28 Mar 2018

PM's spy comments make NZ 'a laughing stock'

9:07 am on 28 March 2018

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's statement that New Zealand is not home to any Russian spies is being met with scepticism, and scoffing, internationally.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in the RNZ Auckland studio for Morning Report. 30 October 2017.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern in RNZ's studios. Photo: RNZ / Claire Eastham-Farrelly

New Zealand is now the only member of the Five Eyes alliance not to take action against Russia over the nerve agent attack on a former Russian spy and his daughter.

In the past two days countries including Canada, Australia, the US, and EU and eastern European nations joined the UK in expelling dozens of Russian diplomats and declared intelligence staff.

Ms Ardern told Morning Report yesterday she has checked and New Zealand does not "have Russian undeclared intelligence officers here".

"If we did, we would expel them," she said.

International media have poked fun at New Zealand over the statement.

The Guardian's headline reads: "New Zealand says it would expel Russian spies ... but it can't find any".

The French news agency AFP writes: "New Zealand can't find any Russian spies to expel."

The Telegraph has a headline in a similar vein.

Security analyst Paul Buchanan said Ms Ardern's remarks were disingenous, and he told Morning Report it had made New Zealand "a laughing stock".

"You mentioned The Guardian headline ... there's dozens of headlines along those lines.

"There seems to be some mincing of words here on the part of the PM in order to wriggle out of what many think is the responsibility to join our allies in this solidarity action."

Not all the people kicked out by the other countries were spies, some were regular diplomats, he said.

"This is mostly about repudiating Russia's actions abroad, so it's symbolic, you could recall the expelled people within two to three months."

Yesterday, Ms Ardern said her advice about there not being Russian spies came from the Ministry for Foreign Affairs and Trade, but Dr Buchanan said it is the SIS that provides such information.

Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters is responsible for that department and Mr Buchanan said Mr Peters' comments about Russia has been raising eyebrows.

Mr Buchanan said the the government might have to backtrack and expel a Russian diplomat to keep up appearances.

Nato expels Russian diplomats

Nato is expelling seven Russian diplomats in response to the nerve agent attack in the UK.

The international security organisation's chief said the move would send a message to Russia that there are "costs and consequences" for its behaviour.

Twenty-six countries have expelled Russian envoys in the past two days, in solidarity with the UK.

They all believe Russia was behind the poisoning of two people in Salisbury.

Nato made a similar move in 2015 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. Before that, there were 60 Russia personnel at its Belgium headquarters.

Russia has accused the US of pressuring other countries to join the mass expulsion of its diplomats.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Washington of "colossal blackmail" and said there were "few independent countries" left in modern Europe.

RNZ / BBC

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