What is it with Peters and Russia?
By Richard Harman (author)
In a week which has already seen Winston Peters and New Zealand First go it alone on refugee policy, Peters surprised western diplomats in Wellington yesterday with a low key response to the naming of the Russian agents responsible for poisoning the former KGB agent.
His response did not accuse Russia of the poisoning nor did he make any reference to joining international efforts to take reprisals against the country because of the poisoning.
It stood in marked contrast to a much stronger statement from Canberra.
And once again it raised questions as to why he so frequently appears soft on Russia.
The issue is about a former KGB agent, Sergey, and his daughter Yulia, Skripal who were poisoned with a toxic nerve agent, Novichok earlier this year.
More recently another woman died and her partner was hospitalised after contact with the nerve agent.
The incidents happened in the English town of Salisbury.
British Prime Minister Theresa May told the UK House of Commons on Wednesday that a forensic investigation had now produced sufficient evidence for the independent Director of Public Prosecutions to bring charges against two Russian nationals, Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov for conspiracy to murder Sergei Skripal and the attempted murder of him and his daughter.
“The Security and Intelligence Agencies have carried out their own investigations into the organisation behind this attack,” said May.
Based on this work, I can today tell the House that, based on a body of intelligence, the Government has concluded that the two individuals named by the police and CPS are officers from the Russian military intelligence service, also known as the GRU.
The GRU is a highly disciplined organisation with a well-established chain of command.
So this was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state.
Despite that assertion by May, Peters made only a veiled reference to the role of the Russian state in being responsible for the attack in his statement on the matter issued yesterday morning.
“Prime Minister May has indicated that the UK authorities have undertaken a careful and systematic inquiry,” he said.
“The UK announced that after a thorough criminal inquiry the independent Crown Prosecution Service has sufficient evidence to bring charges against two Russian nationals.
“We said from the outset of Prime Minister May announcing this investigation that we should wait for it to be completed to draw our conclusions, and we have.”
The rest of the statement reiterated New Zealand's support for the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical weapons.
This contrasted with Australia’s response which came in a joint statement from Prime Minister, Scott Morrison and Foreign Affairs Minister, Marise Payne.
They said that the (British) investigation had found that two Russian military intelligence officers were responsible for this attack.
“The investigation also concluded that the Russian leadership authorised the attack," they said.
“The results of the UK Police investigation confirm Russia's culpability for this heinous attack, in clear and direct violation of international law.
“Australia shares the UK’s anger and outrage at this dangerous and deliberate act by Russia, which also puts at risk the British public, police and other first responders.
“We are in lock step with the UK on the importance of holding Russia to account and reaffirm our support for calls on Russia to fully disclose the extent of its chemical weapons programme.
“The Australian Government is in close consultation with the UK Government and other partners. We are committed to acting with our allies and partners to deter further Russian violations of international security.”
POLITIK understands that the British noticed the difference between the Australian and New Zealand statements and were, to quote one source, “pissed” at Peters’ response.
But since earlier in the year when the British called on other countries to support them by taking reprisals against Russia, Peters has refused to even comment on the possibility of New Zealand taking any action.
The question is to what extent Peters is operating on his own; to what extent do the positions he takes have the endorsement of the two other partners in the Government, Labour and the Greens.
Both those parties will oppose his apparent refusal to agree to lift the refugee quota.
However, he denied this was what he said on Nauru during Question Time in Parliament yesterday. Instead, he said he was correcting a reporter who claimed the quota was now 1500 (It is still 750).
Anyway, he said, the matter had not gone before Cabinet but he indicated that there were negotiations over it going on.
“The beauty of a coalition is that you agree on what parts of your collective manifesto's going to be progressed, and this is a work in progress,” he said.
But Immigration Minister Iain Lees-Galloway said he was still working towards getting Cabinet agreement to raise the quota to 1500.
And Greens co-Leader, perhaps reflecting some frustration with Peters, asked Lees-Galloway whether he would be prepared to test whether there was now a parliamentary majority in favour of increasing the refugee quota to 1,500?
“Were there an opportunity to do so I'd certainly be interested to see how the Opposition would vote on that," said Lees-Galloway.
NZ First are deeply conscious that they cannot afford to fall into the trap that both ACT and the Maori Party fell where they became indistinguishable from their partner in Government, National.
That certainly explains the stance on immigration, but Peters' stance on Russia is more perplexing. In many matters he appears to have moved New Zealand foreign policy closer to Australia --- but on Russia he stands alone. Why? No one really knows.