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Russia: Arms

Volume 754: debated on Wednesday 18 June 2014

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risk of an arms race between Russia and the West.

My Lords, we and our allies monitor developments closely. Russia and the West have reduced defence spending substantially since the Cold War. Russia is now increasing its military capabilities, although it is unclear whether it will be able to sustain its plans. There is certainly a need not to allow western defence spending to be reduced too far. At present we assess the likelihood of an arms race between Russia and the West to be small.

I am grateful for that Answer. The Minister will be aware that, for some years now, western defence expenditure has been dropping, while Russian defence expenditure has increased in real terms by almost 5%. One explanation for this is modernisation, but my key question for the Minister is whether we are taking this opportunity to involve ourselves in talks with Russia to make sure that we do not drift into another arms race, given the opposite directions of travel of defence expenditure in Russia and the West.

My Lords, the view of HMG—and, indeed, that of successive Governments—has been that all our disputes around the world, including those with Russia, should be resolved amicably through diplomatic means. However, of course we maintain a defence posture that has to be flexible and adaptable, and NATO is an essential element of that.

I am grateful for the Minister’s response. Would she agree that there are at least two substantial areas of great common interest? For Russia, the recent changes in Iraq and what is now also happening in Syria are of great significance and require discussion within the western world as well. Would she also agree that, in order to make sure that Ukraine retains its national integrity, there should be recognition that eastern Ukraine is part of that country alongside an agreement that we would not, for the moment, proceed with trying to make Ukraine a member of NATO?

My noble friend makes an incredibly important point. Our common interests with Russia—and, indeed, any differences—go well beyond just the dispute in Ukraine. We have many interests on which we have worked together, whether with regard to Syria or, more recently, Iran. It is therefore important that we keep those diplomatic routes open to continue trying to resolve those matters.

On Ukraine, I have stood at this Dispatch Box and raised concerns about the amassing of troops on Ukraine’s borders. It has therefore been right for us to send air defence support for monitoring in the region, to make sure that our allies feel that we are there and are supportive.

My Lords, I totally agree with my noble friend that the culmination of the considerable arms build-up, year after year, by Mr Putin, along with ourselves and the rest of the EU cutting our defence expenditure is extremely dangerous and should not be sustained. Would it not be deplorable and shameful if we reached a deal with Mr Putin on the basis of which the Crimeans could exercise self-determination if they wished to join Russia but Ukraine could not exercise democratic self-determination if it wished to join the EU and NATO?

Each country must have the right to determine its own future, and Ukraine has indicated that it would like a closer relationship, certainly with the EU. Membership of NATO is not on the cards at the moment as regards Ukraine. However, ultimately, this is a matter which the Ukrainian people have to decide through their legitimately elected Government.

Does the Minister agree with the proposition that the aim of every Government should be to maintain the defence or military capability of this country at the level at which it is least likely to be called upon, and that to reduce it beyond a certain level invites others to make it necessary to use that capability?

My noble friend makes an important point. He will probably be aware that NATO has set a target for its members to retain defence spending at 2%. I am pleased to say that the United Kingdom has met that target, and has done so since the day it was met. We will meet it this year and will meet it again next year. Let us also not forget that the UK has the biggest defence budget in the EU and the second largest in NATO.

Does the Minister agree that the 2% target that she said has been achieved has been met only by taking into account spending on contingency operations? That was not the practice in the past; therefore, if one is totally honest we are not meeting that 2% target.

The brief I have from my colleagues in the MoD is that we have met the 2% target, and have done so since the day that target was set. If that is not the case, I invite the noble and gallant Lord to write to my colleagues in the MoD.

Does the Minister agree that the 2% target given by NATO is not altogether convincing as a rational basis for defence? Surely the most important thing for appropriate defence is an analysis of the reality of a threat and the forms that threat may take and then to meet those threats and respond accordingly? In that context, is not one of the highest priorities to make sure that Arms Trade Treaty objectives are fulfilled, and that this highly dangerous situation, with so many weapons circulating in the world, is curbed?

The noble Lord is right that those things have to be set by having a proper review, which is why we had a strategic defence and security review in 2010. Arms control is part of that. Again, we can be incredibly proud of the role that the Foreign Office and the whole of HMG have played in bringing agreement at the UN as regards the Arms Trade Treaty.

I can tell the noble Baroness that four members met their target and a further four have indicated that they intend to meet the target. However, of course, there are 28 members of NATO.

My Lords, is it not important that we try to have constructive and as friendly as possible relations with Russia if we are to have a stable Europe? Can we do a little to cool some of the recent rhetoric, which has been conducive to encouraging a Cold War atmosphere?

I am all for encouraging a reduction in rhetoric. That is why I have always said at this Dispatch Box that we must make sure that the language we use is measured and that we always look for diplomatic means to resolve those matters.

My Lords, in an earlier answer to a question, the Minister was good enough to say that we should be dealing in diplomatic ways with disputes throughout the world in which we are involved. Can the Minister say whether, in her diplomatic discussions with her new-found friends the mullahs in Iran, she could ask them to bring an end to the wholesale executions of their own people that take place day after day?

I think the noble Lord will accept that maintaining relations with a country and increasing those relations, as we have done with Iran—appointing a chargé d’affaires at the back end of last year and opening an embassy as we did yesterday—gives us an opportunity to deal with those more difficult issues, including the issue of human rights. I can assure the noble Lord that we shall certainly raise that issue with Iran.