis: Nanaia Mahuta accuses Russia of breaching international law after Vladimir Putin declares two Ukraine states 'independent', sends in troops

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta says Russia has violated international law after President Vladimir Putin declared two breakaway Ukrainian states "independent".

After a near-hour long speech on Tuesday morning, Putin declared Donetsk and Luhansk - which are in the Ukrainian Donbas region - to be "independent" and ordered Russian troops to cross into the territories.

The move has sparked global condemnation, including from Mahuta. 

"Aotearoa New Zealand strongly supports Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity," she tweeted. "Russia's actions today violate international law and cuts across diplomatic efforts to find a peaceful resolution."

The UK's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss earlier said Putin's announcement demonstrated Russia's "decision to choose a path of confrontation over dialogue" and that sanctions from UK would be coming. US President Joe Biden announced the US will "prohibit new investment, trade and financing" between US citizens and those in the breakaway states. The European Union said it would "react with sanctions against those involved in this illegal act". 

New Zealand is fairly limited in the action it can take due to the lack of an autonomous sanctions regime. This means the Government has fewer options to impose sanctions without UN approval, something unlikely to happen due to Russia's veto powers.

Mahuta was asked earlier on AM whether the Government would consider introducing legislation to impose sanctions on Russia if that was what the international community required. 

"Even if we were to take that pathway, the legislative time frame probably would be too short. It's a bit premature to consider that," she responded.

"We don't have a formal autonomous sanctions process, but we do have other avenues to express a way of imposing sanctions - travel bans, export controls and the opportunity to cease government-to government diplomatic relations. We are not there yet."

While other countries have expressed "their view of what a potential pathway is", Mahuta said "New Zealand remains steadfast to call on every diplomatic effort possible to de-escalate the situation and find a peaceful pathway."

Gerry Brownlee, the National foreign affairs spokesperson, last week tried to reintroduce his autonomous sanctions Bill to the House, but was blocked by Labour MPs. 

It failed during first reading last year, when Mahuta said it wasn't up to standard, had too narrow a focus on issues in the Asia-Pacific region, and she advocated for multilateral action. She wouldn't, however, rule out at the time some similar regime in the future.

Brownlee tweeted on Tuesday that Putin's recognition of the two Ukrainian states as independent "is a flagrant violation of international law and shows total disregard for Ukraine's sovereignty". 

"The NZ Govt must urgently introduce legislation to allow us to participate in sanction activity- led by our traditional partners- against Russia."

Nanaia Mahuta.
Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Newshub.

Mahuta is currently in Paris, the first stop on a trip to Europe where she will discuss issues in the Indo-Pacific region with other world leaders at a French forum, hold bilaterals - including with Truss in London - and also give a speech at a United Nations event in Geneva.

Potential war between Ukraine and Russia is top of mind, and Mahuta said she's in regular contact with her international counterparts - including the Ukrainian Foreign Minister - about the situation. She said her counterparts believe a diplomatic solution remains possible.

"There is every opportunity for diplomatic efforts to continue to play its role to de-escalate the situation," the minister said. 

"New Zealand has been very clear. We voiced our concern about the military build-up along the Ukraine border. We respect Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and we're calling on international diplomatic efforts to be used to de-escalate the situation."

There's been a large number of meetings between world leaders, including some with Putin, about a peaceful way forward in eastern Europe. None, however, have produced any significant breakthroughs and Putin on Tuesday threw cold water on the idea of a summit with US President Joe Biden.

One person Mahuta hasn't yet spoken to is Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov. She told AM she hasn't heard back after requesting a conversation with him. Newshub reported earlier in February that New Zealand's Ambassador to Russia had met with senior Russian foreign officials to directly stress the message about the need to de-escalate. 

Asked if New Zealand had been asked by her counterparts to back sanctions if an invasion goes ahead, Mahuta said "there's a number of considerations if escalation occurs", but "we're not at that point yet". 

"There are a number of reports coming in of which New Zealand is receiving as well, but we will make our assessments based on what we are seeing happening. 

"It's really important to continue to reiterate that New Zealand, alongside other international leaders, are calling for every diplomatic effort to be used to de-escalate the situation between Russia and the Ukraine."

Mahuta wouldn't say how close to war she's being told the two nations are, but continued to stress throughout the interview the need for diplomacy.

In a statement last Wednesday, the Russian Embassy in New Zealand said Russia was concerned "about the international disinformation campaign waged against her in the West". It maintains Russia is "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.