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Russia: Gas Supplies

Volume 815: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the build-up of Russian military forces on the border with Ukraine and the implications for gas supplies to Western Europe.

My Lords, we have significant concerns about Russia’s pattern of military build-ups on the border with Ukraine and in illegally annexed Crimea. Russia’s threatening, destabilising behaviour is unacceptable. The United Kingdom and international allies are unwavering in our support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and, indeed, territorial integrity. Russia’s destabilising behaviour could affect western European gas supplies, especially as storage levels are low. However, UK gas imports are diverse and in 2020 Russian imports represented less than 3% of our total supplies.

I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply, but it is much broader than this. I believe that NATO nations are standing into danger. We have seen this pressure on gas supplies. We have seen the build-up of military forces. We have seen Alexander Lukashenko—who is, let us face it, a puppet of Putin—now putting pressure on the borders of Poland and Lithuania. There are very real risks that things might escalate. This is highly dangerous behaviour. If that happens, would an Article 4 be called? I am not sure—it might be. That is extremely dangerous and worrying.

There are two issues. First, the NATO Council should meet to discuss whether using the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is in the interests of Europe. It is a real danger to rely so much on Russia. Secondly, bearing in mind that the actions on the borders might well lead to an Article 4-type question, there needs to be a meeting of NATO Ministers. This is becoming a very dangerous time—this is typical grey-zone warfare that Putin has embarked on and is now expanding.

My Lords, on both those fronts I totally agree with the noble Lord. I agree with his assessment that the issue of Nord Stream 2 is having a destabilising effect across Europe—we have repeatedly been consistent in expressing our concerns in that regard—and about the importance of NATO and of NATO Ministers meeting. A NATO meeting is scheduled, and I am sure that these issues, particularly with the unravelling of the situation on the Polish border, will be primary in the concerns and discussions that the NATO Ministers have.

My Lords, it seems almost certain that reports of build-up along the border are directly related to a year-long increase in the number of violations on both sides of the line of contact of the June 2020 ceasefire agreement. If that is the case, that needs to be engaged with. What diplomatic contribution are our Government making to help to strengthen the ceasefire, either within the OSCE or otherwise multilaterally or bilaterally?

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks with a lot of insight and experience. I assure him that, for example, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister engaged directly with President Putin on 25 October, where Ukraine was primary in their discussions. I too, through the workings of the OSCE, an area that I will now be looking after, will ensure that the Minsk accords and agreements, and the principle that was agreed, will be upheld. So on all diplomatic fronts, we are engaging, both bilaterally and through multilateral organisations.

My Lords, last week there were reports that Gazprom was putting pressure on Moldova to sign an agreement if it distanced itself from the European Union. The Ukrainian energy Minister has called for the European Commission to formally review the Nord Stream 2 approach. The Minister here said that the UK has concerns about the scheme. Can he be specific? Is he supporting a halt to the process, and does he therefore disagree with the European Commission’s position that due process should be carried out regarding the Nord Stream 2 project?

My Lords, on the specific point about Nord Stream 2, our position is consistent: we believe that it destabilises the continent of Europe due to its reliance on it. Recent events have also indicated its heavy reliance on a single source of supply and the insecurity that that can bring. We are working with key partners on this issue, but we are very clear on what our position is.

My Lords, I should declare a sort of interest, in that that nice man Mr Putin has banned me from going to Russia. I think the Government accept how serious the situation is, but the Minister should know that Putin will judge us by our actions, not our words. So does he think it is sensible for the United Kingdom at the moment to be reducing its Army by 11% and reducing the number of its surface warships and aircraft, or does he think that President Putin will look at us and say that that shows weakness?

My Lords, on my noble friend’s first point, I will be sure to relay that to the Prime Minister and raise directly the concerns about him not being able to visit Russia. On the serious point about our military presence, as my noble friend will be aware, we have exercised our full support to Ukraine, including the deployment of vessels to the region in order to ensure security for international waters, and we strongly support the Ukrainian position on territorial sovereignty and integrity.

My Lords, malicious activity by Russia in the context of destabilising Ukraine was prominent in the recent integrated review’s assessment of the global security context. Given its evident predictability, can the Minister reassure the House that the relevant government machinery—namely, the National Security Committee—has met recently to review scenarios and likely contingent responses, both national and integrated with close allies?

My Lords, without going into the detail, the noble Lord is of course correct that the integrated review had a specific focus on the threat posed by Russia, not just through aggression from military sources but through other sources—cyber remains a key concern. The National Security Council repeatedly meets on issues of priority, of which the concerns across Europe are also well documented.

My Lords, as Russian forces continue to build up on the Ukrainian border, Associated Press reported that Russia and Belarus are further deepening their integration, stopping short of a full merger. Obviously Lukashenko now relies on Russia for support far more than he did before because of the international community’s opposition to his crackdown on the opposition within the country; 10 days ago we discussed the sanctions. I welcome what the Minister has said about discussions with NATO but, as the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Houghton, said, we really need a co-ordinated approach here. Can the Minister tell us why the Government are still delaying the full implementation of the Russia report?

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s last point—the Russia report—we have already taken key steps and actions. I have previously documented the steps that we have taken. There is a cross-government approach to the response to that, and a reply was issued immediately after the report came out. In the interests of time, I will write to the noble Lord about the specific actions that we have undertaken.

My Lords, South Ossetia, Crimea, eastern Ukraine and even Salisbury—for the past 10 years and more, Russia has been pursuing a policy built on the distraction of the West, of bullying, balderdash and sometimes outright banditry. To follow up on previous questions, is it not time for a renewed, revitalised and fully integrated strategy, not just military and economic but also diplomatic, particularly focused on the Black Sea, which is an area of great potential vulnerability for Russia? The first part of any such strategy must surely be for us in western Europe to stop buying more and more Russian gas every time we catch a cold.

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend and I assure him that we are doing exactly that. The integrated review is a good example of how we are working across government, and indeed with our allies. On his last point, as I said in my original Answer, less than 3% of our gas supply now comes from Russia. Currently, 45% of our overall energy mix is gas, of which 48% is domestically sourced, so increasingly we are moving away; certainly our reliance on Russian gas is less than that of others across Europe.

My Lords, what notice did Her Majesty’s Government have of President Biden’s withdrawal of the objection to Nord Stream 2? What representations did our Government make to the Government of the United States?

My Lords, what I can speak to is that we have had a range of discussions, and our views on Nord Stream 2 are very well documented. On the point that the noble Lord raises, we have made our position very clear to the US, and indeed to all our other allies, about Nord Stream 2 having a destabilising effect across the continent of Europe.

My Lords, does the Minister not remember that part of the problem with the Nord Stream gas pipeline was interference by the Ukrainian authorities with the Russian pipeline that was running through Ukraine? Would it not be best to start by getting an agreement with the German Government on the best approach and way forward?

My Lords, obviously the German Government will present their own position. We note the US and German collaboration to mitigate the negative energy impacts of the pipeline, but it is equally important that we stand firm in support of Ukraine, which continues to be challenged, and not just by insecurity when it comes to energy; let us not forget the situation in the Donbass and the continuing pursuance of the annexation of Crimea, which is right on our continent. It is Russian aggression that needs to recede.