With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the situation in Ukraine and Her Majesty’s Government’s support to the Government in Kyiv.
The situation on the ground is grave. As we can recall, on 24 February, forces of the Russian army, unprovoked, crossed into Ukraine’s sovereign territory. Along three main axes, Russian armour has attempted to occupy Ukraine. Its plan was to reach and encircle Kyiv, encircle Ukrainian forces near the border and invade from the south to link up with its forces via Mariupol.
Russian high command committed 65% of its entire land forces, which are indisputably in possession of overwhelming firepower and armour. It is estimated that at the start of the invasion they had between 110 and 120 battalion tactical groups dedicated to the task, compared with approximately 65 in Ukraine. Their missile stocks gave them even greater strength to reach Ukraine at distance. However, what they did not and still do not possess is the moral component so often needed for victory.
After 14 days of the war, according to the Ukrainian general staff, at 6 March, Russian casualties were assessed to include 285 tanks, 985 armoured fighting vehicles, 109 artillery systems, 50 multiple launch rocket systems, 44 aircraft, 48 helicopters and 11,000 soldiers, who have lost their lives needlessly. There are numerous reports of surrenders and desertions by the ever-growingly disillusioned Russian army. To be clear, those are Ukrainian figures; I have to caution the House that we have not verified them by defence intelligence or other means.
I can announce to the House our assessment that, of the initial Russian objectives, only one has been successfully achieved. While Russian forces are in control of Kherson, Melitopol and Berdyansk in southern Ukraine, they currently encircle the cities of Chernihiv, Sumy, Kharkiv and Mariupol but are not in control of them. In addition, their first day objective of targeting Ukrainian air defence has failed, preventing total air dominance. The Ukrainian armed forces have put up a strong defence while mobilising the whole population. President Putin’s arrogant assumption that he would be welcomed as a liberator has deservedly crumbled as fast as his troops’ morale.
For our part, the United Kingdom continues to play a leading role in supporting Ukraine. On 17 January, I announced to the House the Government’s intention to supply military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces. The aid took the form of body armour, helmets, boots, ear defenders, ration packs, rangefinders and communication equipment, and for the first time it also included weapons systems. The initial supply was to be 2,000 new light anti-tank weapons, small arms and ammunition.
In response to further acts of aggression by Russia, we have now increased that supply. I can update the House that, as of today, we have delivered 3,615 NLAWs and continue to deliver more. We will shortly be starting the delivery of a small consignment of anti-tank javelin missiles as well. I want to assure the House that everything we do is bound by the decision to supply defensive systems and is calibrated not to escalate to a strategic level.
Britain was the first European country to supply lethal aid. I was pleased that not long after a military aid donor conference I held on 25 February, many more countries decided to do the same. From right across Europe, the donations came. In particular, I want to highlight the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Poland, Romania, the Baltic states, Belgium and Slovenia for their leadership, and we should not ignore the significance of the German Government joining us, in a change of stance, and donating such aid.
Donations are not enough; the delivery of aid to the frontline is just as important. Here, again, Britain is leading, because alongside Canada, the United States and Sweden, we have invested in building Ukrainian military capacity since 2015, and we find ourselves able to co-ordinate the delivery alongside our partners.
As the conflict intensifies, the Russians are changing their tactics, so the Ukrainians need to, too. We can all see the horrific devastation inflicted on civilian areas by Russian artillery and airstrikes, which have been indiscriminate and murderous. It is therefore vital that Ukraine maintains its ability to fly and to suppress Russian air attack. To date, the international community has donated more than 900 man-portable air defence missiles and thousands of anti-tank guided weapons of varying types, as well as various small arms. However, the capability needs strengthening, so in response to Ukrainian requests the Government have taken the decision to explore the donation of Starstreak high-velocity, man-portable anti-aircraft missiles. We believe that this system will remain within the definition of defensive weapons, but will allow the Ukrainian forces to better defend their skies. We shall also be increasing supplies of rations, medical equipment, and other non-lethal military aid.
As with any war, the civilian population is suffering horrendous hardships. According to the Ukrainian Minister of Education, 211 schools have been damaged or destroyed, and media footage shows Russian strikes hitting kindergartens. The Chernihiv regional administration reported that the Russian air force was employing FAB-500 unguided bombs against targets in the city, and according to Human Rights Watch, civilians in Mariupol have now been without water and power for almost a week. President Zelensky talked of children dying of thirst. Today the estimated number of Ukrainian civilians killed or injured stands at more than 1,000, but the true figure is expected to be much higher, and I am afraid that worse is likely to come. It is for that reason that the UK will increase its funding for Ukraine to £220 million, which includes £120 million of humanitarian aid. That will make the United Kingdom the single biggest bilateral humanitarian donor to Ukraine. We are also supporting humanitarian work with the Polish and Romanian Governments on the borders.
As I said in my last statement, we still believe that it is worth trying to build diplomatic pressure on Russia. This week, my good friend the Prime Minister met the Prime Ministers of Canada, the Netherlands and Poland. He also spoke to the leaders of France, Germany and the United States, and the Prime Ministers of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. The Foreign Secretary is in Washington at the G7, and also attended the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting earlier this month. I myself met the Ukrainian Ambassador just this morning. President Putin should be and can be in no doubt that the international community is united against his actions. It remains strong, and will not back down.
As well as giving direct military support to Ukraine, we continue to bolster our contribution towards NATO’s collective security. NATO Defence Ministers will gather next week in Brussels to discuss the next steps. The UK is doing its bit in giving military support and reassurance to its allies. We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO, including increased air patrols, with both Typhoons and F-35s for NATO air policing. We have also deployed four additional Typhoons to Cyprus to patrol NATO’s eastern border, and have sent an additional 800 troops to Estonia. Over the last week, Apache and Chinook helicopters were involved in exercises in Estonia. Meanwhile, HMS Diamond has sailed to the eastern Mediterranean, HMS Northumberland is taking part in a northern deployment, and HMS Grimsby is in the Norwegian sea supporting NATO mine countermeasures.
On Monday HMS Prince of Wales, RFA Tidesurge and HMS Defender joined HMS Albion and RFA Mounts Bay for Exercise Cold Response, a multinational exercise off the coast of Norway, and HMS Richmond will be exercising with our joint expeditionary force. We have put over 1,000 more British troops on readiness to support humanitarian responses in the bordering countries. Britain’s contribution to NATO is significant and enduring. It is important at this time that, in order to maximise our reassurance and resilience effect, we co-ordinate through NATO and the Supreme Allied Commander Europe.
Few of us will not have been moved by President Zelensky’s speech yesterday. His people are fighting for their very survival. His country is united against this aggression, and it is indeed his country’s darkest hour. Yesterday I saw footage of a Russian armoured train, bristling with guns, heading towards Mariupol. A single brave Ukrainian woman ran to the train and shouted “Slava Ukraini”—unmoved, unintimidated by the guns. That woman’s bravery should inspire us all.
I know that many of our constituents, and our colleagues, are fearful of what will happen next. President Putin and the Kremlin continue to threaten countries that offer help to Ukraine. Their military campaign will, I am afraid, become more brutal and more indiscriminate, but it is my firm belief that our strength to stand up to such bullying comes from our alliances. As long as we stand united, both as a House and as the international community, the Kremlin’s threats cannot hurt us. We should take strength from the peoples right across Europe who are standing shoulder to shoulder to protect our values—our freedom, our tolerance, our democracy and our free press. That is our shield.
I thank the Defence Secretary and his team for the way they have kept Members in all parts of the House updated and informed, and I thank him for his statement this afternoon. President Zelensky spoke for his country when he told us yesterday:
“We will not give up, and we will not lose.”—[Official Report, 8 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 304.]
His address, like his leadership, was deeply moving and deeply inspiring. Ukrainians are showing massive bravery—military and civilians alike—and we must do all we can to support their resistance. The Government have Labour’s full backing for providing military and intelligence assistance to Ukraine to defend itself.
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement and the detail of the further weapons and equipment that Britain has been able to provide Ukraine to defend itself. I also welcome the role we are playing in co-ordinating help from other countries for Ukraine. Can I urge him to conclude the examination he is now giving to the provision of Starstreak missiles as quickly as possible? These are exactly the sort of ground-to-air missiles needed to defend against Russian air attacks. Can I ask him more broadly whether these supplies to Ukraine are coming solely from our UK stockpiles, or is the MOD also purchasing from other countries to respond to Ukrainian requests? Have other non-NATO, non-European countries with weaponry or well-trained air forces yet been involved?
It is clear that President Putin miscalculated the resolve of the Ukrainian military and the strength of his own Russian forces. He planned for a short campaign without the provision of logistics for protracted fighting and occupation. What is the MOD’s assessment of how far the Russians have now rectified this? I think the Secretary of State said 65%, but can he confirm what proportion of Russian forces that were on Ukraine’s borders and off her coast have now been deployed into Ukraine?
This is only still week two. Russia has such crushing firepower, and Putin has such utter ruthlessness, that we must expect more than one of his military objectives to be taken over the next few weeks. We must expect greater brutality, with still further civilian casualties. Our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Kyiv and those other great Ukrainian cities as they face encirclement and bombardment from Russian forces.
Whatever the short-term gains Putin secures, we must make sure that he fails in the longer run through Ukrainian resistance, tougher sanctions, more humanitarian help, wider international isolation, justice for the war crimes being committed and, above all, lasting western unity. We must be ready to deal with the consequences of this invasion for many years to come. It is clear, however, that Putin has also miscalculated the international resolve to isolate Russia and the strength of western and NATO unity. Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable, and the Government again have our full support for reinforcing NATO nations on the alliance’s eastern border with Russia. The Labour leader and I fly out tonight to Tallinn to reassure Estonia of the united UK determination to defend its security and to thank our British forces deployed there from the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Welsh battlegroup.
It was Labour’s post-war Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, who was the principal architect of NATO and in particular of its article 5 commitment to collective defence. Today is the anniversary of Bevin’s birth in 1881, so today let President Putin be in no doubt that our commitment to article 5 is absolute. Let him not mistake NATO’s restraint for any lack of resolve. NATO’s response force has been activated, as the Defence Secretary has said, in response to this aggression. We welcome the detail of the UK’s contribution to that, but what role could the UK-led joint expeditionary force play? Is it not time for NATO to issue an initiating directive to the Supreme Allied Commander to plan future options as part of overhauling NATO, necessarily, for the decade ahead? Could the Defence Secretary also confirm what I think he said, which was that the 1,000 UK troops put on stand-by before the invasion are still in Britain and still on stand-by, and that we have received no requests for the humanitarian help that they were designed to respond to?
It is not the job of British forces to protect the failing Home Secretary or Border Force, especially at this critical time of conflict, but yesterday the Defence Secretary said that help for Ukrainians fleeing the war had “not been quick enough”. He also said that he was offering MOD assistance to the Home Office. Has this offer been accepted? Can he tell us what role military personnel will play, where, and for how long?
As we confront aggression abroad, we need to strengthen our defences at home. A national resilience strategy was promised a year ago. When will this be published? The integrated review, published a year ago, made the Prime Minister’s first focus the Indo-Pacific. It neglected the need to rebuild relations with essential European allies and the European Union, and it planned to cut the British Army still further. Will the Government now rethink such fundamental flaws in their integrated review?
Finally, if I may, Mr Speaker, we expect a big budget boost for Defence in the Chancellor’s spring statement in two weeks’ time. With Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the Government must respond to new threats to UK and European security, just as Labour in government did after the twin towers attacks on 9/11. If the Government act, they will again have Labour’s full support.
I am going to make mention of this important issue: Front Benchers have to be in line with the rules, and I have to enforce the rules. The rule says five minutes, but that was seven. If you want me to grant urgent questions and if you want me to support statements, you have to work with me to ensure that we do not take the time from other agendas. I do keep clock of the time, and I do not want to get into an argument about it—the Labour Front-Bench spokesman took a lot longer. This is an important matter and I want to keep it on the agenda, but you need to work with me. Or change the rules and make my life easier!
Maybe I should apologise, Mr Speaker. I did not give the Labour Front Benchers long enough to examine the statement; it was fairly short notice for them. I think we hear you on both sides of the House, and you would not like me to take too long either—[Interruption.] Certainly those on the Labour Back Benches would not like that.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) asked some important questions. I am grateful for Labour’s support for the position that the Government have taken on Ukraine. Our position mirrors that of the international community—not just NATO members but nations outside NATO such as Sweden and Finland. In answer to his question on the stockpile, we will currently take the supplies from our stockpile and we will backfill them from the manufacturer when and where we can. We already have some on order, so I can give him that assurance. I also ensure that we keep a basic level to ensure that we cover our own force protection as required. We will not leave our soldiers at risk in somewhere such as Estonia, specifically. Nevertheless, we will ensure that we calibrate that correctly.
On the MOD’s assessment of the Russian forces, over 90% of those forces on the border have now been committed to Ukraine and inside Ukraine. We also see media reports about Belorussian forces maybe, or maybe not, being primed. This has had an interesting effect on Belorussian forces, with reports of desertions and senior officers refusing to join the fight. There is also something very telling about Russia’s desperation at the moment. We have seen significant amounts of effort to try to bring the Wagner Group into Ukraine. The Wagner Group is the wholly unacceptable mercenary company responsible for all sorts of atrocities in Africa and the middle east. The fact that Russia is now trying to encourage the Wagner Group to take part in Ukraine is a telling sign. It does not give us any comfort but, nevertheless, it is a sign.
I went to Copenhagen last week to meet my Swedish, Lithuanian and Danish counterparts as they set off to join our enhanced forward presence in Estonia. The Danish sent a company of armoured infantry, which was escorted across the sea by a Swedish and Danish ship with air cover from Sweden. That JEF deployment is a good example of how, in the neighbourhood of the Nordics, we come together either bilaterally or multilaterally to make sure we provide greater defence.
After our meeting in Rutland a few weeks ago, we determined to have a longer programme of joint planning to make sure we maximise our capabilities, exercises and activity. We will see more of the JEF, and I am happy to continue keeping the House informed.
I am grateful for the reminder of Bevin’s birthday. As a Conservative, I will be forgiven for not knowing that date, but I always welcome being educated. I have some Labour supporters in my family, but I am not sure they would know he was born in 1881 either. Nevertheless, the commitment to article 5 is important. Yesterday I met my counterpart from North Macedonia, the newest member of NATO. Importantly, Britain is in NATO not for what we can get out of it but because we fundamentally believe in defending each other. Whether we are big or small, we all stand for the same values.
I promised to keep Members informed on Ukraine, no matter what happens. My team is available, as is the Chief of Defence Intelligence. I will happily do dial-ins and as many briefings as possible at both Privy Council and non-Privy Council level.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about the Home Office, and the offer has been accepted in principle. There is a meeting straight after this statement between Defence Ministers, Home Office Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers to make sure we co-ordinate our assistance in speeding up the visa process, which is incredibly important.
It is important not to mischaracterise the IR. The right hon. Gentleman has said this before, but the actual quote from the IR is that Russia is
“the greatest nuclear, conventional military and sub-threshold threat to European security.”
Strengthening Europe is critical to preserving our security and prosperity in the north Atlantic. The IR did not miss Russia. In fact, it squarely identified Russia as our main adversary. It would be wrong to characterise it as everyone going off to the Pacific. Looking at the balance of my investments as Defence Secretary, including in basing and expeditionary forces such as JEF, they are in Europe, and in northern Europe, too. That is incredibly important.
The Cabinet Office is in charge of the national resilience strategy, and I will pass on the details to the relevant Minister. Like the right hon. Gentleman, I look forward to reading that strategy.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend, the Government and the Prime Minister on the manner in which they have conducted themselves in relation to this dreadful invasion of Ukraine.
I have just come back from a conference in Paris, where I had the honour of leading the European Scrutiny Committee’s delegation. All the countries of Europe appreciate what the United Kingdom is doing.
My son is currently doing humanitarian work in Poland and Hungary, and I trust that others will be able to do the same. This is important not only to our constituents but to fairness and justice in the world. I thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for everything he has done.
I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments. It is incredibly important that we recognise that this is not just a military response. The scale of the humanitarian crisis, which will only grow as Russia seeks to punish the innocent for having the temerity to stand up to it, means we all have to lean in as an international community. We have all received emails from constituents who want to help, and I urge colleagues to channel them in the right direction. Some of us are old enough to remember the Bosnia war, and I know from soldiers who were on the ground that lots of well-meaning people drove out there and put at risk both themselves and the forces whose job it was to protect them. We need to make sure the work is properly co-ordinated, and I will get details to hon. and right hon. Members so that they can point their constituents in the right direction.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Like the shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State, I put on record how grateful we are to President Zelensky for taking the time to talk to the House yesterday. It is a moment that I am sure will stay with us all for a long time.
The statement says that the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence will explore the donation of new anti-air missiles. We urge them to conclude that as swiftly as possible and to ensure the missiles get to Ukraine as swiftly as possible. As the conflict continues, and it is now going into its third week, Ukraine’s needs will adapt and the support we give has to adapt, too. We have previously talked to the Minister for the Armed Forces about supplying satellite phones, which Ukraine identified as an urgent need two weeks ago.
As I understand it, the United States has declined to be involved in supplying jets from Poland, but the Department of Defence has said it will keep that under review. Is the Secretary of State part of that discussion? Given the new security and defence arrangements that were announced six or seven weeks ago involving Poland and Ukraine, how might we expect that to develop in the coming days?
Time is not on Ukraine’s side, and I appreciate the immense sensitivities around this. Like many others, I welcome the additional military aid, non-lethal aid, and humanitarian support. Of course, I also welcome all the efforts of our constituents up and down the land in supporting Ukrainians in their time of need.
What sort of changes can we expect to see in the forthcoming NATO strategic concept? For example, will the air policing mission be reprofiled as an air defence mission? Can the Secretary of State talk a bit more about what the House can expect?
We have tried to support the Government on Ukraine and in many other areas, and the Government have made that easy in many ways, but on refugees we stand out in Europe for all the wrong reasons. Although the Secretary of State’s Department is not responsible for refugees, I plead with him to fix it, and to fix it soon.
Like the hon. Gentleman, we are determined to fix it. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces will have a meeting this afternoon on exactly this. We should not forget that the overall offer is generous: 200.000 places via the family route and unlimited places via the humanitarian route. The key is to speed it up to make sure that, when people arrive at the border, they are home and safe with their family as soon as possible. The Ministry of Defence will do everything to support that.
I do not have access to the discussions on jets from Poland. I have said publicly that the position of the United Kingdom Government is that it is for the Polish Government to decide on the calibration of their aid to Ukraine but, as an ally and friend, Britain will stand by whatever decision they make. Poland is, of course, on the frontline, and I hope that any consequence is positive, but we never know with President Putin.
It is important to give Poland the reassurance and the space to make this decision but, fundamentally, the Ukrainians need to be able to take action against artillery at deep ranges, which can be done with unmanned aerial vehicles, and to protect their airspace, which can be done with the missile systems we are providing. The only lag with the missile systems is that, as they get more complicated, people need training.
How and where we deliver that training is obviously sensitive, but we have to make sure it is rolled out into Ukraine. These valuable pieces of equipment need to be positioned in the right places to make a difference. One reason why I wanted to come to the House as soon as possible, although we are going to do it in principle, is so that the House has the earliest warning possible.
The hon. Gentleman made an important point about NATO’s strategic concept, and I will also be asking questions about what happens now. There are questions for NATO on both the short term and the long term. In the long term, after Ukraine, what are we going to do to contain Russia and to provide reassurance and resilience to our neighbours and fellow NATO members who will need it? At next week’s meeting, I will start the process of indicating to the Supreme Allied Commander Europe that I would like to see him start planning for containment, if that is one of the options post Ukraine. I will ask what that looks like in the 21st century.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for all that his Department and our incredible armed forces are doing at this time to help the people of Ukraine. The humanitarian crisis is worsening hour by hour. Will he assure my constituents and people across the UK that the UK is doing everything it can, on a cross-government basis, to widen and accelerate the visa system, cut through the red tape and work practically and compassionately with our partners in Europe to offer sanctuary and aid to as many Ukrainian people as we can, as quickly as we can?
My hon. Friend will have heard my answer to my Scottish National party colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald), and the Minister for the Armed Forces will be happy to brief my hon. Friend once those meetings have taken place to update him on the assistance the MOD can give.
I thank the Secretary of State for the regular and excellent updates and briefings we have and for the hard work he is putting in on Ukraine, within the constraints he has to work within. However, I do think it is a strategic mistake that when confronting a tyrant we tell him what we will not do. If Putin remains in power, we will have to confront him at some point militarily. We should be aware of that and get it out in the open. But my question is: what level of slaughter of Ukrainians are we willing to see before NATO and the west intervene militarily in Ukraine, such as by ensuring safe areas in western Ukraine?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that. It is a difficult balance as to when we tell people. In effect, I have to come to this House to get policy permission from you before we take a different step on the weapons systems, and that is the right thing to do; we have to make sure that this is calibrated into the right process. It is important with Putin, especially as he would seek to discover things and potentially use them to escalate, that we are up front and transparent about what we are going to do, so that he cannot try to repackage it as a major strategic issue. This is not an easy line; on the one hand, I would be happy sometimes to do this, but the decision is about bringing the House with us and making sure that people understand. I do not think there will be a tactical difference on the ground because I have come to the House today to tell people in advance that this is happening. Russia now has a serious problem with the international community’s donations, which are at a large scale, whether we are talking about anti-tank or Stinger missiles. It has had to change its tactics as a result. It would be wrong for Putin to characterise this as anything other than our responding to its change in tactics, but we are making sure that he does not get impunity to bomb people from the air and kill innocent victims. On the other issue, associated with humanitarian corridors and no-fly zones, we have to be careful. We would have to enforce them and in thinking about enforcing them, we have to recognise the knock-on effects and whether we trigger a wider war in Europe.
I thank the Defence Secretary and all the ministerial team for working so hard on this, and I thank all those in the main building and those in uniform throughout our armed forces for responding so well to the war in Ukraine. He mentions just over 3,600 new, light anti-tank weapons. They have been put to very good use, as he will know. Will he reassure the House that that supply will continue, and at pace? Secondly, he mentions consideration of surface-to-air missiles and the system Starstreak. How long will that decision-making process take?
First, the decisions have been made in principle that we will provide them, which is why I came to the House. We have to make sure that we provide people with the training and capability to deliver that. I thank my right hon. Friend for the effort he put in, working with the Speaker, to deliver the speech yesterday by President Zelensky. I cannot tell the two of you how important it was to hear from a man who is clearly leading his country from the front, but who is also under tremendous personal threat from Russia.
First, I thank the Defence Secretary for the approach he takes, being the calm voice of competence that we want to hear in this crisis. He should not have to intervene in the Home Office, but I am glad that he is doing so and I thank him for stepping up where his colleagues are failing again. He will know that this is not just the right thing to do, but strategically the important thing to do, because Putin is counting on Europe not getting the refugee crisis right. That plays into his hands in the medium term and longer term. Does he agree with my concern that if we do not get a grip on the refugee crisis soon, across the whole of Europe, including in this country, we could well be playing into those fears?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her comments. One of the most important things is recognising that President Putin and, as we saw, the President of Belarus, used migrant flows deliberately to divide and put pressure on our system. That is why when they did that in Belarus, with the Belarusians literally shoving people through fences a few months ago, we sent 100 Royal Engineers to assist the Poles to manage that issue. It is incredibly important that we all think about what happened. Many of us who were warning about what Russia was going to do warned a number of countries on this. Indeed, I said to the EU, “Where you can add value is to plan for mass refugees in a way that we have not seen since the war.” That is really important. That is where the EU is at its best, in co-ordinating the non-military responses. It has done well, but it is not shielded from the criticism as well. We all have to do this internationally and do it better. We have to do the visa bit faster. My colleagues are absolutely bringing to bear those assets from the MOD, but we should also remember that we act as a team; I am not intervening in the Home Office. Government is a team and we are working together as a team to deliver that.
First, let me say that Putin has deployed some of his most modern equipment. He has “gone all-in” and played his full hand. Members will have seen only recently an SA-22 or a Pantsir anti-air medium-range missile system that has been defeated by the mud of Ukraine; it has a burst tyre and it is stuck in the mud. Putin has gone all-in and risked some of his most important equipment. He is using significant numbers of his missile stocks and he is taking a huge risk around the wider boundaries of Russia, which he is now leaving thinned out in terms of defence.
There was a report from Reuters yesterday that dozens of former Paras have signed up for the Ukrainian foreign legion and that hundreds more are expected to do so. Will the Defence Secretary give the House absolute clarity on the UK Government’s position in relation to those volunteers?
The Government’s position is: if you are a serving member of the armed forces, you will be breaking the law. There were reports in the weekend newspaper about three members who had gone AWOL over the weekend. They will be breaking the law and they will be prosecuted when they return for going AWOL or deserting. For others, as the Government’s travel advice is “Do not go to Ukraine”, we strongly discourage them from joining these forces. My experience, having been Security Minister, is that where people went off to join the YPG and other organisations it did not end well. It is also the case, as a number of these people are now discovering, that the Ukrainians are very clear in saying, “You turn up, you are in it for the whole game. You are not in it for a selfie and six weeks. You are in it for real.” I think we have seen already some people at the border decide that that may not be the right option to follow.
I understand that it would be possible, at very short notice, to reopen Manston airport in Kent to fly out humanitarian aid such as pharmaceuticals and to fly in refugees, who could then be processed at Manston barracks. That would require the co-operation and effort of the MOD and of the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. I am not asking for a guarantee now, but will my right hon. Friend speak to the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and Minister for Intergovernmental Relations, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) to see what possibilities there might be there?
I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question. At the moment, we have the capacity we need, and the landing slots and landing fields we need to deliver whatever we need to do. If, however, there is greater pressure, I would be delighted to talk to both him and the Levelling Up Secretary to see whether we can take advantage of my right hon. Friend’s kind offer.
I thank the Secretary of State for all he is doing and the compassionate way he is doing it.
My question relates to a constituent, and although the issue is not necessarily the Secretary of State’s departmental responsibility, I would be grateful if he could follow it up. Four weeks ago, my constituent, who lives in the Donbas, drove across the country and managed to get through to Poland. He has been waiting for a visa for his wife and their infant daughter for the past four weeks and has heard nothing from the Home Office. He is running out of money and wants to get home with his family. Will the Secretary of State please urge the Home Office to do its job?
I thank the Secretary of State for coming to the House again to keep us informed. He was right when he said that the whole House was moved by the President of Ukraine’s address yesterday. The President of Ukraine has spoken again today and is desperate for aircraft to protect women and children from being bombed and killed by Russians. Poland has acted, but there is a hold-up because of the response from the United States. The Secretary of State touched on this earlier, but will he be clear that he supports what Poland is doing? Will he pressure America to support that action?
I shall say two things in response to my hon. Friend. First, I support the steps to allow Ukraine to continue to fly in its own airspace—its sovereign airspace—to deliver military effect against the massive amounts of Russian artillery that are indiscriminately killing and bombing places around the country. That is one reason why a no-fly zone is a problem, because it would mean that both sides do not fly. The first thing is that we need to protect Ukraine’s anti-air capability.
Secondly, what are the most appropriate tools? Obviously, the Ukrainians know and have said what they wish for. We have acted when they have asked us, which is why the new missiles we are talking about today are coming forward. It is a matter for Poland—I have said I will support whatever its choice is—and in the meantime we will continue to try to meet the outcomes that Ukraine wants with whatever methods we can.
I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that, rather than getting to the stage at which we might need to rely on MOD assistance to get refugees here, it is better to get people here to the UK while they can get here. It is the same with humanitarian aid: we have the bizarre situation in which people who are displaced in Ukraine may need to use humanitarian aid, yet they could already be here in the UK where they have family members. If the UK is not going to lift the visa requirements for Ukrainians who come here, surely under the existing scheme, which applies to the family members of British and Ukrainian people who already live in the UK, we can use the information we have here, bring the people here and then process them and do the security checks while they are safely here in the UK, rather than wasting resources in Ukraine that could be better deployed elsewhere.
Three years ago, I visited Mariupol with my right hon. Friend’s predecessor, Michael Fallon, and we heard the Ukrainian armed forces’ appreciation of the help we were already giving them then through Operation Orbital, so I strongly welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement today. Does he agree with the Secretary-General of NATO that the sight of bodies lying unburied on the streets in Mariupol is credible evidence that Russia is guilty of war crimes?
As I have previously reported, the International Criminal Court has opened an investigation. A number of countries, including Britain, are collecting evidence—Canada is taking quite a strong lead—and it is important that we follow the evidence. The open-source reports of not only civilian bodies but Russian dead abandoned by their own forces show a crime in itself. What a disgrace that the Russian generals have abandoned those young men who have been killed. The leadership of the Russian army deserve to be in court for betraying their own soldiers and, at the same time, for what they are doing to the civilians of Ukraine. They are criminally responsible and I hope they face justice.
I thank the Secretary of State for updating us on the UK’s actions in support of the Ukrainians’ heroic defence of their country. He will have noted that his update was received much more warmly than that given by the Home Office yesterday, and with good reason—I do hope that Home Office Ministers have noted that as well. We must act on all fronts. The need for humanitarian assistance is overwhelming. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about the 1,000 UK troops who I understand from his statement are still on stand-by to provide humanitarian assistance? Where are they and under what circumstances will they be deployed?
We have not yet had any request for humanitarian support from neighbouring countries. As soon as they do request support, we will be happy to deploy those troops to help in that process. We have a NATO meeting next week, when perhaps those things will come to the fore, but that is what those troops are there for—they are earmarked to do exactly that.
On the hon. Lady’s point about the Home Office, having been a Home Office Minister and having sat in opposition across from Labour party Home Secretaries, I know that it is never an easy job in the Home Office. It is never a popular brief, and questions are never kind.
I thank the Secretary of State for his bold and forthright leadership and pay tribute to all those in the MOD, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and beyond who are burning the midnight oil. The level of operational detail in the statement was unprecedented, for which I am grateful. The Secretary of State will know the importance of close air support in a tactical environment. What is being done specifically to support the Ukrainian air force?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. First, there are the high-velocity missiles to assist the Ukrainian air force to fly freely in the airspace. Also, one way the Ukrainians are delivering close air support—or, actually, fires in depth—is through the Turkish TB2 unmanned aerial vehicles, which are delivering munitions to their artillery and, indeed, their supply lines, which are credibly important, in order to slow down or block the Russian advance.
I thank the Secretary of State very much for his statement, for his clear commitment to donating military equipment to the Ukrainians, and especially for the Starstreak anti-aircraft missiles that will down even more Russian aeroplanes and helicopters—we look forward to that.
On support for Odesa, which is the last Ukrainian port that is open for Ukrainians to use—they severely damaged a Russian ship just this week—will the Secretary of State outline what naval support and capability is available to keep that last Ukrainian port open for what is undoubtedly the next step in the Russian war of aggression?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the southern flank. The south is the one area where the Russians have made advances, obviously using Crimea, which they illegally annexed in 2014. That part of the sea, both around Odesa and elsewhere, is heavily mined. That has helped Ukraine to defend its coastline; in fact, we can assume that the ship on which the media are reporting was hit by a mine, although that is unverified. Of course, the Russian navy is blockading those ports, which gives the Ukrainians limited capability to take on those ships. If there are ways in which we can help them to do that, we will explore them.
I have huge respect for my right hon. Friend and his team for the way they have conducted themselves in this awful situation. Understandably, my Polish constituents are incredibly worried because of Putin’s expansionism and the threat to Poland. I hope my right hon. Friend will agree that Poland is making a huge humanitarian effort, supporting hundreds of thousands of refugees and proposing military support. Will he continue to ensure that Britain throws a protective arm around Poland, given the risks that that plucky country faces? I understand the position that my right hon. Friend set out earlier, but if Putin starts to carpet bomb across Ukraine, will he and NATO reconsider the issue of a no-fly zone?
On a no-fly zone, we have set out our position, and I am not going into hypotheticals and what-ifs. Nevertheless, at the moment the balance is that I do not think it would suit the Ukrainian disposition, given the amounts of heavy armour and missiles in the Russian stocks. The Russians have a massive advantage with shells and missiles, and they would not stop in a no-fly zone, whereas the few things that the Ukrainians have to reach the Russians at depth are in the air, and one of them would be hampered.
On the resilience and support to Poland, we put 150 soldiers out there and 100 soldiers when the Belarusian migrant crisis was happening. We have nearly 700 soldiers there now helping the country in terms of resilience and, indeed, with humanitarian issues, if needed. I spoke to my Polish counterpart yesterday, and I am hoping to visit next week. We will also look at air defence requests from Poland to protect its airfields. It has been an ally for more than 150 years. We stand absolutely by Poland, shoulder to shoulder. When it comes to military requests, it is really important that we put the military equipment where it makes a difference and where the Supreme Allied Commander Europe wants it. There is often a danger in these events that we spread our forces all around for reassurance, but do not necessarily achieve the military tasks that we need to achieve.
I, too, want to thank the Secretary of State for Defence. It is now very clear that we need to re-contain Russia, which will mean resupplying Ukrainian forces, refortifying our frontline, and, crucially, repressing the Russian economy. At the moment, nobody can recognise the 275 figure that is being used for the number of sanctions that have been issued. The Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday heard evidence that the Government simply were not ready. Even today, the family of the founder of the Wagner Group have still not been sanctioned here, even though they have been sanctioned in Europe. When the Secretary of State sees the Foreign Secretary later today, can he ask her to get her act together?
I would have to have pretty wide eyesight, as my right hon. Friend is in Washington at the moment, but if I had some massive binoculars, I would definitely pass on the message. I am happy to try to get to the bottom of all the figures. On the amount of money that has been sanctioned, the statistics that I had was that the UK has frozen more funds in London than Europe and the United States, and that matters. The construct of sanctions are different in different countries, but I would be very happy to look into that. I do not think that there should be any hiding place—and nor does the Foreign Secretary—for any of these Moscow hoods who are running around, including the dreadful Wagner Group.
In commending the Government for their robust response to this dreadful invasion and notwithstanding existing levels of support and our article 5 commitment to NATO, the Government are right to rule out a no-fly zone and also to emphasise that it is a difficult balance to ensure that any defensive support is calibrated not to escalate matters to a strategic level. With talk of Polish jets being donated in mind, what assurance can my right hon. Friend give that, whatever the outcome, this will achieve the right balance, because a wider war would not serve the interests of any population, let alone Ukraine?
My hon. Friend makes some wise observations. Just on the jet issue, and on all lethal aid issues, it is, in a sense, for each individual country to make the unique choice that it has to make. I have the duty of defending this wonderful nation, and it is those people for whom I have to answer, and we have to calibrate our action as suits. If the Polish Government feel that the security threat is so acute that it requires them to do that, I would fully understand their decision and stand by them. Let us remember that the countries that will face the direct consequence of a successful Russia over Ukraine are the bordering countries, because we know that, in Putin’s mind, some of those are not genuine countries and some of those countries are the very places that he historically feels should either be punished or, indeed, coerced into his way of thinking.
I echo the thanks to the Secretary of State and his team. Will he pass on the House’s thanks to all his teams who are making this happen? On the Polish jets issue, it is, of course, a matter for Poland. Given that we are giving man-portable air defence systems and anti-tank weapons, does he regard the gift of aircraft as a defensive system, which is the word that he has used in his statement?
I think it depends on how those aircraft are used. If they are used as close air support to Kyiv, then it is obviously defensive. If a country is seeking to enter another sovereign territory, like the Russian air force is, then it is not. That is important to recognise, but, I am afraid, as I have said, it is a deeply bilateral decision for those countries. As a friend and ally to Poland, we would stand by its decision.
How much of the MOD spending in response to the crisis will be accounted for as official development assistance? What impact has the Government’s decision to slash the aid budget and abolish the Department for International Development had on their ability to co-ordinate the humanitarian response?
I applaud the personal lead being taken by my right hon. Friend and the strong role of the MOD and our forces. This morning, the Home Affairs Committee took worrying evidence from the Ukrainian ambassador and Ukrainian support groups. May I make two requests from that? First, it is reported that there are many thousands of unaccompanied Ukrainian children across the border, who have been taken there for safety, and that the number is growing. Can he make the offer that, when the welcome humanitarian and military supplies go in in military planes, he includes personnel from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association, the largest employer of social workers, to help with the safeguarding worries that are now occurring on the border, and preferably bring the children back to the UK and do the checks that may need to be done? We do not need to change the law to grant them a six-month visitor visa at the very least.
Secondly, my Ukrainian constituents tell me that their friends in Ukraine are ordering over the internet body armour from British companies, because they are desperately short for their reserve and volunteer forces. We need to do more to help equip those people who have bravely gone to the frontline as part of the standing military and do not have the sort of kit that we would expect.
On that last point, included in the increased package is more body armour, alongside what was donated by many countries in the conference in February. I am slightly in danger of entering into Home Office questions here, although I know that they took place yesterday. Although I was a Home Office Minister, one of the greatest delights was not being the immigration Minister, but the security Minister. All I will say is that I understand the feeling in the House, so does the Home Secretary and so does the Prime Minister, and we are working to resolve that matter as quickly as possible. As for the internal details of different immigration schemes, I gently refer my hon. Friend to the Home Office.
I, too, give my thanks to the Defence Secretary for his work and that of his team and for his compassion. I am afraid that I am going to raise another visa issue with him. My constituent is trying to get his young niece to the UK after she fled her home in Ukraine. After endless bureaucratic checks and delays, they have been told today that she has to travel nearly 300 km across Poland to get the decision on her visa. The Defence Secretary will understand that refugees such as my constituent’s niece have already made long and challenging journeys from Ukraine to Poland and now have to make more journeys just to get the decision. My constituent calls the Government’s approach to people fleeing the war in Ukraine “inhumane”. Given the meeting on the visa process that the Secretary of State mentioned, can he press on the Home Secretary the need to offer a compassionate and human response to refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine?
I do not want to run the risk of making you angry, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I will say that I would be delighted to pass that case to my Parliamentary Private Secretary and press the Home Office to resolve it. If I indulge myself here, Madam Deputy Speaker will rule me out of order, because this is a question about the Ukraine situation through Defence.
President Putin was clearly counting on a quick victory, so I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on his statement, but on the far-sighted view of training Ukrainian troops and, indeed, on supplying defensive weapons. What assessment has he made of the effectiveness of both that training and the defensive weapons in theatre, which, of course, can never be tested except in theatre?
There are two parts to that question. Whatever happens, one will be the lessons that we need to learn for our own defences and our own capabilities. It is absolutely the case that one of the other assumptions that President Putin made was that the Russian army was invincible. For all the money that was spent, it did not really matter about the people in that army and it did not matter about battle preparation and all the things that we do to prepare people to go to war. Russia did not do that, and some of those so-called invincible weapons are now being taken apart by handheld weapons, some of which are provided by Britain. That is not something to gloat about. In the end, this is about the loss of human life. None the less, we can be proud that Britain followed up its determination to stand up for its values and its allies by supporting them with hard power as well as soft.
In terms of the military response, the Secretary of State can and must be wholeheartedly commended. However, I do not necessarily share his enthusiasm for the Government’s humanitarian response. Indeed, I spoke with my constituent Mariya this morning, whose family in Poland cannot even get clarity from the Home Office on whether they should continue with pre-existing visitor visas or go for a family visa. Quite simply, it is a shambles. When the Secretary of State meets the Home Office this afternoon, can I ask him, for want of a better phrase, whether he will stick a rocket right up the Home Office?
On the immigration pathway, the overall number of 200,000 for family and uncapped for humanitarian is a good thing. The fact that Britain is the biggest single donor to humanitarian aid is a good thing. We should not underplay those two facts. I understand the frustration among both Ukrainians trying to flee and Members of this House about the speed of that processing. I said yesterday that the MOD will support the Home Office as requested; it has agreed in principle and we have work on today to make that go quicker.
Exercise Cold Response and the reinforcing of Tapa camp are welcome and will reassure our Scandinavian and Baltic colleagues, but what is being done specifically with Lithuania? It is very much at risk, since Putin’s next move might very well be an attempt to link Russia proper with the Kaliningrad oblast.
My right hon. Friend raises an important point. That is why some of these countries must take some of their decisions bilaterally, because they will face the consequences of a successful Russia in Ukraine and what will happen next. That is why we have paid extra attention to the Baltics. The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), the shadow Defence Secretary, is going today to Estonia; I was happy to facilitate that, and I will do likewise for Scottish National party Members they wish to visit. It is important that we work through the Balts together. There are, I think, four enhanced forward battle groups there and we must ensure they are well co-ordinated. For a time, we put some of our Apaches through Lithuania. As my right hon. Friend points out, though, we are acutely aware that the area called the Suwalki gap, between Belarus and Kaliningrad, could be exploited for Russia’s purposes.
At the risk of destroying the Defence Secretary’s career, the reason he is getting so many questions on refugees is that hon. Members on both sides of this House wish he were in charge of the Home Office. Leading on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg), how confident can the Secretary of State be that, if we do not confront Putin more directly now in Ukraine, we will not have to do so next month or next year, somewhere else in Europe?
I am afraid that is the $60 million question. We must all be mature about how we work that out, through analysis and through talking to people who understand it. There is no easy answer. Is Putin acting irrationally? Yes, he is; why would he have done this? Is he acting out of an ambition far beyond his perceived threat of NATO? Yes, he is; he has written about that himself and made speeches about it. Does he take a view that there are a number of countries in NATO that do not really belong in NATO? Yes, he does. That is very dangerous for the west, and I say with all passion that we must work at ensuring that we keep our alliances completely strong. That is the thing that makes a difference to him, plus the economic sanctions and the fact that his legacy now is that he is done. If he is going to make a mistake, it is to pretend that somehow his political reputation can survive this. If he wanted to further Russia, he has damaged it and sent it backwards. If he wanted to further his case as a great leader, he is now contained in a cage of his own making.
I will briefly join the queue of those expressing our thanks that the Secretary of State and his Department are now involved in trying to sort out the very sorry process in relation to visas. I will perhaps use the good offices he has suggested to take up a particular case.
Returning to the issue of evidence gathering of war crimes, however, is it not important for future deterrence of not only Putin, but the rest of his regime, that it is clear that we are deadly serious about the gathering of evidence on war crimes? It may take many years before we are in a position to prosecute them, and it may be necessary to look, as some have suggested, at a dedicated international criminal tribunal to deal with jurisdictional issues. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is important that we send a message that we are not going away on this—that we will amass the evidence and, however long it takes, we will pursue not only Putin, but those responsible right down the chain of command, and that when his regime falls, as Milošević’s did, the democracies of the world are coming for him?
I agree 100% with my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces met the International Committee of the Red Cross only last week to discuss exactly that. It is absolutely right that they should know that the long arm of justice will follow them forever. My hon. Friend said something else important: this cannot be swept away by one man in the Kremlin. Right down through the chain of command, right now, those commanders sending those young men to their deaths must also face justice, military or international.
I thank the Secretary of State for the calm and professional approach he has taken to this difficult issue, and for the pressure he is applying to the Home Office to speed up the fair treatment of refugees. Will he also speak to other Government Departments about the lengthy delays that some medical convoys are facing? I have had approaches from my local Ukrainian community and I understand that other hon. Members across the House have faced this difficulty. There seems to be a genuine issue of red tape created by customs declarations. If he could raise that with other Departments, it would be a huge step forward.
I would be delighted to do that. If the hon. Gentleman would like to give me that information, I will ask after this statement and investigate what more we can do. We have helped the Department of Health and Social Care to fly in some of its medical supplies, but I know that there are also many people driving out with supplies. If the customs are on our side, we can do something about it; if they are not, I will raise it with my international counterparts.
My right hon. Friend may be aware of the reporting and, extraordinarily, the opinion polls coming out of Ukraine that show that the people and the Government of Ukraine regard the United Kingdom as foremost among their friends in western Europe. That is in no small part due to his leadership and his foresight, as others have said. We supplied them with 2,000 anti-tank missiles before the invasion, and I welcome what he said in his statement about what we are doing today. Can he assure me that all future requests for further defensive military equipment by Ukraine will be met in the same way?
We will look at every request quickly and genuinely, and do whatever we can to help Ukraine. I thank my hon. Friend for his kind comments, but I think it is what Britain stands for. Whether I work with Sweden and Finland, non-NATO countries, or with aspirant NATO countries and countries who want to belong to our values, they all value what Britain stands for and her history.
Russia’s advance has been hamstrung by logistical difficulties, defections and now freezing temperatures; the convoy advancing on Ukraine has essentially been immobile for the past few days. Does my right hon. Friend agree that President Putin has badly misjudged the effectiveness of his own military and the resistance of the Ukrainians, backed up by western military aid and training?
I think there have been two major miscalculations by President Putin. The first was that his military was invincible and that the Ukrainian people would welcome him. His other major miscalculation was that somehow the international community was not united. He is wrong on that.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will wish the Secretary of State well in his discussions with the Home Office—it is a hard nut to crack. I spoke with a constituent of mine over the weekend who has family in Irpin. When she asked me about a no-fly zone, I explained the situation to her, but the words came with some difficulty. Much as I support the position we are taking, when facing somebody who has family in a war zone, it is difficult to explain why we cannot intervene. She responded, “We need to be able to defend ourselves,” and said that they want access to more weaponry which we can supply to them. I know the Secretary of State is providing Starstreak high-velocity anti-air missiles and that he hopes that that will fall within the definition of defensive weapons. Is that definition a difficulty in providing the support that people in Ukraine are asking for, and is it something that will have to be kept under review?
That is always kept under review, depending on the actions of President Putin. I winced when the hon. Gentleman said the town was Irpin, because they are under daily artillery and missile bombardment, being literally flattened by the Russian forces. I can only pass on my support and hope for his constituent that she gets through this. We will do everything we can. When I speak to Ukrainians, it is about the outcomes they want. They do not want to be bombed, they do not want to be shelled and they want to be able to patrol their own skies. We think there are currently other ways of doing that without risking a wider war in Europe, and that is why we think it is important. Some of the mass devastation we see comes from artillery and missiles rather than the air, so we must find other ways of dealing with those.
Providing Starstreak anti-air missiles will help Ukraine defend itself and so is very welcome. Given the situation on the ground and the practical difficulties, will the Secretary of State look at creative ways of delivering training so that this capability can be used by those brave Ukrainian forces?
I welcome the Defence Secretary’s very strong condemnation of, as he put it, the “indiscriminate and murderous” attacks on civilian areas. What will the UK Government’s position be next month on the UN-backed political declaration on restricting the use of wide-area effects explosive weapons in populated areas?
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, and for his excellent daily briefings. With Russia repeating false allegations that the US is supporting a Ukrainian military biological programme that would release deadly pathogens such as the plague and anthrax, what new steps are the MOD and other Government agencies taking to tackle the dissemination of such false information effectively?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, because Russia has not given up its false flags and false narratives. In fact, it has shut down nearly every avenue of information for its people, which again shows the fear that it is under—I think only yesterday TikTok was stopped in Russia. We absolutely must challenge those false flags, and we do—she has heard me call them out publicly. At some stages we did that by declassifying intelligence early, which we do not normally do. We should also be genuinely worried when false flags drop breadcrumbs leading to chemical weapons, nerve agents and biological weapons, because we all worry what is behind that in the first place.