When Britain and its allies – including its former colonies the United States and Australia — moved to expel Russian spies in the wake of an alleged nerve-agent attack there was one country conspicuous by its absence: New Zealand. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said she would have joined the expulsions but simply couldn’t find any Russian spies.
Ardern told Radio New Zealand the diplomats being expelled by other allies in retaliation for the alleged poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal 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.”
That raised some eyebrows given that Wellington has long been part of the so-called Five Eyes alliance, a post-World War Two intelligence-sharing agreement with Washington, Canberra, Ottawa and London. It’s also likely, however, that hostile powers have more significant states in their sites than far away New Zealand, population 4.6 million.
It wasn’t always that way. New Zealand was for decades a paid up member of the western side of the Cold War.
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 Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, a famously abrasive would-be Cold War warrior, had ordered Vsevolod Sofinsky out for activities “not in keeping with his diplomatic status”.
“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 and himself a former head of the New Zealand security service. “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 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, apparently because New Zealand sold large quantities of mutton and butter to Moscow.
Hensley went to seek advice from 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.
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. It’s what attracted, in 2004, two Israeli men, suspected of being Mossad agents but never confirmed, who were arrested for illegally obtaining New Zealand passports.
In 1974 a senior government economist, William Sutch, was observed handing documents to KGB agents outside a Wellington public toilet. A year later he was acquitted on charges of betraying official secrets. It was never clear what he actually did.
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. There had been eight submarine sightings over 30 years.
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.