Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current situation in Ukraine.
My Lords, my objective in introducing this short debate is to bring general awareness before the Committee of some of the many complexities that surround Ukraine and to offer the Government an opportunity to outline their thoughts and strategy.
Amid the conflict, it is simple to forget the many domestic challenges, political and economic, that underpin Ukraine’s present situation and its future. On the macro level, growth is forecast to accelerate in 2018 to 4% and the IMF has announced a new tranche in response to its Government’s decision to step up the implementation of some long-delayed energy sector reforms and accelerate tough austerity measures. As the country grapples with its past, with conflicting visions for its future, endemic corruption in Ukraine is felt throughout domestic institutions at both local and state level. The National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine has been set up, which could improve the rule of law, but its independence is cited as being far from guaranteed due to its inability to secure prosecutions because of the unreliability and bias of the courts. A key ingredient lies in the programme of root-and-branch judicial reform.
Moves within the banking sector, including tighter and wider fiscal reforms and governance, have closed more than 80 underperforming banks in the past three years. A Washington-based organisation, the International Tax and Investment Center, with which I am associated, has held discussions with the tax and customs policy committee about reforming the tax system and working to define a road map to improve and ameliorate, if not reverse, Ukraine’s precarious economic state.
On the economic front, the ongoing trade embargo with the eastern regions has cut off access to all anthracite coal deposits. Ukraine is forced to purchase its needs from South Africa and the USA at a much more expensive rate, with inevitable grave economic effects. Ukraine is highly dependent on grain, iron and steel exports, making the Kerch Strait, the shallow Azov Sea and the bridge critical, while Russia is delaying shipping from entering and exiting fully laden. It is suggested that Ukraine might wish to consider developing alternative export infrastructure as part of a long-term strategy. Ports generally suffer from gross inefficiencies, with accusations of rampant corruption and poor infrastructure capacity. A suggestion doing the rounds is that an effective option might be to assist Ukraine in upgrading railway links and expanding other port facilities that bypass the Azov Sea.
Gas transit fees are a major source of revenue. However, the contested 1,200-kilometre Nord Stream gas pipeline, which will double the amount of natural gas flowing directly to Germany from Russia, is one of several Russian projects that circumvent Ukraine in order to give it access to its biggest markets. This bypass infrastructure is part of Russia’s strategy to weaken Ukraine economically and reduce its strategic importance for the EU. Germany is effectively supporting this strategy. Do the Government express opinions to Germany about this or does the Minister have a view he might wish to share with us? As an aside, I add that commercial opportunities exist for UK interests. For example, the Royal Mint called on me on Friday on unrelated matters, but I was interested to learn that Ukraine is considered to have great potential for that organisation.
On the political front, the reassurances given that martial law in 10 regions will not be used as a lever to postpone presidential elections on 31 March should be welcome. The elections in March will present a choice between the status quo and a move towards a change in direction. However, the expulsion of an Opposition Bloc presidential candidate from the party is likely to fragment the pro-Russian vote at the elections. It should be recorded that a far-right extremist group is gaining traction, though it is currently not well-represented in Parliament. A consequence of martial law is the fear that freedom of speech and assembly will be curtailed in those regions. It should be recorded for the purposes of this debate that opinion polls in Kiev this morning position two-thirds of Ukrainians as favouring a western orientation. Before i turn to matters relating directly to the conflict, will the Minister in his response say what steps the Government are taking to support economic and political development in Ukraine, including tackling the bane of corruption, which is essential if long-term investment in Ukraine is to be considered?
With that overview, I move on. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the recent Azov Sea incident and the humanitarian and social consequences of the war in eastern Ukraine, with 10,000 people killed there, require urgent resolution. The downing of a Malaysia Airlines flight changed the dynamic into an international crisis and, as we have seen recently, there is potential for unstoppable escalation. On Saturday, for example, there were reports of major Russian troop build-up along Ukraine’s eastern border.
France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine have attempted to broker a cessation in violence through the Minsk accords. Efforts to reach a resolution have been unsuccessful thus far and show ominous signs of failure. This is to be regretted as good material is contained in the 13-article draft, including a large degree of regional autonomy. However, if Minsk is indeed foundering, where do we go to from here? Ukraine will not become a frozen conflict and should be viewed as a potential regional threat to peace that could envelop the West. No peace operation will succeed without a supportive Ukraine and Russian acquiescence. Two options are worth pursuing, as the US and NATO are unlikely to become directly involved. The first is a clear road map for de-escalation in eastern Ukraine, coupled with recognition that Russia accepts extrication linked to some sanction alleviation.
Peacekeepers monitoring the Ukraine-Russia border, together with a strong police presence and governance reform, would be a major test of Moscow’s good faith. It should be noted that representatives of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions re-affirmed in March a full commitment to a comprehensive, sustainable and unlimited ceasefire. The Government’s decentralisation programme might also be built upon to provide a positive environment, although a further complicating factor has arisen in the split of the Orthodox Churches, with the potential to further inflame nationalism on both sides.
That leaves us with the extraordinarily difficult situation of Crimea. I take it that President Putin was well aware that what occurred was illegal and what the international reaction would be. Why did he do it? Let there be no doubt: this theatre of overt operations is a cauldron. The positioning of aggressive front-line artillery firepower, along with the naval arrests and pending prosecutions, makes for potential unavoidable action. I reference and pay respects to the families of those on flight MH17, and those whose lives have been lost in this conflict to date. The UK, EU, US and others are adamant that Russia must leave Crimea. That appears unlikely thus far and, given that Ukraine will never become a frozen conflict, what do the Government believe should be the course of action if there is a dilution of attitude by key European partners or an impasse? How long will the Government give Minsk to resolve this before looking at alternatives? Should there be more effort to encourage Ukraine and Russia to resolve all matters bilaterally through an accommodation based on shared interests?
Given that a rapprochement between the UK and Russia currently appears remote, is the UK, as a joint custodian of world security at the United Nations, exploring avenues of reconciliation? Is it ever considered by the Government that President Putin would prefer to connect with the West but has no idea how to do it and is then pulled in a different direction by the old guard? Would understanding the origins help with a solution? Did the crisis begin with the decision of Ukraine to reject a deal for greater economic integration following the understanding with Yanukovych and did the EU push too hard, or were sensitivities a factor over the fear of losing the Crimean naval base? Then there is the NATO question: was there a miscalculation in understanding the importance of the Russia-Ukraine relationship, with the West not sending messaging and actions of inclusiveness following the break-up of the Soviet Union?
Russian political experts have over the weekend suggested that the UK is on the ground in Ukraine, managing and—as they view it—aggravating the situation. That question is also of interest to those attempting directly to broker a peace settlement. Will the Minister comment on what assets the UK has on the ground and with what objective, particularly in relation to article 10 in the Minsk draft calling for the withdrawal of all foreign armed groups, weapons and mercenaries from Ukrainian territory?
I issue a general word of caution. The international alliance should counsel Ukraine against any actions for political expediency that would draw the West directly into the conflict, but balance that with General Powell’s practical messaging when he said that you cannot control developments from the outside. Ukraine’s development is not just for Ukraine but for Russia. Russia needs a good example of how things can be done and so, ideally, would in some way be involved. It should be noted what Russia has achieved when implementing the rules; the World Bank’s Doing Business ratings for 2018 have it placed 31st, up from 170th in 2012. That is why it is important.
My Lords, I am sure that all noble Lords thank the noble Viscount for securing this short debate and giving us the opportunity to discuss Ukraine, and that other noble Lords participating in it have spent much more time in Ukraine than I have. My experience of the country is limited to a visit in 2007 to Kiev, which I remember well for its wonderful collection of golden-domed churches and the splendid idea of pedestrianizing the main street for shopping on a Sunday.
However, as a member and a vice-president of the OSCE parliamentary assembly, I am aware of the situation in Ukraine, especially since the commencement of the illegal separatist movement in 2014. The actions of the Russian Federation have been regularly and roundly condemned in debate and by resolutions of that parliamentary assembly, which is not constrained by the consensus rule of the OSCE itself. The Ukrainian case has been robustly put by the leader of its delegation, Artur Gerasimov, in the face of bare-faced denials and aggressive responses from representatives of the Russian Federation. I believe that we should recognise the important role of the OSCE but it seems to be regularly ignored. I could not find a reference to it in all the many column inches of the report of last Friday’s debate on reconciliation in your Lordships’ House. The OSCE special monitoring mission has an important role. It was deployed in March 2014. It is unarmed and present in all regions of Ukraine, and its main tasks are to observe and report impartially and to facilitate dialogue between the different parties to the crisis.
In September 2015, the first forward patrol bases in eastern Ukraine were established. These bases increase the presence in eastern Ukraine and enable the monitoring of the Minsk agreements. However, plans to work close to the unsecured border cannot be effectively operated until security guarantees for the mission are provided by the separatists or the Russian Federation. Already, one monitor has been killed and two others injured by the explosion of an anti-tank mine in Luhansk. An important objective must be to get the Ukrainian authorities back in control of their border with the Russian Federation. Any devolution envisaged under the Minsk agreements cannot realistically take place until the authority of the Ukrainians is established. Illegal elections only exacerbate the situation and make resolution more difficult.
It is therefore worrying that the Russian Federation originally blocked the extension of the mission’s mandate, although subsequently an extension to 31 March 2019 was achieved. What diplomatic efforts are the UK Government making to ensure the mandate is extended, as further Russian incursions may take place without the evidence that monitors can provide? Is the UK acknowledging the special circumstances of the situation in Ukraine and willing to meet additional costs which the OSCE incurs in this vital work?
One of the most powerful weapons against the success of the secessionists will be that Ukraine succeeds in prospering as a modern state, enjoying economic growth with good relations with the West, including through the association agreement with the European Union. Will my noble friend the Minister say whether we have spent the £35 million promised to support political reform? What programmes have been initiated and are ongoing? Do the Government support any of the initiatives of UkraineInvest, proposed by a joint Lithuanian-Ukrainian team some 12 months ago? I understand that they were discussed in various government departments.
In the light of the open aggression by the Russian Federation in the Kerch Strait, the Telegraph reported that the Ministry of Defence was going to deploy troops and a Royal Navy ship to Ukraine. Has that deployment taken place and how many troops are involved? What precisely is their role and what are their terms of engagement? I acknowledge what the UK has done to date but given the importance of supporting Ukraine’s aspirations and ensuring that the Russian Federation’s attempts to destabilise an independent nation are not allowed to succeed, since the UK apparently has its own aspirations to exercise global influence, is it not time for us to have a comprehensive plan to assist Ukraine and not merely react on an ad hoc basis?
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount on his initiative on Ukraine, which regretfully has largely slipped from our headlines because of Brexit. I have three points.
First, however hard Ukraine strives to be a proud, sovereign and independent country, secure within its borders, that yearning is thwarted by the Russian Government. Russia annexed Crimea after a series of lies and salami tactics in 2014 and has since maltreated Crimean Tatars. In May, Russia illegally built a bridge from Crimea to its territory, preventing large vessels reaching Ukraine’s industrial ports on the Sea of Azov. On 25 November Russia fired on and took control of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews. It appears Russia is attempting to throttle the economy of Ukraine. In the Donbass, occupied by so-called Russian volunteers, they held fake elections last November.
These actions may be seen in the context of other aggressive acts, such as the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and the continued occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. The West did nothing, and a frozen conflict has emerged. Other actions include Russia’s role in Syria, the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, the poisoning by GRU agents in Salisbury, cyberwarfare and the attempt to destabilise western democracies by interfering in elections.
How do we respond? Condemnation and calls for restraint are not enough and a military response is clearly out of the question, but Russia must pay a price. Sanctions are in place but are a blunt instrument, although they do have some effect on the Russian economy. Some call for the suspension of work on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, one of whose objects is to bypass Ukraine.
I concede that it is easier to impose sanctions than to withdraw them. There is a serious danger of current sanctions unravelling. I note recent remarks by Salvini, the Deputy Prime Minister of Italy, who in October vowed in Russia to do his best to bring an end to sanctions. The Hungarian Foreign Minister spoke in September to the Russia Today broadcaster against automatically prolonging sanctions. Even Sigmar Gabriel, the Social Democratic former Foreign Minister of Germany, last month suggested lifting economic sanctions if a ceasefire holds in Ukraine. President Trump personally is very wobbly on the issue. In short, there appears little prospect of intensifying sanctions as business interests prevail, particularly if our weight is no longer felt in the EU after Brexit. How seriously do the Government view the danger of giving Putin a victory by withdrawing or reducing sanctions?
Secondly, is there any evidence that Russia is seeking a compromise over Ukraine? Some will argue with great reluctance that, realistically, Ukraine may ultimately have to accept the loss of Crimea and that all we in the West can do is to continue raising human rights concerns. Is there any positive movement in sight over the Donbass, where Russia has no historical claims? Neither side is honouring the February 2015 Minsk 2 accord. Any deal must involve local elections and a degree of local autonomy, with the consequent danger of continued Russian interference. In September 2017, President Putin expressed a willingness in principle to discuss UN involvement in the Donbass. Is this possibility still live, in the Government’s view?
Thirdly, how should we respond to the needs and aspirations of Ukraine? Even if full membership of the EU and NATO is out of the question, surely ways to increase its association should be found. I welcome the range of UK policies in place on strengthening government, including helping to combat corruption, and improving military capabilities. Do the Government envisage increasing resources to Ukraine?
Overall, step by step, Russia is increasing pressure to test the will of the West. It is right that we have given increased assurances to the Baltic states, which feel vulnerable. Our clear message to Russia is: you will pay a price economically and politically for your policies of aggression and destabilisation in Ukraine. Hitherto thou shalt come, and no further.
My Lords, I am no more of a great expert on Ukraine than the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, although I have been there on a number of occasions. Indeed, I recall an extraordinary conference when Ukraine had been independent for three weeks, and I was part of a western delegation to try to explain how an independent state had a foreign policy. I discovered only many years later that my noble friend Lord Oxford and Asquith had also been at the conference in a professional capacity but had not introduced himself to me. I have taken his advice in preparing my thoughts for this debate, and he apologises that he is not able to be here today, as he has to be abroad.
I think that we all understand the Russian strategy towards its neighbours. Russian leaders regard Ukraine in the same way as English Tories used to regard Ireland: it is not a real country and it ought to be governed from Moscow or London. I believe that there might even be some English Conservatives today who hold that view towards Ireland. Some years ago, I deeply upset someone I had worked with in Moscow by making that remark in a Moscow meeting.
Ukraine’s independence is key to our future relationship with Russia. For us, Russia will have to accept that Ukraine is a normal state if it successfully retains its independence. However, Russia’s efforts to disturb all the weaker countries behind it—I know more about Georgia and Armenia, where very similar attitudes are held, than I do about Ukraine—demonstrates that it wants to retain its sphere of influence, and it does that partly by making sure that those countries remain weak, dependent, corrupt and Russian-influenced.
The situation in Ukraine is difficult. I am told that in eastern Ukraine the combination of deep corruption and a failed economy is such that, as Ministers will know, a number of leaders have been assassinated, and the cost to the Russian economy of keeping Donetsk and Luhansk going is high. It does not yet stop the Russians wanting to hold on to it but it is a real drag on Russia. As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, in Crimea the persecution of minorities—in particular, the Tatars—is real, and the image of success in Crimea and having the base in Sebastopol, from which Russia hopes to dominate the Black Sea, is important to it, but there are still tremendous negatives from the Russian point of view. In Ukraine, there are still corrupt politics and a weak economy, and we need to do a great deal more to try to help the country stabilise itself both politically and economically.
Our biggest worry in the current situation is the potential for accidental escalation. We have already heard about Russian troops being stationed closer to the borders with Ukraine than they were a year ago. That suggests the possibility of local conflict bursting out into a general conflagration. Of course, in the Sea of Azov further clashes between naval ships and merchant vessels are also possible. Therefore, it is not a stable situation.
What is our response? Clearly, we need western solidarity within NATO and in the EU. The role of the EU has become more important because the role of the United States under President Trump, particularly in policies towards Russia, is much more equivocal. Therefore, for the next three months at least we should work with our EU colleagues. What we do after 29 March is another matter, on which I am sure the Government have a clear strategy and policy. However, let us hope that we will hear from the Minister that the British Government are determined to play an active part. After all, over the last few years the British Government have stepped back on this. In 2014, when the Ukraine crisis broke out over Crimea, the Foreign Office discovered that expertise on both Ukraine and Russia had been run down very badly in previous years and action had to be taken to rebuild it. Earlier than that, the Minsk process had been given to France and Germany, with the British stepping back from that and the associated Normandy process. I hope, therefore, that we will hear from the Minister that the British Government are determined to play an active part in stabilising Ukraine and supporting it in these difficult relationships with Russia.
Mention has been made of a strengthened naval presence in the Black Sea. It is clear that the West—NATO as a whole—ought to have a more visible naval presence in the Black Sea. I would be interested to hear what the British contribution to that might be, what the conversations within NATO are, and about the expanded British assistance to Ukraine—there is useful assistance but clearly it needs to be maintained. Above all—I finish where I started—the independence of Ukraine is key to the future relationship between Europe and Russia.
My Lords, I warmly thank the noble Viscount for introducing this debate.
For a number of years I have been chairman of the British Ukrainian Society, so I have been to the country many times. It has had, at times, an extremely difficult history. I will share what recently happened here in London to commemorate one of the most grotesque happenings in European history, the Holodomor—the famine induced by Stalin that caused the deaths of millions of Ukrainians. We had a very moving ceremony outside Westminster Abbey, with hundreds of Ukrainians present. I was delighted that just two weeks ago our Foreign Secretary came to the Palace of Westminster to open a photographic exhibition showing the horrors of the Holodomor and all that it has meant, ingrained as it is in the collective memory of the people of Ukraine. In 1991, Ukraine became independent. The orange revolution drew extraordinary attention to the country, but there were the invasions of the eastern part of Ukraine and Crimea in 2014.
As far as the reality of Crimea is concerned, I had a young Tartar working for me. The fabric of life in Crimea has been utterly turned upside down, with human rights violations on a grand scale and the abolition of the Tartar people’s parliament. In eastern Ukraine, in the Donbass, which has effectively been dominated by Russian and pro-Russian mercenaries, there has been death and destruction, the shooting down of a passenger plane and cyberactivity in disinformation on a massive scale, all costing the Ukrainian economy hugely.
I will read a little note from the NATO Parliamentary Assembly report on human rights, which says,
“governance in rebel-occupied territories continues to disregard human rights and liberties. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights notes ‘cases of summary executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment’”,
of individuals and attacks on those following the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It is appalling.
I will dwell in particular on the recent events in the Sea of Azov, which have happened despite the agreements about that area between Russia and Ukraine. The truth is that the Kerch Bridge linking Russia and Crimea was in practice constructed to impede larger vessels trying to reach the port of Mariupol, a hugely important commercial centre for Ukraine. Preposterously, President Putin accused President Poroshenko of Ukraine of manufacturing these events. Such is the disbelief, it is hard to imagine such nonsense. Russia’s navy intercepted the Ukrainian vessels and arrested the Ukrainian crew, 24 of whom were detained for illegally crossing a so-called maritime border that had been agreed before. Vessels en route to Mariupol today are being deliberately held back, with all the consequences. At the end of August, I was in Odessa. I saw the highly provocative activity of Russian vessels in the Black Sea. I would be grateful to the Minister if he could comment on the current role of Royal Navy vessels that have been operating in the Black Sea.
All this begs the question of how we react. I know that Britain has admirably led the discussions within NATO about putting more troops, beyond advisers, into Romania and Bulgaria. The positioning of British troops in Estonia under the umbrella of NATO acted as a massive source of protection for that country. This is now being considered. I would be grateful to my noble friend if he could comment on this. We agree that if that were done, it may have some effect in sending out a clear message.
As a country, we have been very robust on the sanctions policy, but clearly European countries are divided about to what extent they should be extended further to Russia, given the latest abuses. Nord Stream 2 is a great challenge to the Ukrainian economy.
While Ukraine has introduced laws to increase transparency in public and commercial life, it has not succeeded in banishing corruption and there is still much to do. We have an excellent bilateral relationship with Ukraine. Our support for the country is multi- dimensional. No European country should have to endure the annexation and occupation of its territory and now its seas. Ukraine has not been brought to its knees by such aggression and violent action, and it must never be. It is totally unacceptable.
My Lords, like other Members speaking today, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and congratulate him on obtaining this debate and speaking so passionately. He got far more into his 10 minutes that we would normally assume you can get into 10 minutes. Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Risby, and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, I am not an expert on Ukraine. I speak on European issues for the Liberal Democrats and, like the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, I have been to Ukraine on only one occasion. That was in 2000 when I was running the European programme at Chatham House, for an event that was funded by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The aim of the event was to have a trilateral, bringing together representatives from the United Kingdom, Poland and Ukraine. The idea was to strengthen Polish-Ukrainian relations at a time when Poland was aspiring to join the European Union and Ukraine’s relationship with the West was still somewhat in flux—something undecided and perhaps slightly inchoate.
That has been one of the issues facing Ukraine that so many other countries emerging after the Cold War did not face. For countries in central and eastern Europe, there was a clear direction. They were looking west and to join all the western institutions: the EU, NATO and, as the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, mentioned, the OSCE. Ukraine was always caught somewhere between east and west. I have not visited Kiev. I went to Lviv, where politicians were looking to the West and its institutions, whereas the view in Kiev always looked much more to the east. Ukraine as a country was, and in many ways remains, divided. Its European destiny was not clear.
For many years, the European Commission viewed its enlargement policy as its most effective tool of foreign policy. It felt that by offering membership to a set of countries in central and eastern Europe, it could effect change and cause states that were perhaps uncertain about their future to commit to stable liberal democracy, economic reform, human rights and the rule of law. They would move on from corruption by ensuring they had non-corrupt politicians and a non-corrupt judiciary. In 2018, one might question how effective the European Commission has been in moving states such as Poland and Hungary to liberal democracy, but at the time there was a clear sense that many states were moving westwards.
However, when from time to time Ukraine looked west and thought about EU membership, the response to it from Joschka Fischer, then German Foreign Minister, was that perhaps the EU needed to think about another sort of relationship for Ukraine and, in brackets, Turkey. It would be not membership but some associate status, because they should never think of themselves as potential members of the European Union. At one level, Joschka Fischer’s thinking in 2000 might have been far-sighted. When NATO began to think about expansion a few years ago we saw that the Russian reaction was, “Why is NATO looking into our backyard?” Joschka Fischer managed to create a situation in which Ukraine was told, “You’re never going to be a European Union member state, even if you want to be”. In many ways there was a dialogue of the deaf, and Ukraine never reformed in the way that central European countries which joined the European Union in 2004 and 2007 were able to. Ukraine has therefore been unable to move on. The domestic situation of economic and political difficulty, so eloquently outlined by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, has not changed as it was able to in western Europe. Ukraine has not had the support of the European Union or NATO in the way that other countries might have expected. It has remained vulnerable to Russia, and in many ways we have not found collective solutions to deal with the Ukrainian border.
Like other noble Lords, I ask the Minister what role he envisages for the United Kingdom post Brexit—assuming that we are leaving—in supporting Ukraine but also to keep it talking with the EU 27. This would ensure that our responses are not just individual British but collective European ones. Britain might have a role to play in assisting Ukraine, but collectively we can do so much more.
I, too, thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this highly topical debate. I fear that either my speech or the Minister’s speech will be interrupted by a Division, but I shall plough ahead.
As the noble Lord, Lord Risby, reminded us, we must not forget that 10,000 people have died in the Ukraine conflict in recent times, and as my noble friend Lord Anderson mentioned, we must also remember that Ukraine has been seeking action from the international community on the Sea of Azov since 2014. The issue is not a new one; it has been festering and, as we have heard, Ukraine’s economy is being strangled by the blockade. I hope that the Minister will respond to the question asked by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and will explain what steps the United Kingdom is taking to assist Ukraine and its economy in overcoming the blockade.
The opening of the Kerch Bridge was a flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the search and seizure of Ukrainian vessels in the Sea of Azov is a flagrant breach of international law but, as the noble Lord, Lord Risby, also said, the recent seizures are not isolated incidents. Since May 2018, Russia has conducted more than 200 stop-and-search boarding operations of civilian vessels transiting to or from the Ukrainian industrial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. These latest incidents show once again the urgency of coming to a decision on whether we can achieve a viable UN peacekeeping mission that could be launched to protect the Minsk agreements and provide a lasting resolution to this conflict. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, there has to be concern about an accidental escalation, and we need both sides to show restraint and to de-escalate, adhering to international law, with Russia allowing unhindered access to Ukraine’s ports on the Sea of Azov.
The Ukrainian Government’s imposition of martial law has been presented as a limited move, both in duration and location, and I welcome the Ukrainian President’s announcement that elections on 31 March will be unaffected. However, does the Minister share my opinion that this initial response must not be a precursor to a wider and longer-lasting extension of martial law?
As the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, said, we have been giving support to Ukraine. In his response to the recent Urgent Question, Alistair Burt said that the UK is providing some £30 million a year to Ukraine to support a range of areas, including governance reform, accountability, communications and human rights. We are also providing £14 million in relation to conflict, security and stability projects, as mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, to bolster Ukrainian defence reform. We have provided up to £3 million of new funding this year for developing independent media and countering Russian disinformation, alongside the £2 million already provided through existing projects. As the noble Viscount and others have said, endemic corruption affects institutions at local and state level. The national anti-corruption bureau’s effectiveness is hindered by the unreliability and bias of the courts. What assessment have the Government made of their support so far, and have recent incidents made them step up their consideration of bolstering further developing democratic practices and the rule of law? Will we provide further support?
Noble Lords have also mentioned the dynamics of United States policy. President Trump’s initial reaction to the seizure of the Ukrainian vessels was to return to the theme that US commitment to NATO operations was somehow conditional on NATO countries increasing their financial contributions. Will the Minister update us on the talks that the Defence Secretary had with his US counterpart after his visit to Ukraine last month?
My Lords, I join other noble Lords in thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this timely debate. I also thank all noble Lords for their insightful and expert contributions.
I am sure we all agree that the starting point for our consideration of Ukraine is our unwavering support for its sovereignty, a point made by all noble Lords. Let me assure the Committee that we stand strongly with Ukraine on its independence and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders. Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea was a grave violation of international law and, as we all know, Russian-backed separatists continue to wage a conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 10,000 lives and injured a further 25,000 people. According to the United Nations, that conflict has displaced around 1.5 million Ukrainians.
The toll in human suffering is enormous, which is why the UK is delivering £8.7 million of humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable people affected by the conflict. More than 2.3 million people are in need of assistance within government-controlled and non-government-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine. DfID is providing direct assistance through grants and other training, to ensure that economic opportunities can be leveraged fully in the interests of the citizens of Ukraine. We are also providing indirect assistance as the largest contributor within the international community to the Red Cross appeal for Ukraine.
Several noble Lords raised the issue of working together with Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, spoke from his great insight on this, as did my noble friend Lord Risby and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. I draw the Committee’s attention to the Statement made by the Prime Minister today on the European Council. She said that during the Council’s discussions:
“First, we expressed our utmost concern over the escalation we have seen at the Kerch Strait and the Sea of Azov, and over Russia’s continued violations of international law. We agreed to roll over economic sanctions against Russia, and we stand ready further to strengthen our support, in particular for the affected areas of Ukraine. Secondly, we … agreed to work together on tackling the spread of deliberate, large-scale and systematic disinformation”—
my noble friend Lord Risby mentioned that—
“including as part of hybrid warfare”.
Let me therefore again assure noble Lords that, not just through our membership of the European Union, when it comes to sanctions and collaboration on common areas of interest—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
My Lords, the latest wave of Russian aggression and provocation against Ukraine, which many noble Lords mentioned, saw Ukrainian vessels and their crew fired on, rammed and forcibly seized as they sought to enter the Sea of Azov on 25 November. This was the first time the Russian military had avowedly fired on Ukrainian forces. It underscored Russia’s willingness to escalate tensions in and around the Black Sea with no regard for its obligations under UNCLOS or Ukraine’s rights under the 2003 bilateral agreement with Russia.
My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary condemned in the strongest terms Russia’s actions, which were also met with a robust chorus of disapproval through the UN Security Council, NATO, the EU—as the Prime Minister said in her Statement—and the OSCE. The G7 also came together to issue a statement calling out Russia for its action against the Ukrainian vessels and crewmen.
The noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, and my noble friends Lord Bowness and Lord Risby, among others, raised the issue of the Black Sea naval incident. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of detained Ukrainian soldiers. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Foreign Minister Klimkin on 29 November and reaffirmed the UK’s solidarity and support. I can confirm that the Ministry of Defence is stepping up military assistance to Ukraine through the Operation ORBITAL training mission. My right honourable friend the Defence Secretary will visit Ukraine in the near future. As he has already announced, we are also deploying HMS “Echo” to the Black Sea. The date of that deployment will be announced shortly.
Responsibility lies with Russia to de-escalate the situation by releasing the 24 Ukrainian servicemen and three vessels it has detained and by respecting free passage for all vessels through the Kerch Strait. We are discussing concrete measures, including sanctions, with our international partners, so that we can collectively demonstrate to the Russian regime that its illegal actions will have a cost. The European Council last week also made clear that the EU stands by its measures to strengthen its support for Ukraine.
My noble friend Lord Risby and the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, also asked about Nord Stream 2. We do not believe Nord Stream 2 is necessary and are concerned that its construction is harmful to European interests and to Ukraine. British officials regularly discuss this with the German Government and other stakeholders, including to highlight UK concerns at the impact of the project on gas transit through Ukraine. We continue to support initiatives that strengthen and diversify European gas supply.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly raised the issue of martial law, and I agree with him. Concerns have been expressed about the decision by President Poroshenko to implement martial law following the Black Sea incident. We must all remember which country has created this crisis. Russia has put extreme pressure on Ukraine, not only forcibly violating its sovereignty but subjecting its people to attacks—including cyberattacks, as my noble friend Lord Risby stated. I assure the Committee that we continue to work with the Ukrainian Government and while martial law is now being implemented across the country, we have been reassured that its application has been time-limited to 30 days. We also welcome the President’s assurances that martial law will not affect presidential and parliamentary elections planned for next year, which was a question the noble Lord raised.
The sad reality is that incidents such as the confrontation in the Black Sea demonstrate how Russia continues to work to undermine Ukraine’s stability rather than to support it. It is important that the international community continues to work together with resolve and unity in its purpose, and we must call out these flagrant violations of international rules and norms. That is precisely what Her Majesty’s Government are doing. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the Minsk agreements and asked how long it will be before the Government look at alternatives and whether Russia and Ukraine should resolve matters bilaterally. Our view is that the Minsk process is not making progress because Russia has shown no interest in de-escalation with or without a clear road map. As the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Wallace, said, the only viable path towards peace is for all parties to meet their obligations under the agreement and work urgently to achieve a full and sustained ceasefire across the line of contact. Ukraine took a difficult political step in October to renew the law on special status for the Donbass, as required by the Minsk agreements. In contrast, Russia continues to frustrate the process, including by supporting illegitimate elections on 11 November which undermine the agreements.
The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, raised sanctions linked to Russian transgressions. They are one of the clearest signals that the international community can send to Russia to change course. I assure the noble Lord that that is why we have been clear to Russia that sanctions relief can come only when the Minsk agreements are fully implemented. Until then, the sanctions imposed in response to Russia’s actions remain in place. We have no indication that Russia is serious about UN involvement in the Donbass. Russia has not engaged further on the suggestion of UN peacekeepers. Indeed, as I said, its recent action supporting illegitimate elections in the Donbass in November was a serious violation.
Is there a prospect of the sanctions being intensified or will they inevitably unravel when they come to a potential rollover?
My Lords, at the start of my contribution I mentioned the Statement that the Prime Minister made that the sanctions would be rolled over and strengthened, particularly with the continued collaboration of our European partners.
Several questions were asked about UK assistance and I will seek to cover some of them in the time that remains. I assure noble Lords that more progress has been made in the past four years than in the previous 23 years combined, notably in reforming the energy and banking sectors. Crucially, progress has been achieved in tackling corruption through the procurement of electronic systems, building anti-corruption institutions and launching an electronic income declaration system for officials. The UK Government hosted the Ukraine reform conference in July 2017. Indeed, it was one of my first acts when I joined the Foreign Office. I recall visiting Ukraine in 2014 as a Communities and Local Government Minister to help it on local governance methods.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the impact on the economy of east Ukraine. The consequences of recent Russian actions have been quite severe, particularly on trade through the Kerch Strait. Cities situated on the Sea of Azov have seen the economic throughput in their ports reduced in the past nine months, Mariupol by 43% and Berdyansk by 30%.
My noble friend Lord Bowness, among others, raised the £35 million of UK assistance to Ukraine. This continues, including £8.7 million in DfID humanitarian funding and £40 million through the Conflict, Stability and Security Fund, as the noble Lord, Lord Collins, acknowledged. I assure the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, that our wide-ranging programmes include technical assistance and have had a positive impact on the business climate. Headline achievements include the establishment of an intellectual property rights court, more professional management of public finances and support for small and medium-sized enterprises, a point I know will resonate with all noble Lords. I will highlight two projects that have made a real difference to people in the conflict-affected communities: a mine clearance project, and our support for valuable work to raise awareness and improve the response to sexual and gender-based violence in Ukraine.
My noble friend Lord Bowness also asked about the role of the OSCE special monitoring mission. The UK makes one of the largest personnel contributions to the mission, and I assure him that we will continue to support the continuation of its vital mission in discussions at the OSCE. My noble friend Lord Risby asked about sending NATO troops to Romania and Bulgaria. In the interests of time, I will write to him on that.
The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, raised the issue of stepping back from the Normandy process. France and Germany are of course leading this process, as he knows, but I assure him that we continue to support their efforts to make progress on the Minsk agreements.
In conclusion, in terms of souls lost and lives fractured, potential thwarted and hope dimmed, Ukraine continues to pay a heavy price for daring to exercise its sovereign rights to look to the West. The Ukrainian people are suffering an illegal, immoral and unjust punishment meted out by a neighbour that uses external force to mask geopolitical and economic insecurities, and to unite its own population. Russia’s illegal and aggressive strategy not only threatens Ukraine but is a clear challenge to the rules-based international system and to the will of the international community. In thanking the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating this debate, I assure all noble Lords that the UK Government remain committed and will continue to work collaboratively and collectively to ensure that the resolve of the international community remains undiminished, and that we will continue to work bilaterally with the Ukrainian Government for a better future for all Ukrainians.
My Lords, before the Minister sits down, does he think it worthy of note to agree that it could take up to 10 years to clear the mines in eastern Ukraine—which should give some indication of the true gravity of the situation?
I have noted the noble Viscount’s comment, but the mine clearance project is one of the successes that we have seen through the investments made.