Ukraine crisis: Nanaia Mahuta voices concerns about Russian military build-up in phone call with Ukrainian minister

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has voiced New Zealand's support for Ukraine's sovereignty in a call with her Ukrainian counterpart.

A readout provided by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) says Mahuta spoke over the phone with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on Tuesday as New Zealand and Ukraine celebrate 30 years of relations. Ukraine became independent in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"The Ministers acknowledged the warm relationship built up over 30 years of diplomatic relations between Aotearoa New Zealand and Ukraine, underpinned by our shared values, including our commitment to multilateralism, human rights, and the rules-based international order."

During the phone call, Mahuta conveyed New Zealand's "deep concerns at the ongoing tension between Russia and Ukraine, including the unprecedented build-up of Russian military forces on the Ukraine border". 

"Minister Mahuta reiterated Aotearoa New Zealand's ongoing support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the hope that ongoing diplomatic discussions, including in the Normandy Format, will bring about an urgent de-escalation of tensions.

"Minister Mahuta conveyed that Aotearoa New Zealand stands ready to support ongoing diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis."

Around 130,000 Russian soldiers have amassed near the Ukrainian border in recent months amid fears Moscow will order an invasion if Western countries don't agree to a set of security guarantees wanted by Vladimir Putin, including that NATO won't admit Ukraine to the military alliance.

Despite a number of meetings between officials from the United States, European nations and Russia, the countries have so far been unable to find a way forward out of the crisis, the most concerning of the post-Cold War era. 

There were reports on Tuesday that Russia was pulling back some of its troops from the border following military exercises there, but US President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning said that had not been verified.

"We are ready to respond decisively to a Russian attack on Ukraine, which remains very much a possibility," Biden said.

The Ukrainian Defence Ministry and two banks were also hit overnight by a cyber attack. While Ukraine has not explicitly blamed Russia for it, it's strongly hinted at it. 

"It is not ruled out that the aggressor used tactics of little dirty tricks because its aggressive plans are not working out on a large scale," said the Ukrainian Centre for Strategic Communications and Information Security.

Mahuta and Kuleba discussed a cyber-security dialogue between the two countries during their call on Tuesday.

"Minister Mahuta reiterated Aotearoa New Zealand's ongoing support for Ukraine's sovereignty."
"Minister Mahuta reiterated Aotearoa New Zealand's ongoing support for Ukraine's sovereignty." Photo credit: Getty Images.

In a statement on 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."

New Zealand on Saturday advised Kiwis in Ukraine to leave the country immediately. 

"In response to heightened tensions between Russia and Ukraine, the New Zealand Government is advising New Zealanders in the Ukraine to leave immediately while there are commercial flights able to get them home," Mahuta said

"Aotearoa New Zealand does not have diplomatic representation in Ukraine and the government's ability to provide consular assistance to New Zealanders in Ukraine is therefore very limited."

That came after the US said an invasion this week could not be ruled out. Mahuta also spoke to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday about Russia's military buildup. 

New Zealand has previously directly raised concerns with Moscow about its actions on the Ukrainian border, including in a meeting between our Ambassador to Russia and senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials. 

In late January, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said New Zealand would be closely watching the situation and would continue to stress the need for de-escalation. 

Other countries have threatened the use of sanctions if Russia was to invade Ukraine, and Ardern said New Zealand could take actions like limiting political engagement. The lack of an autonomous sanctions regime in New Zealand constrains our Government's options without UN approval, something unlikely to happen due to Russia's veto powers.