This article originally appeared in Dominion Post
Propaganda coming from all sides makes it hard for New Zealand to understand what is happening in Ukraine, writes Terence O'Brien.
New Zealand hopes to have a seat on the United Nations Security Council from next January. That makes it essential New Zealand fully grasps the complexity of the evolving Ukraine crisis, a crisis whose aftermath will persist through that term.
Achieving that understanding is complicated by the haze of propaganda from every direction.
Russia's actions have provoked consternation because they threaten Ukraine's national sovereignty. But neither country is acting virtuously.
The moral high ground surrounding national sovereignty and military operations is contested space.
Justifying arguments of principle now with the Russians about the sanctity of national sovereignty given all those post 9/11 realities is a hazardous venture. That same relativism applies to the Crimean referendum about its political future, dismissed by Europe and the United States (and New Zealand) as illegal. Given the very sizeable turnout and the result, legality becomes somewhat inconsequential.
At the same time the revolution on the streets of Kiev which precipitated the whole crisis is branded illegal by Moscow. It was at the very least a debatable constitutional transition.
The regime change did remove an unpalatable leader but directly puts at risk the integrity of a united Ukraine, where the majority identify themselves as Russian and where Moscow, as the next door neighbour, has legitimate historical interests.
There is in all of this the audible sound of pigeons coming home to roost. When the Cold War terminated , the Europe/Atlantic governments conspicuously let slip a genuine opportunity to lay the basis for co- operative stability in the region.
Instead they insisted on the need to progressively extend Nato into Russia's "near abroad" despite initial undertakings to Moscow this would not happen. By doing this they failed to concede the legitimacy to Russian security interests.
An enfeebled Russia could hardly resist, but the adversarial approach is a flawed basis for regional stability. It incubated the present situation with a stronger more assertive Russia.
The US and Europe are now prepared to isolate Russia by way of retribution.Targeted sanctions, fairly limited in extent so far, have been enacted - Europe remains acutely conscious of economic dependence on Russia.
Nevertheless the prospect looms for a sterile replay of the Cold War incompatible with the modern experience of globalising economic interdependence, and something that would not serve New Zealand's interests.
We need here to display our professed capacities for independent foreign policy judgment.
New Zealand's principal big picture focus is now on East Asia and Asia Pacific. We should keep our powder dry about joining Atlantic retribution against Russia.
Prime Minister John Key's purpose on his present Beijing visit is to reassure Chinese authorities politically following the Fonterra milk powder scare and to bring them up to date on progress with the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
But China has formal ties with Russia and the PM must obviously be prepared, given the Security Council bid, to engage seriously and constructively in discussion with the Chinese on the unfolding Ukraine crisis.
The same is true for his second port of call on the current tour, the American- inspired Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) in the Hague, where more than 50 heads of government will convene (including China) and where the opportunities to lobby and display our credentials for the Security Council seat bid are significant.
The crisis in Ukraine - which is a NSS member - will be the inevitable ghost at that feast. Cold shouldering Moscow will have yet wider repercussions for its continuing constructive involvement in the Middle East with Syria, with Iran and arms control more generally.
There are no rational grounds to believe President Vladamir Putin actually wants war.
The danger is that Russian belligerence over Ukraine, in combination with persistent Cold War instincts on the part of Atlantic/ European governments, could produce a slide into regional conflict. Germany,whose role is central to Europe's responses, has excluded entirely military action.
Ukraine's new leaders will have to come to terms with that hard truth. Both they and the Russians indicate readiness for direct dealings but so far each attach strong pre-conditions which the other side rejects. Watch the space.
Terence O'Brien is a former New Zealand diplomat and a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic Studies.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Diplosphere's views.