Ukraine crisis: New Zealand's top diplomat in Moscow directly raised concerns with Russia, more talks anticipated

New Zealand's top representative in Moscow last week directly raised concerns with senior Russian officials about the situation with Ukraine, with more opportunities for Aotearoa to "engage Russia" anticipated in coming days. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern confirmed last week that she had spoken to other international leaders also "deeply concerned" about escalating tensions in Eastern Europe between Russia and Ukraine. Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta released a statement calling for Russia to take steps to "reduce tensions and the risk of a severe miscalculation".

There are fears Russia President Vladimir Putin may order troops to invade the former Soviet territory if a list of guarantees he wants from NATO - including that it won't admit Ukraine to the bloc - aren't met. 

New Zealand and other Western countries want the crisis to be addressed diplomatically without military intervention.

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) has confirmed to Newshub that New Zealand's top diplomat in Russia, Sarah Walsh, relayed Aotearoa's message when meeting with senior Russian officials last week. 

"New Zealand’s Ambassador to Moscow conveyed New Zealand’s concern regarding the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, and underlined our support for ongoing diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions, while meeting senior Russian Foreign Ministry officials last week," a spokesperson said.

"We anticipate further opportunities for New Zealand to engage Russia on Ukraine in bilateral meetings and multilateral settings in coming days."

Walsh, a career diplomat, is new in the role of New Zealand Ambassador to Russia, having been appointed last November. 

Sarah Walsh is New Zealand's new Ambassador to Russia.
Sarah Walsh is New Zealand's new Ambassador to Russia. Photo credit: Getty Images / Sarah Walsh/Twitter.

While Russia denies it is planning an invasion of Ukraine, it has massed more than 100,000 troops on its border with the country. It accuses the West of stoking talk of war, but NATO countries are concerned Putin may be intent on a repeat of the 2014 Crimea annexation, when Russian forces took the Ukrainian peninsula. 

The United Kingdom's Foreign Secretary in January said her office has intelligence Moscow wants to install a pro-Russia leader into Kyiv. 

In response to Russian troops on the border, Western countries have sent defence resources to Ukraine, while the US has put 8500 troops on alert. 

There's been a number of meetings between Western and Russian diplomats over the last month, with NATO hoping to dial the tensions down. But so far there has been little progress. The US has called Putin's security demands "non-starters", while Putin, in his first public comments on the crisis on Wednesday, said the West had simply "ignored" the requests

Putin also speculated about Ukraine joining NATO, a military alliance, and then deciding it wanted to try and recapture the Crimea peninsula. 

"Let's imagine Ukraine is a NATO member and starts these military operations. Are we supposed to go to war with the NATO bloc? Has anyone given that any thought? Apparently not," he said.

Putin said he wants talks to continue despite the lack of breakthrough.

Speaking last Tuesday, 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.

Nanaia Mahuta said New Zealand would remain in contact with international partners on the situation and hoped dialogue between the US, Russia and others would "bring about an urgent de-escalation of the situation". 

New Zealand's SafeTravel website last week noted the "increased Russian military activity near Ukraine's border with Russia and in Crimea". Kiwis who don't need to be in Ukraine are advised to "consider leaving by commercial means if it is safe to do so".

The Russian Embassy of New Zealand told Newshub that Russian troops are following international law and have no plans to invade Ukraine.

"In light of the ongoing speculations around the situation on the Russian-Ukrainian border the Embassy would like to remind that the Russian troops are carrying out maneuvers strictly in the national territory in full compliance with international rules, and, as was repeatedly confirmed, have no intention to invade anyone," it said.

"The case thus remains totally within the framework of Russian internal affairs. The Embassy therefore calls upon all responsible governments to act in a manner consistent with international law, i.e. not to interfere with internal affairs of sovereign states."