Ukraine war: Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern 'absolutely accepts' global security situation has 'changed considerably'

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern "absolutely accepts" the global security situation has "changed considerably" in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

"These events demonstrate the changing strategic environment that New Zealand is operating in," Ardern said in Parliament on Tuesday, in response to questions from ACT leader David Seymour. 

"I would say that our response both at a bilateral level to this conflict but also the spending decisions that we've made on our defence estate including for instance the purchase of P8s, additional assets for the Navy, and so on, demonstrates our ongoing focus on ensuring that we have the capability and the kit that's required to respond within the Pacific to the changing threats that we face."

The security environment in the Pacific is also changing with the Solomon Islands negotiating a security deal with China, which Ardern has described as "concerning". 

But when Seymour asked if New Zealand would increase defence spending from 1.5 percent of GDP to 2 percent to align with Australia, Ardern said the Government had already illustrated its commitment to defence. 

New Zealand's defence budget has grown since Labour came to power in 2017. It sits at around 1.5 percent of GDP. Budget documents in May 2021 show total military expenditure for 2021-2022 at $5.18 billion. 

Australia, by comparison, recently increased its defence expenditure for 2022-2023 by 7.4 percent to AU$48.6 billion. It will bring Australia's defence budget above 2 percent of GDP

Ardern said: "We've committed to ensuring that our Defence Force have the capability they need to ensure that we are a responsible and responsive player within our region and we demonstrate that time and time again, whether it's a response in the Middle East and the fact that we even have people on the ground supporting the response in Europe to what's occurring now or our purchases that we've made.

"I'm not going to pre-commit spending decisions for the Budget at this point in time but I would ask the minister to demonstrate where we have not pulled our weight in this international environment."

Last week the Government dispatched nine Defence Force analysts to Britain and Belgium to assist with the response to Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, which began on February 24. 

The Defence Force will also help European partners by gathering intelligence about the war during their nighttime hours, "taking advantage of the time zone difference". 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo credit: Newshub

The Government also announced a $5 million donation to NATO [the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation] for non-lethal military aid to support Ukraine. It would be primarily directed to the NATO Trust Fund which provides fuel, military rations, communications and military first aid kits to support Ukraine. 

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

The Government also passed the Russia Sanctions Act, giving it power to freeze the assets of Russian President Vladimir 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. 

National's foreign spokesperson Gerry Brownlee on Tuesday described the latest tranche of sanctions as ineffective, because of the 488 individuals sanctioned, only 49 have been subject to asset freezes, while 439 are only subject to travel bans.

"Almost four weeks after Parliament passed the Russia Sanctions Act, the second tranche of sanctions announced by the Government will be disappointing to our Ukrainian community and international partners," Brownlee said. 

"Entities like the biggest Russian banks and financial service providers are noticeably absent. New Zealand has sanctioned only one bank, Promsvyazbank, under the Act and it's not even Russia's largest."

Ardern said she had heard otherwise from Ukraine. 

"They pointed out that New Zealand's response has been swift, that they count us amongst those countries that have taken action, that have made our views clear and have acted on them and that is, I think, really meaningful when those in Ukraine are reflecting that.

"There is certainly evidence of what you'll see many leaders describe as war crimes, indiscriminate killing of civilians, reports of civilians being raped.

"Many of us have seen some of the images. I have seen some myself that are outside of the public domain and it again reinforces to me the importance of New Zealand's efforts to ensure that Russia is held to account through the International Criminal Court."

Ardern said she had received the images directly.

"I'm staying in contact with my counterparts in Ukraine."

The Government has also extended its deployment in the Solomon Islands, where 65 Defence Force personnel were sent in December following a request for help from the country following riots, sparked by the Solomon Islands Government's decision to recognise China over Taiwan.

It followed similar deployments by Australia, Fiji and Papua New Guinea aimed at restoring calm after protesters calling for the removal of Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare turned violent in the capital, Honiara.

The Government announced last week it had agreed to extend the deployment of up to five Defence Force personnel, to be reviewed on May 31. 

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare​ last week rebuked New Zealand and Australia for their disapproval of his country's security agreement with Beijing, promising to sign the deal despite last-minute lobbying.

"We find it very insulting, Mr Speaker, to be branded as unfit to manage our sovereign affairs, or have other motives than pursuing our national interests," Sogavare said in a speech to the Solomon Islands Parliament. 

Ardern said she's willing to talk. 

"All that we are asking is that the Solomons give consideration to a Pacific response to these issues and engage with the Pacific, particularly through the Pacific Island Forum," she said on Tuesday. 

"I have no hesitation engaging directly. I know he has also received similar conversations from other Pacific Island leaders."