Ukraine Doesn't Even Come Close: Soviet troops roll over the Afghan border in late-December 1979. The presence of T-54 tanks on the streets of Kabul was not enough, however, to halt New Zealand's burgeoning trade relationship with the Soviet Union. So keen was the Muldoon Government to keep selling butter to the Reds that the relationship even survived the SIS catching the Soviet Ambassador passing $10,000 to the Socialist Unity Party!
NEW ZEALANDERS like to make fun of their Security Intelligence Service. That an SIS agent’s abandoned briefcase was found to contain a cold meat pie and a hot copy of Penthouse magazine has provided endless fodder for the nation’s satirists. The service’s critics also like to reiterate its agents’ failure to secure a conviction for espionage against William B. Sutch – one of New Zealand’s most distinguished public servants. More latterly, we’ve been encouraged to shake our heads in wonderment at the sort of Cold War madness that could persuade the SIS to keep a file on the mild-mannered Keith Locke – from the age of ten!
Largely forgotten amongst all this guffawing and tut-tutting is the occasion when the SIS got it right. When all the weeks of surveillance and electronic eavesdropping actually paid off, and New Zealand’s spooks were able to parade the scalp, not of some lowly Eastern Bloc attaché, but of the Soviet ambassador himself.
The so-called “Sofinsky Affair” took place just before Christmas in 1979 and featured the Soviet Ambassador, Vesevelod Sofinksy, caught in the act of handing over $10,000 of “Moscow Gold” to a representative of the Socialist Unity Party. The latter, a Soviet-aligned communist organisation, though small in numbers, wielded considerable influence in the then powerful trade union movement. Sofinsky was the SIS’s biggest “gotcha” by far – a Christmas present wrapped up in the reddest of red ribbons.
And yet, the Prime Minister of the day, Rob Muldoon, was troubled. His most obvious course of action was to expel the ambassador for what everybody agreed was an egregious breach of diplomatic protocol. The problem was that, on Christmas Eve 1979, just days after the wildly successful Sofinsky “sting”, Soviet armoured divisions began rolling across the Afghan border.
Amidst the outraged protests of the Muslim states, and the teeth-grinding rage of the “Free World”, Prime Minister Muldoon was desperately worried that New Zealand’s expulsion of its Ambassador would be construed by the Soviet Government as an act of exaggerated Cold War fealty. How would the Soviets respond? What would happen to the burgeoning trade relationship between the two countries? What was a delinquent ambassador worth? Hopefully not that much!
Muldoon dispatched one of his most trusted advisers, Gerald Hensely, to consult New Zealand’s principal allies on the likely consequences. The [Jimmy] Carter Administration in Washington urged caution, but the British were confident that the most New Zealand had to fear by withdrawing Sofinsky’s diplomatic credentials was that the Soviets would do the same to New Zealand’s ambassador in Moscow.
And so it proved. The two states expelled each other’s ambassadors, but took no further action. The shipments of butter and mutton to Russian ports continued uninterrupted – as did the unloading of Russian-made Lada cars at the Auckland docks. Not even the Soviets’ reckless intervention in the internal politics of New Zealand, or the presence of T-54 Russian tanks on the streets of Kabul, was enough to keep the Dairy and Meat Boards’ exports out of the Russian market. Back in 1980, foreign trade was important to New Zealand’s prime minister.
Customer? Cartoonist, Malcolm Evans, exposes the hypocrisy of the Muldoon Government's anti-Soviet rhetoric.
The answer, apparently, is exactly the same combination of “allies” who, back in 1980, had no problems at all with New Zealand trading with the Soviet Union. Today, however, the Russian Federation is a “no-go area” for New Zealand exports. Russia could invade Afghanistan in 1979, and not be subjected to trade sanctions. But, in 2014, her defensive annexation of Crimea (which had, up until the mid-1950s, been an integral part of the Russian state) has prompted her Nato enemies to declare Russia’s markets off-limits.
Why isn’t our government challenging the EU’s/Nato’s/USA’s right to impose such trade barriers? Time, perhaps, for the SIS to place the American ambassador and the National Party under surveillance?
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 August 2015.