Ukraine-Russia Relations

– in the House of Commons at 12:38 pm on 27th November 2018.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon 12:38 pm, 27th November 2018

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Russian action in the sea of Azov and the subsequent declaration of martial law in parts of Ukraine.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated yesterday, we condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian vessels that sought to enter the sea of Azov on 25 November. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia and call for their release urgently. Russia has again shown its willingness to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the construction of the Kerch bridge.

The United Kingdom remains committed to upholding the rules-based international system, which Russia continues to flout. Our position is clear: Russia’s actions are not in conformity with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea or the 2003 Russia-Ukraine bilateral agreement, which provides free passage in the sea of Azov, including for military ships. The United Kingdom ambassador reiterated that position at emergency meetings held yesterday at NATO, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN Security Council.

In response to Russian aggression, the Ukrainian Parliament agreed to impose martial law in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days, commencing at 09:00 local time on 28 November. We welcome President Poroshenko’s reassurances that martial law will not be used to restrict the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, and that full mobilisation will be considered only in the case of further Russian aggression. We also welcome the Ukrainian Parliament’s resolution confirming that presidential elections will go ahead on 31 March 2019.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Conservative, Maldon

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a serious escalation of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has already led to over 10,000 deaths in Donbass since 2014? Will he recognise that we, as signatories of the Budapest memorandum, have a special responsibility? May I therefore welcome the support we are already giving, including the announcement by the Defence Secretary, following his own visit to Donbass very recently, that we will be deploying HMS Echo to the Black sea in 2019?

May I also welcome the Minister’s statement that what Russia has done is a clear breach of international law? Will he now specifically seek to find opportunities for the Prime Minister to discuss this with President Poroshenko? Will he reiterate his call for the immediate release of the 23 sailors now being held by the Russians, some of whom we understand are now in Simferopol in occupied Crimea and six of whom are badly wounded?

Will the Minister also look at imposing personal sanctions on the military personnel who have already been shown to be involved in co-ordinating this operation, as well as at increasing the economic sanctions on Russia, at least to the level that Canada and the United States are already imposing?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend. Yes, he refers to a serious escalation that the recent incidents have illustrated, and the UK Government absolutely agree with him on that. I am pleased that he mentioned the recent visit of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. On other proposals, we have no plans to change our conduct of activity in the area.

My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a breach of international law. The United Kingdom’s assessment is that, under the UN convention on the law of the sea, states can require any warship not in compliance with the laws and regulations of the coastal state to leave immediately. However, Russia’s actions in ramming, boarding and seizing vessels do not conform with the law of the sea. Russia’s actions were disproportionate, particularly as the ships had left the area and were returning to the Black sea. The 2003 sea of Azov bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia provides for the free passage of the military and civilian vessels of both states through the Kerch strait and in the sea of Azov, so my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that this is a breach of international law. I know the Prime Minister has today received a request to speak to the Ukrainian Prime Minister and that, in her busy timetable, she will be giving that urgent consideration.

On sanctions, measures have been taken in the past in relation to previous activity by Russia and sanctions were recently considered in relation to both the Crimea annexation and of course the building of the Kerch bridge. Any further sanctions will be considered in co-operation with European partners and others. It is very important that there is a sense of unity in response to what has taken place. The United Kingdom was active in calling a meeting of EU partners yesterday, and the other meetings that took place also saw a very strong response from the United Kingdom and others.

The House is right to see this as a serious matter, and it is important that it is not escalated further. That is why we have indeed called for the immediate release of the sailors, and we ask that all parties act with restraint but certainly recognise where the act of aggression came from in the first place.

Photo of Khalid Mahmood Khalid Mahmood Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) (Europe)

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I also thank Mr Whittingdale for securing it. The shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Emily Thornberry, sends her apologies for not being here to respond, but she is attending the annual lunch of the Labour Friends of Israel.

The events of the past 48 hours have been deeply troubling for all of us who want to see a return to peace, stability and the rule of law across the whole of Ukraine. Instead, incidents such as this make an already intense situation worse and risk widening the conflict. As the NATO spokesman said yesterday, we need to see calm and restraint on both sides and we need both sides to commit to de-escalation. In particular, Russia must abide by international law, as the Minister just stated, which means allowing Ukrainian ships unhindered access to Ukrainian ports on the sea of Azov. There is no excuse for blocking that access, let alone firing on the ships and seizing them. Will the Minister confirm whether he or his colleague will speak to their Russian counterparts and make clear when that discussion will take place?

At the same time, it has been worrying to see the reaction of the Ukrainian Government in declaring martial law. The Minister has said that he has secured agreement from the President that that will not lead to a cessation of any elections that are due to take place in the new year. While these issues are going on, proper democratic structures need to continue robustly to entrench Ukraine on the democratic footing from which we want it to move forward.

The Minister will agree that if the elections do not take place, that will be a backward step—not just for democracy, but for peace, stability and the rule of law, which we want to see across the whole of the region.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his recognition that the Government’s basic position on international law and our response to this are correct. This recent action has come on the back of further disruption over a lengthy period. Since May 2018, Russia has conducted more than 200 stop-and-search boarding operations of civilian vessels transiting to or from the Ukrainian industrial ports of Mariupol and Berdyansk. The regularity of these boardings has increased over the summer, with Russian border guards deliberately delaying merchant vessels transiting the Kerch straits, and this activity culminated in what we saw the other day. It is important for there to be a strong and united international action.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned what he called a “worrying” response from Ukraine; I am not sure I would necessarily say that. In response to aggression from Russia, the Ukrainian Parliament has taken its own decision to impose martial law in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days. Bearing in mind the pressure that Ukraine is under, I should have thought that the position of this House would be strongly to support Ukrainian responses in situations of difficulty.

The United Kingdom did not secure President Poroshenko’s reassurance that martial law would not be used to restrict rights and freedoms—that decision was made absolutely by Ukrainian authorities; we did not need to secure it. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Ukrainian President also made the decision that elections would be unaffected on 31 March, so continued progress in relation to the democratic principles may continue.

We support the action that Ukraine has had to take in relation to this aggression, and our concern about Russia’s international position is clear, which is why we welcome the calls for de-escalation so that these matters do not get worse.

Photo of Iain Duncan Smith Iain Duncan Smith Conservative, Chingford and Woodford Green

I congratulate my right hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale on securing the urgent question, and—not that you need it from me—I congratulate you, Mr Speaker, on seeing that this is a very urgent matter that needs to be dealt with.

We are now dealing with a country, in Russia, that is a pariah state. It occupies large sections of Ukraine illegally, and the very fact that it illegally occupies Crimea means that it has no rights under international law as regards this channel or any interventions to shipping that it has been making, notwithstanding the violent intervention made recently.

May I urge my right hon. Friend the Minister and Her Majesty’s Government to make a very big deal of this internationally at the UN, and as loudly as they possibly can? Will they say that this now means that we must have the highest level of sanctions and interventions because this country, which has intervened in Syria and in almost every other area of the conflict in the middle east and now in Ukraine, has to be brought to book—and that we have to do it now?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that. I reiterate that we strongly condemn Russia’s act of aggression against Ukrainian vessels entering the sea of Azov. As he said, that act of aggression is a further example of Russia’s ongoing violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, following its illegal annexation of Crimea and illegal construction of the Kerch bridge earlier this year.

We remain clear in our support of the rules-based international system, which Russia continues to flout. Russia must not be allowed to establish new realities on the ground. We expect all parties to act with restraint and Russia to de-escalate the situation immediately, and we are indeed discussing with partners what concrete measures we can collectively take in response to Russia’s actions.

The EU has recently strengthened sanctions related to Crimea by listing individuals and entities responsible for the construction of the Kerch bridge, which connects Russia with illegally annexed Crimea. By acting in unity with our allies and partners, in the UN and the EU, we can achieve much.

Photo of Stephen Gethins Stephen Gethins Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I, too, thank Mr Whittingdale for securing this urgent question. First, let me be clear that we in the Scottish National party absolutely condemn the aggressive actions of Russia and its clear violation of international law. We join the Minister in calling for the release of sailors and others involved as soon as possible. May I also take this opportunity to commend the work of Ambassador Judith Gough and all her colleagues, as she does fantastic work in Kiev?

We know that Ukraine is aware that we are stronger because of respect for human rights, the rule of law and the right of opposition to question Governments. That is something Russia fails to understand—not just in Ukraine, but in the Russian Federation. Will the Minister set out what work is being done with European partners, given our relationship and how important Ukraine is to EU security? Will he set out what his co-operation is with EU partners? Will he also set out more details on how he is looking at individual sanctions, which have been mentioned?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am very grateful for such a clear statement from colleagues on the other side of the House—in particular, the condemnation of Russia’s actions and the unequivocal call for the urgent release of the sailors. We welcome that. I thank the hon. Gentleman also for the support he gives to our ambassadors, not only in the region but at the UN, where Jonathan Allen made a particularly strong statement at the Security Council on this matter yesterday.

On the hon. Gentleman’s questions, the EU Political and Security Committee is meeting today to consider the EU’s practical response. As I said earlier, we are discussing with partners what concrete measures we can collectively take in response to Russia’s actions. He can be in no doubt, because of the clear statement by the Foreign Secretary yesterday and clear statements made by ambassadors, that we will continue to do exactly what it takes to try to de-escalate the situation but make clear where we believe the fault lies.

Photo of Thomas Tugendhat Thomas Tugendhat Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

May I, again, thank you for giving adequate time to this urgent matter, Mr Speaker? This is not the first time we have found ourselves discussing Russia’s pariah nature in this House, nor is it the first time we have seen Russia committing acts of aggression—or, indeed, warlike acts—against countries in the region. We have even debated its warlike acts in our own country. So this is a matter not about a foreign nation about which we know little, but about ourselves and our own security.

Does my right hon. Friend the Minister agree that every time we see one of these acts, we see a moment of Russian weakness being expressed through violence, we see a falling oil price being covered up by an act of aggression, and we see riots about the pensioners who have been stripped of their assets by this brutal regime being covered up by further acts of war? Does this not mean that we must stand with the Russian people? We must stand with the democrats, the journalists and the civic activists in Russia, and defend their interests. By doing so, we stand against those who seek to profit off them—not only the warmongers, but those in our own House, even, who are profiting from Russian business in this country and in the United States.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes a series of strong and clear points. He sets out again the concerns the UK shares about a series of actions that has also caused concern abroad. He also made the wider point about the impact of actions on the people of Russia. I should add that Ambassador Jonathan Allen concluded his statement on Ukraine yesterday by saying:

“As my Prime Minister recently made clear, like others here today we remain open to a different relationship with Russia: one where Russia desists from these attacks that undermine international treaties and international security and desists from actions which undermine the territorial integrity of its neighbours and instead acts together with the international community to fulfil the common responsibilities we share as Permanent Members of the United Nations Security Council. And we hope that the Russian state chooses to take this path.”

He sets out clearly why that should be the case, and why a different relationship is open to Russia, but it must entail a change in behaviour.

Photo of Madeleine Moon Madeleine Moon Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

I welcome the Minister’s statement. I particularly welcome the description of the ongoing and consistent provocative actions. This has not been an isolated incident; this has been happening and escalating for some time. I endorse the call for unity, calm and restraint, but we must be aware that Russia is seeking other consequences: a wider destabilisation of the region. It is important that we in this House and across the NATO alliance are unified in calling not only for freedom of navigation, and for the release of the ships and the sailors, but for Russia to understand that actions have consequences. We need to be willing to stand by those consequences.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I will offer a very brief answer, but first, let me say that I am sure that the whole House welcomes the fact that the hon. Lady is the new president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly. We all congratulate her on that. It is a singular honour for not only her, but this House, and we know that she will conduct herself extremely well. The way in which she put her question and the issues that she raised demonstrated that she has a very clear grasp of the facts, and she will be an important addition in that role.

Photo of Michael Fallon Michael Fallon Conservative, Sevenoaks

Will Ministers look again at what further practical assistance we can give to Ukraine, either by increasing our military training or, given Russia’s interference with maritime trade in the sea of Azov, by helping to strengthen vulnerable ports such as Mariupol by, for example, improving the railway links? That will make it less vulnerable to Russian pressure.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As luck would have it, I have some information here about the UK’s support to Ukraine, and I fully support my right hon. Friend’s comments. The UK is providing some £30 million this year to Ukraine to support a range of areas, including governance reform, accountability, communications and human rights. The UK is also providing £14 million in relation to conflict, security and stability projects to bolster Ukrainian defence reform. We have provided up to £3 million of new funding this year for developing independent media and countering Russian disinformation, alongside £2 million provided through existing projects. The Defence Secretary was there recently, as my right hon. Friend will know, and he is having further talks with his US counterpart this weekend. On practical support for Ukraine, including on the defence side, the UK will certainly continue to be committed to Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Defensive non-escalatory military training delivered through Operation Orbital is fundamental to that support.

Photo of John Woodcock John Woodcock Independent, Barrow and Furness

President Putin’s actions have redrawn, by force, the borders of a European nation for the first time since the second world war, and we must never forget or normalise that. We are discussing just the latest in a series of acts of aggression, so will the Government commit to ensuring that they will do everything they can, and to ensuring that their influence on other European nations will not be lessened when—if—the UK comes out of the EU next year?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The hon. Gentleman, who has great knowledge of these matters, puts it extremely well. He references the latest in a pattern of acts of aggression, and welcomes the UK’s support in responding to it, in co-ordination with others. He can take it from me—I say this very clearly—that there will be no diminution in our support and our working with European partners, no matter what happens in relation to other events next year.

Photo of Andrew Murrison Andrew Murrison Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

In 2015, following a great deal of international pressure, France cancelled two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships that were destined for Russia because of the situation in Ukraine. What more will be done at the European Union Political and Security Committee, to which the Minister referred, to impress on our European partners in particular that it is wholly unacceptable at this time to be engaging with the Russian Federation on arms sales?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his description of what happened. He emphasises how important it is for united and collective action to be taken on this issue. It is important that nations work together on this, and his comments about dealing with the sort of supply that was involved with Mistral are well taken. The United Kingdom will be pressing this point to the various committees that we are attending as we speak.

Photo of Steve Pound Steve Pound Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland)

The Foreign Secretary made an extremely powerful and well received speech yesterday at the launch of the holodomor exhibition, sponsored by Mrs Latham, in which he referred to the close, supportive relationship between the United Kingdom and Ukraine. In that context, will the Minister agree to send on behalf of the House our profound sympathy and support to the friends and families of all the sailors who have been injured and imprisoned illegally? What assistance can we offer in the elections in March to support the restraint shown by President Poroshenko?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the Foreign Secretary’s appearance at the holodomor event; it matters greatly to the United Kingdom and the Foreign Secretary, which is why he was there. The hon. Gentleman’s message of support to the families caught up not only in this detention but in others is well made, and it will certainly be conveyed to them. On support for governance, we are already providing £11 million to support reform in Ukraine through the good governance fund, and there are a wide range of programmes to help Ukraine drive forward governance, economic and political reform, and promote greater accountability and transparency. All that will help to make sure that the election process is exactly what this House would expect.

Photo of Theresa Villiers Theresa Villiers Conservative, Chipping Barnet

Sadly, Ukraine suffered hugely at the hands of the Russian and Soviet authorities in the last century, including through the unspeakable cruelty of the holodomor. Does my right hon. Friend share my sense of sadness that in the modern era, when we really all should know better, Ukraine is again on the end of unjustified violence and aggression from Russia?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My right hon. Friend’s concerns are echoed throughout the House. The support for Ukraine in its present difficulties is well expressed both by Members and the actions of Her Majesty’s Government.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces)

For six months, Russia has been stopping and inspecting vessels entering and leaving Ukrainian ports in the sea of Azov. That leads to delays and greatly increased costs, and it affects not only Ukrainian vessels, but those flying EU flags. Will Her Majesty’s Government first make the strongest representations to Russia that it should desist from this practice, and secondly seek legal advice on what financial recompense the owners of these ships can seek?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. On the economic damage, we estimate at present that Mariupol and Berdiansk have seen economic throughput reduce in their ports by some 43% and 30% respectively in the past nine months, so the actions that he referred to have had a profound effect. I am not personally aware of the legal position on redress, but I am sure that the United Kingdom Government will do anything that they can to provide support.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

HMS Echo is due to be deployed to the Black sea in the new year in support of Ukraine. She is a lightly armed oceanographic survey vessel. Would not it be a strong message to Russia if we were to bring that deployment forward, and perhaps also, without any form of escalation, consider deploying her to the Azov sea?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am not aware of any plans to change any of the deployments that have been planned and considered. Of course, while we must continue to do exactly what we have said we will, no one is looking for any escalation in these circumstances.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

Ukraine-Russia relations have deteriorated to an all-time low. There have been evidential reports of the persecution of Christians in eastern Ukraine, occupied by Russia. Pastors of churches have gone missing and nobody knows their whereabouts, and churches have been desecrated and destroyed. I ask the Minister gently: has he had the opportunity to highlight and raise these issues with Russia, and to confirm support for Ukrainian citizens expressing their faith and worshipping their God in the way they wish to?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question; no one could be a more determined supporter not only of the rights of Christians in other countries, but of freedom of belief and religion for all, which he champions. The United Kingdom believes that Russia must uphold its obligations under international humanitarian and human rights law, and we call on Russia to release immediately over 70 political prisoners detained in Russia and Crimea. I will ensure that his comments about minority faith prisoners and detainees are conveyed to the Minister responsible.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

No one benefits from actions that are contrary to international law. No one benefits from disruption. The only people who benefit are those who can demonstrate a clear and concise response to such aggression in an effort to return the world to a rules-based system, where there will be de-escalation, and collective security for all because it is not provoked by unreasonable actions.

Photo of Stewart McDonald Stewart McDonald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

To follow the point made by James Gray, would it not be better to revisit that deployment—not necessarily its time or place, but the type of ship that we send? HMS Echo is a survey ship. Would it not be better to send a ship that can defend itself in these waters, given the events at the weekend? Do those events not also show that it is time for Her Majesty’s Government to have a more muscular and robust policy on Nord Stream 2?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, who is sitting next to me, assures me that the survey ship HMS Echo has appropriate armament, but we have to be very careful. I make it clear that there is no change planned to any deployments at this stage, which is important, and I have no instructions on any such action, but it would have to be considered extremely carefully. What the United Kingdom wants to do is stand up for international law, urge others to do the same, see a release of the sailors who have been detained, make it very clear to Russia what it is doing by risking the actions that it is taking and, while not seeking to escalate anything further, be very firm in supporting an international response, because we must see an end to these actions.

Photo of Mary Robinson Mary Robinson Conservative, Cheadle

There is real concern that the escalation of Russian action in Crimea will lead to real human suffering, and much more of it. What more can be done to ensure access to Crimea for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, so that they can look into this?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend is right: we are very keen for that access to be given, and it is unfortunate that it has not been. Colleagues at the United Nations mission in New York will certainly continue to make this point very strongly.

Photo of Nick Thomas-Symonds Nick Thomas-Symonds Shadow Solicitor General, Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Security)

More than two years have elapsed since Ukraine referred the issue of access to the sea of Azov to the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Why does the Minister think that the process has taken so long, and what can he do to try to speed that up to a conclusion?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As a former lawyer, I have only a possible explanation of why some of these things—particularly, technical actions in respect of the law of the sea, where claim, counter-claim and many other things need to be discussed—take so long. I have no specific information about why this in particular has taken so long, but the Minister for Europe and the Americas will respond to that by letter. If these claims cannot be decided and international arbitration does not work, the international rules-based order falls to the ground, so it is to the benefit of all states—even those who feel that a resolution might not be to their advantage—to do everything in their power to see these matters resolved.

Photo of Bob Seely Bob Seely Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister has eloquently told us what the FCO thinks the situation is. Will he explain what the FCO thinks the situation may become? Is what has happened recently just a continuation of low-level aggression? Is it a ramping up of economic warfare by a blockade of Berdiansk and Mariupol? Or is it part of a shaping operation for a more violent assault on Mariupol? If it is one of the last two, what contingency measures is the FCO thinking of taking?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I know that my hon. Friend has a deep-rooted knowledge of this subject, but he asks the UK Government to speculate on a series of potential outcomes, which I do not think would be wise. The point of his question, however, is to illustrate that from the actions already taken there could be further more serious consequences. Given the concern with which he asked his question—concern that I am sure is echoed by the House—I should be very clear that the UK does not want further escalation. Risks have been taken in the actions we have seen, and it is essential, if those risks are to be de-escalated, that Russia recognises its actions and the concern they have caused, and changes them.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Armed Forces and Veterans), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education)

We know that Russia has been flexing its muscles across the Black sea region for quite a while now, so it was disappointing that the Black sea was not a specific agenda item at the NATO summit in Brussels in July. Can the Minister assure the House that he is pushing NATO allies, including Turkey, which has in the past shown sympathy for Russia, to develop a coherent NATO strategy for the Black sea?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As I indicated earlier, there were meetings yesterday of the UN Security Council, NATO, EU and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. I cannot give a clear answer, because I do not know the technical answer, but given the current level of aggression in the Black sea and the degree of concern raised, and given that the international community responded so quickly yesterday, I suspect that the Black sea is very much a topic of concern. It certainly is for the UK, and it will indeed be pressed.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Conservative, Aldershot

What are we doing to keep open the Kerch strait?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As far as I am aware, the strait is open, but it will be essential to demonstrate that there is free passage without hindrance, and in the near future all actions will be carefully scrutinised. There are ways of ensuring a good international presence and that sea lanes stay open, but any action must be taken collectively. My hon. Friend’s point was well made.

Photo of Stephen Kinnock Stephen Kinnock Labour, Aberavon

The Minister has done an excellent job, as always, of answering our questions, but this does smack a little of complacency. Let us remember that 10,000 people have died in the Ukraine conflict, and that Ukraine has been crying out since 2014, since the annexation of Crimea, for us to do something about the sea of Azov. Its economy is being strangled by the economic blockade. What measures are being taken to support the Ukrainian economy? It is very welcome that the House passed the Magnitsky amendment, but what steps have been taken, if any, to follow up on that amendment, to draw up a list of individuals who should be sanctioned, and to put the amendment into practice? To date, we have little or no evidence of the Government doing anything about that.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

In all fairness, the fact that I answer carefully and honestly in relation to these actions must not be considered any form of complacency. I am keen to set out for the record the action the UK has already taken in response to this incident: our convening of the EU meeting, the meetings at the UN, NATO and the OSCE, the clear statement by the Foreign Secretary yesterday, the statement by Jonathan Allen at the UN Security Council, and the work already done on sanctions, including the sanctions on individuals, and the sanctions following the annexation of Crimea and the construction of the Kerch bridge. In addition, the EU’s Political and Security Committee is meeting today, and further action is being considered in company with others. All that is a clear and definitive response to what has happened. Action has been taken against individuals, and further action can be considered, but the point I was making was that collective action was the most important thing. The international condemnation is clear. There is no complacency in anything I have said.

Photo of Helen Whately Helen Whately Vice-Chair, Conservative Party

This latest act of aggression is yet another reminder that Russia does not care about rules, only realpolitik. That fact must inform the UK’s approach. Will my right hon. Friend say more about the steps we are taking together with our allies to make sure that Russia is practically deterred from further action?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I hope that the actions the UK has taken quickly, in convening meetings of states and speaking very clearly at the UN Security Council yesterday—I commend to the House the statement by our deputy permanent representative Jonathan Allen yesterday, and I will make sure that a copy is placed in the Library so that colleagues can see it—made clear our concerns, and how we are using our international position and our position on various bodies to bring other states together, because collective action is needed.

Photo of Chris Law Chris Law Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Development)

The Russian ambassador to the UN, Dmitry Polyanskiy, claims that Ukrainian ships “illegally crossed Russia’s border” and that the

“responsibility lies with those who gave the illegal order”.

This completely ignores the fact that the Kerch strait and the sea of Azov are shared territorial waters, as designated by a 2003 treaty. Will the Minister call on Russia, both directly and through the EU, to allow the backlogged civilian cargo ships to pass through the Kerch strait, as they are legally permitted to do?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

We do not agree with the interpretation of the law of the sea offered yesterday at the UN Security Council. The deputy permanent representative said about the action and the use of military force:

“This further demonstrates Russia’s ongoing contempt for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and its contempt for the global rules-based international system which this organisation serves to uphold”.

The Government fully support that statement.

Photo of Andrew Bridgen Andrew Bridgen Conservative, North West Leicestershire

What representations were made to the Russians during their illegal construction of the Kerch bridge, the completion of which has allowed President Putin to tighten his grip on the whole region and precipitated this latest illegal act?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I do not have that information, as I was not in this position at the time, but I can make it very clear to the House, as I did earlier, that action was certainly taken subsequently by way of sanctions imposed on those responsible for the building of the illegal bridge. I have no knowledge of what representations were made at that time, simply because I was not there.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

I congratulate the Minister on his calm and measured tone. Does he know whether there will be any NATO vessels in attendance to provide mutual support to HMS Echo when it is in the Black sea in the new year?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I understand from the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, that there are NATO vessels in the area, but I am not aware of any particular deployment to support HMS Echo. That would be a matter for further consideration.

Photo of Ian Liddell-Grainger Ian Liddell-Grainger Conservative, Bridgwater and West Somerset

As the Minister is aware, I sit on the Council of Europe, which Russia is trying to get back into. Will he please ensure that serious consideration is given in the Council of Ministers, through our representative there, to only allowing the Russians back if they fulfil their national and international obligations and do not break them?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

My hon. Friend’s intervention makes clear what the House wants to see. The House is not in conflict with the people of Russia, but as the deputy permanent representative made clear yesterday, actions taken by Russia make it difficult, if not impossible, to have the sort of relationships that are necessary and that my hon. Friend is looking for. The UK is open to that and urges Russia to respond to international concerns and to set out to our mutual advantage a new relationship with other states based clearly on a rules-based international system.

Photo of John Grogan John Grogan Labour, Keighley

As well as the exhibition in the House, does the Minister agree that it is resonant that last weekend there were many commemorations of the holodomor across the UK, including in St Anne’s cathedral in Leeds, and that one lesson is that just as fearless independent journalism was needed in the 1930s from people such as Gareth Jones and Malcolm Muggeridge to expose the holodomor, so it is now needed to expose the fake news coming from the Kremlin?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As I mentioned earlier, we are supporting the provision of money for journalism that is based on the truth and counters disinformation, but the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the importance of investigative journalism are clear. We support the actions of correspondents who go to the most difficult areas of conflict at great personal risk, and we support campaigns designed to make sure that journalists are not targets.

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

Incredibly, Russia still denies having a military presence in Ukraine, although we know that Russian troops and tanks are there in very significant numbers taking part in a war that is claiming some dozen Ukrainian lives every week. Now that we have seen this blatant, unacceptable and proven act of Russian aggression, can my right hon. Friend confirm that the UK will take firm action, including the provision of hard military support?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As I have reiterated throughout, it is essential that responses are co-ordinated and collective. The United Kingdom has made its position extremely clear at the United Nations, in collective meetings today and yesterday, and in the Foreign Secretary’s statement. We will work in concert with our partners in seeking to reverse these actions and achieve our objective, which is stability and mutual security in the region—mutual security that is based on respect for territorial integrity and a rules-based international system.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies)

On the back of the Russian Federation’s illegal and immoral actions in Ukraine, the President of Ukraine is flirting with martial law. Once assumed, martial law powers are rarely given up willingly, and unconsolidated democracies that take them rarely survive. In that context, can the Minister assure the House that the links between the President of Ukraine and Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man, Viktor Medvedchuk, will be fully investigated and exposed, and that we, as a member of the European Union—while we still are—will fully push the rest of the European Union to get its act together and ensure that more solid sanctions are imposed on the Russian Federation?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As I mentioned earlier, the imposition of martial law by the Ukrainian Parliament was announced yesterday, and will come into effect tomorrow at 0900 hours. We welcome what the President said in relation to the limitation of those powers, and we are monitoring very carefully what the impact and effects may be.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering

Sending an oceanographic survey ship sometime in 2019 does not exactly strike me as a robust response to Russian aggression against a friendly state. Russian ships and submarines go up and down the English channel unimpeded all the time. Can the Minister tell the House whether a NATO ship has ever gone under the newly constructed Kerch strait bridge, and when the next NATO vessel will visit the sea of Azov?

Photo of John Howell John Howell Conservative, Henley

May I urge my right hon. Friend not simply to ignore the Council of Europe when he considers European action? Will he support the work that I and others have been doing to prevent the readmission of Russia to that organisation?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As my hon. Friend will know, I do not ignore anything related to Europe—either the European Union or the Council of Europe. I welcome the collective action that we take through our friends, and will continue to do so. I value the Council of Europe, and my hon. Friend’s expression of support for it is well made.

Photo of Kevin Foster Kevin Foster Conservative, Torbay

Thank you, Mr Speaker. There was the usual contest for last!

The Minister will be aware of the many parallels with past situations. Vladimir Putin’s approach seems similar to the process of heating a frog in water: if he keeps pushing up the heat, it will not produce an instant reaction. Can the Minister reassure me that he is talking to other nations about what will happen if Putin continues to push down this power? We obviously do not want to see an escalation, but let us be clear that it is Russia that keeps escalating these situations.

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

I know from my experience in other parts of the international field that what my hon. Friend has said is correct. There is always concern if a state seeks to demonstrate its power through means that are questionable, or sometimes downright illegal. States will sometimes push the envelope. The risk is that at some stage there will be a miscalculation and a confrontation. The United Kingdom will do all in its power to prevent such a thing, but the risk is taken by others, and my hon. Friend’s point is well made.

Photo of Robert Courts Robert Courts Conservative, Witney

Persistent attempts to destabilise Ukraine’s economy are clearly unacceptable. What further practical assistance can we offer Ukraine?

Photo of Alistair Burt Alistair Burt Minister of State (Department for International Development) (Jointly with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office), Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) (Joint with the Department for International Development)

As I illustrated earlier, there is direct support for economic reform in Ukraine and direct support to assist other reforms, including those relating to good governance and technical matters. Support is also being given in relation to information gathering and the need to combat disinformation. In all those respects the United Kingdom’s support is clear, as has been our response to these particular incidents. My hon. Friend may be assured that our concern will continue, and that further support will be made available to Ukraine as and when the United Kingdom judges it necessary.