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Volume 709: debated on Friday 25 February 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on the military situation in Ukraine.

Yesterday morning saw the launching of the largest combined arms offensive operations seen in the European theatre since 1945. From land, sea and air, a massive Russian offensive commenced from forward positions in Belarus, all around Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, from the Crimea and from ships in the Black sea. As leaders around the free world have said, this is an outrage against international law that violates Ukrainian sovereignty and brings a profound change to the security landscape of the Euro-Atlantic.

The Ukrainian armed forces have stood their ground heroically, forcing fierce fighting around several Ukrainian cities. The Antonov-2 airfield north of Kyiv was taken by Russian airborne forces as part of the initial assault yesterday morning but was reportedly retaken by the Ukrainian forces overnight.

As the world has now seen, the intelligence available to the British and American Governments over recent weeks has proven to be entirely accurate. That allows us to assess that the Russians have failed to achieve any of their planned objectives for the first day of combat operations. The Ukrainian armed forces claim to have shot down six fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters. They report that 137 Ukrainian service personnel have been killed in action as well as 57 civilians; hundreds more have been injured. The Ukrainian Government report that 450 Russian service personnel have been killed in action. As a former soldier with the vivid experience of death on the battlefield seared forever in my mind, I take no satisfaction in reporting those numbers to the House, and nor do I propose that we keep a score every day. These are the lives of innocent civilians and the lives of the bravest and best Russians and Ukrainians.

As we gorge on the live footage of a peer-on-peer war broadcast from a European capital just two-and-a-half hours’ flying time from London, we should remember that behind those pictures is incredible fear and misery. That is why I pay tribute to those in Moscow, St Petersburg and other Russian cities who protested last night against this pointless loss of Russian life. President Putin and the kleptocrats who surround him have miscalculated badly. Young Russian men and women are needlessly losing their lives. The responsibility sits entirely with the Kremlin.

Yesterday, British Royal Air Force Typhoon jets took part in NATO air policing from their base in RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from which they patrol over the Black sea and south-eastern Europe. HMS Trent is already part of a NATO standing maritime group and further Royal Navy ships are being deployed to other NATO standing groups in both the Baltic and the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to the Royal Tank Regiment battlegroup that has been in place in Estonia for the last six months, the Royal Welsh battlegroup will be arriving in Estonia earlier than planned to double up our force levels. Those doubled-up force levels will remain indefinitely and will be augmented by the headquarters of 12 Mechanised Brigade, meaning that the United Kingdom will have an armoured brigade in Estonia, reassuring one of our closest NATO allies.

Mr Speaker, as you have heard from the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and others in recent days, we will explore all that we can do to support the Ukrainians in the next few days. All hon. Members in this House must be clear that British and NATO troops should not—must not—play an active role in Ukraine. We must all be clear what the risks of miscalculation could be and how existential the situation could quickly become if people do miscalculate and things escalate unnecessarily.

The Government do not feel that they can share with the House the detail of the support that the UK will provide to the Ukrainians at this sensitive point in operations. We apologise for that. We will do our best to give the House as much as we can, but hon. Members will appreciate that the detail is operationally sensitive. I hope that is acceptable to you, Mr Speaker.

Finally, Mr Speaker, you and Front-Bench spokespeople from across the House have had briefings from Defence Intelligence. We will make sure that continues to happen, so that, on Privy Council terms, briefings can be received by those who need to have them. Colleagues were also given a briefing last night by Defence Intelligence, which I know colleagues from across the House have found useful. We intend to keep up those briefings for as long as we feel there are kinetic combat operations that warrant a daily update. Beyond that, a number of cross-party briefings have been given by the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, the next of which will take place this afternoon, when I will be joining the Foreign Secretary and a representative of the intelligence community to brief colleagues further.

I have allowed this to run over, as it is such an important matter and, as is right, I wanted to hear the Minister in full; of course, the same will be extended to the Opposition and Scottish National party spokespeople.

I start by thanking the Minister for the Armed Forces for his detailed update. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on his leadership during this appalling crisis. Yesterday, President Putin, the Russian dictator, ordered a full-scale invasion of an independent, democratic state in the heart of Europe. At this very time, the people of Ukraine are fighting for hope for their homeland against a monstrous aggressor. We are seeing history repeat itself, as a powerful country headed by a madman is extending its territorial boundaries, first by annexing regions of sovereign countries and then by invading those countries. That is, of course, what happened in the 1930s and led to world war.

I have four questions for the Minister, which are in support of our Ukrainian friends and of our western democratic values. First, Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK has asked for us and our allies to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine. As the ambassador said,

“people are dying as we speak”.

This action would be a significant and real help for the people of Ukraine. Yesterday, when I asked the Prime Minister about this request, he indicated that it was not ruled out. Will the Minister update the House on that request for help?

Secondly, will the Minister say, as far as he is able, what additional military hardware we are providing as a practical support to the people of Ukraine? Thirdly, what steps are being taken by NATO to reinforce its eastern flank? Fourthly, given that we are now in a situation worse than the cold war, will we be increasing our spending on defence to reflect that reality? Mr Speaker, may the prayers and thoughts of this House be with the people of Ukraine.

First, I join my hon. Friend in sending prayers to the people of Ukraine. Last night, I was watching some of the footage that was emerging, particularly from Kharkiv, of the artillery barrage. It just looked like hell on earth and it was pretty hard not to say a prayer before going to sleep. Thank God for the safety in which we were all sleeping last night compared with those in that city.

As Members will appreciate, a no-fly zone is somewhat difficult to implement in a hostile airspace against a peer adversary. We need to have our eyes wide open to the reality that in such an event NATO jets would, not just possibly but most certainly probably, come into a combat situation with Russian jets, and the risk of miscalculation, escalation and the triggering of article 5 could not be understated in those circumstances. As Members will appreciate, in the air domain the risk of miscalculation is greater, because things are happening at Mach 2 and there is no time for political calibration; it is in the hands of pilots who are flying at well over the speed of sound. No-fly zones come with all sorts of problems. I understand exactly why the Ukrainian ambassador is asking for this, but we need to be clear that it could well trigger an article 5 moment and we need to be clear-eyed about that reality in considering it.

I said in my answer to the original question that I do not propose to provide a commentary on the additional hardware that we will supply to the Ukrainian armed forces, nor the routes by which we would do so, if indeed we will. The Defence Secretary and the Prime Minister are clear about this in terms of the requirement. We know that other European countries are keen to do likewise, but obviously this has to be provided at a pace and through routes that the Ukrainian armed forces are able to absorb, in order to minimise the risk of the cache simply being destroyed or overwhelmed by advancing Russian forces.

NATO is taking huge measures to reinforce its eastern flank. I have outlined in my initial response what the UK has done. That effort has been more than matched by our best friends in the world in the United States, and other NATO countries are also rallying to the flag. For the past 10 years or so, NATO has had a network of enhanced forward presence battlegroups—the UK’s is in Estonia. Those are all being reinforced, and new forward presence battlegroups are being put in place. If the aim of what is going on right now is not just territorial gain in Ukraine, but to push NATO away from Russia, President Putin is achieving precisely the opposite, because NATO is drawing the line around NATO countries ever thicker and ever stronger.

It will not surprise my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough one bit to know that in the MOD we are quickly considering whether the threat has changed and whether more money is required—no Defence Minister would ever say that it is not, but that is a conversation that needs to happen within Government. I think my hon. Friend would agree that this is not a retail moment of politics, where an issue arises and a solution is offered within the news cycle, and then everybody moves on to the next thing. This is something that will define our role in the world for the next 20 years, and we have got time to make the right decisions.

The whole House appreciates your willingness to allow this urgent question, Mr Speaker, and the manner in which the Minister is briefing the House and the way in which his colleagues are prepared to keep the House informed during this very rapidly developing crisis.

Yesterday, President Putin launched a war in Europe. He is invading and killing people in a sovereign country that Russia itself guaranteed to respect. His attack on Ukraine is an attack on democracy and a grave violation of international law and the United Nations charter. Putin will not stop at Ukraine; he wants to divide and weaken the west, and to re-establish Russian control over neighbouring countries. These are the actions of an imperialist and a dictator, and Britain has a long tradition of standing up to such tyrants. We believe in freedom, democracy, the rule of law and the right of a country to decide its own future, and those are the very values that Ukrainians are fighting for now in their country. We must support their brave resistance in any way we can, and our thoughts are with the comrades and families of those on both sides who have been killed in these first hours of fighting.

On Wednesday, the Prime Minister told the House that the UK would shortly be providing a further package of military support to Ukraine. We understand the Minister’s comments about detail, but has that further military assistance been provided? The Minister knows that he has Labour’s full support for doing so, and he also knows that what was announced and delivered before—the UK’s short-range, hand-held anti-tank missiles—are working well. He knows that the Ukrainians need more of those missiles urgently in order to defend Kyiv and their other cities, so can he confirm that he is willing to go that bit further? The Minister has just said that Russia has failed to take any of its day one objectives. Which are the major objectives that it has failed to meet, and what is the Government’s assessment of why it has failed?

Finally, NATO leaders meet today. Does Britain support NATO’s response force now being activated in full? What further contribution will the UK make to reinforcing NATO allies on the eastern flank, and when will the 1,000 UK troops on stand-by to help with humanitarian assistance be deployed? The Minister also mentioned the doubling up of British forces in Estonia. When will those be deployed and in place?

Since the end of the cold war, we have taken peace and security in Europe for granted. We can no longer do so, and I fear that we will be dealing with the consequences of this Russian invasion for years to come.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and the way that he and his Front-Bench Labour colleagues have engaged with the Government throughout all of this. It just goes to show that at times of national emergency this House is at its very best.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that NLAW—the next generation light anti-tank weapon—has already proven to be invaluable. They are unsubstantiated reports, but none the less we are aware of a number of circumstances in which they have been used to defeat Russian armour. We are therefore very aware of their utility, both in open battle, during the initial phase of the conflict, but also in the urban domain, in any resistance or insurgency that might follow. It will not surprise the right hon. Gentleman to know that NLAW, among other systems that have similar dual utility in both open battle and whatever may come next, is high on our list of things that we are looking to supply.

I can sense the right hon. Gentleman’s frustration, and I know that the House would like to hear the full detail. Suffice to say that the Secretary of State has instructed military officers in Defence to look across the full UK inventory for everything that we have right now that might be usable in the circumstances and to look at whether that could be sent forward and absorbed by the Ukrainians. However, one has to be clear that most systems require some degree of training, so it is not just the logistics of moving them to the country, nor indeed the challenges of the export of systems, in that we would need all the countries that have intellectual property or that operate the system to give their permission for it to be donated. It is also the ability to train up Ukrainian forces to use it thereafter. However, we are leaving no stone unturned, and the right hon. Gentleman should be assured that we want to see as much British kit in the hands of the Ukrainians as we can manage.

The right hon. Gentleman asked which objectives were not taken. He will forgive me if, while clearly we indulge in a bit of information manoeuvre from the Dispatch Box to remind the Russian public that President Putin may well have bitten off more than he can chew, we are not going to compromise the intelligence that we have got altogether. Suffice to say, we are pretty certain that in the Kremlin last night there will have been some pretty urgent reflections on the speed of the advance compared with what they anticipated. The Russian people should be calling President Putin and the kleptocracy that surrounds him out on that, because young Russian men and women are being sacrificed in the name of President Putin’s hubris.

As for the NATO response force, further contributions are under consideration. The UK is already the second largest contributor in terms of the surge forces that have come forward, second only to the United States, but we are clear that we may need to provide more in land, sea and air, and we will do so if other NATO allies are unable to respond at the pace that we could. The 1,000 troops that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned who are on standby for humanitarian support in the countries immediately adjoining Ukraine will be deployed as and when those countries ask for them, but thus far no request has come. They remain at high readiness, forward present at a camp very close to RAF Brize Norton, so that they can be deployed at hours’ notice, but at the moment Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Poland have not yet asked for that support.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about when the enhanced forward presence battlegroups will have been doubled up and when the brigade headquarters will be in place. I encourage all colleagues to follow the excellent Twitter feed of the 3rd (United Kingdom) Division, the Iron Division as they call themselves. There were some fantastic pictures yesterday of Challenger 2 tanks being loaded on to low loader trucks to be driven north through Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and into Estonia. That is an extraordinary effort for a battlegroup that was not supposed to be deploying for three more months and was in the middle of a training routine in Germany. It has turned that around very quickly. It is a testament not only to the Royal Welsh battlegroup but to the brigade headquarters, 3rd Division and the Field Army that that work has been completed so quickly; we expect them to be complete in Tapa by 1 March.

What reassurance can my hon. Friend give to the Ukrainian community in Derby and Derbyshire, who will have family members over there, that we are doing all we can to support the everyday, ordinary Ukrainian families who are having to put up with this incursion by Putin? I would like my hon. Friend to give an assurance that we are doing whatever we can.

Last night the Secretary of State and I had to leave during the Prime Minister’s statement to return to the MOD for another briefing. To the surprise of the Prime Minister’s protection officers, we decided to walk back through the protest that was happening on Whitehall. I was struck not by the anger and the screaming and shouting that normally accompany protests in Westminster, but by the incredible sombreness and resolve, but also the fearfulness, shown by so many in that protest. They, as my hon. Friend said, will have family and friends back home in Ukraine. These were not people protesting over a political cause; these were people protesting for help with the safety of their loved ones.

The United Kingdom is not regarded by Ukraine as one of its best friends in the world by accident. For the last 10 years we have been training the Ukrainian armed forces through Operation Orbital. We were one of the first movers in providing lethal aid, and we sent troops to Ukraine only two or three weeks ago, when the build-up of Russian troops was well under way, to deliver the training that was required to allow those highly successful anti-tank weapons to be employed in battle, as they have now been. We will continue to do all that we possibly can, and I know that the excellent Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly), is driving hard to ensure that all the necessary consular support is in place so that people who have connections with Ukrainians who are still in Ukraine can be supported through the excellent work of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

I am grateful to the Minister, and indeed to his colleague in the Foreign Office, for the work that they are doing and the updates that they have been ensuring Opposition Members have. Like the Minister and other Members, I wish only to heap praise on the Ukrainian armed forces, who ensured that Russia did not get the opening gambit that it thought it would. But, as the Minister says, we are seeing Russian men being sent to die for one man’s hubris—and my goodness, what courage was shown on the streets of Russia last night by people protesting against the aggression from the Kremlin, and we commend them for it.

The Minister rightly spoke of supporting Ukraine with military equipment, and we back the Government in that. It is obviously, in some cases, easier said than done—it requires training, logistics and all the rest—but the Ukraine Government need it. I am not going to ask the Minister for an assurance that he has already given, but I want to press him in saying that we on these Benches want to see Ukraine get all the equipment it needs. I know that the Minister does not want to go into specific areas of equipment, but satellite phones are badly needed. That issue has arisen quite often during the various conversations that I have had with Government and parliamentary officials in Ukraine, and even came up at the protest outside Downing Street last night.

May I ask whether consideration has been given by the Government, and by G7 allies, to cyber-support, particularly cyber-offensive support? I can see the expression on the Minister’s face, but would that constitute an article 5 scenario or not? What do the Government understand it to be? May I also ask the Government to ensure that they provide the appropriate level of humanitarian and medical equipment support that the Ukraine Government need?

Finally—I hope the Minister will forgive me, but I have not heard him mention this yet; it is not necessarily an MOD issue—may I ask for an update on where we are with SWIFT? Members had hoped that progress would have been made with that by now. I know that the Foreign Office has been pressing hard on it, but an update would be useful.

Everything that the hon. Gentleman said about lethal aid has been well heard. We are working on it at our best pace, and we will do as much as we physically can at this stage, as will the United States and other allies. We are just looking at how it would be practically done.

The hon. Gentleman was right to refer to a range of items, most obviously satellite phones, that provide resilience for the functioning of the Ukrainian Government—military and perhaps, in time, for resistance purposes—when they are operating in an electronically denied environment, and with all the probability of cyber-attacks and everything else that will make their functioning ever harder. We are very aware of that requirement, and of the requirement for medical supplies and other things that we are working on. The hon. Gentleman saw me wince; I am afraid that the Government’s legal position on cyber-operations is very much a matter for the Attorney General and the Prime Minister, and is not something on which I will comment at the Dispatch Box.

The hon. Gentleman asked about removing Russia from the SWIFT system. He will perhaps have heard my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary on the news this morning saying that Her Majesty’s Government are keen that that sanction is imposed. It is not in our gift to do that unilaterally, or even multilaterally among the countries that have thus far agreed to do it. Our colleagues in the Foreign Office are hard at work on that, and I hope we can win the argument. It feels like a sanction that Russia would properly sit up and take notice of.

Much is rightly made of Russia’s role in this, but Belarus is playing a part as a staging post. What sanctions and steps are we taking to ensure that Belarus feels the pain for what it is doing? The Minister talks about “miscalculations”. What assessment has he made about accidental fire potentially going into other countries? It is a big concern to my constituents that we inadvertently find ourselves on a war footing without meaning to be.

The Belarussian ambassador has been summoned to the Foreign Office today to have the views of Her Majesty’s Government shared with them, and Belarus has also been included in the sanctions regime. We are acutely aware of the grave risk of miscalculation. As I said in response to the initial question about a no-fly zone, when things are happening at Mach 2, and where border incursions can last for just seconds, often it is not heads of Government who get to make the decision about whether a trigger on an anti-aircraft missile system is pulled. We are working hard within NATO to ensure that all those risks are clearly understood, and that the risk of miscalculation is minimised. But we must be clear: there is absolutely no way in a situation as kinetic and dynamic as this, that that risk can be removed altogether, and I am afraid that I am certain that there will be moments of miscalculation. Yesterday, a Turkish ship was apparently hit by one side or the other as it was leaving Odesa, and cool heads will be required if any such event were to happen.

I thank the Minister for his update, and I place on record the thoughts and prayers of everyone in my constituency for the people of Ukraine. Like Members across the House, I have already been contacted by worried constituents who have friends and family in Ukraine who are desperate to access safe routes out of the country. I reiterate the question posed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey): will the 1,000 UK troops that the Minister has placed on standby to help with the humanitarian crisis now urgently be deployed?

I do not want to do the hon. Lady a disservice, but I understood her question to be whether the 1,000 troops will go into Ukraine, as they went into Kabul in the summer, to facilitate the egress of Ukrainians. I am afraid she will be disappointed, as that is simply not something that could be realistically done. This is a highly kinetic combat situation, and the probability of NATO troops being caught up in combat with Russian armed forces is far too high and would lead to huge escalation. The 1,000 troops who are on standby are there to support Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Poland with the expected humanitarian challenges they will face as people make their way out of Ukraine. They are at very high readiness, and we will get them forward as quickly as we can. As we warned when we changed the travel advice—my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and I were on TV pulling no punches about the gravity of the situation, and we were telling people to leave urgently, precisely because there would be no opportunity to do as we did in Kabul in the summer.

I thank the Minister and the whole Government for the leadership they are showing at an international level. In winter 2015 I went to Ukraine with the former Defence Secretary, as a special adviser, to see Operation Orbital as it was being deployed. As part of that, we laid wreaths for the fallen Ukrainian soldiers. As a special adviser I was given a single carnation to put down, but I felt slightly embarrassed in doing so as I did not feel that we were doing as much as we possibly could to help the Ukrainians. That is because although we were giving lots of support and lots of sanctions, we were also hamstrung by the fact that we could not get agreement by as many of our European allies as we wanted, for everything that we wanted to bring to bear.

Reports in The New York Times yesterday suggested that Germany, Austria and Italy were refusing to co-operate on SWIFT payments, that Belgium was trying to get an opt-out for its diamond markets, and that Italy was trying to get an opt-out from European Union sanctions on luxury handbags. Will the Minister ensure that all our diplomatic efforts are brought to bear on our European allies to ensure that they are not dragging their feet? We in this House, and our American allies, are really pushing forward to try to do everything possible to help the people of Ukraine.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. First of all, all diplomatic effort is being focused on this issue. It is definitely Her Majesty’s Government’s top foreign policy priority. I would argue that it is probably the top priority across Government full stop at the moment, in order to make sure that the response is completely cross-Whitehall and robust enough to have an impact on President Putin. I am sure my hon. Friend will appreciate, however, that this is not a moment to think that a response must be provided within 24 hours, by the weekend or even by the end of next month.

This is about making sure that the western alliance does not fracture, that we bring the whole of the free world with us in its condemnation of Russia, and that Russia, as a consequence, is completely isolated. That is the way the cost is imposed on Putin over time, sufficient to ensure not only that he fails in his ambitions to take and hold Ukraine, but that he fails in his ability to remain as Russian President and to anoint a successor of his choosing when the time comes. It is absolutely essential that the diplomatic effort, even if it requires a bit of patience, brings with us the whole of the western alliance, because if Putin wants one thing more than the territorial gains in Ukraine, it is to see NATO fracture and article 5 no longer mean anything.

The US ambassador addressed the UN a few days ago to say that up to 5 million refugees may be coming out of Ukraine and into the rest of Europe. We are already witnessing on our television screens heartbreaking images of Ukrainians fleeing their homes desperately trying to escape conflict. Given that the refugee exodus will be on a scale we have not seen since 2015, how will the Ministry of Defence, alongside its European partners, contribute to the creation of humanitarian corridors to ensure that refugees can be safely evacuated from the conflict zone? Can we now finally end the ridiculous Nationality and Borders Bill that is in the House of Lords, which will actually limit our opportunity quite rightly to welcome refugees to these shores?

To the point on the Nationality and Borders Bill first, I am not sure I share the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. I think I answered the question earlier about what active role we can play within Ukraine’s borders to facilitate the egress of Ukrainian people. I am afraid that there is remarkably little that the international community can do there without the profound risk of it ending up as a NATO versus Russia fight, with all the escalation that that would cause.

The Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend the Member for Braintree (James Cleverly) spoke yesterday to all the neighbouring countries’ Governments to make sure that they are aware of the support that the United Kingdom is able and ready to deliver, militarily in terms of troops on the ground, to help process, marshal, facilitate and secure refugees as they arrive in those countries. However, the MOD is just carrying baggage and facilitating; it is our great development and aid experts in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office who will do the really impressive stuff when and if those requests come from neighbouring Governments. We will make sure that we are supporting the FCDO in all its endeavours.

The tyrant Putin is getting what he said he feared: a thicker and thicker line of defence around the NATO alliance. I am very pleased that we are doubling our commitment to Estonia, principally through the Royal Welsh battlegroup. I am proud that many of those units are based in my constituency, including the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Tank regiment. Will my hon. Friend join me in honouring those troops and their families for the sacrifice they are making?

My hon. Friend, his constituents and the service people who live in his constituency should be enormously proud of what the members of 12th Brigade, headquartered in Bulford and with many living in Tidworth, are doing in Estonia today. I paid tribute earlier to the speed at which the Royal Welsh has gone from a training cycle in Germany to driving north into Estonia. I include, too, the many families of the Royal Tank Regiment who will have been expecting their loved ones home in the next couple weeks and now do not know when they will be coming home because the extension of the tour is indefinite. That, too, is worthy of praise. They are fortunate to have such a fantastic advocate in the House of Commons.

Reports indicate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure. Can the Minister expand on how that is being tracked so that those who perpetrate these crimes and those who compel them to do so will be held to account?

Absolutely. Yesterday, many Members of the House will have seen reported in the news the summoning not only of the Russian ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where the top lines of Her Majesty’s Government were delivered, but of the defence attaché to the Ministry of Defence. In the MOD, the discussion was very much around how we are recording the violations of international humanitarian law and the Geneva convention that we have reported, our expectations that Russia will operate under those conventions, and our intent to make sure that it is held to account wherever it does not.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers will today decide to expel Russia from the Council of Europe?

We know that the attacks on the area surrounding Kyiv originated in Belarus, making Lukashenko complicit in this aggression. I am pleased that Belarus will not go unpunished, and I hope that that is a signal to anyone else thinking of supporting Putin’s actions. Given that we have already placed sanctions on Belarus for its appalling human rights record, can the Minister update the House on what these new sanctions are designed to do and how they will be targeted on Belarus?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) for securing this urgent question. Though we sit safely some 2,000 miles away, the power of media and social media means that we are able to witness the atrocities that Putin’s regime is enacting on Ukraine. As we witness them, we witness them in real time, and seeing the advancement take place in such a quick timescale is concerning for us all. Yesterday, in a conversation with some Ukrainian MPs, they were talking about how the next few days in particular will be absolutely critical. I greatly welcome the really strong sanctions that have been put in place so far that the Prime Minister announced yesterday, but one way that we could strike at the economic heart of the Putin regime is by cutting out Russia from the international SWIFT banking system. Although I welcome the Minister’s comments so far, can he just confirm once again that this is action that the UK Government support, and will he outline what steps are being taken to encourage our international partners to join us in calling for it?

There are many discussions ongoing over SWIFT. I have said in earlier answers that the view of the Government is clear, but, obviously, it is not something that we can do unilaterally, or even multilaterally with those who agree thus far. It needs to be something that everyone agrees with before that action is taken.

May I pick up on a point that my hon. Friend made about the importance of information manoeuvre? All of us in this House and all the journalists who report on our work have a role in that. Colleagues will I hope reflect on the fact that it is never helpful to share and promote anything that appears to show Ukrainian force movements. Similarly, there is huge power in our hands as western legislators to communicate to the Russian public our values and our belief that brave men and women from Russia are being sacrificed in the name of Putin’s hubris.

My thoughts and prayers of those of the constituents of Rutherglen and Hamilton West are with all those in Ukraine today. What assessment has the Government made of the risk level posed by Russia to UK interests should Putin attempt to retaliate against sanctions, and what form would those risks take?

The hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that everybody in the Government is acutely aware of the risk of escalation through miscalculation. The risks of retaliation to sanction measures are probably likely to be financial. We have seen today that there is a tit for tat going on—as we have banned Aeroflot so, too, has Russia sought to ban British Airways and Virgin. An epoch change in Euro-Atlantic security has happened over the past 48 hours. Our entire perception of the threat under which we now live is completely different to the one that we were living under just six weeks ago. We should give ourselves some time as a House, as a Government and as a United Kingdom to consider what that means.

As I said goodbye to my children this morning and wished them a good day at school, my thoughts turned to the mums in Ukraine who now fear for the futures of their children. I was taken by the photos in the Daily Mail today of primary schoolchildren in bomb shelters. President Putin has failed to listen to the major international diplomatic efforts and to NATO, the UN and the Ukrainian people; does my hon. Friend think he might listen to the Russian mothers of the soldiers who are now undertaking his aggression?

I hope so, but I fear he is not that sort of man, which is why we need to do everything we can to empower those people with all the information we can get to them about President Putin’s complete disregard for the lives of their boys and girls. I was enormously struck by the information we were able to release to the media yesterday about the Russian use of mobile crematoria following its frontlines. I sent a number of friends and colleagues back from Iraq and Afghanistan in flag-draped coffins to be buried with full military honours. Nothing could give their families back the lives of their loved ones, but at least the nation marked that sacrifice. Putin just sends round a mobile crematorium and burns them.

I thank the Minister for his statement. Like him, when I walked up Whitehall last night, although I of course heard concerns from the demonstrators there, I also saw courage and resilience. It was really quite powerful.

Cyber-attacks, falsehoods and disinformation are President Putin’s tools of trade; how can we support Ukrainians to deal with Putin’s propaganda?

We are doing everything we can. We need to dust off an awful lot from the playbook of the ’70s and ’80s. The Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat), has rightly highlighted the important work that the BBC did to promote the voice of freedom during the cold war. We need to give the Ukrainian public hope and to remind them of what they are fighting for—that freedom matters. We take it too much for granted in the west but this is a timely reminder that it is not free. The more we can embolden the Ukrainian public to stand their ground and fight, the better. The more we can help Russians to understand that there is a better way of living than under President Putin, the better.

I first visited Ukraine when it was part of the authoritarian communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union and I completely understand why the Ukrainians want to breathe free. I revisited and met civil society groups that were trying to rebuild democracy in Ukraine after it left the Soviet Union. I met the then President Viktor Yushchenko shortly after he was poisoned by Putin for the crime of wanting what we in western Europe take for granted. I am glad Putin’s military progress is going more slowly than he wished, but it is clearly going to be a long and bloody battle. Does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that we should be in this for the long haul and that our support for the Ukrainian people and their quest for democracy should not stop when the fighting stops?

Absolutely. This is no time for gotcha-style comments such as, “You said you’d do this on Monday and you’ve not done it by Wednesday”; this is about making the right decisions to restore Ukrainian sovereignty as quickly as possible while ensuring that President Putin fails and the kleptocracy around him fails. This is behaviour that cannot be tolerated. As the Prime Minister has rightly said, this is behaviour that will be watched with great interest by other authoritarian regimes around the world. It is right that the west pauses and makes good, sound, strategic decisions as the western alliance and does the right thing to draw a line in the sand, saying we still believe in a rules-based international system and liberal, free democracies.

I thank the Minister for his update this morning. I wish to express the solidarity of the people of Hull with the people of Ukraine at this appalling time, and the utter condemnation of the dictator Putin and his imperialist actions. I want to press the Minister a little more on war crimes. I am pleased to hear that they are being recorded and monitored. In particular, can he say something about the use of sexual violence in warfare and how the Government will record that? What exactly will happen next, so that I understand what the process will be?

I thank the hon. Lady for her important question. It is no consolation to the people of Ukraine, but the British armed forces have given a huge amount of thought to how we must operate in future conflicts, being mindful of women, peace and security, and the challenges that far too many women and children face in conflict broadly pursued between men. I am not sure that much regard is being given to that by the Russians, but I will come back to her if I receive any information to the contrary.

We told the Russian defence attaché yesterday about the work that has been done so far. We will continue to speak to him to make clear our expectations that all parts of humanitarian law and the Geneva convention should be adhered to. We will monitor that as best we can. As the hon. Lady will see from all of the open-source intelligence that is available on social media, this is a very different type of war from even Gulf war one and two. This is a social media age war, and the outrages are often there. Unfortunately, we cannot always believe what we see, so we are giving much thought to how we properly report and verify, and then make sure that people are held to account in due course.

I want to voice condemnation of Mr Putin on behalf of the residents of Hastings and Rye, and their support of and prayers for the Ukrainians. Ukraine President Zelensky gave a powerful and stirring speech yesterday that called on the Russian people to stand up to President Putin over his illegal invasion, and we have already seen extensive protests across Russia. Can my hon. Friend join President Zelensky in calling on Russian citizens, who have never experienced a real democracy, to stand up against the Kremlin regime and its unprovoked aggression?

I absolutely can. As the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition and party leaders across the House have all been clear, our fight is not with the Russian people. In fact, they have our most profound sympathies for the way that they are being disregarded at the moment. I hope that they will see that there is a better way to live in their country, and I hope that they will stand up to President Putin and the kleptocracy that surrounds him. I hope that what the international community does diplomatically, economically, militarily and culturally—so much of the cold war was a competition of values promoted through rival cultures—means that President Putin quickly comes to see that he has miscalculated badly and that, soon enough, his days will be numbered.

Russia and the Kremlin’s efforts in Ukraine are supported not just by a state apparatus, but by a shadowy network of black, grey and opaque interests in terms of finance and supply of arms, not just in Ukraine but elsewhere. Could I commend to the Minister and the wider Treasury Bench an excellent article today on—not my usual reading—by Dr Kate Ferguson from Protection Approaches? The article has a lot of good, concrete suggestions, because it is important to target not just state support for the actions of the Kremlin in Ukraine, but the wider networks that support the Kremlin’s malfeasance elsewhere—I am thinking particularly of Republika Srpska—because tackling those networks of finance and arms support would be a really useful thing for us to do.

I will repay the bipartisan bonhomie by saying that I found an article on the geopolitical situation in Ukraine in the New Statesman particularly useful the other day—[Interruption.] Not my usual reading. Nor is Con Home, to be fair. The hon. Gentleman is right. This is not just about a military exchange, nor is it about a headline set of sanctions. This is about bringing to bear a whole of Government response that unpicks criminal networks and shell companies across a number of countries, some within multilateral forums in which we can have leverage and others that sit entirely outwith. This will be a complicated business, but unpick it we must because that is how we bring Russia to a place of complete isolation and therefore failure.

I, too, offer my prayers and support for the people of Ukraine on behalf of my Ynys Môn constituents. This outrage against international law is happening just two and a half flying hours from here. I welcome the economic sanctions that have already been put in place. The Minister has mentioned SWIFT, which shows how important that is, but can he confirm to the House that the Prime Minister has stressed to our international partners the importance of cutting Russia off from SWIFT?

The Prime Minister absolutely has, but we have to be clear—I make no apology for showing this understanding, because I think it is important for the House that we do—that the burden of sanctions will fall unequally. The sanctions will be completely meaningless if the regime collapses within six months because people start to fracture away. President Putin wants not just territorial gain, but the fracture of the western alliance and for NATO and article 5 to become meaningless. It is really important that we do the diplomacy urgently, that we succeed and that we bring the international community with us. I do not think it is particularly helpful if people, from the Dispatch Box or anywhere else, give too much opprobrium to countries that clearly have a lot to consider before they sign up to this, as much as I think that they should.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Sally-Ann Hart), Sky News is reporting that over 1,000 brave souls—Russian souls—were arrested last night across 54 cities while protesting against the shedding of both young Russian and Ukrainian blood, as the Minister has pointed out. Will the Minister join me in sending solidarity to that protest movement, and will he reiterate to the House that our quarrel is not with the Russian people, but with Putin, and that he has committed a very grave error?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and may those protests grow, may they flourish and may their voice be impossible to ignore.

I very much welcome the Minister’s remarks and those of the shadow Defence Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey). The Minister has rightly made much of the need to maintain the unity of the western alliance, but can I ask him what efforts have been made to reach out beyond that alliance, in particular to China, to try to discourage China from offering any active or indeed implicit support for what Putin has done?

First, the work of Her Majesty’s Government and NATO Governments to reach out beyond the Euro-Atlantic to the rest of the world has been going on at pace, and a number of countries have already joined European and north Atlantic countries in imposing sanctions of their own. The hon. Member is absolutely right that this is a moment of real decision for China. If China wants to be a world leader, it needs to show that it stands for a rules-based international system. Her Majesty’s Government will encourage it to take a stand to do so, and I think there is an opportunity this evening in New York for China to show that that is where it stands. If it does not, it will have set out its stall all too clearly, but let us hope that it can be persuaded otherwise.

Yesterday, the European Union imposed sanctions on the Russian Defence Minister, Sergei Shoigu, and a number of other Russian military officials. Do the UK Government have any plans to do similar?

It is the policy of the Government not to talk about future sanctions, I suspect for fear that that becomes part of the calculation in the Kremlin about what to do or not to do next in a way that may not be entirely helpful. I accept that there is a counter-argument—it could be a deterrent—but I think that, on balance, it is probably right to keep people guessing about what else may be up our sleeve if things do not stop soon.

I would like to thank Mr Bone for his urgent question and the Minister for responding to questions for just under an hour. I would also like to thank all Members for coming, at short notice, to ask the Minister the questions that they have asked today. As has been said, the thoughts and prayers of the British Parliament, and indeed of the British people, are with the people of Ukraine today.