New Zealand’s 2014 Defence Assessment released in May refers to the possibility that in North Asia, Russia’s “influence and importance … could increase in the future”. Closer to home, the Assessment offers a more muted overview of what it calls the “rising influence of non-traditional actors”, noting that “a greater range of countries are developing relationships with Pacific states, including defence relationships in some cases”. No states are mentioned by name. In the Pacific context, it seems, New Zealand’s concern about Russian influence trails off.
But given Moscow’s increasingly isolated position in the world and the importance New Zealand governments place on close ties with Pacific states, it is perhaps worth considering whether our region might be one area Russia will increasingly look to for support. As it happens, Moscow has been stepping up efforts to win friends and acquire UN votes over the last few months, right under New Zealand’s nose.
Nauru’s relations with Abkhazia are more meaningful than the sum of the two polities’ modest international clout. Like Eastern Ukraine, Abkhazia and nearby South Ossetia are proxy Russian conflict zones. They have been thorns in the side of successive Georgian governments since the country achieved independence just before the fall of the Soviet Union.
The latest visit of a Nauru representative to both Moscow and Sukhumi (Abkhazia’s self-declared capital) echoes the Pacific state’s first sally into Slavic Black Sea waters in 2009. In December that year, Moscow invited members of the Nauruan government to meet with Russian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Sergei Lavrov, and his Deputy Minister Alexei Borodavkin.
Kieren Keke, Nauru’s then-Minister for Finance and Foreign Affairs, offered an innocent account of the meeting, explaining that Russia simply wanted to help with the economic development of the floundering 21km² phosphate rock republic. He said ties with Russia were similar to those with Australia. “Like Australia, we make it known to them what our challenges and priorities are and they assess how they may assist us”.
Scornful reports by international media outlets concluded that Russia had, conveniently, given the island state a hefty US$50million right before Nauru’s decision to recognise Abkhazia. Yet surprisingly, the coverage didn’t prompt any broader analysis of Russia’s growing interest in the South Pacific.
Lavrov has strongly refuted allegations of vote buying, claiming that Russia would not dangle carrots of financial assistance. “We do not give any sops, and we do not try to persuade anyone to recognize Abkhazia and South Ossetia…. The small island states, suffering from water level rising in the World Ocean, need that their position is taken into account and their interests are protected. We will help them in this.”
In his report to the Nauru parliament following his 2009 Moscow visit, Kieren Keke offered a similar line, stressing that, “we are not talking about a one-off project. This is the start of a long term and substantial package of development cooperation”.
Keke’s words were, to put it mildly, somewhat optimistic. Like other small island nations, Nauru has ventured down this road before. In 2002 its government backed China in the ongoing recognition struggle with Taiwan, and earned a handsome sum for its troubles. Three years later Nauru’s leaders switched allegiance to Taiwan, only to return to China’s fold again in 2008. Ultimately, Nauru was unceremoniously dumped by both Beijing and Taipei. The state was left without a wealthy benefactor, and its economic fragility was thrust into the spotlight yet again.
Why should this matter to Wellington? Historically chequebook diplomacy has had deeply damaging consequences across the Pacific, most notably in the Solomon Islands. The transient nature of relationships between Pacific microstates and global powers like Russia undermines the economic and political sustainability of New Zealand’s ‘near abroad’, and contributes to geo-strategic flux in the region. While China has been willing to build a development partnership with New Zealand in the Pacific, it is not clear that Russia has such neighbourly long-term plans.
New Zealand is also increasingly concerned about the rule of law in Nauru. Foreign Minister McCully has said New Zealand’s $2.3m aid budget on the island could be at risk if civil rights abuses continue on the island. New Zealand should be wary lest Russia views this development as an opportunity to accelerate its involvement.
If the recent past is any guide, Russia’s actions in the Pacific will be linked to bigger changes in its relations with the West. While Moscow lost interest in the Pacific soon after its 2009 adventures, it again “came to the aid” of Pacific states in November 2011 just prior to a European Parliamentary resolution which declared Abkhazia and South Ossetia to be occupied territories.
In the 1980s, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon tried to encourage China to take a greater interest in the Pacific as a counter to Soviet influence. Now it is worth asking if New Zealand is so caught up reflecting on China’s growing influence that Russian incursions barely register a blip. Russia’s activities might not be New Zealand’s biggest headache in the Pacific, but they do warrant a closer look.
Rebecca McKeown is a graduate student in Politics and Security at University College London's School of Slavonic and East European Studies. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org