Why would Russians spy at the world’s last, loneliest and loveliest bus stop
- New Zealand says it has no Russian spies to expel
- Diplomatic track record suggests there’s not much for spies to do in the South Pacific
- And did a young Vladimir Putin work as a spy, briefly, in New Zealand?
It was a Saturday morning in January 1980 when reporters gathered in a converted World War Two factory at Wellington airport to witness New Zealand’s first and only expulsion of a Soviet ambassador.
Seventy-two hours earlier the always aggressive Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon, had ordered Vsevolod Sofinsky out for activities not in keeping with his diplomatic status.
Six months later, in a quite unrelated event, a child was born in the farm city of Hamilton. That was Jacinda Ardern, ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jacinda_Ardern ), now Prime Minister of New Zealand, who finds herself in political bother for not doing what Muldoon did.
“At Christmas 1979 …, Sofinsky, broke a prime rule of the diplomatic game,” wrote Gerald Hensley, head of the Prime Minister’s Department during the Sofinsky matter. ( http://www.press.auckland.ac.nz/en/browse-books/all-books/books-2006/Final-Approaches-A-Memoir.html ) “In the absence of his KGB man who normally did these chores he went to Auckland himself and in a motel room handed over an instalment of the regular subsidy paid to the Soviet-aligned Socialist Unity Party ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialist_Unity_Party_of_New_Zealand) which had been pressing with increasing urgency for the money.”
He was caught giving $10,000 (equivalent to US$36,000 today) in a brown paper bag to an official of the small and now long gone party.
Expulsion did not follow immediately because New Zealand sold large quantities of otherwise unsaleable mutton and butter to Moscow.
Hensley went to seek advice in London which had “long experience of handling diplomatic expulsions”. The Foreign Office told him over afternoon tea “if we expelled Sofinsky the Russians would expel our ambassador but there the matter would rest unless we wished to take it further.”
In due course there was mutual ambassador expulsions and all was forgotten.
Socialist Unity featured again when in 1987 Russian diplomat, Sergei Budnik, was ordered out by Prime Minister David Lange ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Lange ). He too had made undiplomatic contacts with the Socialist Unity. ( http://articles.latimes.com/1987-04-24/news/mn-679_1_soviet-diplomat )
Just before the collapse of the Soviet Union, New Zealand caught an actual Soviet spy, Anvar Razzakovich Kadyrov, in the country solely to obtain a prized New Zealand passport. With visa free access to most nations, New Zealand passports can be a must-have accessory for any spy. Its what attracted, in 2004 two Israeli men, suspected of being Mossad agents but never confirmed, who were arrested for illegally obtaining New Zealand passports. ( http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=3561514 )
While Soviet spies and diplomats were charged with spreading global communism, its not clear what Russians spies would want in New Zealand.
Ardern’s comments came after New Zealand failed to join a raft of Western nations and expel any Russian diplomats in the wake of the nerve agent attack in Britain on former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand the diplomats being expelled overseas were “undeclared intelligence officers”, and she had been assured by her Ministry of Foreign Affairs that New Zealand did not have any.
“But if we did, we would expel them.”
She added that it was unlikely New Zealand would be on top of any global intelligence agency agenda.
Her inactivity left New Zealand as the only member nation of the Five Eyes spying alliance ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Five_Eyes ) not to have take action against Russia. New Zealand’s role with Britain, Australia, Canada and the United States suggests enterprising spies could exploit New Zealand’s open and more relaxed society to penetrate the network. Others think its not a matter of spies.
Foreign affairs specialist Professor Alexander Gillespie of the University of Waikato said Ardern had been poorly briefed.
“Someone in foreign affairs should have explained to her that this is not about whether we have spies in the county or not. This is a question about solidarity with our allies”. ( https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2018/03/29/101115/ardern-finally-acts-to-ban-russian-spies )
A New Zealand foreign policy consultant and ex-Central Intelligence Agency analyst, Paul Buchanan asked why Wellington was isolating itself. He suggested it was because New Zealand was obsessed with trade and wanted a free trade deal with President Vladimir Putin’s Moscow.
“On the other hand, virtue signalling its independence may garner New Zealand some favour with those outside of the “exclusion coalition” as well as domestic audiences.” (
In Ardern’s lifetime the New Zealand Security Intelligence Service ( http://www.nzsis.govt.nz/ ) has acquired a spotty record on spies. It could be, however, that Ardern might be right. None have been found, suggesting either they are very good, or espionage’s answer to Schrödinger’s cat.
In 1974 a senior government economist, William Sutch, was observed handing documents to KGB agents outside a Wellington public toilet. A year later he is acquitted on charges of betraying official secrets. It was never clear what he actually did. ( https://nzhistory.govt.nz/people/dr-w-b-sutch )
In 1985 French agents bombed the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland, sinking it and killing a crewman. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinking_of_the_Rainbow_Warrior ) Two agents Alain Mafart and Dominique Prieur were arrested and sentenced to 10 years jail for manslaughter. Evidence showed the SIS had no idea the French were even in the country.
History suggests there is not a lot for a spy to do in New Zealand.
Auckland has several key landmarks that owe their existence to fears about Russia in 1885 when Imperial St Petersburg was said to have being contemplating annexation of New Zealand. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coastal_fortifications_of_New_Zealand#The_%22Russian-scare%22_forts_of_1885 ) The Russians never entered the hemisphere but the surviving fortifications provide fine views to watch yacht racing.
Today, Russian interests in the South Pacific region are limited. In 2013 the state-run Itar-Tass agency said Russia would send submarines armed with nuclear ballistic missiles to the South Pacific and the Southern Ocean. (
http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/europe/8814505/Russian-submarines-heading-to-NZ-waters ) If they have, no one has noticed.
New Zealand maintains a squadron of P3K Orion anti-submarine aircraft that these days are mostly they are used to find lost fishermen in the world’s largest search and rescue zone.
In 1971 a Soviet submarine north of New Zealand was seen on the surface. It turned out to be a scientific mission. In 1982, a diesel-powered Soviet Foxtrot submarine was spotted on the surface near Tahiti sailing with an oceanographic research vessel.
In 2001 Prime Minister Helen Clark said New Zealand did not need Orions as submarines were not a major concern. ( http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=178486 ) There had been eight submarine sightings over 30 years.
“All eight were confirmed visually, which means they were on the surface and could hardly be described as acting covertly.” ( https://www.beehive.govt.nz/release/misleading-information-submarines )
While the Pacific is rich in fish and underseas minerals, Russia already belongs to the relevant international organisations that compiles data and oversee exploitation. They don’t need to spy; just pay the annual subscription.
Russia has mostly stayed clear of the politically unstable South Pacific nations – unlike China which has become a major player. But in 2016 Russia provide small arms, uniforms and vehicles to the coup prone Fiji military forces, prompting regional concern – including in New Zealand – over what they might be doing. (
It seems to have been pretty much a one-off affair.
And there is one other piece of intelligence that suggests Ardern might be right over the lack of spies. The world’s super-rich and Silicon Valley czars are reputedly building boltholes in the New Zealand mountains for when the world all goes bad.
( https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/feb/15/why-silicon-valley-billionaires-are-prepping-for-the-apocalypse-in-new-zealand ) Presumably they’ve done the work and figured it so safe even spies cannot find a job.
Ardern did finally take some action over the Skripal case, announcing that none of the Russian diplomats expelled by other countries could come to New Zealand. (
https://www.newsroom.co.nz/2018/03/29/101115/ardern-finally-acts-to-ban-russian-spies ) It all seemed too little, too late, and left unanswered whether the Russians are spying in New Zealand – or is the place too distant, too little and really rather nice to waste spies on.
There is one cautionary footnote about Russian spies in Aotearoa, the land of the long white cloud. In 1986 a Soviet cruise liner, Mikhail Lermontov, sank on New Zealand’s coast. ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MS_Mikhail_Lermontov ) A Soviet delegation arrived for the investigation. Photos suggest that on of them was Putin, a then 34-year-old German specialist in the KGB. While the pictures are inconclusive, including film footage ( https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/destination-disaster-2008 ) Moscow still refuses to confirm nor deny.
It’s great pub talk.