War in Ukraine: New Zealand government actively considers expelling Russian ambassador

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Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta says Russian President Vladimir Putin’s comments have changed the government’s stance on whether or not to expel Russian Ambassador Georgii Zuev. (File image)
Photo: RNZ / Angus Dreaver

The government could move closer to expelling the Russian ambassador as the conflict between Ukraine and Russia escalates.

Alarms have been raised worldwide over the Russian president’s remarks about nuclear war and the plan to hold referendums on accession to Russia in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta said there was an “increased escalation in tensions”.

“It’s not helpful on a number of fronts. Now that our prime minister is at the UN, I’m sure there will be many talks about next steps.”

Vladimir Putin’s comments had changed the government’s stance on whether or not to expel Russian Ambassador Georgii Zuev, Mahuta said.

The government had maintained the option to expel Zuev since the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

New Zealand had kept diplomatic channels open “in the hope that there is room for diplomacy,” Mahuta said.

But a decision on whether or not to evict Zuev was now under active consideration and could “possibly” be made soon, she said.

“New Zealand’s position is to keep diplomatic channels open to de-escalate the situation. But again, we are assessing our position regarding Putin’s actions,” Mahuta said.

“And now organizing a referendum, which will affect Ukraine’s sovereignty, seems to be an escalation rather than a de-escalation of the situation.”

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Previously, RNZ repeatedly sent requests to the ambassador for an interview, but his office referred only to a letter to the chair of the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Committee, Jenny Salesa.

In the letter, he declined an invitation to brief the select committee as Parliament debated whether he should be called for questioning, saying it would be “clearly pointless”.

Mahuta said the war had entered a more “dynamic space”.

“It appears that Putin is stepping up his aggression against Ukraine and taking actions that violate international law. By continuing to do so, it will be a concern for a number of like-minded partners helping Ukraine defend itself.”

In an apparently coordinated move, pro-Russian figures announced referendums for Sept. 23-27 in Luhansk, Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhya counties, which represent about 15 percent of Ukraine’s territory, or an area roughly the size of Hungary.

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US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Washington “unequivocally rejected” such referendums and that the European Union and Canada condemned the plan.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the bloc and its member states would not recognize the outcome of the referendums.

European Union foreign ministers, in New York for the annual meeting of world leaders at the United Nations, have agreed to prepare new sanctions against Russia and increase arms supplies to Kiev in response to Putin’s actions.

EU ministers will hold their next formal meeting in mid-October, when a sanctions package can be formalised.

– With additional reporting by Reuters

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