I beg to move,
That this House has considered Georgia and the war in Ukraine.
During the Easter recess, the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia sent a delegation to Georgia, which I was pleased to be a part of. I declare my related interest as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to discuss issues that arose from the visit and also to thank the Speaker and MPs in Georgia, the Georgian ambassador to London, Sophie Katsarava, whom we are honoured to have here with us this afternoon, and also our ambassador to Tbilisi, Mark Clayton, all of whom made it a very useful, fascinating visit. We had meetings with the Prime Minister, many other Ministers, Select Committee Chairs, Opposition Members, and civil society activists.
I will start with a general observation: I doubt that UK-Georgia relations have ever been as good as they are at the current time. Under the Wardrop dialogue, bilateral discussions have improved relations in the diplomatic and ministerial spheres. I am very pleased to report that parliamentary-level relations are also excellent. During our visit we saw great potential for improved economic ties, with our post-Brexit free trade agreement in place, and also cultural ties—for instance, going with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) to visit the Georgian rugby headquarters. They are crazy for the sport, by the way.
There is no doubt that Georgia is a country that faces west and wants to be part of the wider family of free and democratic countries with western values and economies. It is a young democracy and has a somewhat politically polarised society, but united, with huge polling majorities in their wish for membership of the European Union and also NATO. In fact, both aims have now been written into the constitution. As with Ukraine, a formal EU membership application has been made. That builds on Georgia’s existing EU accession agreement and its three-month EU visa, which it entered into at roughly the same time as Ukraine.
In practice, the EU often looks at developments with those two countries together. Russia, before its 24 February wider invasion of Ukraine, occupied roughly 20% of both countries and in practice runs the puppet regimes that it props up in both from the same Moscow office. Whenever President Putin warns against Ukraine membership of the EU and NATO, he usually simultaneously warns against Georgian membership. We can debate the rights and wrongs of the EU and Russia lumping Ukraine and Georgia together, but in practice we need to acknowledge that it happens to some degree.
As far as NATO is concerned, both Ukraine and Georgia have been forming closer links over recent years. Georgia, for instance, provided significant detachment operations in Afghanistan. Our delegation took the opportunity to visit the NATO-Georgia joint training evaluation centre, which was set up after the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. Georgia’s troops are trained in NATO tactics by NATO troops and, clearly, the ground is being set for ever-closer NATO compatibility, whatever the speed of Georgia’s membership application may be.
Of course, the threat presented by Russia hung over much of our delegation’s meetings in one way or another. It is important to realise that the intransigence, brutality and violence expressed by Russia under Putin did not start with Ukraine in 2014. Rather, it started with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. As a result, to this day, 20% of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—is occupied by Russian troops, and Georgia supports some 250,000 internally displaced persons from those regions.
The pattern of Russia’s use of disinformation and cyber-warfare and its escalating use of agents provocateurs, special forces and devastating slash and burn techniques have consistently recurred where Russia has meddled. So we should be horrified and disgusted by Russian actions in Ukraine, but we should not be surprised. As with the occupied Donbas, post occupation, Russia puts virtually no investment into these places, other than garrisons. They are effectively left to rot, in a kind of limbo. Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and once the pearl of the Black sea, is now an empty ghost town of tumbleweed. Mariupol—need I say more? This is Russia’s plan: to have weak, corrupt and malleable puppet states, that it preferably does not have to pay for, to act as buffers on its borders.
In the case of Georgia, every few weeks Russia stages some farcical provocation action in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, such as moving the barbed wire fence forward a few metres, or closing crossing points, or arresting shepherds rounding up their sheep—always to stir the pot and maintain tension and leverage. The United States calls these occupied territories, “occupied territories”. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government still refuse to do so?
We should recall that the year 2008 was a difficult time, with the global financial crisis. Standing up to Putin was not the No. 1 priority in the west. The west, led by the US, refused to intervene on behalf of Georgia, while in the UK Russian investment was being actively encouraged as one way of propping up our failing economy and banks. In 2008, Putin received his first of numerous free passes from the west. Sensing the west’s disinterest and lack of cohesion, onward he marched to Crimea and Donbas, not to mention with the stamping out of democracy in those countries directly in Russia’s ambit such as Chechnya, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Each time, more or less, he received a free pass.
During this time, the UK failed to arm Ukraine and Georgia. Yes, we gave army training and other aid, but not guns. Of course, the UK did more than most other countries and that should be recognised, as should our very significant contribution of weaponry after the start of the recent war, but the question does need to be asked: would Putin have attacked if Ukraine had received the means to fight back then, as it has now? Would so many people—some 8,000 civilians so far—have been killed? Would such physical and cultural disruption as we have seen have happened?
Both Ukraine and Georgia have been receiving high-level assistance from the UK to counter cyber-warfare. We must not forget that the prediction in the first days of the February war was that Russia would wipe out Ukraine’s infrastructure through the use of cyber-attacks. That has not happened. Frequent Russian cyber-attacks on Georgia have also failed. We gave help on cyber before the war started and it worked. Why did we not do so with weapons? Surely, we need to learn the lesson here: prevention is better than cure. The US has provided the Javelin anti-tank system to Georgia, but we have not sent arms. Let us not make the same mistake again. Let us give Georgia the weapons they need.
Georgian public opinion is pro Ukraine’s fight for survival and liberty to an overwhelming extent. In Tbilisi, every third house I saw flew the Ukrainian flag and there were huge rallies held in support. I understand that hundreds of Georgians have unofficially volunteered to fight in Ukraine. The Georgian Government have been very vocal in their support for Ukraine. They have been supporting anti-Russian motions at the UN. They have sent a very significant amount of non-military aid to Ukraine and are hosting some 25,000 Ukrainian refugees. Georgia has not adopted the western sanctions directly, although it is applying them indirectly, for example in financial services.
Georgian opposition parties and Ukraine have been demanding a tougher position on sanctions and military intervention. Against this is Georgia’s proximity to and partial occupation by Russia, with a population of only 3.5 million and without the cover of being a NATO member. The pain of being left alone against Russia in 2008 remains raw with the Georgian governing party and so the Government tread carefully with Russia. This approach has resulted in varying degrees of friction with Ukraine.
The recent arrival of some 30,000 Russians to Georgia is contentious. They tend to be young, middle-class Russians who do not want to be involved with the war. They can live in Georgia for a year and set up businesses there. The practical if not official position taken by the Georgian Government is that this is a welcome benefit to Georgia of the Russian brain drain. Opposition parties tend to be less charitable towards these Russians and there can be tension in public when Russian is heard spoken. Given that huge numbers of Russians are fleeing—there are another 200,000 in Istanbul alone—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on them and whether we know how many are in the UK.
It is also important to recognise that the strategic issues for the UK and the west go beyond Ukraine and into the wider Black sea region. Possible Ukrainian neutrality—subject to a referendum—was apparently mooted by President Zelensky at the Istanbul peace talks. A heavily-armed Swiss-type neutrality might work for a large and very populated country such as Ukraine, but that is not the case for Georgia, which is small geographically and has a small population. Indeed, the ground taken by Russia on the first day of its February offensive was more than exists in the whole of Georgia. Georgia’s long-term security is considered by the Georgians to be effectively bound up in joining the NATO umbrella, not in neutrality. If Ukraine were to go neutral, Russia’s attention would be drawn to Georgia—possibly with disastrous implications for Georgian security.
Although the UK Government’s security documents seem to be slowly coming around to recognising the importance of the wider Black sea strategic balance, the 2021 integrated review, “Global Britain in a competitive age”, mentions the Black sea only once. Britain conducts £21 billion-worth of bilateral trade in that region. That makes up 3% of our exports and it is significantly expanding. I believe that we still have the largest Navy in Europe. In April 2021, HMS Defender was deployed to challenge illegal Russian claims around Crimea, and was very much welcomed in Ukraine and Georgia. In the current war, we have started to provide Ukraine with our anti-ship missiles.
Let us assume that Ukraine prevails in this war. How, Minister, are we going to get trade going again in the Black sea region? Will we help to get rid of the mines? Will we work with Ukraine, with Georgia and, importantly, with Turkey, to keep the lines open and uphold maritime law? What kind of post-war planning is going on?
Let me state the obvious. The Georgians, like the Ukrainians, will always tell people that they do not want war and they do not want instability in their region. They want recognition of their sovereignty and the democratic freedom to embed themselves in the European family, encourage free trade and improve the economic lot of their people. The sacrifices and suffering of the Ukrainian people since 2014—as for the Georgians since 2008—have been immense and totally unjustified. I hope that our Ministers are looking at the clear pattern established by Russia and are learning the lessons of our earlier years of relative inaction, so that we can stop the rot from Russia spreading further.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing the debate, on his excellent speech and on his enthusiastic chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as I was also on the delegation that visited Georgia recently. We all learned a lot from that visit and would like to pass on our thanks to the Georgian ambassador in London for all the work that was put into it. I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Member for Huntingdon that the excellent parliamentary relations between Georgia and our Parliament were improved as a result of that visit.
I also point out that the links between Wales and Georgia remain strong. That is evidenced not just in our shared national love of rugby, but through the ongoing success of the really active Newport-Kutaisi Twinning Association, which has maintained the bond between Newport and Kutaisi for over 33 years—many deep and enduring friendships have resulted from it. The twinning association owes a great deal to the work of individuals such as the late Caroline McLachlan from Newport—a former chair of the association who was deeply involved with the twinning from the start—and her very dear friend, Professor Madonna Megrelishvili, the former chair of the sister Kutaisi Newport International Association, who sadly passed away last year.
As the hon. Member said, few countries will have watched the horrific scenes that have unfolded in Ukraine over recent months more intently than Georgia. Like Ukraine, Georgia has suffered the consequences of Russian aggression before, as has been laid out. The brutal 2008 assault on Georgia that claimed 700 lives and displaced thousands of Georgians was, in many ways, a warning bell that the west ignored—emboldening the Kremlin ahead of the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Much like Ukraine, Georgia also incorporates two breakaway regions with close ties to Putin’s regime, Abkhazia and South Ossetia—the latter of which has declared its intention to hold a referendum on joining Russia this July. The presence of Russian troops in Georgian territory ensures that tensions remain high. The people of Georgia live in fear that the country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty will be further impinged on by an expansionist Kremlin. In an interview with CNN last week, one Georgian diplomat expressed his concern that Putin is sufficiently unpredictable that he may invade Georgia at any time, for any reason—or for no real reason at all—regardless of the outcome of the war in Ukraine. That diplomat is certainly not alone in his concern.
In that context, the rationale for Georgia applying for NATO membership is understandable. Georgia has already developed a strong working relationship with NATO. It contributed troops to the Kosovo force, and was one of the largest non-NATO troop contributors to the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. As a result of the 2014 NATO-Wales summit, the substantial NATO-Georgia package was signed to strengthen Georgia’s defence capabilities in line with NATO standards. During the recent APPG visit, it was really interesting to see the NATO-Georgia training and evaluation centre at work, not least because it was a product of the package agreed at the NATO summit in Newport. There we are: I got Newport in there.
Georgia has participated in Operation Active Endeavour—the counterterrorist maritime surveillance operation in the Mediterranean sea—and has engaged closely with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in hosting the Georgia-NATO interparliamentary council. That was, at one time, chaired by my very good friend Madeleine Moon, the former Member for Bridgend, whose insight on geopolitics and defence issues is very much missed in this place. She visited Georgia, and the same border with South Ossetia that we visited.
Georgia’s ambition to join NATO is clearly not just a matter of military assurance. Georgia and other aspirant NATO countries see the prospective membership of the alliance—and, indeed, the EU—as a vital signpost of a journey towards democratic governance, the rule of law and an embrace of human rights. None of those values chime with Vladimir Putin’s regime. Russia stands in the way of freedom of choice for the people of Georgia and their Government. The fear is that if they move too far towards NATO or the EU, then Russia will invade. The truth is that the Georgians have been there before, and they have no desire to return. The question facing Georgia is how to meet its population’s desire to strengthen its democratic foundations without generating Russian aggression.
Our Government, working with international counterparts, should work to strengthen Georgian resilience and help prepare the country for any future aggression. The UK should also firmly confirm its support for Georgian sovereignty. Closer to home, our Government must finally get serious about cleaning up the dirty money that props up Russia and other authoritarian regimes. They have not taken enough action over the last decade, and failed to respond swiftly when the Intelligence and Security Committee warned about London being used as a laundromat for money tied to the Putin regime. That cannot be allowed to continue. The Government should follow Labour’s call for urgent reform of Companies House, so that it can crack down on the shell companies hiding cash. Sanctioning oligarchs will be effective only if we know where their wealth is hidden.
I want to finish by reiterating the strong support for the people of Ukraine that exists in Newport East and across the country. Although we may be on different sides if they are Wales’s opponents in the World cup finals play-off in Cardiff next month, we are all on the same side when standing with the Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s actions. The courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in the face of such barbarism and untold human suffering will never be forgotten. Our Government must continue to support Ukraine and its people, including through the swift and comprehensive disbursement of humanitarian aid.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I pay great tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly), not only for the informed way he spoke, but for leading a successful all-party delegation to Georgia, as declared in my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
We found that the Georgian people are not only extremely hospitable, but very pro-European. In 2020, the chairman of the ruling Georgian Dream party announced plans for Georgia effectively to apply for EU membership in 2024, but the geopolitical situation changed. Russia invaded Ukraine on 24 February this year, and Georgia responded by expediting a full application and submitting it on 3 March for EU consideration.
This month, further documentation was submitted, with the Georgian Government’s answers to a 2,600-point EU questionnaire on the country’s political, economic and institutional readiness to begin the process of joining the EU bloc. A response from the EU is expected in the next couple of months. During our visit to Georgia, as others have said, we visited a training and evaluation centre organised by NATO, where the level of military co-operation with Georgia is increasing. The Georgians seemed incredibly grateful to us as British Members of Parliament for visiting their country and showing our support.
Georgia is at a crossroads, linking Europe and Asia. It has, over the centuries, been partially or completely conquered by many different powers, including the Persian, Ottoman, Mongol and Russian empires. They have all left their mark on the country, culturally enriching it. It is an incredibly beautiful country, with the Caucasus bordering the north, the Black sea to the west, and the wine regions of Kakheti to the east.
One reason we were invited was to assess the current situation with Russia, which, as others have said, occupies 20% of Georgia’s internationally recognised territory. Unfortunately, as the Georgians reminded us many times during our visit, that occupation, which began in 2008, happened with hardly any protest from the rest of the world. Many would argue that that event, combined with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, led to Putin’s boldness in Ukraine today. We visited South Ossetia, which is one of the two occupied areas, the other being Abkhazia. Standing on the line of control from Russian occupation, peering through binoculars into the mist and seeing no life at all—most, except some of the elderly, have been driven out—was a very eerie feeling.
The only parallel I can draw is with standing on the demilitarised zone between North and South Korea, again peering into the mist through binoculars into the Kaesong joint industrial centre. The only difference in South Ossetia is that the Russians have purpose-built military forts about every 7 kilometres along the border. There is a direct link road through the Caucasus into the former Republic of North Ossetia, which has also been annexed by Russia.
The democracy of Georgia, after years of occupation by the Soviet Union, is nowhere near as well embedded as ours. Although there is a free press, the majority of the press and media usually toe the Government line. In the Parliament, which we visited, the Government exercise control and the opposition do not have anything like the opportunities for criticism in holding the Government to account that we do. There were allegations, though we were provided with no proof, that the judiciary tends to find in the Government’s favour in the most serious cases.
Having said all that, and to put it into perspective, it is considerable how far the country has come since it was occupied by the Soviet Union. There are free elections, and the former President Mikheil Saakashvili admitted defeat in the parliamentary elections in 2012, allowing the first peaceful transition of power since Georgian independence. So, it is possible for people to exercise democratic power. For instance, demonstrations outside Parliament are a common feature, and they are allowed to go ahead unhindered by the Government.
The war in Ukraine is worrying on a number of fronts, because of the human tragedies that have occurred, with the prospect of future trials for war crimes and even genocide. It is essential that we keep up all the pressure against President Putin through sanctions, disruption of the Russian banking system, trade, continual resupply of lethal equipment to the Ukrainian military and, finally, reinforcing the generous British offer to take in Ukrainians affected by war.
No one yet knows how the war will end. It may even become a prolonged low-intensity war. One thing is certain: the military and political landscape of Europe has changed. That is what the Georgians hope—that somehow, in future negotiations, Russians can be pressured to leave the occupied territories, and that the people and families who lived there for so many generations can return to their homes.
As a farmer, I hope that the west will take control of the supply routes through the Black sea, allowing grain to come out of Ukraine and into some of the poorest countries in the world that are most in need of it. Otherwise, various things will happen. Obviously, the people in those countries will suffer hugely. The Ukrainians will also suffer further, because their grain stores are currently full and, unless they can get the grain out of those stores, they will not be able to put into them whatever new harvest they have to prepare for next year.
I left Georgia with a feeling of hope. The Georgians are a wonderful, hard-working and hospitable people who have endured so much over the years—not least because Stalin was born in the country and it was the location of some of the most brutal purges. The Georgians are determined to build it into a prosperous, modern and democratic country. Historically located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, right at the heart of the old silk route between east and west, they have huge opportunities to trade.
In closing, I pay tribute to the Georgian ambassador to London, who went to huge trouble to organise our trip. We learned a great deal on that trip, and I hope that relationships between Georgia and this country have been, and will continue to be, improved by similar exchanges of views.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Sir Mark. I commence by warmly praising the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) for securing this debate, and I congratulate him on an excellent speech. We often say that, but it is nice to mean it today; he gave a genuinely balanced introduction to the subject. It is also a pleasure to take stock of the many contributions about where Georgia is at present, where it has come from and the wider pattern of behaviour from the Kremlin and the Russian state.
I was particularly struck by the hon. Member’s introductory comment that there is no doubt that Georgia faces west. That was my very strong impression on my first visit to Georgia, back in 2007. Georgia aspires to membership of the international order and to be a western country. It has its own legacy dealing with the toxic impact of empire, after many empires have left legacies, good and bad, within its territory. The Georgians are a fantastic people. They are very hospitable, and they have some of the best wine I have ever tasted. They also have some of the most beautiful scenery—for a Scotsman to say that is really a compliment indeed. It is a wonderful country that should be doing so much better; without outside interference, I suspect it would be.
I always strive for consensus, so let us all agree that Georgia has a right to its independence and a right to live without fear of its neighbour. I hope we can all unite on that point. I hope we can also unite on the fact that it has the right to choose its own associations and to apply for NATO and EU membership. There is a clear demos within Georgia that wants western adhesion and co-operation to rebalance its history and the interference that it is suffering. I am glad there is widespread support around the House for that today.
During my time at the European Parliament, I was always strongly in favour of a wider European Union. I was strongly in favour of the EU accession process as a huge impetus for peaceful democratic reform, transparency and financial reform within applicant countries. I am still strongly of that view today, especially for Georgia and its neighbours. There could be a huge advantage in the UK being a voice—albeit from outside, because we are not going to change geography—for that accession and the wider European project.
Sadly, the Georgians are victims of a wider pattern of behaviour; the playbook from which the Kremlin is operating is pretty clear. I endorse the comment, made by Members on both sides of the House, that we sold the pass with the annexation of Crimea and with the initial invasion of Georgia. Because the international community did not provide a unified front and did not act on the facts, there was extreme moral hazard, and that is why we are in the mess that we are today with Ukraine.
We see the Kremlin’s activities in Ukraine and Georgia, but we also see moves in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans. Sadly, Russian state and non-state actors interfere in the internal politics of many other countries, always with the aim to destabilise, and to create and foment division. I strongly echo the calls made by the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for stronger action on dirty Russian cash in our own domestic discourse. We have had many discussions about that in relation to Ukraine, but I suggest it is a good thing to do for a lot of reasons beyond what is happening in Ukraine. We see far too much dark money and money laundering in UK politics and property, and we need much stronger action on it.
A couple of points have been made that I hope the Minister, for whom I have great respect, will address. Surely, we need to be much clearer on our definition of the territories occupied by Russia in Georgia, and the consequences of that continued occupation. Work is going on to support to the Georgian authorities against disinformation by Russian and non-state actors, but I think we need to do a lot more. That applies to Bosnia and other places as much as it does to Georgia, but I think in Georgia there is a need for more.
My party’s position on the integrated review is fairly clear. The Scottish National party does not believe that an Indo-Pacific tilt makes a lot of sense for Scotland. I do not think it makes a lot of sense for the UK, either. I can understand why the US is doing it, but an Indo-Pacific tilt has been shown to be a toothless tiger in international affairs with the invasion of Ukraine. We submitted a lot of constructive suggestions—we do try to be constructive —to the integrated review. I reiterate that it is badly out of date and needs to be reassessed wholesale in the light of the situation in our European neighbourhood. I am glad that there has been wide agreement on that today, and I again commend the hon. Member for Huntingdon for securing this debate.
It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank the hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) for securing this crucial debate at a critical time for Georgia and Ukraine, and I thank everyone for making excellent contributions.
Three weeks ago, I was proud to attend the celebrations for the 30th anniversary of the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between Georgia and the United Kingdom. I have been honoured today, and on many occasions recently, to speak for the Labour Front Bench in defence of the people of Ukraine, who continue to endure Russia’s barbaric invasion with heroism and great bravery. As has been mentioned, there are very warm relations between Georgia and the UK, but particularly with Wales. I have enjoyed some excellent conversations with the ambassador here in London in recent months since taking this position.
I reiterate Labour’s resolute commitment not only to NATO, but more broadly to defending the values of peace, democracy and liberty, which are being courageously protected in Ukraine and which I know are the aspirations of the people of Georgia, too. That has been demonstrated in their great sacrifice and huge contribution alongside us all in Afghanistan, which my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) referred to. That must be remembered, and the sacrifice acknowledged.
Our support for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Georgia is as solid as it is for Ukraine. There are marked parallels between the two countries’ experience in recent years at the hands of Russia, and that has made the UK’s diplomatic solidarity, support and engagement with all the countries in Russia’s near orbit all the more essential.
When it comes to the need for unity across the west in the face of Putin’s malevolent and clear intent to re-establish the wider territorial bounds, as he sees them, of the Soviet Union, or some sort of historical claimed area of influence, the alarm has been sounding for well over a decade. Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008 was dubbed by many the first European war of the 21st century. That was a haunting premonition that more would follow if that illegal and unjustified belligerence went unchecked and if other countries dared to seek their own paths and destinies, as they should be able to do. It must now be absolutely clear to all of us that the collective western reaction to those events in 2008 provided Putin with one of the green lights that he sought. We are monitoring his character and intentions intently today, but his playbook—as the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), speaking for the SNP, said—has been implemented time and again. As Russia invaded Georgia illegally in 2008, the world largely watched on in silence. Hundreds of people died in that illegal annexation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We know how this works: Putin and his cronies heighten tensions, exploit and enable so-called secessionist movements, sow discord, spread misinformation, provoke chaos and capitalise on the ensuing turmoil.
I, too, should declare an interest as one of the recent visitors to Georgia—and a great and enlightening visit it was as well. During our trip, I spent some time in the main museum in Tbilisi, where there was an exhibition about the Soviet era. We often forget that Georgia has long-standing experience of the naked violence and aggression that comes from across the Russian border. While it enjoyed a few years of independence after the first world war and the break-up of the Russian and Ottoman empires, it was brutally reinvaded by the Soviets and people were mercilessly murdered in cold blood, so this is not the first time that Georgia has experienced what can come from its neighbour across the border. We often forget the lessons of history there.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point to that history. It is of course the history of many others in the near orbit of Russia, including in the Baltics. Now, yet again, we see a false, so-called referendum being used next month to attempt to formally bring one of those illegally occupied regions into union with Putin’s Russia. The ceasefire agreed back in 2008 was undoubtedly tipped in favour of Putin and, in the weeks and months that followed, I am sorry to say, the west went back to a business-as-usual approach in its dealings with Moscow. We failed to implement tough enough sanctions or to punish such egregious behaviour. Indeed, the US led the way in “resetting” relations with the Kremlin, and continued to treat Russia as a wayward partner rather than a belligerent adversary.
We cannot continue to make these mistakes if we are to end this diabolical trend of interference and invasion. And, of course, let us not forget the human cost. We saw the persecution of ethnic Georgians in Russia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the indiscriminate killing of civilians and the deliberate targeting of urban centres, the waging of a concerted information war to skew and misrepresent the actions of the invaders, and the displacement of 200,000 people. Does any of that sound eerily familiar? It is exactly what we are seeing yet again, so the warning signs were there and it saddens me greatly that we ignored them. We cannot afford to do that again and again.
Rightly, since 2008, Tbilisi, under different Governments, has pushed strongly for closer links with the EU and NATO, to attain the diplomatic and military assurances that it would be protected should it face such threats again. Obviously, membership of either organisation is unlikely in the immediate future, despite the clear attitudes of the population, which have rightly been referenced, and the passion there for close alliance with us. We need to do all we can to facilitate that dialogue and direction.
Georgia has been forced into a very difficult position when it comes to the war in Ukraine, but, despite the expected tension between Kyiv and Tbilisi, I was encouraged to see Georgia’s support for the 2 March UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s illegal attack; support for Russia’s expulsion from the Council of Europe; and backing for the International Criminal Court probe into war crimes against the people of Ukraine. Those are encouraging signals, and we should absolutely recognise their significance. I certainly hope that Georgia can go further, but that requires us also to get involved and to proactively and consistently support all those who face these very difficult choices, particularly in the near neighbourhood of Putin’s Russia, and who need our support economically, diplomatically and in security terms.
I read the article by the hon. Member for Huntingdon that gave us a preview of his speech. It was a very interesting and important article. Fundamentally, if Georgia is to have the confidence to definitively support Ukraine’s resistance, and if the international community is to speak with one voice, clear assurances must come from countries such as the United Kingdom and others of support in multiple domains. If we want to ensure a network of liberty, democracy and peace, we have to invest in it urgently. With that, I have three questions, in conclusion, for the Minister. Can the Minister say what additional measures the UK is taking now to support Georgia diplomatically, economically and, crucially, in terms of security guarantees?
The focus has rightly been on Moldova in recent days, given the imminent threat that country faces. However, we know that the threat can be anywhere in the near neighbourhood of Russia at any time, as seen in Putin’s actions. What is our medium and long-term strategy for the likes of Georgia or, indeed, as mentioned, the western Balkans? What are we doing to reopen the Black sea fully? It cannot be right that Russia alone is able to dominate that crucial maritime domain.
We have heard about the impact on grain and trade, which affects Georgia and other countries bordering the Black sea. We have seen the despicable alleged theft of Ukrainian grain by the Russians in recent days, which has much wider consequences for the rest of the world, as rightly identified by the hon. Members for Huntingdon and for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown). What are we doing to block the sale of that illegally seized grain, get the Black sea back open for trade, and ensure that Ukraine and others, including Georgia, can access their trade routes? Finally, what are we doing to build on and enhance the historic friendships and bilateral trade between the UK and Georgia? We have heard so much about that positive relationship. It is clear, in all the relationships that many of us have enjoyed, that the appetite is there from the UK and Georgia, and it is needed more than ever in these difficult times.
The hon. Gentleman has not quite been saved by the bell. A point that was put to us several times throughout our visit was that one of the things that could facilitate greater trade between the United Kingdom and Georgia would be to establish a direct air link between the two countries. In intervening on the hon. Gentleman, may I press the Minister on what she can do to help in that respect?
The hon. Gentleman puts an important question. I hope the Minister can address that point, because we must have those links open—not only for trade, but for relationships based on culture and friendship that we know are there—to enable people to travel easily between the UK and Georgia. I hope the Minister has something to say about that.
Today we have covered two important countries and the implications of Russia’s actions towards both. The United Kingdom has to stand united and resolute with our allies and friends around the world, be that Ukraine or Georgia.
It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr Djanogly) on securing this important debate. We have some real experts on Georgia, and it is marvellous to see the ambassador with us in the Public Gallery. I also thank my hon. Friend for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia, and welcome the recent visit about which we have heard from several hon. Members.
The Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), would have liked to have taken part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions and the points raised.
The United Kingdom fully supports Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Diplomatic relations between our countries are the strongest they have been since they resumed 30 years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and others have mentioned, we enjoy excellent political, parliamentary, security and economic co-operation. Our landmark agreement on strategic partnership and co-operation was the first the UK concluded with an eastern European country after leaving the European Union. The agreement, which sets out our unwavering support for Georgia, and our joint commitment to peace and security, also provides the framework for deepening our economic and business ties. It is testament to the strong bonds between us.
We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has had such dire consequences for the Black sea region. Russian aggression against its neighbours is nothing new, but the scale, speed and brazenness of Putin’s assault on Ukraine has underlined the threat that countries such as Georgia continue to face. On the first day of the invasion, Russia took territory greater than the size of Georgia. It is of course true that heroic Ukrainian resistance has driven Russian forces back from Kyiv, but Ukrainian suffering under the Russian attack and occupation has been catastrophic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has therefore confirmed Georgia’s view that it will never be safe until it joins the EU and NATO, as Members have mentioned.
Of course, Georgia does not need to look at Ukraine to understand Russian aggression. For decades, Russia has tried to exert control over Georgia and the region by fuelling conflict and division. Following the 2008 war, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has faced relentless pressure and hybrid attacks from Russia. Today, roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory is under Russian control, with Russian troops just 30 minutes from Tbilisi. In parallel, Russia deploys trade restrictions and other forms of economic and political pressure to try to break the will of the people of Georgia. Despite all that, Georgia has bravely stood with the people of Ukraine in their hour of need.
As the Minister for Europe highlighted during his call with the Georgian Foreign Minister on 28 February, the UK remains a steadfast supporter of Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The UK will also continue to use our influential role in the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like the overwhelming majority of the international community, the UK does not recognise those breakaway regions.
As colleagues have asked questions in relation to the breakaway territories, it is worth clarifying that the UK does not refer to them as “occupied” due to the wide-ranging implications that would have for UK policy. Any acknowledgment of occupation would provide additional powers, in law, to the Russian Federation. The UK’s position is consistent with the position of the UN, OSCE and EU as conflict mediators, with NATO institutionally, and with most international partners.
Russia’s support for the breakaway regions’ so-called independence demonstrates contempt for the very foundations of international relations—sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right of nations to decide their own future, free from aggression and fear of invasion. We condemn the recent announcement by the de facto authorities in South Ossetia of their intent to carry out an illegal referendum on membership of the Russian Federation. We also consistently call on the Russian Federation to fulfil its clear obligations under the EU-mediated ceasefire agreement of 2008. It must withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions and meet its other commitments to dialogue under the ceasefire agreement.
Despite Russia’s constant threats and interference, the Georgian people have bravely chosen the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, with more than 70% of the population in favour. The UK remains steadfast in our support for Georgia’s aspirations, including its recent EU membership application. EU membership is a sovereign choice for Georgia and EU member states. This Government support that choice and strongly believe that no third country should have a veto over Georgia’s decision. We also believe that further integration with the EU and NATO will deliver greater prosperity and security for Georgia and for Europe.
The UK will continue to support Georgia in its implementation of the EU association agreement and its NATO commitments. We are leading calls in NATO to step up practical and political support to Georgia as a matter of urgency. We continue to encourage all allies to deliver on commitments made under the substantial NATO-Georgia package, including assisting Georgia in the implementation of reforms and enhancing resilience, accountability and transparency. During the April NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, the Foreign Secretary agreed a package of additional support to Georgia, boosting work to build resilience and defence capacity. We will continue to develop this with the Georgian Government ahead of the Madrid NATO leaders summit in June.
Colleagues mentioned security. We are supporting Georgia in cyber-space and at sea. On cyber, along with international partners, we are supporting Georgia’s cyber-security strategy and wider work in this realm. In these times of hybrid warfare, Georgia must have the strongest possible defences. When it comes to security in the Black sea, the UK routinely provided a maritime presence before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. That includes, as colleagues have mentioned, HMS Defender’s visits last June to Odesa in Ukraine and Batumi in Georgia. We are keen to re-establish that presence and to expand co-ordination among international allies.
We are encouraging Georgia to accelerate democratic reforms and overcome polarisation in the political arena, as that is crucial to achieving its ambition of greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Genuine, far-reaching reforms will anchor Georgia’s democracy against those who would seek to undermine it.
Let me conclude by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering support for Georgia. Drawing on our strong and enduring relationship, and with our international partners, we will continue to help Georgia boost its security, strengthen its democratic institutions and achieve its Euro-Atlantic goals.
This is a good and appropriate debate to have had at the current time. Let me first thank the Back-Bench contributions of my fellow delegation members: the hon. Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) for bringing in the local community aspect, which is important and something we should be building on; my hon. Friend the Member for The Cotswolds (Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown) for his astute observations from his visit and his assessment of the political situation; and my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), who discussed the historical context, which is always appropriate in that part of the world.
It would be fair to say that there was a clear degree of cohesiveness and unanimity from the Front Benches of the Government, Labour and the SNP, and that has been consistently shown in this place, within the main Chamber and outside it. Given the precarious nature of the part of the world we have been discussing, it has been good for MPs and the Government to state their various positions, and it was probably time that we did that.
Rightly, there is overwhelming support in this place for Ukraine and its people. The message today is that issues arising out of the Russia-Ukraine war—supporting democratic values, Black sea security, addressing Russian intransigence, addressing the need to secure grain supplies, and many others mentioned by hon. Members—are important for many countries beyond Ukraine. Britain’s strategic interests require us to stand back and look at the wider picture coming out of the Russia-Ukraine war, and Georgia should and must form part of that picture.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Georgia and the war in Ukraine.