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Ukraine and Russia: Military Developments

Volume 816: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of military developments on the border between Ukraine and Russia.

My Lords, we are deeply concerned by Russia’s pattern of military build-up in and around Ukraine and are closely monitoring the situation. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has held discussions with her Russian and Ukrainian counterparts, restating the UK’s strong support for Ukraine and urging the Russian Government to de-escalate the situation. We are looking at a package of sanctions to raise the cost of any further aggressive Russian actions against Ukraine. We already support Ukrainian military development and regularly conduct joint exercises.

My Lords, we are edging ever closer to a real crisis in Ukraine, with the US Defense Intelligence Agency speaking of a potential 175,000 Russian troops on the border; with emergency talks between President Biden and President Putin; and with the President of Ukraine asking for British soldiers. The Minister will note that this is a very real crisis and one morning we are going to wake up, as the Defense Intelligence Agency says, to a Soviet invasion of Ukraine. What is our response going to be if anything like that happens? What are we doing to talk to the Russians to secure assurances from them about this situation? Are we talking to our European neighbours? Let us get it sorted before we have a very real crisis on our hands.

My Lords, the noble Lord speaks from deep insight as a former shadow Secretary of State for Defence. I assure the noble Lord that we are working very closely with our European allies and indeed the United States. As the noble Lord accurately said, recently President Biden and President Putin have had discussions, but over the last couple of days there were also meetings between our Prime Minister and other leaders, including our European allies, where our Prime Minister updated others on his conversation with President Putin. Equally, at the OSCE recently, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary, among others, met the Foreign Ministers of both Russia and Ukraine and reiterated the points that I have made. Today, as the noble Lord may know, we are engaging in a strategic dialogue with Ukraine in London.

My Lords, the United Kingdom has been a key contributor to the enhanced forward presence in Estonia and Poland, underlining NATO’s Article 5 principle that an attack on one is an attack on all. Of course, Ukraine is only an aspirant member of NATO, so Article 5 does not apply, but has there been any discussion within NATO about potentially delivering a parallel programme to send a very clear message to the Russians that we support our Ukrainian allies?

Again, I can assure my noble friend. He is right to raise the issue of NATO. We remain very strong supporters, based on the 2008 Bucharest summit declaration, of Ukraine’s membership of NATO. I assure my noble friend that we are talking to NATO allies on this very point; indeed, it was a subject of conversation in my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary’s recent meeting with NATO.

My Lords, when Russia annexed Crimea, there were reports that we would have been better able to anticipate and track events if there had been more Russian speakers in the Foreign Office. Are we better equipped now to monitor what might be happening between Russia and Ukraine?

My Lords, Russian is one of the languages that form part of our diplomatic academy, and of course those deployed to Russia receive language training. Our diplomats speak more than 40 languages, and Russian is one of them.

My Lords, when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the European response was delayed because it happened at Christmas. When the Americans left Afghanistan, the British response was marred by the fact that the Foreign Secretary and the Permanent Secretary were both on holiday. Can the Minister tell the House whether the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is now looking again at leave policy to make sure that at crucial times somebody is always in the office?

My Lords, in any crisis lessons are learned, and the noble Baroness is right. The challenges of the situation we saw in Afghanistan are all too apparent. What we did achieve we look at with a great degree of humility, and we must show humanity in our response to Afghanistan. On the issue of Christmas, and the situation not just in Ukraine but in other parts of the world, we are very much prepared and focused on that, as is my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary.

My Lords, I feel a little reassured by the Minister’s answer. The response from the Government Front Bench the previous time we debated this in the House—that a thermonuclear war would be “unwelcome”—did not really reassure me.

On Ukraine itself, there is very real concern that there are some in Ukraine who would like to stoke this for something to happen, and part of that is because we have pushed for it to become a member of NATO. I think that is a mistake because it has caused a problem within Russia. I ask the Minister: are we in a very firm dialogue with Ukraine to make sure that it keeps a clamp on what is happening there and that we are not promising it things such as NATO, which do nothing but encourage the situation to get worse?

My Lords, the answer to the noble Lord’s second question is: yes, we are very closely engaged with Ukraine, as we are today, on the issue of its NATO membership and, indeed, our support. The support we have given militarily is very much defensive and based on technical support as well.

My Lords, there have been a lot of difficulties in Ukraine, partly with the non-implementation of the agreement made in Minsk, the need for talks about the future of eastern Ukraine, and a follow-up of the initiative of the Finnish President to de-escalate the situation and have a peace conference in Europe to look at the outstanding issues that have arisen following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Should not we put our efforts behind those of the Finnish President to get a discussion going?

My Lords, we are supportive of all peaceful efforts, and in particular we are focused on the Minsk agreements, which Russia has also signed—and we ask it to uphold that agreement.

My Lords, one thing that the Minister mentioned is working with our allies. Sanctions, as he knows, are ineffective without support from allies. President Biden’s talks with President Putin resulted in certain conditions being laid down. The United States National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, reported on some of the counter-measures. What everyone in this House wants to know is whether this Government will be prepared to work with our allies in implementing such measures in time, unlike their failure fully to implement the Russia report.

My Lords, on the noble Lord’s second point, I have written to him and, if there are further questions, I shall follow it up.

I have a copy of the letter, and I can give it to him afterwards. On his earlier point, the short answer is yes. When we have worked on sanctions, we have worked with our EU allies as well as others.

My Lords, this is not an isolated crisis but part of a long-term campaign by a gangster regime, which includes international assassinations, the subversion of legitimate Governments and interference in democratic processes. It has been going on for years and will go on for years. Does the Minister not agree that what is required is not just a set of responses to this particular incident but a long-term diplomatic effort to gain co-operation and determination across Russia’s opposition? Should we not be reducing a little bit the heat of the arguments that we have with some of our neighbours in favour of greater co-operation—stop squabbling over fish when the sharks are circling?

My Lords, there is little I can disagree with from the noble and gallant Lord, who speaks with great insight. I assure him that I agree with him totally—we need to take the temperature down. We have seen the situation with the likes of Mr Navalny, and where we have been most effective is when we have acted and acted together.

Is my noble friend aware that, when the Soviet Union collapsed, great attention was not necessarily paid to some of the territories—but in Russia the loss of Ukraine was much the most sensitive? I entirely agree with the point made by the noble Lord, Lord West. In this difficult situation, in which Russia has now seen the steady advance of NATO right up to its very borders, the sensitivity of this situation—not to allow any action against Ukraine but to recognise the genuine Russian concern—needs to be properly addressed.

I agree with my noble friend, which is exactly why my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary have engaged directly with President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov. Again, we continue to engage with Russia through other channels, including at the OSCE and the UN Security Council.