Whoops, sorry, the dog ate my Russian spy

Looking at the long lead-up to New Zealand's increasingly curious stance on Russia, the government seems to be wasting diplomatic capital at a time it should be storing it up against future need

It's been done so casually and with such a carefree shrug, that it's easy to miss what a significant choice it seems to be. It's like coming home on Valentines without flowers and saying 'but all the flower shops were closed'. Or not handing in your homework because you lost the textbook. But the government's decision not to act against Russia in unison with allies in Europe, the US, Canada and Australia is a remarkable diplomatic decision.

Former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, 66, his daughter Yulia, 33, were found poisoned by a nerve agent in Salisbury on March 4 and Britain, with widespread support, has blamed the attack on Russia. As of today, 27 countries, and now NATO, have acted with unprecedented unity to send a clear message to the Kremlin that it can't go around other countries killing people it doesn't like. Or, as Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg has said, such acts have "costs and consequences".

Yet not in New Zealand, it seems. No costs or consequences here. Jacinda Ardern made the remarkable statement yesterday that she would have expelled any "undeclared" Russian intelligence agents in New Zealand, but "there are no individuals here in New Zealand who fit this profile". It brings to mind Blam Blam Blam's 'There is no depression in New Zealand'. Just add the new verse, "there are no spies in our embassies".

Oh, we've called in the Russian ambassador for a few carefully chosen words and said we would have taken a tough stance if we could have. I mean, we wanted to help but – you won't believe this – we couldn't find any "undeclared" spies.

In other words, the dog at my homework. 

As security consultant Paul Buchanan told RNZ, it's a very curious position to take. Three of the eight Russian diplomats in New Zealand are attaches, he pointed out. Even if they are not Russian James Bonds, attaches are widely known as collectors of intelligence. Yet in the face of the first use of a nerve agent on the streets of Europe since World War II and the largest coordinated expulsion of Russian diplomats in history, the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and officials shrug and say they can't find anyone to kick out. 

It's surprising we have not expelled anyone, when even Moldova and Albania have found people to send home. Even Belgium have decided to expel one diplomat, having earlier said it might not because it was home to both the EU and NATO. Iceland, like us, has decided not to expel anyone, but they have cancelled meetings with Russian diplomats and officials and its ministers are boycotting the World Cup in Russia this summer.

So why is New Zealand so out of step?

Well, not all European countries have signed on. Austria, Greece and Portugal, for example, are refusing to act. We do have some countries taking a similarly neutral stance.

But for observers in this country, the decision comes in the context of Foreign Minister Winston Peters' long-running sympathy for Russia. While it has only been highlighted recently, his stance on Russia dates back to at least 2015. Then, he saw the chance to win support amongst rural voters by pushing for a trade deal with Russia on behalf of "struggling Kiwi farmers". This was in the wake of Russia sending troops into Crimea and Ukraine and banning the import of goods from the EU. 

Peters urged the Key government to use the opportunity to sell some milk and lamb. It all got very odd, because Peters (who voted again the NZ-China FTA and helped orchestrate a refresh of relations with the US when he was last foreign minister) argued that the time we shouldn't take sides with "Uncle Sam". Seeing the potential of a new Cold War (and given recent events, you could argue he was far-sighted in pointing that out), he argued for more engagement with Russia. Then, like now, it would have been a slight to our traditional allies, but pushed the line repeatedly.

At the same time, John Key and Tim Groser, usually trade deal obsessives, shut down our talks with Russia and insisted Vladimir Putin was a threat to the world. While we kept trading with Russia, Key insisted our allies "can see that we’re not going out there overly exploiting opportunities". (Peters dismissed our support for our allies' sanctions as a "golf course arrangement" of little meaning and pointed out that even Ukraine had increased its exports to Russia after the fighting).

In what was I think an under-reported story at the time, Key admitted to going to Fonterra and telling them - a private company - to not fill the void in Russian imports because it would be "a terrible look". He told the company exploiting the trade bans and sanctions was not in the "long-term interests" of either it or New Zealand.

This flared back into life when New Zealand First curiously put its desire to re-open tradde deal negotiations with Russia in its coalition agreement with Labour, and then in the real politik interview Peters did on Newshub Nation a couple of weeks ago. 

In that, Peters again refused to take the opportunity to see Putin's Russia as a threat and to vociferously stand beside Britain. Instead, he danced in the head of a pin about whether we were sure Russia had actually been involved in the shooting down of the passenger airliner MH17.

Whether or not we are seeing the emergence of a new Peters Doctrine is moot. We shall have to wait to see. But it's curious that Labour has been dragged into this line of thinking.

It may be that Ardern & Co have an instinctive willingness to not necessarily fall in behind the great powers of the West. But is this really the time? Given the personal;ities in charge of what can be loosely called the West - especially President Donald Trump - there may well be a time quite soon when we want to play an independent hand. There may soon be issues where we want to stand apart from the US and other Western (or Five Eyes) allies on issues of real importance.

So why waste your card playing it now? Why raise the eyebrows - and perhaps the ire - of our traditional friends over this case? New Zealand bases its foreign policy on the international rule of law, so when there is a global consensus that Russia has blatantly and murderously broken those rules, why would we not rush to stand alongside those protesting such an action? Surely this is an opportunity to earn show some solidarity with Britain, the US and others, given that down the track we may want to spend some diplomatic capital distancing ourselves from them.

It seems a careless, overly casual and unnecessary waste of diplomatic capital; one I suspect this government will soon regret.