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Volume 824: debated on Thursday 20 October 2022


My Lords, I beg leave to repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence, Mr Ben Wallace, on Ukraine. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Deputy Speaker, with permission I would like to make a Statement on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

We are now 239 days into the operation that President Putin planned to conclude within a month. Active Ukrainian offensive operations continue in the north-east, near Svatove, and in the Kherson region in the south. If Ukraine successfully advances on Svatove, a key road and rail junction, it will constitute another severe blow to the logistical viability of the northern sector of Russia’s Donbass front.

Yesterday, the new Russian commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, offered an unusually candid public statement of the difficulty of the Russian position in Kherson, on the right bank of the Dnipro river. Pro-Russian occupation forces have now started to withdraw some categories of civilians east of the river. They claim 7,000 people have already departed, and aim to move another 10,000 a day, though we cannot yet verify those figures. Russia’s limited hold on the west bank of the Dnipro looks shaky. They are likely more seriously considering a draw-down of their forces in the area.

Russia’s ground campaign is being reversed. It is running out of modern long-range missiles and its military hierarchy is floundering. They are struggling to find junior officers to lead the rank and file. Meanwhile, their latest overall commander has a 30-year record of thuggery marked even by the standards of the Russian army. What will worry President Putin is that the open criticism is inching closer and closer to the political leadership of his country. Russia has strong-armed Belarus into facilitating its disastrous war, but the newly announced ‘Russian-Belarusian Group of Forces’, supposedly to be deployed in Belarus, is unlikely to be a credible offensive force. It is far more likely that Russia is attempting to divert Ukrainian forces from their successful counteroffensives.

As Russia’s forces are pushed back, they are resorting to directly striking Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure, especially the power grid. It should be noted that these facilities have no direct military role, but the impact is multiplying the misery of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Notably, these strikes are partially being conducted by loitering munitions—so called kamikaze drones. Despite Tehran’s denials, these weapons are being provided by Iran, another sign of the strategic degradation of Russia’s military.

In the wake of these ongoing and indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure, the UK continues to give air defence missiles to Ukraine. We are proud to be the second-largest donor of military equipment, and last week I announced that the UK would be providing additional air defence missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russian missile strikes. These include AMRAAMs—air-to-air missiles—which, used in conjunction with the NASAMS air defence system pledged by the United States, are capable of shooting down cruise missiles. We continue to provide sophisticated electronic warfare equipment which gives additional protection against long-range drones and missiles.

Supporting Ukraine remains the Ministry of Defence’s main effort. We are helping Ukraine to replenish its stocks to keep up fighting. As winter approaches, we are developing a package to support Ukrainians through the winter, including 25,000 sets of winter clothing, so that they are more effective on the battlefield than their poorly trained, badly prepared and ill-equipped Russian counterparts, many of whom have been mobilised at short notice with little training, equipment or preparation.

As part of Operation Interflex, we are also continuing to train Ukrainian recruits in the United Kingdom alongside our Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Lithuanian, New Zealand, Norwegian and Swedish partners. We have so far trained over 7,000 soldiers and are currently on track to train 10,000 by the end of the year, with up to 20,000 to follow in 2023.

Furthermore, we have worked with allies and partners to establish an international fund, which will ensure a continued supply of essential lethal and non-lethal military support to Ukraine, as well as manufacturing capacity. To date, we have received pledges totalling approximately £600 million and continue to work with international partners to secure further funding. Today, we will launch the first urgent bidding round to identify and procure critical capabilities which can be rapidly deployed to Ukraine.

I would also like to share with the House details of a recent incident which occurred in international airspace over the Black Sea. On 29 September, an unarmed RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint civilian ISTAR aircraft on routine patrol over the Black Sea was interacted with by two Russian armed Su-27 fighter aircraft. It is not unusual for aircraft to be shadowed and this day was no different. During that interaction, however, it transpired that one of the Su-27 aircraft released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint, beyond visual range. The total time of the interaction between the Russian aircraft and the Rivet Joint was approximately 90 minutes.

The patrol was completed and the aircraft returned to its base. In the light of this potentially dangerous engagement, I have communicated my concerns directly to my Russian counterpart, Defence Minister Shoigu, and the Chief of the Defence Staff has also communicated his concerns to Moscow. In my letter, I made it clear that the aircraft was unarmed, in international airspace and following a pre-notified flight path. I felt it was prudent to suspend these patrols until a response was received by the Russian state.

The reply by the Russian Ministry of Defence on 10 October stated that it had conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the incident and that it was a technical malfunction of the Su-27 fighter. It also acknowledged that the incident took place in international airspace. The UK Ministry of Defence has shared this information with allies and, after consultation, I have restarted routine patrols, but this time escorted by fighter aircraft.

Everything that we do is considered and calibrated with regard to ongoing conflict in the region and in accordance with international law. We welcome Russia’s acknowledgment that this was in international airspace. The UK has conducted regular sorties of the RAF Rivet Joint in international airspace over the Black Sea since 2019, and we will continue to do so. For security reasons, I will not provide further commentary on the detail of these operations, but I assure the House that this incident will not prevent the United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine and resistance to Russia’s illegal invasion.

The UK Government’s position remains unchanged, with consistent support, I am pleased to say, from across the House. We will continue to support the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland, and the rules-based system. It has protected all nations from such naked and unprovoked aggression over the last 75 years; it was also helped and shaped by Russia in that time. This Government will always defend it because these rules-based systems are fundamental to who we are, and provide peace and security for this country and our partners and allies. I commend this Statement to the House.”

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement on Ukraine made earlier today in the other place, and I welcome its contents.

Obviously, there is currently chaos in government, with a new Prime Minister, whoever that is, to be in place soon. Given this political uncertainty, will the Minister take this opportunity to say loudly and clearly that, whatever the outcome of all this political uncertainty, our resolve to support Ukraine will remain as steadfast as it has been and nothing will shake our joint resolve to support Ukraine and NATO in facing up to Russia and its illegal invasion? Will the Minister resolve to ensure that President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine are made aware of that? Indeed, President Putin himself must be in no doubt that, whatever the political uncertainty, there will be no weakening of our resolve.

To that end, talking of our new Prime Minister, what is the government policy on defence spending at present? The former Prime Minister said 3% by 2030, but last night the Chief of the Defence Staff said it was only a potential increase to 3%. Can we please have some clarity on that?

The Statement tells us that as Russian forces are pushed back, they are resorting to directly striking Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure, especially the power grid, with consequent misery for the people of Ukraine. Given that the so-called kamikaze drones being used are supplied by Iran, can the Minister update us on what discussions have taken place between our Government and Iran but also between NATO and Iran about the supply of these weapons to Russia?

The Minister tells us that we are supplying a considerable number of air defence missiles, which is very welcome and we can be rightly proud of it. Are we able to keep up with the demand for these missiles with our US and NATO allies? Can we provide all the lethal and non-lethal equipment that is being requested?

In answer to questions in the other place earlier today, the Minister there spoke about the withdrawal of troops from Estonia. Can the Minister update us a bit more on the Government’s position with respect to troop levels in Estonia?

As a result of the advance of Ukrainian forces and Russian difficulties in Kherson, the Minister has just told us that thousands of people are being moved, with thousands more to follow. Who are these people, how are they chosen and where are they actually being moved to? There are also reports of Russia planning to blow a dam near Kherson and then blaming the Ukrainians. Does the Minister have any comment to make about that?

The Statement talks about candid remarks made by the new Russian commander about the difficulties they are facing. Can the Minister explain the remark, “What will worry Putin is that the open criticism is inching closer to the political leadership too”? That is a direct quote. It would be helpful if the Minister could say what evidence there is for that and what that sentence actually means.

We read of the Defence Secretary’s recent visit to Washington, which was organised so quickly that he had to miss a Select Committee meeting at the last minute, to discuss, according to Secretary Blinken, support for Ukraine and the serious security threat that Russia poses to the Europe, the US and the world. What threats were discussed? What was the purpose of this last-minute meeting?

Worryingly, as the Minister has just told us, it is reported that a Russian fighter jet released a missile near an unarmed British spy plane over the Black Sea. Can the Minister confirm that the Defence Secretary has accepted completely Russian assurances that this was the result of a malfunction? Does it not, however, show how careful we all must be to prevent any possible escalation? Have there been any other similar incidents on land, sea or air?

Yesterday the US imposed new sanctions on Russia, targeting a network accused of procuring military and dual-use technologies from US manufacturers and illegally supplying them to Russia for its war in Ukraine. RUSI has confirmed that UK components are also appearing in Russian weaponry. Can the Minister confirm whether we are looking at the imposition of a similar sanction on Russia?

Lastly, can the Minister tell us anything about the new MoD assessment of the threat to Ukraine from Belarus? Kyiv believes that it is a very real threat.

I reiterate our support for the Government in their actions in respect of Ukraine.

My Lords, as so often on these occasions, I rise in many ways to endorse all the questions and comments of the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and to echo the support for His Majesty’s Government’s commitment to Ukraine. It is very welcome that the Secretary of State for Defence, reiterated by the Minister, noted the commitment to continue to support the Ukrainian people, which is absolutely right. They are defending their homeland against an illegal invasion, and it is absolutely right that we should continue to support them.

In light of that—in many ways, I might sound a bit like an echo of the Labour Front Bench—what assessment have the Government made of the relationship with Iran? That is a slightly different question, but if the kamikaze drones are coming from Iran, and there is a fairly strong sense that they are, have the Government made any further assessment of how dependent Russia is or might be on Iranian weapons? There is surely a danger of escalation into a wider region. Given that the United Kingdom, along with many of our allies, has supported the reintroduction of the JCPOA, where are we in negotiations with Iran, and is that an area where the Government could hold to account the Government of Iran?

Turning to the question of escalation over the Black Sea, to what extent are His Majesty’s Government satisfied that the incident with the Russian fighter jet was a one-off? Was it just an accident? Is there not a danger of escalation if we now feel that we need to send our unmanned flights with armed support? To what extent is there a danger of unintended consequences as the United Kingdom responds to unintentional attacks—if we are being generous in our analysis of what Russia may or may not have done?

Beyond that, it is very welcome that we are continuing to train Ukrainian soldiers. The numbers we are training sound very positive, and similarly, sending cold-weather kit is highly desirable. What other activities are His Majesty’s Government undertaking to support Ukraine in a non-military sense? As the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out, Russia has been attacking critical infrastructure, particularly energy sources. To what extent is the United Kingdom seeking to support Ukraine to make sure it can keep the lights on? On the diplomatic approach, to what extent is His Majesty’s Government having conversations with China, perhaps in margins of the United Nations and elsewhere? Whatever our difficulties with China might be on some issues, it is perhaps best placed to persuade Putin that further perpetration of this illegal war is not in Russia’s interests, and that deconflicting the situation is possibly best promoted by China. Are the Government discussing this informally, behind the scenes?

Finally, obviously, I have to ask about defence expenditure. Liz Truss committed to 3% by 2030. The Chancellor of the Exchequer—the Jeremy Hunt version—did not rule that in. Does the Minister believe that there is a firm commitment to 3% of GDP for defence? Will she and the Secretary of State please fight to ensure that we keep our defence expenditure where it needs to be to keep this country secure and to support all our commitments to NATO and other allies?

My Lords, may I thank the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, for the tenor of their remarks? It is a great pleasure to stand as a Minister at the Dispatch Box with business as usual. That is where we are at the MoD, that is what we are getting on with, and it would be perilous if we were distracted from that core mission. I want to reassure your Lordships that I have not just a deep friendship with the Secretary of State for Defence, but the most profound respect for him, as I think everyone has. I wish to reassure your Lordships that in the MoD, we consider that we have a vital task. Every Minister there has their head down and is getting on with it.

I will try to deal with some of the points raised. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, sought reassurance about our resolve, and whether we will remain steadfast. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, echoed that sentiment. Let me say, without a shadow of a doubt, “Yes”. We have demonstrated our political and national will to support a country in peril and in need, and the victim of a quite outrageous breach of international law with this illegal incursion. We have demonstrated by deed what we are prepared to do by ourselves and in conjunction with NATO partners and with other allies across the globe, as we assist Ukraine in defending itself against this quite appalling and totally unjustified invasion.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, said that President Zelensky should be assured. The MoD has very good and close relationships with Ukraine. I am absolutely certain President Zelensky knows we understand that, while our tumult within the United Kingdom is troubling and distracting, to put things into context, the problems confronting him are of a very different magnitude. None of us should ever forget that, living in democracy which we do. Democracies bring ups and downs, triumph and difficulties, but I know that in this Chamber there are persons of all political hues who have seen that at first hand. Our job is to never take our eye off what we are here to do as public servants and try to do that to the best of our ability. I am sure President Zelensky is aware of that.

Both the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, raised the issue of defence spending. I can confirm that the Secretary of State is committed to the objective of 3% of GDP by 2030, and I entirely support that objective. He made it clear in the other place, earlier today, that it is not just a question of 1 January 2030 arriving and us looking for 3% of GDP. For it to make any sense whatever, because of the nature of the defence budget and the magnitude of it, there has to be a phased increase. That is what the Secretary of State will fight for, that is what he believes is necessary, and he is supported by his Ministers in that objective. While it would be for any new Prime Minister to put his or her stamp on that objective, I think there is a universal understanding across government of the essential importance of what the MoD does, and the need to ensure that it is funded as required. Otherwise, it cannot do the job it is tasked to do.

On the issue of the power grid and the disruption by Russia of Ukrainian energy supplies—an issue that the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, also raised in the context of humanitarian aid—as your Lordships will be aware, a lot has been happening. The UK is providing support for Ukraine’s early recovery through the multi-donor partnership fund for a resilient Ukraine. All of this is extremely important. Through UK export finance, His Majesty’s Government have made £700 million available in financial guarantees to help rebuild homes, bridges and other critical infrastructure destroyed by the war. This facility is part of UKEF’s £3.5 billion capacity to underwrite loans to Ukraine and to support UK businesses exporting to Ukraine with credit and insurance. I hope that indicates to your Lordships that, while the MoD obviously is focused on the delineated area of military support to help Ukraine defend itself, on that wider front a great deal of good work is being down by the UK, and in conjunction with partners. Everyone is cognisant of the need to be sure that there is a sustainable way of helping Ukraine, when this war comes to an end, to rebuild its country.

The issue of diplomatic engagements with Iran was raised. That is for my noble friend Lord Ahmad to respond to, as is it very much a matter for the FCDO. I remind your Lordships that severe sanctions have been applied by both the UK and the United Nations against Iran. We continually review how we can persuade Iran to reconsider what it is doing. I have to say that while Iran may be a problematic country in many respects, historically it is actually one of honourable traditions and pride in its international position. I would have thought it was appalled to see the footage of what these drones were achieving as they were delivered to innocent citizens of Ukraine, and that that might want to make Iran consider just where it is in this.

There was an important question on whether we can keep providing equipment. Yes, and not only have I on previous occasions listed the extensive types of equipment advanced but the Secretary of State, in the Statement I have just repeated, detailed further provisions of equipment, all of which is important to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, raised Estonia. I can say that the 2nd Brigade—the battle group—was put in at the start of the Ukraine war, but it was only ever temporary. We made that clear and it is being withdrawn, but the fundamental presence remains. It is important to look at this across the piece, in terms of what we are providing to Estonia and in the surrounding countries. We are expanding our national headquarters in Estonia. There will be the balance of a full combat brigade, allocated at high readiness for rapid deployment across the Baltic region. There is an increase in the warfighting capability of our forces already based in Estonia. We are helping with the development of the Estonian national divisional C2 through training and mentoring, while seeking opportunities to embed Estonian staff officers within the UK divisional HQs. We are regularly in touch with Estonia. The Secretary of State spoke very recently to his counterpart in the country, and Estonia is very positive about what the UK is doing there.

The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, also raised the issue of people being moved by the Russians in the areas referred to in the Statement. I do not have details of where they are going. That is something we shall try to monitor, but it is a serious issue and, clearly, there must be concerns about their welfare and how they are being looked after. He also asked about the phrase used in the Statement of criticism “inching closer” to Mr Putin. By general acknowledgement—recently, the head of GCHQ made a statement in a radio interview about the situation in Russia—the anecdotal evidence we are picking up is that the Russian population is beginning to understand that there is more to Russia’s illegal war than meets the eye. I think many are getting reports back directly from family members; they are finding that distressing and beginning to question what is going on.

On the Secretary of State’s visit to the United States, at this critical time we think it vital that we keep closely and personally in touch with our most important allies, of which the United States is one. I know from speaking to the Secretary of State that the discussions were very constructive and very useful. They were an important opportunity to make sure that everyone understands the backdrop of what is happening in Ukraine. The House will understand that I cannot disclose further information about these discussions.

On the RAF incident above the Black Sea, there is really no more I can add to what I have already said. The noble Lord, Lord Coaker, asked if I was aware of other incidents. I am not, and I think they would have been brought to my attention if they had occurred, but the matter was handled sensibly and wisely by the Secretary of State. The response the Russian Government gave was regarded as professional and, while there is much to condemn about Russia, I have said before that MoD maintain civilised levels of communication with our counterparts in Russia. That is evidence of it but there is no more I can add about the incident.

Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, asked about China. It is a very important question. We continue to engage with China at all levels in Beijing, London and at the United Nations. We can seek only to influence and make clear to China that we are watching it, as is the rest of the world and whether its actions contribute to peace and stability or fuel aggression. We expect China to stand up for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and uphold its commitment to the United Nations charter.

I have tried to deal with the points raised and I hope I have managed to address the majority of them. I will, as usual, check Hansard. If I have omitted to deal with something, I shall write.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. May I begin by agreeing with everything said by my noble friend—

My Lords, I have the greatest admiration for the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, but I am afraid he was not here for the start of the debate. On this occasion, I have to ask him to hold his question for another time.

My Lords, on this of all days it is a very good thing that we are able to express our national unity behind the Government’s stance on Ukraine. I thank the Minister for the very detailed way in which she tried to answer the questions of my noble friend Lord Coaker and the noble Baroness, Lady Smith.

I have two questions. One relates to the inevitable problem of money and the Treasury. Has the MoD concluded its discussions and negotiations with the Treasury on how the armaments that we have sent to Ukraine will be replaced and on what timescale? Do we know that our defences will not be weakened as a result of what we have done? Is there a commitment on the part of the Treasury—especially given the Statement coming up in 10 days’ time or so—to replace all the kit and armaments that have been sent there? When is that happening?

My second point is not an MoD issue. Is the noble Baroness aware of what steps have been taken across Europe with our European friends and allies, and by us, to assist the Ukrainians practically with keeping their critical infrastructure, particularly their power infrastructure, going throughout the winter? I happen to have been in Ukraine in winter and it is a pretty horrific prospect if they are unable to heat people’s homes. What practical steps have been taken to help them counter the threat from Iranian drones?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. In relation to what has been supplied and how we pay when we come to replenish it, the MoD has proceeded on the basis that it will be paid for by the Treasury. That has been a negotiated position and it is one I would expect to be obtempered and to continue.

On Ukraine’s infrastructure, I indicated to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, some of what the UK was trying to do. As I observed earlier this week, the EU has shown commendable willingness to group together to support the endeavour, discussing with friends and allies how we best make an impact on supporting Ukraine. I reassure the noble Lord that the UK is working closely with the EU on providing Ukraine with military equipment, cyber resilience and humanitarian and economic support—not least with sanctions, energy resilience and countering Russian disinformation. There is work going on. It is perhaps a broader issue than for the MoD, and I am sure it is one that my noble friend Lord Ahmad would be very pleased to take up with the noble Lord.

If there are no other Back-Bench speakers, I would like to ask a question on behalf of my noble friend Lord Campbell, who is absent from the Chamber. I think he perhaps misunderstood the timing of a Statement repeat rather than an Urgent Question repeat. I believe he was going to ask the Minister whether it would be possible to answer a question that both he and I have raised on a couple of occasions recently about the ability of the United Kingdom to continue to supply weapons to Ukraine and about the supply-chain issues. Clearly, it is something on which reassurance would be important.

I find it difficult to see in the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, the demeanour of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, but as a proxy she is very capable. I know that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, is concerned and there is legitimate interest in how we replenish, how we fund and how we keep supplying. I can say that we continually manage and analyse our stock of weapons and munitions, so when the Secretary of State makes an announcement, it has been carefully considered before it is made public. We make these decisions against commitments and threats, because we have our own national security to think of.

We also have to review industrial capacity and supply chains, both domestically and internationally, so that informs not just the numbers of munitions we have granted in kind to the armed forces of Ukraine but the avenues of supply. I can say that industry has been extremely supportive in all of this, and, of course, the noble Baroness will understand that the UK does not work in isolation. We of course have discussions with our partners and allies and then we have discussions with the industry suppliers because it is quite a complicated jigsaw, as the noble Baroness will know. It is a complicated jigsaw because there are a lot of pieces that we keep having to make sure are fitting together. I want to put on record that industry has been very supportive. We work bilaterally with industry, but we also work closely with our international partners, as we are trying to make a coherent presentation and to avoid duplicating what one another is trying to do.