As the Government of Jacinda Ardern heads into its third week of its foreign policy blunder regarding Russia, I thought I'd throw together what's hopefully a definitive timeline of how this has unfolded.
24 October 2017: The incoming Government releases it's coalition and confidence and supply agreements with New Zealand First and the Green Party respectively. Everyone is caught be surprise by a clause in the agreement with New Zealand First which binds the Government to "Work towards a Free Trade Agreement with the Russia-Belarus-Kazakhstan Customs Union and initiate Closer Commonwealth Economic Relations." It comes on the back of Winston Peters pursuing the issue with 20 questions in the House over nearly three years.
31 October 2017: The European Union's Ambassador Bernard Savage takes the unprecedented step of bluntly warning the New Zealand Government that pursuing a free trade deal with Russia will be viewed in a negative light by the European Union.
1 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern delivers her first speech on foreign policy to the New Zealand Institute of Foreign Affairs. In it, Ardern talks about as a small country New Zealand puts extra importance on the rules based international order, that New Zealand needs to strengthen our partnerships with out long-standing friends, and that:
We want an international reputation New Zealanders can be proud of. And while we are navigating a level of global uncertainty not seen for several generations, I remain firmly optimistic about New Zealand’s place in the world.
Our global standing is high: when we speak, it is with credibility; when we act, it is with decency.
They're words that in the events that would start to unfold less than two weeks later now look like a bad joke.
10 March 2018: Winston Peters appears on Newshub Nation in a bizarre interview where he claims there is no evidence Russia was involved in shooting down MH17, or that Russia had tried to interfere in the US Presidential election. He also tried to equate trading with Australia and trading with Russia as equivalent moral issues.
12 March 2018: At her post-Cabinet press conference in Wellington, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern ties herself in knots in her attempts to defend her Foreign Minister. Questions are also raised about how often Foreign Minister Winston Peters might be meeting with Russian officials.
13 March 2018 (New Zealand time): British Prime Minister Theresa May speaks to the House of Commons about the Salisbury attack, unequivocally blaming Russia for launching the first chemical attack on European soil since World War II. Russia is given until midnight to respond and explain their actions. Britain's allies around the world issue statements all condemning the attack and joining Britain in blaming Russia.
13 March 2018: Winston Peters issues a statement which while condemning the attack and calling for an investigation, falls short of blaming Russia for it.
14 March 2018: Russia issues a sarcastic and dismissive response to the British ultimatum. In a rare move, UK High Commissioner Laura Clarke goes on RNZ to make the case that Russia was behind the Salisbury attack. In a message clearly directed at the New Zealand Government following their watered down statement the previous day, Clarke points out that Russia has repeatedly ignored the rules based international system and that New Zealand, more than most countries, relies on that system being respected.
15 March 2018: Pressure mounts on the New Zealand Government as academics, journalists, and political commentators criticise the Government's weak response. The Australian Labor Party's Penny Wong slammed New Zealand's response, as did former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. The Australian issues a highly critical editorial, while the family of a MH17 victim joins the chorus of condemnation of Peters' earlier comments denying evidence of Russian involvement in the downing of the plane.
Later afternoon 16 March 2018: Following mounting pressure, Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters issued a statement on joint letter head, but only using quotes attributed to the Prime Minister, which finally blames Russia for the Salisbury attack - a full three days after New Zealand's allies had already done this. After it's noted by media that none of the quotes in the statement are attributed to Winston Peters, the statement on the Beehive is edited. It's blamed on a mistake by staff.
17 and 18 March 2018: Jacinda Ardern, in her first appearance on Newshub Nation and Q&A for 2018 is drilled on the issue. Ardern takes the weird position that the Salisbury chemical attack "changes things", as if there hadn't been a pattern of growing Russian aggression since the Crimean invasion. Ardern is also out claiming that talks on the Russian FTA hadn't been restarted when its revealed that Russian officials, believed to be trade officials, had met with Winston Peters in Manila the previous year. Weirdly, Ardern begins to articulate the myth that all they were doing wasn't actually trying to pursue a free trade agreement with Russia, just a reduction in non-tariff barriers, even though all her comments up to that point had been about a free trade deal with Russia.
19 March 2018: Ardern is once again grilled in her post-Cabinet press conference. Again it's over why the Salisbury attack had changed whether the Russian FTA was a good idea. Oddly, Ardern claims that Winston Peters is the one who first said that the Salisbury attack changed things, that's despite the fact that the Russian FTA was still all go until Friday afternoon when Ardern was quoted in a story by Stuff's Tracy Watkins and Jo Moir that all efforts to restart talks had been halted. In all the other things that were unfolding that week, Ardern's comments at that press conference now seem at odds with both the events of Friday afternoon, and Ardern's own interviews over the weekend. It seems very likely that there was an effort underway to restart free trade talks with Russia, but it was shelved only after Ardern decided it was no longer viable for the Government to keep taking heat over Winston Peters' stance. And there's no evidence Peters ever said that Salisbury changed things with regards to the Russian FTA, the only report of it appears to be Ardern announcing it would be stopped.
20 March 2018: The House sits again and both Ardern and Peters are questioned over the Government's woeful response to Russia the previous week.
21 March 2018: Ardern is again forced to defend Winston Peters' alternative facts around there being no evidence of Russian involvement in downing MH17 or trying to interfere in the US election.
22 March 2018: Winston Peters, responding on behalf of the Prime Minister, is subjected to questions in the House about his comments on Russia.
27 March 2018: Ardern appears on RNZ. In response to questions about how 150 Russian diplomats have been expelled from 26 countries, as well as NATO, Ardern says that MFAT has advised her that there are no undeclared Russian intelligence officers operating out of the Russian embassy. Ardern refuses later to confirm to other media whether there are declared intelligence officers. The comments soon go global, with it being reported and mocked around the world that Jacinda Ardern doesn't think there are any Russian spies in New Zealand, or that New Zealand would expel Russian spies but can't find any. The exact wording of a couple of exchanges towards the end of it are very interesting. Interviewer Guyon Espiner explicitly asks twice about Russian spies, not just the distinction of undeclared intelligence officers.
Espiner: "We don't have spies, Russian spies, in New Zealand?"
Ardern: "I'm assured by MFAT, that after the checks they've done, we don't. But, again, important to say if we did, we would expel them."
Espiner: "You happy with that? Do you believe that? There's no one gathering intelligence for Russia in New Zealand."
Ardern: "Well I can only rely on the advice I'm given."
Twice Guyon Espiner asked about spies, not just the diplomatic distinction of undeclared intelligence officers, and twice Ardern said there weren't any. She went on to elaborate that she wasn't surprised because we apparently wouldn't top the list for global intelligence services. Tell that to the French spies who bombed the Rainbow Warrior, or the Mossad spies caught travelling on forged passports...
It's also important to note that Ardern wasn't briefed by MFAT, it was actually the NZSIS, as was revealed by Winston Peters during question time the following day, and Ardern herself as she was caught on the microphone mentioning it.
28 March 2018: Local media picks up on the fact that overnight New Zealand has becoming an international laughing stock. Stories have run in high profile publications including Time, the Guardian, and Politico. Even Kremlin mouthpiece Russia Today mocked New Zealand's efforts.
In Question Time Foreign Minister Winston Peters is taken to task on New Zealand's lack of action in response to Salisbury. Not only that, but Winston Peters in talking about the NZSIS report given to him and the Prime Minister reveals that the NZSIS have advised him and the Prime Minister that there is Russian intelligence activity in New Zealand! A direct contradiction of what Ardern told Guyon Espiner on Morning Report.
Along with Security Analyst Paul Buchanan rubbishing Ardern's claims, former KGB agent Boris Karpichkov also weighed in, pointing out that as part of the Five Eyes, New Zealand was a prime target for Russian spies.
Update - 29 March 2018: Ardern finally announces that the Government is looking at implementing travel bans, and step they evidently didn't look at until Wednesday following two days of mounting pressure and international media coverage her comments regarding Russian spies.