I beg to move,
That this House has considered Russia’s grand strategy.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for safeguarding a touch more than the three hours that we were promised for this most important debate. I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for it at this most crucial moment, with developments in Ukraine and elsewhere.
The term “grand strategy” may seem something of a relic from previous centuries, and one that became irrelevant with the end of the cold war, but to think so would be to ignore what is happening in today’s world. There are many Governments around the world today who practise grand strategy, but sadly very few are allies of the west. Most are despotic regimes that are constantly challenging the rules-based international order on which western security and the global trading system depend. The most immediately threatening of such powers is, undoubtedly, Russia.
Today’s Russia has inherited an admirably precise and uniformly understood meaning of the term “strategy”. “Politika”, meaning policy, stands at the top of a hierarchy of terms and describes the goal to be achieved; “strategiya” describes how the goal is to be achieved. Military strategy is merely a subset of global, national or grand strategy.
So what is the goal behind Russia’s grand strategy? Putin’s goal is nothing less than to demonstrate the end of US global hegemony and establish Russia on an equal footing with the US; to change Russia’s status within Europe and become the pre-eminent power; to put Russia in a position to permanently influence Europe and drive a wedge between Europe and the USA; and to re-establish Russia’s de facto control over as much of the former Soviet Union and its sphere of influence as possible. As the strategy succeeds, Putin also intends to leverage China’s power and influence in Russia’s own interests. China, incidentally, will be watching how we defend Ukraine as it considers its options for Taiwan.
On 17 December, the Russian Foreign Ministry unveiled the texts of two proposed new treaties: a US-Russia treaty and a NATO-Russia treaty. Moscow’s purported objective is to obtain
“legal security guarantees from the United States and NATO”.
Moscow has requested that the United States and its NATO allies meet the Russian demands without delay.
This is, in fact, a Russian ultimatum. Putin is demanding that the US and NATO should agree that NATO will never again admit new members, even such neutral countries as Sweden, Finland and Austria, which have always been in the western zone of influence; that NATO should be forbidden from having any military presence in the former Warsaw pact countries that have already joined NATO; and that the US should withdraw all its nuclear forces from Europe, meaning that the only missiles threatening European cities would be Russian ones. The ultimatum is premised on a fundamental lie, which Putin has promulgated since he attended the Bucharest NATO summit in 2008 as an invited guest. That lie is that NATO represents a threat to Russian national security.
As Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov explained:
“The two texts are not written according to the principle of a menu, where you can choose one or the other, they complement each other and should be considered as a whole.”
He described the NATO-Russia text as a kind of parallel guarantee, because
“the Russian Foreign Ministry is fully aware that the White House may not meet its obligations, and therefore there is a separate draft treaty for NATO countries.”
Putin’s intention is to bind NATO through the United States, and bind the United States through NATO. There is nothing to negotiate; they just have to accept everything as a whole.
Russian media are already triumphant, proclaiming:
“The world before, and the world after, December 17, 2021 are completely different worlds… If until now the United States held the whole world at gunpoint, now it finds itself under the threat of Russian military forces. A new era is opening”.
My hon. Friend talks about Russian grand strategy and Russian grand design. I am sure that he will come on to talk about the way in which the Russians are using gas and energy to manipulate and coerce our key NATO partners in central and eastern Europe, such as Poland, with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. Does he agree that it is a disappointment that our own Government have not imposed sanctions on the companies involved in the construction of that pipeline?
I will not comment on that particular suggestion, but I will be coming to the question of gas.
This ultimatum is, in fact, Russian blackmail, directed at both the Americans and the Europeans. If the west does to accept the Russian ultimatum, they will have to face what Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko calls
“a military and technical alternative”.
What does he mean by that? Let me quote him further:
“The Europeans must also think about whether they want to avoid making their continent the scene of a military confrontation. They have a choice. Either they take seriously what is put on the table, or they face a military-technical alternative.”
After the publication of the draft treaty, the possibility of a pre-emptive strike against NATO targets—similar to those that Israel inflicted on Iran—was confirmed by the Deputy Minister of Defence, Andrei Kartapolov. He said:
“Our partners must understand that the longer they drag out the examination of our proposals and the adoption of real measures to create these guarantees, the greater the likelihood that they will suffer a pre-emptive strike.”
Apparently to make things clear, Russia fired a “salvo” of Zircon hypersonic missiles on 24 December, after which Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, commented:
“Well, I hope that the notes”—
of 17 December—
“will be more convincing”.
We should be clear that Russia’s development of hypersonic weapons is already a unilateral escalation in a new arms race which is outside any existing arms limitation agreements. The Russian editorialist Vladimir Mozhegov commented:
“The Zircon simply does its job: it methodically shoots huge, clumsy aircraft carriers like a gun at cans.”
An article in the digital newspaper Svpressa was eloquently titled “Putin’s ultimatum: Russia, if you will, will bury all of Europe and two-thirds of the United States in 30 minutes”.
How have we reached this crisis, with the west in general, and NATO in particular, so ill prepared to face down such provocation, when Putin’s malign intent has been evident in his actions for a decade and a half? Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the west has too easily dismissed today’s Russia as a mere shadow of the former Soviet Union. Yes, it has an economy no greater than Italy’s; it has no ideological equivalent of communism, which so dominated left-wing thinking throughout most of the 20th century; it has very few if any real allies; and much of the rhetoric that emerges is bluster, reflecting weakness rather than strength. Nevertheless, we should not dismiss what Russia has done since 2008 and what Russia is capable of doing with its vast arsenal of new weaponry, and nor should we take a complacent view of Russia’s future intentions. After all, just months after the Bucharest summit in 2008, where he was welcomed as a guest, Putin seized Georgian sovereign territory in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In 2014 he illegally annexed the Crimea. His aggression was rewarded, because we have tolerated these illegal invasions.
Many western leaders, and the bulk of the western public, have failed to understand that Ukraine is merely a component of a long-running hybrid warfare campaign against the west. They fail to appreciate the extent and nature of Russia’s campaign or the range of weapons used.
I am following carefully what my hon. Friend has to say and agree with so much of it. Does he agree that the current Russian intervention in Kazakhstan is part of a piece? This is Putin running true to form. Although theoretically it is at the invitation of a Government that this country recognises, nevertheless it is likely to be classic Putin and expand into a long-term intervention, on the flimsy pretext that that country has a significant ethnic Russian population or one that speaks Russian.
Indeed, and I will be explaining how these apparently disparate events are integrated in Russia’s grand strategy.
Beneath the cloak of this military noise and aggressive disinformation, in recent months—Kazakhstan is another example—Russia has been testing the west’s response with a succession of lower-level provocations, and I am afraid that we have signally failed to convince the Russians that we mind very much or are going to do very much about them. They have rigged the elections in Belarus, continued cyber-attacks on NATO allies, particularly in the Baltic states, and demonstrated the ability to destroy a satellite in orbit with a missile, bringing space into the arms race. They continue to develop whole new ranges of military equipment, including tanks with intelligent armour, fleets of ice breakers, new generations of submarines, including a new class of ballistic missile submarine, and the first hypersonic missiles.
They have carried out targeted assassinations and attempted assassinations in NATO countries using illegal chemical weapons, provoked a migration crisis in Belarus to destabilise Ukraine, and brought Armenia back under Russian control, snuffing out the democratic movement there. They have claimed sovereignty over 1.2 million square miles of Arctic seabed, including the north pole, which together contain huge oil and gas and mineral reserves. This followed the reopening of the northern sea route, with Chinese co-operation and support from France and Germany, which also hope to benefit. Meanwhile, the UK has expressed no intention of getting involved.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. He has just outlined some weapons that Russia has developed, but does he agree that the recklessness with which it has done so makes them even worse? The nuclear-powered Poseidon torpedo is cooled by seawater, and they feel that some of their hypersonic missiles are cooled by the air, so they have no concerns whatsoever about radioactive contamination from the delivery systems, let alone the payloads.
My right hon. Friend is completely right. They are ruthless about pursuing what they regard as their own interests and disregard any other risk. Indeed, they are very far from being risk-averse, and the west has been far too risk-averse to compete with that. I will come to that later, but I thank my right hon. Friend for reminding us about the Poseidon torpedo, which is a nuclear-tipped torpedo—another escalation in the arms race.
Russia has also been rearming the Serbs in the western Balkans, including the Serb armed forces and the police in the Serb enclave of Bosnia, with the intention of destabilising the fragile peace that NATO achieved 30 years ago. Russia has stepped up its activity and influence in north and central Africa and has even started giving support to Catalan separatists in Spain. Russia uses its diaspora of super-rich Russian kleptocrats to influence western leaders and exploit centres such as the City of London to launder vast wealth for its expatriate clients.
Following the shaming chairmanship of Gazprom assumed by the former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, so Russia has now recruited former French Prime Minister François Fillon to become a board director of the massive Russian petrochemicals company Sibur, with its headquarters in Moscow. The Russians must have contempt for us for being so gullible and corruptible. Our unilateral withdrawal from Kabul also vindicates their narrative that the west is weak, pointing out that we failed to stand by our moral principles or our friends.
Closer to home, look at how Gazprom has gradually and quietly reduced the gas supply to Europe, running down Europe’s gas reserves and causing prices to spike, leading to quadrupling gas and electricity prices in the UK. If Putin now chokes off the supply, it would take time and investment to put in place the necessary alternatives, which the Russians will seek to frustrate, as they already have in Algeria. Algeria was in a position to increase its supply of gas to EU, depending on the existing pipeline being upgraded, but a successful Russian influence campaign aimed at Germany and France prevented that from happening. Gazprom is enjoying its best ever year, so Putin can not only threaten western Europe’s energy supplies, but get the west to fund his war against the west.
Moreover, as gas supplies to Germany through Ukraine seem less reliable, so Germany continues to support Nord Stream 2, the pipeline that will bypass Ukraine, strengthening Russia’s hold over both countries immeasurably. At least we have the option of re-exploiting our gas reserves in the North sea. For as long as we require gas in our energy mix, we should be generating our own, not relying on imported gas from Europe.
The hon. Gentleman’s last statement will be very much welcomed by workers in the gas and oil industry, but was it not also remiss of the Government a few years ago not to continue with the gas storage facility in the North sea, which would have provided us with some resilience? We should also have been working with other countries to build up their reserves, to diminish the ability of the Kremlin and Gazprom to blackmail us.
All I can say is, do not start me on the lamentable incoherence of 20 years of UK energy policy, because it is a disgrace, and something that we could have done so much better and that this Government are starting to repair, but it will take some time.
I have already given way to my hon. Friend, so I hope he will forgive me if I do not take up more time.
The constantly high level of Russian military activity in and around Ukraine and the attention being drawn to it have enabled the Kremlin to mount a huge disinformation campaign, designed to persuade the Russian people and the west that NATO is Russia’s major concern, that somehow NATO is a needless provocation—I am looking at my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), because I cannot believe how wrong he is on this—and that Russian activity is just a response to a supposed threat from NATO. That is complete rubbish.
The only reason the west is a threat to the regime in Russia is who we are and what we represent. We are free peoples, who are vastly more prosperous than most Russians, liberal in outlook, relatively uncorrupted and democratic. The Russian narrative is nothing but a mixture of regime insecurity and self-induced paranoia. Putin feels that Ukraine becoming visibly and irrevocably part of the western liberal democratic family would show the Russian population that that path was also open to Russia as an alternative to Putinism. Let us remind ourselves that Russia’s war against Ukraine in 2014 was provoked not by Ukraine attempting to join NATO, but by its proposed association agreement with the EU.
It is crucial to understand that Russia’s hybrid campaign is conducted like a war, with a warlike strategic headquarters at the National Defence Management Centre at the old army staff HQ, where all the elements of the Russian state are represented in a permanent warlike council, re-analysing, reassessing and revising plans and tactics. The whole concept of strategy, as understood and practised by Putin and his colleagues, is as something completely interactive with what their opponents are doing. It is not a detailed blueprint to be followed. It is primarily a measure-countermeasure activity; a research-based operation, based on real empiricism; an organically evolving struggle; a continual experiment, where the weapons are refined and even created during the battle; and where stratagems and tactics must be constantly adapted; and plans constantly rewritten to take account of our actions and reactions, ideally pre-empting or manipulating them. It is also highly opportunistic, which means that they are thinking constantly about creating and exploiting new opportunities.
To guide such constant and rapid adaptation, the strategy process must include feedback loops and learning processes. To enable that, what the Russians call the hybrid warfare battlefield is, as they describe it, “instrumented.” It is monitored constantly by military and civilian analysts in Russia and abroad, by embassy staff, journalists, intelligence officers and other collaborators, all of whom feed their observations and contributions to those implementing the hybrid warfare operations.
Meanwhile, western Governments such as ours still operate on the basis that we face no warlike challenges or campaigns. We entirely lack the capacity or even the will to carry out strategic analysis, assessment and adequate foresight on the necessary scale. We lack the strategic imagination that would offer us opportunities to pre-empt or disrupt the Russian strategy. We have no coherent body of skills and knowledge to give us analogous capacity to compete with Russian grand strategy. Our heads are in the sand. So much of domestic politics is about distracting trivia, while Russia and others, such as China, are crumbling the foundations of our global security.
Why does this matter? It matters because our interests, the global trading system on which our prosperity depends and the rules-based international order which underpins our peace and security are at stake. We are outside the EU. We can dispense with the illusion that an EU common defence and security policy could ever have substituted for our own vigilance and commitment. We must acknowledge that while the United States of America is still the greatest superpower, it has become something of an absentee landlord in NATO, tending to regard European security issues as regional, rather than a direct threat to US interests. Part of UK national strategy must be to re-engage the US fully, but that will be hard post-Trump. He has left terrible scars on US politics, and the Biden Administration are frozen by a hostile Congress, leading to bitter political paralysis. Nevertheless, the priority must be to reunite NATO.
Having initially refused to have a summit, President Biden has now provisionally agreed to a meeting with Putin on 9 and 10 January—this weekend—to negotiate what? We all want dialogue, and the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) speaking from the Opposition Front Bench earlier said we want dialogue, but it should not be to discuss the Russian agenda. Being forced to the table to negotiate that way would be appeasement. It would be rewarding threats of aggression, which is no different from giving way to aggression itself. What further concessions can the west offer without looking like appeasers? The Geneva meetings have to signal a dramatic shift in the west’s attitude and resolve, or they will be hailed as a Russian victory.
Some are now comparing the present decade to the 1930s prelude to world war two, where we eventually found we were very alone. If we want to avoid that, the UK needs to rediscover what in the past it has done so well, but it means an end to muddling through and hoping for the best. We cannot abdicate our own national strategy to NATO or the US. It means creating our own machinery of government and a culture in our Government that can match the capability and determination of our adversaries in every field of activity.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant speech, and thereby shortening the one that I will make very considerably. He has made the comparison with the run-up to the second world war. One of the key final shocks in that catalogue of disaster was the unexpected Nazi-Soviet pact. Would the equivalent to that be some form of Chinese move against Taiwan, which would so distract the United States as to be the last piece of the jigsaw in the picture that he is painting of a Russian plan to dominate the European continent?
I have no doubt that Russia and China are not allies, but they know how to help each other, and I think my right hon. Friend’s warning is very timely. As I said earlier, how we deal with Ukraine will reflect how Russia regards Taiwan and, I suppose, vice versa.
I was talking about the need to create our machinery of government and our culture in Government that can match the kind of strategic decision making that takes place in Moscow. I can assure the House that there are people inside and outside Whitehall who are seized of this challenge, and Members will be hearing more from us in the months ahead.
I hope we can manage this afternoon’s business without a formal time limit. If everyone speaks for between eight and nine minutes, we will do so. If people speak for significantly more than eight minutes, I will have to impose a time limit.
As we made clear earlier, there is considerable concern about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Ukraine, particularly on its frontier. In today’s debate, as has been well introduced by the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), we need to look at that on a much broader spectrum—basically one of a revanchist Russia that is seeking to rewrite the end of the cold war. It is seeking to recreate the Soviet Union; to increase its influence, if not its direct acquisition—I do not think it would rule that out, however—of the former Soviet Republics; and to establish hegemony over the former countries of the Warsaw pact, as well as to keep Finland in a state of neutrality and to have considerable influence in the western Balkans. That is very clear. Most of those countries are members of NATO and of the EU, and some of them are members of both. I think that explains the Kremlin’s enormous hostility to both those institutions, as it seeks to do everything it can to undermine them.
We need to recognise the nature of that threat, to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention very effectively. It is not just a military threat. We talk about the 100,000 troops on the border, and that is significant, although there might be a tendency to overestimate the efficacy of much of Russia’s equipment. Although Russia may be making advances and developments in hypersonics and so on, quite a lot of its other equipment—we see this particularly with its surface fleet—is distinctly substandard. We need a strong evaluation of that, and that would be much easier had Whitehall not dispersed so much of its Russia-watching capability after the fall of the Berlin wall, leaving a great gap. There may be some attempts to recreate that, but I do not think we have anything like the ability we once had to observe and understand what is going on.
That is also tied to integration. The hon. Member described very well the integrating mechanisms within the system—it is very reminiscent of the Soviet system during the cold war—to integrate all areas: cultural life, political life and industrial espionage, so that they work together in a co-ordinated way. If I asked the Minister where in Whitehall was the UK’s integration along those lines—I am not aware of it—I think he would be hard pressed to put his finger on it. What frustrates me enormously is that in the past, we had quite a good record on this. During the second world war, the Political Warfare Executive—headed up, interestingly enough, by Richard Crossman, subsequently a Labour Member of Parliament and Labour Minister—pulled together journalistic and psychological expertise, and it had an extremely effective record.
I want very briefly to relay two conversations that I have had about strategic thinking in Government. One was with a person who is now the former Prime Minister, who said, “Oh, Bernard thinks we should have a strategy, but I think we should remain flexible,” completely misunderstanding what strategy is. The second was with a Minister who is now serving in a very senior capacity in this Government, and who said, “What is our strategy? We think we have to work with NATO.” In this country, we are so far behind understanding what strategy is that we have a very great task in front of us.
I thank the hon. Gentleman. Of course, many people quote Eisenhower as saying that all strategic plans break down on first contact with the enemy. Of course, they forget the next sentence: nevertheless, it is still necessary to plan, and to have a framework.
It is also necessary to look at this issue, as our opponents do, in a broad spectrum to see how all the areas interlink. That is the problem that we faced for some years with industrial espionage, for example, although people are waking up to that to quite a degree. Traditionally, all the way through, there has been industrial espionage by the Russians, and more recently by the Chinese, but there has been a reluctance and a failure to see it in such a way. Many of those who criticise such an approach say, “You are trying to recreate the cold war.” No, we are not. The cold war has already been restarted.
As far as I can see, President Putin reanimated a sense of hostility—people can call it a cold war, or whatever they like—in his Munich conference speech in 2007. Since then, what has been so blindingly depressing about western Governments, and specifically the UK Government, is that we desperately tried, really until 2014, to pretend that that had not happened. I am afraid that that just shows that it is better to face the reality, however uncomfortable it is, than to behave like an ostrich.
Such behaviour, I am afraid, has been a regular feature. Everybody should be very clear. Putin only recently described the break-up of the Soviet Union as
“a disintegration of historical Russia under the name of the Soviet Union”.
We should remember that he previously called its collapse the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Oh that mine enemy would write a book! He has made it very clear where he stands, and therefore we have to respond to that effectively. We look at the troops in Ukraine, and talk about the little green men. We must also look right the way through the middle east and north Africa, and indeed further down into Africa. The Wagner Group is a so-called private sector operation, but it is licensed by, closely related to and deeply embedded in the Kremlin, and operates on its behalf and at its behest.
Slightly diverting from the Political Warfare Executive, in the post-war period under Ernest Bevin the information research department was created at the Foreign Office, precisely to run a full spectrum influence war in order to shape opinion in the UK and more widely in the western world and, as part of that operation, to look at and operate on the structural weaknesses within the Soviet bloc. If Soviet communism is an effective way of seizing power, it is a lousy way of running economies and societies. We therefore have to take the fight to them.
That is not just about agitation, propaganda and trying to mirror the disinformation and lies; one of the most effective weapons against such authoritarian and dictatorial regimes is to tell the truth about what is going on in their societies. We should always remember why the Russians, the Chinese and others are so afeared of their own populations knowing and understanding the truth. There is ample historical evidence from the last 100 years that many of those who run such societies and their secret police know much better than we do how unstable those societies are, and how thin is the level of support. That does not mean that they are not dangerous, because one of the ways of trying to mask that is external adventurism and trying to create the prospect of a threat abroad.
It has been rightly said that NATO is not an offensive alliance; it is a defensive alliance. I do not understand—I put this to the Minister—why we are not providing defensive equipment to the Ukrainian forces, not in order to take the fight to Russia but to allow them to defend themselves effectively against any incursion. Military doctrine should say that the defender has a significant advantage. We have seen, for example, in a number of recent conflicts that heavy armour can be severely impacted by the use of quite cheap drones.
I am not trying to create such an expertise, but merely questioning whether we are looking at providing defensive equipment to protect a sovereign country—a country guaranteed by the Budapest agreement, signed by Russia and ourselves—and why we are not supporting it in maintaining its independence. This is also because of the signals to elsewhere in the world, which others have talked about, such as the other countries formerly in the Soviet Union, particularly the Baltics, which have been feeling the pressure both of military exercises and indeed of intelligence operations for a very considerable period.
I am mindful of your strictures on time, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I would just like to say this in closing. Some of those countries will be saying that this is destabilising. Actually, I think that recognising the nature of the system and being not aggressive or assertive but robust, while indicating that we stand by our rights and by our friends and negotiating in a proper and effective way with the Russians on that basis—not giving concessions just for having talks, but trying, as we did in the cold war, to reach containment and a modus vivendi—is the route ahead. However, that requires robust action, and, in the words of someone who was involved in those discussions previously, “Trust, but verify”.
It is a privilege to be called in this debate. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for having secured it, and indeed to the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar), who has elucidated many points that I know many on all sides share. It is only a shame that those who were such strong advocates for Putin’s murderous campaign in Salisbury are not in the Chamber today to defend their hero. However, we will have to address the issues that they would have raised anyway, because what we are dealing with here is not simply a foreign policy challenge—this is not a foreign adventure or a foreign land about which we know little—but, fundamentally, a challenge to the British people, the United Kingdom, our islands, our nations and our communities about how we defend ourselves in a changed world.
It is Christmas time, and I know many of us have children spoiled by grandparents who will try to force them in front of things such as “The Nutcracker” or “Swan Lake”, while we snooze quietly on the sofa pretending to concentrate, and moments like that remind us of the Soviet days. At moments of great difficulty, such as when the Soviet regime was under pressure—when various geriatric leaders were dying quietly in their beds, surrounded by even older members of the Politburo finding another one of their own to replace them—or when the Soviets were worried that coups were coming and change was imminent, Soviet TV played “Swan Lake”, “The Nutcracker” and, in fact, anything from Tchaikovsky.
Christmas will be a reminder for many of us that change is not necessarily that far away, and we are not alone in thinking that. Those sitting today in the Kremlin are aware of it. They know that their position is extremely vulnerable. They know that their claim to have the support of 70%, 80% or 90% of the local electorate is complete rubbish. They know that the reality of their support is very thin. What we are seeing today is not grand strategy in the sense of trying to do what the Soviets tried to do or Stalin tried to do, which was to try to move west as far as the Atlantic or to dominate parts of Africa. This is grand strategy for the Putin regime in the sense of surviving until tomorrow morning, then waking up and surviving until the morning after, and then doing it again and again and again.
This is a very fundamentally flawed regime. We are not really talking about Russia here; we are talking about a small cabal of kleptocrats, thieves and liars who have stolen one of the great countries of the world. It is a country, as I have said, that gave us so many artists, musicians, scientists, mathematicians and, indeed, even people who have advanced the life of the British people with inventions such as graphene, which Manchester University has done so well to develop. This is an amazing country. This is a country that really should have a grand strategy, and that grand strategy should be to invest in education, in connections and roads, in health and in the people who have made so much of Europe great, who have brought so many ideas to the world and who have brought so much joy to many hearts—not to mine perhaps but to my five-year-old daughter’s, as she loves the ballet. The problem is that those policies are not being followed, and they are not being followed for the very simple reason that they do not enrich the small band of brigands who sit round the table today. Putin and his 40 thieves sit there, getting richer and richer.
The latest estimate I have heard, and it is only an estimate, is that Mr Putin controls somewhere north of the equivalent of $200 billion. Of course that is not all in Russia—a lot of it is spread around the world—and very sadly, for those who read the works of Oliver Bullough, Luke Harding, Catherine Belton and many others, too much of it is here. Too much of it has flowed through our systems, our pipes, to be laundered, processed and channelled into areas where it can be redeployed and reused to further the advances of that same group of thieves.
This is a tragedy, and it is a tragedy for two reasons. One, it leaves the Russian people enslaved to a mob, the victims of a corrupt and despotic regime. Two, it is more tragic because the people we all represent and serve are also victims who are left damaged by this process. Our own financial system is harmed by that corruption, our own property networks are exploited by that corruption, our schools are devalued and our universities are stripped out. None of it is total, but it is certainly true that all our systems are damaged by the level of corruption that we see tolerated by a very small number of people in this country, and that is wrong.
I was privileged to work with many Members who are in the Chamber today on the 2018 Foreign Affairs Committee report, “Moscow’s Gold”, on the spread of dirty Russian money through our organisations. I was privileged to highlight some of the areas where we can do better, and we have been discussing how we might update that report in the coming weeks and months. We know there is a lot to do, so we will be looking more at where this money is going. We will be highlighting, as others have today, the overseas territories. We will be looking, as many others have highlighted, at how energy projects are used to exploit our dependence on petrochemicals and our dependence on energy, and to turn that dependence against us.
Those are the key reasons why this is about us, but there is a third reason why this is not just about a foreign country or just about Moscow, and why it is not even just about Kiev and Ukraine, although we must stand with the courageous individuals who are today defending their homes against Russian aggression, or rather Putin’s aggression. The third reason is that there is a direct link to our interests here. The reality is that the priorities of our people are, quite rightly, healthcare, education and transport. The interests that we share rely on having a world that works within a system of rules that support and defend free people to exploit their talents and opportunities to grow the economy, to invest for the future, to plan and to reap what they sow. What Putin and his regime are doing is what dictators do all over the world: they shorten the horizon, they cut down investment angles, they make it harder to develop, they make it harder to co-operate and collaborate, and they push people over the border and through illegal migration routes out of fear of persecution at home. Fundamentally, for our people, we must stand up with other NATO countries to defend ourselves against what we are seeing today.
I come back to my initial point. This is not a grand strategy; this is a cheap trick by a two-bit hustler playing a shi—excuse me, a shyster’s game. I believe that is acceptable. It is a shyster’s game that is being witnessed around the world. It is pretending to be a genuine strategic play, but it is not—it is not. It is a very, very low-grade trick, but because we have not stood up, because we have not been willing to be as firm as we can be, and because we have weakened ourselves with our European NATO partners and partners around the world, we are seeing ourselves undermined by it. We can stand up. We can kick out the dirty money—it is not that much in UK terms. We can, with allies, defend ourselves. We can stand with the Russian people, and with great people around the world, and reject this band of thieves and kleptocrats.
I warmly congratulate the be-knighted Member, the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin), on securing this very important debate.
I suspect I am going to agree with everybody and that everybody is going to agree wholeheartedly with one another today, but I think that that is important because it is important that Russia understands that the UK has a single voice on this matter. I am absolutely delighted that my political party has now returned to common sense on these issues. I welcome the new shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and I am delighted that he is here for the whole debate. If I am honest, I wish that the Foreign Secretary were here, because this is the kind of debate that the Foreign Secretary should listen to. Let me start with some things I have said before. I have been saying some of them for a very long time, and when they were not very popular things to say in this Chamber.
In essence, there is a great lie at the heart of Putin’s strategy. His lie, first of all, is that the west is threatening Russia. In fact, the first clause of Russian military doctrine states that the existence of NATO is the greatest threat to the Russian Federation. That is a lie. Everybody in this Chamber would agree that NATO is a defensive alliance. There is no aggressive intention whatever behind our alliance. The second part of the lie is that Ukraine is oppressing Russians. That is remarkably similar to what Hitler said about the Sudeten Germans in the 1930s. It is also a blatant lie. Thirdly, he says that Russia is interested only in self-defence and auto-determination, and that that is the policy it tries to advance all around the world. That is a blatant lie. As we can see in all its activities, whether in Syria or the Balkans, it is very clear that Russia is always pursuing its own self-interest.
The last bit of the lie, repeated regularly in particular by Russian ambassadors to the Court of St James’s, is that everybody who disagrees with Russia’s attitude on any individual case is a Russophobe. It is almost an equivalent to antisemitism as far as they are concerned. That is a lie. Every single person in this House who takes an interest in Russia does so because we have a phenomenal respect for the Russian people, their history, their traditions, their arts and their culture. We only have to go to Russia for a day to understand what a phenomenal history they have. Whether we are talking about art, music, poetry or novelists, they have made such a phenomenal contribution to the world. None of us in this debate today is a Russophobe. We are all lovers of the Russian people.
What is actually happening in Russia, rather than Putin’s big lie, is an aggressive campaign of destabilisation. It takes two forms. The first is a destabilisation of the democratic west. This is a repeated theme. It is quite cheap. It is much cheaper to try to destabilise us rather than to go to war with us. I will say a little bit more about that later in relation to some of the secret documents I have obtained from the Kremlin.
The hon. Gentleman is a strong proponent of the European Union and campaigned for our membership of it; how does he react to Germany and France bypassing sanctions on Russia and supporting things such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that clearly undermine our NATO partners in central and eastern Europe?
I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman about Nord Stream—indeed, I regularly try to berate British Government Ministers for not being robust enough and decisive enough on that issue. My anxiety about our having left the European Union is that there is a danger, in respect of the Europeans’ common security and defence policy, that they will renege on the kind of policies that we would like to see. I would like us to find a way of still sitting at the table so that we can influence such decisions. The Spanish Prime Minister once said to me that one problem with the EU maintaining its sanctions regime was that once Britain—frankly, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—was no longer in the room, everybody started to fracture apart. I come to the same conclusion as the hon. Gentleman but from a different perspective.
Others have talked about the pattern of behaviour, about South Ossetia and Abkhazia, about the problems in North Macedonia and Catalunya, about the destabilisation in the United States of America and, of course, about the invasion of Crimea, as well as about the recent problems in Montenegro. All that is, of course, a deliberate distraction from the real problems of the Russian economy. I say that because I have a copy of a document—as does the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely); he may refer to it later—signed by President Putin himself on 22 January 2016. It clearly outlines Russia’s strategic aims. First, it notes the falling incomes of Russian people which, it says, could lead to significant social tension. It also notes the positive effect of the invasion of Crimea and the policy in the Donbass region on public opinion in Russia, but points out that that positive effect has been only temporary and may not last.
The document suggests that, consequently, Russia has to engage in a process of influencing other states in the world, particularly the United States of America and western democracies. It says it should do this, first, by the provocation of the emergence of a sociopolitical crisis in the United States of America; secondly, by the delegitimisation in the public consciousness of the state system in western democracies; thirdly, by instilling an internal social split in order to facilitate a general increase in the radicalisation of society in western democracies; and fourthly, by provoking the emergence of and strengthening non-traditional communities in the United States, with ideological focuses ranging from extremely right to extreme left but always with one message: they do not hear us. That is precisely what the Russian state has been doing for the past few years in the United States of America and in every western democracy, including the United Kingdom.
I know that the Intelligence and Security Committee looked at this issue, although I do not think it had that document. I do not understand why, when our own Intelligence and Security Committee has recommended changes in this policy area and the proper investigation of attempts to try to destabilise the British political system, the Government have simply refused to do so.
Frankly, we have been getting our policy on Russia wrong for two decades now. We vacillate and send off mixed messages all the time. We look weak and indecisive. We look as if we need Russia, rather than the other way round. We constantly make ourselves the supplicants—the demandeurs: “Please, don’t do that, Mr Putin. Please don’t do that!”
We tempt Russian oligarchs to the United Kingdom with easy visas: we had these golden visas that largely went to extremely wealthy oligarchs who had made their money corruptly in Russia, with no questions asked other than, “Do you have enough money?” We did not even ask, “Are you going to invest it in the United Kingdom?” We boast about our clever lawyers and accountants who can tidy things up so that assets are protected, however they have been obtained. We open up our high-end housing market to Russian billionaires even though we know that the best way to squirrel away a dirty fortune or, indeed, to launder £20 million is to buy a property that is worth £10 million for £20 million. Yes, £10 million is lost, but we have managed to clean up £10 million. That is precisely what has affected the London housing market so deleteriously. We even grant—Government Ministers do this—some Russian individuals anonymity in what is meant to be the public register in Companies House of beneficial ownership of companies.
The hon. Member is, as always, making an excellent speech. He is talking about all the corrupt and corrupting facilitators in our society. Is he as concerned as I am by the use by Putin allies of very high-end libel lawyers to try to silence former Members of this House and people such as Catherine Belton who are trying to expose what Putin allies are doing in the west?
Absolutely. It is a real problem for us that the British libel courts end up being used to effectively silence dissent and the truth about Russia. Catherine Belton’s book is an absolute belter. I believe every single word of it to be true and I wholeheartedly support her campaign, which, in the end, is a campaign on behalf of the Russian people to ensure that Russia’s wealth is for the Russian people, not a few kleptocrats.
Our implementation of all the “Moscow’s Gold” report is long overdue, as referred to by the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. That means that we must have a public register of beneficial ownership that should apply to the owners of overseas companies operating or purchasing property in the United Kingdom. That still does not exist; I simply do not understand why.
The unexplained wealth orders seem to have fallen on stony ground and do not seem to be much use because there is a great difficulty in implementing them, so they need to be reviewed. We need to ensure that the overseas territories do not become a soft backyard where people can hide vast amounts of money corruptly, effectively under the British banner. That is not a patriotic commitment by the overseas territories. The patriotic commitment that the overseas territories should be making to Britain is to put public beneficial ownership registers in place as soon as possible.
Of course, we have to co-operate entirely with NATO and our allies in the United States of America, but we also have to take seriously the rest of the European Union. If Europe fractures on the issue, Russian territorial aggression will get worse rather than better. Russia will continue to think that we are weak, gullible and easily bought off unless we adopt a single clear, robust, serious and consistent posture that applies to dirty money, human rights abuses and territorial aggression.
I join other hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on securing this important debate on strategy, which we do not do as well as we should. At the moment, we are tactically responsive and react to events rather than shaping them and looking over the horizon.
Strategy is all about having an objective to maintain or alter the status quo using available means and, indeed, willing alliances. The plan is about how to achieve that outcome with energy policy, weapons treaties, cyber resilience and capabilities, the use of sanctions, our defence posture, what we want to spend on our military might, and the friendships that we then wish to stretch out and advance, such as with Ukraine.
When it comes to strategy, having worked in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Ministry of Defence, it is clear that we can and must do better, given what is coming over the horizon. Jack Welch, the former CEO of General Electric, once wrote that
“when the rate of change inside an institution becomes slower than the rate of change outside, the end is in sight. The only question is when.”
To transfer that to the world’s activities today, our world is moving very fast and we in the UK, and in the west more widely, are not keeping up. I would argue that that change is happening 10 times faster than in the industrial revolution of the late 18th and 19th centuries, at 100 times the scale and with 1,000 times the impact.
This timely debate on strategically understanding and responding to the security threat from Russia centres on the three core themes that I have progressively promoted in this Chamber for some time: first, the increased disunity and timidity of the west; secondly, the rising influence of authoritarian states exploiting that timidity to ruthlessly pursue their agendas; and thirdly, the increasingly technological digital world and our ability to continuously adapt and harness the changing character of conflict.
I will explore that in more detail. Certainly, our gathering of the intelligence picture is second to none—we do that extremely well indeed—but today I will make an argument about our appetite to step forward and fill the vacuum that, I am afraid, has been temporarily left by the United States.
To go back to the three key themes, first, we have the state of the west. I believe that in the last decade we witnessed the high tide mark of post-cold war western liberalism. That is quite a statement to make in this Chamber. Since 9/11, a new form of asymmetric warfare has dominated western attention, but it has distracted us from the international rules-based order and recognising and supporting the importance of bolstering and updating the rules that we want to follow, which we earned after the second world war. We have not kept up with shifting power bases, new technologies and emerging threats.
As I alluded to, the United States—the one country that we look to for leadership—is missing in action, distracted and polarised by what is happening in its domestic scene. That is likely to get worse with the coming mid-terms.
I will not give way, as I have already done so once and I am conscious of the time.
The United States has temporarily retreated from the global stage, and there is a gap on the world stage for leadership that Britain should and—I hope—could fill.
Secondly, we have the rising influence of authoritarian states. Our adversaries are taking advantage of our weakness and becoming bolder, more confident and more assertive. They sense the west’s weakness. That is why we saw Putin not hesitate to invade Georgia and the Crimea as he sought to strike back in concern about NATO’s growing membership of former Warsaw pact countries. Such countries have joined both NATO and the EU. Retaliatory sanctions were of course imposed, but, given our reliance on Russia’s oil and gas, their impact was limited.
Finally, as other hon. Members have touched on, we have the fast-changing character of conflict, which Russia is excelling at. The strategic context that we face today is increasingly complex, dynamic and competitive. We face constant political warfare designed to erode our economic, political and social cohesion. Russia’s goal is to win without war fighting: to break our willpower and harness attacks below the threshold that would normally warrant a war fighting response. Russia excels at constant political conflict, deception, economic coercion, cyber-interference, large-scale disinformation and manipulation of elections, all underpinned by strong-arm tactics and military intimidation. That is what hybrid war looks like.
I argue that any threat can be measured by a simple formula: the product of the ability and intention to engage minus our ability and commitment to defend ourselves and our interests. During the cold war, Russia backed down over Cuba knowing that the United States would not turn a blind eye. But Russia’s ability to engage in conflict has dramatically improved in the last decade. It has made significant investments in all three of its military services—its army, air force and navy—as well as spilling out into the weaponisation of space, hypersonic missiles, as have been mentioned, and cyber capabilities. It is also developing a worrying alliance with China, sharing protocols and doctrines.
We need to understand Russia’s desire to engage and cause conflict. That requires an appreciation of its leader. Putin has long held the view that the west is to blame for the demise of the Soviet Union, not least because the privatisation of Russia’s nationalised industries saw so much Russian money leaving the country for the west. He believes that the west deliberately seeks to keep Russia weak; his goal since coming to power has therefore been to revive Russia as a global power that will again command respect from the west. Putin has long held the view that the west is to blame for the demise of the Soviet Union, not least because the privatisation of Russia’s nationalised industries saw so much Russian money leaving the country for the west. He believes that the west deliberately seeks to keep Russia weak; his goal since coming to power has therefore been to revive Russia as a global power that will again command respect from the west.
Putin’s strategy is very clear indeed. First, he needed to secure his own domestic power base by silencing his critics, controlling the message and providing an enemy for the nation to rally against. That is straight from the authoritarianism playbook: procure an external enemy on which domestic shortfalls can be blamed, and against which the population can rally when fed propaganda via state-controlled media. With that largely achieved, his second mission is to return Russia to superpower status, using its well-harnessed grey zone skillsets to expand Russia’s influence to counter the expansion of NATO and the European Union, specifically focusing on the Russian-speaking diasporas in neighbouring states.
Last month, an ever-confident Putin went further, effectively declaring that he wanted a new Warsaw pact to turn back history—back to the USSR. His ultimatum to the west starts with the obvious—the renunciation of any further enlargement of NATO to the east—but then demands that the US withdraw its protection from the 14 eastern European and Balkan states that have become members of NATO in the last 24 years.
All this, of course, is unacceptable to the west and to NATO members, which makes the prospect of an invasion ever more likely. That is the immediate threat to Ukraine. After the loss of the former Ukrainian President, Putin’s ally, it was clear that Ukraine would eventually join both NATO and the EU, which would see the western organisations rubbing up against the Russian border. That, for Putin, was unacceptable.
Let us put ourselves in Putin’s shoes. Would there be a better time to invade eastern Ukraine than right now? Over time, Ukraine will rearm and move closer to the west, making any invasion more of a challenge. That is why there are not just 100,000 infantry on the border, but special forces, field hospitals and missile systems—way beyond what would be needed just as a leveraging chip in discussions with the United States.
Russia is aware of the financial sanctions, but they will be limited because any impact on Russia will also affect its trading partners. Russia will, of course, retaliate with its energy provision to Europe, and in the long term it will simply expedite a closer relationship with China.
This is about more than just Ukraine. Russia is restoring its authoritarian clout in the international arena to the point that it is able to dictate its own terms in shaping the international community. It would not have taken NATO much hardware to deter Russia and make Putin think twice. I hear the argument that NATO is a defensive organisation and Ukraine is not a member, but that is a simplistic view of the threat picture, with potentially grave consequences for eastern European security, and it will embolden other authoritarian regimes to pursue their agendas to expand their own influence.
Where does that leave the west and the UK? We need to wake up and recognise just how fragile and dangerous our world has become. A question that I pose regularly to this House is whether we think the world will be more or less stable in the next five years; we know the answer. We have so many fires that have been left unextinguished—for example in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and even Bosnia and Kashmir, where governance and security are starting to erode and fail. The bigger geopolitical threats, of course, are Russia and China. With two Presidents for life sitting in Moscow and Beijing with more power and time than they know what to do with, it is obvious that we must wake up to this crunch point in our history.
How we in the west conduct ourselves over the next five years could determine how the next five decades play out. If America chooses to step back, it does not mean that Britain should do the same. We are a nation that steps forward when others hesitate, as our history illustrates. If we do not, who will? That does not mean that we do all the heavy lifting, but our hard and soft power assets remain strong. What we are missing is the appetite once again to play a more influential role and offer the statecraft and thought leadership that the west is currently missing.
I make it very clear: we need a reality check. We need to stop kidding ourselves that we garner so much influence as senior members of the United Nations Security Council, NATO, the G7 and the Commonwealth, when those very organisations no longer harbour the clout or the vision to handle our modern and complex world. Power bases and alliances are shifting fast, but we seem to be in denial. The west needs to quickly remind itself what it stands for, what it believes in and what it is willing to defend.
To conclude, we need a Russia strategy. Our current trajectory on Russia is to see it slide progressively ever closer to China. I make the bigger point that this will be China’s century. How the world adapts to that is a whole other debate, but as we debate today what Russia is doing, would it not be easier to contest and challenge where China is going if we turned Russia 180° over the next decade, so that it is closer to the west than it is to the east? That would be a strategy that I think we could all agree with.
At the beginning of March 1946, less than a week before Churchill delivered his iron curtain speech in Fulton, Missouri, the joint intelligence sub-committee of the chiefs of staff concluded:
“The long-term aim of the Russian leaders is to build up the Soviet Union into a position of strength and greatness fully commensurate with her vast size and resources.”
The JIC admitted that firm intelligence was difficult to obtain, as
“Decisions are taken by a small group of men, the strictest security precautions are observed, and far less than in the case in the Western Democracies are the opinions of the masses taken into account.”
“likely to be deterred by the existence of the atomic bomb”,
of which the Americans then had a temporary monopoly,
“in seeking a maximum degree of security, Russian policy will be aggressive by all means short of war.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? “In brief,” the JIC warned
“although the intention may be defensive, the tactics will be offensive, and the danger always exists that Russian leaders may misjudge how far they can go without provoking war with America or ourselves.”
That was in 1946. Here we are, many decades later, but one can see resonances and the relevance of that analysis to the situation that we face today.
We have had two excellent speeches from Labour Back Benchers—I am only sorry that there are not more Opposition Members here, although I am hopeful that, if there were, they would have been largely singing from the same song sheet. However, it is one thing for us all to agree on a bipartisan basis on the analysis of what is wrong and quite another for us to be able to take steps to ensure the safety of the west, which seems to be imperilled rather more than at any time I can think of since at least the 1980s, when there was a huge movement to try and disarm the west of nuclear weapons unilaterally. What are we going to do, what steps are we going to take, and have we got confidence in the leadership of the western world to stand up for the values that seem to be common to all participants so far in this debate?
We have heard a masterly summary of the way in which Russia has been issuing ultimata to the west that are truly extraordinary. I must make a slight disclaimer at this point and say that I am speaking entirely in my capacity as a former Chairman of the Defence Committee, and certainly not as the current Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Nothing that I say in this debate is predicated on anything that I have read, heard or discussed in that more recent capacity.
What I am about to say is the same message that so many of us have been trying to put forward for many years, which is that there is no real defence for Europe without the involvement of the United States. I was very interested to hear the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) about the fact that people should not denigrate the cold war. The cold war was a strategic success for democracy. There were two alternatives to the cold war: one was surrender and the other was nuclear war, so of those three, I think I know which was the preferential outcome. I also agree with the earlier observation that all the talk about grey zone warfare, and all the rest of it, is a sign that we are already involved in a cold war. It is a good thing, if we are faced by adversaries, to confront them, to stand up to them, and hopefully to prevent that from escalating into an open war: a hot war; all-out conflict.
How best can we do that? Well, it worked rather well from the mid-1940s until the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union in 1991. It was a mixture of two concepts: deterrence and containment. Deterrence involved two main elements: the involvement of the US, as I said, in European security, and the fact that there was a nuclear umbrella that might not deter all forms of aggression but could certainly protect us from nuclear blackmail. The point about containment is that, if you are not going to go to war with your adversary but you want to stop him taking you over and destroying your way of life, then you have to be prepared to hold him in check for decades on end. What a pity that somebody did not explain this recently to President Biden, who kept talking about “forever wars”. Are the Americans involved in a forever war in South Korea? Should they withdraw their limited military presence from South Korea? What do we think would happen then?
Surely that is exactly the wrong analogy. In Korea there is a stalemate and there are two societies. That is very different from fighting a forever guerrilla war in unfavourable territory. It is more about President Biden’s predecessor, who gave everything away to the Taliban in the same way that he encouraged Putin.
All analogies are risky and no analogies are perfect, but in one sense my analogy stands up: if North Korea now knew that America would not be prepared to go on indefinitely defending South Korea, does one honestly think that South Korea would have much of a future in the face of the regime that it faces across that parallel? Of course it would not.
I am not being partisan about this, because I believe that we are speaking on the very anniversary of ex-President Trump’s disgraceful behaviour in relation to the riots and the invasion of the Capitol, but I am very concerned that we are now faced with the prospect of someone who is manifestly not up to the job of taking on a ruthless, villainous gangster like Vladimir Putin and is going in to negotiate with him on the basis of an ultimatum put forward by Putin that effectively states that the NATO alliance has a take-it-or-leave-it offer: either it withdraws all its troops from the territory of any country that has joined NATO since the end of the cold war or it faces the prospect of military action in Europe. I believe that the great American people and the great American political system depend on more than any individual in the top job, but all I can say is that, if there are wise strategists around President Biden, they had better brief him a lot better, a lot more quickly and in a lot more depth than they did in the run-up to the disastrous unilateral withdrawal from Afghanistan.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on obtaining this timely debate on this extremely important subject. I want to start by making it clear, as one or two others have done, that we have no quarrel with the Russian people. Indeed, we have a considerable history with and affection for them. That dates back to the time of Queen Victoria, and since then this country has supported Russia. Immediately before the revolution, the Anglo-Russian Hospital was established, in which my father served as a medical orderly, first in Petrograd, as it was then called, and then on the eastern front immediately prior to the revolution. In the second world war, this country supported the Arctic convoys, which supplied essential food to the Russian people, with the loss of 85 merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy warships. I am glad that the Russian Government have more recently acknowledged that by awarding medals to those who survived.
When I worked with Margaret Thatcher, I saw the establishment of her relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. He saw that the system over which he presided was flawed and would ultimately fail. History should give him credit for the fact that when the Soviet Union began to break up and Lithuania became the first Soviet country to declare independence, Gorbachev decided not to release the troops from their barracks. As a result, those countries obtained independence. All of that has changed and deteriorated under Vladimir Putin, as has already been set out.
There was a brief time when there were signs of hope. Those who have read the book by Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, on the attempt by the Obama Administration to obtain what they called “reset” will recall that there was a brief period when it appeared that things were becoming slightly more liberal. That did not last. It was principally when Medvedev was President, but things deteriorated very quickly when Putin came back as President. Indeed, Mr McFaul was then declared persona non grata in Russia. Since then, there has been ruthless suppression.
The first victims of Putin are the Russian people. The strategy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex and others have described, is multi-faceted and pursued on a number of fronts, but it is firstly a ruthless suppression of any opposition or dissent within Russia itself. That extends as far as murder. We have seen Boris Nemtsov killed and Alexei Navalny poisoned and detained in a corrective labour camp. In this country, we have seen the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, which led to the death of a British citizen, Dawn Sturgess. There are suggestions that a number of other deaths in this country are linked to the activities of the Russian security services.
There has also been massive suppression of human rights. Most recently, Memorial, the international human rights organisation, has been closed down by the courts. My own particular area of interest has always been media freedom. Media freedom does not exist in Russia. A recent assessment by Reporters Without Borders has stated:
“With draconian laws, website-blocking, Internet cuts and leading news outlets reined in or throttled out of existence, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily”.
There are currently 373 journalists imprisoned in Russia.
Then there is the strategy adopted towards Russia’s neighbours. Mention has been made of the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and of course Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine, and threats are made to neighbours. When I was in Lithuania, we were shown the Suwalki gap, the short stretch of land along the Polish border linking Belarus and Kaliningrad, which is under Russian occupation—it is part of Russia itself. If the Suwalki gap were taken, it would cut off all three Baltic states completely from the west. There are already reports of migrants being driven into that gap, which some fear is such an attempt.
Of course, it is Ukraine that is currently in the frontline. It committed the cardinal sin of wanting to move towards becoming a more free and democratic society, and when Yanukovych attempted to suppress that, the Ukrainian people turned out in their thousands to protest, and 100 died under sniper fire in the Maidan. Shortly after that, Putin occupied Crimea. He first denied that he had any responsibility—the famous little green men—but subsequently he celebrated it. That was followed by the activity in the Donbass region, and of course there was then the appalling murder of 283 passengers and 15 civilian crew members who died when MH17 was shot down as part of that. Putin now is pursuing a policy in the Donbass of issuing passports; over 600,000 have been given to Ukrainian citizens within the Donbass region. As President Zelensky has pointed out, that was the precursor strategy used in Crimea. I visited, with Michael Fallon, the two ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol on the sea of Azov, which have now been cut off as a result of the building of the bridge across the Kerch strait, which allows Russia to squeeze those ports and stop any shipping going through.
Ukraine is on the frontline. We heard the Foreign Secretary’s very welcome statement earlier today. However, as I suggested earlier, the threat of massive consequences is extremely unspecific and at the moment the only concrete statement made by the Government as to the precise results of any Russian military action against Ukraine was the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence that it was “highly unlikely” that anyone was going to send troops.
I agree that Ukraine is not a NATO member at present and I do not think there will be great willingness to deploy military troops, but we need to do far more in terms of military assistance and setting out very clearly the consequences of Russia’s current tactic, which is not just to threaten Ukraine but to repress its own people internally and pursue an aggressive strategy of expansion outside.
Putin respects strength, but currently we are not showing much. I fully endorse the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex and others that we need a clear strategy to demonstrate to him that we cannot accept the current behaviour of the Russian Government.
As the leader of the UK delegation to the Council of Europe, I have a major problem: we have to deal with the Russians all the time, almost on a daily basis. The question I have asked, and to which I have not received a proper answer from anyone, is how we should deal with them, and in a way that takes the debate further. We as a delegation have spent our time hassling the Russian members by challenging their credentials and making life very uncomfortable for them, but the question I have above all of that is this: why is Russia so bothered about being a member of the Council of Europe; about being a member of a multilateral organisation that, as we have already heard, it does not really want to be part of? I can think of a number of reasons, but I am not sure they are adequate. I can think of reasons such as giving it the ability to interfere in other countries in a way that it would not otherwise have. If that is the reason, why does it put up with us and others in the Council of Europe making life fundamentally uncomfortable?
From my perspective, it is important that the members of the delegation know something about issues before we go over to meetings of the Council. I arranged two discussion groups, one with a leading service person who is one of our service’s chief Russia experts, and another with a leading dissident. One of the key messages of the leading service person was that we should not continue simply to hassle and harass Russia, which was a wasted opportunity; we should instead use the opportunity to gather intelligence from the Russians on what their real objectives were.
I have tried that on a number of occasions. My life in doing so has been difficult, because some of those people are not the sort with whom one might like to have conversations in the normal course of a general and friendly discourse—some are really ugly characters. Nevertheless, we make an effort to do that, and it is important to try to get to grips with what the Russians are doing and what the thinking behind them is.
One of the other key messages of that service person was not to look at Russia from a western perspective, but to buy an atlas produced in Russia. If we looked at that, we would see that the Russian perspective is very different from the perspective of Russia that we would get from looking at a western atlas. Putting Russia at the centre of those atlases shows, among other things, how important the Arctic is to Russian thinking and to their strategic objectives.
The other person we invited over was a leading dissident, Vladimir Kara-Murza. He has been poisoned twice in Russia. I came across him at the Council of Europe when we were both attacking Belarus on the issue of the forced landing of the Ryanair flight from Athens to Lithuania. I got on well with him and thought it would be a good idea to invite him to speak, as a counter to the clear messages we had from the service chief.
The leading dissident put a lot of stress on the fact that, as has been mentioned in the debate, the support that Putin has in Russia is very thin and that one of the chief motivations for Putin is to justify to his own people how he has managed to change the Russian constitution to allow him to stand for election again. That was not allowed in the past and, apparently, Putin is nervous about that. Vladimir Kara-Murza, being a Muscovite himself, spoke about how, travelling around Russia to have meetings, it was impossible to tell whether he was in Moscow or somewhere else, because the level of dissidence was the same across the whole of Russia. That is an important point to make in analysing what is going on, and why it is so.
We asked Vladimir Kara-Murza why he thought that Putin had supported Belarus. He said, “They are the last two dictators left in Europe, and if one of them goes, it makes the position of the other more dangerous—more critical.” I thought that was interesting, because we might have taken the view that if one of them went, the other would just continue, but so nervous is Putin of being the last dictator in Europe that he chose to support Belarus.
So where does that leave us? It leaves me asking the same question about what we should do. I was interested to hear the comment from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth East (Mr Ellwood) that we do not have an overall strategy for dealing with Russia, and certainly, in my experience, that is exactly the position that we are in. It leaves us facing a significant military power, but one, I think, that is slightly weakened by the fact that it still wants to participate in these multilateral organisations. I have a clear idea of what the international order should be and what it should consist of, and I try to make sure that I continue with that objective in the Council of Europe. Does this situation make Russia more or less dangerous? I think that it makes it more dangerous, and from that perspective this debate is very useful.
Under Vladimir Putin, Russia is obviously testing the west, and we can rest assured that nothing of significance done by Russia will happen without Putin’s agreement. I am sure many Members will agree with me that from the Kremlin’s point of view, it is already at war with the west; we just do not recognise that. It considers war to consist of all elements of society pointing towards the west to get what they want. It is not a grey area; the Russians just slide into war, whereas we would expect some sort of declaration of it.
Because of my background, I am particularly interested in what happens in eastern Europe, and I declare that interest again. I visit Bosnia relatively frequently, and there is no doubt that Russia is fully supporting Republika Srpska’s bid to break up Bosnia. That is very dangerous for Europe. Indeed, it is highly likely that Putin has authorised Serbia to send weapons to Republika Srpska.
I was also detained in Crimea in 2005. During my involuntary extended visit to the area, I was somewhat worried when I was told just how many of my jailors were talking Russian. The warders were clearly Russian. I was surprised by that, because Crimea was still, then, very much a part of Ukraine. After the annexation of Crimea by the Russians in 2014, a referendum was held with—they claim—an 83% turnout, in which, apparently, 97% of voters supported the region’s being integrated back into Russia. Although we may question whether the referendum was fair, on the basis of my limited experience of being incarcerated in Crimea—when I was up to good, by the way, not bad—I am pretty sure that most people in Crimea are very content to be Russian; and, given the Russian Black Sea Fleet’s position in Sevastopol, I cannot see Crimea ever being returned to Ukraine, because the locals just do not want it.
Eastern Europe is a perfect playground for Putin, in which he can irritate and taunt us. For our part, we are rather hamstrung, particularly in Ukraine. Ukraine is not a part of NATO—we have established that—although it has been a member of the Partnership for Peace since 1994. Indeed, I remember in that year, when I had the grand title of chief of policy at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe—doesn’t that sound great?—having dealings, for the first time, with its armed forces. There is no article 5 commitment to defend the territorial integrity of the country, but, as we have all discussed this afternoon, what happens there really matters to the rest of us in Europe. The trouble is that Europe is divided on this issue, again as we have discussed, and the United States is distracted by China. How about the doomsday scenario? China moves in on Taiwan at the same time as the Russians move in on Ukraine. Guess who will be hamstrung? It will be the United States.
A lot of European Union countries are heavily dependent on Russian gas and, as I just mentioned, the Americans are fixated by Chinese expansionism into the Pacific area. In truth, we in the United Kingdom have been very good friends to Ukraine. We have given it economic support and, through Operation Orbital, have provided considerable military training. As the European Union is so divided on what should be done, the United Kingdom can play a pivotal role in trying to sort out the problem—by that I mean trying to stem Putin’s aggressive foreign policy.
We could lead on getting co-ordinated European action against Putin. It is totally unacceptable that Germany, obviously fearing Russian retaliation of stopping gas supplies, refuses to allow the sale of defensive weapons to Ukraine. We have discussed that we should increase those defensive weapons. It worries me too that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) keeps jumping up to mention, the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline really puts such countries as Poland and Ukraine in a Catch-22 situation. I was very pleased when, earlier today, the Foreign Secretary announced that we categorically do not support Nord Stream 2, but what does that mean? The answer is not very much, because it looks as if it will go ahead anyway.
After the Salisbury poisonings, Europe worked collectively in punishing Russia. We got some sort of joint action. That was a signal of success and it worked. Surely we should be up to acting collectively to impose hard-hitting economic sanctions on Russia, if Putin continues to push his luck in Ukraine, the rest of Europe, and especially, from my point of view, Bosnia. I have achieved a strategic success, Madam Deputy Speaker, because I have finished in less than seven minutes.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this timely debate, which the Backbench Business Committee should be commended for granting so early in the new year and which was so ably introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin).
To start as I mean to go on, I fear that the European skies are now darkening, and it has nothing whatsoever to do with the winter weather. Perhaps I might explain why. When I was enjoying war studies at King’s under Professor Sir Lawrence Freedman many years ago, I learned that during the cold war the Soviets often referred to the concept of the correlation of forces—effectively a comparison of strengths and weaknesses, both political and military, between opposing blocs. If we adopt that conceptual approach, at least for the purposes of this debate, what does the current coalition of forces look like, specifically between NATO and Russia, particularly when viewed from Moscow?
Without wishing to be unkind, the United States has an ageing President with isolationist tendencies whose popularity is now waning barely a year into the job. In addition, only a year ago the American Parliament, Congress, was stormed by its own citizens—admittedly in bizarre circumstances, but it was overwhelmed nevertheless. The United States, once the proud leader of the western democracies and advocate of the Pax Americana, now seems increasingly absorbed by its own internal divisions—more worried by the politics of identity than those of global security.
The growing obsession of the American strategic community with China may arguably be unwelcome in Beijing, but I suspect that it is very welcome in Moscow. As just one simple example of that, despite the presidential election being 14 months ago, and regardless of the UK traditionally being America’s strongest and most consistent ally in NATO, the United States has still not formally appointed a new ambassador to the Court of St James’s to replace the popular and charismatic Woody Johnson. Do we really believe that these signals just go completely unnoticed elsewhere?
How about some of the other major NATO allies—how are they perceived in the east? For many years during the cold war when the Berlin wall was up, the German armed forces were highly operationally capable, held at high readiness and poised to vigorously resist any incursion by Warsaw pact forces across the inner German border. Today, despite the wall having come down, Germany’s armed forces are a shadow of their former selves, with severe equipment problems and worryingly low levels of operational availability. Politically, the long-standing and relatively stable Merkel era is now over. The former German Chancellor, a fluent Russian speaker, who reportedly had a strong personal relationship with President Putin, has now been replaced by a new and inexperienced traffic light coalition, including a pacifist Green party drag anchor that is unlikely to countenance any meaningful German military reform. Moreover, Germany continues selfishly to pursue a “beggar thy neighbour” energy policy sympathetic to Nord Stream 2, making it potentially even easier for Russia to deploy the gas weapon.
France, another key NATO member, with high readiness and military capabilities analogous to those of the UK—including, crucially, its own independent nuclear deterrent—is largely absorbed with the forthcoming presidential election this spring. The outcome of that election is highly uncertain, but some of the candidates, such as Éric Zemmour, who in 2013 declared Vladimir Putin as his own man of the year, worry me.
Overall, NATO, the most successful defensive alliance in history, which the Soviet Union once respected and even feared, has recently been defeated in Afghanistan, much as its Soviet forebears were many years ago. Despite all the emphasis on satellite technology, multi-domain operations, artificial intelligence, the integrating operating concept and all the other buzzword bingo that peppers the MOD’s lexicon these days, NATO was still defeated for all the world to see. Indeed, for all its supposedly dazzling advanced technology, NATO was ultimately run out of town by “a bunch of country boys” without an ability to fight credibly in four of the five established domains—space, cyber, air or sea—and armed mainly with AK-47s, Motorola radios and RPGs.
That outcome has surely not gone unnoticed in Moscow or Beijing, nor indeed in Tehran. While the west indulges in paralysis by analysis, the Russians build more tanks, tactical and strategic aircraft and hypersonic missiles and renew their nuclear arsenal. As the Defence Committee, on which I serve, has highlighted many times before, we need to be spending more on defence in this country, not less. Moreover, weighed down with covid-related debt and with international gas spot prices now at near record levels, and despite frequent entreaties from the United States as the leader of the alliance, the majority of NATO members still do not meet even the basic target of spending at least 2% of GDP on defence, with Germany at only around 1.7% this year, and Spain barely at even 1%.
Given all that, the correlation of forces is now moving in Moscow’s favour, at least in its eyes, and that smacks of opportunity. The recent presentation of a draft security treaty by Russia to western nations—primarily to the United States—has to be seen in that context. Accompanied by the overt pressure on Ukraine, which does not possess an article 5 guarantee, were that treaty to succeed, the next step will probably be to exert pressure on countries, some of which contain significant ethnic Russian minority populations which do possess such a guarantee, and that probably means the Baltic states, with the obvious aim of dividing and ultimately breaking NATO in the process. I sincerely hope that we are not going to be told, perhaps some months or years from now, even from that famous Dispatch Box, that Estonia is, after all,
“a far away country…of whom we know nothing”.
That is exactly what the Russians want.
Russians traditionally admire strength and despise weakness, and what they now perceive is a weakened NATO lacking in resolve to assert its democratic right to collective self-defence. The next few weeks are likely to be very telling in that respect. I still hope and believe that President Biden, who as a young senator actively supported Britain during the 1982 Falklands war, can recover his leadership role and, with support from European NATO allies, face down any potential Russian incursion into the heart of Ukraine and, indeed, any further adventurism elsewhere.
History tells us again and again that appeasement does not work and that countries that wish to remain free have consistently to assert the right to defend themselves against potential aggression. I say as the proud son of a D-day veteran who fought the Nazis, as did the Russian people, that we forget that lesson at our peril. Or to quote the Prime Minister’s other hero, Pericles of Athens, and I am looking directly at the Minister:
“Freedom is the sure possession of those alone who have the courage to defend it.”
The House has been unanimous today that we must retain that courage, and I hope we do because Pericles’s lesson holds true, two and a half millennia on.
It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois), with whom I serve on the Defence Committee. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing this important debate, which has been a delight to listen to so far. I will try to maintain that standard.
I have served on the Defence Committee and in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for the past two years, and the threat of Russia comes up in many of our discussions. Each time there are differing viewpoints on what Russia’s grand strategy is. There are many ideas and thoughts and, as have heard today, although we are united on what the threat is, there are differing views on the grand strategy. We need to establish the ultimate goal that Russia or President Putin, which is the same thing, is looking to achieve. If we can understand this strategy, it will be easier to work backwards, allowing us to counter any possible threat that the grand strategy could pose.
We tend to look at what has happened in the past and think it will be replicated in the future, which is not always the case. I am not saying it will or will not be replicated, but we should look at what happened in Georgia and Crimea, and at the build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border. We could take the viewpoint that, logically, Ukraine will follow the same route as Crimea and be taken over by Russia. I am not saying that will or will not happen; I am trying to have an informed debate on the overall grand strategy of Russia, not necessarily Russia’s next steps.
We have heard numerous Members say today that we are taking a tactical approach, and not necessarily a strategic approach. For example, if Ukraine is the next play for Russia but not the end goal, we are no wiser about the grand strategy and we will always be playing catch-up. We will always deploy ineffective deterrents or countermeasures, and we will always be working on a reactive approach rather than a proactive approach to counter any threat to our nation.
I do think Russia has a grand strategy, and I do not take the argument that Russia is just continuing on a whim. I believe that President Putin has a clear view of what he is trying to achieve, whether it is day to day or in the longer term. He knows what he is trying to do, and the reason I take that view is not just because of the build-up of troops on the Ukrainian border.
I recently visited Kirkenes near the Norwegian-Russian border with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly to see the threat that Russia could pose in the High North. The Arctic ice is melting far quicker than most people believed it would, which has opened a huge commercial trade area, as well as a larger area for conflict, in the High North. Russia has amassed a navy and a nuclear capability that we have not seen in that region since the cold war.
I also believe there are many inaccuracies in the general viewpoint on the current state of the Russian armed forces.
One thing I did not have time to mention is that the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was concluded by Presidents Reagan and Gorbachev, has fallen into disrepair because Putin has deployed a new missile—an intermediate nuclear missile, which NATO calls the Screwdriver and which we believe is stationed in a position to threaten western European powers in breach of that treaty. The Russians are now calling for us to remove all nuclear weapons from European soil. They have breached the INF treaty, and now they accuse us of doing so by refusing to withdraw nuclear weapons that do not breach it. That shows the inequality of the analysis that Russia presents in its propaganda.
Yes; what Russia is trying to do is completely incoherent and unbalanced, and I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
As I have said, Russia’s military is not what it was two decades ago. While we have spent the last 20 years in the middle east with our allies, Russia has invested heavily in a capability far beyond what it has ever had. I am not for one minute trying to make Russia appear 10 feet tall, but let us look at what it is doing. It has modernised its naval capability, and it understands the importance of sea warfare. It has made an advance in its hypersonic missile capability. I do not think it is as advanced as some media reports make out, but it is getting there. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly has recently produced a report on the matter, if anybody would like to have a look at it.
Russia has increased its nuclear capability at a rapid rate, and, as my hon. Friend has mentioned, the development of the Poseidon nuclear weapon is of major concern. We talk about the Wagner Group, which everyone refers to as being in Africa. Its advance parties were recently seen in the High North and on Svalbard. No weapons were seen there, but it is of concern that the group is expressing an interest in that area.
Russia’s cyber capability and its disinformation—operating in the grey zone, with sub-threshold hybrid warfare in that space between peace and war—should give us a huge inkling that we are not at the stage of peace with Russia. Many examples have been highlighted in this debate, and I am sure there will be many more. It is of the utmost importance that we understand the grand strategy of Russia to ensure that we can counter any threat that should arise.
I will finish on this point. The former Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nick Carter, has said that the biggest concern that kept him awake at night was miscalculation. I have recently read the book “Countdown to War” by Sean McMeekin, which describes the build-up to the first world war—35 days of probably the biggest miscalculation we have ever seen. That was the time it took from no war being expected to the start of a war, with catastrophic events. That happened very quickly. If we had had effective statecraft, it could have been avoided. Let us learn from history and understand the grand strategy of Russia, but it is vital at this time that the highest level of diplomacy is used to prevent another miscalculation.
We have spent a lot of time on Russia, and we have heard from a lot of people who claim to understand the Russian mentality, but I am not sure it has been mentioned that in the Orthodox calendar, tomorrow is Christmas day. I shall be joining my Russian Orthodox wife at the service this evening and tomorrow morning, and I wish you a very happy Christmas, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I make no apologies for President Putin. Although I am a former chairman of our all-party group on Russia, I certainly gave it up in the light of what happened at Salisbury and before. No doubt he is running a corrupt regime, although I did go with a Council of Europe delegation to look at a previous election that President Putin won, and there was no doubt that there were a lot of people voting for him because people felt that he had restored the pride and the greatness of Russia after the terrible, infinitely corrupt and useless years of Yeltsin, when we took Russia for granted.
I make no apology for President Putin and I do not defend him in any way, but I think the mistake of this debate is to assume, if there was any other conceivable leader of Russia, that their strategy would be very different. Many Russians felt deeply humiliated at the loss of territory that formerly belonged to the Soviet Union, and we constantly hear about the invasion of Crimea and the Donbass region. We hear very little in this Chamber about the fact that Crimea was of course part of Russia for 200 years. It was signed away by the pen of Khrushchev, without the Crimean people being consulted at all, in the 1950s. There is no doubt at all that Crimea is overwhelmingly Russian and wants to be overwhelmingly Russian, and we have to respect its self-determination, and the same applies to many areas of eastern Ukraine.
I am not going to disagree entirely, because I think my right hon. Friend has a useful alternative voice, but what he is saying about eastern Ukraine is not really true, because ethnic Russians are not in the majority. I think he is getting confused between Russian speakers and ethnic Russians—even in Crimea. He talks about the Russian people in Crimea, but Crimea was historically Crimean Tatar, which was the indigenous population. There has been an awful lot of infill of Soviet military pensioners, but that is different from the indigenous people.
I know that entirely, but when people go on about the fact that Crimea was originally Tatar—no doubt America was originally populated by Red Indians, but we do not say that America does not belong to Americans—the fact is that we have to deal with the situation on the ground. All I am saying is that there is an overwhelming feeling among Russian people of a deep sense of humiliation during the Yeltsin years, and as in all countries, they yearn for strong government and leadership.
The correct way for this to have proceeded is for Crimea to have held a referendum about its status in or out of Russia before the transfer of a territory back to Russia, but that did not happen. It was like the Sudeten Germans being polled about rejoining Germany and being annexed out of Czechoslovakia by Hitler. It was exactly the same as that. I think that for my right hon. Friend somehow to excuse what happened on the basis of historical populations really provides spurious credibility to a dictator.
But we are where we are, and one of the mistakes of these sorts of debates is to equate Putin, for all his faults and his corruption, with Hitler. I would suggest that we are where we are in Crimea, and there is no doubt about the fact that the majority of the population want to be Russian. They may not have been transferred in the right way, but that is the fact. But Putin is not Hitler. It is true that, whoever becomes the leader of Russia, they will try to hold and to build on the influence in territories that were part of the Soviet Union. That is Russian grand strategy. People may not agree with it and they may not understand it, but it is a fact of life.
On the NATO point, I am confused about why people constantly argue that the way to solve this problem is for Ukraine to become part of NATO. In recently divulged documents, US Secretary of State James Baker said to President Gorbachev on 9 February 1990:
“We understand that not only for the Soviet Union but for other European countries as well it is important to have guarantees that if the United States keeps its presence in Germany within the framework of NATO not an inch of NATO’s present military jurisdiction will spread in an eastern direction.”
The truth is that Ukraine is not going to join NATO. It would be a provocative act, and in constantly talking about it in this Chamber and in the west as if it is likely to happen, we are simply providing an excuse for President Putin to play the game of being the underdog and of Russia being threatened, so why do we do it? When we know NATO is never actually going to absorb Ukraine, why do we go on talking about it?
My right hon. Friend is making a reasonable point about whether something may or may not happen, but does he at least accept the point that free countries can choose to associate with whomever they like? Some join the European Union, some join the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, some join NATO and some join the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Do the Ukrainian people not have a say in this, or do they actually belong to Russia?
Yes, but it is not going to happen, for this reason: President Biden is not the sort of President who is ever going to do it. He is a weak President and he is not going to suddenly elect Ukraine into NATO. We all know that, and that is the reality. We should let Ukraine into NATO only if we are prepared to fight for it, if we are prepared to spill American and British blood for the frozen steppes of eastern Ukraine, and nobody wants to do that. By the way, if we did do it, we would lose our nerve very quickly. Look at Iraq. Look at Afghanistan. After a few years, if there were just 300 dead British soldiers there would be tremendous pressure in this House of Commons to withdraw. Russia would simply stay—it does not mind if it has to wait 20 or 30 years. So it is never going to happen. Ukraine is never going to join NATO, and if it did join NATO it would be potentially disastrous. In talking about Ukraine joining NATO, we are simply playing Putin’s game.
Now, the other talk we have had is about Russia being a mortal threat to our country, but this is not the Soviet Union. Russian armies are not placed in the middle of east Germany. Where is this mortal threat? We hear about all this hacking. No doubt Russia hacks. No doubt it has rather ineffective campaigns on Twitter. Are we so lacking in our faith in our own parliamentary democracy that we think we are going to be overthrown or are under threat from President Putin? This is not a strategic interest of the United Kingdom. Of course all Russian Governments will seek to extend their influence. Any Russian Government will be mortally opposed to NATO expanding eastwards. This rotten Russian Government might try to subvert aspects of our life, but why do we not have self-confidence? Why do we not look to our own proper strategic interests? We have no historic or strategic interest as a country in Crimea or eastern Ukraine. We do not understand it. We do not understand the history. We do not understand the complexities of the region. We do not understand the Ukrainian state itself, which is divided.
No, I have given way three times already.
Ukraine is divided. The second-largest party in Ukraine is a pro-Russian party. It ranks very high on the corruption index. When it controlled eastern Ukraine, it did everything it could to deny autonomy to Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine. Members can agree with me or not, but they have to understand that that is the point of view of many Russian people, and they are entitled to their view as much as we are.
Learn from history: look at Afghanistan. Look at Iraq. We in the west are not prepared to fight for these people. Why are we destabilising the region by pretending we are when we know perfectly well—everybody in this Chamber knows perfectly well—that we are not prepared to risk a drop of British blood? We have to live with this Russian Government. We have to stop talking about expanding eastwards. We have to stop playing Putin’s game.
I know this is realpolitik. I know it is not redolent of great liberal imperialist speeches about how we must make the world safe for democracy, and that the Iraqi people, the Afghan people or the Ukrainian people have a right to live under a democratic regime. What nonsense I am talking—these are the facts of life. This is realism. Are we really prepared to muck up eastern Ukraine in the same way we have mucked up Iraq and Afghanistan?
Following on from my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), it is worth saying that the Kiev International Institute of Sociology did a poll in eastern Ukraine and found that support for Russia had halved from 80% to 40% since Donbass was effectively invaded by Russia.
Nobody in today’s debate has stood up and said that Ukraine should join NATO. I accept my right hon. Friend’s argument that others have suggested it. NATO is one argument—my right hon. Friend says that is music to President Putin’s ears and he can exploit that—but this country is also a signatory to the 1994 Budapest agreement, which allowed Ukraine to give up its nuclear arsenal and have its borders protected by Russia, by us and by other countries, so I argue that we have a responsibility to Ukraine that falls outside our membership of NATO.
It is also worth putting on the record in the House that there are many reports of the ethnic cleansing of Tatars in Crimea. There are reports that 25,000 people have disappeared. There is a complete lockdown on the verification by outside international media of what is taking place in Crimea. To follow the comment by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Bob Seely) about the population of Crimea, I do not think we can simply dismiss the matter by saying that the people of Crimea want to remain in Russia, because there are many aspects to it.
One thing that has been overlooked in today’s debate so far is that we have talked about the geopolitical consequences of the grand strategy but we have not spoken about the consequences of the murder that is happening on the ground in various areas where Russia has a malign influence, whether that is Crimea, the Donbass, Georgia, Armenia or other regions. We should be careful not to soften how we describe the situation today.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, because he reinforces the point that I am trying to make: this is not just about whether Ukraine should join NATO and whether we should support Ukraine. We have committed ourselves to other countries, but today’s debate seems to be saying, “Well, tough luck. There’s nothing we can do about it.”
On the grand strategy, if we try to summarise what Russia is trying to achieve overall, let us look at the EAEC—the Eurasian Economic Community—which was formed in 2000 and is now known as the Eurasian Economic Union, which Putin holds dear. The analysis is that it needs 250 million people to work as a viable internal trading bloc that could then challenge other areas. To achieve that, the union needs the 43 million Ukrainians and their powerful agricultural output to succeed. When we look at the countries Moscow wants to bring into that pact, we see that it is in effect a neo-USSR. As has been said many times today, we have to stand up to the idea that Russia can come to the table saying, in effect, “Troops must be withdrawn from all the east European NATO countries; otherwise, we are going to invade.”
My right hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) made an important point about the political situation in the USA. Let us not forget that then Vice-President Biden had an enormous fallout with President Obama about the surge into Iraq. He was always opposed to a lot of the interventions that took place. If we in this House know that, we can be damned sure that President Putin, sat in Moscow, knows that and he will be making that analysis.
I come back to where this all started: in the summer of 2013, when President Obama had said, “If you drop chemical weapons in Syria, that is a red line that we will not tolerate.” They dropped chemical weapons in Syria and President Obama pretty much just wrote a stiff letter to The Washington Post. We can track exactly what happened from that point: in less than a year President Putin walked into Crimea. Again, what did we do? Nothing. We did not do anything.
May I briefly remind my right hon. Friend of what happened with the invasion of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008? President Bush moved the sixth fleet into the Black sea, ready to confront Russian aggression, and the invasion stopped. We are going to need that kind of response now; of course, the two treaties and the hypersonic weapons are intended to pre-empt any possibility of that kind of response.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend, who reinforces the point that I was making. This is where we get the Jekyll and Hyde—or the paradox, if you like—of President Trump. In early 2017, there was another chemical weapon attack in Syria and, within a short space of time, the American Administration under President Trump launched 26 Tomahawk missiles on strategic targets in Syria. For the rest of that presidency, nothing else happened in that arena. However, President Trump’s actions exactly a year ago today were manna from heaven in Moscow, because that idea of undermining democracy, destabilising the west and creating divisions in societies is one reason why there is such ambiguity about whether the USA would support its NATO allies in Europe, as it is dealing with such a split society at home. We could say that, over the last 10 to 15 years, Russian objectives in the USA were invited by President Obama, created by President Trump and too much of a concern to tackle for President Biden. The debate should not be about America and its entirely different Government, but I am afraid that it is relevant to the conversation.
We must accept a couple of things. My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) often talks about Nord Stream 2, and he is right to do so. I do not believe for one second that it will be switched off or not commissioned. It will be switched on—that will happen—and that will put the Poles and people in eastern Europe in a very difficult position. However, that boat sailed 20 years ago and we are where we are. This country and its leadership have tried to point out the folly of that programme, and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly talks about it all the time, but I do not see how anything will change. That is where we are today.
We must come to some conclusions. As the right hon. Member for Warley (John Spellar) said, the cold war exists again—it started the moment that Putin walked into Crimea. The invasion of Crimea changed the last 25 years of policy at NATO in Brussels. It obviously had a defensive policy up to the end of the cold war and then more of a political one, but that changed everything. It is now both political and defensive. However, the progress made in a very short period—almost, if you will, in a panic about what happened—shows that we are back in a cold war status, and NATO recognises that. As we are in a cold war status, let us not even entertain the argument of people saying, “We don’t want another cold war.” It is there—accept it.
Now, we lived through a cold war for 50 or 60 years—what did we do? Surely everything is about counterbalance. As my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) said, when the invasion of Georgia came, President Bush sent the sixth fleet in. That was a counterbalancing, reactive measure. Many of us across the House recognise the importance of renewing Trident, because that is about counterbalances. There are those who say, “Trident will never be used,” but we know that it is used every single day. It would be a failure of policy if we ever fired the weapons—but by then none of us would care because we would be at 10,000° F. The reality is that that weapon works every day, and counterbalance is what we must do.
We come, therefore, to a simple conclusion. Today, our constituents—especially the poorest in our constituencies—are suffering from gas prices that are being manipulated from Moscow. That is a fact. There was a big argument about what the Treasury can do, but the reality is that we are allowing these things to happen because we are not standing up against them. A simple message must go to the Treasury today. In the cold war, we spent 5% of GDP on defence. We cannot carry on with today’s level of defence spending. It must increase, because we are back to where we were 30 years ago. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough said that it is realpolitik, and it is. We must realise that we are in a cold war and that we must increase defence spending. Counterbalance is the only way to stop the situation escalating.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing this important debate, in which colleagues have raised important issues relating to Russia’s grand strategy.
It is particularly timely that we are talking about energy security and the extent to which we are dependent on Russian gas exports. It is clear that Russia has the power to influence the rising energy bills that affect many of our constituents. I very much hope that we will continue to increase our domestic energy production so that we become less reliant on Russian exports.
I share colleagues’ concerns about Ukraine’s fate. The events of 2014 and the tragic effects of the war still being fought in the east of the country today should leave us in little doubt that Russia is prepared to violate sovereign territory to further its own aims, as the brief five-day war of 2008 in Georgia had earlier indicated.
I also appreciate the increasing concerns about Russia’s actions in cyber-space, which is perhaps the most complex and difficult of the areas that have been covered in the debate. When cyber-war is discussed, it usually seems to include everything from a Russia-attributed attack on Estonia’s Government and financial institutions in 2007 to the NotPetya ransomware attacks against Ukraine in 2017 and even the SolarWinds espionage of 2020, in which UK Government computers were among the millions across the world on to which Russian agents quietly sneaked, remaining to listen and gather intelligence.
The last point sounds rather alarmist. We are right to make every effort to clamp down on and weed out digital Russian spies wherever we find them. We know what to do when we find a physical spy, so when spying is done via a digital medium, why do we hear respected voices announcing that there has been a “cyber-attack”? When a Russian spy is detected in the UK, we do not claim that Russia has launched an attack; rather, we use the existing tools at our disposal to deal with the situation in the established way. Applying the term “cyber-attack” to cyber-espionage is extremely unhelpful, especially in relation to Russia: rather than seeking to develop and promote the norms that countries should follow when they detect cyber-espionage operations, we lose ourselves in needless sensational hysteria, abusing terms such as “cyber-war” and “cyber-attack”.
When we want to understand Russian cyber-espionage and how we respond to it, we do not need to look much past the rules and norms that we have already established with conventional espionage to understand the role that cyber-espionage plays in Russia’s grand strategy. However, while looking towards traditional espionage helps us to understand some of Russia’s strategy in cyber-space, the fact that the area is still widely misunderstood and lacks rules and norms for operation means that there is still ample scope for Russia to navigate and pursue its grand strategy in what many people call the grey zone.
Let us take the international response to the Russia-attributed denial-of-service cyber-attack on Estonia in 2007. Despite effectively cutting off Estonia from the rest of the world and cutting off its citizens from their Government and financial institutions for some three weeks, it was not deemed an attack under article 5. Qualifying as such an attack would have seen the NATO alliance rise to Estonia’s defence in a war with Russia. Although there was no loss of data or money and no physical damage to resources, it seems plausible to say that it was an attack, but that was not how NATO saw it. That issue needs to be addressed.
Denial-of-service attacks are not rare. Russia launched similar denial-of-service attacks against the Georgian Government in 2008 as part of the five-day war, although this time they were aimed solely at Government and military sites. In 2017, Russia launched the ransomware NotPetya against Ukrainian banks, energy companies and infrastructure. It combined that cyber-sabotage with kinetic troop movements on the eastern border, again to display power. Attribution is not overly complex: the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre has said that Russia was “almost certainly” responsible for the attack.
As many of us in the House remember from seeing North Korea’s WannaCry ransomware unintentionally lock an estimated 70,000 NHS machines in May 2017, the rules and norms that exist in kinetic war, such as not attacking a hospital, simply do not exist in cyber-space. That is something that we clearly need to address. While it is clear that Russia sees cyber-espionage as part of reasonable statecraft in the present day, as the 2020 SolarWinds hack indicates, and while it is clear that Russia was perfectly happy to conduct clear cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008, the international jury is still out on what is acceptable in cyber-space.
We must avoid alarmist declarations of “cyber-attack” or “cyber-war” every time we detect cyber-espionage attributed to Russia. Let us use the tools already in our arsenal to react to such cyber-espionage as and when we detect it. Let us mobilise the culture and machinery of government to determine how we view Russian action in cyber-space, building on recent publications. Most importantly, let us lead the international community in clearly laying down rules and norms to which Russia will feel an international obligation, so that no school or hospital ever need fear an indiscriminate cyber-weapon wreaking havoc, as happened to much of the NHS at the sloppy hands of North Korea in 2017, and so that we are ready to act proportionately as and when a cyber-attack may occur. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South West (Stuart Anderson) said, we also need to avoid miscalculation.
I will crack on through as many points as I can in the next few minutes. To answer the central question of the debate about Russian grand strategy, in the realm of Europe at any rate, it is probably down to four things: first, the reabsorption of Ukraine and Belarus into Russia’s sphere of interest and control; secondly, the shattering of NATO; thirdly, the establishment of a sphere of influence line from Kaliningrad in the north to the Baltic and Transnistria in the Balkans, to the east of which is Russia’s sphere of interest out of which it will fight to push any western influence, including from Russia, Belarus—obviously, by now—and potentially the Baltic republics in future; and fourthly, the re-establishment by President Putin of a Russia that is virulently illiberal, hostile to the western interest and, in the Russian historical term, a Slavophile rather than a westernising nation.
The idea peddled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), who to be fair, made some valid points, that that was inevitable, is simply nonsense. It was not inevitable at all and it is incredibly tragic that it has happened. More broadly, as several hon. Members have said, there is a battle this century between open and closed societies. Open societies are not yet prepared, but China and Russia are effectively engaged in forms of hybrid conflict—I will come to that term, if I may, because I think we are slightly misusing it—with the west. It is non-military at the moment, but there is no doubt that it is happening.
Some people say that Russia is a great mystery—as if we need to have some great cosmic understanding of it—but to be fair to the Russians, they signal clearly. Putin’s essay this summer on the historical unity of the Russian and Ukrainian people was a signal that he does not respect Ukraine’s borders—it is a no-brainer.
To return to the point about hybrid war, if anyone wants to understand what the Russians think contemporary Russian warfare is, I respectfully suggest that they read the Russian military doctrine that is available on the Russian MOD website in English and Russian. If they fancy a weekend project reading it, they will understand that the first characteristic of contemporary warfare, which we sometimes call hybrid war, is the combination of military and non-military effects in the service of state power with popular protests and special operations, combining the economic, political and military. It is all there written down. It is not a secret and we do not have to interpret it.
Hybrid war, as laid out by Frank Hoffman when he was originally talking about Hezbollah about 25 years ago, is the combination of military and non-military. It is not the non-military or the grey zone war, which is different to hybrid war. The purpose of hybrid war—the true definition that is used in academic circles—is the combination of military and other tools.
To be fair to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and to President Putin, the Russians are under intense threat. In the past two political generations, they have experienced profound shock: the loss of the Warsaw pact, the loss of their buffer territory, the loss of former Soviet republics, two putsches, absolute economic decline and an utter change in their world. Since the end of the cold war, our view has been a rather woolly liberal internationalism. Their view has become a hardened aggressive zero-sum realist game. They sleep well when others do not. The great strategic conundrum is how to overcome that in the next two decades without war.
I have run out of time, because other hon. Members spoke for more than 10 minutes, which is a shame, so I will wind up with three points about Russian strategic culture. Historically, most historians and strategists would say that there are three elements of Russian strategic culture or three pressures that feed Russian strategic cultural thinking.
First, there is the sense of external threat—to put it bluntly, no borders. To be fair to them, they have been invaded by the Tartars, the Swedes, the Poles, the French and the Russians. Nowadays, that sense of threat is not only physical but more psychological, hence the need to control the internet and shut down non-governmental organisations that are pro-western or funded by the west. The sense of psychological threat is sadly reaching paranoid conspiracy theory levels among the Russian elites. Secondly, there is the defence of its autocratic political system. Thirdly, there is its desire to be a great power.
Those pressures feed into the nexus that is Ukraine, because without Ukraine, Russia feels less of a great power. It is threatened because if democracy works in Kiev, it can work in Moscow, and it is losing its buffer territory. For those three strategic reasons, so much of Russia’s strategic angst is focused on Ukraine. I will leave it there.
As the sole Conservative Member of Parliament to have been born in a communist country, I know what the Russians are capable of on our continent. I remember returning to Poland to see my beloved grandfather in 1983, when martial law was finally lifted, and saw at first hand what the Russians did to the country of my birth in the coercion, manipulation and control of this country of central and eastern Europe.
Yet today we see a different form of manipulation on our continent by the Russians. There is no greater manifestation of that than the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. I have tried to raise this issue on a number of occasions. I had a debate on it last year. However, there seems to be little appetite from our own Government to take a lead on our continent in stopping this project, and I feel that it is now a missed opportunity. We have heard many times about the current poor American leadership and the flip-flopping that has occurred on the part of President Biden on the issue of Nord Stream 2, and indeed his pandering to Germany and others in allowing this pipeline to materialise. It gives the Russians unprecedented access to the very heart of our continent, not only in terms of their ability to control and manipulate gas prices, their main export commodity, but the blackmail and coercion they seek to put countries such as Ukraine under, as well as our NATO partners, the Baltic states, Poland and others. When he was President of the United States, President Trump, at a breakfast meeting with Jens Stoltenberg, made a very interesting comment that I strongly support. He asked what is the purpose of Americans sending troops and equipment to central and eastern Europe when one NATO country, namely Germany, completely ignores and bypasses the spirit and the letter of the law of NATO membership in terms of common energy security and common strategy, thereby giving hard currency to our main opponent in Moscow, which uses that money to put rockets, tanks and other aggressive equipment on the borders with Poland and other countries.
That is in stark contrast with Poland and Croatia. I want hon. Members to know that Poland has invested billions of dollars in a liquefied gas terminal in Świnoujście on the Baltic coast, and so has Croatia. These very sensible NATO partners are taking a lead in demonstrating that if you have the privilege of NATO membership—a situation peculiar to only 30 nations in the world—with that also comes responsibility. We need to start thinking, as NATO partners, about how we ensure that we follow the Polish and Croatian policy, which is to build liquefied gas capacity and to be less dependent on Russian gas. Where do you think the Poles are buying their liquefied gas from? From fellow NATO partners. They are building a pipeline directly to Norway, a fellow NATO partner, to buy their gas from there. They are buying liquefied gas from America, a fellow NATO partner. These are the sorts of examples that other countries such as Germany ought to follow.
Sweden, Finland, Ukraine and Georgia are the last major countries in Europe that do not have the benefits of NATO membership. I am very fond of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), but I disagree with him fundamentally on this issue. We need to look as to how to incorporate and support these last four countries in joining the NATO partnership. This week—for the first time ever, to my knowledge—Finland started to talk about potentially joining NATO, because of Russia’s nefarious conduct in Ukraine.
Lastly, when Poland and the Czech Republic joined NATO in ’99, we heard the siren calls: that it was a step too far; that it would cause world war three. When Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2004, we heard those same calls. That did not lead to war, and we now need to support Ukraine and others in joining our organisation.
It is a pleasure to wind up for the SNP in what has been a good debate. I commend the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing it and the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. We have heard a number of very thoughtful contributions, and I hope to reflect some of them in my remarks.
The first thing we need to stress is that not a single one of the contributions has been Russophobic in any sense. None of us, of any political persuasion, has any difficulty with the Russian people or quarrel with them. I have a number of connections to Russia—my grandpa was on the Arctic convoys, which were mentioned earlier; and Scotland and Russia share a patron saint in Saint Andrew. We all of us have deep personal connections to that fascinating country and those wonderful people. However—I was struck by this point a couple of times during the debate—in the same way as at the end of the second world war Germany’s defeat was also Germany’s liberation, the problems begin and end with the regime in Moscow, and the first victims of that regime are the people of Russia themselves.
This is a kleptocratic authoritarian regime that oppresses and impoverishes its own people. It treats minorities, especially LGBT minorities, appallingly. It imprisons, harasses and poisons journalists and democratic activists. It keeps the population in fear of the other at home and of us in the wider world. The fact that fear of invasion and war regularly tops the concerns of the people of Russia—opinion poll after opinion poll should give us pause—means that a successful disinformation campaign has been waged against the people of Russia by their own Government, to keep that regime in post.
Abroad, we see that pattern of behaviour, which is always testing boundaries and exploiting weaknesses, territorially in Russia’s near abroad, in central Asia, Belarus, the Caucasus, the Balkans, the Baltic states and Ukraine—just wait until the Arctic gets going, because we have seen a number of worrying developments there as well. We also see more thematic interference by the Russian regime in the internal affairs of other countries elsewhere. We see that in exporting corruption; exploiting weaknesses in transparency and the checks and balances of domestic systems; manipulating energy markets, causing social unrest in various places; and the weaponisation of disinformation, used to foment unrest and to sow political discord, taking over elements of domestic politics. We have seen that in a number of European countries, in the States and here.
What to do? We have heard a number of analytical points, but I would like to take some action points away from the debate. To my mind, defence needs to be discussed in much closer connection with resilience. Resilience is about resilient societies and informed democracies. Informed and prosperous democracies are less vulnerable—more resilient—to the sorts of tactics used by the Russian regime to destabilise its neighbours and those elsewhere. The fact is that the law is simply not where it needs to be for the UK’s resilience and integrity in democracy, political financing and resistance to disinformation. I include Scotland in that, because many of the laws concerned are reserved to this place.
Resilience begins at home, so credibility and integrity matter. I made the point earlier to the Foreign Secretary that, in the eyes of Moscow, her credibility is undermined by the reality that far too many politicians—I will not name a political party—are in hock to dirty Russian money. Members of the other place have bought their seats in the legislature of these islands. I am an SNP politician, so I have a clear constitutional agenda, but I do not want our nearest ally, closest friend and best neighbour to have a weak and vulnerable democracy, and I believe that it does.
Two credible reports—the Foreign Affairs Committee’s “Moscow’s Gold” and the Intelligence and Security Committee’s “Russia” report—have not been taken remotely seriously enough by this Administration. I do not blame the Minister personally for that, but this Administration need to take the recommendations in those reports a damn sight more seriously than they have, because weakness in resilience and integrity will be exploited by the Russian regime.
The SNP has a clear constitutional agenda. We have a different world view from many right hon. and hon. Members of this House, but above all else we are democrats. We believe in the peaceful resolution of democratic processes, and we believe in the rule of law at home and abroad. An SNP Minister will never talk about resiling from an international commitment in a “specific and limited way”—a phrase that should live on in infamy. How can we possibly say that we are credible abroad when we are weakening the rule of law at home? We believe in the importance of the rule of law and also in the importance of the international rules-based order, which matters more to smaller states than to bigger ones. We have a clear interest, because Russia is a threat. The Russian regime is a threat to the international rules-based order, to the territorial integrity of other states and to the internal workings of our friends and allies. We have a common agenda in facing it down, and I look forward to hearing the Minister’s comments later.
I would like to start by thanking the hon. Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for convening this debate, and Members on both sides of the House for their contributions. It has been one of the most satisfying and interesting debates that I have participated in, and frankly it could not have come at a more crucial time, given the events in Ukraine, Belarus and the Balkans, and in recent days in Kazakhstan. I want to be clear from the outset that on this side of the House there is no doubt about the threat posed by the current Russian regime to our national security and that of our allies. Britain must therefore demonstrate robust and consistent leadership and careful judgment, and we must be crystal clear about our commitment to ensuring security in Europe.
Christmas day marked 30 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Since 1989, a new Europe has emerged from behind the iron curtain, with a reunited Germany at its heart and a swathe of newly free countries in central and eastern Europe. Many chose to join the European Union and NATO, or to act in partnership with them. Millions of Europeans have grown up with new liberties and new opportunities. But we need to be frank: in the eyes of President Putin, this liberation was an historic catastrophe.
Putin wants to re-establish Russia’s status and influence, including dominance over the sovereign countries in its near abroad. He longs for parity of status with the United States and sees Russia as locked in an ongoing confrontation with the west. To that end, the Russian Government push our boundaries and constantly test our resolve, threatening or using force, targeting dissidents abroad, spreading disinformation and seeking to take advantage of our open economies through illicit finance and corruption. There are some who believe, wrongly, that the provocation of Russia into an aggressive stance begins in the west, echoing Putin’s view that through the enlargement of the European Union and the expansion of NATO, Russia has somehow been cornered.
The truth is that NATO and the European Union’s enlargement was not the west moving east, but the east looking west. These were free, sovereign states seeking a future of security, prosperity, co-operation and peace in a democratic Europe. It is the Russian regime that seeks to deny these states autonomy and independence; it is the Russian regime that has invaded its neighbours and annexed their territory; and it is the same Russian regime that seeks to veto the democratic aspirations and undermine the rights of people outside its own borders, in the way that it has done to Russian citizens within them.
At present, Russia’s hostility is focused on Ukraine. We must be clear that we face a moment of acute danger, with over 100,000 troops massed on the border and alarming rhetoric and unreasonable demands emerging from the Kremlin. We know that Putin is not afraid to act to undermine Ukraine’s integrity, overtly or covertly. It is right that the whole House sends a clear and united message today that we fully support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and that Russian action to further undermine it will be met with severe consequences. It is also right that we support dialogue to achieve de-escalation consistent with the security of our NATO allies and the integrity of Ukraine.
The Putin regime’s hostile actions go far beyond Ukraine. There is a much wider pattern of destabilising, threatening behaviour and overt hostile action. It is a charge sheet that runs roughshod over international norms and Russia’s own commitments: targeting dissidents and critics abroad with the appalling and irresponsible use of chemical and radiological weapons; committing state-based cyber-attacks against public institutions and private companies in the UK and elsewhere; annexing Crimea and supporting separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine; invading Georgia and sustaining its breakaway entities; propping up the butcher Bashar al-Assad in Syria; sustaining the dictator Lukashenko in Belarus; fomenting dissent in the fragile Balkans; using private military companies to pursue national agendas from Libya to Mali; and overtly or covertly squashing democratic movements in neighbouring states, such as Kazakhstan potentially next.
Too often, efforts to engage Russia have been based on the belief that the Russian Government see the world as we do, or on the hope that they will do so in the future. If we are to interpret Russia’s intentions, respond to its behaviour and hope to deter aggression, we must be realistic about the worldview in the Kremlin. We should understand that the Putin regime feels threatened by NATO’s expansion and Ukraine’s democratic transition, however illegitimate we think those feelings are. It seeks a sphere of influence, whether we like it or not. It will try to enhance Europe’s energy dependence, so that it can manipulate those who might sanction its actions. It believes that domestic survival depends on total dominance of the political sphere, financial security, the elimination of opponents, and the fanning of nationalism and nostalgia. He will ruthlessly pursue its interests as he sees them, in zero-sum terms. We may hope that Russia under Putin changes, but we should not expect it to. In response, we must be strong, consistent and resolute—active at home and abroad on its challenge.
First, that means being a dependable ally. We must be crystal clear in our commitment to NATO. That commitment must be unshakeable. We should collectively send clear and consistent messages to Russia about unacceptable behaviour and ensure that there are consequences, not rewards, for efforts to threaten or intimidate. Secondly, the UK must play a consistent and key leadership role in European security and defence. While Ministers are focused on the Indo-Pacific, these developments remind us about the importance of security in our own backyard in Europe. We have unique responsibilities, both as a member of the UN P5 and as the guarantor to agreements from the Budapest memorandum to the Dayton accords. The UK should give the highest priority to security in Europe and the north Atlantic. Instead, we have seen a decade of decline for Britain’s defence, with billions of pounds of waste and mismanagement, the number of tanks cut by a third and the Army cut to its smallest size in 300 years.
That leadership should also mean rebuilding ties with our European partners, including in the European Union. Today’s debate puts into sharp relief the recent petty and unedifying diplomatic squabbles between the UK and French Governments. France is our closest defence partner in Europe. It is in all our interests for those relationships to be managed, conscious of the real global threats to all of us. We must and should work to build a more consistent approach to Russia across Europe and reduce dependence on Russian gas, and that, of course, includes cancelling Nord Stream 2.
Thirdly, we must strengthen our defences at home. More than 18 months after the Russia report was published, none of its recommendations has been fully implemented. Most damning is the fact that the Government have failed to get to grips with the role of the UK in money laundering and illicit finance, leaving our country a soft touch for corrupt elites that help to sustain the Putin regime. It is past time to get serious, and that is why Labour is creating a taskforce on illicit finance to make Britain a truly inhospitable place for dirty money and to address finally the problem robustly.
Lastly, we must always make it clear that our disagreements with the Russian Government and its actions, and with Putin’s regime, are not with the Russian people, millions of whom want peace, stability and mutual respect with their own neighbours and with the west. Indeed, my own wife’s maternal grandmother and great-grandmother fled from Russia and the Bolsheviks, and my children have Russian blood running through their veins. We must promote continued dialogue, mutual respect and diplomatic engagement—hard-headed, clear-eyed, and rooted in a framework of international law and human rights. The alternatives are too dangerous to contemplate, for Russia and ourselves.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) for securing the debate, and congratulate him on that and on his very well-researched and well-delivered speech. He made many points, but one theme that I spotted—and have spotted throughout the various briefings I have had during my two weeks in my current role—is that the west seems to operate in the relatively short term, while Russia, as has been demonstrated by its actions in Georgia and Crimea right up to now, operates in the long term. That is something that we really need to think about.
Like the right hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), I feel that this is one of the best debates to which I have ever responded in this place. I thank all Members for their contributions, especially the Opposition spokespeople, both of whom made mostly elegant and excellent speeches. The hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) may not remember that we served at the same time in the European Parliament at the beginning of his and the end of my career there. It was good to hear him speak so widely about this subject. I will try to respond to as many of the points that have been raised as I can in the time available to me.
As this debate has highlighted, recent actions by the Russian state are of significant concern. Indeed, as the integrated review made clear—and while, as so many Members have said, we have no issue whatsoever with the Russian people—Russia itself currently poses the most acute and direct threat to the UK’s national security. As most Members probably know, we set up a cross-Government Russia unit in 2017, bringing together the UK’s diplomatic, intelligence and military capabilities to try to achieve the maximum effect, and we are working closely with our partners to address the threats from Russia and hold it to account. The UK has demonstrated international leadership on this, for instance through our G7 presidency. Following the appalling attack in Salisbury in 2018, we expelled 23 Russian intelligence officers, and the international community joined us in solidarity. That resulted in the collective expulsion of more than 150 Russian intelligence officers.
Obviously, the current relationship with Russia is not the one that we want, but unfortunately it cannot be normalised until Russia stops its many and various irresponsible and destabilising activities. We are seeing a very concerning pattern of Russian military build-up on Ukraine’s border and in illegally annexed Crimea. We have repeatedly made clear to Russia than any incursion into Ukraine would be a huge strategic mistake, and would carry severe costs. The Prime Minister delivered this message himself when he spoke to President Putin on 13 December, as did the Foreign Secretary when she met Foreign Minister Lavrov on 2 December. The Russian Government need to de-escalate their activities and engage in serious discussions.
As well as speaking directly to Russia, we are working with our allies and partners to address the challenges to our security. The Foreign Secretary led G7 Foreign Ministers and the High Representative to the EU in a joint statement on 12 December:
“We call on Russia to immediately de-escalate, pursue diplomatic channels, and abide by its international commitments on transparency of military activities.”
Four days later we joined our NATO allies in a joint statement from the North Atlantic Council emphasising that we are
“ready for meaningful dialogue with Russia”.
We are firm in our position that NATO will remain the foundation of collective security in the Euro-Atlantic area, and we will continue to make our position clear at every opportunity in the coming days and weeks.
I assure the House that we remain unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Both the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are in close contact with their Ukrainian counterparts. Most recently, the Prime Minister spoke to President Zelensky on 17 December to reiterate the UK’s support, and the Foreign Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Kuleba on 4 January.
The Foreign Secretary further demonstrated our support by hosting the first ever UK-Ukraine strategic dialogue on 8 December, and we announced a huge range of commitments, including UK support in the face of Russian aggression and steps to build stronger trade links. This includes increasing the amount of support available through UK Export Finance for projects in Ukraine to £3.5 billion. These announcements complement our existing security, economic and political support to Ukraine, which includes: defensive military training for 20,000 members of Ukraine’s armed forces through Operation Orbital; a package of £1.7 billion to enhance Ukrainian naval capabilities; and vital support in fighting corruption and strengthening the judiciary.
I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on his new role, and I am delighted that we are doing all that, but it is a bit late. The time to make a difference when training and supplying an army is one, two or three years before the army needs to use it. If the Russians are intent on invading sooner rather than later, does he agree that it is all far too late in the day?
I hope it is not. I have been in post for only two weeks, so I am doing as much as I can as quickly as I can.
Sadly, we know all too well that Russia has a record of flagrantly violating international law. We are at the forefront of efforts to end Russia’s illegitimate control of the Crimean peninsula, and Crimea is, of course, Ukraine. We used our G7 presidency last year to maintain a high level of international engagement on that, and the UK also supports the international Crimea Platform in its work to hold Russia to account.
Meanwhile, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) mentioned, Russian interference in the western Balkans threatens to undermine the region’s hard-won security. We take this extremely seriously and will continue to work with our partners to strengthen stability, democracy and the rule of law. To demonstrate this commitment, the Foreign Secretary brought together the Foreign Ministers of the six western Balkan countries on 13 December. Our new special envoy to the western Balkans, Sir Stuart Peach, visited Bosnia and Herzegovina on 16 December and will be back in the region soon.
I will arrange a meeting for my right hon. Friend with the Chancellor so he can press that point.
I am also grateful to my predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who visited the region and built strong relationships. She was instrumental in demonstrating our commitment in this area.
I am wary of the time, so I will move on to a major concern that most Members articulated. The Government, like most hon. Members, are deeply concerned about the forced closure of human rights groups such as Memorial, which was closed down in the past few days. The work of this particular internationally respected group of historians and human rights experts is vital to defending human rights and preserving the memories of victims of political repression in Russia. The group has worked tirelessly for decades to ensure that the abuses of the Soviet era are never forgotten, and its closure is yet another chilling blow to freedom of expression in Russia. That demonstrates what my right hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr Whittingdale) said about the gradual and ruthless suppression of dissent, human rights and media freedoms in the country.
The UK has been at the forefront of calling out Russia’s malicious cyber activity, in solidarity with our international partners. In 2020, in tandem with the European Union, we announced sanctions against the Russian intelligence services for cyber-attacks against the UK and our allies. Last month, we set out our new national cyber strategy, backed by £2.6 billion of funding, to help to protect the United Kingdom and our international partners. We are developing an autonomous UK cyber sanctions regime. Our sanctions are carefully targeted to respond to hostile acts, and to defend freedom and democracy. That includes sanctions on 180 individuals and 48 entities for the destabilisation of Crimea, Sevastopol and eastern Ukraine. We also announced asset freezes and travel bans against 13 individuals and an entity involved in the attempted murder of Alexei Navalny, the Russian Opposition politician.
We have taken multiple other actions to address the Russian threat in recent years. As we set out in our response to the Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report in July 2020, this includes new legislation to stop individuals at the UK border to determine whether they are, or have been, involved in hostile state activity. We have provided the security services and law enforcement with additional tools to tackle evolving state threats.
We take the threat from Russia extremely seriously. We are working closely with our allies and partners to set a strong, united, consistent signal that Russian aggression will have severe consequences. We will continue to engage with the Russian Government on matters of international peace and security, to address global challenges facing the world, including climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. We will also use these channels to raise any wider issues of concern to us.
Forgive me, but I must allow my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex some time to conclude.
For us to work together, Russia must de-escalate its activities and engage seriously with the international community. Ultimately, we are all better in co-operation than in opposition, but I must underline what the Foreign Secretary said to this House earlier today. Our commitment to Ukraine is unwavering. Any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake and come at a severe cost, including co-ordinated sanctions.
I thank the Minister for his reply to this debate; was a privilege for me to open it. I have been humbled by the quality of the contributions and struck by the 100% unanimity of the condemnation of President Putin, at least, even though there are other disagreements. Those are disagreements between friends and democrats, however; we all disagree with the actions of the dictator.
I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that everything the Government are now doing is commendable, but diplomacy, expelling diplomats, diplomatic language and even economic sanctions are not enough. We have to develop military capacity to deter. Unless the penalty of military action, or threatening military action, is sufficiently painful for our adversary, they will take that action. No consequences are serious enough unless they deter, and there is evidence that we are failing to deter.
If there is one objective that we must try to achieve in these Geneva meetings, it is to reunite NATO and make this a step change in the behaviour of the west towards Russia—something that it has not seen for the past decade and a half—so that the Russians begin to understand that the penalty for what they are threatening to do in Ukraine and elsewhere is too high, and they will back off.
Some of my colleagues have said we are in a new cold war—yes, we are. We should welcome the fact that we have the capacity to mount a cold war. Like the last cold war, it will end when Russia ends its aggression, and that has to be the message we take to our allies and tothe Russians themselves.
I am sorry, but there are too many other brilliant contributions to mention, except one. Many colleagues have said that we have no quarrel with the Russian people. I should have called this debate “Putin’s grand strategy”, because I do not believe the Russian people are committed to sending their young men into military action to lose their lives in futile—
Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).