International Relations

The definitive timeline of the Government's Russia fiasco

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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."

and...

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.

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Along with Security Analyst Paul Buchanan rubbishing Ardern's claimsformer 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.

Forget a new Cold War, Great Power rivalry is back instead

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Talk of a new Cold War has been popular in the last few years, primarily pitched as China's rising military, political, and economic might against the dwindling power and influence of the United States. More broadly, it often gets seen as a conflict between the liberal democracy and free market values of the West, and the authoritarian, state controlled economies of the East.

While the end of the Cold War left the United States as the sole superpower, it also led many to search for a new rival to US hegemony. From the early 2000s China has largely been seen to fit this bill.

If you were looking through the lens of economic power alone, China would fill that role well, with its GDP having grown to be the third biggest in the world. While only around 60% of the GDP of the United States, China's economic growth has, up until recently, greatly outstripped US growth.

In the political sphere, China has been assiduously cultivating its influence, using access to its immense domestic market and deep pockets as an incentive to either stifle criticism or garner support across the world. On the military front, China is also accelerating the development of weapon platforms and bases that would allow it to project its military power beyond the South China Sea, as far as Africa and deep into the Pacific.

As a result of China's rise the United States has, over the past decade, been putting more and more emphasis on its Pacific theatre of operations, which in turn has fed the narrative of a new Cold War centred on a Beijing-Washington axis.

However it's readily becoming apparent that a return to a world dominated by two duelling superpowers isn't what's happening.

The recently released 2018 National Defense Strategy sees this new paradigm in terms of China, Russia, and the US competing on the world stage. The new US strategy sees China continuing to grow its influence in Asia, Russia putting more pressure on Europe and NATO, and the United States needing to step back from the Middle East in order to contain its new strategic rivals.

I'd go further than this, and argue that we appear to be entering a new era of Great Power competition that shares more with the period 1871 - 1945 than it does with 1945 to 1991.

Where the Cold War was dominated by the duelling superpowers of the US and USSR, 1871 to 1914 was dominated by multipolar rivalry between the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Russia. Towards the end of that period they were joined by the United States and Japan. Just below that top tier of Great Powers sat Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Italy. While right at the end of that period, China began to show signs that it was starting on the path that would eventually lead it to where it is today.

The situation we find ourselves in today mirrors that of 1871. Whereas the United Kingdom and France had been the primary world powers for nearly two centuries - with Russia lurking in the background with the potential to dwarf them both - first the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and then the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 changed that world order. In first asserting its primacy in Central Europe over Austria-Hungary, then breaking up the superpower duopoly by humbling France, Germany's rise saw the world enter an era of Great Power rivalry that would last until 1945.

Fast forward to today and we have the United States' political, military, and economic supremacy being simultaneously challenged by China's rising strength, a militarily resurgent Russia, the growing economic and political influence of India, and the European Union looking more and more like a single federal entity than a loose cooperative of different states (despite the United Kingdom's impending departure) that's set to take its own spot on the world stage.

Just below this top tier of new Great Powers, are countries like Brazil and Indonesia, where it seems a question of when, rather than if, they'll become economic powerhouses in their own right. There's also the question of what role Japan will take as they wrestle with their place in this new world, trapped as they are in the middle of geopolitical competition between Beijing and Washington.

For New Zealand, this new Great Power geopolitical environment offers challenges and opportunities. The biggest challenge for us will be staying on side with the three largest economic Great Powers - the United States, China, and the European Union - which isn't always an easy thing to do, as has been illustrated in recent months. For example, Foreign Minister Winston Peters' pet project of a free trade agreement with Russia earned New Zealand a strong rebuke from the EU, offering a cautionary lesson on what's in store for us - pursuing one course of action could lead to other, potentially more lucrative, opportunities being shut to us.

For much of the past 20 years New Zealand has managed to navigate the China/US divide very well. Helen Clark and John Key fostered positive and productive relationships with both Beijing and Washington. The China FTA delivered by Helen Clark was a huge economic win for New Zealand, while the visit of the USS Sampson in 2016 marked a high point in US/NZ political and military relations in the nuclear-free NZ era. Despite being ultimately unsuccessful due to Donald Trump, the Trans-Pacific Partnership also seemed poised to be a big win for New Zealand too in the economic side of our relationship with the US.

To highlight just how careful New Zealand has to be in this new multipolar world, here's just some of the current free trade agreement activities on New Zealand's plate:

  • An upgrade to the China FTA,
  • Getting the finishing touches on the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership which will cover Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Peru, Singapore, and Viet Nam,
  • Negotiating the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership which covers Brunei-Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Viet Nam, Australia, China, India, Japan, and Korea,
  • Starting negotiations on a European Union FTA,
  • Finishing up the PACER Plus agreement,
  • Pushing the Golf Cooperation Council FTA towards conclusion, having been stalled for nine years.

Throw in the suspended Russia-Belarus Kazakhstan Customs Union FTA on top of that, and there are a heap of competing geopolitical rivalries that New Zealand somehow has to thread its way through.

The above list is only the economic side of things. We also have defence relationships with Australia, Singapore, and the United States that are generally in New Zealand's interest to keep going (as one day Donald Trump won't be the President of the United States), as well as intelligence relationships through the Five Eyes network that may well prove to be crucial in the coming years in light of growing cyber threats from rival Great Powers.

What I don't see yet on the immediate horizon is this new era of Great Power rivalry descending into widespread armed conflict like we saw during the period of 1871 to 1945. There's always the potential for it further down the track in times of economic and political turmoil, potentially brought on by competition for resources such as rare metals. For the time being though, we're likely to see things play out more like they did in the closing decades of the 19th century, with the new Great Powers jostling for influence throughout the rest of the world, but still being prepared to retreat back from the brink relatively easily.

All that being said, that prediction comes with the caveat that you can never discount the impact rogue actors might have. Just as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand set off a chain of events that led Europe to war in 1914, there's always the potential that North Korea, Iran, or some other random event - be it a cyber attack or something else - could light a powder keg that causes the new Great Powers to go from competition, to open conflict.