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Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 28 November 2023

Since I last updated the House on 24 October, the situation on the ground has remained largely unchanged. The armed forces of Ukraine continue to make slow but steady progress in their fight to retake their country, while a small crossing of the Dnipro has been established. Russian forces have made small advances in the northern axis of a pincer movement with which they are attempting to surround the town of Avdiivka.

Over the weekend, Russia launched what was likely the largest wave of one-way attack drone strikes on Ukraine of the war so far, ahead of another likely winter campaign of strikes against Ukrainian energy infrastructure. Ukraine neutralised most of the incoming weapons from the latest assault, and international partners, including the UK, are working with Ukraine to further strengthen its defences.

We will continue to support priority areas for Ukraine in the coming months, including air defence and hardening critical national infrastructure sites. Our foundational supply of critical artillery ammunition continues. We also continue to develop Ukraine’s maritime capabilities, helping it to deny Russia sea control in the western Black sea. With Government help, a UK-based commercial insurance provider has developed an insurance facility for shipping using the Ukraine maritime corridor; the facility charges premiums in line with those under the Black sea grain initiative, which is crucial for re-attracting commercial shipping.

The UK has committed £4.6 billion of military support to date, as we continue to donate significant amounts of ammunition and matériel from our own stocks, as well as those purchased from across the globe. In addition, we have trained more than 52,000 soldiers since 2015. Our support for next year is being finalised, both internally within the Government and with our partners around the world, and will be announced shortly.

Early on Saturday morning, sirens sounded across Kyiv for six hours. Families took to shelters and fear spread across the city. That day, 75 drones were launched on Kyiv—the biggest strike on Ukraine since Putin’s brutal illegal invasion began, as the Minister said. With attention on the middle east, this is a wake-up call about Russia. Putin can still unleash fresh horrors on Ukraine, still shows contempt for international law, and still wants to redraw sovereign boundaries by force. Six hundred and forty-two days on, Ukrainians are living with fear every day, fighting every day, and dying every day. The defence of the UK starts in Ukraine, because if Putin prevails, he will not stop with Ukraine. I pay tribute to the UK troops who are training Ukrainian forces, flying out military aid and reinforcing regional security through NATO.

Last month, the Defence Secretary said:

“Let’s not forget about Ukraine.”

So why did the autumn statement do just that? There was no 2024 military funding or action plan for Ukraine. At the very time when Ukraine needs confidence that it has strong, continuing support from allies, the Prime Minister is stepping back. UK leadership on Ukraine is flagging: this year’s £2.3 billion of UK military funding runs out in March, while this month Germany announced €8 billion of military aid for next year. When will the Defence Secretary himself make a statement on Ukraine? When will Ministers announce the next delivery of UK weapons? When will the Government pledge funding for fresh military aid and publish a 2024 action plan for the military, economic and diplomatic support that Ukraine needs? When will the Prime Minister demonstrate by his decisions and actions that Britain will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes to win?

I do not think there is any doubt in Kyiv—in fact, I know there is no doubt—about the UK’s continued support, and indeed its leadership on gifting within the international community. While I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman is keen to make a political point, I think that deep down he knows that too, because he speaks to the Ukrainians. I know, as he does, that they continue to regard the UK as the standard bearer globally for encouraging others to donate ever more and, crucially, to donate weapons systems with ever more complexity. I have no doubt—as I think, deep down, the right hon. Gentleman has no doubt—that the Ukrainian Government maintain their confidence in us as one of their key allies, if not their key ally, and that the UK’s leadership is certainly not flagging.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the announcement of weapons. The reality is that we are giving a very broad range of weapons. While he might think it is militarily sound to focus on always giving something new, just being resilient in our ability to keep giving what we are giving is every bit as important to the operational planning that the Ukrainian armed forces need to do. This is not a set of gimmicks—a set of announcements. This is about the resourcing of a military operational plan that UK military operational planners are key in developing with the Ukrainians. I am entirely comfortable that across a whole range of weapons systems, the pipeline that we now have in place to deliver every month, not only from our own stockpiles and manufacturing capacity but from those that we can access globally, is a reliable, dependable part of the Ukrainian plan.

As for the plan for next year, I completely accept that the right hon. Gentleman is right to say that a number could have been given in the autumn statement, but surely it is more important to give a number that reflects the discussions that the chairman of the joint chiefs, the Chief of the Defence Staff and General Zaluzhny have had, and those that senior US, UK and Ukrainian politicians have had, in order to understand the Ukrainian ambition for their operations next year, so that we can resource that properly. All the way through, what the UK has done better than anyone else in the world is understand what the Ukrainians want to do next and get there first in delivering that capability, in so doing emboldening others to follow. As soon as the plan for next year is confirmed, I am certain that the amount that it will cost will be announced to Parliament and the plan firmed up, so that the right hon. Gentleman will be satisfied.

That is an intriguing rationale for the fact that we gave £2.3 billion for the first year of the war and £2.3 billion for the second year of the war. Can the Minister convey to his colleagues in Government that Members on both sides of the House would be dismayed if we gave less than £2.3 billion for the year ahead? In his discussions with the Chancellor, might the Defence Secretary remind him that, when he stood for the leadership of the Conservative party, he recommended not 2% but 4% of GDP to be spent on defence?

At the weekend, the Ukrainian Government and peoples commemorated the holodomor—the genocide inspired by the Government of Joseph Stalin. During those celebrations, as the Minister rightly said, the Russian Federation launched its largest air attack on Kyiv to date, which included 75 Iranian-made Shaheds towards the capital. Part of the financing of the Iranian regime comes from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Back in January, Ministers intimated to the House and to Members that they were considering proscribing the revolutionary guard, a financer of the Iranian regime that is feeding the Russian Federation’s military might. When will the Minister’s Government stop considering and start proscribing it?

These are not conversations to which I am directly privy, so I am loth to offer detail that I do not have. Suffice it to say that the debate is more nuanced than the hon. Gentleman implies in his question, but I suspect he knows that. When we proscribe an organisation such as the IRGC, which is so integral to the Iranian state, we can make it quite hard to have any sort of communication with the Iranian state, but those are matters for colleagues in the Foreign Office. I will bring his question to their attention, and encourage them to write to him or seek to respond in some other way.

I very much welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments about insurance for shipping in the Black sea to encourage grain exports. Can I ask him if the British Government intend to carry on doing everything they can to make sure that those exports happen? He will be aware that Lebanon relies on those grain exports, and with the current situation in that region, we must ensure that starvation does not become another factor in an already exceptionally tense situation.

There is lots in my right hon. Friend’s question—on all of which he is entirely right. First, many countries around the world are dependent on grain exports from Ukraine. It is a source of constant frustration to me and Government colleagues who go overseas on diplomatic missions to find that the Russians try to claim that somehow Ukraine is using food as a weapon of war, when it is they who are seeking to limit those crucial exports. Secondly, the more that Ukraine is able to export, the more that the Ukrainian economy survives and, potentially, grows. One consequence of the insurance initiative, alongside the military success or the naval success that the Ukrainians have had in the western Black sea, is that shipping from Odesa is growing, which is encouraging. It is a sign that the new front in the Black sea is succeeding not only militarily but economically.

In August 2022, the Defence Secretary’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace), promised a 2023 action plan for Ukraine, but that is still nowhere to be seen with just over a month left in 2023. Surely, the UK must provide our friends in Ukraine with the long-term certainty of UK military support to repel Russia’s illegal invasion, which is so important to Ukrainian friends and family in Feltham and Heston and across the country. Will the Minister explain why this action plan has not been published, and when there will be one for 2024?

The former Defence Secretary is a great man. The Opposition Front-Bench team has rightly sought to hold the Government to account for his commitment to an action plan, but I would reflect personally, in a rare moment of slight disagreement with him, that the masterplan for Ukraine next year is the Ukrainians’ plan for next year, and we, as their key leading supporter, have a duty to resource their plan. Understanding what that plan is and resourcing it, both through straight cash in-year as well as commitment over three to five years thereafter, are all things we undoubtedly need to do; I think there is complete agreement in the House on that. I understand the disappointment that the commitment was not made in the autumn statement, but for the UK to publish Ukraine’s plan would clearly be the wrong way of doing things; we need to understand what Ukraine’s plan is and then announce how we will resource it, and we will do so.

Ukraine is holding firm against one of the biggest militaries in the world and it still rightly refuses to see the mass loss of Ukrainian life. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me on the following two points? First, as there are reports that we are already seeing a reduction in artillery deliveries to Ukraine, is enough getting through? Secondly, following Medvedev’s threat to Poland, what are we doing to make sure our allies, such as Canada, meet their 2% of GDP commitment to NATO, as we need them to stay in the fight and protect that eastern flank?

On the first point, “enough” is what there is. Part of military planning is to moderate consumption levels to meet the scale of deliveries. Ukraine’s military planning must reflect manufacturing capacity and stockpiles across the donor community. Enough is getting through, but we will not find a single Ukrainian general who would not want 10 times that amount if it were available. On the second point, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we must ensure that the donor community remains foursquare behind Ukraine. In all probability the plans for next year will need to be more around consolidation than the plan for this year, but it is very important that those in the donor community see whatever consolidation is necessary as the right military, strategic judgment—and still worthy of maintaining donor support—rather than peeling away because it does not feel as sensational as plans in previous years.

The previous Defence Secretary the right hon. Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) was well thought of for the support he demonstrated for Ukraine, and in September last year he told the House that the Government had written “letters of comfort” to industry outlining the Government’s intention to place orders with manufacturers. In last year’s autumn statement the Treasury announced £560 million for the replacement of the UK stockpile, to be funded from the Treasury reserve rather than the MOD procurement budget. Where does the Minister think industry, Ukrainians and British service personnel should look for comfort given the silence in the autumn statement on the subject of continued UK support for Ukraine?

I suspect the first line of the hon. Gentleman’s question would make it into the leaflets of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) if he were standing again as that was rare, but much deserved, praise. I am not sure I understand the rest of the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Ukrainians know what they are getting this year and they have seen time and again the UK seeking to lead the world and catalyse donations. We have been the first to go through every capability threshold; they know that and they continue to know that.

UK service personnel will take comfort from the fact that in the autumn statement the Chancellor promised to maintain the 2% commitment—we are actually comfortably exceeding that—and that the complete modernisation and recapitalisation of the fighting echelon across all three services is well under way, with investment, too, in sorting out all the strategic enablers that bring credibility to our warfighting force. I do not see where any further comfort is needed, either on the Ukrainian side or for the men and women of the UK armed forces. In fact, it is quite the reverse; I think they know exactly what the Government are doing.

Will the Minister assure the House that political resolve in NATO will remain as strong as ever in the event that this campaign becomes enduring, protracted and attritional? Will he also assure the House about what is being done to ensure that all NATO countries step up and pay their 2%?

NATO’s resolve is clear but its part in this is to deter escalation beyond Ukraine, whereas the donor community that has formed around Ukraine is a rather separate entity that extends beyond NATO’s borders; that is an important distinction. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that as we prepare for a summit in Washington at which our American colleagues will want to see progress in meeting the NATO commitment, all NATO countries that are not meeting the 2% commitment will perhaps want to consider their spending plans before getting on the plane to Washington.

How is it possible that our NATO ally Turkey has seen a more than threefold increase in exports to Russia this year of goods vital for Putin’s war machine, and what are the Minister and our NATO allies going to do about that?

You, Mr Speaker, and the Minister will know that one strength that the Government and people of Ukraine have got from this place, both with their President’s two visits and the visits of Members of Parliament, is the cross-party consensus on UK support for Ukraine. Does the Minister agree that it is concerning—unless I have got this wrong—that today the shadow Secretary of State the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), perhaps for the first time, slipped into party political fighting over this? I have a great deal of respect for the right hon. Gentleman and hope that will not be the case as we get nearer to the election because of the strength offered by this place through the cross-party consensus for support for the Ukrainian effort against Russia’s illegal invasion.

The right hon. Gentleman the shadow Defence Secretary has a job to do and it has been a feature and a great strength of the UK response that it has been largely non-partisan. I think the right hon. Gentleman saw an opportunity through the omission in the autumn statement, but I hope in my initial answer I was able to explain to him why understanding the Ukrainian plan must come first and announcing what the UK will do to support that plan necessarily comes second.

There is a benefit to having these regular sessions, and there is of course the opportunity for more regular ministerial statements rather than just urgent questions; I encourage the Minister to think about that in the future. He will remember that on the last occasion I raised the issue of lethargy and concerns that events in the middle east could be a distraction from support for Ukraine, and I questioned some of the political dynamics evident in the US system. On this occasion I want to invert that question and ask if he has assessed the impact of the ongoing issues in the middle east and their consequences for countries such as Iran and their support for Russia, and whether that might present an opportunity for Ukraine.

I must be careful not to stray into intelligence matters but my sense is that it would be overoptimistic to think that raised tensions in the middle east might lead to a reduction in Iranian support for Russia; I think that support is now well embedded. On the other side of the formula, as the hon. Gentleman implied in the first part of his question there is of course a concern that the wider donor community might be distracted by what is going on in the middle east, and it is important to take moments like this to reassure Ukrainians and remind friends and partners around the world that we must remain steadfast in our support of Ukraine even while we all work together to deter escalation in the middle east.

Effective military support to Ukraine is more than just about providing weapons; it is also about stopping Russia producing and getting its own weapons. The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) asked about this in relation to Turkey but I would broaden the question: is the Minister aware of western technology being sourced by Russia and does he think we are doing enough to stop it?

I am certainly aware that there was an alarming level of content from the west in a number of Russian systems that were compromised in the early part of the war. That leads to two further points. First, there is the reassurance that if we are constraining our supply chain to Russia—which the sanctions regime largely is, albeit not completely and we need to work on that—its capacity to develop complex weapons is diminished. Secondly, that also suggests that Russian industry does not have the ability to do these things itself.

It does seem now as if this war will be much longer than we had all hoped. In that context, political leadership will change. While it is important that NATO maintains its present position, NATO leadership may change over time. What steps can be taken, including by our Ministry of Defence, to make the case across the world that the defence of Ukraine is in the global interest, not simply the Ukrainian national interest?

The UK has been making that case from the outset. The stated aim of the UK Government has been that Russia must fail in Ukraine and be seen to fail. That is first because that is the right moral outcome for Ukraine—it deserves to restore its territory and live as a free sovereign country—and secondly because if Putin does not fail in Ukraine, he will be emboldened to go again and again. Euro-Atlantic security over the next 30 to 50 years would be profoundly affected as a consequence.

With much of the media and world now focusing on the ongoing conflict in the middle east, does my right hon. Friend agree that we must not lose sight of the ongoing suffering of Ukrainians at home and on the battlefield?

I absolutely agree. We certainly are not allowing it to become a zero-sum thing where we focus only on the middle east or on Ukraine. We can do both, and the western Balkans and everywhere else where the UK’s interest is challenged.

It is clear that despite heroic efforts by the Ukrainian people, at best a military stalemate will be achieved. What is the Minister’s estimate of the civilian and military casualties on both sides of this conflict to date? What are the prospects of negotiations to bring the bloodletting to an end?

I will need to write to the hon. Gentleman with estimates on both sides. The number I have in my mind on the Russian side is 320,000 dead and wounded, but clearly there will be Ukrainian casualties as well, and those are numbers are military, not civilian. I will do my best to respond on that.

I am not sure that I accept the hon. Gentleman’s assessment that there is an inevitability to stalemate. The effort required to maintain the current apparent stalemate on land—in the Black sea, things are still quite dynamic—is incredible. It is not an inevitable consequence, but the consequence of an extraordinary amount of effort on both sides. If one side loses the strategic depth or patience to maintain that effort, it is perfectly possible that a very different outcome will be achieved one way or the other. That is why it is important we are completely committed to maintaining the current level of effort. As the question from the hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) pointed to, we continue to make that case to friends and partners around the world, so that the donor community remains strong, because there is nothing inevitable about the outcome of this war.

Russia’s financing of this illegal conflict is derived from international trade, particularly the export of oil. I have highlighted how Russia is circumventing the unprecedented sanctions that have been introduced. Does my right hon. Friend agree that in this dynamic situation we need to be constantly alive to how international trade is made, so that we can prevent and block the financing of this conflict? Will he agree to work with international partners in reassessing what further needs to be done?

Absolutely. There is a military line of endeavour, but so too there is a diplomatic and economic one. The Minister for Europe—the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Leo Docherty)—was on the Front Bench to hear my right hon. Friend’s question. My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to note the importance of advancing on all fronts with equal vigour.

The renewed attacks on Kyiv at the weekend and the threats to power plants remind us how widespread the impact of the war is on Ukraine. Could the Minister update us on what recent talks he or ministerial colleagues have had with Ukrainian Ministers about recovery and reconstruction? Can he give details of what the UK is doing to help now?

The Prime Minister and other Ministers, including the Defence Secretary—this mostly sits in other Departments—meet the Ukrainians all the time to discuss exactly that issue. Indeed, the new Foreign Secretary was in Kyiv only last week. It is hugely important that alongside Ukraine’s military resilience, its economy and democracy remain equally resilient and are not strangled out of existence, which would undermine the existence of the state of Ukraine just as much as any military failure. In answering the previous question, I noted that it is important that we advance on all fronts, that we support Ukraine militarily, and that we help Ukraine to maintain resilience and even growth within its economy. It is important globally that a key part of that economy—the export of grain—flows as freely as possible, hence the amount of effort we are putting into the western Black sea.

I thank my right hon. Friend for the work that he continues to do. He mentions the number of Ukrainian military recruits we have been able to help with training in the UK. Can he say any more about that training? How many recruits will we be able to assist in the coming months?

Our aim is to maintain that pace. For colleagues who have had the opportunity to visit, I know it is regarded as one of the moments of a lifetime to see the determination in the eyes of those men who are training to go to war. To train for five or six weeks in the absolute certainty that active combat waits immediately at the other end of that training pipeline focuses the mind in an extraordinary way. I pay tribute to them for their courage and heroism in volunteering to undergo the training, but also to the brilliance of the UK and other nations’ armed forces that are here in this country delivering that training all day, every week of every month.

I have always loved the opportunity to put my support for Ukraine and Ukrainians on the record. I appreciate that the Minister is not the correct Minister for this point, but I can see that the Immigration Minister has arrived for the next urgent question. We have been getting a lot of casework about Ukrainians finding it difficult to get their biometric residence permits processed in any meaningful time, including one who has been waiting since July. Can the Minister help with making representations to the Home Office to ensure that people can get those permits in swift time, so that they can rebuild their lives?

I welcome the continued work that my right hon. Friend and the whole Government do to support our friends in Ukraine.

May I return to the question of grain exports? Just a couple of days ago at a food security summit, President Zelensky was clear that he believes air defences are the missing link to secure those exports. Does my right hon. Friend share that assessment? If he does, how can we help make those air defences a reality?

Air defences have been an important part of the Ukrainian response to Russia’s belligerence from the very beginning. Air defences are necessary to protect critical national infrastructure, the Ukrainian frontline and ports and other key economic infrastructure, as well as the sea lanes through which ships travel. The reality is that we are doing our best to source as much air defence globally as we can, and we will continue to do so.

A few of us who are members of the all-party parliamentary group on the Holy See visited the Ukrainian Catholic cathedral in Mayfair this morning and visited the fantastic welcome centre that has provided so much support to Ukrainians who have come here seeking refuge and safety. One of the key messages we heard—I have heard this from constituents, too—was about the uncertainty they are facing as the visa programme extended by the UK Government is starting to come to an end. Can the Minister assure us that colleagues are working across Government to provide Ukrainians with the certainty they desperately need that they will continue to be welcomed here in the United Kingdom and will not have to pay for the privilege of extending their visas?

The Home Office will be seized of the need to provide as much certainty as it can. Indeed, on Friday I had the pleasure of visiting the welcome hub in my constituency and met eight Ukrainian families who were asking me the same questions. As I explained to them—I share this with the House now—while I completely understand why they individually want as much certainty as possible, it is also important that Putin does not get to see all these countries across Europe that are hosting so many millions of Ukrainians between them offering them an opportunity to stay permanently. The danger is that we would end up with Ukraine losing millions of its best people to economies around Europe, when ultimately we hope they will be able to go home to a free, sovereign Ukraine.

I thank the Minister very much for his determination and leadership, which we all endorse. Ukraine has reported territorial advances of 3 km to 8 km in the Donetsk region, which have been hard fought—the cost has been in lives and injuries—but the determination of Ukrainians to retake their land from Russia is as strong as ever. What can the Minister do to allocate more high-grade military equipment to strike Russia hard in its backyard?

The UK is doing a lot—indeed, it is doing more than most—and we have been the first to go through every capability threshold. Although unfortunately it cannot yet be discussed openly in public or even in the House, the UK has also been able to use our ability to support the Ukrainians in developing their own complex weapons. That, when the time comes, will be one of the great stories, but it is of course something that we are doing all the time.