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Select Committee on Defence

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 7 July 2016

Select Committee statement

I am grateful for this opportunity to lay before the House the Defence Committee’s new report entitled, “Russia: Implications for UK defence and security”, which has been produced on the eve of the Warsaw NATO summit and which highlights the need for that major event to focus on defence and deterrence, but also on dialogue.

I am extremely grateful to all the members of the Defence Committee for their contributions to the genesis of this report. We held four oral evidence sessions and received 18 pieces of written evidence. A delegation from the Committee, ably led by my hon. Friend the Member for North Wiltshire (Mr Gray), visited Moscow, where they attempted to engage with the Russian authorities. Because of the current state of relations, Russian Government authorities were reluctant to engage, but the delegation acquired much other useful information on that visit.

Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine have undermined the post-cold war assumption of a stable Europe in which the military threat to NATO is low. The north Atlantic alliance must therefore restore its defences, review its deterrence and reopen its dialogue with the Russian authorities. The fact that NATO and the UK were taken by surprise by the interventions in Ukraine shows a failure to comprehend President Putin’s determination to maintain a sphere of influence beyond Russia’s own borders and to do so by force if necessary. His stance directly contradicts the rules-based international order that western democracies seek to promote.

Russia has become increasingly active not only in conventional warfare, but in unconventional methods, often deniable, which are designed to fall below the threshold that would trigger NATO’s article 5 guarantee—the undertaking to consider an armed attack against one NATO member state as an attack against them all. The creation of the very high readiness joint taskforce—VJTF—among NATO member states and the enhanced forward presence on NATO’s contested eastern flank are steps in the right direction, but our report warns that the VJTF was formed only recently and that its capacity to deploy the necessary forces within the required timeframe is as yet unproven.

The report’s recommendations include the following. First, the MOD should recognise the extent of Russian remilitarisation and respond to it robustly. Secondly, it should review the effectiveness of current deterrence policy against nuclear, conventional and hybrid or multidimensional warfare. Thirdly, NATO should determine whether the 1987 intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is in need of repair or replacement in the light of allegations that Russia has breached its provisions. Fourthly, a timetable should be set out for the Trident Successor submarine debate and the decision in Parliament “without further delay”—indeed, that debate should be held before the summer recess. Fifthly, the renewal of EU-wide sanctions against Russia should be encouraged and possibly extended to a larger group among the Kremlin leadership. Sixthly, it should be accepted that

“it is perfectly possible to confront and constrain an adversary in a region where our interests clash, whilst cooperating with him, to some degree, in a region where they coincide.”

We regard the threat posed by Daesh, al-Qaeda and other international terrorists as a relevant example of the latter: the convergence, to a considerable extent, of NATO and Russian interests. I am glad to see the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr Brazier), assenting to that proposition.

The Committee believes that Russian cyber-attacks across Europe and territorial seizures in Georgia and Ukraine may not be isolated actions and may be symptomatic of a wider ambition to restore Moscow’s global influence. However, because Russia is a global power, there remain opportunities for co-operation if we can but grasp them. Yet with relations at what the Russian ambassador to London has described as an “all time low”, our report concludes that the UK must urgently boost its cadre of Russian specialists. We must restore and maintain a high level of expertise for the foreseeable future. Given the current climate, the defence attaché’s office in Moscow, for example, must be properly staffed by the end of the year.

Since the end of the cold war, Russia has not been a UK priority and our expertise in this field has withered on the vine. The UK needs a vastly strengthened body of experts who can help provide an effective response to the challenges Russia now poses. We cannot hope to understand Russia without a forthright dialogue, and in the current conditions of mistrust we run the risk of blundering into conflicts that may be preventable through better communication. The cold war was characterised not only by military confrontation, but by the then Soviet Union’s promotion of Marxism-Leninism, with its formidable appeal to impressionable minds inside the Kremlin’s targeted countries. No such totalitarian doctrine applies to present-day Russia, which, for all its nationalist and expansionist tendencies, is itself under threat from revolutionary Islamism, the brutal successor to the equally brutal Nazi and communist creeds which blighted so much of the 20th century. Therein lies the basis for potential co-operation, provided that our dialogue with Russia is from a position of strength, based on sound defences and credible deterrence.

May I say that it is a privilege to serve on the Defence Committee, which is so ably chaired by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)? I hope he will agree that one thing that is clear from our report is a lack of dialogue and understanding between our colleagues in Russia and ourselves, in terms of not only language, but shared history. Does he agree that, in the light of the upcoming NATO summit, we need to review that as part of our wider engagement with Russia, including how it perceives the threat from NATO, too?

Yes, indeed, and I thank the hon. Lady for that. She is a tremendously supportive member of the Committee; this is her first parliamentary term, but she has made a great start. I re-emphasise what I said about the importance of dialogue with Russia. The fact remains that different societies develop at different stages and go through different phases in their attitude to their relationships with the rest of the world. One mistake that the west clearly made after the downfall of communism was to evoke a degree of triumphalism at a time when magnanimity would have been more appropriate. Those in the west make a terrible mistake if they fail to recognise that Russia is and always has been a great power, and what we have to do is reach out the hand of friendship, while trying to discourage those aspects of the Russian tradition that seek to dominate lands beyond its own borders. Russia is a pretty large landmass and one would hope that the Russians could make a success of running their own country without feeling the need to impose their will on their neighbours.

Potential Russian expansionism must be deterred by NATO with a fist of steel—there is no question about that, as we cannot let them do it—but one encased in a velvet glove. At the moment, we do not understand Russia and what it is doing. We must find better ways of understanding the Russians and talking to them about it. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one area where we simply do not know what they are doing is in the high north—in the Arctic? Russia is, without question, expanding its military capabilities up there and we do not quite know why. Does he agree that that was one area the report was not able to look into, and is there not room for further work on that?

I agree with every word my hon. Friend has said. Our report drops a very broad hint that the Arctic—the high north—deserves special attention, and I strongly suspect that if and when the Committee takes a decision to give it that special attention, my hon. Friend, who has led the way, with his all-party group for polar regions, in alerting the country to the significance of this area, will be playing a very prominent part indeed.

First, let me thank the right hon. Gentleman and his fellow Committee members for a comprehensive and thorough report on this important area of the UK’s and Europe’s defence and security. I note that this inquiry did not have time to consider the implications of Brexit in full. However, given that the Putin regime’s tactics are often geared towards destabilising Europe as a whole, does he agree that it is vital for the UK to ensure, particularly at the upcoming Warsaw summit, that Brexit does not undermine the political cohesion of NATO? I am going to assume that the answer to that is yes. As such, has the Committee given any preliminary thoughts as to how this might come about?

I welcome the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) to his new responsibilities. May I say a personal message of appreciation for his past service in the Territorial Army, which included a spell of active service in Afghanistan? I hold the members of the armed forces, particularly those who have seen active service in dangerous parts of the world, in the highest respect. I am sure that we will all listen with very great attention to his contributions.

In relation to the implications of Brexit, I do not think that I am giving up any trade secrets when I say that that has been discussed as one of the major strands of the forthcoming work of the Committee. It is certainly the case that there should be no need for anyone to feel that security arrangements have been undermined in any way if only because of the almost complete overlap between the membership of the EU and the membership of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. I am quite certain that the structures of NATO will be perfectly capable of carrying forward the security relationships without any form of distortion by any other organisation that might have been tempted to duplicate them. NATO will indeed be one of the principal forums for ensuring that the communications that are so important between the United Kingdom and our friends and allies on the continent will be able to proceed absolutely uninterruptedly as a result of the change that will take place.

May I also welcome the hon. Member for Norwich South (Clive Lewis) to his new role, and say that we served in the same reserve infantry unit, although, unlike me, he saw active service during his time there?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on a heavyweight report. Clearly, we will be responding to it, and we will look carefully at each of the recommendations. It is above my pay grade to give a date for the Trident debate, but we will be looking carefully at it. May I congratulate the Committee on the very careful balance that it has struck between stressing the real and growing dangers from the Soviet Union—sorry, that was a Freudian slip; I meant from Russia—and stressing the political situation that exists now as compared with the old Soviet Union? I am talking about the lack of ideology now, and the fact that that may provide us with some constructive opportunities, particularly as we share a horrid threat from Daesh.

I am very grateful to the Minister for his encouraging remarks. He is spot on when he says that we must take a balanced view with regard to Russia. If we look back over the history of Anglo-Russian relations throughout the 20th century, we will see that they are terrible switchback rides of periods of great hostility and then close alliance and then great hostility once again. It is a pity—I will put it no more strongly than that—that we cannot order our affairs to see that, in reality, there are prospects for co-operation between developed powers that vastly outweigh any sectional advantage that might be sought by one of them trying to steal a march on the other. I understand the reasons why Russia feels affronted by its treatment after the end of the cold war, but that is no excuse for ripping up the international rule book and trampling on the rights of its neighbours.

May I commend the Chairman and the members of his Committee for producing an excellent report in the run-up to the NATO summit later this week? I entirely agree with the need for more dialogue and co-operation through the NATO-Russia Council and by other means, and also with the Committee’s recommendation about recognising the Russian threat and the need to respond to it robustly. In that context, does the Chairman of the Committee share my concern about the recent remarks by the German Foreign Minister who described the recent 10-day NATO exercise in Poland as “warmongering” and “counterproductive” to regional security? Is there not a need for the member states of NATO to stand together and send a united clear message to Putin that we will not be divided? More work needs to be done by our own Government and other like-minded Governments to ensure that everybody recognises the need to stand united, otherwise Putin will exploit the differences.

I share the right hon. Gentleman’s concern. This is why some of us—I speak more personally in this respect—have been worried about the creation of a separate defence identity in Europe outside the NATO arena. What he says is entirely right: NATO is the forum in which our security concerns should be aired with our European friends, neighbours and allies. We should try to arrive at a unified perceptions of the situation and articulate them appropriately.

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend and his Committee on producing an excellent and timely report? Does he agree that we have seen recently that President Putin has been able to exploit our weaknesses, that he does so ruthlessly and that he has been able to act with impunity? As chairman of the all-party Ukraine group, I am particularly conscious of his flouting of the Budapest memorandum of 1996, and he has done that with complete impunity. He respects strength, so it is absolutely right that NATO is reinforcing its position in the Baltic states. That is a demonstration of strength and resolve on the part of NATO. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is capabilities, not intentions, that count? Intentions can change overnight; capabilities cannot. Particularly today, given the complexity of modern defence technology, we cannot produce aircraft, tanks and ships overnight. Therefore, NATO’s upcoming meeting should focus on delivering the extra spending to deliver the capabilities.

I strongly applaud my right hon. Friend’s argument about dialogue. I had a meeting with the Russian ambassador here in London, and I said, “We have a common interest. Our common interest is that we are both facing Islamic fundamentalism, and that is where we need to co-operate.” Will my right hon. Friend therefore share with the House how he thinks we can not only show that we have absolute determination and resolve in resisting Putin’s advances but engage with him and his Government? Where else might we do so apart from on the mutual threat that we face from Islamic fundamentalism?

What a cornucopia of questions, but all of them typically sound and well directed, given my hon. Friend’s distinguished record in the field of defence and security. I believe that there is nothing new about the dilemma of how we gauge our relations with the Russians. I remember in my years as a researcher coming across a paper by the joint intelligence sub-committee—it was then a sub-committee of the chiefs of staff—called “Relations with the Russians”, which was written in 1945, and it said then exactly what we are saying today: “They respect you if you stand up to them, if you show you’re strong, but if you engage with them as well. They do not respect you if you give signs of weakness.”

I believe that there is a shared threat, but there are potential threats that Russia is beginning to show, once again, towards its most immediate neighbours, and that is why it is important that there is a NATO military presence in the most vulnerable front-line states, particularly the Baltic states and Poland. Russia must be left in no doubt that NATO membership means that article 5 applies, and article 5 means that there should be no question of Russia thinking that it can pick off any weaker or more exposed NATO member state and that the other NATO countries will not come to its aid. That is why, conversely, we must be careful not to extend NATO membership or article 5 guarantees to countries where it is simply not realistic to believe that NATO would go to war to defend them.

Order. We are quite a lot over time now, so I am going to ask for very short, very quick questions, but also very short, very quick answers.

We spent most of yesterday discussing the political and military miscalculation and misadventure in Iraq. We hope a debate on Trident looms large, but the report emphasises the need to consider the cost-effectiveness, desirability and affordability of the Successor programme. In the light of Brexit and the financial uncertainty it might bring, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there are many approaches and non-nuclear deterrents we could introduce to create stability with Russia, but that Trident skews every single defence budget to unacceptable levels? Its extension could lead to a financial miscalculation and to a military misadventure that would make Iraq look like a bit of a walk in the park.

Bearing in mind your instruction to be concise, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will just share with the House what the hon. Gentleman said to me when he first joined the Committee. He said, “Julian, you and I are never going to agree about the nuclear deterrent, but I am sure we can co-operate to mutual advantage on many other defence issues,” and he has been as good as his word. I respect his concerns and his doubts about the Trident Successor programme, and I am sure that the sooner we have the debate, the sooner we will be able to engage in the arguments.

I commend the right hon. Gentleman on his chairmanship and leadership of the Defence Committee. When I think of Russia, I think of the saying, “Speak softly, but carry a big stick”—in other words, we have to have dialogue, but we also have to be able to respond. One of the concerns I and the Committee have is about the National Guard, which comes under the direct control of the President—in other words, he can use it to combat terrorism and organised crime but also to control protests. Does the Chairman share the concern I and many others have that President Putin is no longer prepared to tolerate any opposition whatever? Do we also need to look at the ability of NATO and the British Army to respond quickly? Russia can respond within 24 hours or 48 hours, but we seem to take at least another three days. It is critical that we can engage with Russia on those two issues at every level to make sure we protect our people.

The hon. Gentleman makes an enormous and extremely valuable contribution to the work of the Committee, and I agree with him: the announcement of the creation of this new National Guard, which can muster hundreds of thousands of troops, according to some reports, but which, interestingly enough, also includes special forces, is a cause for concern. As it is directly responsible to the President, one can only wonder whether it has something to do with shoring up his position domestically, as well as with exerting power beyond Russia’s borders. The report says—I mentioned this in my statement—that the creation of the very high readiness joint taskforce is a step in the right direction, but the numbers that can be generated at short notice by the Russian armed forces seem to be substantially in excess of what NATO could generate now or in the immediate future, and we need to be able to do better in the medium and long terms.

I welcome the report, but I do get concerned when I hear Russia being spoken of in a certain fashion in the House and, critically, when we do not speak of the communities in Russia, who have to live with the daily experience of the Russian state.

It is now clear that the Russian Federation views the United Kingdom’s global strength as profoundly weakened not only by the issues raised in the Committee’s report, but by Brexit. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the lack of investigation by the Committee into the consequences of Brexit was an oversight and only gives succour to the idea in the Kremlin that the United Kingdom does not have a Scooby what it is doing when it comes to working with like-minded European nations to deal with the profound threats posed by the Russian Federation?

What a pleasure it is, after all those very supportive questions, to be able to say that I utterly disagree with the question that has just been asked. When did Brexit occur? It was a matter of days ago, but the Committee is to be coruscated and condemned because it has not already carried out a full-scale investigation of the consequences of something that the hon. Gentleman was hoping would never happen. Some of us hoped that it would happen, although I must say that a majority on the Committee hoped that it would not. The hon. Gentleman can be perfectly sure that the consequences of Brexit feature high up on our future programme of work. Indeed, I am surprised only that he thinks we should have carried out the research into the consequences of Brexit before we even knew that it was going to take place.