The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Monday 17 January.
“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the situation in Ukraine.
As of today, tens of thousands of Russian troops are positioned close to the Ukrainian border. Their deployment is not routine; they are equipped with tanks, armoured fighting vehicles, rocket artillery and short-range ballistic missiles. We and our allies have legitimate and real cause for concern that the configuration and scale of the force being assembled, supported by Russian air and maritime long-range strike capabilities stationed in the region, could be used for the purpose of conducting a multi-axis invasion of Ukraine, but whatever final decision the Russian Government take on the use of such forces, their presence and levels of readiness are contributing to a destabilising and coercive atmosphere that risks miscalculation at best, and at worst, conflict.
Furthermore, in recent weeks, we have observed hardening Russian rhetoric, heightened cyber activity and widespread disinformation that could serve to provide a false pretext for a Russian military intervention. False narratives are very much part of the Kremlin’s playbook; they were used in 2008 before Russia’s invasion of Georgia, and in Ukraine in 2014. False narratives are being peddled again today: Russia has suggested that its military build-up on the border of Ukraine is in response to NATO aggression and an agenda by the West to use Ukraine to divide and rule the Russian nation. It has put forward this outlandish notion that NATO is attempting to encircle Russia.
Let me be clear. No one is trying to rule the Russian nation. Only one-16th of Russia shares a border with a NATO ally, and NATO is and always has been a defensive alliance. NATO, at its core, holds a belief that any country in the alliance, no matter how big or small, is by right of membership owed a pledge of mutual defence: if you attack one of us, you attack us all.
From 12 founding countries in 1949, the NATO alliance has grown to a total of 30 today. Those countries have joined the alliance not because NATO is making them do so, but because of the freely expressed will of the Government and people of those countries. Countries choose NATO; NATO does not choose them. If Russia has concerns about the enlargement, it should perhaps ask itself why, when people were free to choose, they chose NATO.
NATO is an alliance of like-minded nations that, as well as sharing a commitment to mutual defence, share a set of common values. The sovereignty of other nations is respected by all. Each nation has a sovereign right to choose its own security arrangements. That is a fundamental principle of European security—one, indeed, to which Russia has subscribed in the past—yet Russia now seeks a veto over who joins NATO.
The United Kingdom will stand up for the right of countries to choose their alliances. More important than the choice they make is the right to have that choice. On my recent visit to Sweden and Finland, two non-NATO countries, it was clear that Kremlin attempts to dictate what sovereign states can or cannot choose had been rejected across the political spectrum.
I must stress that no one wants conflict. The Ukrainians are not seeking confrontation, despite the illegal annexation of their lands in Crimea and the occupation of Donbass, and I am sure that ordinary Russian people who remember the first Chechnya conflict and other, older conflicts do not want yet another quagmire either. Last week, there were intensive discussions on the international front to achieve a diplomatic solution to the current situation, including at NATO and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe. Engagement at the NATO-Russia Council made it clear that NATO is open to dialogue with Russia on a range of issues to protect Euro-Atlantic security, including risk reduction, transparency, arms control and lines of communication, but we will not reward aggression.
We are open to dialogue on a bilateral basis. On 23 December, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Tony Radakin, spoke with his Russian counterpart, General Gerasimov. In their call, they agreed the vital importance of maintaining communications to understand each other’s intentions and to avoid miscalculation.
When the Prime Minister spoke to President Putin on 13 December, he expressed the United Kingdom’s deep concern over the build-up of Russian forces on Ukraine’s border, and also reiterated the importance of working through diplomatic channels to de-escalate tensions and identify durable solutions. The Foreign Secretary continues to engage with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, including recently in person at the margins of the OSCE Ministerial Council in Stockholm on 2 December.
Russia has the largest conventional force of any single nation in Europe. It has a proud history. We have fought together. We celebrated the courage of the Arctic convoys at the 80th anniversary last year. Russia is a nuclear power. It does not have anything to fear from NATO or Ukraine or the other countries that strive peacefully on the continent of Europe. Today, I am extending an invitation to my Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, to visit London in the next few weeks. We are ready to discuss issues related to mutual security concerns and engage constructively in good faith.
The UK’s position on Ukraine is also clear. We unequivocally support its sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders, including Crimea. Ukraine is an independent, sovereign country of proud, independent Ukrainian people. The UK Ministry of Defence already has a long-standing relationship with our Ukrainian counterparts, and we continue to provide support in many areas, including security assistance and defence reform. Since 2015, the UK has helped to build the resilience and capabilities of the Ukrainian armed forces through Operation Orbital, which has trained more than 22,000 Ukrainian troops. We maintain the right to deliver bilateral support to a sovereign nation when requested in areas that will better help them defend themselves.
It is important that Ukraine has the capability to defend itself. After Ukraine lost large parts of its navy to Russia’s illegal occupation of Crimea, it became important to help Ukraine build up and sustain a naval capability. We should not forget the thousands of Ukrainians who have lost their lives defending their country and who, every day, are murdered by snipers from across the divide. That is why, in 2019, I expanded Operation Orbital to include naval co-operation, and that is why, last year, we agreed a range of measures, including supplying Ukraine with two mine countermeasures vessels as well as agreeing the joint production of eight new ships equipped with modern weapons systems—defensive weapon systems.
As I said in the House last week, the framework agreement presented to Parliament in November 2021 affirmed the principles that the UK will provide both training and defensive capabilities to Ukraine to help it best defend itself. Within that same principle, I can today confirm to the House that, in light of the increasingly threatening behaviour from Russia and in addition to our current support, the UK is providing a new security assistance package to increase Ukraine’s defensive capabilities. We have taken the decision to supply Ukraine with light, anti-armour defensive weapons systems. A small number of UK personnel will provide early-stage training for a short period of time within the framework of Operation Orbital before returning to the United Kingdom.
This security assistance package complements the training and capabilities that Ukraine already has and those that are also being provided by the UK and other allies in Europe and the United States. Ukraine has every right to defend its borders, and this new package of aid further enhances its ability to do so. Let me be clear: this support is for short-range and clearly defensive weapon capabilities. They are not strategic weapons and pose no threat to Russia. They are to use in self-defence. The UK personnel provided in the early-stage training, as I have said, will return to the United Kingdom after completing it.
The Prime Minister has been clear that any destabilising action by Russia in Ukraine would be a strategic mistake that would have significant consequences. That is why there is a package of international sanctions ready to go that will make sure that Russia and its Government are punished if they cross the line. But the cost of an invasion will not just be felt by the West. I have visited Ukraine five times since 2016, and I know that the Ukrainians are a proud people who will stand and fight for their country, for democracy and for freedom. Any invasion will not be viewed as a ‘liberation’, but as an occupation and I fear that it could lead to huge loss of life on all sides.
The current difficult relationship with the Kremlin is not the one we wish to have in the United Kingdom. It does not have to be this way. The UK respects the people, culture and history of Russia. We have more in common than we may think—culturally, historically and technologically. We wish to be friends with the Russian people, as we have been for hundreds of years. There is a world in which we can establish a mutually beneficial relationship with Russia, working together on shared areas of interest and addressing mutual security concerns. The current gap is wide but it is not unbridgeable. I still remain hopeful that diplomacy will prevail. It is President Putin’s choice whether to choose diplomacy and dialogue or conflict and consequences. But Russia’s current behaviour is not only threatening the sovereignty of a proud nation state; it is also destabilising the rules-based international order and challenging the values that underpin it. That is why it is all the more important that we stand in solidarity with those who share our values, including our NATO allies and partners like Sweden, Finland and Ukraine.”
My Lords, this new and sensible procedure of not reading out the Statement because we have all read it leaves me with the problem of how to open one’s speech. I will compromise by thanking the Minister for coming to answer our questions.
I do not really have anything new to say. To emphasise that, I am going to read out the first paragraph of the shadow Secretary of State’s reply to the Statement in the other place, because my position will not deviate from it. He said:
“I welcome its contents and make clear Labour’s full backing for the steps the Government have been taking on international diplomatic efforts to de-escalate threats, on defensive support for the Ukraine military, on necessary institutional reforms within the country, and on tough economic and financial sanctions in response to any fresh Russian invasion into Ukraine.”—[Official Report, Commons, 17/1/22; col. 63.]
So I do not believe that we differ in any significant way from the Government. However, I have some questions.
I understand that 13,000 Ukrainian citizens have been killed in the conflict so far, and many must have been killed on what I will loosely call the Russian side. The first objective must surely therefore be to stop the killing. Moving into the area of objectives, could the Minister set out what our policy is, first, on direct military engagement and, secondly, on recognising any of the Russian concerns? I hope she will reaffirm that we are overwhelmingly committed to a diplomatic solution; those diplomatic solutions do not look very optimistic but I hope she can flesh out some strands of optimism.
In 1994—I may get these things slightly wrong—the Budapest agreement was signed and Britain is the guarantor of that agreement. As I understand it, although I cannot claim to have read it, it was a comprehensive agreement that settled the future of Ukraine. It settled its boundaries and did a brilliant job of denuclearising the country, and we would all have hoped that that was how it would settle down. The agreement sought to answer all the questions. Now I have to ask the Minister whether it has any relevance today at all.
In 2014 the Normandy format was created—in Normandy, I believe, because it had its essence at the Normandy celebrations. It is a format of four countries: France, Germany, the US and Russia. On 6 January this year, it met. As far as one can tell, there was little progress, but, hopefully, we have some way of getting to the essence of what those conversations were. My simple question is: was there any progress?
A second institution is the NATO-Russia Council, which has been meeting somewhat infrequently. However, it met on 12 January. Reports from the Secretary-General of NATO seemed a bit downbeat, but does the Minister have any more positive interpretation of what happened? Are there any areas for optimism?
Like any Opposition, even when we agree with the Government, we inevitably end up saying, “You should try harder”, and I shall say that they should try harder. Should there be more diplomatic effort? I am not saying that the Government do not grasp this, but the news, for want of a better barometer, does not seem to grasp just how serious the situation is. There have been a number of efforts by UK diplomats and politicians to meet the Ukrainian Government, but should there be more? Should the Foreign Secretary visit Ukraine? Should there be something as innovatory as the Defence Secretary going to Moscow?
My experience of negotiation is somewhat depressing. One of the things that is depressing about negotiation is the success of negotiation by attrition. What I mean is, if you spend enough time talking in concert with your allies and you talk and listen to the other side of a debate, you get closer by sheer volume. Therefore, I encourage the Government to see where more face-to-face contact can take place and where there can be more conversations between different people, or different nuances. I seek an assurance that we are using our best skills to try to understand the Russian position. There must be people in Russia who recognise just how serious and dangerous this is. We have to try to find some common ground and we have to ask ourselves—I know a lot of people are concerned about it—whether we retain sufficient diplomatic capability in the Russian area. Do we have adequate Russia skills?
Our military support was clearly welcomed by Ukraine, but I do not know what it consisted of. Perhaps the noble Baroness could flesh that out. How many UK personnel were involved? How many are still in Ukraine and are they at risk? There is an interesting phrase in the Statement that I hope the noble Baroness can flesh out. It says that we are supplying Ukraine with anti-armour defensive weapons systems. I guess if you are in a tank with a missile coming towards you, it is a bit difficult to interpret why this is only a defensive system. How does one signal to the enemy that what we are providing to Ukraine is a weapon that is really only usable in a defensive situation? How many personnel are involved in the training to use this weapon? Are any left in Ukraine?
Ukraine recently suffered a major cyberattack. It is not mentioned in the Statement, but I understand that a new cyber co-operation agreement has been concluded between NATO and Ukraine. What role will Ukraine play in this? Is it already active?
Finally, on the reference yesterday to the Indo-Pacific tilt, can the Minister confirm that resources must be centred on Europe and NATO? AUKUS is a great concept, but it must not draw resources from where the threat is greatest.
As I said at the beginning, we have no fundamental criticism of the Government. We face a very grave situation. History teaches us that wars are much easier to get into than to get out of. If war breaks out in eastern Ukraine, many people will die. All efforts must centre on securing peace.
My Lords, I take no issue with the terms of the Statement, nor with the remarks of the noble Lord who has just spoken, but I think it is helpful if we try to put into context the political objectives of Mr Putin. Put baldly, they are these: to break Ukraine and to intimidate NATO. Mr Putin sees a client Ukraine as essential to Russia’s interests and believes—I believe, falsely—that western capitals will back down in the face of his aggression. The overarching purpose is to create a sphere of Russian interest in eastern Europe—an objective for which, I may say, he was given some encouragement by the sometimes lukewarm support given to NATO by President Trump.
It is clear, in my judgment, that any accession to Mr Putin’s demands would break both Ukraine and NATO itself. The truth is that NATO poses no threat to Russia. If we consider the enhanced forward presence with which the United Kingdom is most closely associated, the deployment of the battle group to Estonia, it consists of some 900 men. That will hardly challenge the substance of the Russian state.
We should not forget, though, that the people of Ukraine have been under considerable stress and strain. They have been under cyberattack in a particularly personal way, and we know now that there is the threat of false flag diversions. However, I am clear in my mind that we are right to support the Government of Ukraine politically and to provide them with defensive weapons. I am clear in my mind that we are right to make it clear that the United Kingdom will be part of severe economic measures against Russia if military action is commenced. The people of Ukraine continue to show their courage and resilience in the face of provocation and imminent threat, but, increasingly, they show that they wish a future in the Euro-Atlantic community, which is their sovereign right, and one that we should be willing to defend.
I have but two questions for the Minister. What discussions have the United Kingdom Government had with other members of NATO and the European Union to ensure unity of purpose in both those organisations? In particular, why was it that RAF aircraft, two C17s, taking defensive weapons to Ukraine, chose not to fly over Germany? Was there a political reason behind that decision?
My Lords, I first thank the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, for their very helpful comments and constructive approach. On behalf of the Government, I express my appreciation of that. In different ways, both noble Lords analysed the issue in a manner from which I could not diverge, and I am grateful to them both for that contribution.
I will try to deal with the points that were raised. The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, is absolutely right that, clearly, there is a shadow hanging over Ukraine. If you look at the history and, as he rightly said, reflect on Ukrainian casualties, you see that this is, quite simply, a situation that no one wants to see proceed to aggressive incursion—hence the concerted effort by different countries in different groupings to try to prevail upon Mr Putin to de-escalate the tension and agree to sit down and discuss things by way of dialogue. On de-escalation, I say to the noble Lord that the recent initiative by the UK is not engaging in any aggressive action against Russia; it is simply supporting Ukraine as a sovereign nation to defend itself against threat.
The noble Lord asked about the UK objectives. The UK, of course, respects the people, history and culture of Russia, but the current relationship with the Russian Government is certainly not one that we want. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, alluded to, Russian state threats, such as cyberattacks, disinformation, proxies and electoral interference, are quite simply evidence of ongoing malign behaviour, and they are unacceptable. The objectives of the UK are twofold: to work with our partners in NATO to try to contribute to a de-escalation of this situation, and to also work on a bilateral front with Ukraine, which is a good friend and a bilateral defence partner, to reassure it that we stand with Ukraine and will do everything we can to support it.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, referred to the Budapest memorandum, which is indeed still relevant. We believe that both the UK and the US should insist that Russia stand by the international agreements it has signed up to. That includes the commitment it made in 1994 to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Indeed, the Political, Free Trade and Strategic Partnership Agreement signed with Ukraine on 8 October 2020 reaffirms the UK’s commitment to the security assurances enshrined in the Budapest memorandum of 5 December 1994.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the role of NATO and its objectives. I simply repeat what the dual-track approach of NATO has been: a combined deterrence, defence and dialogue approach, where allies speak with one voice. That was delivered at the meeting of the NATO-Russia Council last week. The message was clear: Russia must de-escalate and respect its international commitments, to which we have all freely agreed. To reassure the noble Lord, NATO stands ready to engage in constructive dialogue with Russia to discuss mutual security concerns and has invited Russia for further sessions with the NATO-Russia Council to discuss arms control, risk reduction and transparency measures.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, exhorted the Government to try harder. I accept that challenge; I do not think anyone pretends to have the monopoly of knowledge or wisdom in this situation. I reassure your Lordships that the Government will strenuously do everything they can to promote dialogue and discussion. Indeed, the Defence Secretary in the other place confirmed that he had invited his opposite number in Russia to come to London for discussions.
I agree completely with the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, on his reference to dialogue. He is absolutely right: it is essential that, whatever else may be going on, we try to keep channels of communication open. I reassure him that, certainly, that is what we are striving to do within defence. He is absolutely correct that the only way to achieve these objectives of de-escalation and a move to a more constructive, intelligent conversation about Russia and how these issues might be addressed in a peaceful manner is by such dialogue.
The noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, asked about the UK military support to Ukraine. As he will know, since 2015, we have been engaged in Operation Orbital. That is all about helping Ukraine to build resilience within its armed forces, and it includes, importantly, the Ukrainian Naval Capabilities Enhancement Programme, which was signed in June of last year. That was a significant agreement because it affirmed that the UK was open to supplying Ukraine with defensive weapon systems as well as training. That principle remains.
The noble Lord asked specifically whether the weapons that have been delivered are usable only in a defence situation. I wish to reassure him that the answer is yes. They are not for use by either the UK or Ukraine in an aggressive capacity. They are simply there to support Ukraine in self-defence if that need arises. In response to the noble Lord’s concern—we had an interesting discussion yesterday about AUKUS, which was positive and well-informed—I say to him that NATO is regarded as a cornerstone of the UK MoD’s approach to defence and to our capability.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, gave a very accurate analysis of where we have got to, and how he imputes to the Russian Government certain motives and intentions. No one is going to disagree with that analysis. In particular, in relation to sanctions, I reassure the noble Lord that the UK is looking at a package of broad and high-impact sanctions to raise the cost of any further aggressive actions. He is probably aware that we already have in place sanctions in respect of Crimea and the wider activities by Russia in relation to Ukraine. My understanding is that we currently have sanctions on 180 individuals in Russia and 48 entities for the destabilisation of Crimea and Sebastopol and eastern Ukraine. Those economic measures include restrictions on parts of Russia’s finance, energy and defence sectors and trade and investment measures in place.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, also raised the position of Ukraine in respect of the Euro-Atlantic community and its legitimate right to seek to be part of that. That simply reaffirms what was agreed back in Bucharest, that NATO understood that both Ukraine and Georgia, as sovereign states, should have the right to determine what relationships they seek, and that is absolutely correct. He sought reassurance about unity of purpose within NATO. As I indicated to the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, particularly with reference to the recent NATO-Russia Council meeting, that unity of purpose is there.
In relation to the EU, yes, we support the Minsk agreements and the efforts by Germany, France and the Normandy Format to try to take matters forward. That has proved challenging, because Russia is declining to play its part in that. Indeed, one of the difficulties is that France and Germany have a role as mediators, and Ukraine and Russia have roles as parties to the conflict, but Russia refuses to accept that. That is proving to be a roadblock in the process. Indeed, I understand that, very recently, the European Council extended its EU restrictions on Russia. That suggests that the EU has a concern about the continuing situation.
In conclusion, as the noble Lords, Lord Tunnicliffe and Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, have recognised, there is concerted effort by not just the United Kingdom but the United States, NATO, France, Germany and the EU to assist in the de-escalation of this tension, but there is a united desire to support the absolute, fundamental right of Ukraine to be treated with respect and correctly under international law as a sovereign state and not to find itself subject to threat and illegal incursions. That is something that the international community regards as fundamentally important, and it is why we will all work in unison to do our very best to support Ukraine.
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, outlined very clearly President Putin’s intent. I also commend my right honourable friend Ben Wallace’s article yesterday in the Times. Like all bullies, President Putin responds to only one thing, strength, and so I welcome yesterday’s Statement. Equally, as NATO, we must not be seen to provoke Russia—let us be clear, President Putin will go a long way to be provoked—but nor is it our right to somehow negotiate away Ukraine’s right to join NATO if it wishes to do so. If we have yet more requests from Ukraine for, potentially, weapons with which to defend itself or other training, will we maintain an open mind and support our ally in its time of need?
Yes, I reassure my noble friend that we will do everything we can to support Ukraine. As I said earlier, Ukraine is a friend and an important bilateral defence partner. In terms of the agreements it has reached in its own right, and legitimately so, with the international community and NATO, it has positions which should be respected. Like NATO, the UK will continue to review, assess and monitor, and we shall continue to respond, in conjunction with our allies, in the best way we can.
My Lords, I welcome the Statement and particularly that, of its three pages, one is devoted to dialogue, which is the only way in which the dreadful current set of circumstances will be resolved. However, I am disappointed that, despite the fact that the paragraphs on dialogue begin with the sentence
“I must stress that no one wants conflict”,
there is no recognition that there is existing conflict. There is conflict going on in the eastern part of Ukraine and, despite the refreshment of a ceasefire on 22 December, violations of that ceasefire continue. In fact, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission to Ukraine’s daily report for today says that it recorded, in the last 24 hours, 113 ceasefire violations in the Donetsk region. In the Luhansk region,
“the Mission recorded two ceasefire violations, including one explosion”
and 144 violations in the previous 24 hours. There is existing conflict going on and people are suffering. There are missing persons and all the aspects of violence that we have come to know in many countries across the world recently. My question for the Ministry of Defence, the Minister, the Secretary of State and the Government is: what are we doing to try to lessen or cease that violence for the people who are living with it daily? It is so bad that that amazing mine-clearance organisation, the HALO Trust, has had to suspend its work in the region at the moment.
The noble Lord makes a very important point. He is right that we should remember that a considerable part of Ukraine continues to be illegally occupied, with the negative and unwelcome consequences to which he referred.
The United Kingdom, as the noble Lord will be aware, has supported Ukraine for over 30 years since it became a sovereign state in its own right. Since 2015, through Operation Orbital the UK has done what it can to help build what I described earlier as the resilience of the Ukrainian armed forces. We have provided defensive training to over 22,000 Ukrainian troops since 2015. That includes the maritime training initiative, to which I referred, to help the Ukrainian navy rebuild its capacity.
In June last year we entered into an agreement with Ukraine through a memorandum of implementation, which affirmed the UK as open to supply Ukraine with defensive weapons systems as well as training. That principle remains. The noble Lord will possibly be aware that we signed a UK export finance treaty last November to finance the Ukraine naval capabilities enhancement project. That treaty amounts to £1.7 billion of assistance.
That is meaningful help and it might assist your Lordships to understand that this is not just empty rhetoric. The proposal is that there will be missile sale and integration on new and in-service Ukrainian navy patrol and airborne platforms, including a training and engineering support package. There is a going to be development and joint production of eight fast-missile warships with modern defensive armaments. We will also assist with the creation of a new naval base in the Black Sea as a primary fleet for Ukraine and a new base in the Sea of Azov.
What the UK is trying to do in a holistic manner is to come to Ukraine’s aid in helping it to be more ready to defend itself. I think the UK can be satisfied with, and justly admired for, the help it has been giving. It has not been doing that alone, of course. As the noble Lord will be aware, the United States has been assisting as well.
The United Kingdom is very conscious of the extremely sensitive position in which Ukraine finds itself, not least because of the issues to which the noble Lord referred, but we are doing a number of very substantive things to assist it.
The Minister was right to emphasise the importance of respecting the sovereignty of Ukraine. In 1989, I was privileged to be in Lviv in Ukraine at the time of the pro-democracy rallies there, when they were trying to throw off the hegemony of the Kremlin. Does the Minister agree that part of the Putin narrative is the recreation of the Soviet Union and that his regime is pushing in every direction it can to try to achieve that?
I particularly welcome what the Secretary of State for Defence said yesterday in pointing to Vladimir Putin’s 7,000-word essay, which has ethnonationalism at its heart. Only one paragraph mentions what the Secretary of State calls
“the straw man of NATO”;
in other words, this is an excuse to talk about NATO when there is a whistle blowing from the Kremlin, trying to whip up ancient hatreds.
Are we western nations not in danger of falling into the Byzantine trap? The Byzantines, when they had the enemy at the gates, were arguing about the gender of angels. Is it not important that, despite the vested interests the West has in gas, oil and the rest, we stand together and recognise what the people of Ukraine fought for in 1989 in seeking their independence and stand with them at this terrible time of trial?
I think very few people would disagree with the noble Lord’s sentiments and I thank him for his reference to the comments by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I think an earlier contributor mentioned his article in the Times yesterday. I thought it was an extremely helpful analysis and a very clear illustration that in the West we totally understand what is happening and see through it. I think there is a need for that candour and that rigour.
I feel that in the current situation there is a need to be absolutely focused on where the immediate threat lies. As we speak, something like 100,000 Russian military are amassed on the borders of Ukraine. That is the actual threat and that is why we have to address our thoughts to how best we support Ukraine with a variety of measures, whether that is what we were doing in supplying from the UK these weapons that can be used in a defensive capacity, whether it is that we propose to apply sanctions if anything unacceptable happens, or whether it is that NATO and the EU are united as to a response against anything that President Putin may be minded to do which, quite simply, is unacceptable, contravenes international law and is an affront to the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine.
My Lords, just over 100 years ago, Europe descended into war when no one wanted that sort of escalation. On that or any similar analogy, how can you ever get into a mode of de-escalation, which the Minister referred to? I do not disagree with anything that has been said this evening, but I press her on the point that I am raising, which has not been addressed: how do the Government think that de-escalation can come about in any way, given the pride all around? In 1,000 years of Russian history, Ukraine was always part of the Kievan Rus, and Kiev is in Ukraine. There was also the Battle of Balaclava and War and Peace, which every Russian child has read. In this country, where I live, all the roads are named after Balaclava or somewhere else in the Crimean War.
Consistent with not playing chicken or being the one that looks scared, how can we get to practical de-escalation? That is a simple question, and I would like to hear a little more from the Minister on how we get to a scenario with a degree of de-escalation—or is that just a pipe dream?
It need not be a pipe dream, but it requires both a recognition by President Putin that he seems determined to pursue a provocative and dangerous route and an understanding by him that little—nothing—positive is to be gained by that and that he has to play his part as an international leader, which one assumes he wishes to be recognised as, and agree to enter into what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, wisely alluded to: dialogue. I totally agree with the noble Lord that dialogue is the only way to address de-escalation. We require President Putin to play his part.
It is important to say that our divergence, as the United Kingdom, is with the Russian Government, not the Russian people. We have had a very happy history of sharing many things in common with them, but we certainly do not welcome the current relationship that has emerged in relation to the Russian Government, induced by the aggressive and provocative actions of President Putin. So I say to the noble Lord: it is difficult.
Yesterday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State said in the other place that there is a “gap”. It need not be unbridgeable. To echo what the noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, said, we all have to use every ounce of energy we possess to keep trying harder to keep doors open and to persuade President Putin to understand that this route will not enhance Russia or be positive for him—and to understand that he should consider the legitimate position of Ukraine and agree to come to the international fora and discuss his concerns. That is what we are determined to try to encourage.
My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the Government are drawing up a much tougher list of sanctions and asset freezes for anyone connected with Putin and his dictatorship—people in the Russian Government and parliament—including excluding Russia from the SWIFT banking system? Can she assure us that reports from the last few days that that is off the table are not true and that the international community will exclude Russia from the SWIFT banking system?
As I said earlier, the UK is looking at a package of broad and high-impact sanctions to raise the cost of any further aggressive actions by President Putin. I cannot comment on the detail of what these proposals are, but we are ready to act—and, as my right honourable friend in the other place indicated yesterday, we are not alone. A range of sanctions is available that are going to be enacted if there is any deterioration in the situation.
There are terrible things going on in Belarus, between Belarus and Poland. I have some friends in the Baltic states who are reporting similar troop build-ups along the frontiers with Russia there. I suspect similar things are happening towards the south, east of the Black Sea. Are the Government aware of Mr Putin’s attempts, shall we say, to recreate the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and what are we doing about it? Are we just going to wait till it gets worse?
The activities of NATO in recent years have included a much more forward presence in the Baltic area, in which the United Kingdom plays an important part. We are alert, as is NATO, to anything which may compromise Euro-Atlantic security. If we are aware of any proposal which would compromise that security, we will, in conjunction with our allies and partners in NATO, consider how best to respond to that.
My Lords, a few minutes ago in Berlin, the Secretary-General of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, said that the risk of conflict is real. Does the Minister agree? Can the Minister tell the House what discussions are being held by the British Government with NATO right now? In respect of what may happen in the future, I—like many noble Lords—worry about miscalculation. If President Putin makes the grave error of invading Ukraine, could the Minister comment on the possible risks that UK personnel, who have been helping the Ukrainian forces to train, might become embroiled in direct conflict with forces from Russia?
As has been made clear, we have a training presence in Ukraine, Operation Orbital. In respect of the announcement, the subject of this Statement, which my right honourable friend dealt with in the other place, it is very clear that we will have a small training presence for a short period of time in relation to the pieces of equipment that we are proposing to deliver to Ukraine. We are constantly in discussion with allies and with NATO. We recognise that that is the only, and best, way to try to ensure that everyone has the unity of purpose that was referred to earlier. That is extremely important.
My Lords, I welcome yesterday’s Statement. It is refreshing to see western unity when it comes to defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of an ally. There is another country that is in the Kremlin’s sights, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Russians are trying to open another front. Unfortunately, there is not the same unity in response. We have been lagging behind the United States in responding by applying sanctions, and our European allies are split down the middle, with some, such as Croatia, Slovenia and Hungary, openly supporting Russian interests in the Balkans. Will the Minister tell the House how we can work better with our allies, and show a unity of purpose regarding this country as well?
I reassure my noble friend that we take the situation in the western Balkans very seriously. We are regularly engaged with the western Balkan countries, not least with Bosnia and Herzegovina, and we have ministerial engagement on a regular basis with these countries. We try to ensure that we support resilience; we provide training and advice, and we try to do everything we can to encourage harmony and stability. I reassure my noble friend that there is very close communication with the western Balkan states, and we regard that as important, because the area is of strategic significance.