Two defense experts say they are puzzled that the Defense Forces did not know that one of their soldiers was fighting in Ukraine while on leave.
Corporal Dominic Abelen died in Ukraine while on unpaid leave. A former soldier who fought alongside him said he died while directing and covering other fighters during a night operation.
The whereabouts of his body are unknown – with reports that it may be in Russian hands.
The Defense Force said yesterday it had no comment, while the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT) said it was limited in its ability to comment for operational, security reasons. and confidentiality, but that it was “engaging with relevant agencies on the ground to take the most appropriate next steps”.
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Dr. Paul Buchanan, a former intelligence and defense policy analyst, said repatriating Abelen’s body should be a straightforward process if the body was in the Ukrainian line and Abelen hadn’t left the wish or desire to be buried on the ground in which he fell. .
If Abelen’s body was behind the Russian line, it might become difficult to locate in case the Russians were expelled.
“I haven’t read anything indicating that Russia would be willing to return the body to his family.”
The government will no doubt inquire with the Russian Embassy about the whereabouts of the body, but the Russians may not respond, Buchanan said, noting that the process could take weeks or even months, and that it was possible that the body would never be returned.
Buchanan said the idea that the Defense Force would not have been aware of his soldiers’ whereabouts while on unpaid leave was “laughable”. He thought he would need to know their locations, in case a quick call was needed.
Robert Patman, a professor at the University of Otago whose research specializes in foreign policy and international relations, also said it was “puzzling” that the Defense Force was unaware of the location. where Abelen is.
Abelen’s body was likely behind the Russian line, Patman said. This was problematic, as the Russian embassy had given a hard line in taking no responsibility for the lives of New Zealand citizens who had taken part in what Russia calls illegal activity in Ukraine.
Patman said the fact that the Defense Forces were exploring who else might fight in Ukraine on leave suggests there are others like Abelen. There were 94 personnel on unpaid leave and the Defense Force was going through the list – calling them to remind them of their obligations and advising them not to travel to Ukraine. There was no update on Saturday.
The Prime Minister’s Office also did not provide any update on the situation on Saturday.
Aaron Wood, co-founder of the No Duff veterans trust, said the Defense Force was “really in a pickle” with the “incredibly unique situation”.
“Technically he was a serving soldier, but he was on leave. If he died overseas on leave, like any other employer, there would be no obligation to help when he returned. It’s difficult …society almost expects them to help.He died fighting, but not for New Zealand.
To complicate matters, he said there was no way to know exactly where Abelen’s body was. He died in a fight for territory, which Russian forces won.
Wood knew there were informal POWs and body swaps between the parties, but nothing was certain about the situation involving Abelen.
Around 500 New Zealanders reportedly volunteered to fight for Ukraine earlier this year. The figure was reported by Ukraine’s honorary consul in Auckland, but they and the government warned against it.
It was not known how many Kiwis were fighting in Ukraine. The government said it could not protect anyone traveling there, but it also could not prevent people from traveling to the country.
Staff are required to inform their employer if they travel to countries at risk, such as Ukraine. Anyone violating this could be subject to disciplinary action.
New Zealand sent 150 people to the UK this year to train Ukrainian soldiers, 120 of whom were sent in August.
The whānau of Abelen say he was a brave man who stood up for what he believed in.