Crossing the Diplomatic Line: When Are Ambassadors Expelled?


Podcast: the detail

There have been calls for New Zealand to expel the Russian ambassador in response to the war in Ukraine. But is this the right step to take? Or is it better to keep these diplomatic channels open?

What can we do with Russia?

One option – as advocated by National leader Christopher Luxon, National foreign affairs spokesman Gerry Brownlee and Green Party foreign affairs spokesman Golriz Ghahraman – would be to expel the Russian ambassador to New Zealand, Georgy Zuev.

It would not be an unprecedented decision. New Zealand has already expelled senior diplomats. Russian ambassadors have also been expelled from other countries in the past, notably after the attempted poisoning of former spy Sergei Skripal in the English town of Salisbury.

While easy to suggest, such a move carries some diplomatic weight and potential consequences.

As international analyst Geoffrey Miller explains, ambassadors play an important role.

“The advantage of an ambassador is that you have someone who is actually in the country,” he says.

“To take a current example, we have a Russian ambassador based in Wellington, so we have a senior Russian official based in New Zealand who we can talk to.

“You know that he has a direct connection with the Russian Foreign Ministry, with his boss – Sergei Lavrov, in this case – and this is the case for all ambassadors and high commissioners.”

New Zealand is no stranger to diplomatic wrangling: in the past decade alone we have expelled diplomats from Peru and the United States. In one infamous case, we called for a Malaysian diplomat to be extradited to New Zealand to face charges of indecent assault, for which he was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to nine months in residence.

But these are more cases of individuals misbehaving than of countries: expelling an ambassador to express disapproval of his nation’s actions is altogether rarer.

Even after the Rainbow Warrior bombing in 1985, New Zealand did not expel the French ambassador – although this scandal led to the resignation of the French defense minister.

In 2008 and 2009, Aotearoa expelled the Fijian high commissioner, although in both cases the action was retaliatory, as Fiji decided to expel the New Zealand high commissioners first.

Robert Muldoon also expelled two ambassadors while he was Prime Minister – Vsevolod Sofinsky of the Soviet Union in 1980 for donations Sofinsky allegedly made to the pro-Soviet Socialist Unity Party; and Argentine Ambassador Alberto Aden in 1982 during the Falklands War.

But such decisions are not taken lightly and can pose a serious and long-term threat to relations between the countries.

On whether the government should follow the advice of National and the Greens and expel Russian Ambassador Georgy Zuev, Miller is lukewarm.

“It would show your anger at what Russia has done…but I’m not a fan of the idea of ​​kicking out the Russian ambassador.

“I think you are losing that channel of communication, the ability to have that dialogue with Russia.

“We need a ceasefire in this war…I think we need more dialogue, not less, if we want to stop this war in Ukraine.”

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