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House of Commons Hansard
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Service Personnel (Ukraine)
25 February 2015
Volume 593

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(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the deployment of UK personnel to train Ukrainian forces.

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The Government’s position from the outset has been that we deplore Russian aggression in Ukraine. We do not believe that there is a military solution. There needs to be a diplomatic solution, which can be enabled through sanctions, pressure and the economic weight of Europe and America. Obviously, however, as the Prime Minister has said, where we can help a friend with non-lethal equipment, we should do so.

The second Minsk agreement of 12 February provided a framework for stabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine. We want it to succeed and we urge all sides to take the necessary steps to implement it. In the light of continued Russian-backed aggression in eastern Europe, the UK is committed to providing additional non-lethal support to the Ukrainian Government to help their forces deal with the pressures they are facing. As the Prime Minister confirmed in Parliament yesterday, we are providing additional non-lethal support by sending advisory and short-term training teams. This support, provided at the request of the Ukrainian Government, will help their armed forces develop and maintain the capacity and resilience they need, and help reduce fatalities and casualties.

Support to the Ukrainian armed forces is not new; we have been providing it for some time. This includes support on anti-corruption, on defence reform and on strategic communications and procurement. Over the last year, we have also provided personal protective equipment, winter fuel, medical kits and winter clothing for the Ukrainian armed forces.

As part of the wider Government effort to support Ukraine and ensure a robust international response to Russia’s aggression, UK personnel will now provide to the Ukrainian armed forces medical, logistics, infantry, and intelligence capacity-building training from mid-March. Most of the advisory and training support will take place in Ukraine, but well away from the areas affected by the conflict in the east of the country. The number of service personnel involved will be around 75.

In respect of medical support, we will provide combat life-support training through a “train the trainer package” to multiply the numbers trained. The logistics team will identify and help improve deficiencies within Ukraine’s logistics distribution system. The infantry training package will focus on protective measures to improve survivability, and the intelligence capacity building team will provide tactical-level analysis training. We are considering further requests from the Ukrainian Government for support and assistance, and we will work closely with key allies through the Ukraine-US-UK-Canada joint commission. In the meantime, Russia must abide by its commitments at Minsk. That means making the separatists withdraw their heavy weapons, stopping continued separatist attacks so that an effective ceasefire can hold, and allowing effective monitoring to take place.

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Let me begin by apologising to the Secretary of State and the House on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker). As the Secretary of State knows, my hon. Friend is currently making a scheduled visit to our armed forces who are involved in Operation TOSCA.

Members on both sides of the House are rightly concerned about the serious and ongoing situation in eastern Ukraine, and about the question of an imminent ceasefire. Labour Members have made it clear that the international community must be ready to increase diplomatic pressure on the Kremlin should Russia fail to implement the ceasefire and change course. We support these non-lethal steps to improve the capacity of the Ukraine armed forces, but the public will want not only to know what strategic rationale lies behind the announcement, but to ask questions about the operation itself.

If this deployment is to succeed, it must form part of a broader NATO strategy. How does the Secretary of State’s announcement fit into the broader NATO strategy on Ukraine, and what discussions has he had with our NATO partners about the deployment? What is the overall strategic objective of the deployment, and how long has it been in the planning? How does it fit into the wider ongoing diplomatic efforts to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current crisis?

Let me now ask some specific questions about the operation itself. What force protection arrangements will there be for the UK service personnel who are involved in this operation, and how long does he expect the deployment to continue? What will be the legal status of the UK forces while they are in Ukraine?

As I have said, we support these non-lethal steps to reinforce the Ukrainian forces’ logistical, medical and intelligence capabilities. We also pay tribute to, and recognise the professionalism of, those of our armed forces who will take part in this vital operation.

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said.

Let me make it clear at the outset that Ukraine has the right to defend herself, and to defend her sovereign territory. The hon. Gentleman asked what was our strategic objective. It is to help Ukraine in that task: to help it to build up the capacity and resilience of its armed forces, and above all, when we can, to help to reduce the number of fatalities and casualties that are occurring.

The hon. Gentleman asked about NATO. This is not a NATO deployment; it follows a decision by the United Kingdom Government. Obviously we consult our allies very closely—I hope to do that in Washington very shortly—and NATO has set up a couple of trust funds, to which we have contributed, as part of its partnership with Ukraine. Nevertheless, this is not a NATO operation A number of our allies are considering providing non-lethal assistance, and the United States is already doing so.

As for how the deployment fits in with other efforts, it accompanies our continuing diplomatic efforts. I should emphasise that this country has been at the forefront of the efforts to impose sanctions on Russia. I should also emphasise that it is leading the efforts to ensure that those sanctions are renewed, and to make Moscow understand that unless its aggression ceases, it will face further sanctions and additional international isolation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about force protection. The training will be carried out either around Kiev itself or in the west of the country, an area that we know well and where exercises and training take place. Obviously, however, we will continue to assess what force protection is required for each specific mission. The hon. Gentleman asked about the status of our trainers. I want to make it very clear that we are providing this training capacity at the request of the Ukraine Government. Each of these things has been asked for by Ukraine; we are answering Kiev’s call.

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The trouble with sending advisers is that, as the Americans found in Vietnam, and as many other nations have found since, mission creep eventually results in the sending of combat troops. Given that Ukraine is an area the size of France, where whole German armies of tens of thousands of men were enveloped and destroyed in the second world war, is there not a real danger of that? We must rule out sending ground troops, and we should concentrate our efforts on promoting peace, self-determination in the east within Ukraine’s borders, and solving what the Foreign Secretary described as a “sink of corruption” in Kiev. We should send advisers to help to sort out corruption, not wage war.

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We already provide advice and support on how to tackle corruption inside the Ukrainian Government. We have done so over the past few months and, indeed, I think even before then. As for mission creep, may I make it absolutely clear that we are not deploying combat troops to Ukraine, and we will not do so? We are providing non-lethal assistance that has been requested by the Ukrainian Government to enhance the capability of their armed forces and to attempt to reduce the number of fatalities and casualties that they have suffered.

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Of course everyone wants a diplomatic solution to the crisis, but are the Government not at risk of showing naivety in the face of a calculating thug in President Putin? Every time that the right hon. Gentleman stands at the Dispatch Box and rules out a military solution from the UK and its allies he makes such a military catastrophe more likely by emboldening Putin.

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I do not accept that. We have to make it clear to Russia that it has to cease its aggression and its encouragement of the separatists in eastern Ukraine. The best way to do that, as we are already doing, is through sanctions and political pressure on Russia. Equally, it would not be right to refuse the call that we have received from Kiev—from the Ukrainian Government—to help with some of the basic training, support and equipment that they need.

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The whole House will recognise that there is a risk here, but does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is in our interests to check President Putin’s aggression? Does he also agree that that is entirely consistent with our obligations under the 1994 Budapest agreement, signed by Boris Yeltsin, John Major and Bill Clinton?

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I agree with my hon. Friend, who has experience of serving in the Ministry of Defence. He is right about the aggression that Putin has shown. We need to stand up to that, but there are a number of routes to that. They are political and diplomatic: we do not think that there is a military solution to the conflict. However, where we have been asked to help, we should do so. We are a friend of Ukraine, and we should come to the help of a friend in need.

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Like the Defence Secretary, I abhor the Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine, and I support the EU sanctions approach. Has he had the opportunity to review the Ukrainian media? The Kyev Post writes:

“The United Kingdom stunned officials across Europe with a unilateral announcement that it would send 75 troops to Ukraine…EU officials in Brussels first learned of the decision when contacted by the Kyiv Post for comment, and were unable to provide one.”

Why do our allies seem to be so badly informed, and why did the Government not come to the House and make a proactive statement to Parliament?

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On the latter point, I announced in Defence questions on Monday that we were preparing such a package, and the Prime Minister gave details of the package to the Liaison Committee yesterday. One thing we cannot be accused of is not keeping Parliament informed: we are keeping Parliament informed. As for consultation with allies, of course we talk to them. I meet my fellow Defence Ministers in NATO all the time, and I shall meet another one later this afternoon. I saw High Representative Federica Mogherini yesterday. This is a decision for the UK Government; this is not a NATO deployment. It is a decision by the UK Government to respond to a request from the Ukrainian Government.

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I welcome the Government’s initiative, particularly if it is alongside our allies in the United States. The Ukrainians need the ability to defend their homeland against a much more powerful aggressor and they require equipment such as unmanned aerial vehicles for reconnaissance and targeting. They require anti-tank capability and encrypted communications. Is not the argument that we cannot give defensive equipment to a country under threat because it might provoke a further reaction from Russia simply a bully’s charter that is already discredited by history?

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I agree with my predecessor but one as Secretary of State. We are supplying defensive equipment. It might not be lethal, but it does help the Ukrainian armed forces better defend themselves. As I said in my initial statement, in addition to the secondment of 75 trainers we are considering a further request from the Ukrainian Government for additional equipment and support. That is non-lethal, but we reserve the right ultimately to keep it under review.

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The Secretary of State said that the 75 trainers would “mostly” be in Ukraine. Where else will they be operating from? If any Ukrainians are coming to the UK for training, can we have an absolute assurance for the citizens of the UK that we will not face another incident such as those in Bassingbourn, where we were training Libyans and members of the Cambridge community were assaulted? Can we have an assurance about how many are coming to the UK and where else they will be trained?

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It is slightly unfortunate that the hon. Lady has compared the general purpose force we were attempting to train—a very raw force of recruits from Libya—with the Ukrainian armed forces. She asked me a straightforward and quite reasonable question about where else the training might be. There will be, and has already been, some training in the UK, but there can also be training in countries alongside Ukraine. We are looking at where the training can best be provided, but it is likely that most of it will be provided in Ukraine, in the Kiev area or elsewhere in the west of Ukraine, areas that are very familiar to the British military as we have been on exercise there in the past.

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It is of course very important that there should be non-lethal support and training, but in a parallel situation in north-east Iraq, where we are training the peshmerga in Kurdistan, we have discovered that the Americans and other EU allies are training on the front line and they find that much more effective than the kind of training we have been providing about 100 miles behind the front line. Is there not an argument that, although that support is non-lethal, we might find a way to move the troops forward so that they can advise the Ukrainians where they are doing the fighting?

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I do not think it is right for other countries to get involved in the conflict in eastern Ukraine. On the contrary, Russia should now be withdrawing its heavy weapons from eastern Ukraine and be putting pressure on the separatists to lay down their arms. On the location of the training, we are not putting combat troops anywhere near the front line. The training we have been providing to the peshmerga in northern Iraq has, as my hon. Friend says, been well away from the front line. We have trained more than 1,000 peshmerga as well as supplying them with machine guns and ammunition.

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We know for a fact that the Russians are supplying lethal weapons to the rebels. NATO’s response has been pretty woeful, but may I ask a specific question about what the Secretary of State said? I am sure that he mentioned that he was considering what else can be done about further requests, so will he enlighten the House on what more might be being considered to be put in place in the future?

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We have had a series of requests from the Ukrainian Government, including lists of equipment of all kinds. I do not want to give too many details, but we are looking at these shortfalls in their capacity and at what further training we might be able to provide in addition to the infantry training, logistics and medical and intelligence capacity-building training I described.

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I welcome the Secretary of State’s announcement. These are proportionate and sensibly judged measures for us to take. We are good at this sort of thing and as we have been asked to help it is only right that we should do so. Let us not exaggerate the scale of what we are doing, however. The idea that 75 trainers will lead to creep into a mission in an area the size of France is clearly far-fetched, but we should be willing to respond to anything more of a similar kind and we should do so on a pan-governmental basis to help the Ukrainian Government build up their capacity more widely.

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I am particularly grateful to my hon. Friend, another former Minister in the Ministry of Defence. He has got it exactly right. We should respond to requests. Ukraine is our friend, it is in need and we should respond to requests, whether they are for equipment or additional training. I want to assure the House that that is exactly what we will continue to do.

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Is the Secretary of State aware that mission creep knows no boundaries? That has happened so many times, as evidenced by the point made much earlier by one of his hon. Friends. In Vietnam, it started with only a little request. On Libya, not so long ago in this House I asked about mission creep and did not get a satisfactory answer. I never could and now I know the result: ISIL roaming over large areas of Libya. That is what mission creep did. As sure as night follows day, Ukraine will now realise that the United Kingdom is a participant in the battle and will ask for more. What is he going to do then?

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It is rather odd to describe the operations in Libya as mission creep. This was a mission to get rid of Gaddafi and to help the Libyan people get rid of a brutal dictator; a dictator I believe the former Labour Government rather cosied up to—

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No, Mrs Thatcher did to get more oil during the pit strike—

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It was a mission to help the Libyan people get rid of a dictator and give them the chance of choosing a better future. Obviously, we would want to see the situation in Libya improve.

This is a closely defined training mission. We think it is right to respond to the call for help. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting that we should shun such a call, I cannot agree with him.

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Is my right hon. Friend aware that last week Prime Minister Yatsenyuk told me that he regarded Britain, alongside America, as Ukraine’s strongest allies, and his statement this afternoon confirms that? Is my right hon. Friend aware that we have a special responsibility as a signatory of the Budapest memorandum to help Ukraine? Specifically, will he consider the requests made by the Ukrainian Government for defensive weapons such as counter-battery radar, electronic jamming equipment and anti-tank weaponry?

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My hon. Friend is probably as knowledgeable as anybody about the affairs of Ukraine, as he chairs the all-party group. It is very clear to us that the Ukrainian armed forces are in desperate need of further equipment and they have supplied lists of equipment they would like. We are focusing, as I have said, on the non-lethal equipment we can supply and are considering the additional requests.

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At the very least, the House is entitled to know what equipment the Secretary of State is considering supplying to Ukrainians. So far, the Secretary of State has been very unwilling to detail any of those requests. We are entitled to know what is under consideration. Will he now give us some more detail on the nature of the equipment he is actively considering, as he outlined in his response?

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As soon as we make a decision on what equipment to supply or to gift, we will of course inform Parliament in the normal way. If the equipment is to be gifted, a minute has to be laid before Parliament and that will be done.

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Like many people, I take an increasingly bleak view of the situation when we examine the psychology of this aggressor. What measures has my right hon. Friend taken with colleagues across Government to look at the possibility of this happening in other areas on the western boundary of Russia? What work should we be doing now to prepare for requests similar to that that he has received from the Ukrainian Government from countries such as Moldova or, God forbid, a NATO country, as we would be required to respond differently to an attack on one of those countries?

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As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the Liaison Committee yesterday, we can now see a pattern of behaviour around the borders of Russia. We have seen it in Georgia and elsewhere. The first thing that we had to do about that was to stiffen up NATO to ensure that we had a rapid reaction force worthy of the name. That was agreed at the NATO summit last September, and we have now agreed our contribution to it. We will be a framework nation in 2017 and we will be seconding staff to the two divisional headquarters, in Poland and Romania. We will also be seconding staff to all six of the forward integration units. We are encouraging other NATO members to make similar commitments in order to reassure the members on NATO’s eastern flank that we are ready to stand by our commitments under article 5.

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Whatever the Secretary of State might say, to the real world this will look like military intervention. At what point is he going to come here and seek the agreement of the House of Commons to this?

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There is a well-established convention that if we were engaged in offensive military operations in a country we would of course come to the House, as we did last September when we obtained the authority of the House to carry out air strikes in Iraq. This, however, is not a military operation. We are providing trainers and advisers to help the armed forces of Ukraine better to defend themselves and to help to reduce the very high number of fatalities and casualties that they are suffering.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that the lesson of the cold war is that we secure peace through strength? I very much welcome this intervention, but we in the west must decide whether we are going to indicate our resolve to deter Russian aggression or not. Will he remind our American allies, whom I very much welcome as part of this initiative, that it was the sailing of their sixth fleet into the Black sea that stopped the invasion of Georgia in its tracks? When are the Americans going to come to this initiative with force?

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I am looking forward to discussing this with the new American Secretary of Defence, Ash Carter, whose appointment I hope the whole House will welcome. I say to my hon. Friend that we cannot simply leave the defence of our continent to the Americans. They are involved in the joint commission with Ukraine, alongside Canada and ourselves, but it is also important for NATO to have the resolve to defend its own borders. That is why I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes the commitments made at the NATO summit, which we now need to follow through.

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I should like to ask the Secretary of State for Defence how far the Government have really thought this thing through. Does he acknowledge that 75 trainers will be followed by 150 trainers, and that they will be followed by more and more? The gifting of weapons is being talked about, and we are now moving into a situation in which we are going to be in the conflict in Ukraine. NATO wants Ukraine as a member, contrary to everything that was agreed following the break-up of the Soviet Union on the non-alignment and independence of that country. Instead of upping the military ante, why will not the Government put huge efforts into trying to demilitarise Russian militarism and NATO expansionism, in order to bring about a longer-term sustainable peace in that area? The danger of getting involved in a hot war in central Europe has got a bit closer as a result of the Secretary of State’s statement today.

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I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. We are not supplying weapons and we are not attempting to escalate the conflict in any way. As I have said, we believe that in the end the answer has to be diplomatic and political, and the pressure therefore continues to be applied, through sanctions and so on. He invites us to help to demilitarise eastern Ukraine, but I think he ought to ask himself who has militarised the area and who has supplied weapons, tanks and heavy artillery across the border. It is now up to President Putin to withdraw his heavy weaponry, as was agreed at Minsk, and to implement the agreement that he has signed up to.

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As a follow-up to what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) said about the 1994 agreement between Russia, the United Kingdom, Ukraine and the United States, under which the sovereignty of Ukraine was guaranteed in return for getting rid of the one third of the Russian nuclear arsenal that it had on its soil, may I suggest that there is an oblique lesson for us now as we think about whether we should replace the independent nuclear deterrent and whether we need to keep it?

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So far as the 1994 agreement is concerned, it is for all parties to respect the territorial integrity of Ukraine, but that has not happened in this Russian-backed aggression and the movement of heavy weapons and artillery from Russia across the border into eastern Ukraine. So far as the nuclear deterrent is concerned, the House debated the matter a few weeks ago and recorded one of the largest majorities in recent years in favour of building the successor submarines.

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It is clearly correct to support the effectiveness of the Ukrainian army and its capacity to protect the country from Russian aggression, but back in 2013 when we undertook the training of the Libyan troops, the Libyan Government paid for that training. Will the Secretary of State tell us who is to bear the cost of the proposed training in Ukraine, and whether there is any financial limit on the UK’s assistance to that country?

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At the moment, we are bearing the cost of the training, and the costs involved in gifting any non-lethal equipment will be borne by my budget. So far as the Libyan training is concerned, I am afraid that I have to tell my right hon. Friend that although the Libyan Government had committed to pay for it, they have not quite paid for it all yet.

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We must all be concerned by the expansionist tendencies of the Putin regime, and it is therefore important to provide a robust response to the situation in Ukraine, but if we are going to train troops there, would not the logical step be to give them the wherewithal to use that training? Why are we not in a position to consider making equipment available to them as well?

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We have not taken that decision. The equipment that we have supplied is non-lethal; essentially it is to help the Ukrainian armed forces to protect themselves better and to reduce the number of casualties. We do, however, reserve the right to keep that position under review.

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My right hon. Friend has assured the House that we are giving non-lethal aid—that it was asked for and that we have given it. Have we been asked for lethal aid and, if so, what was our response?

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The Ukrainian military has identified a whole series of equipment shortfalls that it would like to fill—a lot of its equipment is east European; it is old Soviet equipment that does not fit naturally with ours—but our decision at the moment is not to supply lethal aid.

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Can my right hon. Friend reassure the House that, regardless of any force protection measures taking place before deployment, our people will be legally authorised under any future rules of engagement to pick up weapons and defend themselves if they need to?

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We will assess the force protection that is required for each of the different training teams. As I have told the House, we expect the training to be carried out in areas well away from the fighting, right over in the west of Ukraine or around Kiev, where our troops have exercised before and are used to exercising. I will of course keep my hon. Friend’s point under review.

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As a Member who has taken parliamentary delegations to Ukraine, spoken in the Ukrainian Parliament and believes himself to be a supporter of Ukraine, I say to my right hon. Friend that I am worried about this decision. All along, we have underestimated Russian sensitivities about Ukraine, and the Lords report said that we have sleepwalked into this mess. I fear that the thought of NATO troops, from us, in Ukraine will further destabilise things in the long term and will be used, possibly in March, by the Russians for further intervention. I do not think we have got the measure of Russia’s concerns about what it sees as a country that is very much part of its immediate diaspora.

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There are, of course, Russian concerns, but above all there are Ukrainian concerns. It is eastern Ukraine that has been destabilised by Russia; this is a country whose sovereign territory has now been invaded by personnel from the Russian armed forces. As for my hon. Friend’s fear about NATO troops, let me emphasise again that these are not and will not be NATO troops—this is not a NATO mission. This is the British Government deciding to respond to a request for help by our friends in Kiev. It is right that we should answer that call and provide the training capacity, in which our armed forces excel, to help reduce fatalities and casualties.

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I welcome the Government’s announcement, and my right hon. Friend’s robust stance against Russian aggression and this threat to Ukrainian sovereignty. Can he tell us what engagement his Department or the Government more widely have had with the newly elected Moldovan Government, given the great uncertainty and concern about Trans-Dniester on the border between Ukraine and Moldova?

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Indeed there is exactly that concern. As I have said, this seems to fit a pattern of Russian interference right along its southern and western border, and we need to be mindful of that. I have not yet had the opportunity to meet or talk to my Moldovan counterpart, but I look forward to doing so in due course.