Skip to main content

Ukraine: Russian Drone Attacks

Volume 825: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Russia’s use of drone attacks against Ukraine.

My Lords, Russia’s forces are resorting to 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 one-way-attack unmanned aerial vehicles—so-called kamikaze drones. These weapons are being provided by Iran, another sign of the strategic degradation of Russia’s military.

I thank the Minister for her Answer. The use of these drones is deeply worrying for everybody right across the world. Will His Majesty’s Government take a lead in international efforts to control the proliferation of these armed drones, particularly to ensure that all parties stick to both the spirit and letter of the missile technology control regime as it pertains to UAVs?

As the right reverend Prelate will be aware, it is not so much the numbers of drones as the way in which they are used, which is required to comply with international law and the law of armed conflict. Drones have allowed Ukraine to stretch the limits of its armed forces, and certainly, having eyes in the sky to spot targets and then direct artillery fire means that it can make better use of what it has.

My Lords, the Government are to be commended for imposing sanctions on three individuals and one commercial entity here in the UK who have been responsible in part for the provision of kamikaze drones to Russia from Iran. What plans do the Government have to work with allies to ensure that sanctions are tethered to international criminal accountability, following the French example? Only two days ago, the French courts decided that two senior executives at Amesys should face prosecution for knowingly providing technology that facilitated the torture of Libyan citizens by the Gaddafi regime. Should we not be following that example?

What is important is that, first, we have an effective sanctions regime. As the noble Lord indicated, the UK has sanctioned more than 1,100 individuals and 100 entities, and with our allies has frozen around £275 billion of assets. The noble Lord will be aware that certain actions constitute breach of law, and those will be acted upon. But perhaps pertinently, the Government are considering closely with international partners all options for seizing assets. They could be used, perhaps, to support the people of Ukraine and contribute towards the reconstruction of their country.

My Lords, is it true that Iranian military experts are providing technical advice on the ground in Crimea? Is that not a blatant breach of UN sanctions?

I have no specific information on that matter. I can make inquiries and, if permitted, I shall disclose to my noble friend what I can.

My Lords, I understand that the Iranian drones are slow, noisy and powered by the equivalent of motorbike engines, and that Ukrainians are shooting them down mainly with machine guns. Are there more modern methods of interception that the West should be providing but has not yet provided—for example, jammers and air-to-air defences?

The noble Lord is correct in that intercepting these drones is challenging because some of them are relatively small in mass, so certain types of weaponry may be more effective than others in addressing them and trying to stop their continued progress. What I can say is that the UK continues to give air defence missiles to Ukraine; we are proud to be the second-largest donor of military equipment. We will provide additional air defence missiles to Ukraine, and we continue to provide sophisticated electronic warfare equipment, which gives additional protection against long-range drones and missiles.

My Lords, have the Government made any detailed assessment of the impact of sanctions on Russia’s ability to produce weapons and deploy them? Is there any indication that the sanctions have in fact affected Russia’s ability to fight?

There is evidence that the sanctions have certainly had an impact on Russia’s ability to operate a functioning economy. As to their impact on its weapons manufacturing, I have no specific information. It may not be information that I would be able to disclose; I will make inquiries and shall certainly respond to the noble and gallant Lord if I can.

My Lords, although concerns about the use of drones are justified, are not both sides—Ukraine and Russia—using them, the Ukrainians very cleverly? A year or so ago, the Azerbaijanis showed that drones can inflict terrific damage on all tanks, unless they are very clever. Is it not evident that drones really are going to be the weapon of the future and that most significant armies are developing them? Can the Minister assure us that, although we are not involved in the ground fighting in Ukraine, we are building up adequate supplies here in Britain? Can she also assure us that we are making them ourselves—or are we importing them?

I have observed before in this Chamber that drones—unmanned aerial vehicles—are part of the UK’s defence capability. My noble friend makes an interesting point. The war in Ukraine has been instructive as to how current warfare is developing and what new stratagems and forms of equipment are necessary to conduct it. He is quite right that unmanned aerial vehicles have a role to perform.

My Lords, last Wednesday’s defence intelligence update on Ukraine stated that no one-way attack UAVs sourced from Iran have been used “since around 17 November” and that the supply is “likely very nearly exhausted”. The same report also stated that the quicker method of resupply is procuring more from overseas. Can the Minister update us on how the Government are acting to prevent or delay this? How will we support Ukraine to take advantage of the Russians’ supply seemingly running out?

The noble Lord is focusing on something very pertinent. Russia has increasingly struggled to secure critical inputs and technologies needed for its war against Ukraine because of unprecedented sanctions and export controls. We are committed to doing everything we can to isolate Russia further, and we are continuing to monitor whether it will extend its procurements from Iran to other suppliers of foreign weapons systems. That would be a very unwelcome development, but one that we would need to be aware of.

My Lords, further to the question that was asked earlier, as Russia has escalated the war in this shocking way, why have we not supplied the Ukrainians with the advanced weapons they need to defend themselves directly and to attack the sites, including those on Russian territory, from which these drones are being launched?

We have been very careful as a country, whether acting bilaterally with Ukraine or in consort with our allies, to ensure that we are responding to what Ukraine says it needs and what Ukraine’s armed forces have identified as the necessary weaponry for them. That is a very important message to listen to, and we have been endeavouring to respond to it as best we can.

My Lords, following on from the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Browne, has the Attorney-General been consulted about the legal liability of countries that supply weapons to other countries in the knowledge that they will be used against civilian targets, contrary to humanitarian law?

I do not know whether the Attorney-General has been consulted, but the noble Lord will be aware that Iran, for example, is breaching United Nations Security Council resolutions. If it continues to do so, there will be continued pressure at United Nations level to address that. We all take very seriously the involvement of Iran and, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, indicated, if Russia were to expand that procurement base, we would look at that with the utmost gravity.

My Lords, as Russia is increasing its attack on Ukraine, what are His Majesty’s Government doing to send more generators to help the Ukrainian population ahead of the harsh winter?

I thank my noble friend. We have been able, as a country, to provide some very meaningful support, particularly on the military side. We have developed a package to support Ukrainians through the winter, including 25,000 sets of winter clothing, so that they are more effective on the battlefield and able to withstand the very low temperatures in Ukraine at this time of year. As my noble friend will be aware, we have also embarked on a number of other measures to support Ukraine in dealing with its damaged critical national infrastructure, and by trying to find ways to help it rebuild its damaged and destroyed buildings.