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Russia: Tactical Nuclear Weapon Deployment

Volume 824: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the risks and consequences of the deployment by Russia of a tactical nuclear weapon, and of possible responses by the West.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper—but I wish it were not necessary to ask it.


My Lords, President Putin’s comments are deeply irresponsible. No other country in the world is talking about nuclear use. President Putin should be clear that, for the UK and our allies, any use at all of nuclear weapons would break a taboo on nuclear use that goes back to 1945 and has held since then. It would lead to severe consequences for Russia. President Putin has launched an illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. His forces continue to commit senseless atrocities. The people of Ukraine are seeking only to restore their sovereignty and territorial integrity, and we will continue to support Ukraine’s right to defend herself.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The House knows very well how terribly dangerous the situation now is, as reflected in the recent comments of the President of the United States. Would the Minister agree that the urgent priority for the UK Government, working with other nuclear powers, including China and India, should be to exert the maximum pressure on Russia not to use a tactical nuclear weapon? Would he further agree that it is in the interests of no nuclear power for nuclear weapons to be used and that, were that event horizon ever to be crossed, the world would face terrifying instability? Should we not be concentrating our efforts on trying to de-escalate the war in Ukraine?

My Lords, these discussions are happening all over the world; it is in no one’s interests whatever that President Putin comes even close to realising the mindless threats that he has been making. But it is incumbent on us, our NATO allies and powers beyond NATO to reiterate the risk that Russia itself and President Putin would face were he to go down that route. I think we can all agree that the language that has been used by NATO and by our friends in America has made that very clear.

Does my noble friend think that the situation in Ukraine and Russia underlines the need for, and the value of having, an independent continuously at sea nuclear deterrent?

That is very much the view of the British Government. As the noble Lord knows, we have maintained and will continue to maintain our deterrent for all eventualities.

My Lords, NATO was created to contain the threat of the former Soviet Union—an entity that no longer exists. It is individual countries, not NATO, that have been aiding and helping the brave people of Ukraine. Would the Minister agree that if we were to say that we will disband NATO it might just give Putin the escape route he so desperately requires? If that does not work, it will at least show the Russian people what sort of person Putin is.

My Lords, it is precisely the existence of NATO that gives us some hope that we can check President Putin’s power. NATO has been very clear, as we as an active member of it have been, that we will continue to respond to Russia’s threat and hostile actions in a united and responsible way, including by significantly strengthening deterrence and defence for all allies. NATO absolutely does not seek confrontation with Russia, but it is nevertheless speaking with one very clear voice.

My Lords, when I stood to intervene a moment ago, I had planned to point out that the head of GCHQ had pointed out that any talk of using nuclear weapons was highly dangerous. I would now add to that that any talk of disbanding NATO is also highly dangerous and misguided.

I had planned to ask the Minister what lessons the Prime Minister had taken away from the meeting of the new European Political Community in Prague last week. She spoke very highly of the fact that there was collective resolve to stand up to Russian aggression. I wonder how that will be demonstrated.

My Lords, in the grimness of the situation in Ukraine and the aggression that has been brought on by Vladimir Putin, one silver lining that has perhaps resulted is that Europe really has come together and really does speak with one voice on this issue. That is reflected in so many other discussions we are having across the board with our friends and allies across the European Union.

My Lords, in the light of the appalling bombardment of Kyiv yesterday, what plans do the Government have to increase military support for Ukraine? Will the Government agree with and endorse the warning issued by General Petraeus last week, who said that any use of nuclear weapons by the Russians would result in the US taking out every Russian force they could see and identify on the battlefield in Ukraine and in Crimea, and every ship in the Black Sea?

My Lords, the UK has been a proud contributor to Ukraine’s heroic efforts. We have given £2.3 billion so far in military support to Ukraine, and we are committed to meeting or exceeding that amount next year. We have provided support in other forms as well, amounting to around £1.6 billion and, as the Prime Minister reiterated today, our support is absolutely unwavering. However, I think it is also clear that were Vladimir Putin to engage in the kind of abomination we are talking about today, the repercussions for him would be very serious indeed.

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest as a vice-chair of the Nuclear Threat Initiative and the chair of the European Leadership Network. In September, Jake Sullivan told CBS’s “Face the Nation” that the US was communicating

“directly, privately and at very high levels to the Kremlin that any use of nuclear weapons will be met with catastrophic consequences for Russia”.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, reminded us, this morning on the “Today” programme, Sir Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ, cautioned that any talk of nuclear weapons was very dangerous and that we need to be very careful about how we talk about that. So is it not best that we take Sir Jeremy’s implied advice and do not keep talking up the potential use of nuclear weapons in this context?

My Lords, there is no one in the House and, indeed, the country who would welcome the threats that we have heard from Russia being realised, but it is important that we reiterate, as NATO and the UK have, that any employment of nuclear weapons would fundamentally alter the very nature of this already grim conflict. It is important that the world is clear that were the fundamental security of any NATO member to be threatened, NATO has the capabilities and the resolve to impose costs on an adversary, whoever that is, that would far outweigh the benefits that any adversary could hope to achieve. I do not believe that that is talking up the prospect of nuclear conflict, which is the very last thing that any of us wants, but it is important nevertheless that the consequences are understood across the board.

My Lords, what is the Government’s assessment of the impact of the present threat and the potential use of tactical nuclear weapons on the wider non-proliferation regime? What measures are they taking to strengthen the long-term resilience of that regime, together with the Article 6 commitments of the NPT?

My Lords, I am not aware of an assessment that has been made by government, so I do not want to provide an answer which would, I am afraid, be off the hoof from my point of view, but I will look into this and ask the appropriate Minister and department whether such an assessment exists and, if it does, I will make sure it is made public.

My Lords, expanding on a point made by the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, one of the most effective ways of minimising the risk of the use of nuclear weapons in this conflict would be for the Chinese leadership to send an unequivocal message, albeit privately, to the Russians that such use would be unacceptable to them. What diplomatic measures are in hand to pursue such an outcome?

The noble and gallant Lord makes an extremely important point. While I cannot go into the details of diplomatic engagement with China on this issue or many others, the point he has made has been absolutely heard and understood and is entirely valid.

My Lords, Putin’s reckless talk should be condemned by all and the situation is serious, but our focus should remain on what is happening in Ukraine. Irrespective of the distortions and lies coming from the Kremlin, now is not the time to weaken or dilute our firm support for the people of Ukraine. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Government will take further steps to strengthen Ukraine’s capacity for air defence?

My Lords, we are not in any respect taking our foot off support for Ukraine. I mentioned earlier the financial and military support we have provided and hinted at the non-military support which amounts to around £1.6 billion so far. In addition to that, we are part of a process of introducing what I think is the largest and most severe economic sanctions package that Russia has ever faced. More than 1,200 individuals have been sanctioned by the UK, as well as 120 entities, including all their subsidiaries. Some 80% of the Russian banking sector is now subject to sanctions and more than 60% of the central bank’s foreign reserves are frozen. We know that one of the many consequences of that package is that companies in Russia are now struggling to produce the weapons that they have been asked to produce by the Russian state.