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Volume 759: debated on Wednesday 25 February 2015


“The Government’s position has been from the outset that we deplore Russian aggression in Ukraine. We do not believe that there is a military solution. There needs to be a diplomatic solution that should be enabled by sanctions and pressure and the economic weight of Europe and America, but as the Prime Minister said, obviously where we can help a friend with non-lethal equipment, we should do so.

The second Minsk agreement on 12 February provided a framework for stabilising the situation in eastern Ukraine. We want it to succeed, and we urge all sides to take the necessary steps to implement it. In light of continued Russian-backed aggression in Eastern Europe, the UK is committed to providing additional non-lethal support to the Ukrainian Government to help their forces deal with the pressures they are facing. As the Prime Minister confirmed yesterday in Parliament, we are providing additional non-lethal support by sending advisory and short-term training teams. This support, provided at the request of the Ukrainian Government, will help their armed forces develop and maintain the capacity and resilience they need, and reduce fatalities and casualties.

Support to the Ukrainian armed forces is not new; the UK has been providing advice and training support to Ukraine for some time and has well established relationships. Over the last year the UK has also provided personal protective equipment, winter fuel, medical kits and winter clothing to the Ukrainian armed forces.

As part of wider government effort to support Ukraine and ensure a robust international response to Russia’s aggression, UK personnel will now provide training in medical, logistics, infantry and intelligence capacity building from mid-March to the Ukrainian armed forces. Most of the advisory and training support will take place in Ukraine but well away from the areas affected by the conflict in the east of the country. The number of service personnel involved will be around 75.

In terms of medical support, we will be providing combat life support training through a “train the trainer package” to multiply the numbers trained. The logistics team will identify and help improve deficiencies within Ukraine’s logistics distribution system. The infantry training package will focus on protective measures to improve survivability. The intelligence capacity building team will provide tactical-level analysis training.

We are considering further requests from the Ukrainian Government for support and assistance and we will work closely with key allies through the Ukraine-US-UK-Canada joint commission. In the mean time, Russia must abide by its commitments at Minsk. That means making the separatists withdraw their heavy weapons, stopping continued separatists attacks so that an effective ceasefire can hold and allowing effective monitoring to take place.”

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Urgent Question. We agree that the international community must continue to put diplomatic and economic pressure on Russia and we endorse the non-lethal support for Ukraine just set out by the Minister.

I wish to raise a few points. On what basis was the conclusion reached that up to some 75 military personnel should be deployed in Ukraine as opposed to a significantly higher or lower figure than that? For how long are we committing to deploying members of our Armed Forces in Ukraine? Can the Government confirm that our Armed Forces will not be deployed under any circumstances anywhere near the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine and that, as a result, issues of force protection should not arise?

In what circumstances, if any, would the Government decide to either withdraw these military personnel from Ukraine earlier than intended or, alternatively, significantly increase their numbers in Ukraine? When do the Government envisage making a decision on the further requests from Ukraine, to which the Minister referred, for additional assistance and support?

Finally the deployment of our Armed Forces in Ukraine is not, as I understand it, being done under the NATO umbrella. Is that regarded as a potential strength or a potential weakness by the Government, and which other NATO countries are also deploying, or have committed to deploying, members of their armed forces in Ukraine, and in what numbers and capacities?

My Lords, I am grateful for the Opposition’s support for non-lethal support for Ukraine.

The noble Lord started by asking me about the 75 military personnel. Up to 75 UK service personnel will be based in Kiev to provide the training advisory support in four areas, as mentioned in my speech. In practice, lower numbers of personnel will be in country initially, and the numbers of personnel required to train in each area will be assessed according to Ukrainian requirements and capacity to absorb the training.

The noble Lord asked for how long the deployment will last. The length of training will be dependent on the Ukrainian capacity to absorb this. We will work closely with them to continuously refine the length and forms of the training packages.

The noble Lord then asked for a commitment that there will not be any deployment near the conflict zone. I can confirm that UK service personnel will only be training well away from the conflict in the east. Most of the trainers will be around Kiev in the west, which is an area that we know very well. It is peaceful, and we do not expect our troops to be armed, but obviously we are keeping that under review.

The noble Lord asked under what circumstances we would withdraw our troops earlier or possibly increase them. Training will be tailored to meet Ukrainian requirements; for example, the medical teams will initially deliver short combat life-saver courses to Ukrainian students.

My Lords, can my noble friend tell the House whether the United Kingdom Government’s position that we are not contemplating shipments of defensive weapons to Ukraine still stands, and what the arrangements will be as regards the short campaign and the period thereafter if the situation on the ground, particularly with respect to Mariupol, changes significantly?

I can confirm to my noble friend that the last point she made could be a game-changer, and obviously, we are keeping that under review. We are getting requests for equipment from the Ukrainian Government, and we are considering that seriously. At the moment we feel that it is best to give only non-lethal equipment.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty’s Government are cognisant of two very grave dangers in this connection? One is what historians call “mission creep”, bearing in mind how the United States of America, from the deployment of a handful of advisers, found itself sucked into the war in Vietnam, deploying millions of conscripted troops. Secondly, will he also confirm that the problem is of course much wider than Ukraine itself? The presence of strong Russian minorities in so many other parts outside Russia means that the Sudetenland game can be played ad infinitum by Putin.

My Lords, we are aware of mission creep and the history here. This is a closely defined training and advisory mission, and we are well aware of the other point that the noble Lord made.

My Lords, as is the practice where British troops are engaged, will rules of engagement be agreed with the law officers that will ensure that they remain well away from the areas affected by the conflict to avoid the slippery slope situation or mission creep?

My Lords, we will consider the rules of engagement very seriously. However, as I said earlier, we anticipate that our trainers will be in a peaceful area, and they will not be armed. We will keep this under review, but we are optimistic on that point.

Since my noble friend referred to the second Minsk agreement, which we all hope will be effective, can he tell us what his latest information is about that? The first reports were that implementation was only partial, and there were bits of Ukraine which we thought were covered by the agreement but which according to the Russians were not. Can he tell us if that is still the position?

My Lords, we welcome the diplomatic efforts that the French President and Chancellor Merkel brought to the Minsk meeting. There is concern that the situation is breaking down in places, and we are watching it very carefully.

My Lords, a surprising omission from the Statement is any reference to NATO—it mentions only Canada and the US. To what extent has the new provision been dovetailed and co-ordinated with our NATO allies? Given the danger in the Baltic states, is there not a serious argument for revisiting the definition of Article 5, because of hybrid warfare, cyberwarfare and economic warfare, beyond the direct military incursion which was in mind when Article 5 was drafted?

I took a question yesterday from my noble friend Lord Howell on hybrid warfare. It is an area that NATO is looking at very carefully. The noble Lord mentioned the UK/US/Canada commission. The UK formally joined this commission earlier this year. The commission provides a framework for co-ordinating our support to Ukraine with allies, ensuring all support provided is consistent and complementary.

What reaction does the Minister expect from the Russian propaganda machine to this very loud announcement of the deployment of 75 people, particularly should one of the 75, God forbid, fall into their hands? Secondly, have there been any discussions with the Greek Parliament to see whether they could let us have 300 Spartans to help out?

My Lords, I cannot answer the second part of the noble Lord’s question. As for the first part, we would obviously rather avoid the path of confrontation with Russia. We hope that recent diplomatic efforts will bring lasting peace; the choice lies with the Kremlin. Russia faces a clear choice. If the destabilisation of Ukraine continues, there will be further sanctions and increasing isolation.

I can confirm to my noble friend that the costs of this mission are coming out of the defence budget.

Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues the use of Britain’s soft power, with the help of the world’s media, to establish the truth of what has happened in Ukraine and to point out Russia’s many internal weaknesses?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. There are a lot of weaknesses in Russia. Their economy is in a very bad way, the rouble is falling and it is very important that this message is given out. We will endeavour to pass this on to the media.