New Zealand donates body armour and helmets to Ukraine, $5 million to NATO, breaking from traditional aid funding

The Government is donating body armour and helmets to Ukrainian forces, and will give $5 million to NATO, breaking from New Zealand's traditional aid funding. 

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, is a military alliance between the United States, Canada and 28 European countries, established in the aftermath of World War II. 

Ukraine is not a member of NATO, meaning there is no legal obligation for NATO countries to come to its defence. Nevertheless, NATO has sent thousands of weapons to Ukraine to help defend itself against Russia. 

US President Joe Biden is opposed a no-fly zone in Ukraine, something his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin says would be tantamount to a declaration of war. But last week Biden signed off an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including 800 anti-aircraft systems.

While New Zealand is not a member of NATO, it is one of a few countries often referred to as "partners across the globe" that contribute to NATO-led defence operations. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg stood alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in 2019 at the Beehive and praised New Zealand's contributions in the fight against terrorism, including its role in NATO's training mission in Afghanistan.

The $5 million NATO donation will go towards non-lethal military aid. It will be primarily directed to the NATO Trust Fund which provides fuel, military rations, communications and military first aid kits to support Ukraine. 

The New Zealand Defence Force will also provide 1066 body armour plates to the Ukrainian forces, along with 473 helmets and 571 camouflage vests. 

It comes after Ardern spoke to her Ukrainian counterpart Denys Shmyhal over the weekend to express New Zealand's strong support for Ukraine and its people and condemnation of Russia's aggression. 

"This support responds to specific requests from the Ukrainian Government, and focuses on items identified as having the most strategic value to those in the conflict," Ardern said on Monday. 

"This is the first time New Zealand has provided direct funding to a third party organisation for non-lethal military assistance of this kind, and underscores the importance of rejecting any actions which have adverse consequences for state sovereignty, and that we must defend in every way we can, the democratic institutions and principles that New Zealand so deeply believes in."

ACT leader David Seymour says the Government should send Ukraine the Defence Force's 24 anti-tank weapons but Ardern said it could take three years to replace them. 

Ardern acknowledged it was an "extraordinary measure" to aid Ukraine's military, but added that it was a decision the Government did not take "lightly". 

The Government has so far only contributed aid funding to Ukraine after Russia launched a full-scale invasion of the former Soviet nation on February 24. 

Last week the Government announced another $4 million in humanitarian support to help Ukrainians affected by Russia's invasion, bringing the total aid contribution to $6 million. 

The latest funding announcement for NATO brings New Zealand's response to the Ukraine crisis to more than $10 million. 

The Government first responded to the invasion in February by banning the export of goods intended for use by the Russian and Belarus military and security forces, and imposing travel bans that now apply to more than 300 Russians with political and military links. 

The Government then joined its allies by imposing sanctions on Russians associated with President Putin, who visited New Zealand as Prime Minister in 1999 for the Auckland-hosted APEC summit. 

The Russia Sanctions Act gives the Government power to freeze the assets of Putin and 12 members of his Security Council, as well as prohibit their vessels and aircraft. The law also bans certain people and companies from moving their money and assets to New Zealand to escape sanctions imposed by other countries. 

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pictured with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Beehive in 2019.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg pictured with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the Beehive in 2019. Photo credit: NATO

New Zealand has also opened up a special fast-tracked visa for Ukrainian Kiwis to bring their wider family here to shelter from the war.

And the Government isn't alone. New Zealand's largest company, dairy giant Fonterra, announced plans on Monday to pull business from Russia after more than 40 years in the country.

Trade Minister Damien O'Connor said he supported Fonterra's move. 

"It's an understandable commercial decision for the co-op. The Government too is continuing its response to the war by rolling out economic sanctions and providing humanitarian support."

The fight in Ukraine is now most intense in the strategic port city of Mariupol, according to international news agency Reuters, where it's understood many of its 400,000 residents are trapped with little food, water and power. 

In the capital, Kyiv, shellfire hit several homes and a shopping centre late on Sunday. 

Capturing Mariupol would help Russian forces secure a land corridor to the Crimea peninsula that Moscow annexed from Ukraine in 2014.

According to the United Nations, at least 902 civilians had been killed as of Saturday, while more than 10 million Ukrainians have been displaced, including some 3.4 million who have fled to neighbouring countries. 

Nina Obermaier, the European Union's Ambassador to New Zealand, provided some perspective to Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee last week. 

"Just to give you an idea of the scale," Obermaier said. "Slovakia, a country with roughly the same population size as New Zealand, has taken in 200,000 Ukrainian refugees over a period of three weeks."

At least 464 schools and 43 hospitals have been damaged in Ukraine, according to Save the Children, putting an estimated 6 million children in "grave danger". The UN estimates that at least 59 children have been killed in the conflict.