Skip to main content

UK Bilateral Relations (Russia)

Volume 460: debated on Wednesday 9 May 2007

In my estimation we have never truly had close relations with Russia, certainly not during my lifetime, yet it is such an important country. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a huge influence in the middle east and other parts of the world where we are seeking to solve long-standing problems. I have visited Russia on a number of occasions and been in awe of it, but it has huge cultural differences from us that we must learn to understand and appreciate. We must learn to respect the fact that Russians think differently from us and do things in a different way. We need to achieve greater mutual respect.

Russia faces many foreign problems including in the Kaliningrad enclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland. Russia has borders with 14 countries and there are various problems with some of those neighbours, ranging from diplomatic spats to outright confrontation. I wish to mention a couple of them.

Russia has a long-standing dispute with the Japanese over the Kuril islands, which were seized after the second world war, and that has led to a lack of Japanese investment in Russia. Recently we have read about the growing tensions between Russia and Estonia, because the Estonians have taken down a statue commemorating the tremendous sacrifices of Russian soldiers during the second world war in liberating that country. That has led to some serious intimidation of Estonian diplomats in Moscow and, as an ally of Estonia in NATO, Great Britain has shown serious concern about the treatment of Estonians over the matter.

Belarus is, in my estimation, the last dictatorship in Europe—a most appalling, dreadful regime in the heart of Europe with which Russia is having to grapple. President Lukashenko is commonly known to have instrumented some of the worst human rights abuses and is causing the Russians a great deal of problems by blackmailing them to pay for the transit of Russian oil to Europe through the pipelines in his country.

Of course Russia has relations with North Korea, which is near Vladivostok on its far eastern border. Both Russia and ourselves are extremely concerned about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, which has an unstable regime that is extremely cruel to its population but is pursuing an extremely expensive programme of nuclear weapons production.

Russia has many problems but I have time to mention only a few, of which the last is Chechnya. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has written an open letter to the Russian authorities, together with others including the Conservative former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), outlining their concerns about the atrocities in Chechnya. It is an ongoing, terrible problem for Russia and there are appalling human rights abuses on both sides. That is happening in Europe, which is of great concern to us as well as to the Russians.

I wish to talk about the areas in which we need Russian support and why it is so important to have good relations with Russia. We need Russian support in the war on terrorism. Russia has a huge influence over Syria and Iran, and we know that there is an ongoing problem with border-crossing between Syria and Iraq. Insurgents and terrorists are coming from Syria and other countries across the Syrian border into Iraq, directly threatening the lives of serving British soldiers there because of the porous border. I know that Russia has long-standing trading and diplomatic relations with Syria.

On the other side of Iraq, Iran has allegedly been assisting insurgency in Basra and the rest of the south. Russia has huge influence over Iran and has been supplying it with a great deal of nuclear technology, ostensibly for a peaceful programme of nuclear power generation. We in Great Britain and others are concerned about the possibility that Iran may use that technology to produce nuclear weapons. Russia is at the forefront of supplying such countries with nuclear technology.

Just today we learn that Russia is allegedly selling attack helicopters and gunships to Sudan. An article from today’s The Daily Telegraph states that Russia has

“broken a United Nations arms embargo by supplying Sudan with attack helicopters, bombers and other weapons in the knowledge that they are being used against civilians in Darfur, Amnesty International said yesterday.”

It concerns me greatly that a country such as Russia, which has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is allegedly selling such appalling weapons to Sudan to enable the Sudanese Government to carry out some of the worst human rights atrocities imaginable. We should be putting a great deal more pressure on Russia and seeking explanations as to why it is breaking a UN embargo, which is totally unacceptable behaviour. I return to my point that we need a better relationship with the Russians in order to lobby them and put pressure on them. Many people in our own country feel strongly about what is happening in Darfur and look to us to stop the atrocities. We must use our influence as a major military and economic power in the world to lobby the Russians to try to prevent such exports.

What more needs to be done? I look forward to listening to the Minister, who will hopefully explain what he is doing to draw Russia ever closer to the European Union and into our camp to be our close allies. We must consider the Kaliningrad enclave, which is a remnant of the settlement of the second world war and is cut off from the rest of Russia, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It has significant problems through being surrounded by European Union countries but not having the benefits of being in the EU. I am sure that we in the EU could do more to give special status to that part of Russia, which is almost encased within the EU, to assist with trade and better transport links. We want to encourage trade between the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. I would certainly urge the Minister to spend some time considering what could be done about that anomaly in Europe, and about whether Kaliningrad’s status could be modernised.

We need to engage more directly with Moscow. That is the key point that I want to get across in this debate. When I speak to my friends in the Russian Foreign Ministry, they tell me that they get hardly any visits by British Ministers. That may or may not be true, but they also tell me that French and German Ministers are pounding on their doors all the time. Russia gets a huge number of delegations led by French and German Foreign Ministers, and also cultural and trade visits. My friends say to me, “We look to Great Britain as potentially a key strategic ally, yet you seem to ignore us. There are far fewer visits by your Ministers than there are by French and German Ministers, who seem to take us more seriously.”

I would like more visits not just by Ministers from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office but by Ministers from the Department for Education and Skills and the Department of Trade and Industry, particularly the Minister for Trade. He should be leading far more delegations of British companies to Russia to look for business and start to make contacts with Russian companies.

One project that I am particularly interested in is the Sakhalin oil project off the far east coast of Russia. British Petroleum and Shell, among other British companies, are involved in one of the largest oil exploration programmes to date—there could be a huge oil find in Sakhalin—but I do not know how much help they are getting from Ministers. I would be interested to hear what the Government are doing to help BP fight its corner in Russia. The Russian President, Vladimir Putin, has had high-level meetings with BP. The Russians are tough negotiators, and I know that BP—

I know that BP has interests there, and Shell as well. More must be done for British oil companies. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about the levels of engagement of British Ministers in helping British oil companies in their tough negotiations with the Russian Government. The Russian Government recently put a lot of pressure on our oil companies over certain environmental issues at Sakhalin, which they used as a bargaining weapon for concessions, so I hope that our Government are helping companies with negotiations. Of course, there are huge new opportunities in mining, gas and minerals, as well as in the oil sector.

I remember the tremendous good will that this country received when our specialists went out to salvage the Kursk submarine. British companies were involved in trying to free the people who were trapped in that submarine, and in some of the operations after the disaster. Tremendous good will was expressed to us by the Russian authorities. I hope that we can continue to work with the Russians to show how interested we are in their country. We need to make far more ministerial visits than we are currently making, and bring Russia not into our sphere of influence but certainly into our camp, as the country will become increasingly important in the coming years, particularly given the changes of political influence in China, Japan and the far east. I look forward to hearing from the Minister what the Government are doing in respect of this very important relationship.

I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing this debate. I would like to emphasise, as he has already done, why it is important for the UK to work with Russia, and why we do so. We should not lose sight of the fact that Russia is an important player in enabling us to achieve our international objectives. I shall add to the examples that the hon. Gentleman rightly set out.

Russia remains a key player and an important partner in the United Nations Security Council. It is a major energy supplier to Europe. We need Russian assistance to tackle climate change—indeed, strong leadership from Russia will be required to do so—and Russia offers real potential as an important market for UK trade. Those are just a few of the reasons why we should engage with Russia to promote international security, stability, and prosperity.

We work with Russia in the UN to address challenges to international peace and security. We discuss issues such as Iran’s nuclear programme, Kosovo and the middle east peace process. We have worked with Russia through the G8 to address, among other things, the challenges of climate and energy security, international development and avian flu. We are working with allies through the NATO-Russia Council to discuss plans for a ballistic missile defence system in Europe, and we are working with our European Union partners towards a new framework for EU-Russia relations. Negotiating a successor to the current partnership and co-operation agreement will give us a mechanism for discussing and resolving any disagreements on issues of key interest to the UK, including trade, energy and human rights.

In working to achieve the Government’s international priorities, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office spends considerable time, effort and resources engaging with Russia. Russia’s chairmanship of the G8 resulted in a particularly high level of contact in 2006, with 15 ministerial visits to that country. I visited last autumn, and I hosted Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov for talks in London in March this year.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry visited Russia in February with a high-level business delegation, and Ministers with responsibility for international trade and for energy have visited in the past two years. Notwithstanding the hon. Gentleman’s assertions, the truth is that there has been high-level and high-quality engagement with Russia at ministerial level in recent times.

It is important to emphasise that engagement with Russia does not always mean agreement with Russia. Its status as a global player means that it must abide by international commitments and operate from the same international rulebook. We want Russia to be strongly committed to the rule of law, and to provide a just home for its citizens as well as a predictable partner for Governments and businesses to deal with. If we believe that Russia is falling short of the international standards to which it has subscribed, we will say so. Let me give some examples of that.

On energy security, which the hon. Gentleman referred to, the British Government were at the forefront of efforts in the G8 that led to the St. Petersburg principles on energy security that were agreed in July 2006 under Russia’s G8 presidency. The principles of transparency, predictability and stability of global energy markets and supply should underpin global energy markets.

On numerous occasions since the G8 summit in St. Petersburg, we have reminded Russia of the important principles to which it signed up. We have done so not least in the context of seeking protection of British investors’ interests in the oil and gas sectors in Russia. We have repeatedly underlined to the Russian Government the importance of ensuring an operating climate that encourages investors to invest for the long term in that country, which in itself will help Russia to meet global energy security needs. I conveyed that message to all the Russian interlocutors whom I met last autumn, and I continue to do so.

On the specific agreements and contracts affecting British companies, it is important that the companies themselves should make decisions as to the right way forward. They have received strong and consistent support from the British Government, but, ultimately, it is for them to make judgments as to the best way to secure their own arrangements with and in Russia.

Furthermore, as we have stated on many occasions, the Government welcome investment in the UK by companies and individuals from Russia or, indeed, anywhere else who are transparent in their business, and who are prepared to operate in markets governed by competitive, liberal market principles.

The Government believe that respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law promotes stability and economic development. That is as applicable to Russia as to any other country. As such, where we have concerns about Russia’s human rights record, we will raise them. We do that through formal consultation mechanisms, such as the European Union and the Council of Europe, as well as bilaterally. For example, EU-Russia human rights consultations raised such issues only last week and in the Council of Europe we continue to work with Russia and others to ensure that all member states, including Russia, uphold their commitment as signatories to the European convention on human rights.

The hon. Gentleman referred to Russia’s relations with its near neighbours and we believe that it is in our and Russia’s interests to have stable and prosperous countries on Russia’s borders. We regularly discuss the common neighbourhood with Russia and raise issues of concern, such as Russia’s embargo on Georgia and the economic restrictions placed on Georgians living in Russia. Equally, we believe that Russia must treat our EU partners fairly and with respect. I mention that in the context of recent difficulties in relation to Estonia.

Another issue on which we do not see eye to eye with Russia is its attitude to the asylum or refugee status of individuals in the UK, and their continued presence here. Despite our continuing efforts to explain the nature of judicial independence in this country, the Russian Administration have not fully accepted that such questions are matters of UK law, not of politics or diplomacy.

Nevertheless, having set out the areas of critical concern, we should not lose sight of the positive aspects of the relationship between the UK and Russia. On trade, during the first three quarters of 2006, the UK was the largest foreign investor in Russia and accounted for about 18 per cent. of Russia’s total foreign investment. Our trading relationship reached an all-time high in 2005 when annual exports were nearly £3 billion. In terms of people-to-people contact, the number of Russians visiting the UK has risen by 20 per cent. a year over recent years. The number of Russians who have visited the UK now exceeds 170,000.

The Government regard Russia as an important international partner and, as such, we expect Russia to meet its international commitments. As I have said, relations with Russia are underpinned by active, and, where necessary, critical engagement. When we disagree with Russia we say so, and where obstacles and disagreements exist, our aim will continue to be to seek to resolve them through a transparent, open and honest dialogue. It is a balanced approach that is aligned to British interests and I hope that the hon. Gentleman can support it.

Sitting suspended until half-past Two o’clock.