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Volume 695: debated on Monday 17 May 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T. C. Davies.)

I am grateful for this opportunity to discuss the situation in Ukraine. I will let the Minister get to his seat before we get into it. It has been some time since the House debated this issue, and we have even been given an extra nine minutes this evening to do so, although I do not intend to detain colleagues any longer than is absolutely necessary. I should declare an interest as a holder of the order of merit, which was kindly awarded to me in 2019 by President Zelensky as a friend of Ukraine.

It would be remiss of me not to remark on the fact—although I appreciate that this is not the Minister’s territory as far as his portfolio goes—that as we debate the situation in Ukraine right now, there is a blazing conflict in the middle east between Israel and Palestine that cannot have failed to shock Members of the House and members of the Government, not least the bombing of a building containing the offices of the Associated Press and al-Jazeera. But I will leave that there for now, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I applied for this debate some time ago, when the escalating situation on the Russia- Ukraine border was the big military news story at the time. We have seen an intense build-up of personnel and heavy equipment on land, air and sea and, contrary to what some believed to be a major drawback from the border by the Russian side, that border is still heavily militarised and the drawback is nowhere near what some seem to think it is. Indeed, the situation right now on the contact line in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine remains as bad as it has been since the conflict started. Just this year alone, since the end of December, 37 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed and 74 have been wounded, some of whom have probably died as a result of their wounds.

It is also worth remembering that Ukraine is one of the most infested places on earth as far as landmines are concerned. I pay particular tribute to the work of the HALO Trust, which does an incredible job of de-mining in Ukraine, although not just in Ukraine. The Minister would expect me to speak up for the funding that his Department provides to the trust for its work there and elsewhere, such as in Syria. It is vital that the cut to international aid funding should not result in a cut to efforts to de-mine what is a European country, as is all too often forgotten.

Before I come to what is happening in 2021, I want to take us back slightly. The House will know the 2014 background, understand the Maidan revolution and know of the non-military, non-kinetic warfare that is being besieged on Ukraine, its Government and its people by its larger neighbour the Russian Federation. I was extremely privileged, although somewhat depressed, to visit eastern Ukraine a couple of years ago. I was pleased to have that visit facilitated by the former UK ambassador, Judith Gough, who I think is now in Stockholm. I saw for myself the misery, destruction and poverty that the war has brought upon free European citizens who deserve the right to choose their own path, and not to have one foisted on them militarily by their neighbour.

Since coming back from that trip, I have kept up contact with people I met—politicians, civil society groups and members of the public—in the capital and the east, to stay in touch and ensure that as a parliamentarian I am as informed as possible. Their worry, concern and anxiety right now, today, is higher than they have ever felt it since the days when the conflict broke out.

When we look at the current military projection from the Russian Federation to the borders of Ukraine, although there has been a very small drawback, the war rages in the east, the illegal annexation of Crimea continues and a blockade is now taking place against the sea of Azov. I ask the Minister to be frank at the Dispatch Box in telling the House whether that blockade of the sea of Azov and the Kerch strait represents a breach of the UN law of the sea and of the agreement between Kiev and Moscow on how the sea of Azov should be managed.

As I am sure the Minister would expect, I want to talk a little about the Government’s response. I criticise the UK Government day in, day out—that is my job as an Opposition politician—but I think that their support to Ukraine, particularly but not just in military terms, is one of their better outfits, shall we say. I know that that really matters in the capital of Ukraine; it has my support, for sure, and that of anyone who wants stability and peace in the country and the wider region.

However, I have to come to sanctions policy and to the red herring that is Nord Stream 2. I am afraid that we have had debate after debate and question after question in the House about the Government’s position on Nord Stream 2, which seems to be, “It’s nothing to do with us, guv.” Indeed, I remember that when Alan Duncan was Minister for Europe, that was exactly the position that he would answer written questions with, although I am not sure whether it made it into his diaries: that the matter was not seen as a priority or an immediate threat and was therefore nothing to do with the United Kingdom Government.

That is a false position to take. Although the UK has left the European Union, it is still the case—not least by dint of the UK’s position as a NATO member state, and a founding member state at that—that European security matters. Nord Stream 2 represents an enormous threat to European security and European stability, so I would like the Government to show some muscle. Right now, what I can see is that the only person standing in the way of Nord Stream 2 as it is supposed to operate is the leader of the German Green party, Annalena Baerbock. If she and her party are successful in forming part of the coalition after the federal elections in September, they may well represent a halt to the project.

I can see you getting nervous, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will pad this out so that you can intervene at the appropriate time, which I think is about now.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David T.C. Davies.)

I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I was saying, I hope she is successful for that reason and many others, but I would like to know what the Government’s position on this is now. Has it changed? Has it evolved? Given the Salisbury incident that happened a few years ago alone, how on earth can the Government continue with a head-in-the-sand attitude and approach to Nord Stream 2? We owe ourselves better than that, but we certainly owe our fellow Europeans, not least our friends in Ukraine, a bit more than that too.

I also wish to mention Russia Today, because the war against Ukraine has not just been one of military hardware, foreign fighters, bullets and shells, although they have been a part of the most tragic consequence of it; the information war being fought against Ukraine, not just in Ukraine, but around the western world, is another facet to this hybrid conflict. I would like to know why the Government can correctly sanction a TV news presenter in Russia who is speaking Russian to a domestic Russian audience but will not sanction the head of RT, the global editor in chief, Margarita Simonyan, who I am sure is frantically writing out a public statement about me as she hears this. Why will the Government not sanction the head of the outfit that is being used to pump out dangerous disinformation in this country and elsewhere, given that they recognise that this is a threat to our own security and the collective security we stand in as far as NATO, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and much else is concerned? Can we get a more robust and targeted sanctions policy that goes after those who want to sow disinformation, discord, falsehoods and lies and ultimately help continue the propaganda war, as RT does so brazenly?

Let me come to numbers. The war in Ukraine has killed more than 14,000 people, most of them innocent civilians. It has displaced more than 1 million Ukrainian nationals within their own land. I am not sure whether the Minister has had the chance to go to eastern Ukraine to see the impact that the war has had there, but it is a somewhat sorry place. Although I know we will do all we can to help rebuild it, the tragedy of this conflict will go on for many years to come, and that is before we even get on to the situation in Crimea, where a part of Ukraine that was illegally annexed is currently illegally occupied. Human rights abuses are the day-to-day norm there, and Crimean Tatars, some of the oldest peoples in the continent of Europe, are targeted, harassed and imprisoned for the crime of flying the Crimean flag. I would like to hear from the Government what more we can do, now that the Ukrainian Government has launched the “Crimean platform”, to support Crimean Tatars, who are so brazenly and hellishly targeted by Russian forces in Crimea.

In a call a few weeks ago, organised by the chair of the all-party group on Ukraine, the right hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), we talked to some Ukrainian MPs from across the political spectrum. I mentioned this earlier, but I will say it again: the anxiety is very real. The threat of a full-on military incursion of some description has not gone away—it just might not happen in the spring. That threat is very much there. I know from talking to those Members of Parliament that they do not want their country to be constantly ignored as a country that is at war, a country that is chopped up and annexed by its neighbour; they want to be contributing to the big challenges that we face today. In my own city later this year we will host COP26. That is what Ukrainian citizens want to be focusing on: climate change, data policy, international crime—all the things that any sovereign European Government should want to focus on.

We on these Benches support entirely the independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, sometimes known as the bread basket of Europe or the gates of Europe. It is an old country—a proud people and a proud land with a complicated history. It has had a long association and friendship with people here in the UK; indeed, the Donbass region that is currently the subject of war was founded by a Welshman, and the connections with Scotland are long and well known. I do not doubt at all that the Government are a friend of Ukraine; I just think they could be a better friend of Ukraine, and what is the job of the opposition if not constantly to try to edge the Government into a better place than they might otherwise be?

So I want to hear from the Minister about the sanctions policy the Government follow, because it strikes me as somewhat patchy. I want to hear from the Minister—and I am sure he will tell me—about the planned visit by the Royal Navy later this year. I want to hear from the Minister, although we are not part of the formal peace talks process, about the UK’s diplomatic engagement with France, Germany and other countries to bring that about. And I want to hear from the Minister a positive change in the Government’s position on Nord Stream 2, because this will rapidly pose a threat here; if the Minister and the Government think that the cash generated from that project will not be used against us, that is a rose-tinted naiveté that in fairness I do not believe for one second the Minister would be guilty of.

This is a dangerous time for the Ukrainian people. They have suffered enough. The conflict that goes on—the frozen conflict, as it is sometimes known—can escalate, and that would be in nobody’s interests. I am sure all of us want to see peace and prosperity, and all of us accept that it is not easy, simple or plain. In that spirit, I invite the Minister to not just be a friend of Ukraine but to be a better friend of Ukraine, as I know he wants to be. I look forward to hearing what he has to say.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) for securing this debate and pay tribute to him for all the work he does in this place on behalf and in support of Ukraine. I understand he is a vice-chair of the all-party group on Ukraine, and, indeed, being recognised by Ukraine is no small achievement; the hon. Gentleman referred to his receiving the very distinguished award of the Order of Merit, and he is to be commended for that.

It is important that all Ukraine’s friends continue to show unwavering support for the country. Principally, that means standing with Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression and provocation, as well as supporting reforms and Ukrainian institutions. I should have said at the outset that I am here because the Minister responsible for Ukraine is travelling, so I apologise if I cannot go into all the detail that the hon. Gentleman wants, but I assure him that we will do our best to get the relevant responses that he requires.

As we set out in the integrated review, Ukraine forms part of our efforts in the eastern European neighbourhood and beyond to deter and defend against the full spectrum of threats emanating from Russia. The UK Government remain resolute in our commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We want Ukraine to be secure, stable and prosperous, and we want Ukrainians to be able to define their own future.

We are one of the few international partners that offer Ukraine a full range of military, security, economic, political and governance support. We are at the heart of the international community’s engagement on Ukraine, launching the Ukraine reform conference series, deepening NATO’s partnership with the country, shaping international sanctions against Russia and leading the efforts in the United Nations to hold Russia to account.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have also deepened our bilateral ties with Ukraine, particularly through our political, free trade and strategic partnership agreement, which was signed in October by the Prime Minister and President Zelensky. The agreement provides the foundation for a deeper strategic political and trading relationship. It is a framework for continued co-operation on human rights, the rule of law and democracy. It offers opportunities to strengthen cultural ties and links between our people, building on existing UK programmes such as Chevening as well as the John Smith Trust.

I want to go into a little more detail about our work with allies, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, aimed at deterring Russian aggression and de-escalating tensions following Russia’s recent military build-up near Ukraine’s border and in the illegally annexed Crimea. The Government maintain regular senior-level engagement with our allies, working together through the UN in New York, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in Vienna, and also directly with the Government of Ukraine. The Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs have been in touch with their Ukrainian counterparts to assure them of our support for and solidarity with the Government and people of Ukraine, for which we have been thanked by President Zelensky.

Russia’s troop movements last month yet again illustrate Russia’s appetite to provoke and destabilise. Although the Russian Defence Minister announced on 22 April that Russian troops would return to their bases, we continue to monitor the situation closely and we have been clear that Russia’s threatening behaviour is completely unacceptable. In the event of further escalations, we will explore counter-measures with our allies.

Our vocal support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is backed by our long-standing defence engagement. Our military support is delivered primarily through Operation ORBITAL, the UK’s training mission to Ukraine. Since launching that in 2015, we have trained over 20,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces. In 2019, we expanded Operation ORBITAL to include naval co-operation and last year, we launched the UK co-ordinated multinational maritime training initiative. As the hon. Gentleman will know, last summer HMS Dragon visited the Black sea, including the ports of Odessa in Ukraine, Batumi in Georgia and Constanţa in Romania. Her deployment reflected our support for regional allies and partners and our commitment to regional security and maintaining freedom of navigation, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred.

On that point, we are closely monitoring reports of the Russian decision to close parts of the Black sea surrounding illegally annexed Crimea.

This is the latest example of destabilising activity in the region, following the build-up on the border. We have called on Russia not to hinder passage through the Kerch Strait. That is something we are monitoring closely. We will, of course, take the appropriate action should our calls not be heeded. HMS Dragon’s deployment reflects our support for all the regional allies and partners in that region.

We are also one of the biggest supporters of the OSCE’s special monitoring mission to Ukraine. That plays a crucial role in providing impartial reporting to the international community on the conflict in eastern Ukraine. We are one of the largest contributors to the mission both financially and in terms of personnel, and the Government reaffirmed our commitment to it in our recent integrated review. We also remain supportive of Ukraine’s NATO membership aspirations, in line with the 2008 Bucharest summit declaration. Ukraine achieved enhanced opportunities partner status nine months ago, the highest level of partnership with NATO available. That offers a framework for engagement as Ukraine moves forward with the reforms that are a precondition of its membership pathway.

Hostile Russian activity is not the only challenge we are helping Ukraine face. As the hon. Gentleman referred to on a number of occasions in his speech, we are a friend of Ukraine. That is reflected by our support since the beginning of the pandemic. We have provided legislative assistance to the Ukrainian Ministry of Health. We have supported Ukraine to maximise the effectiveness of Government public communications on covid-19. We are also working with civil society organisations to enhance oversight of covid-19 procurement. We have tailored our programme of support this year in defence, economic development and governance reforms to support the recovery from covid-19. Furthermore, Ukraine stands to benefit from the £548 million that the UK Government have committed to the COVAX vaccine initiative, which will contribute to the supply of at least 1.3 billion doses of covid vaccines this year for up to 92 low and middle-income countries. We are also funding the World Health Organisation to train mobile teams to administer vaccines in Ukraine.

Covid-19 and Russian aggression aside, there is another battle going on in Ukraine: the fight against corruption and internal vested interests that seek to hinder vital reforms, which is why we continue to support Ukraine’s reform programme, a commitment the Prime Minister reiterated to President Zelensky during his October visit. I am proud that under our leadership of the G7 ambassadors’ support group in Kiev, we have co-ordinated international advocacy for fighting corruption, strengthening the judiciary’s independence and supporting Ukraine in its implementation of an ambitious reform programme.

Our close bilateral relationship with Ukraine also means that we can be a critical friend, including on matters of internal reform. For example, we have expressed our serious concerns about corporate governance in Ukraine following the recent dismissal of the CEO from the state-owned energy company Naftogaz. We have reiterated to the Ukraine Government that it is crucial to foreign investor confidence that corporate governance of state-owned enterprises is transparent, free from political interference and consistent with international standards. We are also using our programme funding to support economic and governance reforms that fight corruption, improve the business environment, and increase Government accountability. Last year alone, we allocated £14 million in official development assistance and other funding in support of programmes that support prosperity, resilience and stability in Ukraine.

I will try to answer a couple of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. He asked whether Russia Today should be able to broadcast in the UK, and what the latest update is. We all have our doubts about the objectivity of the reporting of RT through its UK television channel, which remains a tool for propaganda for the Russian state. As he will appreciate, broadcasting regulation is a matter for the independent regulator.

I am grateful to the Minister for taking my intervention. It is important to be accurate about what I said: I was not looking for RT to get sanctioned, closed down, or anything like that. Any suggestion of closing down a TV channel makes me instinctively wince. What I did ask was whether we can have a targeted sanction against the individual who is the global head of RT, Margarita Simonyan. I am in no doubt about RT’s objectivity: it does not have any at all.

The hon. Gentleman is right, and I apologise if I strayed down a different path to the one that he raised. However, he will understand that it is not appropriate to speculate about individuals who may or may not be sanctioned. We continue to consider designations under the global human rights sanctions regulations; speculating about individuals, as I know the hon. Gentleman knows, could very well reduce the impact of designations should they occur.

He mentioned the Crimean Tatars, and rightly so. We are very concerned about the ongoing human rights abuses experienced by ethnic and religious minorities in Crimea. The Crimean Tatars face regular harassment and risk arrest, detention, and threats to seize their property. The UK has contributed £700,000 to the UN human rights monitoring mission that monitors and documents human rights abuses on the peninsula, and provides human rights expertise to promote the right to a fair trial for political prisoners in Crimea. We are also working with Ukraine on the development of the international Crimean platform, to ensure Russia continues to be held to account for the illegal annexation of Crimea and its actions in the region.

I think that the hon. Gentleman also mentioned the carrier strike group in his remarks. We will visit more than one fifth of the world’s nations with the carrier strike group when it sails, and it will also participate in NATO exercises such as Exercise Steadfast Defender and provide support to NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian and security operations in the Black sea. He also referred to Nord Stream 2. We have continuing and significant concerns about Nord Stream 2 and its implications for European energy security and, of course, for the interests of Ukraine. We must work together to reduce reliance on any single supplier, and we call on the EU to ensure that Nord Stream 2 fully complies with the EU gas directive to help avoid monopolistic practices by Gazprom. We would also like significant volumes of gas transit through Ukraine to be preserved, recognising the importance of tariff revenue for the Ukrainian economy.

Ultimately, our work with the people and Government of Ukraine, as an honest friend and an ally, is to support the democratic choices and rights of the Ukrainian people. It is in support of individuals and institutions, working for a Ukraine that is free from external interference and that works in the interests of all its people, rather than those of a few corrupt and self-interested individuals. It is important work, which I believe we should all support.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.