Russia-Ukraine war: Government to introduce sanctions targetting supporters, decision-makers of invasion

Cabinet will on Monday afternoon consider proposed legislation that would allow New Zealand to target sanctions on individuals connected to the current war in Ukraine.

The Government has so far been reluctant to introduce an autonomous sanctions regime - which would essentially allow New Zealand to unilaterally impose sanctions without United Nations sign-off - but has designed powers to respond specifically and quickly to the current invasion.

"This is a bespoke Bill. We think it does the job we need here and now. That allows us to have a wider debate about autonomous sanctions in the future and a more general framework for the future," Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told AM on Monday.

By focusing on the conflict in eastern Europe, rather than just Russia, Ardern told RNZ the legislation will allow others linked to the invasion to be targeted as well. That could include Belarusians as Belarus has provided access to Ukraine for Russian forces. 

"It would enable us to extend sanctions to those who may be part of supporting or involved in the decision-making around this invasion. It would enable us also to put in specific measures around aircraft, maritime space and so on." 

She said Cabinet will consider the Bill on Monday afternoon and she will likely share details about it at her post-Cabinet press conference. Other political parties have been consulted and she's hopeful of unanimous support, but Labour has a majority so can pass the Bill regardless.

Anastasiya Gutorova, a Ukrainian lawyer in New Zealand, is pleading for New Zealand to take strong action against the Russian "power base". She has family caught up in the conflict, including her brother.

"They're from Kharkiv which is in the eastern part. Their apartment building was hit with two missiles in the last couple of days, so all their possessions are basically gone," she told AM.

"Luckily they are in a different part of Ukraine right now. My brother has joined the military. His family are staying close to where he's stationed which is away from the worst of the fighting."

"I don't think anyone is safe right now in Ukraine. Things are just moving too fast, but they are trying their best to stay safe."

Gutorova said all New Zealand has done "is offer words" which "mean nothing to dictators". She wants Ardern's Government to take real action "to make a difference". 

"My call for the Prime Minister is deterrence without escalation," she said. "I'm not asking for general sanctions on Russia. What I'm asking is very specific.

"We need to target Putin's power base, which is his oligarchy, and we need to freeze and confiscate the assets which they hold in New Zealand. Everyone around the world is doing that, the US, EU, UK, Australia. We just need to join them."

Anastasiya Gutorova on AM.
Anastasiya Gutorova on AM. Photo credit: AM.

On top of $2 million in humanitarian assistance, New Zealand has taken three steps so far in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

Targeted travel bans have been placed against both Russian and Belarusian officials as well as other individuals linked to the conflict. The Government's prohibited the export of goods to the Russian military as well as associated security forces and also suspended bilateral foreign ministry consultations until further notice.

While symbolically significant, the actual effect of these steps is fairly modest. For example, the Government acknowledges the exports from New Zealand that are being prohibited are already extremely limited. 

One of the actions the Government is being implored to do is to freeze the New Zealand-based assets of Russian oligarchs. Alexander Abramov, a steel magnate and investor, is one such individual who has connections to Aotearoa. He owns a $50 million luxury lodge in Northland and has also reportedly invested in residential developments in Auckland.

Ardern on Monday wouldn't name who could be targeted under the proposed legislation. 

"I am not going to speak about individuals at this time," she told AM. "We will get to a little bit more about the detail of what we will be doing and who it will likely affect. But what we do want to make sure is we have the ability to apply sanctions to both entities and individuals where they are likely to have an impact." 

Gutorova said there are several assets here the Government could go after. 

"We all know that there are at least a few multimillion-dollar properties in New Zealand which are owned by Russian oligarchs," she said. "It might take a little while to figure out where other ones are or what they might be because I think a lot of these people are very good at hiding their assets. But this is a start."

Ardern confirmed the intention is to target oligarchs and also make sure New Zealand doesn't become a location for Russian investment as a result of other countries cutting off oligarchs' options elsewhere.

"One of the things that we are very mindful of is, with a number of the sanctions that have been put in place across Europe, what we don't want to see is suddenly an attempt to put investments or assets into New Zealand as a way of escaping other restriction in other areas."

Ardern is going after the oligarchs.
Ardern is going after the oligarchs. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Labour last year voted down a Member's Bill from National's Gerry Brownlee that would have introduced an autonomous sanctions regime in New Zealand. He argues Aotearoa needs the legislation as it is hamstrung by a lack of action taken by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Russia has veto power on the council, meaning no sanctions can be approved without its approval.

Ardern told AM Labour didn't think Brownlee's Bill was fit for purpose, claiming that it didn't adequately allow the targeting of oligarchs or deal with human rights and cyber-security issues. Brownlee said last month it would have provided for asset freezes and trade embargoes. 

"Any issues with scope could be easily amended on advice from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade," he said.

National has also pushed for the Russian Ambassador to New Zealand to be expelled. Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta told Newshub Nation on Saturday that she has "expressed concern" to the Ambassador but wouldn't say whether he would be ejected.