It is good to be back after the summer recess, and it is good to see you in your place, Mr Speaker.
I want to update Members about progress in Ukraine and UK support to date since the House rose for the recess. On 29 August, Ukraine embarked on a counter-offensive in the south of the country, around the city of Kherson on the west bank of the Dnipro river. As part of the shaping fires, Ukraine has inflicted serious damage on a range of river crossings with the aim of restricting Russian logistical support. That has had considerable success. I can report to the House that the Ukrainian forces have made real progress, assaulting on three axes, and especially on the advance to the south of the city of Kryvyi Rih. The grinding fight in the Donbas continues, but with Russia making few substantive gains in the east over the past two months. Since June, Ukraine has struck more than 350 Russian command posts, ammo dumps, supply depots, and other high-value targets far back from the frontline. Many of those have been with longer-range weaponry supplied by international partners, including the United Kingdom.
As of today, the Ukrainian army is engaging with Russian forces using both artillery and brigade-level operations. It is making real gains, but understandably, as we have seen elsewhere in this conflict, the fighting is close and hard, and Ukraine is suffering losses associated with an attacking force. My thoughts, and the Government’s thoughts, are obviously with the men and women of the brave Ukrainian forces who are fighting to uphold our values as well as theirs, and to defend their land. However, Russia continues to lose significant equipment and personnel. It is estimated that to date more than 25,000 Russian soldiers have lost their lives, and that, in all, more than 80,000 have been killed, have been casualties, have been captured, or constitute the reported tens of thousands of deserters. This will have a long-lasting impact on Russia’s army and its future combat effectiveness. Russia has yet to achieve any of its strategic objectives, and we are now on day 194 of what was expected to be a month-long campaign.
I know that Members will be worried by reports about the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, which is the biggest nuclear power station in Europe. On Friday 1 September, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Authority visited the plant accompanied by Russian media. No other international media were allowed to attend. Under the IAEA, an inspection was carried out, and the agency has left a team behind. It has already drawn attention to the violation of the plant’s “physical integrity”, and the United Nations remains gravely concerned about the dangerous situation in and around the plant. We will continue to monitor it, and ensure that we engage with Ukrainian partners to ensure that no one’s safety is put at risk.
Earlier in the month, Turkey, Russia and the United Nations came to an agreement on grain exports from Ukraine; the so called “Black sea initiative” was put in place. This has now seen over 2 million tonnes of grain exported, with another 100 ships waiting to embark with grain from Ukraine’s ports. I want to place on record the Government’s thanks to both the United Nations and the Turkish authorities for facilitating this—it was no mean feat. We have offered the Turkish military any support they require; to date, the Turkish Government have not requested any support, but we stand ready to do that. The United Kingdom continues to gift military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces to help resist the illegal invasion. Since the end of July, when this House rose, we have gifted a further three M270 guided multiple-launch rocket system platforms, and accompanying missiles. We are now working on an additional package of support. The total funding committed to this support is £2.3 billion.
In June, I recognised that training is as important as military hardware, which is why we embarked on establishing a network of training camps in the UK to train 10,000 Ukrainians. That was accompanied by specialist armed training across a number of countries in Europe. So far, we have trained 4,700, and I am delighted that over the summer we were joined by forces from Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Lithuania, Canada, Holland and New Zealand; they are all now in place alongside British military personnel delivering that training. The training cycle is now in its third iteration and, after lessons learned, we have now extended it to a five-week syllabus. We are already seeing this make a difference to the combat effectiveness of Ukraine, and we are evolving the course and feedback to make sure that the experiences do exactly what the Ukrainians need.
Support for Ukraine goes beyond the here and now. Being able to plan for the medium and long term requires international funding. So at the beginning of August, at the invitation of our Danish friends in the Danish Government, I co-chaired with them a conference in Copenhagen. So far, we have amassed pledges of up to €420 million of support, including through an international fund for Ukraine. We are working through the governance of the fund with our international partners and we hope to add to it when I present more details this week to the Ukraine defence contact group convened by the United States in Germany on Thursday. The fund will be used hopefully to support a range of measures, including ammunition production, to ensure that there is a sustainable supply over the long term in Ukraine.
I would like to place on record my appreciation of the Prime Minister’s enduring support for Ukraine throughout the process, without which a lot would not have been possible. I am grateful, too, for all the support of all the parties in this House for the action we have taken. That allows us to lead on the world stage with determination and a focus on all the things that are right about Ukraine’s defence from an illegal invasion and on the fact that we share such common values of freedom, and respect for sovereignty and the international rule of law. I hope all of us in this House do so—I know from experience that we do so. This Government’s commitment to Ukraine remains unwavering and enduring, and I commend this statement to the House.
I welcome this statement on day one after the recess and on day 194 of Russia’s brutal illegal invasion of Ukraine. I thank the Defence Secretary for the regular briefings he has given during this period to those in all parts of the House and on all sides. On behalf of Members on all sides, may I say that we trust that he will remain in his post in the new Truss Cabinet?
I say on behalf of my party that we now stand ready to work with the new Prime Minister to maintain the UK’s united support for Ukraine and united determination to stand up against Russian aggression. President Putin expected Ukraine to fall within six days. Six months on, the massively brave Ukrainian resistance, military and civilian alike, is stronger now than it was in February, and all the Government’s moves to provide military, economic, diplomatic and humanitarian help to Ukraine will continue to have Labour’s fullest backing.
We strongly support the UK’s training programme for new Ukrainian army recruits, which the Labour leader and I saw for ourselves on Salisbury plain. I am humbled by the fact that those brave new recruits whom we met last month are now on the frontline, fighting in Donbas. I thank the Defence Secretary and Brigadier Justin Stenhouse for organising our visit. Will this training under Operation Interflex be extended beyond the initial commitment of 10,000 troops and beyond the basic soldiering skills currently covered?
We also welcome the extra long-range missiles and unmanned air systems announced over the summer. What is the strategy behind our military assistance? Is it designed to help Ukrainians hold current ground or take back more territory from Russian forces? What action has been taken to replenish our domestic stockpiles? How many new contracts have been signed? Has the production of replacement NLAWs—next generation anti-tank and anti-armour weapons—now finally started?
The war is entering a critical new stage, with Russia unable to deploy the overwhelming force needed for a decisive breakthrough and Ukraine well on the way to sapping the will of the Russian army to fight, hitting ammunition dumps, command posts and airfields deep into Russian-held territory. With the Russian military leadership under increasing military pressure, does the Defence Secretary agree that we are approaching another turning point, where Putin is likely to step up efforts to persuade the west to lean on Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire and negotiations? What are the Government doing to counter such activities?
What are the Government doing to explain to the public that the energy crisis and supply disruptions are not a result of Russia’s war, but an essential part of Russia’s war? Russia is fighting on the economic battlefield, not just the military battlefield. What action will the new Prime Minister take to help the country with escalating energy costs, rapidly rising food costs and the highest rate of inflation in this country for 40 years?
On the subject of the new Prime Minister, before the Tory leadership campaign, the Defence Secretary and Defence Ministers said that the invasion of Ukraine proved the integrated review right. They said:
“if more money were made available, there are other things that we would do more immediately than regrow the size of the Army.”—[Official Report, 18 July 2022; Vol. 718, c. 688.]
Then, towards the end of the leadership campaign, the Defence Secretary wrote of the new Prime Minister:
“I welcome her plans to update the integrated review, reconsider the shape of our forces, and increase defence spending.”
I welcome his conversion to the arguments that Labour has been making for well over a year, but what does he believe now needs updating in the integrated review? Will he halt his plans for Army cuts? Will the £1.7 billion cut in day-to-day MOD spending now be replaced?
Finally, very few people believed Ukraine would still be fighting Russia’s invasion six months on. We now know that Russia’s aggression will go on a lot longer. Will the Government set aside individual announcements and instead set out a grand strategy of long-term military, economic and diplomatic support, so that we can help ensure Putin’s invasion really does end in failure?
I am grateful for the support of the right hon. Gentleman and his party on Ukraine. I apologise to him that he did not get my statement earlier. I changed it at the last minute—I was taking a bit of time as I wanted to give the House as many facts as we could and declassify some material.
It is my ambition that Operation Interflex—the training of Ukrainian forces in the UK with the international community—goes on as long as necessary, for now. We set a target of 10,000 troops, but through this pipeline I envisage that we will continue to train as many as are sent by Ukraine, to ensure that we are providing forces for them during the offences they are engaged in. Last Thursday, I again visited Yorkshire and met some troops who had come back. I met one man who had been injured by shrapnel and another man who, not long after leaving, had used a British NLAW to destroy a Russian tank. The scheme has a double benefit: we are learning as we go and improving the curriculum to ensure they get the very best training—they already want to learn more about some things and less about others—and our own troops are learning on the latest battlefield what our enemy does and how we deal with it. That is incredibly important, and we will continue to supply and support them as long as possible. When they arrived for the first curriculum I went to visit them, and some of those guys were getting off the plane in their tracksuits, training in uniforms and then having to hand them all back. They now leave here with 50 pieces of uniform—equipped, ready to go, with much better battle training and so on—to go into the next phase of their training in Ukraine. We will continue to supply that.
How many are trained, again, is in the hands of the Ukrainians, but we already know that they will want more specialist training. That is where I often convene our international partners, because they might want to do that closer to Ukraine than in Yorkshire or wherever we are delivering it. Those are the two phases, but the training is still going strong. I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman came to visit, and I am happy to facilitate the leaders of the other parties or their Defence spokespersons to come and visit it as it progresses. I notice we have all the Vikings—the Danes, the Swedes and the Finns—all in the same camp, so come October time they will be able to teach us about working in the cold. That is very good.
Our strategy is to give the Ukrainians the absolute best chance either to negotiate, when they wish to, from a position of strength or to defeat Russia in their own country—to hold their position, to push back the Russians and, if necessary, to defeat Russia within Ukraine, to ensure that Russia comes to its senses and withdraws from its military and illegal action there.
We signed off last week on more replenishment of the high-velocity anti-air missiles, which are made in the same factories as the Thales NLAWs, to ensure that they are replaced. Right across the western industries there is a challenge with replenishment. Many of the supply chains have been dormant, and I think the right hon. Gentleman will know—as I think either he or the Leader of the Opposition made a visit to Belfast—that it is not as simple as switching on a tap. I have been very clear that we will place the orders, but we need to encourage the arms industry to invest as well.
It is not just for us to effectively pay for manufacturers to double their production lines; those lines will be full of customers, and we would like to ensure we get the balance right. Nevertheless, I will not sacrifice our readiness and our stocks to do that. The industry has letters of comfort from the accounting officer in the Department to say, “We will be placing orders, and you should start to proceed.” I met the head of BAE recently, who said it is already starting to expand its production, so that is on track.
The right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne is absolutely right about the energy crisis. It did not come out of nowhere; some of it was about peak demand post covid, but President Putin is weaponising energy. He has weaponised a lot of other stuff over the years: he has weaponised cyber, political division in our countries, misinformation and corruption, and energy is just another plank in his arsenal. It is important that we communicate to our constituents that some of the deeply uncomfortable times that we all face are driven by a totalitarian regime in Russia that is deliberately setting out to harm us and trying to test whether we will sacrifice our values for our energy costs. That is very important.
For what it is worth, President Putin is sowing the seeds of the end of energy dependency, not only for Russia but around the world. We must all work on putting investments into renewables, which many Governments have talked about—I have been in this House under both Labour and Conservative Governments—but diversity of supply is also important. In the long term, Putin has put Russia in a weaker position. Switching off the pipeline instantly will just persuade Germany even more that it has to invest in something else, and I think that is a good thing.
I am delighted to join the right hon. Gentleman on a commitment to more defence spending; I wonder whether he will join us in our commitment to 3% of GDP on defence spending by 2030. I have always been very clear that as the threat changes, we should change what we do and how we invest. The Armed Forces Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey), has made the point that it is not as simple as taking whatever extra money we get and doubling or increasing our troops; the lesson of Ukraine, as I have often said, is that history shows that when people spend lots of money on lots of new platforms and on certain numbers, they can hollow them out and not actually produce medium, small or large perfectly formed units.
If we have more money, I can assure the House that we will ensure that our soldiers and sailors are less vulnerable than they are today, that they have the 360° protection they need and that we invest in the enablers to make sure that the frontline is properly supported. All the vulnerabilities that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has shown—across the western armies, not just in the United Kingdom—will be fixed. At the same time, we will make sure that we fix the forces we have with better maintenance, better spares and everything else, so we can be more available and readier.
It is always tempting at these times for people to come out with ideas that are like going back to the steam train. Some people still want to go back to the steam train. There is always a tendency to want to suddenly mass up, but if we mass up without the appropriate funding, we will be in a mess in 10 years’ time. I do not want to repeat that.
Although the commitment to 3% of GDP on defence is welcome, 2030 is further away in time than the entire duration of the second world war. It would be nice to see that commitment, which the Select Committee on Defence originally called for about six years ago, implemented a little sooner than the new Prime Minister plans. Can the Defence Secretary confirm that the extra expenditure on replenishing the arms supplies that we are giving to Ukraine is being met with extra funds from the Treasury reserve? What steps are we taking to ensure that the Russian people get the same message about the failure of Putin’s campaign that the rest of the world can clearly see?
On the latter point, in one sense it is sad, because it is people’s lives, but in Russia they cannot ignore the long and continued train of bodies to their loved ones and families. It was not missed by Soviets in the Afghan conflict. The terms “boys in zinc” and “load 200”, which are now in the Russian vocabulary, refer to the planes that brought back the dead bodies: zinc was what they used to wrap them. That is clearly before people in Russia. It is not helped by the misleading, dishonest and manipulative state information that tries to say that these people died fighting Nazis. The only people who are displaying a fascist tendency in Ukraine are the Russian regime; it is not in any way being extolled by the Ukrainians defending their soil. But we obviously do our best.
On the increase to defence funding, some of that £2.3 billion is replacing gifted equipment from our own stocks; that is already being done. We were able to release the GMLRS M270 because we received some others from another country, which we are refurbishing. We will continue to keep pace and make sure that we do not sacrifice too many of our own stocks. At some stages, there are also opportunities when our stocks come out of life or approach their sell-by date and are perfect for gifting, because they will be used. We have already planned to replace them. Some of the NLAW orders are actually quite old, because we knew anyhow that they were coming out of date; they were a 2003 weapon, so we had already started that process. I think it is NLAWs, but I can happily write to my right hon. Friend about the exact weapon system.
I thank the Secretary of State for the update that he has given the House. Like many, we have been watching over the summer period as Ukrainian forces take back their territory. In one sense, although we would rather none of this were happening, it is heartening to see that weapons being supplied by this country are being used so successfully on the battlefield. Let us be clear about what that represents and what arming Ukraine’s armed forces represents: it is, by definition, an act against fascism and war to support those who are the victims of a campaign of genocide.
It is also heartening to hear of the training by UK armed forces and partnered armed forces that is taking place. I think my office is in the process of organising an opportunity for me and the leader of the SNP here, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), to witness it at first hand.
One thing that definitely worries me—we are starting to see it happen across Europe—is that the unity that we have all maintained over the past six months or so is starting to crack as winter arrives. We saw that in the massive demonstrations at the weekend in Prague and, I think I am right in saying, in Cologne. That is something that we must—absolutely must—stand against.
The single best way to end this war is for the Kremlin to recall every single Russian troop on Ukrainian soil. All the calls to end the sanctions now, as though that would somehow help to end the conflict in Ukraine, are a falsehood, but that takes us to another important aspect of the war, which is the information war. As winter bites, as bills go up, as the effects of the conflict start to appear in people’s bank accounts, and as an obvious information war from Russia takes place in that respect, can the Secretary of State assure the House, or outline to the House—this is similar to what the shadow Secretary of State asked—how he will ensure that we are fully equipped to withstand that information war? Standing with Ukrainians is the right thing to do, and that is something we need to communicate well.
On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, to not stand would be infinitely worse in a decade’s time. If we do not stand together and deal with them now, these threats will not go away on their own. To the people in Prague or Cologne, I say that if someone gives in to the drug dealer or the guy that gets them hooked on heroin, he will be back for more in a good few years. We should not forget that, sadly, this is an opportunity to diversify our supply, and that will be better for everyone in the long run as well.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman will come and visit; if he has any problems, he should let me know. It was 3 Scots doing the training. I saw a lot of bemused Ukrainians, because the battle order that the 3 Scots wear in the field is a kilt. I saw them being piped through the battle runs. It was curious: I could tell that some had developed a love of the pipes, but that others had not. I will give them some more battle inoculation; that will be much better. It is incredibly important.
Again, there is a danger of the media narrative that people are losing interest crowding out the action. Chancellor Scholz recently announced another €500 million. President Macron said that we pay “the price of freedom”. At the conference in Denmark that the Danish organised, there was no shortage of international attendees. In total, we pledged €420 million and I am hoping for more; the Dutch, the Danish, the Swedes and the Norwegians have all pledged money. Our actions are the opposite of the narrative of “Isn’t everyone bored?”—I do not think they are; I think the international community is strong.
Of course, people in Members’ constituencies will feel it and respond, but again, I ask everyone in the House to make it clear to their constituents that part of the extreme gas prices that we are facing is a direct result of President Putin.
First, I thank my right hon. Friend for mentioning Turkey’s role in getting the grain out. Indeed, Turkey remains a valued and vital ally in the NATO alliance. I am sure that he, like the rest of the House, will have been horrified at the footage that emerged over the summer of the mutilation of prisoners of war through having their genitalia removed by scalpels, which was filmed and put out there. Those war crimes must be prosecuted. I ask him to reiterate the support that the United Kingdom is giving to the investigations into those terrible war crimes.
On the investigations, as Defence Secretary, I am not entirely on top of that relationship, but I know that the Attorney General visited Ukraine a few months ago and worked closely with the international prosecutor. We are assisting countries such as Canada in gathering evidence to submit to the International Criminal Court. Like my right hon. Friend, I was appalled by the crimes that we have witnessed. We saw the castration and heads on spikes. The reported number of people killed in Mariupol is in the tens and tens of thousands—it is unverified, but I saw 87,000 in an open media source yesterday. People should not forget the scale of the war we are witnessing. I never thought in my generation we would see such actions from Russia—directed from the top—on the edges of Europe. The tragedy is of history repeating itself.
I pay tribute to Lord Harrington, who has resigned today. He been an excellent member of our Government, who managed to smooth the way when it came to refugees and settlement. I am informed that the Ukrainian refugee scheme has been the largest resettlement scheme since the war, with 120,000 Ukrainians having settled here. I will do all I can to ensure that scheme is extended to keep people in this country. The fact that so many people have come here is a symptom of what is going on in their country, and we are determined to ensure that brutality does not win the day.
That was going to be my exact question: on the next step of the scheme. None of us wishes to see Homes for Ukraine become homeless Ukrainians on our streets. Perhaps some other Departments are not as enthusiastic as the Defence Secretary and need to be rallied to provide a follow-on scheme—particularly given the meltdown in the private rented sector and the lack of a deposit scheme for the second phase—so that we can play our part in helping the 9 million refugees created by this vile conflict.
Although the scheme has some imperfections, as it was done in a rush, I think it is absolutely brilliant. I will be urging its extension and I know that the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), is keen for that too. I cannot speak for the here and now, but I will do what I can to extend the scheme. It has worked. It does work. Many of us will have met Ukrainians in our own communities. It is good to welcome them and do anything further that we can.
May I first echo the comment of the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), about how fitting it is that this should be the first statement the Government make on our return to Parliament?
So many Members on the Government Benches hope for the Secretary of State’s continuity in his role in the new Administration, so that we can press our efforts as effectively as possible. May I just press him on something he admitted to about dormant supply chains? Our conventional armed forces are an important part of our deterrent posture, but dormant supply chains are no deterrence at all. What lessons are being learned about the future—not just for this conflict—about how to give real credibility to our deterrent capability through our conventional forces with active supply chains that can sustain a long period of warfare if necessary?
My hon. Friend makes a point about one of the consequences of a hollowed-out armed forces. Those who save money in the areas no one notices—such as hollowing out ammunition stocks—because they are always spending on something nice, shiny and brand new, pay for it. Industry will not just keep supply chains open for nothing. One lesson is to ensure that whatever we put in the field and whatever military we commit to, we equip it properly, support it properly with the right logistics and ammunition, and create the relationship with industry so that it knows when we are going to top up or keep it at the right level.
It is also incredibly important to ensure that we invest in the skills base, which in some parts of the country is well invested in by the Government and the primes. Last week, I went to Barrow-in-Furness to see 1,000 young people starting in the submarine and shipbuilding skills academy to learn the skills needed to equip our armed forces and engineering capacity into the future.
I get very angry when I hear people such as Mick Lynch of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers suggest that it was the EU that effectively led to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, and that there were lots of people who were fascist and Nazi in Ukraine. That infuriates me, so I am glad to hear what the Secretary of State has said today. It also infuriates me when I hear people suggest that this has only been going on for six months; it has been going on since 2014, and we in the west did not take it seriously enough. The most shocking statistic of all is that 10 people who have now been sanctioned by the UK were given tier 1 visas to live and work in this country. When are the Government going to honour their pledge to publish their review of the tier 1 visa scheme?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Actually, to be honest, the writing was on the wall for many of us in 2008. I remember his experience as a member of the all-party group. On our watch—all of ours—Russia has turned from a country that we had hopes for into, effectively, an authoritarian, intolerant state that is oppressing its own people. Let us not forget that accompanying this Ukraine invasion is a mass oppression of its own people. People who disagree with Russia, or even criticise it, go to jail. We should all put our hands up to say that none of us did enough back in 2008 onwards. [Interruption.] I am not the Home Secretary, but I would be delighted to see that published—[Interruption.] I think I will go back to the Back Benches. Look, when I was security Minister, I had deep concerns about all of those things. We did some work on tightening up the first time round, but there is always more to do.
I welcome the news that we have trained nearly 5,000 Ukrainians through Operation Interflex. What assessment has my right hon. Friend had from Ukraine about the effectiveness and usefulness of the training? May I also ask him about the capacity of training: are we training the numbers that Ukraine wants us to train and is he seeking further partner nations if this capacity could be expanded?
There are two parts to the training. First, can Ukraine release enough training population? It obviously needs people for it to carry out the fight—we can only train what we get. We are always pressing to do more, and we have plenty of capacity to do more. If Members have a training camp near them, or in their constituency, I urge them to go and see it. The dedication from Ukrainians of all ages, including the hours they put in, is phenomenal. I met a man in his 60s who had joined up and was being put through it. We have a lot more capacity. It is also great that our international partners have joined us, because that means they can take a share as well.
I know the Secretary of State will have had a good reason for mentioning 3 Scots, but I hope that he recognises the contribution of the Irish Guards in the training. Over the summer, I was talking to a friend who was very proud of the role that the Irish Guards were playing.
I thought that Olena Zelenska made a very powerful contribution yesterday. There are concerns about boredom, lethargy and support right across the western world as this conflict drags on. Her juxtaposition between counting the pennies as opposed to counting the pennies and counting the casualties powerfully spoke to many of us who want to ensure that our support is enduring and lasts as long as it needs to last. I ask the Secretary of State to bear in mind that there are supporters right across this Chamber who want to ensure that the public do not lose interest and continue to recognise the goal that we all seek.
Yes. I understand—and the hon. Gentleman, from the part of the world in which he lives, will also understand—the cost of standing up for freedom, the rule of law and doing the right thing. They do not come easily and at no cost. To be fair, I think the British public know that. Apart from one or two emails in my inbox, I have not found many people who have remotely swayed from the opinion that we are doing the right thing in Ukraine. That applies to all parties. In my constituency, it does not matter whether they are voters from my party or not—[Interruption.] I notice that I have just had a missed call from the Foreign Secretary, so I hope that I am not being sent to be the Home Secretary after that—I hope she was not ringing me about that. We still have a united population, which is a good thing.
I commend the continued leadership that the Secretary of State and his team have shown over the past few months. It is particularly important to help stiffen the resolve of our European partners because we are in this for the long haul. On that basis, there has been speculation by recently retired generals that, given that this could drag on and that Putin sees little prospect of winning, he may resort to using battlefield nuclear weapons. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of that possibility and what does he think the response of NATO would and should be?
We do not hide from the fact that Russian military doctrine involves the use of tactical nuclear weapons under certain conditions—that is public knowledge. The conditions are not remotely met for that, but we have nevertheless seen President Putin evoke nuclear weapons in public more than 35 times, I think, in the last six months. Of course we are mindful of that and, as I have said all along, it is incredibly important that we calibrate everything we do in the west to make sure that this is about Russia in Ukraine and saying that Russia must fail in Ukraine. It is not a threat to the Russian state. The west and NATO are not organising against the Russian state; the international community is organising to help Ukraine defend itself. That message is loud and clear. The consequence of the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be global condemnation of Russia by all countries, including countries such as China, and I think President Putin is well aware of that.
The jury is not out. Our friends are our European allies, and our foe is Putin’s regime and the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Maintaining western unity is really crucial, but each western country is facing the same economic problems of rising inflation and rising energy costs. What is the Secretary of State’s strategy for maintaining that unity in the many years ahead?
All of us have come together more times in the last six months than we probably have in the last four years, and I have said that I am off to the US airbase at Ramstein on Thursday to meet some 40 nations that it has convened on many occasions. What I would say is that the political body of Europe is pretty solid. Yes, there are a few stragglers, but fundamentally it is strong.
The hon. Lady mentions rising inflation, which is considerably driven by rising energy costs. The rising energy costs are the result of President Putin using energy as a weapon. The reality for us on both sides of the House is that we can take some measures to take the edge off the energy prices for our constituents, but the global price is driven partly by a man in the Kremlin who is determined to use it to try to punish us. The British, just like the French and the Germans, are tough enough to make sure we will not be bullied by that. What we have to do is work together to either mitigate it or find alternative fuel sources to try to reduce prices. In the meantime, we have the political challenge from the Opposition on how we will help our constituents.
I heard the Secretary of State’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) on nuclear weapons, but is he aware that President Lukashenko recently announced that he has completely refitted the Belarus air force to be able to carry nuclear weapons? What effect does the Secretary of State think that will have on the Ukraine war?
Yes, I saw those statements by the President of Belarus. He has been remarkably canny in not entering his own forces into the war, although we have often seen Russian munitions launched from the territory of Belarus. I think it is inevitable that he will try to escalate that by saying that the Russians could give nuclear weapons to Belarus and that his planes could carry them, but that is why NATO has a nuclear deterrent and why Britain provides that nuclear deterrent. Somewhere out there in the Atlantic is one of our patrol boats, which never stop patrolling, to make sure that the nuclear deterrent is capable and ready. As much as that is not what some people wish, I am pleased that we have it now.
During my time as my party’s defence spokesman, the Secretary of State and his ministerial team have treated all my questions and inquiries with great courtesy. I thank them for that, and I wish them all the best for the future. Equally, last week, I and my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) had an excellent briefing from the MOD as the handover between him and me takes place. Will the Secretary of State pass on our thanks to his officials as well?
Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Hitler’s Wehrmacht fell foul of the Russian winter, and the rest is history. Will the Secretary of State explain what we are doing to help our friends in Ukraine to train for a brutal and severe Russian winter? It can have a massive impact on tactics and strategy unless we are prepared for it.
The first thing to say is that the Ukrainians are as tough, if not tougher. A Ukrainian winter and a Russian winter are pretty similar, and their history shows that they are pretty good at dealing with them. We are in constant discussions with our Ukrainian counterparts and have already made provision for winter warfare clothes, and we will ensure not only that they are supported with that, but that it brings an advantage.
Will the Black sea initiative, which the Secretary of State spoke about, allow materials such as ammonia to come out of Ukraine? I gather from reporting that the initiative will only be in place for 120 days if all parties agree. Is there a contingency plan for ensuring that in the depths of winter there is a secure food supply?
I will have to write to my hon. Friend on what individual cargoes are available, but he is right that there is currently a time limit on the initiative. That is why working with our Turkish friends is so important to try to keep that going. It is also why it is important that, with 100 ships waiting, we make sure we get that grain out as quickly as we can.
Is the Secretary of State aware that some of us on the Opposition side of the House were a bit worried that he might have become leader of the Conservative party? I congratulate him on his determination to remain Secretary of State for Defence, and he will certainly have the support of many of us for the way he has handled that job in recent months. First, I wish to press him on the role of the BBC World Service in getting good news out around the world. It is a vital component and should be encouraged. Secondly, is the Royal Navy playing a full part? He mentioned it in passing, but we recently had the embarrassment of one of our new aircraft carriers breaking down, so is everything all right with the Royal Navy and is it able to play its part?
In the next few days HMS Queen Elizabeth, the other carrier, will depart to fulfil the duties of HMS Prince of Wales, which shows one of the benefits of having a second carrier. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments; I do not know what to say in response, but that job was not for me. Some people are braver than I am when it comes to that type of job, and I am lucky in this House in that I feel fulfilled, and there are not many people in politics who get to make a difference. As far as I go, I am delighted—but who knows; I might be off to the Home Office. We will carry on, working across the House, to make sure that we look after not only our troops and our people, but the people of Ukraine.
I commend the Defence Secretary for his outstanding response to Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine; he has set an example that every other western Defence Minister should follow. The Royal Navy’s naval mine counter-measures capability is world class, completely outstanding and second to none. Have we been able to share any of that expertise with the Ukrainian navy to help guarantee the exports of grain shipments from Ukraine across the Black sea?
My hon. Friend is right to observe the unique, often global, expertise of our mine-clearing capabilities. We have Ukrainians being trained in that right now in Portsmouth, and at the same time we are working with other Black sea nations in the same space. Obviously, with the Montreux treaty being invoked by Turkey, we cannot put military ships into the Black sea, but we are teaching and supporting Ukraine and our other colleagues in the Black sea.
There has always been strong cross-party support for our military assistance in Ukraine, and I am sure that will continue. Like the shadow Secretary of State, I clocked the commitment that the incoming Prime Minister made on 24 July to update the integrated review in response to Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Will the Secretary of State say a bit more about what preparations are being made to do that and, critically, whether in the interim there will be no cuts to capability, including personnel?
The size of the Army currently stands at about 79,000. There has not yet been a reduction from the 82,000 as such. In fact, I think it is higher than when I first started as Defence Secretary, so my record is in the wrong direction at the moment. We will obviously look at the issues around vulnerabilities. The integrated review identified Russia as our most pressing adversary, and I do not think that anybody is going to need to change that observation. If we receive more funding—I think the first preparation for battle will be with the Treasury, to make sure that we get the profile that makes the difference—I will of course be delighted to have a much wider conversation with all Members of the House about where they envisage us spending that money in order to make our armed forces the very best they can be. We have a role to play not just in Ukraine and Europe, but globally. That is one of our differences and I would be delighted to explore more with hon. Members.
History can be a double-edged teacher. We know that the Soviet Union lost out in Afghanistan because public opinion among the people of the Soviet Union turned so firmly against it. Are we able to do more to make sure that real information is getting through to the Russian population, particularly older people who are dependent on state-controlled media, about what exactly is happening to their sons in Ukraine?
There are two parts to that. Obviously, we do our best to make sure that the people of Russia understand what is going on, and I would be delighted to arrange a briefing for the hon. Gentleman, if he would like one. On the wider issue, we should not forget that, although this is not getting out of Russia, the Russian people are feeling it themselves. It is not possible to ignore the cemeteries, with lines and lines of graves, the exodus of international companies, or the fact that the standard of living is starting to drop in some parts. The problem is that, in a country whose Government do not really listen to, or care much about, their own people, I am not sure that has a major effect on the decision makers, but we need to never stop telling the Russian people what is actually going on.
Following the International Atomic Energy Agency visit to the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant, Mr Rafael Grossi, the agency’s head, spoke out very strongly about the risks to the integrity and safety of the plant from the fighting that is taking place around it. We understand that the report will be out in a week or so, but what is the Government’s plan—indeed, what is the international community’s plan—to take forward the report’s recommendations? Does the Secretary of State think that the Russians understand the risks that are being taken with the safety of the plant through what has been going on, or does he feel that they do not care?
This is a personal view. Do I think Russia cares? Not really. I do not think it cares about anything that it is seeking to capture. It has destroyed Mariupol and killed and brutalised everyone who seems to get in its path. One of the anxieties of the Baltic states is that, historically, the defence plans were to hold an invading Russia and to try to get there in a number of weeks and push them back, but the Estonians and the Latvians will say, “We don’t have a couple of weeks, because look at what they do.” It is no accident that we saw, on the Chernobyl site, Russia deliberately using its forces to frighten, to demand attention and to potentially use it as a hostage.
I am pleased, to be fair, that they let the UN inspectors turn up. I am pleased that they were allowed to leave people behind. Of course, as I said in my statement, the fact that no international media were allowed to accompany them is obviously a worry, and that relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) about the BBC World Service, which is one of our best soft power tools globally. It is highly respected. I am of an age to remember the late President Gorbachev—who, we should not forget, was a significant force for change in Russia in his time—saying that he listened to the BBC World Service during the short coup when he was captured and it was the only place he got news from. In these days of social media, the BBC World Service can be a rock in a storm.
One of the major flanks drawing the international community into one place—there has been a focus on countries such as India—is the need to stop dependence on Russian energy, yet the energy crisis makes that ever more difficult. Will the Secretary of State say more about how he is holding the global community together to oppose Russia’s ongoing assaults, particularly its weaponisation of energy in this conflict?
I know that the hon. Lady is keen on environmental issues. Some of this starts at home, because we can all ensure in our countries that we do not just talk, but get on and invest both in renewables and, I would say, in more nuclear and alternative energy supplies. The United Nations General Assembly is coming up soon, and I noted that some of the G7 communiqués referred to capping Russian oil prices to send a strong message. We must ensure that all these international forums, which are now coming even more to the fore, are used to remind Russia that its actions are completely unacceptable. I urge India to be more strident in that space.
The Secretary of State will be aware that the head of the British Army said recently that the Army must be prepared, working with our allies, to successfully confront the Russian army. In that context, will the Secretary of State at least commit to examining whether it is appropriate for the Government to cut our Army by 10,000?
Obviously, it is for Her Majesty the Queen to appoint the next Prime Minister, but the new leader of the Conservative party has committed to more defence spending. I will absolutely look at how we can populate our armed forces to give us the best readiness and the best availability of equipment, and at how to ensure we can be more persistently present around the world, and that will involve considering force laydown and the required size of our forces. For example, we simply do not have enough long-range artillery, and we do not have any ground-based, long-range, anti-air capability. That will come with more platforms and equipment, and it will come with more people, but not remotely as many people as an infantry battalion would. We should look in the round at what capabilities we need and at what that means for the number of people needed to man them.
As it becomes accepted that Russia has failed in all its objectives, and as the public accept the success of the Ukrainian defence, the risk is that that will lead to complacency about the dangers facing the Ukrainians and that public interest will start to wane. The Secretary of State spoke powerfully about the counter-offensive in Kherson and about the risk of increasing Ukrainian army casualties. Has our training and support for the Ukrainians had to change as they move from a purely defensive posture into starting to retake land? What further support might we need to give in this next stage of the conflict?
First, the curriculum has become less defensive and more offensive as we teach the Ukrainians how to assault positions and so on. As for what more we could do, I will give a small but important example. Historically, when a soldier was injured on the battlefield, they were evacuated to a company battalion or company aid post. However, owing to the existence of modern, cheap drones that can drop grenades, the Ukrainians are having to treat their people where they fall for longer before they can move them in, for example, armoured ambulances. That means they need more tourniquets, because securing the blood supply is more important than ever, given that the casualty will not get to an aid post as quickly. Those are the sort of the things that we look for in the training and feedback, and we then immediately try to buy it, source it or seek donations to try to help the Ukrainians on the battlefield. We were there back in 2015 training Ukrainians under Operation Orbital, and we have been there all along with the Canadians, the Swedes and the United States. It pays dividends in our relationship that we know what they need in the here and now.
The hon. Gentleman is also right about Putin’s longer-term strategy, and I think he is counting on two things. The first is the international community getting bored, not sticking around and splitting up, and he may just say, “I thought it would take three months, but it only took six.” Secondly, he is counting on the fact that his brutality is how to win a war, and we must not let that message be successful, because if Putin is successful, all our adversaries and all those around the world who think that brutality and breaking international law are the ways to win will take succour from that.
I commend the Secretary of State for his strength of character and for putting, with gentleness, a bit of backbone into some of the other colleague countries, which were perhaps a wee bit hesitant when it came to replying and supporting Ukraine. Well done, Secretary of State. As of early this afternoon, it has been revealed that the Russian occupation authorities in Ukraine’s southern city of Kherson have postponed their referendum on joining Russia; it would seem that Russia has perhaps seen the writing on the wall, to use a biblical story. What immediate steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that Ukraine can maintain its full independence from Russian forces? Will he continue to garner the western countries to defeat Russia’s illegal military action?
The best message we can send to Russia and our friends in Europe is that this House is unified—that is a really important step along the road. On the other issues of Kherson, a fake referendum was postponed, allegedly for “security” reasons, and I think we all know what that means. As for the steps we can do to make sure that that does not happen, we can help Ukraine retake Kherson.