New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. Photo: AFP / Robert Kitchin

New Zealand has a reputation for “punching above its weight” – the exact words used by former United States assistant secretary of defense Richard Armitage in the mid-1980s when then prime minister David Lange banned nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed warships from New Zealand ports.

Heaving himself into a leather armchair in his Washington office overlooking the Potomac River,  the barrel-chested Vietnam War veteran was having none of the argument that New Zealand was a tiny, insignificant country at the far end of the world.

“You bloody Kiwis,” he growled, angrily complaining that the Labour Party’s action sent the wrong signal at the wrong time just two years into the presidency of Ronald Reagan, whose policies ultimately led to the end of the Cold War.

Thirty-eight years later, with the world on the edge of a second cold war, another Labour prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is sending defense staff and equipment to Europe to support Ukraine in its determined efforts to fight off a Russian invasion.

“Such a blatant attack on another country’s sovereignty is a threat to all of us and that’s why we too have a role to play,” said Ardern, who is still dealing with a spike in Covid-19 cases. “This is a conflict of great distance from New Zealand, but it is still of significance to New Zealand.”

As former defense minister Wayne Mapp noted in a recent interview, New Zealand always has been, and still is, part of the broader Western alliance, no matter how far away it is from the scene of the ongoing conflict.

New Zealand parliamentarians are discussing whether they have the authority under international law to summon Russian ambassador Georgii Zuev to explain the invasion of a country that gained its independence in 1991 after the collapse of the old Soviet Union.

Russia’s ambassador to New Zealand Georgii Zuev at a UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day Ceremony in Wellington in 2020. Photo: Facebook

Zuev, who took up his posting in 2018, has declined to entertain media interviews or take what would be the extraordinary step of appearing before Parliament’s select committee on foreign affairs, trade and defense, saying both would be “obviously futile.”

In February, he was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and given a “dressing down” over the unprovoked attack. The last time that happened was in 2018 when the Israeli ambassador was called in over the deaths of 50 people during protests in Gaza.

Given its size and a standing army of only 9,000 regular troops which last fought in Afghanistan, New Zealand’s aid to Ukraine is necessarily symbolic and, so far, at least, non-lethal.

It includes a single C-130 transport aircraft, one of only five in its current inventory, which will be based in Germany and help reposition military supplies, and US$8.8 million in rations, communications gear and first aid kits.

About $2.8 million is aimed at helping Ukrainian forces access commercial satellites. According to Ardern, it will allow them to “understand and respond to Russian actions on the battlefield” – part of a wider effort to share real-time intelligence.

Additional money will go towards humanitarian relief and to the International Criminal Court at The Hague to support an investigation into Russian cluster bomb and artillery attacks on the civilian population and alleged summary executions.

Neighboring Australia is providing $142 million in lethal military aid, made up of Javelin anti-tank missiles and 20 locally-produced Bushmaster armored vehicles designed to protect troops against mines and improvised explosive devices.

Australia will apparently be dipping into its own stock of Javelins, which has fast become the symbol of Ukraine’s determined resistance and was first deployed with the Australian special forces to the Iraq war in 2003.

In October 2020, the US approved the sale of 200 of the $250,000 missiles to Australia, but even only a small fraction of those will be a drop in the bucket given Ukraine’s current consumption of guided weapons against tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gunships.     

Australian Army soldiers fire a Javelin anti-tank missile during a live-fire demonstration showcasing the army’s joint combined arms capabilities at the Puckapunyal Military Base some 100 kilometers north of Melbourne on May 9, 2019. Photo: AFP / William West

Ardern refuses to make the distinction in the type of assistance each country is providing. “My view is that there is an artificial distinction between lethal and non-lethal aid and our contribution to the war in Ukraine,” she said recently.

The prime minister pointed to the earlier deployment to NATO headquarters in Brussels of a small group of skilled New Zealand intelligence analysts whose work she says is contributing directly to the war effort.

Mapp, a former territorial officer and intelligence specialist, said reports of Russian atrocities had persuaded the Ardern government to expand its assistance, particularly in the essential role of moving military equipment to the Poland-Ukraine border.

Often treated as Australia’s kid brother, New Zealand was a lot more than the mouse that roared during two world wars, contributing a greater number of combat troops per head of population than any of Britain’s main allies.

In 1914-18, it deployed 100,000 men recruited from a population of one million, of which 16,000 were killed on European and Middle Eastern battlefields. In World War II, it was 105,000 from a population of 1.6 million, of which 11,900 died in both the European and Pacific theatres.

It is the reason why almost every small rural town in New Zealand has a prominent war memorial, commemorating the cream of the country’s youth who died in far-off lands on what many naively believed was going to be a great adventure.

A war memorial in Motueka, a small town in New Zealand. Almost every town in New Zealand has one. Photo: WikiCommons