New Zealand appears unlikely to follow Western allies in expelling any Russian diplomats over the poisoning of a former spy, with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern saying our intelligence officials are unaware of any Russian spies operating here.
However, Ardern has said the Government is keeping its options open and will expel any “undeclared intelligence officials” that are found to be in the country.
More than 20 Western countries have now reportedly ordered the expulsion of Russian diplomats alleged to be spies, following a nerve agent attack in the United Kingdom which poisoned former Russian intelligence official and his daughter Yulia in early March.
According to media reports, diplomats are being or have been expelled from Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States - the four countries that with New Zealand make up the Five Eyes intelligence alliance.
Ardern told media the Government had received advice from intelligence officials that there were no Russian diplomats in New Zealand operating as “undeclared intelligence officers”, the type being expelled from other countries.
Asked whether there were any declared Russian intelligence officers in New Zealand, Ardern said she was “loath to speak too openly about some of the security briefings that I receive”.
“But I am very happy to say that we did ask the question around those who fit the bill of what other countries have been expelling and we have no-one of that sort in New Zealand.”
She had not spoken to the Russian Embassy in Wellington, but said officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade had spoken to Ambassador Valery Tereshchenko to express New Zealand’s concerns.
Ardern said the Government was keeping its options open when it came to action, and would act if further checks found Russian spies operating here.
“Let’s make this very clear: if we had anyone that fitted the description of the likes of what Australia and our partners have expelled, we would be expelling them too.”
National’s foreign affairs spokesman Todd McClay said the Government needed to clearly state its policy towards Russia, with Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters yet to verbally criticise the country over the Salisbury attack.
“Certainly we see now there are 17 countries that are like-minded, that we would call friends, that are taking a very strong stance [on diplomatic expulsions], the Government needs to clarify for us exactly what their thinking is.”
McClay said he did not have access to the intelligence information at Ardern’s disposal, but hoped “they’ve done more than ask the Russian Embassy whether they have any undeclared people in this country”.
“They need to take this very very seriously, they need to keep in touch with these countries that have expelled Russian diplomats, and they need to make a decision that is in the best interests of New Zealand.”
Peters has faced criticism in recent weeks over what some have seen as his support for Russia.
On Newshub Nation, he questioned whether there was enough proof of Russia’s involvement in the shooting down of the MH-17 plane in 2014 and its interference in the US presidential election in 2016.
Peters also failed to name Russia in an early press release condemning the Salisbury attack.
While he and Ardern later issued a joint press release, the damning remarks were initially attributed to the Prime Minister only - which was later attributed to a staff error.