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Ukraine: Military Support

Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024

During his visit to Ukraine on 12 January, the Prime Minister signed an historic UK-Ukraine agreement on security co-operation with President Zelensky, illustrating our long-term commitment to supporting Ukraine. The Prime Minister announced that the UK will provide £2.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine in 2024-25—a £200 million increase on the previous two years—to cover rapid procurement and gifting of equipment, development of international capability coalitions, and training through Operation Interflex.

I thank the Minister for that response. There is clearly widespread support in this House and the country for helping Ukraine to resist Russian aggression, but there are concerns, given that President Zelensky has recently identified a shortage of arms and ammunition, particularly in the light of the impasse in the US Congress. What discussions has the Minister had with his counterparts in the EU and other European nations about helping to bridge the gap in the short term, and on how we will deal with it if, in the longer term, the election of President Trump reduces NATO spending in general, and its spending on Ukraine in particular?

Of course, we are aware of the scepticism among Republican presidential candidates and in the US Congress about funding for Ukraine. That is why UK Ministers—the Foreign Secretary, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Prime Minister and I —have been in Washington to make the case for the US continuing to support Ukraine, no matter the outcome of the election. Second-guessing the outcome of the US electoral system is probably not sensible, but notwithstanding the fantastic efforts, led by Prime Minister Kallas of Estonia, to increase the manufacturing of ammunition in particular, it is clear that European manufacturing capacity is not yet at even half the target set. That should be cause for all of us to consider how we might urgently ramp up manufacturing if the worst comes to the worst.

Ukraine can win the war, and must win the war. The Minister touched on the provision of ammunition and equipment, but Ukraine also needs hundreds of thousands of trained personnel. I very much welcome the extension of Operation Interflex, and the work that we are doing, but could we not be doing far more of that with our allies to assist Ukraine?

My right hon. Friend is right to point to the importance of the training effort. That gives me the opportunity to reflect on this week being the 10-year anniversary of the Russian invasion of Crimea, which gave rise to Operation Orbital. Since then, across Operation Orbital and Operation Interflex, 60,000 Ukrainian troops have been trained. Continuing to train them, not as individuals but increasingly as formations, is undoubtedly the key to unlocking the real potential of the Ukrainian armed forces.

We have all seen the events that have taken place in the past few days regarding the Russian offensive in Ukraine. They must act a wake-up call to all of us. This is our problem, and our fight, with the Ukrainians, to defeat Putin. We need to make sure that we step up the amount of ammunition and arms that we ship to Ukraine. We need to do that with our European partners, and we need a plan, not just for the short term but for the long term, so that we defeat Putin. What talks are the Minister and the Cabinet Secretary having with our European allies to ensure that Ukraine wins this war?

Such conversations happen all the time. Only last week, the Secretary of State was at the latest donor conference, followed by NATO Defence Ministers. I was in Norway a week or so earlier, having exactly those conversations with allies. As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, while traditional armaments such as artillery ammunition are important, so too, increasingly, are the novel precision weapons systems that the UK is very much at the forefront of supplying to our Ukraine friends.

Is it not time that both sides of the House came together to agree on a common policy of increasing defence expenditure, so that by increasing our support for Ukraine, we can set an example to our American allies, without whose help there can be no future for peace and security in Europe?

My colleagues on the Opposition Front Bench know that I try not to throw gratuitous punches in the House, and I know that they are enthusiasts for military spending, but their colleague the shadow Chancellor has thus far declined to say that she would adopt anything other than the 2% target for NATO spending, which is not the same as what the Government are currently spending, or what they currently intend to increase spending to, so the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Sir Julian Lewis) is timely. It would be fantastic if, in the next hour, the shadow Secretary of State were to make the same commitment as we have.

In the last year of the last Labour Government, we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, a level that has not been matched in any of the subsequent 14 Tory years.

Like the Defence Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition and I were in Munich at the weekend, and the urgency of the need for more help for Ukraine ran through every discussion. Everyone was also profoundly moved by the words of Yulia Navalnaya, speaking even after the news of her husband’s death at Putin’s hands. This is the brutality that the Ukrainians are fighting, and this is why UK support must not falter. We strongly back last month’s UK-Ukraine security agreement, which the Defence Secretary has described as “a 100-year alliance”. Will the Government take the necessary next step and provide an implementation plan for this year and future years, to ensure that Ukraine receives the help that it needs now and for tomorrow?

While I am grateful for the history lesson on what was spent under the last Labour Government, the commitment to match our spending in a future Government was conspicuously absent from the right hon. Gentleman’s question. However, let me return to the collegiate spirit in which Defence questions are normally conducted. I absolutely agree that what the Secretary of State set out in his speech about the partnership with Ukraine requires a strategic approach, with very long horizons set for what our co-operation, both industrial and military, could look like.

Long horizons are fine, but Ukraine needs more help now. I am concerned about the £2.5 billion for Ukraine that was announced last month and described by the Prime Minister as

“the biggest single package of defence aid to Ukraine since the war began”.—[Official Report, 15 January 2024; Vol. 743, c. 578.]

The Minister has said much the same today. In response to a question from me last week, however, he would not rule out using that money to cover the UK’s operational costs at NATO bases. Will he rule that out today? Will he confirm today that every penny and every pound of the £2.5 billion for Ukraine will go to Ukraine?

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman has missed something over the last two years. The £2.3 billion that the Government have provided for operations to support Ukraine has always included not just the gifting in kind that takes the headlines, but Operation Interflex and other avenues through which we support the Ukrainians. The fact is that next year’s spending and that of the year after will match exactly what we did in previous years, in terms of the breadth of that contribution. It is also true that the long-term strategic alliance that the Secretary of State set out and the commitment year on year to spend more than any other European ally are not mutually exclusive; we are doing both.

On 17 February, at the Munich conference, Prime Minister Frederiksen of the Kingdom of Denmark said:

“If you ask Ukrainians, they are asking for ammunition now, artillery now. From the Danish side, we decided to donate our entire artillery.”

Does the Minister not agree that allies should be a little more like Denmark when it comes to recognising the consequences of not meeting Ukraine’s needs?

We are full of admiration for our Danish colleagues, but the reality is that the UK has provided almost its entire heavy artillery capability, in terms of AS-90s. Those that we have held on to are those that service the battlegroup in Estonia and the very high readiness armoured battlegroup. Similarly, we have been generous with our ammunition stocks, while retaining those that we need for our very high readiness forces. More than that, we have catalysed the production of 155 mm ammunition in the UK, and even further, we have been buying up as much 152 mm and 122 mm ammunition around the world as we possibly can. The UK’s contribution to the Ukrainian artillery fight is not confined to what we have in our own ammunition stockpiles; it is much, much bigger, and amounts to hundreds of thousands of rounds.

To paraphrase a former Member, the Government’s response has been weighed in the balance and found wanting. Given the Czech Republic’s profound donations of artillery and shells, on top of the Danish donation, as well as a commitment of over 1 million shells from the EU, I hope the Minister can come to the Dispatch Box and correct the balance. Can he advise the House on how much of this new investment, which is welcome, is in tactical armaments and artillery?

The overseas ammunition acquisition plan from previous years remains broadly as it was, which amounts to about 300,000 rounds bought on international markets and provided to Ukraine. The 155 mm manufacture acceleration is subject to a different funding package that the Secretary of State and his Ukrainian counterpart have been working on. It is important to note that the £200 million additional money from last year to this is focused on the provision of drones, and those tactical drones are proving to be most significant, in terms of their impact in the battle space.