Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Attorney-General – in the House of Commons at 12:34 pm on 13th May 2014.

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Photo of William Hague William Hague The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 12:34 pm, 13th May 2014

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on recent events in Ukraine. I will update the House on the situation on the ground, the diplomatic work going on to reduce tensions, the decisions we made at the Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels yesterday, and the approach that we will continue to pursue over the coming weeks.

Presidential elections will be held in Ukraine on 25 May. In the vast majority of the country, preparations are proceeding well under the observation of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. The UK is contributing 100 observers to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights election observation mission, which is 10% of the total number, as well as £429,000 for the first round of elections. We have also given £1 million in funding so far to the special monitoring mission. I met the heads of both those vital missions in Ukraine last week, and I thanked them for the hard work of their teams in difficult and sometimes dangerous circumstances.

However, in two of Ukraine’s 25 regions—Donetsk and Luhansk, in the south and east of the country—the situation has deteriorated markedly over the past two weeks. A constant barrage of propaganda by the Russian media, and a steadily mounting death toll, are contributing to an atmosphere of fear, uncertainty and division. So-called pro-Russian separatists, led by people who by their training, equipment and behaviour give every appearance of sometimes being Russian special forces, have continued to seize and occupy Government buildings in the south and east of Ukraine, using many of the same tactics that were deployed in Crimea. We have seen intimidation of journalists, abductions and murders. Missiles have been used to destroy at least four Ukrainian military helicopters, giving the lie to Russia’s claim that these are the actions of spontaneously organised local protestors, rather than well-trained, well-equipped professionals.

On 2 May more than 40 people died in Odessa, including many pro-Russian protesters trapped in a building that was set on fire—an act we condemn unreservedly. This weekend, separatist groups staged sham “referendums” on self-rule in parts of Donetsk and Luhansk. Those polls were marked by blatant fraud, including multiple voting, no proper voting lists, and threats and intimidation against Ukrainians standing up for the unity of their country. The referendums met no basic standards of objectivity, transparency and fairness, and they have no credibility whatsoever. We will not recognise those or any other attempts to undermine the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.

The Government believe that our national interest lies in a democratic Ukraine able to determine its own future, and in protecting a rules-based international system. Therefore, our objectives remain to avoid any further escalation of the crisis, to support the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine, and to uphold international law.

I visited Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia last week, to show our support at a time when all three countries are feeling acute pressure. We look forward to the signing next month of Georgia and Moldova’s association agreements with the EU, which will also establish deep and comprehensive free trade areas, and are currently under parliamentary scrutiny. I gave our strong support to the Moldovan Government’s plans to sign and implement the agreement, and encouraged them to make more progress on reform and in the fight against corruption. In Georgia I discussed, and thanked the Government for their contribution to, their partnership with NATO.

In Ukraine I met the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and the Head of the National Security and Defence Council, as well as the Governor of Donetsk and two presidential candidates. I encouraged all Ukraine’s leaders to communicate with people in the south and east of the country, and to counter Russian disinformation. I welcomed the steps the Government have taken to launch an inclusive dialogue on constitutional reform and decentralisation, and to offer an amnesty for those who peacefully leave occupied buildings in eastern Ukraine. I assured Ukrainians of our support for the presidential elections, which must be allowed to take place free from violence and intimidation.

On top of our strong support for the work of the OSCE, the UK is providing technical assistance to support public financial management and other reform efforts in Ukraine. We have led the call for the urgent imposition of EU sanctions targeting individuals suspected of misappropriating funds from the Ukrainian state, and we hosted the Ukraine Asset Recovery Forum two weeks ago in London, with the United States and Ukraine, in order to co-ordinate this work.

As I have always stressed, the doors of diplomacy remain open. We continue to discuss the situation with Russia, and the Prime Minister had a long conversation with President Putin on 1 May. We strongly supported the Geneva agreement of 17 April and deplore the failure of Russia to join in implementing it. It is right to try now to revive the diplomatic process, and I support and welcome the efforts being made by OSCE Chair-in-Office and President of Switzerland, Didier Burkhalter. Last week I met him in Vienna, and I held further discussions with him over the weekend and yesterday in Brussels. Last Wednesday, he met President Putin and put forward a four-point plan, including the immediate launch of a national dialogue by the Ukrainian authorities with OSCE support. We have encouraged Ukraine to respond positively to this, and it is doing so. The Government have announced they will hold the first meeting tomorrow, and agreed that there will be both Ukrainian and international mediation in this process.

I strongly believe it is in the interests of all concerned to seize these opportunities to reduce tensions. It is manifestly in the interests of the people of Ukraine, including in Donetsk and Luhansk, where there is a danger of the violence growing even worse and many more lives being lost. It is in the interests of Russia, because some events have already moved beyond its control, and because the long-term economic and political costs to Russia of an escalating crisis will be very serious. It is also urgent, because the situation is deteriorating, and the elections are only 12 days away. We look to Russia to exercise its influence and to take every opportunity to restrain those responsible for violence and disorder, consistent with President Putin’s remarks last week that the elections are a step forward.

Yesterday I attended the EU Foreign Affairs Council, at which we made it clear that attitudes and behaviour towards the holding of the elections will have particular importance in deciding whether or not wider economic and trade sanctions will be applied. Preparations for these sanctions are at an advanced stage.

There is no doubt that the Ukrainian authorities are making thorough preparations for the elections to be held, and therefore Russia’s willingness to exercise its influence over illegal armed groups in parts of eastern Ukraine will be the decisive factor in whether everyone in the eastern provinces will be able to exercise their right to vote. Since Russia has taken no practical steps to de-escalate the crisis so far, we agreed yesterday to add a new group of 13 individuals and two companies to the list of persons sanctioned by the EU. This is the first time that entities—companies—have been sanctioned by the EU in relation to the crisis.

We agreed to expand the criteria for sanctions. These will now cover not just individuals directly responsible for undermining the security, territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine, but also a broader range of individuals and entities linked to separatist and illegal activities. For the first time, the sanctions will also be applicable to entities in Crimea or Sevastopol whose ownership has been transferred contrary to Ukrainian law, and to those who obstruct the work of international organisations in Ukraine.

At the Foreign Affairs Council, we also called on Russia to take effective steps to fulfil its Geneva commitments: to refrain from provocative acts and intimidation, to use its influence with separatist groups to compel them to disarm and to vacate illegally occupied buildings, and to cease its destabilising campaign. We demanded that Russia move its troops away from the Ukrainian border. President Putin said last week that troops were returning to their regular training grounds. However we have seen no evidence that Russia has reduced the huge number of its troops stationed just miles from Ukraine, and in fact Moscow continues to encourage the actions of separatists, including through the state-controlled media.

In addition to these steps, we agreed as Foreign Ministers that the EU will prepare a possible civilian mission in Ukraine, to support capacity building in the fields of rule of law, and judicial and police reform. We maintained our firm commitment to sign the remaining provisions of the association agreement with Ukraine, including the deep and comprehensive free trade area, as soon as possible after the presidential elections.

It is clear that if it Russia does not take the path of de-escalation, the long-term cost to it will grow, in an economy already shrinking and suffering massive capital flight. G7 Energy Ministers met in Rome last week and committed themselves to reduce market power and political influence through energy supply. EU leaders will discuss further detailed measures when they meet in June.

The people of Ukraine deserve the right to choose their own Government in a free and fair election, just as we do. They also deserve to be free from external interference and duress and to have the chance to chart an independent future without the debilitating corruption and mismanagement of recent years. They should have every opportunity to be a bridge between east and west, and not to have their country pulled apart by the fanning of hatreds, the wilful sowing of violent disorder, and the insertion of provocateurs and separatists from over their borders.

There is now a fresh opening for Russia, and anyone else fostering violence and tension, to turn back from the brink. The coming days will demonstrate whether they are going to take it. The UK will do everything it can to encourage that and to support the holding of open and fair democratic elections. The international community must continue to be prepared to act with resolve and determination, to persuade the Russian Government to change their approach, to defend a rules- based international system, and to prevent a deterioration of the situation in the wider region.