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Russian Aggression: Support for NATO Allies

Volume 711: debated on Monday 28 March 2022

16. What steps the Government are taking to support NATO allies in response to Russian aggression. (906308)

We are currently supplying significant air power to NATO’s eastern flank, as well as sending ships to the eastern Mediterranean. We have a well-established and enduring contribution to the NATO enhanced forward presence battle group in the Baltics and in Poland—in recent weeks we have almost doubled our military forces in Estonia to demonstrate that capability and our resolve to support that region.

I thank the Minister, because the UK is right to bolster support to our NATO allies bordering Russia, and NATO is right in condemning Putin’s illegal and atrocious actions in Ukraine. Opposition Members stand shoulder to shoulder in upholding democracy, freedom, the rule of law and security. Of course, modern warfare is not just about troops, weapons and equipment, so what more are we doing to work with our allies across NATO in strengthening cyber-resilience in the alliance?

NATO is acutely aware that the threat has evolved beyond the three conventional domains and into space and cyber-space as well, which is why that is a key part of NATO’s transformation plans. The UK is to the fore in that, because we have invested ahead of many of our allies in both defensive and offensive cyber-capabilities. So the UK voice is very much to the fore in discussing with NATO how we develop a cyber-capability for the alliance.

Is not one lesson of the brutal aggression of Russia in Ukraine that the decision by the Baltic states to join NATO was the right one? Aggression in Ukraine is not a vindication of NATO’s expansion; it is a vindication of the Baltic states’ joining our military alliance. Is there not a lesson for all NATO powers, including our own: we have to think again about how much we are prepared to spend on defence?

Make no mistake: the NATO membership of our great friends and allies in the Baltic represents one of the great strengthening moments of the alliance generally. Nobody is prouder to fly the NATO flag than Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, and we stand four-square behind them and behind what it would mean if President Putin were to try to compromise the territorial integrity of those countries in any way. As for the hon. Gentleman’s wider question about resourcing defence across the alliance adequately, I strongly agree; we are one of only a few countries that has been routinely spending the 2% of GDP target. It is fantastic that this moment of challenge within the euro-Atlantic has meant that other countries have now increased their spending to meet that target, too. If there are arguments for more money for defence, no Defence Minister is ever going to object, but we should reflect that the UK has been spending 2% for a while and was given a very significant uplift from the Treasury only 12 months ago.

I commend the United Kingdom for all it is doing to help our NATO allies, but I make this point to the Minister, from one soldier to another. He said earlier that, if circumstances change, the policy changes. I do not excuse myself for again asking the Government to rethink the cut to the Army. He was referring to out of area-type operations, and we are now looking potentially, God forbid, at a conventional war, where mass will be important. We no longer have that mass and it must be retained.

My hon. Friend and I will debate keenly the future of the land battle, but I am not sure that what we have seen on our TV screens over the past few weeks has been a justification for large amounts of massed armour. I think it is entirely a vindication of a change in the way in which the land battle is prosecuted. If forces are massed, they are vulnerable to missile technologies, which are absolutely in the ascendancy. I think that Future Soldier and the integrated review, which gave birth to that, are exactly the right way to develop the Army to meet the requirements of the land battle as it is now and not perhaps how we thought it was 20 years ago.

Supporting NATO allies is about not just the eastern front and the situation in and around Russia, but the threat from Russian naval activity. Does my hon. Friend agree that the focus must equally be on the activities of Russian submarines in the north Atlantic, around our allied coast, and that the Navy must be given equal consideration in regard to our strategic strength moving forward?

Submarine operations in the north Atlantic are not routinely spoken about in public, but my right hon. Friend will be reassured to know that we are acutely aware that we must maintain awareness of what Russia is doing in the whole Euro-Atlantic and that the focus should not just be on the obvious point of conflict in Ukraine. There is a belligerence to the way in which Russia is doing its business right now, which means that this is the time for maximum vigilance for the UK and the alliance, so that we make sure that all threats to the homeland are properly countered.

Labour’s commitment to NATO is unshakeable. We support the provision of lethal aid to Ukraine and we back the bolstering of defences for our allies on NATO’s eastern front. The Government have already deployed various assets, including Royal Navy ships from Devonport, which I am proud to represent, but will the Minister set out what further forces are being prepared for deployment to our NATO allies? Can he say whether the cost of that deployment is coming from already strained Ministry of Defence budgets, or whether it will be met from the Treasury reserve, as was the case during the last Labour Government?

There is a constant regeneration of forces. As two battle groups are committed to Estonia, more battle groups need to embark on the training pipeline to make sure that we have contingent land forces at readiness. Similarly, ships have been deployed to the two NATO standing maritime groups and to Exercise Cold Response. We continue to generate further ships to give more choice and options thereafter, if requested by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Similarly, with the Typhoons and F-35s, a large amount has been committed as part of the initial response force, but we are generating more to have them at our disposal, if SACEUR asks for more.

The hon. Gentleman asks about the money right now. All of it seems to be being met by the Treasury; long may that continue.

Given that we should help the Ukrainian armed forces by all legitimate means short of war, will Ministers press our NATO allies on the fact that the rather artificial distinction between defensive and offensive weaponry should be swept away when requests for equipment are received, because when a country is fighting on its own territory, having been invaded, all its weaponry is defensive?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. It suits our purpose to refer to the equipment that we are providing in the context of the defensive role it can play, but defence intelligence over the weekend reflected on the fact that the armoured column to the north-west of Kyiv has been pushed back in recent days, because small bands of determined people are manoeuvring with lethal weapons systems. That is forcing the Russians to move back into a place where they feel that they can defend themselves better. These are defensive bits of equipment. That, I think, is the right message to send to the Kremlin. If, in the ingenuity of the Ukrainian armed forces, they do something more, that is good on Ukraine.

On behalf of the Scottish National party, may I, too, welcome the letter from Speaker Stefanchuk to this House?

My last exchange with the Secretary of State, who cannot be with us this afternoon, was in relation to the NATO strategic concept. When I asked about the Government’s—[Interruption.]

Order. May I just remind people that they have to stay for two full questions after the question that they have asked? Too many Members have asked a question and left. I remind people: please wait for two full questions and show courtesy to the House when you have had the benefit of a question. I am sorry to interrupt, but I need to get that on record.

Especially when I am on my feet, Mr Speaker.

When I last spoke to the Secretary of State across the Floor of the House, I asked about the upcoming NATO strategic concept, which is second in importance only to the Washington treaty itself. May I ask the Minister specifically about that? Is it still planned to happen in June, or will the timetable for it move because of Russia’s war on Ukraine? In terms of what we can expect to see from it, will we have the Government’s Arctic strategy before then? In terms of containing Russia, the Secretary of State said at our last exchange that he planned to have a conversation with SACEUR about that very issue. Can the Government tell us what their priorities will be for containment of Russia going forward?

The hon. Gentleman will have to accept my apologies, but so important is the NATO strategic concept that I am afraid it is something that the Secretary of State works on with the team immediately around him. He will need to write to the hon. Gentleman with the detail that he asks for.

I am always happy to write, but perhaps I could take the Minister on from that to an important issue. NATO is clearly focused on bolstering its own defences and on supporting Ukraine militarily. Several NATO and non-NATO member states are focused on doing the same, plus supporting Ukraine economically. But Ukraine will require Marshall plan levels of rebuilding and international co-operation and support across NATO countries, EU countries and countries further afield. Will the Minister enlighten the House as to what discussions are taking place in NATO specifically with a focus on helping the country to rebuild? The war will come to an end eventually and our friendship must continue the day after.

The discussions in NATO very much focus on the Euro-Atlantic security implications of the conflict and on what the situation may be after it is completed. The wider geopolitical discussion and the economic plan, among other things that the hon. Gentleman rightly asks for, may be discussed within NATO, but I do not think that they are the focus of NATO discussions; I think that they are much more the focus of discussions within the G7, the EU and other ad hoc groupings that are coming together in order to worry about exactly what is next.