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Ireland: Russian Naval Military Exercises

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 23 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the government of Ireland regarding plans by Russian forces to hold naval military exercises 150 miles off the south-west coast of Ireland.

My Lords, on 24 January, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney, briefed EU Foreign Ministers about the planned exercises and publicly stated that Ireland did not welcome them, but that Russia was within its legal rights to conduct them. He reiterated this position in a call with the Foreign Secretary on 28 January. The next day, 29 January, Minister Coveney confirmed that the exercises would in fact take place outside of Ireland’s exclusive economic zone.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Of course, the exercises did not take place, partly thanks to the representations of the Irish South and West Fish Producer’s Organisation, which deserves great credit for this. In the intervening period, the Irish state commission on defence has reported, flagging certain concerns it has about the level of Irish state capability in defence. What further can the Minister say about further interactions and connections between the British and Irish Governments through mechanisms such as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference? Looking forward, might the Secretary of State for Defence’s Office of Net Assessment be able to take a view and produce an assessment on what is going on in what used to be called the Western Approaches, in terms of threats there to the totality of interests of all states in these islands?

I assure my noble friend that I will pass on his specific request to my counterparts in the Ministry of Defence. On the issue he raises, the Secretary of State’s Office of Net Assessment and Challenge, or SONAC, which my noble friend has long championed, is a useful mechanism for Her Majesty’s Government to look across all areas of defence. SONAC is closely involved in supporting cross-government efforts on the current crisis in Ukraine, providing rigorous red teaming, a challenge scrutiny and expertise, and it will continue to do so. I note and agree with his comments about Ireland’s fishing community.

My Lords, will the Minister use his good offices with his colleagues in the Cabinet Office and the Northern Ireland Office to ensure that there is an early meeting of the British-Irish Inter-Governmental Conference? The last meeting was held in early December 2021, and promises were made that a further meeting would take place in early 2022. There is a large agenda, including the item referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Godson, and other issues that involve the co-guarantors of the Good Friday agreement, such as legacy and the protocol, and the restoration of political institutions in Northern Ireland.

Ireland is a hugely important ally, and we continue to work closely across a number of security and defence interests, and there have been many exchanges in recent days, weeks and months. On 6 January, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Minister Coveney, spoke about sanctions, the risk of escalation and the need for a united Europe. Concerning Russia, Minister Coveney assured the Foreign Secretary that the EU would support a very robust response. The UK’s integrated review sets out our foreign and security priorities with Ireland, including the common travel area, upholding the Good Friday agreement and protecting the prosperity and stability of Northern Ireland, and the peace process. This is obviously a sensitive time in UK-Ireland relations, but we deeply value that relationship, and we are working closely with Irish counterparts in a range of areas of common interest.

My Lords, acting in lockstep with our allies is not just about punishing Russian aggression. It is also about protecting our interests, so could the Minister tell us when we will see stronger targeting of systems, rather than people? When will we see the reform of Companies House to make it fit for purpose? When will we see a register of overseas owners of UK properties? And when will we see a strong economic crime Bill?

I do not think there can be any doubt about the extent of the package set out yesterday. We are out in front by sanctioning 275 individuals, placing restrictions on banks worth around £37 billion, and under the measures that Parliament has already approved, we can target any Russian entity or individual. It is the most far-reaching piece of legislation of its kind. The key is for us to proceed in lockstep with our allies to simultaneously pressure Russia from all angles. Our unity is critical. As the Prime Minister said earlier, we have prepared, ready to go in the event of further aggression, an unprecedented package of further sanctions, including wide-ranging measures targeting the Russian financial sector and trade.

My Lords, the Chancellor of Germany made a major statement yesterday about Nord Stream 2. If Her Majesty’s Government are trying to act in lockstep, should not the sanctions against Russians in London, and other sanctions be of a similar magnitude to those introduced by Germany?

My Lords, we greatly welcome the announcement from Germany—indeed, the Government have long argued against the project proceeding for precisely the reasons that have now become clear. We are clear that yesterday’s announcement in the UK represents the first wave of sanctions, which target some of the individuals and entities closest to the Kremlin. We are co-ordinating with our allies around the next steps, and we will continue to work with our partners to build the most powerful set of financial sanctions ever imposed on any major economy.

My Lords, the Minister said in reply to a previous question that these sanctions had already been approved by Parliament. But that is not true—they are on the Order Paper for tomorrow, so they have not yet been approved by this House. They are totally inadequate, and I hope that when we consider them tomorrow, this House will say that they are totally inadequate.

My Lords, I was talking about the changes that were introduced on 10 February, which will mean that we are able to more readily designate a far greater range of individuals and businesses associated with the Kremlin. It is clear from what the Prime Minister said today and what the Foreign Secretary said yesterday that that is our intention.

My Lords, much has happened since the noble Lord’s original Question appeared on the Order Paper, and the situation in Ukraine continues to be grave. Russia’s announcement that it was to hold live artillery and missile-firing exercises in part of the exclusive economic zone of Ireland was an early indication of the path that Vladimir Putin has foolishly chosen to tread. Although it is not a member of NATO, the Republic of Ireland currently serves alongside the United Kingdom as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council. What precise role does the Minister feel that the Irish Government can play with the rest of the free world in standing up to Russian aggression?

My Lords, the UK will always stand up for the interests of Ireland, which is not just our closest geographic neighbour but one of our closest friends. On the subject of this Question, Minister Coveney raised his concerns with the Russian ambassador to Ireland at the EU foreign affairs meeting on 24 January. Five days later, on 29 January, the Russian ambassador to Ireland announced in a statement that the exercises would be moved outside of the Irish EEZ. Therefore, from the point of view of Ireland and Minister Coveney, the issue has been resolved.

My Lords, does the Minister consider that there is any significance to the fact that where the Russian exercise was planned for is the point where the two most important transatlantic fibre-optic cables come within a matter of two miles of each other, or is that just happenstance?

The noble Lord raises an important point. Obviously, I can only speculate, but irrespective of whether what the Russians were planning to engage in was legal—I think it is generally accepted that what they were intending to do was legal—it was undoubtedly provocative and overly assertive.

My Lords, is it the case that both Russia and China have a strategy and a plan to promote their interests, while the West, including the Government, has no strategy or plan for dealing with China or Russia?

I do not agree. It is essential that we work with and align as closely as possible with our allies. However, the single most effective thing we can do in relation to the current threat, which has become more than a threat in recent days, is to hit Russia where it hurts, which means imposing as tight a series and set of sanctions as possible to punish those who are closest to, and in many cases propping up, the Kremlin.

My Lords, in response to questions from my honourable friend Caroline Lucas in the other place, the Prime Minister said yesterday that he was not aware of any Russian interference in UK elections. Today he said that he was not aware of any successful Russian interference in UK elections. I am sure that the Minister is aware of the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report on Russia, which said simply that there has been no investigation, so we have no idea whether this has happened. Is it not time, in the current geopolitical climate, to launch that investigation, particularly given the fact that we have elections coming up in the UK in a few months’ time?

My Lords, I start by referring the noble Baroness to the answer given by the Prime Minister today. However, I would just caution her: it seems that this question and indeed this issue became a bit of a bogeyman during the Brexit debate, when all kinds of allegations were made around Russian money, none of which, as far as I am aware, has been substantiated. Our Prime Minister and this Government have done most of the running in terms of corralling our allies to take the position that we have now taken in response to the threat posed by Russia. I do not think that there is any doubt internationally that the Prime Minister has led this international coalition-building exercise.