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Nuclear Treaty: US Withdrawal

Volume 648: debated on Thursday 25 October 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the planned US withdrawal from the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty and its implications for UK and European security.

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman will have to put up with the Minister of State this morning.

If I may, I will first set out some of the context. The intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is an agreement signed 31 years ago, in 1987, between the United States and the Soviet Union. The treaty eliminated nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with intermediate ranges. For over three decades, the INF treaty has played a valuable role in supporting Euro-Atlantic security. By removing an entire class of US and Russian weapons, the treaty has contributed to strategic stability and reduced the risk of miscalculation leading to conflict.

Russia’s aggressive actions, including the threat and use of force to attain political goals, continue to undermine Euro-Atlantic security and the rules-based international order. Full compliance is essential for the treaty to be effective, yet a pattern of behaviour and information over many years has led to widespread doubts about Russia’s compliance. Of course, it was the Obama Administration in 2014 that first strongly called out Russia’s non-compliance with this treaty. It is important to remember that this has been a long-running concern for several US Administrations and, indeed, for their European allies.

Alongside NATO allies in July, we made clear that in the absence of any credible answer from Russia on the 9M729 missile, the most plausible assessment would be that Russia was now in violation of the INF treaty. Since then, we have received no credible answer and so judge that Russia is indeed in violation.

In the interests of preserving the treaty, to which we in the UK and I think all our allies in Europe remain fully committed, we urge Russia to address these concerns in a substantial and transparent way, and to come back into full compliance with the treaty. The situation in which only one side—the United States—adheres to the treaty and Russia remains in non-compliance is not sustainable, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would agree.

It is important to recognise that the US has not yet withdrawn from this treaty. While the treaty remains in force, we shall continue to support it, and in particular to press Russia to return to full and verifiable compliance. Indeed, it is worth noting media reports that Presidents Trump and Putin plan to meet in France next month—on Remembrance Sunday—to discuss this further. May I reassure the hon. Gentleman, and indeed the House at large, that dialogue is ongoing and that we shall remain in close contact with our US and NATO allies?

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank the Minister for a very helpful reply.

As the Minister said, last week President Trump announced that the United States intends to leave the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was signed by the US and Soviet Russia in 1987. At that time, the threat of nuclear war brought the two great powers together at the negotiation table. The result of those negotiations was the elimination of all short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, many of which were placed in Europe. Worryingly, however, nuclear war seems more tangible and real today than at any time since Reagan and Gorbachev signed the INF. Yet instead of realising this very real threat and its implications for global peace and security, the United States has apparently decided unilaterally to pull out, offering no alternative proposal or replacement. That is why I very much welcome the Minister’s comments.

What we are seeing at the moment is the erosion of the rules-based international order that underpins global peace and security. I must point out that the US was at the forefront of painstakingly creating such a system over the past 70 years. Leaving the INF is a dangerous unravelling of part of the architecture of trust and understanding that has prevented nuclear conflict. That system began exactly 50 years ago with the signing of the non-proliferation treaty, and certainly Labour Members—and, I am sure, those on both sides of the House—strongly support it.

Many experts have concluded that we are now entering a new arms race that has the potential to be more unpredictable and dangerous than at any time during the cold war. Have the UK Government consulted the United States on the implications that an arms race might have for European and United Kingdom security? I ask because this has deep implications for European security. In 1987, Europe was at the epicentre of the cold war and the arms race between Russia and America. Today, events in places such as Ukraine, and even here at home in Salisbury, have shown that Europe is at the forefront of a new conflict between east and west.

Withdrawal from the INF brings back the spectre of Pershing missiles being stationed in Europe and here in the United Kingdom, which I remember vividly from the 1980s. If such a nuclear conflict was to happen between the two major nuclear powers, the UK and our European allies would probably be the first to be hit. Finally, have the Government been given assurances by the United States Administration that we will not see a return of the deployment of short and intermediate-range missiles in Europe?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I know that he and I agree—I hope the whole House would agree—that there is a great worry that there seems to be an erosion of the international rules-based order on which we have relied since the second world war. I think that we all recognise that that order perhaps needs to evolve and adapt to the world we are living in, and we need to engage with as many partners as possible to ensure that that comes to pass.

We have long-standing concerns about Russia’s development of a range of new capabilities that stand ready to undermine strategic stability. The US is a responsible nuclear power, with which we work closely. I have twice been to the UN Security Council in the past year for the debates that have taken place on non-proliferation. Interestingly, those debates were held at the behest of Kazakhstan and other nations that one would not necessarily think of as being immediately concerned about such matters. It is very much the policy to reduce the number of nuclear weapons. We shall continue to work with all partners across the international community to prevent proliferation and to make progress on multilateral nuclear disarmament.

I wish to touch on one other matter that the hon. Gentleman did not mention but is worth commenting on. As he is aware, there is also the bilateral new strategic arms reduction treaty. It was signed in 2011 by the US and Russia, and is designed to expire, under a 10-year process, in 2021. We are very pleased that both sides met limits by the deadline earlier this year, and we welcome the continued implementation of that treaty, which has an important impact on the broader proliferation of nuclear and other weaponry. New START contributes to international stability, and allies have expressed strong support for its continued implementation, and for early and active dialogue on ways to improve strategic stability.

This week marks the anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, when the world came to the brink of nuclear war. Clearly the most important issue is that both sides have to come to compliance. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that Russia needs to come to compliance with its obligations under the treaty to make the world safe?

My hon. Friend was alive during the time of the Cuban missile crisis, unlike one or two of us on the Government Benches—and elsewhere I am sure, but I would not wish to be too glib about it.

We absolutely recognise the seriousness of the challenge that lies ahead. Tackling INF is essential for the security of the US and Europe, but we need to ensure that all sides that sign up to such agreements continue to implement them fully. That is where we are at the moment—working with all our allies to get Russia back to the negotiating table and keeping to its obligations.

I was definitely not alive at the time of the Cuban missile crisis, but I have been to eastern Ukraine, and two miles from the contact line with its occupied part, so I am under no illusion about the threat from Russian aggression. The Minister knows that Scottish National party Members have supported the Government on that when required. However, if we believe in the integrity of this vital treaty—the shadow Minister was right to adumbrate its importance—it cannot be the case that we can bring Russia into compliance at the same time as the United States is threatening to depart from it. It therefore follows that we cannot be cheerleaders for the US departing from the treaty. There were somewhat mixed messages—the Minister has partly cleared things up this morning—coming from the Defence Secretary in New York at the tail end of last week, when he stated that we would be with the United States should it choose to leave the INF treaty. I hope the Minister will confirm that the British Government should not take such a position. I would hope that Britain will knock heads together. He will have our support if he chooses to do that, because if the integrity of the treaty is unravelled by President Trump—I am mindful that this is all during an election campaign—we will all be the worse off for it.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his wise comments. It is important to recognise that the US has not yet withdrawn from the treaty, and clearly we are in discussions with all our allies to avoid that outcome, but it is equally important that Russia returns to full and verifiable compliance. It is also worth reflecting, as I did in my comments about New START, on the fact that there are other treaties around. I accept that this issue very much focuses the minds of all of us on the European continent, but other treaties are still being adhered to, and that is a positive starting point in trying to bring both sides together.

It is my understanding that it would take six months to withdraw from the treaty under the formal process. Is it effectively the case that we now have a crucial six-month period in which to make some progress in reaching an agreement between Russia, America and ourselves?

I reassure my hon. Friend that we engage routinely with the US on a wide range of foreign policy and security issues, and similarly, this week US officials in Moscow will be talking about a range of issues. There is a timeframe, as my hon. Friend rightly points out. We very much want to adhere to the treaty while it is in place, and in our view it is Russia’s responsibility to come to the table and ensure the proper implementation of its obligations.

President Trump’s decision to withdraw unilaterally from hard-won international agreements, including the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, is cause for concern. I agree with the Minister that states need to honour the commitments they have entered into, but does he agree that it sends a damaging message about the need for international agreements to solve the problems of the world when the United States of America can no longer be relied on to uphold agreements that it freely entered into?

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government also have concerns about the Paris climate change agreement, and we think it greatly to be regretted that the US decided to withdraw from it. I reiterate that it is important to recognise that the US has not yet withdrawn from this treaty, and it is the work of allies—particularly here on the European continent, and not least the big three of the United Kingdom, Germany and France—to try to exert as much pressure as possible in that regard. The easiest way to resolve this matter is to ensure that the bilateral arrangement that has been in place for 31 years is adhered to by one of the parties that is not doing so. In a way, this is frustration boiling over, and as I have pointed out, this is not something new to the Trump Administration; this high-profile issue goes back almost half a decade, including during the Obama Administration.

I am sure that the Minister agrees that none of us wants a return to the era of thousands of short and intermediate-range nuclear warhead missile delivery systems in Europe that could potentially be used at a moment’s notice to start a world war. Does he agree that when Russia has developed a new missile system that is potentially in breach of this treaty, we must be clear that that treaty will not survive if one party ignores its obligations?

My hon. Friend is right and there are very deep-seated concerns, not only for the US but for all allies about Russia’s development of new missile systems. Those long-standing concerns are shared by all NATO allies, not least those close to the Russian border. Along with NATO allies, and supported by US efforts, we worked to bring Russia back into compliance as recently as the NATO summit last July.

One disturbing thing that President Trump added to this conversation was when he said that he is not convinced by the treaty because it does not include China, which is increasing its arsenal. Does that suggest that something in the mind of the President of the United States of America would quite like an escalation of nuclear weaponry? That is something to be abhorred by us all, is it not?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is, in part, in the realms of speculation. As Members will know, Russia and the US alone are the countries bound by the treaty, although it obviously impacts on many other countries across the world, especially in Europe. We are engaging, and will continue to engage, with the United States Administration to understand their assessment, although obviously, I, too, have read some of the speculation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. Fundamentally, this treaty concerns Euro-Atlantic security and can be effective only if there is full compliance.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm what specific engagement there has been with representatives from the US Administration and Russian authorities on these matters?

I hope my hon. Friend will recognise that I do not want to get into too many matters of sensitive intelligence regarding verification and other issues. Clearly, lines of communications are open, and not just with the US. One benefit, however frustrating, of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Russia is that we are members of the UN Security Council, and there are opportunities to engage on a regular basis. My hon. Friend should be assured that we will continue to do so.

There is a continuing undermining of the international order by many nations across the world, including Russia and China. How will the UK Government ensure that upholders of the international order—NATO, the UN, the USA, Britain and Europe—make the case that the person who is also undermining that international order, President Trump, must show an example, or else we cannot make that argument to other countries?

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from on this matter. He wants to criticise the US Administration, but the truth of the matter is that there has been frustration on this issue for over half a decade. We are working closely, and do work closely, with the US to try to ensure nuclear non-proliferation. I agree that it is a matter of great concern that we are living in a world where there are continued threats, from a number of unexpected quarters, towards a rules-based international system that has stood the world in very good stead over the past seven decades. I spend a lot of time in the Foreign Office on this matter. I know that the new Foreign Secretary feels just as strongly about it and will want to speak very openly about the rules-based system.

May I thank the hon. Member for Leeds North East (Fabian Hamilton), who spoke from the Labour Front Bench, for tabling an urgent question on this matter and you, Mr Speaker, for accepting it? Does the Minister share my concern, however, that in the Labour Front Bencher’s comments there was not a breath that was critical of Russia for not complying with the treaty? Does he agree that there is no point in having international treaties unless both signatories adhere to their terms?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, which he asks in his usual robust style. In fairness, I think that the Labour Front Bencher was slightly more even-handed in his approach to the matter than he gives him credit for. It is, however, worth reiterating my hon. Friend’s point that ultimately we would not have come to this pass had Russia adhered to its compliance obligations.

Just to be clear, if the INF treaty falls apart that would mean the relocation of short-range and medium-range nuclear missiles on UK soil. The UK Government have not been critical of President Trump’s diplomatic moves, so can I take it that they would not stand in the way of the relocation of those missiles on UK soil?

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that that is highly speculative and several steps ahead. We are doing our level best to ensure that, for the reasons I have laid out, the INF treaty is not torn up and thrown away. For as long as the treaty remains in force, we shall continue our efforts to bring Russia back into full and verified compliance.

My right hon. Friend referred to the ongoing work on multilateral nuclear disarmament. Will he express what the United Kingdom is doing? It is absolutely vital that far more visible work is done on this globally, in addition to seeking to maintain the other treaties that are a vital stepping stone towards that?

I reassure my hon. Friend that a lot of work does go on. It is often said that the best way to keep matters secret in British public life is to say something about them on the Floor of the House of Commons. Perhaps the floor of the UN Security Council provides the same anonymity. Whenever I go to New York, I am very struck by how many nations, particularly those who are non-permanent members of the UN Security Council, feel as strongly about non-proliferation. We continue to work very closely on it. With all the issues around Democratic People’s Republic of Korea that have been at the forefront of people’s minds over the past year, there has never been a more important time to make the robust case to which he refers.

Russia’s non-compliance with the treaty is very serious, but may I press the Minister on what assurances, with regard to the deployment of short-range and medium-range missiles in Europe, he has gleaned from our US partners?

That is a fair question to ask, but the hon. Gentleman will realise that this is sheer speculation. We are a long way off the idea of having to take assurances about where the siting of any weapons may or may not be. Obviously, one of our biggest concerns is that President Putin’s immediate instinct is to come out and make a rather destabilising and uncalled for comment about a further threat in this regard. Our hope is that both parties will return to the table to look at the treaty, but that would require good will, particularly on the Russian side.

The UK has a long and strong interest in this treaty, thanks in no small part to Margaret Thatcher bringing the two sides together. Tempting as it is for some in this place to enter into a little bit of America bashing, will the Minister confirm that it is Russia, not the US, that is in breach of the treaty?

I thank my hon. Friend for robustly putting that case. He is absolutely right; the whole issue has come to pass because of Russia’s continued and long-standing non-compliance. The truth of the matter is, as I have said, that this is not just an issue for the Trump Administration. Very robust action was taken in 2014 and grave concerns were raised about Russia’s failure to adhere to its obligations.

The Minister will recall that yesterday was the anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in 1945. In 1945, some real statesmen and women got together and said, “How do we stop these world wars? How do we stop this chaos? How do we stop the killing?” They came up with the United Nations, NATO and the European Coal and Steel Community, which became the European Union. Is it not a fact that we now have to realise what perilous times we are in and find unity in Europe to make a contribution to the peace?

Understandably, we often take the situation for granted. I am the father of a 10-year-old son, and we have perhaps taken for granted the fact that he is the third generation of Field menfolk who have not had to go to war. We should be aware that that is the exception, rather than the rule.

I am a great believer in utilising the strongest possible bilateral and multilateral communications, in diplomacy terms. I reassure the hon. Gentleman that one thing has been very evident in all the discussions since that fateful day in June 2016: when we leave the European Union, we have to work together in security, defence and intelligence. We have focused our minds on that a great deal, and we will continue to do so even when we are outside the European Union.

As recently as this summer, Jon Huntsman, the US ambassador to Russia, described the INF as

“probably the most successful treaty”

in the

“history of arms control”.

Does the Minister agree with Jon Huntsman, and, if so, will he make that point to the US and Russian Governments as he meets them?

It is fair to say that although that treaty has particular resonance in Europe, a number of other treaties have come into place since then. There has been a new strategic arms reduction treaty, and constant discussions are taking place to try to secure non-proliferation. The treaty is clearly important in its own terms, but it is a treaty signed between two countries. We would like one of those two countries, which is clearly in breach of it, to come back to the table. Only when that happens can we be sure that the stability that came into place at the signing of the treaty 31 years ago will be maintained.

Regrettably, both Trump and Putin seem committed to tearing up the international rules-based order. What specific initiatives does the Minister anticipate the UK taking with the European Union to bolster the international rules-based order, so that we can ensure that there is a focus on reducing nuclear weapons, but also on tackling other global issues such as climate change?

It is wrong to suggest that America is trying to tear up the international order, although there are perhaps more threats to that order than has hitherto been the case. We will work together in as many international institutions as we can. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Germany joins the Security Council in January next year for a two-year term, and we anticipate tremendously important work being done between France, Germany and the UK in that forum to try to hold things together.

The problem with the politics of brinkmanship is that it takes people to the brink. Is it not about time the Government used the so-called special relationship to tell President Trump so?

I do not want to reiterate what I have said for the last half hour, but the truth of the matter is that we have reached this point because Russia has persistently and consistently failed to meet its obligations. The important thing is not that we turn our fire in the other direction, but that we work with all our allies—we are united among our NATO allies here in Europe—to ensure that Russia adheres to those obligations.

Mr Speaker, you know that I am by nature a conviction optimist, but my optimism—and, more importantly, that of my constituents in Bristol West, who turned to me over the weekend for hope and reassurance about the international rules-based order—is being sorely tested. I ask the Minister from the heart: what help can he give me to pass on optimism and hope for a better world?

I am sure the hon. Lady will be glad to hear that I am by nature a glass-half-full person, but these are serious issues. We must continue to talk, and we must continue to make the case internationally, along the lines that she has suggested.

All our NATO allies are totally united on this issue. Their consistent message is that Russia has a key role in preserving the treaty, and it must be made aware of that key role, which we agree has been a very important pillar of the European security agreement. I say to the hon. Lady, “Please do not be pessimistic.” This is one of the things about diplomacy. I know that a lot of it goes on under the radar, but we are working together with all our allies, in this particular space but also generally, where there are other breaches of the rules-based international system.

The INF treaty has been important across the NATO alliance in preventing miscalculation. Across the alliance there has also been concern about Russia’s failure to comply. Can the Minister confirm that advance notice of the American stance was given to the alliance, and that he will press for America to keep members of the alliance up to date and informed about its position in relation to any cancellation of the treaty?

I am happy to confirm that we will do that. I reiterate that the United States is still in the treaty, and we will continue to engage routinely with the widest range of foreign policy and security issues with the United States and, indeed, with other partners in this regard.