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NATO: Russia and Ukraine

Volume 811: debated on Thursday 15 April 2021

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have held with NATO allies regarding the recent amassing of Russian forces on the Ukrainian border.

My Lords, we have significant concerns about Russian military activity on Ukraine’s border and in illegally annexed Crimea. We support Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. We have discussed extensively with NATO allies; the Foreign Secretary has engaged with French, German and US counterparts and Ukraine and we attended the NATO-Ukraine Commission on 13 April. We and our allies urge Russia to uphold the OSCE principles and commitments it signed up to, which it violates through ongoing aggression against Ukraine.

Does the Minister agree that even if Mr Putin’s intentions are confined to the intimidation of Ukraine and those who support its legitimate wish to join the NATO defence alliance, the present, massive deployment of armed forces on the border is dangerously destabilising because of the risk of conflict arising by either misjudgment, mistake or provocation, real or manufactured? Is all this not particularly dangerous when we consider that the Russian military appears to have resurrected the Cold War doctrine of nuclear war fighting and the deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons on the battlefield? If there ever was a time for transatlantic solidarity, is this not that time?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord, and that is why my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has been engaging extensively with NATO allies. He was in Brussels only yesterday. I also agree with the noble Lord regarding Russia’s aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine. Let us be clear: it is not limited to Donbass and Crimea; we know that Russia seeks covertly and overtly to undermine Ukraine at every turn.

My Lords, Russia applies pressure militarily, economically and politically until it meets counterpressure that is credible and strong and it has to pay a price, which we have seen here. Therefore, will the UK apply the latest group of US sanctions against Russia and encourage our NATO and EU allies to do the same? Do the Government support the completion of Nord Stream 2, which will severely damage the economy of Ukraine?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, we have repeatedly stated our position on the issue of Nord Stream 2; while we ourselves do not welcome it, it is an issue and a challenge for Germany. I agree with the noble Lord’s earlier point, and we are working closely with our allies. The noble Lord alluded to reports that are currently circulating on further actions the United States will be taking. The formal announcement of that is imminent, and we will respond accordingly.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem about the importance of a strong transatlantic response, but does the Minister agree that if we are concerned about Russia building up its forces on the border, the UK also needs to be careful not to be seen to be fuelling any sort of arms race by threatening to increase its nuclear weapons?

My Lords, the United Kingdom’s nuclear deterrent, as well as working with our key allies, is reflective of the importance the United Kingdom attaches to the defence of Europe and the wider world. History has shown us that our independent deterrent has ensured that those who sabre-rattle know that there would be an extensive response from allies of the United Kingdom if they were to go down that route. That said, the deterrent has done exactly what it is intended to do. It has deterred further action and aggression, which no one wishes to see.

My Lords, President Putin is an authoritarian and dictatorial bully, and like all bullies, he senses weakness. He senses weakness in Nord Stream in Germany; he senses it, rightly or wrongly—I think probably wrongly—in the new President Biden in the United States; and he senses weakness when the United Kingdom reduces its Armed Forces, its aircraft, its ships and, above all, the size of its Army at this time. So, will my noble friend go back to our right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and get him to argue in Cabinet that to reduce the Armed Forces at the moment is a signal to bullies that we are not to be taken seriously?

My Lords, I know my noble friend speaks from great insight and expertise about our Armed Forces, but I assure him that Her Majesty’s Government are fully committed to our Armed Forces, which is underlined by the additional funding that has been provided to the Ministry of Defence. On the broader issue of security, we stand firmly with our allies and in support of the NATO alliance. I suggest that with the new Administration in the United States we have seen a realignment and strengthening of that alliance.

The Minister will recall that Sir John Major and Lord Hurd of Westwell were the west European signatories of the 1994 Budapest memorandum. Do the Government agree that this gives us a continuing responsibility for the security and territorial integrity of Ukraine? If so, how do the Government intend to discharge it? The United States has a similar responsibility as a signatory, and the Minister will have noted that President Biden believes that now is the time for dialogue with both President Zelensky and President Putin.

My Lords, we stand by our commitment to the convention that was signed and are fully supportive of the efforts in the defence of Ukraine and its sovereignty and integrity.

My Lords, given the relative ineffectiveness of the western response to the invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014, what assurance might Ukraine assume, should conflict or further invasion ensue? Also, could the Minister comment on any prognosis for the future of the Minsk accords and the prospects for Normandy?

My Lords, the Minsk accords are very much alive, and we remain supportive of them. On Ukraine’s recognition of support from the United Kingdom, that is firmly acknowledged by President Zelensky and his team. Indeed, when he visited the United Kingdom last year, I also met his Foreign Minister; they all recognise the strong support the United Kingdom continues to provide Ukraine in protecting its sovereignty and by continuing to implore Russia to withdraw from Crimea. Crimea is occupied territory; Russia should withdraw.

My Lords, the threats and risks are clear, and the case for transatlantic co-operation cannot be overstated. Strong backing for President Biden’s bid for a summit is vital. When he spoke with President Putin earlier this week, he raised cyber intrusions and election interference. The Russia report called for a common international approach on Russia’s malicious cyberactivity, so what action is the Minister taking to support a common international approach on this, including through strengthening actions with the United States? Will we match the sanctions of the United States or sit back and wait?

My Lords, we fully engage with the United States. The noble Lord is correct that President Biden spoke with President Putin on 13 April. Equally, we have been engaged in a large degree of diplomacy, both through NATO and directly with our allies, including the United States. We are fully aligned with the objectives behind the approach of the United States and work very closely with it. On the specific issue, as I said earlier, a formal announcement is due shortly from the United States, but we are working in a very co-ordinated fashion with it.

My Lords, the integrated review claims that we

“will remain the leading European Ally in NATO, working with Allies to deter … threats … particularly from Russia”.

Are we playing a convening or a pivotal role in this instance?

My Lords, we continue to play a pivotal role in the NATO alliance, to which we are strong contributors in both strategy and financing. That will continue to be the case. We are centrally involved in the discussions around the current situation we are seeing in eastern Ukraine.

My Lords, as Washington’s closest ally, can my noble friend confirm that the Biden Administration are consulting us and other NATO allies rather than simply informing us as to whether they intend to send warships into the Black Sea? In strategic terms, is it not vital that we ensure the Black Sea remains an international waterway rather than watch it turn into a Russian lake?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend’s second point in the sense that we continue to work with our NATO partners to ensure exactly that free operation in the Black Sea. On his earlier point, consultation is very much at the centre of the approach of the United States with its NATO allies, including the United Kingdom. As I alluded to earlier, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary was in Brussels yesterday, together with the United States and Secretary of State Blinken, to discuss Ukraine among other key priorities for NATO.

My Lords, the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, published last month, makes much of the UK’s new freedom to pursue different economic and political approaches to those of the EU, but does the Minister agree that, when the threat is such as that posed by Russia to Ukraine, so close to Europe, we should not stand alone—where we will be weak—but work jointly with our EU neighbours?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend. We are doing exactly that through the NATO alliance. As I said in my original Answer, the Foreign Secretary has engaged directly with key European partners, including France and Germany, and Italy joined various discussions in that respect.

My Lords, I was fortunate to visit Ukraine on several occasions to witness the training support that the UK Government have been giving the Ukrainian military. To date, that training has been defensive and non-lethal in nature—for example, first aid training or counter-IED training. Can my noble friend reassure me that in future the UK will not necessarily feel obliged to follow those constraints and will consider any reasonable request from the Ukrainian Government for support?

I recognise the role my noble friend played in this respect in his previous role as Minister for the Armed Forces. UK military support for Ukraine, as he will be aware, covers training delivered through Operation ORBITAL. This has been extended, resulting in training as well as maritime training initiatives. I note what my noble friend says. We are working very closely with not just Ukraine but our NATO allies to ensure that an appropriate response is given at the appropriate time.

My Lords, in addition to combating Russian aggression, support for improved governance and strong institutions in Ukraine—helping it build a proper democracy—is vital. Is the UK currently financially supporting any projects run by the UN, the OSCE or others in Ukraine? If so, will they be affected by the cut to overseas development assistance that the Government have announced?

My Lords, we are working very closely with Ukraine, and not just in providing training support for its defence requirements. The noble Lord is right that we have been working; indeed, I remember that in my first role as Communities Minister—going back a bit to 2013—one of my international engagements was with Ukraine, about building local government structures. That continues to be the case; we work very closely with President Zelensky and his team.

My Lords, egregious human rights violations and breaches of international law by murderous and kleptocratic regimes such as that in Russia can be responded to by using our relatively new Magnitsky legislation. Will my noble friend commit to using this legislation for such malign actions if they occur in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine?

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend; we are working on a range of issues around supporting human rights in support of Ukraine’s efforts, including in Crimea. We provide specific projects to groups supporting the rights of the citizens of Crimea. The United Kingdom has also contributed £700,000 to the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission. On sanctions, I agree with my noble friend inasmuch as the whole basis of the governance structure of the sanctions is to call out egregious abuses of human rights. Where necessary, we have exercised them. We keep all matters under review, but I cannot speculate at this juncture about any future action we may take.