Will New Zealand provide lethal aid to Ukraine? Answering this deceptively simple question is becoming a challenge for Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and her foreign minister, Nanaia Mahuta.
Last week’s call by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba for the West to provide “weapons, weapons, weapons” has put New Zealand’s reluctance to supply lethal aid to Ukraine in sharper focus. Kuleba’s plea came after horrific images emerged showing bodies of Ukrainian civilians killed by Russian forces in Bucha – and a day before Russia bombed a railway station in Kramatorsk, killing dozens of women and children who were waiting to be evacuated.
Amid a growing list of Russian atrocities in Ukraine, domestic political pressure on the New Zealand government to strengthen its response continues to mount.
Gerry Brownlee, the National Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, last week joined an earlier call from Act for the Government to send anti-tank Javelin missile launchers to Ukraine. New Zealand reportedly possesses 24 Javelin launchers and an unknown number of missiles.
Both Ardern and Mahuta last week seemed to imply that New Zealand’s unwillingness to provide more aggressive military assistance to Ukraine was driven by practical considerations, rather than principle.
Mahuta’s first response when asked on Friday why New Zealand was unwilling to send lethal aid was that Ukrainians “need to be trained to use modern weaponry.” That explanation seemed at best unconvincing, given that Ukraine has already been capably using Western-supplied weapons to defend the country against Russia for six weeks.
Both Mahuta and Ardern also used supply arguments to justify the decision not to supply lethal aid. Mahuta pointed to the need for a “secure pipeline” of weapons, while Ardern noted at her post-cabinet press conference that New Zealand’s supplies were “somewhat limited” and that ordering more could take months or years. But as with the training justification, these supply arguments seem somewhat contrived and do not really ring true when it comes to explaining New Zealand’s decision not to provide lethal aid.
It is more likely that New Zealand’s reluctance to date to provide weaponry is being driven by a desire to maintain at least some daylight between Wellington and its typically more hawkish Western partners. The aim is to try and preserve at least some of the foreign policy flexibility that New Zealand has built over a period spanning several decades. In other words, Ardern is probably trying to avoid setting a precedent that would see New Zealand come under even greater pressure to align itself closely with Western countries in the future.
In particular, New Zealand wants to avoid being boxed in with NATO on more sensitive issues relating to China.
The delicate nature of New Zealand’s situation was highlighted by remarks from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after a special meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels last week. After noting that NATO and its “Asia-Pacific partners” – of which New Zealand is one – had agreed to “step up” their cooperation, Stoltenberg added: “We have seen that China is unwilling to condemn Russia’s aggression. And Beijing has joined Moscow in questioning the right of nations to choose their own path.”
Last June, NATO leaders focused on China at the alliance’s summit in Brussels, calling the country a “systemic challenge” – a surprise move for an alliance that has usually concentrated on the threat from Russia.
New Zealand signed a partnership agreement with NATO in 2012 and the alliance now counts New Zealand as one of its “global partners.” The alliance says that it has “increasingly engaged” with its four partners in the Indo-Pacific since 2016. Mahuta was invited to attend last week’s NATO meeting as a special guest, alongside her counterparts from Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
From NATO’s perspective, the invitation had the added benefit of surrounding New Zealand with countries who had provided greater military commitments to Ukraine and reminding Wellington of the need to continue to play its part.
Whether ironically or intentionally, Mahuta’s virtual participation at the summit on April 7 – in contrast to her Australian, Japanese, and South Korean counterparts, who all attended in person – provided a visual illustration of New Zealand’s desire to keep some distance between it and NATO’s own more hawkish position on both Russia and China.
Mahuta shared images of the summit that showed her as a lone figure on a screen overlooking a packed physical gathering of foreign ministers in Brussels.
Great to participate in the @NATO Foreign Ministers’ Meeting. We discussed the situation in 🇺🇦 and NATO’s cooperation with 🇳🇿 🇰🇷 🇯🇵 🇦🇺 to tackle shared security challenges and support the rules-based international order as it comes under increased pressure. #mahitahi pic.twitter.com/WdVcz2joaw
— Nanaia Mahuta (@NanaiaMahuta) April 7, 2022
Nevertheless, and despite all of the government’s rhetorical gymnastics, it may be only a matter of time before New Zealand succumbs to the pressure to provide Ukraine with lethal aid.
New Zealand probably already crossed the Rubicon when it radically shifted its foreign policy by introducing autonomous sanctions against Russia last month. The government subsequently strengthened its symbolic commitment to the Ukraine war effort by providing military equipment – such as helmets and vests – and by sending intelligence analysts to work with NATO partners in Brussels and London. These have been more symbolic contributions than anything else, but Russia’s war on Ukraine has brought a new desire across the West for ideological clarity built on symbolism and solidarity.
Meanwhile, New Zealand’s surprisingly limited contribution in humanitarian and refugee assistance in the crisis has gone largely unnoticed.
The government’s total humanitarian assistance remains at 6 million New Zealand dollars, while the latest Immigration New Zealand figures published last week show that just 207 visas under the new “Ukraine 2022” policy have so far been issued. Ukrainians wishing to apply for the visas must already have family members in New Zealand, a severe limitation for a program that immigration minister Kris Faafoi originally said would help “around 4,000” Ukrainians.
Over 4.5 million refugees have now left Ukraine, according to the latest UNHCR figures. As Russia prepares to launch a new military offensive in the Donbas region, that number is set to grow even further and will quite possibly soon outstrip the equivalent of New Zealand’s own total population of 5 million.
For now though, lethal aid looks set to remain a major focus of New Zealand’s Ukraine debate. Ardern’s argument last week that an “artificial distinction” was being made between lethal and non-lethal aid – later echoed by her Cabinet colleague David Parker – may not hold up for much longer.
As the war continues and horrific images of Russian atrocities in Bucha, Kramatorsk, and elsewhere in Ukraine dominate New Zealand’s television screens, Ardern and Mahuta are probably losing the rhetorical battle.
This article was originally published by the Democracy Project, which aims to enhance New Zealand democracy and public life by promoting critical thinking, analysis, debate, and engagement on politics and society.