For those people who have not done an hour debate before, the normal format is that the two Opposition parties get five minutes each for the winding-up speeches and the Minister gets 10 minutes. Hopefully, the Minister will leave a couple of minutes at the end for the proposer to wind up the debate. I intend to call the Front Benchers no later than a quarter-past 5 or thereabouts.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Anglo-Russian relations.
It is, as always, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I called this debate because I am very concerned about the growing anti-Russian sentiment in the House of Commons. Even for having called for the debate, a senior member of the Government today called me “Comrade Kawczynski”. I have been accused of being an apologist for President Putin and criticised for even daring to raise this subject, so I have prepared a personal statement, which I hope you will allow me to make, Mr Davies.
Of all the Members of this House, I have deep and personal reasons to dislike and distrust Russia and its actions. As many hon. Members know, I am of Polish heritage. Poland suffered terribly at the hands of the former Soviet Union, and like so many Polish families, mine was no exception in experiencing that suffering. My grandfather was a successful landowner and farmer whose life was ruined by the interference of the Soviet system, which was often brutally unfair, corrupt and flawed. It would be easy to cling to prejudice and allow it to colour my view of the world today, yet as a British citizen and a proud Member of this House it is my job and my duty to argue strongly in favour of what I believe will best serve Britain’s long-term security, stability and prosperity, even if that means encouraging détente and dialogue with a country that was born out of the remnants of the oppressive regime that so crippled my grandfather in Poland.
I could not go back to Poland to begin with, because of martial law in the Soviet-imposed regime and what was happening in Poland, but when I first went back in 1983 and met my grandfather, he spoke to me at great length about what it was like living under communism. He spoke about the oppression during the second world war from the Soviets and the Russians. He died in 1986—just three years before the fall of communism—but before he died, he said to me, “I will never see the end of communism, but you will.” He knew that the financially illiterate and politically Orwellian system that the Soviets had imposed on us was completely incompatible with the human spirit and soul.
When I think of the period in which my grandfather died, during those early years of détente, I think of the extraordinary lengths Reagan went to to meet Andrei Gromyko in 1984; I think of how Margaret Thatcher met Gorbachev for the first time in December 1984, despite all the difficulties that we had at that time with the Soviet Union—it was still in Afghanistan and was posing a huge threat to our country. It saddens me that today there does not appear to be the same level of good will and determination among our Government Ministers to engage in the same way with the Russian Administration.
There is a one-sided debate, and it is all negative towards Russia. My experience over the past 11 years—you and I have been in the House for the same amount of time, Mr Davies—is that when we do not have proper debates in this House, that is when tactical and strategic errors are made. That is why it is so important that we debate this issue.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. May I suggest another reason why we do not understand Russia well enough? It is that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs greater resources to better understand events on the ground generally. It is a known fact, now widely recognised, that there were, for example, no Crimea experts in the FCO at the time of the Russian intervention in Crimea. Since the end of the cold war, the FCO has continuously wound down its Russian coverage. Does he agree that that needs to be put right, so that we understand events on the ground better, including the complexity that is Russia?
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is a privilege to serve with him on the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. I very much hope that the report that we are starting on Anglo-Russian relations will delve deeper into some of the shortcomings and lack of resources available to the Foreign Office to understand Russia and our engagement with it better.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I will, but briefly. Then I would like to make some progress.
I thank my hon. Friend very much for giving way. He is clearly passionate and knows a lot about the subject. However, one shadow hangs over all this: the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Speaking as an observer who comes to Anglo-Russian relations from a different angle—or from an angle that is not too used to them—that was a crime carried out on British soil, seemingly with the connivance of the Russian state, so until it is dealt with, our relationship will always be poisoned to a certain extent.
I will come on to that later in my speech, but it is important that my hon. Friend also reads the Russian submission on the subject, which was made to the inquiry on Anglo-Russian relations being undertaken by the Foreign Affairs Committee. I very much hope that he reads it.
President Putin is now being treated almost as a pantomime villain in this House. I would like a pound for every time someone says, “The only person who wants us to pull out of the European Union is President Putin, because that will destabilise the European Union and cause difficulties.” In fact, the Russian Government are one of the few Governments that have not made any statement on the matter. Unlike certain people I could mention who have come to our country and tried to interfere in our domestic referendum, the Russians have not made any official statements on whether they believe we ought to continue to be a member of the European Union.
I debated this issue at the Conservative party conference against a close friend, my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox), who is very hawkish towards Russia and has a very different view from mine. I respect him greatly and I voted for him to be leader of the Conservative party in 2005, but we disagree fundamentally on Russia. Amazingly, it was the one time at a Conservative party conference when I have been mobbed—in a nice way—by young people, because they were so surprised that a Conservative Member of Parliament was challenging the situation and talking about how to lower tensions with Russia and to improve relations. They were so pleased that someone was doing that and they wanted to engage with me.
The Foreign Affairs Committee is now undertaking a report on Anglo-Russian relations. We started to take evidence yesterday with two leading academics, Dr Derek Averre, senior lecturer in Russian, foreign and security policy at the University of Birmingham, and Dr Andrew Monaghan, a senior research fellow at Chatham House. They gave us a very enlightened view and a very different perspective from the one given by our Government. I am pleased to say that, later this month, as part of our inquiry the Foreign Affairs Committee will be visiting Moscow and spending five days there, meeting our Russian counterparts. To get the most balanced perspective, we will be returning to the region in July to meet people in countries that neighbour Russia—Ukraine will be one and Moldova another, but I will be participating in the second leg, which is a visit to Poland and Latvia.
I am pleased that I have managed to convince the Committee to visit Poland. Anyone who thinks that the distrust of and hostility towards Russia are bad in London should try Warsaw. The Poles are even more sceptical and antagonistic about Russian motives, and to a degree I am becoming very unpopular in certain Polish political circles for daring to challenge that. Why do I do it? I do it because I still remember what my grandfather said to me and the complete destruction of Warsaw in 1944 and thereafter. We must do everything possible to avoid war, and to avoid war for future generations. I am greatly worried about the ramifications further down the line if we continue this abject hostility towards Russia.
My intention is to make the report as robust as possible in order to highlight FCO mistakes in dealing with the Russians and to put forward constructive proposals on how our Government should be going the extra mile and showing the British public that they are straining every sinew to ensure that no stone is left unturned in our determination to seek a constructive relationship with the Russians and something we can work on towards peace.
As a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, I had the privilege—I am not sure that it is a privilege—a few weeks of going to Brussels as part of the Committee’s delegation. There were 28 representatives from the 28 countries and we had an opportunity to meet Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO. I posed the question to him: “What are you, as the Secretary-General of NATO, doing specifically to lower tensions with Russia?” In a public way he said something very constructive—much more constructive than I have heard from any British politician. He said, “Well, you know, I was Prime Minister of Norway. We have a border with Russia and I had to engage with the Russians on all sorts of different issues, whether to do with fishing, security or the Arctic circle and exploration. We built quite a good relationship with the Russians and we found it very constructive to engage with them.” Needless to say, I am delighted that the Secretary-General of NATO spoke in those terms in such a public way to me and other representatives during our meeting in Brussels.
It is not the politicians who suffer from the ongoing sanctions—we politicians will continue to receive our salaries and to do our jobs—but the small and medium-sized enterprises who have tried to work with and export to Russia and seen their exports blocked or destroyed. I represent an important agricultural community in which cattle farming is one of the main sources of income. As I could not make an official delegation to Bryansk in Russia, I sent a cattle farmer from my constituency to represent me. Those discussions went so well that ultimately the Russians sent 15 of their top agronomists to Shrewsbury to meet with us and spend time with our cattle farmers to try to understand the cattle industry in Shropshire. As a result of those discussions, I am proud to say that we struck an agreement with the Russians to lift the ban on British beef imposed after the BSE crisis. That is potentially worth hundreds of millions of pounds to the British cattle industry. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), who was then Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, signed the agreement in Moscow, which would have led to great export opportunities in the cattle industry. Of course, all of that has been washed down the plughole as a result of the sanctions.
It is not just the beef industry. There are not any representatives from Scotland here, but the Scottish fishing industry is losing a great deal.
I am sorry. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will come on to say, the Scottish fishing industry is suffering greatly as a result of the sanctions imposed, as is the dairy industry. The Shropshire dairy industry is on its knees as a result of bovine tuberculosis and the lowering of prices that our farmers are paid by supermarkets. My Shropshire dairy farmers are going out of business in unprecedented numbers and all their exports to Russia—not just cheese and milk, but other dairy products—have been wiped out as a result of the sanctions.
I direct the Minister to some information I received from France the other day. Last week, the French National Assembly adopted a non-binding resolution inviting the French Government to lift the economic sanctions and other retaliation measures imposed on Russia by the European Union. The resolution was presented by a conservative Member of Parliament called Thierry Mariani. Although non-binding, several of his fellow conservative Members of Parliament have welcomed the move—in particular, former French Prime Minister François Fillon—and it will clearly put pressure on the French Government ahead of the next review of sanctions in July 2016.
Through their Foreign Ministry, the French Government factually stated that EU sanctions remain linked to the implementation of the Minsk agreements, and expressed their willingness to ensure the unity of the EU on this matter. That is very important. The French National Assembly’s resolution gives me the impression that many in the French Parliament want sanctions to be rescinded, and that they could be lifted if the Minsk agreements are implemented. What is the British Government’s perspective on that? The key question I would like the Minister to answer is: were the Minsk agreements implemented, would the British Government support the removal of EU sanctions? Or do they have an extra requirement, as I have been led to believe in the past: that Crimea would have to be returned to Ukraine before they would support the removal of sanctions?
In all my interactions with Foreign Office Ministers, I have been given the impression that the British Government would not support the removal of sanctions unless the Minsk agreements were implemented and Crimea were returned to Russia. As somebody who has visited Crimea on several occasions, I have to say that there is not a cat in hell’s chance of the Russians returning Crimea to Ukraine during the course of my political or biological life, and I will eat my hat if they do so.
Sanctions should be in place only with something tangible and achievable as the end result. I genuinely believe that, if the implementation of the Minsk II agreement were secured, that would be the sensible moment for us to start to talk to the Russians about getting rid of sanctions. If the Government’s attitude is, “No, we want Crimea returned,” they are doing us a great disservice by putting our constituents, ourselves, our prosperity and the likelihood of improving relations in jeopardy and peril.
I know others want to speak, so I will try to wind up quickly, but I want to say how pleased I was with the Iran agreement. We were facing the insoluble, difficult and highly complex problem of nuclear proliferation in Iran. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and its diplomats for the leadership they displayed in securing the agreement. There is no doubt in my mind that the agreement would not have been achieved without the unique contribution of British diplomacy, but Russia was also a part of the agreement. It made an extraordinary contribution and is doing the heavy lifting on the agreement to protect the region and to protect peace.
The American Secretary of State, John Kerry, said in a press release:
“A number of commercial transactions made this shipment possible, with many countries playing important roles in this effort. Russia, as a participant in the JCPOA and a country with significant experience in transporting and securing nuclear material, played an essential role by taking this material out of Iran and providing natural uranium in exchange.”
That goes to show that, if we work with the Russians constructively, they can bring different things to the table. They have different experiences and different contacts. If we can work with the Russians on securing this vital deal with Iran, why can we not work with them in other important theatres such as Syria?
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. He has spoken at some length about his background and heritage and, indeed, about the welfare of cattle and the potentially lucrative nature of the cattle business in his constituency. He mentioned the Minsk agreement but said nothing whatsoever about the reasons for that agreement, which were Russian aggression, the conduct of hybrid warfare and thousands of lives being lost in eastern Ukraine and, to some extent, Crimea. That cannot be simply brushed under the carpet. The Minsk agreement and the sanctions are there for a good reason. Will he address those points?
We all know what led to the conflagration and the difficulties that ensued in Donetsk and Lugansk. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I am focusing on trying to secure peace now. Implementing the Minsk agreement and getting back to normalised relations are more important than what specifically led to the conflagration in the first place. I am glad he intervened. As I discussed with him yesterday, as a fellow member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, he has said in the past that he thinks the British Government ought not to have ruled out military action over Crimea. He has stated that Britain should have potentially got involved militarily. Well, if he wants a third world war and nuclear destruction of both entities, he is going the right way about it.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to correct him?
The point I made was that I felt it was unwise of the Prime Minister at the time to verbally rule out military action, not on the part of Britain but on the part of NATO or anyone else. Saying nothing is far better than saying we will not do anything.
Let us agree to disagree on that. I think that that sort of sentiment is highly dangerous and could lead to significant destabilisation in our relations with Russia.
The Russians believe we have acted unilaterally in the world, and they have seen some of the terrible difficulties we have got into with Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. They want to ensure we can work constructively with them to bring peace about in Syria. As I have said, the Russians bring different things to the table. We need to compartmentalise the relationship. We can still disagree with the Russians profoundly over Syria and Ukraine, but let us get back to dialogue over matters of security and energy security while we continue to disagree with them. [Interruption.] I will wrap up my comments because you have indicated, Mr Davies, that I have spoken for long enough.
Russia has watched our disastrous intervention in Libya and our prevarication over Syria. Russians would argue that their intervention in Syria has helped to stop or temper the ongoing bloodbath of the past five years and that they have saved the European Union the misery and suffering of having to deal with hundreds of thousands more migrants coming across the sea to Greece.
When I think of the tremendous work done in Tehran, which I visited recently, between Churchill and Stalin to put their differences aside in fighting fascism during the second world war—when we had even more differences of opinion with the Soviet Union than we do with Russia today—I think to myself that we ought to also have the courage and vision to put our differences aside and work with the Russians to fight modern-day fascism. ISIS poses a similar threat to both entities in Syria, Libya and on the streets of European capitals, with the bombing and terrorism that is taking place. Let us put our differences aside and work with the Russians to deal with that threat.
My final statement is this. On 15 March, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said:
“The Foreign Secretary said that he has not talked to Mr Lavrov. Is that because Mr Lavrov is refusing to take his call, or that he has not yet tried? If it is the latter, why not?”
The Foreign Secretary’s response—I want you to remember this, Mr. Davies—was:
“Again, experience is the answer. I have not tried to make the call, and I am in no doubt that I could predict quite confidently the outcome of such a call to Foreign Minister Lavrov. I have had many conversations with him over the course of our regular meetings at Syria-related events, none of which has been fruitful.” —[Official Report, 15 March 2016; Vol. 607, c. 800.]
What a terrible statement to make: “None of my discussions with Mr Lavrov has been fruitful, so there is no point in making a telephone call.” No, no, no. The Government have got to change their stance and engage with the Russians, for the security of our country and the international community.
Our relationship with foreign powers is, I believe, totally inconsistent. We chide Russia for abuses—and, by the way, nothing I say is pro-Putin; I am not getting involved in that. I am just talking about double standards. We chide Russia for abuses but kowtow to China, whose abuses are far worse. If we were outside observers looking at that situation, what conclusion would we draw? That there is a double standard; and that is the only conclusion that Russians draw. We in the west have failed totally to take into account the Russian mentality when dealing with these problems. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on the way he moved the motion, and on trying to understand how Russians think. That is important in framing our foreign policy.
Ukraine is a perfect example. The country is ideally placed as a bridge between the two worlds—Europe and Russia. Indeed, in Russian, Ukraine means “borderland”. To Russians, Ukraine is not a foreign country. Russian orthodoxy, as far as they are concerned, was founded in the Kievan Rus 1,000 years ago. We may not agree with this, but for them Kiev is as much the spiritual home of Russian orthodoxy as Canterbury is to us the home of the Anglican Church. Clever Ukrainian statesmen could have held a fine balance, playing one side against the other for the good of their country, as of course India did during the cold war. Instead, Europe and the west had to barge in with, I believe, an insufficient understanding of Russian or, indeed, Ukrainian history, or people’s thinking in the region.
We in the European Union invested millions of pounds, euros and dollars to influence Ukraine away from Russia and towards the west. Because one side insisted on owning the bridge and the other side, naturally, would not let it, now the bridge is in tatters and burning; and it is the ordinary people of Ukraine—and of Russia, subject to sanctions—who are suffering. Of course, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham says, Russia will never in our lifetime give up Crimea. After all, the Russians believe and know that the overwhelming majority of people in Crimea want to be part of Russia. So they believe that we are playing with double standards. They all remember that Krushchev signed away Crimea to Ukraine with a stroke of a pen in the mid-1950s.
The psychotic zeal for permanent expansion of the western European sphere of influence, at Russia’s expense, gains us nothing. Actually, all we have done is significantly destabilise our eastern flank; and what about the good of Ukraine? Crimea is now permanently lost to it. We know that—it is a reality. The eastern regions are enveloped in a low-level violent conflict. Whatever we may think of Mr Putin or the Russian Government, clearly our interference has not worked out for the benefit of people living in Ukraine. Russia can, we all know, with little effort or cost to itself—I am not defending it, just describing the reality—support and maintain a constant low-boil conflict in eastern Ukraine for some time.
Therefore, any real effort to secure peace, stability and the rule of law in Ukraine—and peace and stability is what we should be about, is it not?—must of necessity take into account Russian fears and interests. That is the reality on the ground. If it does not, and if we just take an absolutist line, imposing sanctions, putting the Russian embassy in London and the Russian Government into deep freeze, and not talking to Mr Lavrov, we will achieve nothing and there will be no prospect of success. What would that mean for the relationship between our two countries? Our strategy for Anglo-Russian relations should be to engage, engage and engage. By all means be firm, but engage.
Last week, I chaired an investment forum—I am chairman of the all-party group on Russia—and there is significant interest among British and European businesses in strengthening their presence in Russia. The Governments of Germany, France and Italy are actually increasing their business, unlike our Government. Given our historical alliances with Russia, the Russians cannot understand why our Government and our Prime Minister are outriders. They are way beyond the Americans, the Germans and the French in their anti-Russian stance. The Russians cannot understand it. Let us remember for a moment who, frankly, saved our bacon in two world wars. How many tens of millions of Russians died in Nazi Germany’s invasion? We should remember that, with the unfortunate exception of the Crimean war, Russia has for centuries been our natural ally. We are two powers on the eastern and western extremities of Europe.
If we respectfully and confidentially engage with Russia, we will get the most out of that relationship and start making constructive advances. Blind and mindless Russophobia gets us absolutely nowhere. We should build economic links, strengthen cultural links and seek to work together on issues such as defeating Daesh, where UK and Russian interests overlap. Daesh is our enemy; Russia is not. Russia poses absolutely no strategic threat to the people of the United Kingdom. It does not and never has done in our entire history, but Daesh does.
What is the hon. Gentleman’s reaction to the fact that Russian military aircraft regularly come into UK airspace in the full knowledge that it is UK airspace?
Of course Russia is a great power, and it naturally tests defences as part of its training of its own people, but does anybody in this Chamber seriously believe that it poses a strategic military threat to the United Kingdom? We are no longer in the cold war; it is over. I do not defend Russian aircraft approaching the United Kingdom, but I do not think for a moment that there is the remotest chance of their actually engaging in military action with us.
Daesh is our real enemy. Allowing its reign of terror to continue simply because we dare not co-ordinate our plans with nasty Mr Putin is cutting off our nose to spite our face. The only winner in that scenario is Daesh.
If we are truly to help the people of Syria, as the Government purport to want to do, does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must have a positive and constructive dialogue with Russia—a key player in that theatre?
That is precisely what my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham and I are saying and what we are trying to urge on the Minister. Assad and the Russians are not going to go away. As the Minister said very eloquently in the House of Commons yesterday, since the second world war, Russia has viewed Syria as an essential ally. I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. On every level, we must be constructive, confident and respectful—and I mean self-respect, not just respect for the other side. The way we kowtow to China can reach demeaning levels, which is why I say we are engaging in double standards.
The hon. Gentleman made a good point when he said that Russia fought on our side in the second world war. So did the Chinese. To illustrate the significance of this issue, Xi Jinping, on his visit to the UK, was very complimentary about British membership of the European Union. Although the Russian Government have not made an official statement about their position, President Putin is known to believe that the UK should be outside the European Union.
That is a remarkable statement. How do we know what Mr Putin thinks? All I can say is that I have discussed that with the Russian ambassador, and he gives the correct line on behalf of his Government. Mr Putin has made absolutely no comment, certainly in public—we have no idea what he says in private. There is simply no evidence that Mr Putin is somehow engaged in some massive conspiracy to encourage Great Britain to leave the European Union. I rather think that in practical terms he has other things on his mind. Russia has made no statement in public. It is neutral on this matter.
Constructive, confident and respectful engagement is the best way for our two countries to flourish together. If we engaged in that way, the appalling conflict in Syria might have some chance of being brought to a conclusion. Assad will not go away and the Russians will not go away, so the Minister should pick up the phone and encourage his boss to pick up the phone to do what Kerry is doing and speak to Lavrov every week. That does not in any way mean support for everything Mr Putin does, but only with constant engagement in building relationships can we make some progress towards peace in Syria.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for bringing this important debate to the Chamber.
As we approach the end of President Obama’s presidential term, it is helpful to remind ourselves that he started his presidency by looking for a reset of US-Russia relations. Before we move on to consider how the UK and NATO might be responsible for a share of the current crisis, it is worth noting that Russia could have been the principal beneficiary of any reset initiated by the American President, but instead pursued a policy that has made such thinking difficult.
From the occupation of Crimea to similar provocation in eastern Ukraine, Russia has shown scant respect for or acknowledgement of Ukraine’s sovereignty, something it had to agree under the Budapest memorandum. However, I have just returned from Moscow and the Kremlin and it is clear that the Russians see themselves as merely defending their own backyard. There have been many incursions into UK waters and air space. For those of us in Scotland where no Royal Navy ships are based, the feeling of exposure is real.
We have witnessed military exercises simulating invasion of the Baltic states. Do the Russians intend to intimidate peoples who peacefully asserted their right to self-determination and have gone on to become valued members of the European Union? We note these developments because it is vital to us as a NATO member and as a member of the international community to ensure that these small states are protected from any undue influence on Moscow’s part and that their sovereignty is protected. We do that not because we are allied to these states, but because small states play a vital role in the international system. They have consistently expanded international law to bring about the norms that are so important today.
Russia sees itself as a world power along with China and America and its view of Ukraine, the Baltics and the High North is that it is simply protecting its interests and its economic resources. However, we must not let the deterioration in Anglo-Russian relations, whether our fears are real or imagined, cloud our judgment of the new phase in our relationship with Moscow.
The Defence Committee, of which I am a member, has recently undertaken an inquiry into UK-Russian relations and it has become increasingly clear to me, the more evidence we hear underlining the threat that Russia poses to the west, that the debate is down to our inability to understand correctly where we stand as a nation. Although we may not agree on everything in this debate, the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham has taken a vital step along that path.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is long overdue not just for Britain, but for NATO to move away from this antagonistic position and instead to pursue a new, constructive relationship with Russia for the benefit of all?
I agree absolutely with that statement. Our discussions with many ambassadors in Moscow last week suggested that there was almost a time warp of thinking at the moment and that people are still fighting the cold war and thinking it is still a reality. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said that this is a new era and time for a new relationship with Russia, and that fighting the wars of the past is just not appropriate in the modern world.
We must also think about the UK Government’s position and where the blame lies for the current situation. Right from the start of the current Government, tough rhetoric has emanated from Downing Street and Whitehall. One would think that the UK knew where it was going on Russia, but the reality, the truth, is quite different. If people begin the discussion from the standpoint of seeing Russia as their No. 1 threat, that will not create a sense of trust or understanding with the Russian people or their Government.
In parliamentary answers that I and other Members have received in the past year, we see examples of disengagement at ministerial level. There is a sense that the UK has given up on trying to understand Russia properly. Not only have budgets for the BBC World Service’s Russian service been cut, but there are now only 15 members of Her Majesty’s armed forces who can speak Russian to a reasonable level. Substantial cuts are also forthcoming in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are aimed at devaluing our ability properly to understand Russia.
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham cited the case in which we had discussion about the Syrian ceasefire and our own Foreign Secretary failed even to call his opposite number in the Kremlin. We cannot have it that our Foreign Secretary does not call, does not write, does not make contact with a key player in a foreign policy area. That is simply unacceptable.
The situation is not without positives. We had the NATO-Russia Council a few weeks ago. We hope that something positive will come from that as we reach the Warsaw summit. There seems to be very good news as well on cultural events and business. However, that does not change the fact that we need substantive talks in terms of where the UK is going on direct relationships with Russia. I think that everyone who has spoken so far is of the opinion that those relationships must be improved, and improved very quickly.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) for securing the debate. It has been exciting for me: I spend so much of my time talking about the European Union that it has been great to get out and look at something slightly wider.
The UK has had a difficult relationship with Russia in recent years. It could well be described as complex and fluid, and occasionally hostile; it has rarely got above cool in the past 70 years. Economically, this country’s trade with Russia is modest and has been on a decreasing trend in recent years. Nevertheless, it is important that disruption to our trading relationship with Russia is kept to a minimum, because it has an impact on companies in this country and particularly on pension funds that invest in companies such as BP.
Outside the economic and trade interest, several main potential threats to Anglo-Russian relations arise as a result of Russian foreign policy, particularly in Ukraine and Crimea, and NATO’s response. They include: the presence of a number of Russians in the UK whom the UK has refused to extradite to Russia; Russian money—I am talking about criminal money, money laundering of Russian criminal money in the UK and its impact on our society, which is largely on the housing market in the capital—and the UK’s response to recent Russian involvement in Syria.
The UK Government, in their 2015 national security strategy, stated that Russia’s actions in Ukraine justified a stronger NATO response, but deemed Russian military action against NATO “highly unlikely”. We have taken a quite pragmatic approach to Russia. We recognise that Russia is flexing its muscles, largely to impress and threaten those states on its borders, but is being very careful not to threaten larger and stronger states and organisations such as the UK, the EU and NATO. We would recognise that as typical bullying behaviour. Despite all that, the national security strategy, as has been said, seeks to build on successful co-operation with Russia where it can. We have seen that happen quite successfully in the Iranian nuclear programme and co-operation in seeking to address the global threat from ISIL/Daesh.
In the past decade, a number of controversial Russian figures have been granted political asylum in the UK, and the UK Government have refused to extradite them at the request of the Russian Government. That has put huge strains on the Anglo-Russian diplomatic relationship, with a series of expulsions on both sides. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of Russia’s criticism of our asylum system, it is absolutely unacceptable that Russian criminals can come to this country and commit murder on the streets of London, as in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, only for the Russian Government to refuse to extradite those against whom a prima facie case has been established, in breach of international law. That case has renewed focus on Russian money in the UK, and its alleged links to Russian corruption.
In 2015, the National Crime Agency said that foreign criminals—it highlighted Russian criminals—are laundering billions of pounds of corrupt Russian money in London, pricing average Londoners out of being able to buy or even rent in central London. In 2016, the Prime Minister is to hold an anti-corruption summit and, among other things, I hope it will hold up a mirror to tax havens in the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and so improve transparency in the UK property market.
Finally, I want to say something about the UK’s response to Russian involvement in Syria. Russia has a long relationship with the Government of Syria and regards Syria as being in the Russian domain of influence. However, the recent Russian military intervention has had mixed results. Human rights organisations working in the region have reported that the Russian military targeted hospitals and civilians, claiming that, in the six months to February 2016, Russian air strikes killed 1,000 civilians, including 200 children. Equally clearly, the Russian military intervention has helped to drive back ISIL/Daesh and, without doubt, it has strengthened the position of Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian army. It has also had some impact on forcing him towards a shaky truce, which we hope will solidify and, in the days ahead, include Aleppo.
It is clear to me that Vladimir Putin understands strength and weakness, and very little else. He alone supports the UK voting to leave the European Union, when every other world leader and organisation that wish this country well want us to remain in the EU. That can only be because he sees a Brexit as resulting in a weaker UK and a weaker EU, which he views as a good thing. Anglo-Russian relations will remain stable and, we hope, improve only if the UK remains part of a strong NATO, a strong European Union and a strong western alliance that is prepared to stand up to the aggression of its neighbour to the east.
This has been a well-informed and useful debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on bringing it to the Floor of the House.
My hon. Friend began with a personal statement and a reflection on his own journey and his understanding of the importance of such bilateral relations. I pay tribute to him for adding value to the House by bringing to our attention not only Russia, but other countries, and aspects of the relationships, concerns and issues that we might not necessarily have been aware of. That is important, and I pay tribute to him for it. I absolutely agree with him that we need to have such debates and that we need to understand better our complex relationship with Russia.
Russia is a country that I did not know an awful lot about before I came into the House. I took a huge interest in Afghanistan, but I had not really appreciated Russia and what had happened in Afghanistan until I did some reading. I read an amazing book, “Afgantsy”, by Rodric Braithwaite, who did a fantastic job in letting me understand the details rather than the headlines, which might often articulate a very different picture. I recommend the book.
The lesson there is to ensure that we continue to develop relationships, to have dialogue and to further, where we can, the bilateral bond that exists, despite some of the challenges that have been focused on today. There is no doubt an aspiration for a more co-operative relationship with Russia. Indeed, at the end of the cold war, I remember those amazing scenes with Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev, and I remember glasnost and perestroika—these words became known and are now, I think, in the Oxford English Dictionary. The end of the cold war brought a new opportunity to re-engage with a country that, after the end of the second world war, had denied to Europe the chance to work as it should.
However, it is now clear that the integration of Russia into the international system was short-lived. Efforts were made to include Russia in the G8, the World Trade Organisation and the Council of Europe, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) was an active member, and to address the Russian perception that the west was determined, and had a strategy, to encircle Russia. Efforts were made across those fronts and to mollify Russia and say that NATO is not a threat but a reactive organisation, ready to go proactive if required.
For a time, those efforts brought Russia and the international community closer together, but a more mature and co-operative partnership has not blossomed. Much that we now see is because of President Putin’s unfortunate disregard for international law and standards. One issue that affected us directly, and was on the front pages of all our newspapers, was the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, here in London with a radioactive substance. An independent judicial inquiry in January 2016 concluded that the crime was probably approved by the then FSB director, Nikolai Patrushev, which led to concerns about the manner in which Russia goes about dealing with those who wish to speak up or challenge what it says.
Other actions by Russia have also been raised in this debate, and concerns have been raised about its direction of travel. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and my hon. Friend talked about Crimea as if it had been written off. I wonder whether the people of Crimea are aware of how people in South Ossetia or Abkhazia are enjoying life now. They are completely isolated, and are recognised only by Argentina and Russia itself. The rest of the world has no formal relations with that part of the world. Is that really where Crimea wants to go? I do not know.
The occupation of Crimea in 2014 raises a question mark, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked the Prime Minister at Question Time whether he encourages greater relations. The international community must stand up when nations decide to redraw the lines on the map. It is important to recognise that the international community must work together, and we have seen Russia providing military support to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in a blatant attempt to destabilise the country. The United Nations suggests that more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed, with more than 20,000 wounded. Sadly, the situation created the conditions for the Malaysia Airlines MH17 tragedy, in which 298 passengers and crew, including 10 British citizens, were killed.
All that instability, and human misery, was and is entirely avoidable. We can move forward from this—for those who are not aware, sanctions are divided into two separate categories: those affecting Crimea and those relating to the Minsk agreement on the eastern Ukraine—and, yes, we can get back towards more normalised relations if the Minsk agreement is recognised. It is in Russia’s gift to do so, and we encourage it to take the necessary steps to provide a diplomatic solution to the crisis that we face.
On a positive note, despite our differences, there is no desire to isolate or ostracise Russia, or to push it away. Quite the opposite: we want Russia to be included in the international community. We have heard examples of the role that Russia plays as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, participating in a range of foreign policy priorities, not least on the Iranian nuclear deal, which has profoundly changed the trajectory of where the middle east may go—I say “may” because there are an awful lot of caveats and concerns. To date, Iran still has yet to change its behaviour and outlook towards places such as Bahrain, Yemen, Damascus, Syria and Beirut. Nevertheless, the people of Iran now have an opportunity and that has been brought about because of the collaboration between the United States of America, Britain, France and so forth and, of course, Russia.
Syria has also been mentioned, but I can only repeat what I said in the Chamber yesterday. We look to Russia, with its unique influence over the regime, to ensure that the cessation of hostilities does not break down. Russia has a unique relationship with Assad because of a historical relationship and an influence in that neck of the woods that goes back to 1946 and the independence of the country. We expect Russia, and want Putin, to place pressure on Assad to stop the attacks, and to allow the ceasefire to embed and peace negotiations to continue.
I would just mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that there has been a period of Russia unbalancing Syria, by not attacking Daesh, but deliberately attacking Assad’s opposition—and not only that, but denying airspace for us, the international community, to freely take on Daesh in the wider context of Syria.
On a positive note, there is an awful lot of engagement. The Prime Minister has met President Putin at the G20 summit, the Foreign Secretary does speak and engage with Foreign Minister Lavrov, on a number of multilateral engagements, and the Minister for Europe visited Moscow very recently indeed. I had the opportunity to meet President Putin at the European Games in Baku in Azerbaijan last year. I was not quite expecting to see him, but I told him that a friend of mine had cause to use Russian transport and was a bit concerned about international developments—the east and west—in case he got stuck at the end of his destination and was unable to get back. That friend of mine was called Tim Peake. He was using a Soyuz space capsule to get up to the international space station and did not want to be abandoned up there. Mr Putin grabbed my arm and said, “Mr Ellwood, tell Mr Peake that we will not abandon him.” That gives an indication that it is possible to isolate some of the enormous concerns we have. The sanctions that are put in place allow us to work on the international stage to tackle some of the problems. Culturally, professionally and, indeed, from an industrial and commercial perspective, we are able to continue those relationships.
Since the cold war, successive British Governments, quite rightly, have wanted Europe to build a strategic partnership with Russia. However, this Russian Government have made it clear that they regard the west with mistrust and view NATO—and, increasingly, the EU—as a threat to their interests. A fundamental divergence of values and interests, combined with the unpredictability of Russian behaviour, has increasingly limited the scope of Anglo-Russian relations, but the Government’s objectives regarding Russia are to protect the UK’s interests and those of our allies and partners; to uphold the rules-based international order in the face of Russian aggression; to engage with Russia on global security issues; in key areas of shared interest, to promote our values, including the rule of law and human rights; and to build stronger links between the British and Russian people more widely. That balanced approach is aligned to British interests and I hope that hon. Members of all parties can support it.
Mr Kawczynski, you have just over a minute to wind up the debate.
I thank the Minister for his remarks and some of his positive comments. We need to show strength towards the Russians. We must make them realise that we will always protect our NATO partners in central and eastern Europe. I am very much in favour of trying to ensure that we have a permanent NATO base east of Warsaw, because those new NATO countries need to know that we are serious about protecting them. That is extremely important. My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), myself and others are looking to the Government to show an interest in the ability to engage with the Russians, to support greater cultural and scientific exchange with them, and to show us that they are doing everything possible to lower tensions at the same time as showing strength towards the Russians.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Anglo-Russian relations.