Ukraine - A Year of War: How New Zealand responded - and what could be next for our support

Usually when one-year-on stories are written, the disaster or crisis is over. The recovery is in full swing and the focus is on lessons learnt and remembering those lost. 

But a year after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an illegal invasion of Ukraine under the false guise of "demilitarisation", having already annexed Crimea and backed separatist forces in eastern regions, the war continues and shows no sign of ending anytime soon. 

Entire towns have been wiped out. Fields look more like the moon than earth, covered in craters from bombing. Families have been split as millions have been forced to leave their country - some coming to New Zealand. And the death toll is incalculable.

The Ukrainian forces have defied some expectations the Russian offensive would overwhelm them. 

In an interview with Newshub to mark the anniversary, Vasyl Myroshnychenko, the Ukrainian Ambassador to New Zealand based in Australia, said it's "very painful" knowing his home is under attack.

"I feel a bit torn every day, waking up every morning hearing about more casualties, hearing the accounts of those people who are tortured, raped, killed in large numbers," he said.

"A big part of Ukraine is under the Russian occupation and they're war crimes and crimes against humanity at a very high level perpetrated by the Russian troops."

After the invasion was announced, Myroshnychenko was forced to evacuate his family to Romania. That included his six-year-old son, who asked Myroshnychenko's wife why they had to flee to the country south of Ukraine. 

"She explained to him that, 'Well, they are now in Romania because Romania is part of NATO and Russians would not attack a NATO country'," he told Newshub.

"So when we came here to Australia, my son asked, 'Is Australia part of NATO? Will Russia invade?'. And he just turned six. This is what our children have to go through. This is what our children have to live through."

New Zealand's official relationship with Russia has been all but completely severed. 

Swift actions by the Government in response to Putin's actions have been followed by a rolling maul of announcements throughout the year supported by all political parties.

They've been welcomed by Ukrainian authorities, with President Volodymyr Zelensky last year personally telling the New Zealand Parliament how "grateful" he is.

Myroshnychenko said this week it's clear New Zealand strongly supports Ukraine. 

"It's in the interests of New Zealand for us to win, for us to be out there, defend democracy, human rights, freedom of speech. We are there fighting for you. We are fighting for democracy. And democracy is what is important for New Zealand."

Conflict continues in Ukraine.
Conflict continues in Ukraine. Photo credit: Getty Images.

New Zealand's support so far

Russia's actions on February 24, 2022 were condemned immediately by the New Zealand Government. 

Putin's announcement of a "special military operation" came mid-afternoon followed by aerial strikes and a ground invasion across the northern Ukrainian border supported by Belarus.

The footage of news reporters in Kyiv hearing explosions in the background just minutes after Putin spoke shocked the world. The fear had become the reality and it was being broadcast live.

Just before 6pm, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta released a statement calling the invasion a "clear violation of Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity". She promised a further announcement in due course. 

That came at 10:37pm. Then-Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Mahuta announced a number of measures, including travel bans against Russian officials, prohibiting the export of goods to Russian military and security forces and suspending bilateral engagements until further notice.

"This is an unprovoked and unnecessary attack by Russia," Ardern said. "By choosing to pursue this entirely avoidable path, an unthinkable number of innocent lives could be lost because of Russia's decision."

Jacinda Ardern and Nanaia Mahuta quickly announced New Zealand's response to the invasion.
Jacinda Ardern and Nanaia Mahuta quickly announced New Zealand's response to the invasion. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Since then, New Zealand's taken a number of actions to condemn the invasion and assist Ukraine as it defends itself and fights back. 

That has included sending New Zealand Defence Force personnel to Europe to train Ukrainian armed forces and support intelligence and logistical efforts.

We've contributed tens of millions of dollars towards supplies for Ukrainian forces, humanitarian assistance and to support the International Criminal Court's investigation into war crimes.

A Special Ukraine Policy visa was set up to allow the families of Ukrainians in New Zealand to come here and shelter - Newshub understands that will soon go to Cabinet for an extension

Probably most notable, however, was New Zealand's decision to pass new legislation allowing it to independently sanction those supporting Russia's efforts. New Zealanders have been sanctioned in retaliation, including senior politicians and journalists.

"We've done quite a bit in terms of helping our training efforts in the UK alongside our British counterparts helping out with logistics and out of Germany and Poland, and making financial contributions as well," Defence Minister Andrew Little told Newshub. 

The Defence Minister, who only took on the role last month but has had oversight of our intelligence agencies for years, said he was receiving briefings leading up to the invasion last year. 

"There was an anticipation it would happen, and of course, when it happened, it was disappointing because as a world, we have a number of challenges and having a country, a sovereign state, invade unlawfully another sovereign state, a neighbouring sovereign state, is not acceptable in the kind of world order that we're all trying to create. So it was disappointing and disheartening."

Last December, President Zelensky became just the second head of a foreign government to address the New Zealand Parliament.

"New Zealand was one of the first countries to support Ukraine in its struggle for independence and justice," Zelensky said.

"Facing the unique moral challenge of this war, you've changed your own approach to the sanctions policy and imposed national sanctions against those involved in fermenting the aggression."

The Ukrainian President streamed into New Zealand's Parliament last year.
The Ukrainian President streamed into New Zealand's Parliament last year. Photo credit: Newshub.

Myroshnychenko moved to Australia in March last year, just after the invasion escalated. In August, he flew to Wellington to present his credentials and has been here three times so far.

He said Zelensky's address was "very symbolic".

"It was very special and we appreciate it. We appreciate your support in the international organisations. We appreciate your engagement with the Pacific countries in terms of getting them on our side when voting in the UN."

He said the training provided to Ukrainian soldiers by NZDF personnel in the United Kingdom has been "well received" and the soldiers are building personal bonds. 

"I'm sure they will be sharing many stories, personal stories from their experience of getting to know somebody Ukrainian and that's important."

But there have also been tragedies for New Zealand. Last year, in August, we learnt 28-year-old Corporal Dominic Abelen, who was in Ukraine on leave without pay from the NZDF, had been killed. In January, 47-year-old aid worker Andrew Bagshaw died while trying to rescue an elderly woman in Soledar.

New Zealand's help going forward

The Government's approach to Ukraine has been supported across the aisle. 

The Opposition has suggested it could go further, like by calling for autonomous sanctions legislation or to up defence spending to 2 percent of GDP. Te Pāti Māori briefly courted controversy by suggesting New Zealand was helping Ukraine at the bidding of the US.

The continued presence of the Russian Ambassador to New Zealand in his Wellington embassy also hasn't been without criticism. The Government said it's good to have communication channels open.

But with the war still ongoing, it's likely New Zealand will be called upon for more support. 

"I'm pretty sure we'll be facing other requests and we will be actively considering those once we've received them. The messages from Ukraine have been very appreciative of the contributions that we've made so far," Little said.

He was at a conference last week where requests were raised. 

"Two principal things they are wanting: air capability, which we don't have. But also armoured land transport. We're now considering what we can contribute in that respect. That'll be some weeks away before we can finalise something."

Newsroom reported New Zealand last year rejected a request for light-armoured vehicles due to a lack of available vehicles in operational condition.

Myroshnychenko said "there is so much else that New Zealand can do". 

"Can New Zealand provide light armoured vehicles? Can New Zealand buy some ammunition for Ukraine?" he said.

"It's in the interests of New Zealand to win this war because if we can allow a bully, if we can allow a nuclear power country to change borders by force, it creates a very negative precedent for any other country. It will embolden other authoritarian leaders to go and change borders by force."

Myroshnychenko inspects an Australian Bushmaster PMV Armoured Vehicle.
Myroshnychenko inspects an Australian Bushmaster PMV Armoured Vehicle. Photo credit: Getty Images.

In his address to Parliament, Zelensky said New Zealand could play a role in garnering international support for restoring Ukraine's environment after the war.

Myroshnychenko said there will be many opportunities to help with reconstruction. He said that could include ramping up trade between Ukraine and New Zealand.

"Our trade is not that big so far, but I do believe there is a huge potential in the long run and there are lots of opportunities for cooperation in different areas, including education, tourism, trade investments, you name it," he said.

"New Zealand will be able to learn a lot from this war. Your defence forces will benefit from the experience of our war to become better, to become stronger and to be ready if needed."

The fight not just for peace - but for justice

Earlier this week, Russia's Putin delivered a major speech. There was no wavering from the country's current track and he announced the suspension of a major nuclear treaty.

But Myroshnychenko said while there are a lot of demands for peace in Ukraine, "I still want to see demand for justice". 

"It's important Russia is kept accountable for all the crimes they committed in Ukraine. They are accountable for violating the UN charter, accountable for the act of aggression against Ukraine."

So what does he say to those New Zealanders who question why our Government should be sending money to help a country on the other side of the world?

"It's crucial we win because of the value that it's going to bring to the world, to the global international security and regional security," he said.

The Ambassador said it's also important to uphold the rules-based order and security of the Pacific region, where "there is a great deal of malign foreign influence" and some countries being "coerced by bigger powers". That's a likely reference to concerns about Chinese influence in the Pacific.

The United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken over the weekend said it has information showing China was on the brink of supplying Russia with lethal support. That would be a significant change in China's so far mostly neutral approach to the Ukrainian conflict.

Zelensky told German media if China allied itself with Russia, "there will be a world war".

New Zealand has sanctioned other countries which have supported Russia - Iran and Belarus - and would be put in a tricky situation if China was to support Putin given how significant our trade relationship is. 

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta this week wouldn't comment extensively on "hypotheticals".

"We will continue to take proactive efforts to support Ukraine to defend itself," she said. "We remain concerned Russia's aggression against Ukraine is illegal and unjust. In our mind, we continue to support Ukraine."

Myroshnychenko said Ukraine is monitoring the situation and it isn't in the interests of China for the war to continue due to impacts on commodities. 

"It's important China uses its leverage to put pressure on Russia to have the Russians withdraw from Ukraine and that we can get back to normal to rebuild Ukraine. 

"Of course, everybody in the Russian leadership will have to be kept accountable. It's easier said than done. And also, we don't understand what's the motivation that China is pursuing and how and what they may do later on."