Opinion: New Zealand's lack of action in the wake of global Russian diplomat expulsions is a dangerous move

OPINION: In an unprecedented move, British Prime Minister Theresa May has turned what would normally be viewed as a bilateral disagreement between two countries into a major international campaign.

The initial expulsion of 23 Russian diplomats from Britain, to express annoyance over the alleged Russian involvement in the attempted assassination of Sergei Skripal and his daughter using weapons prohibited in international law, was a surprisingly light reaction.

However, it is now clear this was the first step in a much wider campaign to express their dissatisfaction with Russia.

Their second step, which occurred last night, was the linking together of 22 like-minded countries, which have now also expelled Russian diplomats. This group covers most of countries with which New Zealand has strong defence and political relationshgo tiips, including the United States, Australia and Canada.

The total number of Russian diplomats being expelled is now over 100. The majority are being expelled from Britain and the United States - most countries are only expelling a few, as a show of solidarity with Britain. Australia has chosen to expel two diplomats. Sweden, Finland and Hungary have chosen one.

It is likely that Russia will be angered by such actions and respond in kind. Germany has expelled four Russian diplomats, so Russia is likely to expel four Germans. 

If a broad parity in numbers of expulsions and counter-expulsions is kept, it is probable that the matter will not escalate any further, and in six months to a year, the empty positions will quietly be refilled. This would suit the recently re-elected President Vladimir Putin, who could then get back on with the business of governing his country, rather than having to confront an unprecedented show of strength by the western world.

But it is equally possible that this could escalate further, as more evidence comes in from both domestic and international investigations. This material may lead to deeper economic, cultural, sporting or diplomatic sanctions on Russia.

One card Britain clearly holds and is pondering putting on the table is calling for international inspections of Russian chemical facilities to ensure it is being an honest signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention.  Some countries, such as Australia, have already publicly supported Britain in any move to send such weapons inspectors to Russia. 

Other than some nice rhetoric, New Zealand has so far stayed out of this. The fact that like-minded countries are lining up in their response to Russia, and we are not part of that group, marks us out.

During the Cold War, New Zealand expelled Soviet diplomats on the grounds of their spying or undue influence in domestic politics in both the 1960s and 1980s. But in the current instance, despite the unprecedented nature of this international action, we are doing nothing of substance and standing to the side.

The explanation that New Zealand is not expelling even a single Russian diplomat because we have no undeclared Russian intelligence officers in New Zealand does not make sense on two grounds. 

First, it assumes that New Zealand’s Intelligence community has a perfect understanding of what the Russian diplomats are doing, which is unlikely.

Second, the 22 other countries have not expelled Russian diplomats because they suddenly discovered they had undeclared spies working on their territory - they are showing solidarity with Britain.

This is not about uncovering spies. This is about making a statement of what is unacceptable behaviour between countries in the 21st century.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern needs to carefully consider the implications of our failing to stand next to Britain, and indeed any of the countries on the list which feel that Russia has been unduly interfering in their sovereignty in one way or another.  

To punish a country for their actions by expelling diplomats and making them persona non-grata is a political and not a technical decision. If our Prime Minister wants to expel a Russian diplomat and be included in the western coalition, she can find a way, just as all of the other countries have.

Alternately, she can stand aside and suggest that what is happening overseas does not apply in New Zealand, or the action is not merited because of our relationship with Russia. 

It's a dangerous option. The weight of not expressing solidarity with our friends and allies may prove to be disproportionate to trying not to upset Mr Putin.

Alexander Gillespie is a professor of law at the University of Waikato