Nanaia Mahuta criticised for not corresponding with Russian Ambassador since Ukraine war started

The Foreign Affairs Minister has had no correspondence with Russia's top representative in New Zealand since the war in Ukraine broke out.

Nanaia Mahuta said that's a consequence of New Zealand breaking off normal diplomatic engagement with Russia after it invaded Ukraine in February. But ministry officials have still met with the Ambassador. 

However, National's Gerry Brownlee, a former Foreign Affairs Minister, has called that rubbish and said foreign affairs ministers should remain in contact with ambassadors. 

In September, Newshub sent Mahuta's office an Official Information Act (OIA) request asking for "all correspondence" between the Foreign Affairs Minister or her office with the Russian Ambassador to New Zealand or his office since February 1.

Newshub's now got a response. Mahuta's office refused the request as "the information you have requested does not exist". That means there's been no correspondence.

The Government has taken a number of actions to condemn Moscow since Russia invaded Ukrainian territory on February 24. That includes "limiting diplomatic engagement" and suspending bilateral foreign ministry consultations with Russia. 

But officials from New Zealand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) have gone on to meet with top representatives from the Russian Embassy in Wellington, including Ambassador Georgii Zuev, five times since.

That includes a meeting between MFAT Secretary Chris Seed and Zeuv the day after the invasion and between an MFAT top official and the Russian Chargé d'affaires on October 3 after referenda happened in occupied Ukrainian regions. 

The point of those meetings has been to "communicate Aotearoa New Zealand's clear condemnation of Russia's illegal actions", an OIA response said. Specific issues were raised in some meetings, like the condemnation of the use of landmines and the targeting of civilian infrastructure.

Mahuta, who oversees the ministry, however, hasn't corresponded with him.

"We ceased diplomatic engagement with Russia at a high level when the invasion occurred. However, that hasn't prevented MFAT at other levels from calling in the Ambassador," she told Newshub. "We've done that five times since the invasion."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Brownlee said foreign affairs ministers should be in contact with ambassadors. 

"That's why they're in the country. You are speaking when you speak to an ambassador, you're speaking directly to the government of the country they represent."

He said it's "an extremely odd position" to suggest only diplomats, and not the minister, should be engaging with the Ambassador. 

Brownlee has long called for the Russian Ambassador to be expelled. The Government has argued it's important to keep him here to keep communication lines open. Expelling him could also mean Moscow reacts by getting rid of our own representatives there.  

The National foreign affairs spokesperson said it is "extraordinary" there have been "so many public statements" about how abhorred New Zealand is with Russia's actions, but the minister hasn't had any direct engagement with Zuev. 

"It does beg the question about why the Russian Ambassador is still here. If we've cut off diplomatic relations, send the guy home, do something that at least tells him directly we don't approve of the way they're behaving."

Geoffrey Miller, a foreign affairs analyst with Victoria University's Democracy Project, said it is "surprising" and "concerning" more than nine months since the war began that Mahuta hasn't had correspondence with Zuev.

"The Russian invasion of Ukraine is one of the biggest moments we've seen in recent world history. It's one of the defining moments of our generation," he said. 

"It just seems incredible that there hasn't been as much as a letter or an email of any kind between Mahuta and the Ambassador there in Wellington."

Miller said it is appropriate for diplomats to speak to the Ambassador, but "you should expect communication from the Foreign Minister".

He gave the example of former Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully personally meeting with Israel's Ambassador to New Zealand in 2010 to speak about an incident in Gaza. Diplomatic relations were ongoing between the two countries, however. 

"I think protocol is important in diplomacy and it may well be that the usual approach is to leave it up to officials," said Miller. "But these are not usual times and this is not a usual routine situation in my view."

Mahuta in September said she kept open the question of whether or not to expel the Russian Ambassador. 

"In this circumstance, I leave open the prospect that we may have to consider the status of the Russian Ambassador here in New Zealand," said Mahuta. "It will be an active consideration".

In May, Newshub reported Mahuta hadn't had any direct communication with New Zealand's Ambassador to Russia since the Ukraine invasion began. She also defended that by saying MFAT officials were keeping in touch with the Ambassador. 

Mahuta has also been under pressure in her Local Government portfolio, dealing with the controversial Three Waters programme.

Asked if she has too much on her plate, Mahuta said she's enjoying both portfolios.

"Global and local are kind of a reflection of each other in terms of politics. They are both weighty portfolios, but I have been able to do the job at hand and it is great to have an associate."

Kieran McAnulty became her associate Local Government minister earlier this year.