Comment

Peters’ Russian doubts at odds with defence paper

Acting Prime Minister Winston Peters says Donald Trump’s latest comments about Russia are “horribly confusing”. But Peters himself appears to be confusing matters regarding allegations of Russian interference in US politics, as Sam Sachdeva writes.

“Words matter.”

It’s a perennial catchcry of Winston Peters, and one he pulled out in a predictably combative interview with RNZ’s Guyon Espiner on Tuesday morning.

On Morning Report , the Acting Prime Minister was asked about the Helsinki summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Trump’s remarks seemingly siding with the Kremlin over his own intelligence agencies regarding election meddling.

In the process, Peters himself appeared to cast some doubt on the long-established allegations about Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.

"I believe there are huge allegations being made...I believe people are seriously concerned that those allegations are correct and now we are awaiting trials and proof and evidence to sheet home the responsibility and the level of guilt.”

What about a statement from US director of national intelligence Dan Coats saying the intelligence community had been “clear in our assessments of Russian meddling in the 2016 election and their ongoing, pervasive efforts to undermine our democracy”?

“If you believe in the rule of law and you believe in our standard of law, then a statement like that is a statement and it should be followed up with a prosecution, and to be believed in its entirety, a successful prosecution that removes all doubt of guilt,” Peters said.

It’s difficult to square his caginess with the far less ambiguous language in the Government’s Strategic Defence Policy Statement , released earlier this month.

Russia 'amplifying political polarisation'

While most of the focus fell on the report’s hawkish words on China, it also pulled no punches with Russia, talking about the country’s attempts to discredit Western democracy “by challenging its ‘internal coherence, leveraging information operations, and exploiting existing fissures”.

The policy statement even makes direct reference to Russian “social media campaigns” that “amplified political polarisation” in both US and UK elections.

Questioned about the inclusion of these remarks at the policy launch, Defence Minister Ron Mark offered a simple explanation.

“There are facts out there, these facts are reflected in our strategic defence policy.”

If the Government felt confident enough in those facts to include them in an official policy document, why does Peters not feel the same confidence when asked himself?

As Espiner noted, 12 Russians have now been indicted by the US Justice Department over allegations of a “sustained effort” to hack Democratic Party emails and networks.

Peters is correct that there is a legal process to be followed, and he did at least say he had suspicions about Russia, but he appears to be casting far more doubt on the allegations than should be the case.

MH17, FTA previous issues

Of course, the Foreign Affairs Minister has priors on Russia.

In March, Peters told Newshub the facts had not been laid out clearly when it came to the downing of passenger jet MH17 by Russian-aligned forces (although he later announced the Government’s “deep concern” at an investigative team’s findings linking the missile to Russian armed forces).

Then there was the issue of a free trade agreement with Russia , a provision in the Labour-New Zealand First coalition agreement which caught the eye of many.

The Government came under increasing pressure to scrap the plan in the wake of the Salisbury poisoning, and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern eventually put talks on ice.

Peters told Espiner many people were bemused and bewildered by some of Trump’s recent remarks - it would help if the Foreign Affairs Minister himself was clearer on New Zealand’s stance.

Yet Peters seems to have reopened the door, albeit just a crack, in a Monday interview with Newstalk ZB.

Peters said the Trump-Putin meeting was likely to weaken the "anti-Russian trade boycott, which might beg the question, well what have we been doing while this was happening".

Does that mean free trade talks are back on the table? That would be taking his comments too far, but a bit of clarity would certainly go a long way.

Peters told Espiner many people were bemused and bewildered by some of Trump’s recent remarks - it would help if the Foreign Affairs Minister himself was clearer on New Zealand’s stance.

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