Both the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister reminded the House that the day after tomorrow,
The event ought to make us all reflect on the things that we and France have in common—for example, the defence agreement concluded between our two countries when Tony Blair was Prime Minister, which has been supported by both Prime Ministers since; and the support we gave to France during its recent military operation to protect Mali from being taken over by terrorists. It should remind us, too, of the overwhelming and continuing importance of the transatlantic relationship. Above all, of course, it should remind us of the courage and sacrifice of British and allied servicemen and women who secured the freedoms that we as Members of this House enjoy every day that we sit and speak here and every time we stand for election.
This year is also, of course, the 100th anniversary of the start of the first world war. Both that, and the second world war, should make us reflect on the severe consequences when defence and deterrence fail.
Russia’s occupation of Crimea and its destabilisation of eastern Ukraine is a wake-up call that we should all hear. It is 25 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and since that time our country and others in our alliance have put out a hand of friendship to Russia, helping it to build more democratic institutions and a more liberal free-market economy. We have helped it to join, for instance, the World Trade Organisation and, indeed, we have tried to build a partnership between Russia and free Europe to replace the sterile zero-sum game of the cold war and its military and nuclear stand-off. Yet Russia’s actions in Ukraine indicate, I believe, that that trust in partnership and co-operation, which we made, has been betrayed.
We, I suppose, had notice of Russia’s new aggressive foreign policy in 2008 when it was at war with Georgia. We have seen Russia’s occupation of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, so Russian policy in Ukraine shows that President Putin is establishing a pattern of behaviour—a pattern of unacceptable and illegal use of Russian force. Are we seriously expected to believe that the appearance of heavily armed, well trained and uniformed militias in eastern Ukraine has nothing whatever to do with the Kremlin? Are we to accept that the Potemkin referendums in Crimea and eastern Ukraine reflect real public opinion in those areas, and are we to believe that the human rights of 97% of Crimea’s population were in imminent danger from the other 3%?
President Putin’s policies in Ukraine are bad enough, but, worse still, he has said in his speeches that he reserves the right to intervene—militarily, if he judges it necessary—in other countries with Russian-speaking minorities, including NATO member states, such as the Baltic states, Poland and Romania. I have just returned from a weekend representing our country at the NATO parliamentary assembly held in Lithuania, so I can tell hon. Members that in the countries that border Russia or are close to it, there is a real sense of apprehension—a recognition that the Russian bear has broken loose from its chain and is acting irresponsibly, aggressively and illegally. Those countries want support and solidarity from their allies to control that behaviour.
Those are countries to which we as members of NATO have made the most profound commitment possible through article 5 of the Washington treaty, whereby an attack on any one of us is deemed an attack on us all because we are mutually committed to collective defence. President Putin is, I believe, testing that commitment, so I view it as essential that at the NATO summit in September this year we reaffirm article 5 and show through our actions that we mean it.
We should ask ourselves why President Putin feels so emboldened and so willing to test us by annexing Crimea and threatening eastern Ukraine. I think that there are four principal reasons. The first is that Russia, having been enriched largely by petrodollars, is now stronger economically than it was a decade or two ago. Secondly, a number of countries in central and eastern Europe have become too dependent on Russian energy and are therefore less willing than they otherwise would be to criticise Russian foreign policy. Thirdly, under Obama’s presidency, the United States has announced a policy to pivot, or rebalance, its foreign policy away from Europe to address new threats in east Asia and the Pacific. Fourthly, President Putin has watched as we in this and other countries in our alliance have cut our defence spending. Over the last five years or so, since the banking crisis, we have cut our defence spending while Russia has increased its expenditure.
What, then, do we need to do to deter further Russian aggression? On the economic front, we need sanctions. We certainly need to reduce our dependence on Russian exports. In relation to energy in particular, we need to reduce European dependence on Russian oil and gas. I believe that there is a key role for the European Union here, as this is not something that the UK or any individual country within the EU can do on its own. This need should be reflected in the energy Bill announced in the Queen’s Speech. We clearly need to generate more energy from renewables in this country and across the EU, while we also need to improve energy conservation and energy efficiency.
We need, of course, to frack more. I listened carefully to my hon. Friend Joan Walley about the need to be sure about the science, but we certainly have to produce more energy of our own so that we are less dependent on energy from Russia—and we need to import more from alternative sources, such as from central Asia through the new southern pipeline and from north America as it produces more gas, which we should import as liquefied petroleum gas.
On the pivot, we need to recognise that the security risks identified by the United States in east Asia are real and that by addressing those risks more directly, the Americans will bring a benefit to us in Europe as well as to themselves. We face many cyber-attacks in this country: they affect our government and our businesses, and they even affect eBay. Many of those attacks originate from China, so this is not some zero-sum game: more American interest in east Asia is not necessarily bad for us in Europe.
We need to grapple with the issue of defence spending. Since 2008, Russian defence spending has increased by more than 10% a year in real terms. That means that over the last five years it has increased by more than 50% in real terms. Over the same period, defence spending by NATO’s European allies has been cut by almost 10% in real terms. President Putin, of course, draws a conclusion from this. In the UK, although we started from a higher base than many of our European allies, according to the Government’s public expenditure statistical analysis published last year, our defence spending between 2009-10 and 2014-15 has been cut by 18% in real terms. Some people are arguing for further cuts as we bring our troops home from Afghanistan. Indeed, Government expenditure plans assume that the MOD’s delegated spending limits will fall in real terms from £32 billion this year to £30.7 billion next year, which means a cut of a further £1,321 million.
The Government told us that the cuts made in previous years were necessary because of the state of the economy. We should, perhaps, pass over the fact that the economy was growing again at the time of the 2010 election, having fallen into recession following the banking crisis, and also the fact that we suffered a double-dip recession as a result of the coalition Government’s economic policies. However, all of us—Members on both sides of the House—now agree that growth has returned, and although there are other pressing needs for public expenditure, I believe that further defence cuts next year would be wrong. Further defence cuts would send the wrong signal to our allies—especially our European allies, who often look to the United Kingdom for a lead on defence matters, because we are one of the very few countries that still spend more than 2% of their gross national income on defence as NATO recommends. They would send the wrong signal to President Putin, and they would send the wrong signal to the NATO summit which we are hosting in south Wales in September.
I believe that now is the time for us to ask our leadership—the leaders of our parties on both sides of the House—to put national security first. We should ask them to stop cutting our defence expenditure and start rebuilding our security forces, and if we do so we shall be in a much stronger position to argue at the September NATO summit that others should do the same.