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Russia: Armed Forces

Volume 759: debated on Thursday 5 February 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what recent assessment they have made of the Russian armed forces.

My Lords, Russia has been modernising its armed forces since 2008. These are being used in a highly assertive manner in conjunction with wider political, economic, misinformation and intelligence activity to project Russian influence, especially towards, but not limited to, former Soviet states. This has been demonstrated by strategic aircraft sorties both in Europe and the Far East, the increasing number of large no-notice snap exercises close to NATO allies and Russia’s aggressive actions in Ukraine.

My Lords, is it not the case that Russian rearmament has been so rapid and the response to it in the West has been so slow that there is now a real possibility of a new cold war, which Mr Putin just might believe he can win? In those circumstances, is it not essential that Her Majesty’s Government ring-fence the defence budget at at least 2% of GDP?

My Lords, NATO’s credibility depends on unity and implementing quickly and efficiently decisions taken at the Wales summit—in particular, the readiness action plan that will include a new high-readiness force to enhance NATO responsiveness and effectiveness—and publicly acknowledging the commitment by allies to aim to meet NATO’s target of 2% of GDP spent on defence. We are working with allies to ensure that momentum is maintained ahead of the summit in Poland next year.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Mr Putin has increased spending on his nuclear triad by 42%, even though the country is an economic basket case. It has built a new class of ballistic missile submarines; it has introduced a new type of submarine-launched ballistic missile; and it has a new class of attack submarines, which, worryingly, have now got a long-range Cruise missile with a nuclear tip, which probably breaks the INF. Does the Minister agree that what Mr Putin calls his strategy of de-escalation, because he sees a conventional imbalance, is actually a strategy of escalation? Does he also agree with Labour that it is imperative now that we maintain our continuous at-sea nuclear deterrent, the minimum force possible, and replace the ageing Vanguard-class submarines one for one?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. The 2015 Russian defence budget is stated to be the equivalent of $50 billion, which is around 4.5% of Russian GDP. As to the Russian military doctrine, which the noble Lord mentioned, the last one was published in December 2014 and more emphasis is placed on the perceived danger from NATO, asymmetric warfare, advanced weaponry and the use of information and subversion.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the real tragedy is that in the 23 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia has almost wholly failed to restructure its economy? It now has the economy of a third world country, it is suffering from the effects of the fall in the price of oil, and it has at its head a regressive and reactionary leader who is quite unworthy of being in command of the armed forces and who has contracted out of the world’s search for peace, stability and prosperity.

My Lords, what was the Russian ambassador’s response to the Foreign Office when it called him in to complain about the transit of a Russian bomber aircraft along the Channel?

My Lords, the Russian ambassador committed to giving a full explanation in writing of that long-range bomber activity.

My Lords, is not the problem for Russia and the former Soviet Union that there is now growing instability? As the Minister said, this is clearly a matter for NATO and the UK, but it is also for the European Union to have some sort of strategy towards Mr Putin’s policy, which is in acute danger of causing either another cold war or something worse.

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a very good point, and these are all issues which will be discussed at the NATO Defence Ministers meeting being held in Brussels today.

My Lords, the Wales summit last year, the readiness action plan and the defence investment pledge are all vital. Does the Minister agree that we need to co-operate more fully with our partners in the EU and NATO not just in terms of expenditure but also by working to negotiate for de-escalation through diplomatic routes?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. We have been very clear that above all, the solution requires Russia to end its deliberate and continuing destabilisation of Ukraine. Russia must withdraw its equipment and troops from Ukraine, secure its borders and cease support for the separatists. It is clear that the international community has a role to play by exerting the greatest possible pressure to ensure that that happens.

My Lords, can the Minister assure the House that when the explanation is received from the Russian ambassador about what those Russian planes were doing so close to our waters, it will be published and a copy put in the Library of the House?

My Lords, I will do my very best to ensure that that happens. Just for the benefit of the House, on 28 January two Russian bombers flew close to the south coast in congested civilian-controlled airspace, unauthorised and without communicating with UK air traffic control. The UK response was conducted in accordance with well-practised NATO procedures and the bombers were escorted from the UK’s airspace by Royal Air Force aircraft.

My Lords, the Minister has agreed with the NATO minimum target for defence expenditure of 2% of GDP, but his own party has yet to commit itself to that minimum level for the United Kingdom. Will he take this opportunity to correct the position now, and if he cannot do so, will he explain the inconsistency between that and what he has just said? Will he also explain how on earth we stand any chance of persuading our partners in NATO and Europe to do better, because they are doing even worse than us in this regard?

My Lords, we have met the 2% target for this entire Parliament. We are committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence until the end of the financial year 2015-16, following which decisions will be determined in the next comprehensive spending review.