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Ukraine: OSCE Special Monitoring Mission

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 23 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the implications of the withdrawal by the United Kingdom, United States of America, and Canada, of their monitors from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission in Ukraine.

My Lords, in response to the rising threat of massive Russian military intervention in Ukraine, we reluctantly took the decision to withdraw our UK secondees to the OSCE special monitoring mission, in line with our duty of care responsibilities. We are aware that this will have an impact on mission operations. However, the UK remains a strong supporter of the special monitoring mission and will continue to work with the mission to support it in delivering its mandate.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which amounts to, “Other countries will do this for us”. On 20 January, answering a Question, the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe of Epsom, said:

“The OSCE special monitoring missions are essential and the UK is one of the leading contributors to those.”—[Official Report, 20/1/21; col. 1753.]

I appreciate that the incursion of Russian troops into the supposedly independent breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk threatens the continued presence of the SMM in these areas, but that was not the case when we withdrew our monitors. Does the Minister accept that this OSCE operation is one of the few tools, if not the only tool, that the international community has agreed and that is readily available in theatre? Does he agree that any limitations to the ability of the mission to provide verified facts are nothing less than an invitation to construct unverified pretexts for more violence? Even under the current dire circumstances, more monitoring and verification, not less, would give the right signal, including one to demonstrate solidarity with Ukraine.

I did not hear the first part of the question, which I think related to other countries and their reactions to the threat. If I am wrong, I apologise. A number of participating states are taking a similar decision to us, including the US, Canada, Ireland, Denmark and Albania. On the noble Lord’s broader point, we fully recognise the critically important role of the mission in reducing tensions and helping to foster peace, stability and security, and that our withdrawal will have an impact. There is no argument there. We continue strongly to support the SMM and its mandate. We will continue to work with the mission to support its ongoing delivery of that mandate, including calling for the SMM to have free, safe, unconditional access throughout Ukraine, including in non-government-controlled Donetsk and Luhansk. The mission continues to face unprecedented restrictions on its freedom overwhelmingly in those non-government-controlled areas, as well as targeting of its technological capabilities.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the OSCE monitors provide the best and possibly the only totally objective means of telling the rest of the world if the Russians add to what is already an incursion into Ukraine by crossing the ceasefire line? Is it not therefore extraordinarily unhelpful that we have withdrawn our observers from that? Are there not still some NATO allies who have observers with the mission? Surely it is necessary, if we are to muster a worldwide condemnation and reaction to any further Russian incursion, for that mission to be effective?

My Lords, the UK had the third largest number of monitors and is the leading financial contributor to the mission. Because of the rising threat from Russia and our duty of care responsibilities to those taking part, the UK made a difficult decision to withdraw. However, our secondees remain on contract and we are ready to deploy them as soon as the situation allows. That is of course what we want to do.

My Lords, when the UK ambassador to the OSCE talked about withdrawal, he noted that, even in the four months to 12 January, the number of weapons in the area doubled against what was in the Minsk agreement. That was when our monitors were there. What sort of evidence does Her Majesty’s Government imagine there can be when no monitors are present? As the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Browne, said, that evidence is vital, otherwise we will have fake news from the Kremlin.

My Lords, as I said, we continue strongly to support the SMM. We are calling for it to have free, safe and unconditional access throughout the country, including those areas described by Russia as independent republics. The situation on the ground required the Government to make a decision. I will not second-guess that decision.

My Lords, yesterday, the Minister for Europe told an OSCE meeting that Russia had rejected the diplomatic efforts of the OSCE’s chair in office, refused to engage in the proposed renewed European security dialogue and boycotted every meeting called by Ukraine under chapter 3 of the Vienna document. Can the noble Lord tell us what, if any, opportunities remain for Russia to engage properly with the OSCE to find a diplomatic resolution?

My Lords, all options are open to the Russians to engage in the kind of dialogue that might help prevent an escalation in the current situation. It is worth remembering that there are few—if any—countries in the world more highly skilled in the distribution of misinformation. In this Question, we are discussing Russian claims about the withdrawal. Their pitch is that withdrawal indicates knowledge of an alleged imminent Ukrainian offensive. This is clearly and self-evidently false. Our decision to withdraw was based on a threat posed by Russia—nothing else.

My Lords, is my noble friend really saying that the withdrawal took place because of a Russian threat to the safety of these people? Does this not smack of pusillanimity on the part of the Government?

Yes, I am saying that the Government took their decision to safeguard the lives of the people in question. The noble Lord can draw his own conclusion. It is easy to make such statements from the comfort of these red Benches. Nevertheless, it is the Government’s job to ensure, as much as they can, the safety of those people on the front line doing extremely difficult work.

My Lords, is this decision not helping the Russians? They have a strategy and a plan for their misinformation. By withdrawing our people, we have allowed Russia to continue its misinformation and make more efforts with it during the next few weeks.

My Lords, there is no question but that the behaviour of Russia in Ukraine crosses numerous red lines. There is no question either about the seriousness with which we and our allies take that, as is reflected in the package of measures announced earlier by the Prime Minister. We are committed to extend this package as far as is necessary to hit Russia where it hurts.

My Lords, in the light of the Question and given these uncertain times, should not sanctions—or something similar—be seen as a deterrent, rather than as a punishment after the event? What is the Government’s plan if the Russians attack Kyiv?

The noble Viscount makes a good point. As he knows, in the run-up to recent events, the UK, the US and their allies were very clear about threatening sanctions. We had hoped that this threat would deter Russia. Russia has taken the action that it has, and we have responded with sanctions, as we said we would. We have also been clear that the package of measures which we are willing to take and for which we are making preparations will go much further than that announced earlier by the Prime Minister. I am sure that all noble Lords hope, as I do, that the threat of a greatly extended package of measures will act as a deterrent to Russia.

My Lords, evidence that the OSCE has seen shows that some 14,000 people have already died in eastern Ukraine, underlining the nature of the threat that Russia poses. Is not now important for NATO allies to stand together? When the House considers that 75% of NATO’s costs are met by the United States of America and that Europe has a $21 trillion economy, is it not time that everybody else stepped up to the plate and followed the example of this country in meeting their 2% share of NATO’s costs?

I strongly agree with the noble Lord’s comments. In addition to the role we play within NATO and the investment we make in our own capabilities, the Prime Minister has announced a whole package of support, which I will not be able to go into now, to support Ukraine in its current endeavour. The noble Lord is absolutely right that we should encourage other members of NATO to step up.