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Russia and Ukraine: Seizure of Naval Vessels

Volume 794: debated on Monday 26 November 2018

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Russia regarding their capture of three Ukrainian naval vessels in the waters off the Crimean Peninsula.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government have not held bilateral discussions with the Russian Government on this issue. Emergency meetings of the United Nations Security Council, NATO and the OSCE will today discuss Russia’s flagrant breach of the rules-based international system. The United Kingdom position is clear—ships must be allowed free passage in the Sea of Azov. We urge all parties to act with restraint.

My Lords, I am reassured that we are working through NATO and, I hope, through the European Union co-operative mechanisms while we still have them for a few more months. Are we confident that our major allies—the French, the Germans and the United States—hold as strong a position on this as we do? If the Russians succeed in converting the Sea of Azov into an internal sea, that will have a devastating effect on the economy of a substantial chunk of Ukraine because of the port of Mariupol.

Regrettably, these developments represent a step change in the creeping annexation by Russia of the Sea of Azov. Indeed, Russia’s use of force, including the use of firearms against Ukraine’s vessels, marks a clear aggression. The actions are a breach of international law and of various multilateral and bilateral conventions, including the 2003 bilateral agreement with Ukraine on freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. The United Kingdom and our allies have made clear our profound disquiet at that action.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness’s commitment to continue to work with our EU partners, as the noble Lord suggests, which is vital, as is suggesting that we have restraint—which has to be based also on the effective measures that we are taking. Will she make representations to the Government of Ukraine to suggest that they avoid using this incident to introduce martial law or to cancel next year’s elections? Such a move would be a backward step, certainly for democracy in Ukraine.

I understand that, as we speak, the Ukrainian parliament is considering a declaration of martial law, and it is entitled to consider its options. Ukraine certainly has found itself the victim of conduct that invites global condemnation, and we must respect the role of its parliament to take whatever action it thinks fit by way of response.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness not agree that this act by the Russians is not, like all the other things they do in eastern Ukraine, deniable in any way, because it is an act by the Russian navy? Also, is not the use of force to enforce a blockade in fact an act of war?

I hear the noble Lord’s definition; it is certainly an act of aggression. It is a further example of Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The UK regards the annexation of Crimea as illegal, as was the construction of the Kerch bridge earlier this year. We issued a Statement on 19 November calling on Russia to allow free passage through the Kerch Strait for merchant ships travelling to and from the Sea of Azov.

Does my noble friend agree that this is all part of a strategy? The Russians will never leave Ukraine alone. This is all part of a bigger plan to increase the reliance of western Europe, particularly Germany, on Russian gas, to undercut the Americans and to cut Ukraine out of the transmission system. Does she accept that this is Russia’s strategic aim and that we should recognise it in both our foreign policy and energy policy?

It is certainly indicative of a grave attitude to a sovereign country. There has been global condemnation of the illegal annexation of Crimea, and the response of the international community to this recent breach of international law is important. The international community, in the form of the United Nations Security Council, the OSCE and NATO, is well placed with its member participants to consider an appropriate response to this unacceptable conduct.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that it has been stated that we are sending a warship to the Black Sea but, as I understand it, it is in fact a survey ship. If things are hotting up in the Black Sea, to send a ship into harm’s way that is not capable of looking after itself is not a clever idea. Should it be reviewed? Perhaps we should send a ship such as a 45, which is able to look after itself in these circumstances.

I am very reluctant to comment on specific operational matters for reasons that your Lordships will understand. The MoD response to such situations is carefully assessed and reviewed; any decision to deploy our ships would be made after only the most careful assessment of all the circumstances.

My Lords, following from my noble friend’s comment that this is a step change in Russian aggression, does she not think that the Ministry of Defence should perhaps look more closely at what it spends our money on and whether it should spend more on, for instance, cyber measures and, indeed, conventional warfare, given what the Russians have just done?

With all the recent—by which I mean over the last few years—reviews of MoD and defence capacity and strategic assessment of what the future holds, I can reassure my noble friend that significant investment has been made in our defence capability. That includes very sophisticated work with our security and intelligence services.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the Russians feel more able to do this while western Europe is preoccupied with Brexit and while the United States is coping with Trump? Russia interfered with the referendum and his election. Would it not make us more skilful and adept in reacting and responding appropriately to Russia if we were to abandon the foolishness of Brexit?

We have to deal with global situations as they arise. I happen to think that this issue probably has nothing whatever to do with Brexit. What the international community has to do is exactly what it is doing: in a responsible and swift fashion, at very senior levels of engagement at the United Nations, NATO and the OSCE, considering the best way to respond to the situation.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that calling on Russia to show restraint in such circumstances is a completely pointless exercise? It will just provoke a lot of belly laughs in the Kremlin. The one thing the Russians understand is concrete sanctions. Will the Government, jointly with our EU allies, consider how the sanctions that they are already imposing on Russia as a result of its failure to observe the Minsk agreement can be suitably enhanced on this occasion?

As the noble Lord will be aware, the EU has recently strengthened sanctions related to Crimea by listing individuals and entities who were responsible for the construction of the illegal Kerch bridge. We continue to work closely with all our international partners to ensure that sanctions remain in place as long as Russia’s control of the peninsula continues.

I support what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes: this is no accident of timing. The Kremlin does not take such actions unless there is a clear understanding of what the consequences might be. It is no secret that Mr Putin hopes to destabilise NATO and undermine the European Union. This action is clearly part of that concerted plan.

The UK has made its response clear. I reaffirm that it is very important that we do not act exclusively and on our own in relation to such an incident, and that we act with the appropriate senior partners in NATO, the United Nations and the OSCE. That is the effective and appropriate way to respond to something like this.

My Lords, are territorial waters in the Azov Sea clearly delineated and accepted by the powers involved in this struggle?

My understanding is that, unlike the Black Sea which is regarded as an area of international waters, the Sea of Azov—being virtually landlocked by two countries—has been the subject of bilateral agreement between Russia and Ukraine. That was a 2003 agreement; it dealt with freedom of navigation in the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait. Those two countries are perfectly entitled to make that bilateral agreement but one expects both sides to honour and respect it, and not so blatantly to contravene and breach it as has been evident recently.