Ukraine

– in the House of Commons at 1:37 pm on 20th December 2022.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence 1:37 pm, 20th December 2022

With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Ukraine. I am grateful for the leeway that Mr Speaker has given me for a slightly longer statement than normal; I thought it important to give as much information as possible to the House at the close of this year.

Today marks the 300th day of what was supposed to be a three-day operation by Russia. As this calendar year draws to a close, I want to update the House on the illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the brave defence of the Ukrainian people. Since it began its offensive on 24 February, Russia has failed to achieve its strategic objectives. Not one single senior operational commander in place on 24 February is in charge now. Russia has lost significant numbers of generals and commanding officers. Rumours of General Gerasimov’s dismissal persist, as Putin deflects responsibility for continued military failure in Ukraine, high fatality rates and increasing public dissatisfaction with mobilisation.

More than 100,000 Russians are dead, injured or have deserted. Russian capability has been severely hampered by the destruction of more than 4,500 armoured and protected vehicles, as well as more than 140 helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, and hundreds of other artillery pieces.

The Russian battalion tactical group concept—for a decade the pride of its military doctrine—has not stood up to Ukrainian resistance. Russia’s deployed land forces’ combat effectiveness has dropped by more than 50%. The Russian air force is conducting tens of missions a day, as opposed to 300 a day back in March. Russia’s much-vaunted Black sea fleet is little more than a coastal defence flotilla. Kremlin-paid mercenaries are faring no better. Hundreds were recently killed by a strike on a headquarters used by the paramilitary Wagner Group in the Luhansk region.

Behind the scenes, international sanctions, including independently applied UK sanctions, have handicapped the Kremlin’s defence industry. Russia is running out of stockpiles and has expended a large proportion of its SS-26 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles. It is now resorting to stripping jetliners for spare parts. Its inability to operate independently is underscored by its reliance on Iran’s Shahed drones.

President Putin’s failure to marshal recruits and machinery is translating to battlefield defeats. At the maximum point of its advance, in March, Russia occupied around 27% of Ukrainian territory. Ukraine has since liberated around 54% of the territory taken since February. Russia now controls only around 18% of internationally recognised areas of Ukraine. Last Monday, the Kremlin cancelled its annual press conference for the first time in a decade.

Almost a year on, the conflict now resembles the attritional battles of world war one. The Russian army is largely fixed in place, not just by Ukrainian firepower but by its own creaking logistics system and barely trained troops. Soldiers occupy networks of waterlogged trenches and a vast frontline stretches for 1,200 km—the distance from London to Vienna. Despite intense fighting in the Donetsk, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia regions, Russia can barely generate a fighting force capable of retaking lost areas, let alone make significant operational advances.

Russian public opinion is starting to turn. Data reportedly collected by Russia’s Federal Protective Service indicated that 55% of Russians now favour peace talks with Ukraine, with only 25% claiming to support the war’s continuation. In April, the latter figure was around 80%.

Alongside Russia’s litany of failure is an expanding rap sheet of reported war crimes. According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, since 24 February some 6,000 Ukrainian civilians have been killed and nearly 10,000 injured. Every day more allegations emerge of rape, arbitrary detentions, torture, ill treatment, deaths in custody and summary executions. Unrecorded group burial sites have been discovered in former occupied areas such as Mariupol, Bucha and Izyum. Industrial facilities such as the Azovstal steelworks and the Azot chemical plant have been targeted, risking the release of toxic industrial chemicals, and the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant—the largest in Europe—has been indiscriminately shelled. At the start of the invasion, Russia planned “kill lists” of civic leaders, show trials and sham referendums. Unfortunately for it, the international community has not been fooled by such tricks.

Russian soldiers recently exhumed the bones of Prince Potemkin, the legendary confidant of Catherine the Great. They have also looted priceless artefacts from museums and, according to UNESCO, either partially or completely destroyed more than 200 Ukrainian cultural sites. More sinister still is the splitting up of families through forced relocation or “filtration” into temporarily occupied territories or Russia itself. Numerous open-source reports show that this morally bankrupt activity is not the work of rogue units or corrupt individuals; it is systemic.

Today, Russia is weaponising winter, with ongoing and widespread missile strikes targeted at Ukraine’s energy and water infrastructure. More than 40% of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure has been struck. However, Ukraine’s resilience has meant that a significant proportion is back up and running. Such behaviour is a flagrant breach of international humanitarian law and the law of armed conflict. We are doing everything we can to support the Ukrainian authorities and the International Criminal Court as they investigate.

At the beginning of this year, my aim was to help Ukraine resist and to give its citizens hope that the Europe they aspire to be part of would support them in their hour of need. The international community has not disappointed. As Russia has changed its tactics throughout the conflict, so we in the United Kingdom have changed the type and level of our support. For example, Britain’s expertise and advice is helping Ukraine better co-ordinate and synchronise its air defence. Our advice helps Ukraine target incoming Russian or Iranian kamikaze drones. We always make sure that our support is calibrated to avoid escalation. The House should be under no illusion that it is Russia that is escalating its attacks on Ukraine, and I have made that point clear to my counterpart Minister Shoigu in Moscow.

I wish I could tell the House that, after 300 days of almost daily defeats, Russia has recognised its folly. Sadly, it has not. There is no let-up for the Ukrainians and, as can be seen by the weaponisation of energy, there is no let-up from Putin’s war for us here in the United Kingdom or across Europe. Therefore, Ukraine will require our continued support in 2023, building on our lethal aid, training, humanitarian support and international co-ordination.

That is why, as the temperature drops further in Ukraine, the UK is doing what it can to help Ukrainians endure the harsh winter. The UK has donated 900 generators to Ukraine, and it has sent approximately 15,000 extreme cold weather kits to the Ukrainian armed forces, including cold weather clothing, heavy duty sleeping bags and insulated tents. We anticipate that a further 10,000 cold weather kits will be delivered by Christmas. Across the international community, around 1.23 million winter kit items have been deployed to Ukraine.

Alongside our global partners, we have implemented the most severe package of sanctions ever imposed on a major economy. Simultaneously, we have galvanised efforts to raise funds to support Ukraine. I chaired my first Ukraine donor conference on 25 February and have attended three since then. The UK has been instrumental, too, in bringing our northern European neighbours together in solidarity under the auspices of the joint expeditionary force, whose unity was apparent at its meeting yesterday in Riga. Together, this has ensured a steady supply of lethal and non-lethal aid to sustain Ukrainian resistance.

As the threats to European security rise, the UK has also been leading efforts to shore up regional security, deploying a number of units across the continent. President Putin wanted to see a weaker NATO. NATO will now be even stronger with Finland and Sweden’s decision to accede to the alliance. As Secretary of State, I do all I can to make sure that the final hurdles are removed to allow their swift entry into the alliance.

Although our populations continue to struggle with the cost of living crisis, the global community must hold its course on Ukraine. The price of Putin’s success is one none of us can afford. We must ensure that Russia maintains its commitment to the Black sea initiative, which has so far transported 14.3 million tonnes of grain in more than 500 outgoing voyages; we must stop its reckless shelling of nuclear facilities; and we must hold its enablers to account. Iran has become one of Russia’s top military backers. In return for Iran’s supply of more than 300 kamikaze drones, Russia intends to provide it with advanced military components, undermining both middle east and international security. We must expose that deal—in fact, I have just done so.

Make no mistake: the UK’s assistance to Ukraine will remain unwavering. I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his continuing support. We have already committed to match or exceed the £2.3 billion in military aid we have spent in the last year. We have secured a major deal to keep up the ongoing supply of artillery rounds and will continue refreshing Ukraine’s stocks of air defence and other missiles, as well as our own. Where we have equipment to gift, we will replace from our own stocks; where we have no more to gift, we shall purchase alongside our allies. The UK has been joined in its huge level of support by the US, as well as by EU members—Poland, Slovakia and the Baltic states in particular.

We are determined to maintain and sustain the Ukraine equipment pipeline for the longer term. Our international fund, which we co-chair with Denmark, has to date received pledges worth half a billion pounds, and it has just concluded its first round of bids for capabilities that we plan to rapidly procure for Ukraine in the new year.

Our armed forces are doing everything possible to develop the battle skills of Ukrainian men and women, having put almost 10,000 through their paces in the UK in 2022. My ambition is for our armed forces, alongside our allies, to train at least double that number in 2023. I want to place on record my thanks to Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Norway, New Zealand, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Australia for their contributions of troops to join that endeavour, training Ukrainian troops here in the United Kingdom. Finally, we must help Ukraine rebuild. The reconstruction conference that we will host next year will accelerate that process.

Throughout this year, I have kept open communication channels with my opposite number, Defence Minister Shoigu, in order to avoid miscalculations and reduce the risk of escalation. Through written correspondence and a phone call on 23 October, I have repeatedly stressed that Russia must stop targeting civilians, end its invasion, and withdraw its forces from Ukraine.

This year, the Ukrainians have been fighting not only for their freedoms but for ours. We must be clear that three days, or even 300 days, is not the maximum attention span of the international community. The UK and the international community’s dedication to help Ukraine is solid and enduring, and will not let up through 2023 and beyond. We cannot stand by while Russia sends waves of drones to escalate its attack on innocent civilians.

Just as the UK’s support has evolved as the conflict has unfolded, we are doing so again now in this latest phase of Russian brutality by developing options to respond in a calibrated and determined manner should the escalation continue. If the Kremlin persists in its disregard for human rights and the Geneva conventions, we must insist on Ukraine’s right to self-defence and the protection of civilians. The next year will be critical for all of us who believe in standing up for freedom, international law and human rights. I commend this statement to the House.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 1:50 pm, 20th December 2022

I congratulate and welcome you to the Chair, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his extended statement and for the Ukraine briefings that he has provided to the shadow Front-Bench team throughout the year.

Today marks the 300th day of Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. Winter has slowed the fighting, Russian forces are digging defensive lines and strikes on critical civilian infrastructure continue, but the Ukrainian determination to defeat Russia remains as strong as ever. Liberating more than half the territory that Russia seized after 24 February is a remarkable achievement; Ukraine is winning and western military assistance is working. As a Ukrainian MP said to me last month,

“weapons are the best humanitarian aid”.

Since the start of the invasion, there has been united UK support for Ukraine and united UK condemnation of Russia for its attacks and war crimes. On Britain’s military help to Ukraine, and on reinforcing NATO allies, the Government have had and will continue to have throughout 2023 Labour’s fullest support.

Today also marks two months since the Defence Secretary last gave a statement to the House on Ukraine. Since then, multiple ad hoc announcements have been made through news headlines on ministerial visits—for example, £50 million in defence aid when the Prime Minister was in Kyiv; three Sea King helicopters when the Defence Secretary was in Norway; six armoured vehicles when the Foreign Secretary was in Ukraine; and yesterday, £250 million for artillery ammunition when the Prime Minister was in Riga.

That is exactly the type of support that the UK should be providing, but the full 2023 action plan for Ukraine that the Secretary of State promised four months ago has still not been published. Can he explain why not? That would help to give Ukraine confidence in future supplies, gear up British industry, encourage allies to do more, and make it clear that things will get worse, not better, for Russia.

The Secretary of State’s statement was largely backward-looking, so I have some questions. As winter sets in, what extra support is the UK giving to ensure that the Ukrainians can continue fighting? As reports suggest that Russia is preparing a big early spring offensive, what extra military assistance is the UK providing? As Putin continues to bomb Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, what support is the UK giving to help to repair and protect it? As Russia constantly breaks the Geneva conventions, the Defence Secretary said that he was “open-minded” about sending longer range weapons systems. Has he made up his mind yet about whether to send that support? As Putin reinforces his relations with Belarus, does he expect its more direct involvement in the conflict?

Two weeks ago, on day 287 of the war, the Defence Secretary finally got the Ministry of Defence’s act together and announced that he had signed a contract to produce new next-generation light anti-tank weapons, which is welcome. Replenishing stockpiles is a matter of public and parliamentary concern, so we know that our armed forces can fight, fulfil our NATO obligations and continue to support Ukraine. That also sets a precedent. To meet the same standards of accountability, will he tell the House why he published a press release about the NLAW contract but stonewalled my questions about other contracts to restock weapons sent to Ukraine? Will he confirm that the Prime Minister has now ordered a data-driven review of military aid to Ukraine, and for what purpose?

In 2023, NATO will be stronger, larger and more unified with new military plans. How will Britain’s NATO contribution change? How will the Defence Secretary ensure that the UK’s obligations are fulfilled? Since Putin’s brutal illegal invasion began in February, 22 NATO nations have rebooted their defence plans, yet it took six months for Ministers to accept the Opposition’s argument that the Government needed to do the same to its integrated review. That was first promised by the end of the year and then in the new year, but the Chief of the Defence Staff’s interview with The Sunday Telegraph suggested that the updated IR will not come out until April.

The spring Budget is on 15 March. The Chancellor said in his autumn statement that before any decisions are taken on defence spending,

“it is necessary to revise and update the integrated review, written as it was before the Ukraine invasion.”—[Official Report, 17 November 2022; Vol. 722, c. 848.]

Where does that leave the Defence Secretary? How will he manage another year with real-terms cuts that he agreed to his revenue budget? Although the Kremlin maintains its declared hostility to the west and clearly prepares for the war in Ukraine to run long, 2023 could nevertheless become the turning point for this conflict as long as we and other allies maintain our ability, not just our will, to provide the military, economic and humanitarian assistance that the Ukrainians need to win.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his questions and for the cross-party support across the political divide—from not just the official Opposition but the Scottish National party and Liberal Democrats, who have provided clear leadership. Britain has been at its best on this issue, which has helped to inspire other nations across Europe to lean in, whatever their politics. There have been many changes in the Governments across Europe—perhaps not as many as in ours, but a fair few—and whether they have gone from left to right or right to left, they have embraced the cross-party view that what is going on is wrong and that we should stand together.

The biggest surprise to President Putin and his cynical calculations is that, funnily enough, across age groups and political divides, we all care about human rights and the values that we share across Europe as much as our grandparents’ generation did, and we are prepared to stand tall. I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his support and I will continue to give as many briefings as possible or give access to intelligence briefings. I know that he will have a briefing on stockpiles soon; I was told this morning that we are starting to arrange the dates for January, and I will make a similar facility available to other Opposition parties.

That is part of the answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. We obviously keep some of our stockpiles secret, because it would benefit an enemy or adversary to know what we are strong or weak in. I have said, however, that I will happily share some of those details with Opposition Members, albeit not in the public domain. That is why we are prepared to talk about the replenishment of some weapons systems, such as NLAWs. With the gifting of more than 5,500 or 6,000 NLAWs, they need to be replaced, which is why we signed that contract on 7 December.

The right hon. Gentleman made a point about getting my act together. One of the challenges for stockpile replenishment has been that when many of those orders were fulfilled 10 or 15 years ago, the supply chain switched off. I sat in on the previous statement about getting contracts right; when negotiating for new prices, history says that we should not give a blank cheque but make sure that we have the real prices that will be reflected in the contract. For the NLAWs, we joined forces with the Swedes and the Finns to place a joint order, and in the meantime, the manufacturer found that new supply chains could give us an accurate price. That is the reason for the delay—simply to get an accurate price, and not because we were scrimping and saving or trying to do anything differently. As soon as we could, we placed that order.

The backfilling of the 155 mm artillery shells is already in an existing framework, and they are starting to be commissioned. In November, we signed a contract for the low-velocity anti-aircraft defence missiles that will replace the ones that we had gifted—we continue to supply some—to Ukraine. On top of that, in the autumn statement there was a £560 million increase for our own stockpiles.

The right hon. Gentleman’s point about the action plan is valid. At the beginning of next month, I will seek to make sure, if possible, that we have a debate on the action plan for next year. I am disappointed that I do not have one for him. As he will understand, some of the issue is about different allies and different requests from Ukrainians—this is not always a static thing; it is a dynamic situation. Nevertheless, the right hon. Gentleman is correct. I totally support and agree with his observation that an action plan is a good signal to Russia, let alone our allies, about what we intend to do.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Prime Minister’s review. It is understandable that, being new in post, the Prime Minister would seek an update on Ukraine and want to take a stock check of where we are. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that that process in no way weakens or undermines the Prime Minister’s resolve to support Ukraine this year, next year and onwards. It is perfectly reasonable for him to have wanted to take stock. The media report was half right, let us say, rather than fully right, but let us not let facts get in the way of a good news story.

On the integrated review, I have always tried to be honest about the problems that defence has. Defence has always had the problem of appetites being bigger than budgets and of strategy documents being written without the budget being known. The autumn statement has started to dictate what we could do in the short term, and that has had a clear and direct impact on the timeline of the IR. I hope that by March the IR refresh will be aligned to a Budget promise, as that would be sensible. Otherwise, we will be back to hollowing out or trying to produce a document that does not match that appetite or spend. It is regrettable that the refresh has not come earlier, but I would rather get it right. Then we can have a healthy debate about whether I am spending the money in the right or wrong place.

I am happy to share with the House, if it wishes—perhaps in a written statement—the full list of supplies that we can talk about that we have put in over the past year. The most recent, obviously, was nearly 1,000 surface-to-air missiles to help deal with the Iranian kamikaze drones. We announced and put those in only last month, as a response to the current situation.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee, Chair, Defence Sub-Committee

It is fair to say that there has been a bit of domestic turbulence in British politics over the past six months or so, but, as we saw in our Defence Committee visit to Ukraine, the support that Britain provides is so appreciated. That is largely down to the leadership, commitment and consistency from the Defence Secretary. It is important to put that on the record.

Bearing in mind the huge contribution that Britain has provided in allowing a series of counter-offensives to take place, does my right hon. Friend agree that the threat from Russia remains? Putin is mobilising more of his forces and retooling many of his industries, potentially for a spring offensive. He is increasingly framing this conflict as, to use his own words, “a wider struggle against a hostile west”. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is therefore not just a Ukraine war, but a European one? The longer it lasts, the more it will damage not just Ukraine but our own security and economy—all the more reason why it is important that we put this fire out.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend and I totally agree that it is important that Putin fails in Ukraine, because if he were successful the consequences would be felt right here in the United Kingdom and right across Europe. Yes, it is a battle of European geography, given that Ukraine was invaded illegally, but it is also a battle of European values. From Putin’s point of view, the people of Ukraine seem to have had the cheek of looking towards Europe and wishing to share its values, and he felt that that was one of the reasons to invade.

Of course, the west is not buying the almost monthly recasting of Putin’s reasons for invading, which have varied over time. At one stage, it was to denazify and get rid of gays, apparently; if that was the case, the gay people of Ukraine are doing a fantastic job of beating that view—more power to their elbows. Then the reason was that NATO was threatening Russia, although of course when Sweden and Finland chose to join NATO that no longer seemed to be the core issue. The latest narrative is that it is the US versus Russia, with all the rest of us between those great powers—I suspect that that is how Putin sees it. That moving narrative is a sign of Russian desperation.

At heart, my right hon. Friend is absolutely right: Russia as a threat is not going away. It has exposed itself as having no regard for international human rights, for the rule of law, for minorities or for the respect of sovereignty—whether that of a neighbour or further afield. It seems to have no regard for the consequences on its own soldiers, who are being lost in their thousands because of incompetent generalship.

Photo of Dave Doogan Dave Doogan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

More than 17,000 civilians are estimated to have been killed in Ukraine, with increasing hybridisation displacing the failed kinetic offensive by Russia—failed but no less destructive for its want of just purpose. The figure seems destined to grow amid the missile attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine’s harsh winter. The Odesa Oblast energy department advises that fully restoring electricity supplies could take as long as three months, confirming that Russia is deliberately bombing hospitals and other medical facilities to sow and cultivate terror in over 700 such attacks since February.

Russian attacks on energy infrastructure on Sunday 11 December left 1.5 million people without power in Odesa in the middle of winter. Ukraine’s armed forces advised that Russia launched 15 Iranian-made drones in the region of Odesa and neighbouring Mykolaiv, 10 of which, thankfully, were shot down. Determined to engage the world in his conflict, Putin has weaponised not only energy, as we now see all across Europe in these winter temperatures, but the blocking and now consistent frustrating of the meagre ship traffic into and out of Ukraine, limiting food to the global south, impacting grain prices globally and challenging the storage of the 2022 harvest.

This is hybrid hostile action against a global civilian community, designed to show the strength of the Russian nation but so woefully misguided and miscalculated that it reveals principally the unity of Europe, the steadfast shield of NATO and the indefatigability of the Ukrainian people fighting and suffering with just cause on their side and the world at their backs.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the UK Government like to reflect on the help, support, training and other interventions given to Ukraine to date—I note the 900 generators detailed in the Secretary of State’s statement and the unity that he rightly refers to across the House. He can continue to rely on Scottish National party support in this one distinct area. Can he assure the House that he will be ever vigilant for cracks of fatigue in the international community as we continue to support Ukraine, and have a strategy to deal with those cracks should they ever—I hope they do not—appear?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Yes, the international community works collectively, including through the Joint Expeditionary Force. I invited his colleague, Ian Blackford, the former leader of the SNP, to JEF meetings when they were hosted in Rutland and Edinburgh recently. It is important that Opposition Members get to meet a number of our international colleagues: demonstrating that unity changes things and moves the dial.

I have made 41 international visits over the last 12 months, mainly around Europe, although some were further afield. Defence diplomacy matters fundamentally; one thing to come from the defence Command Paper was that defence diplomacy is one of the ways to avoid wars, making sure that we are helping countries be resilient in their own defence so that war does not happen. It is a Cinderella part of defence, but incredibly important.

On the wider area of humanitarian aid, it is important to remember the £220 million aid package. The support is not just about lethal aid; it is about helping the broader community and society. Economic failure in Ukraine would be another plank towards a Putin victory, and therefore we must help, including with a £73 million fiscal support grant and £100 million for energy security and reforms. A further list is growing around the work we have done, with things such as medical assistance from the Department of Health and Social Care, and others, and also with things such as grain. That is just as important as the military fight, helping Ukraine’s resilience through the winter and against the appalling attempts to switch off its energy, and helping to ensure that its economy survives in 2023.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee

Will my right hon. Friend share his assessment of likely Russian military doctrinal changes as we go into next year? Does he believe that Gerasimov has indeed been fired? Will he reassure us that he has been having strong conversations with his Belarusian counterparts following Putin’s visit yesterday, to deter them from becoming combatants in this illegal renewed war?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am always happy to speak to my Belarusian counterpart. I have not engaged directly with Belarus—perhaps I should try, and I will. The open source commentary around Gerasimov’s future is matched by open source commentary about the future of other generals, but we can say for sure that the generals around Putin are not in agreement about the success or failure rate of the special operation, and that is causing significant frictions. We will see what the outcome is, but we should be under no illusion that President Putin is still in charge of Russia, and as long as he is, he is determined to drive the special operation along, and we in Europe must stand and resist.

Photo of Kevan Jones Kevan Jones Labour, North Durham

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. This week Vladimir Putin flew to Minsk to meet President Lukashenko. In the press conference that followed, President Lukashenko described himself and President Putin as the most hated and “toxic” individuals in the world—something I am sure we could all agree with. Picking up on the point raised by Alicia Kearns, what assessment has the Secretary of State made of the potential for Belarus to join this conflict, to get Putin out of the quagmire he has got into?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I think it is unlikely in the short term that Belarus will join, but it has allowed its territory to be used for the launching of weapons systems, and at some stage of Russian forces into Ukraine, and I do not see that changing. It is notable, however, that by his absence the President of Belarus has managed to navigate a tightrope, and to date he has not sent his forces into Ukraine. Perhaps that is because his forces are best deployed securing him and his future, rather than going to Ukraine and suffering the same fate as the Russian forces.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Chair, Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament

Since Ukraine was attacked by a robotic and cowardly psychopath we have been led by three rather varied Prime Ministers, but fortunately only one Defence Secretary. Will he confirm that 300 days into Putin’s criminal campaign our Government remain as resolutely committed to its defeat as they were on day one, and may we therefore anticipate a long overdue rise in the defence budget to 3% of GDP?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend has been right for years about the threat posed by Russia, and as Defence Secretary I say he has been right for years about the funding for defence. But I am not the Prime Minister, or indeed the Chancellor, who has a difficult job of balancing the other demands on the public purse. However, I shall continue to fight for that 3%. On my right hon. Friend’s kind comments about continuity, may I say that the shadow Secretary of State has also been in a place of continuity, and that makes a difference. I hope party leaders recognise that the best way to get over all those stories about how the civil service does this or that is through continuity in office.

Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Labour/Co-operative, York Central

I thank the Defence Secretary and my right hon. Friend John Healey for their focus and the approach that they have taken to this conflict, unifying our country and also unifying the world. However, increasingly there are rogue states to that position on the war and the supply of weapons, which is deeply troubling. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that we isolate those actors that are supplying Putin for his war?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

We work with a number of countries to make very clear that that is unacceptable, and where we can we take steps to frustrate that process. Fundamentally, once weapons systems are in the hands of Russians or on Ukrainian territory, they are legitimate targets for the Ukrainian armed forces, and we have already seen that success. As I said in my statement, this is not always about hardware. Britain’s know-how in ensuring that air defences are better co-ordinated has helped significantly to defeat some of the Iranian drones that are being fired, almost like V-1 bombs from the second world war. It points to the heart of the regime that we are all up against that its solution to failure on the battlefield is to fire those things indiscriminately at civilian infrastructure, and at civilian areas where people live.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

My right hon. Friend said that we were assisting Ukraine in its air defence against drones, but do we have other troops helping Ukraine within Ukraine?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

We do not need to be in Ukraine to help with our knowledge, and to help to better co-ordinate, explain and train. That is why we have brought nearly 10,000 Ukrainian troops here. Many Ukrainians received specialist troop training outside Ukraine. The Germans and, I think, the Dutch did training on long-range artillery for the Ukrainians, and we obviously helped with combat engineer training in neighbouring states.

I have noticed some misleading media comments about the Royal Marines. We have a small contingent for force protection around the embassy, as would be expected, to ensure that we always protect our diplomats and our areas. We are not directly engaged in conflict with Russia—we have been very clear about that—but we have been providing hardware and know-how to assist Ukraine to defend itself.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards

Of course Putin has got to be defeated, but that means not just going down a military set of avenues but ensuring that every part of British society is doing whatever it can to bring Putin to his knees. Will the Secretary of State—he is the fixed point in an ever turning world with this Government—explain why Unilever is still selling Cornettos and Magnums in Russia, why Infosys is still functioning in Russia, and why many months after Abramovich’s Chelsea was sold, the charity is still not in place to be able to deliver £2.5 billion of that money into the rebuilding of Ukraine?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

On the latter point, I am happy to write to the sports Minister to find out that detail, as I am not across that part of the process.

The hon. Gentleman is right about brands. If I was running any one of those international companies I would not want my brand to be associated with what is going on in Russia and the Russian regime. As I said in my statement, what is going on in Ukraine is not a few isolated units but part of the system, as is Russia’s treatment of its own people who disagree with the policy, which includes people being locked up for long periods simply for criticising the special military operation. I urge those international brands to think very carefully about continuing to trade in Russia.

On what more we can do, I think—I am happy to be corrected, perhaps by the Leader of the House, who is sitting next to me—that the next steps of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill will make it harder for people to keep and launder money in the United Kingdom. That has got to be the right thing. When I was Security Minister I did a considerable amount on that, and there is still more to do.

Photo of Aaron Bell Aaron Bell Conservative, Newcastle-under-Lyme

I am proud of the military equipment and aid that we have been giving the Ukrainians, and also of the humanitarian aid that communities such as mine in Newcastle-under-Lyme have sent to Ukraine over the past year. As the conflict evolves and Ukraine is perhaps more on the offensive than the defensive, we may need to change the types of weapons and aid we are sending. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he is open to sending new types of weapons to the Ukrainians, and if so what new kinds might those be?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I will not speculate further on the specific types of weapons systems. Obviously we have longer-range, smarter weapons in our stock that could be used should Russia continue to escalate in the way that it has. It is important that we keep that ambiguous for now, because the last thing we want is Russia preparing defences against certain capabilities. However, it should be under no illusion—I have communicated this to my counterpart —that we view what it is doing now as an escalation. In the past, when the Russians started bombing civilian areas, such escalations have seen a response such as my authorising the supply of high-velocity anti-air missiles.

Photo of Richard Foord Richard Foord Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence)

I welcome the right hon. Member’s statement, including his conclusion that we in the UK believe in standing up for international law. The crime of aggression perpetrated by Russia’s leadership should be regarded as the supreme international crime. It is from this aggression that breaches of the law of armed conflict and other crimes flow. Allies in Europe are advocating that we seek to secure justice for war crimes, including the crime of aggression. Will the Secretary of State, when talking to the Attorney General, advocate for the UK speaking favourably about the special tribunal so that we might see future accountability for this crime of aggression?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes, I will. What is unifying us is the egregious breaches of international humanitarian law and international human rights laws that are going on before our eyes on the continent of Europe. That, in the end, must be dealt with through courts of law. The message we need to send is that there are two types of country: those that believe in the rule of law and will prosecute it to see justice done, and those that do not.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

As “Game of Thrones” taught us, winter is coming. While Putin has failed to defeat the Ukrainians militarily, he is now trying to freeze them into submission. I welcome what the Secretary of State said about 900 generators, which must help. When I visited Ukraine with the Chair of the Defence Committee, my right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood, and others, we heard pleas for more generator capacity, particularly for schools and hospitals. Will the MOD talk to Departments such as the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury to co-ordinate the donation by businesses and companies of spare generators to Ukraine to keep the lights on and save lives?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that there is always more that we can do. The international community has put in a lot of generators. I do not have the overall figure, but I can talk about the 900 that Defence and the UK have put in. In the non-military space, there is also a vast line of donations, with individuals and groups raising money and sending in equipment. I think that a group in Yorkshire raised money, donated some armoured ambulances and took them to Ukraine.

It is sometimes hard to have a track on exactly what is going on, but there is a vibrant community doing that and we will do everything we can to support it, including dealing with any blockages at the borders that may be unnecessary or bureaucratic, because speed is definitely of the essence. I can stand here as Secretary of State and talk about military aid, both lethal and non-lethal, but humanitarian aid and support for the economy are as important if we are to get through 2023. I will ensure that my colleagues in the Foreign Office are absolutely on it.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (Work and Pensions) (Pensions)

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I also reiterate my support for Ukraine and my condemnation of the Putin regime.

The Secretary of State spoke briefly about the threat of a Russian offensive in the spring. Will he update the House on what further steps the UK will take to try to help the Ukrainians if that takes place?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

The United Kingdom and the international community are trying to ensure that, by spring next year, Ukraine has the tools that it needs to do the job of either defending itself or the counter-offensive that it will need to continue to push Russia out. By contrast, Russia no doubt has ambitions to do the same, and has some offensive ambitions, as colleagues have referenced. Its problem at the moment is re-equipping itself; it is finding that hard in its supply chain. It has mobilised troops, some of whom are being sent to the front without food, without socks, without the proper uniforms and without pay. That is how poorly the mobilisation has gone. At the same time, with bickering among generals, there is a problem in its leadership about exactly what it is going to do. However, that does not stop Russia’s ambition to continue on its failed special operation and, with some determination, it is prepared to sacrifice the lives of its own citizens to do it.

Photo of Katherine Fletcher Katherine Fletcher Conservative, South Ribble

Welcome to your position, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The Secretary of State has shown immense leadership and hard work in the last few months. I thank him for his service in that area. He will know that Lancashire is absolutely peppered with Ukrainians hosted through the generosity of people in South Ribble and beyond. They are here to work and find solace, but what they really want to do is go home. We have supported the Ukraine military with £2.3 billion this year, and I welcome his and the Prime Minister’s commitment to extend that into next year. Will he update me, the House and Ukrainians in Lancashire on what he is doing to bring a broad coalition together and ensure that others continue to show a united front to Putin and help Ukrainians win?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

So far, 201,300 visas have been issued for Ukrainian people in the United Kingdom. That shows the scale of support, and is something to be welcomed. A number of countries, including our friends and allies, have hosted and are putting together conferences. The French recently had a donor conference on helping to rebuild parts of Ukraine, and we will have one in the new year. One of the best ways to help those wishing to go home is to ensure that they have an economy to go home to and that their infrastructure has been rebuilt so that they can continue their lives.

One of the cruellest things is that, early on in the war, the Russians targeted shopping centres in Ukraine to put people out of jobs. It was not anything other than that—it was not about the military. The Russians decided early on to hit big shopping centres on the outskirts of cities deliberately to put lots of people out of a job and to try to break the economy. That was striking to see, and that was their level of callousness. It is therefore important that our funds, and those of the international community, go to rebuilding that economy alongside the military effort.

Photo of Margaret Ferrier Margaret Ferrier Independent, Rutherglen and Hamilton West

Recent concerning remarks from Putin regarding the tracking down of traitors, spies and saboteurs could lead to further witch hunts of ordinary Russian citizens and scientists involved in international research under the guise of dubious foreign agent laws. How will the UK support such individuals and work with our international partners to ensure their safety?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

We sadly saw the consequences of that in Salisbury, where a British citizen, Dawn Sturgess, was murdered as a result of the actions of the GRU, which used Novichok nerve agent on the street. Indeed, that was part of Putin’s speech when he referred to making traitors “kick the bucket”. President Putin indicated his true colours early on when it comes to respect for sovereignty.

One way in which we deal with that is using our intelligence services and our police force to protect people in this country as well as working with the international community to ensure that where we identify Russian intelligence officers acting outwith the conventions, they are expelled. We saw 163 “diplomats” expelled after the Salisbury poisoning, and continued expulsions have gone on. As hon. Members will remember, the Dutch discovered the GRU trying to bug or disrupt the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, which monitors chemical weapons use, and people were obviously expelled as a result of that. That is one of the best ways of going about it, as well as by being open and honest about standing for what we stand for. People who oppose the Russian Government are welcome here, to ensure that they too can work for the cause of freedom and international law.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

As secretary of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine and someone with a considerable Ukrainian community in Colne Valley and Huddersfield—many families came to our part of Yorkshire after the second world war—I appreciate the opportunity, in my final question of the year, to highlight and welcome the amazing support that the United Kingdom has given to Ukraine in weapons, training, generators and, now, cold weather kit. How does the Secretary of State see the NATO alliance, including our new NATO allies of Sweden and Finland, continuing to take the fight to those involved in the evil invasion of Ukraine in the coming year?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

It is important to remind the House that this is not NATO fighting Russia—that is the narrative Russia would like. NATO’s job in this process has been to improve and increase the resilience of NATO members that border Ukraine and Russia itself, to send a strong message to Russia that it is not going to contaminate further with its aggression or be allowed to push people around. Most assistance to Ukraine is bilateral—it is bilateral on many fronts. NATO has ensured it stood up its readiness. It has deployed NATO member state forces right across NATO itself. We have had troops in Poland, Estonia and Bulgaria, and flights over the Black sea by Typhoons to help with air policing in both the north and south of Europe. We have had more deployments of ships, as have many other countries. If we look at the overall map of NATO deployments, we can see that NATO has been incredibly active in not only reassuring its member states but some of its neighbours, such as Finland and Sweden, who, as yet, are not in. In summer, we sent a squadron of tanks to Finland for the first time ever to exercise with the Finnish armed forces. NATO has been busy. It is busy modernising its regional plans to come to terms with what is going to happen in the medium and long term, but at the same time it stands ready to defend its members under article 5 and article 4 should Russia take the unwise view that what it needs to do next is try to broaden the conflict.

Photo of Kevin Brennan Kevin Brennan Labour, Cardiff West

I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement, as well as the response from the shadow Defence Secretary, and in particular what he said in response to my hon. Friend Chris Bryant about brands and Russia. Should not anybody who holds shares in those companies, including Infosys, who are profiting by getting dividends from the activities of those companies in Putin’s Russia, divest themselves of those shares and invest their money in investments that will assist the people of Ukraine, rather than assist Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I do not know the company concerned. No doubt somebody I am supposed to know has shareholdings. What I would certainly say is that I take the view that I would not wish to take money from anyone connected with the Russian state or Russian activities. I just do not think that is the right way to go. Brands that seek to sell into Russia and allow normality to be accepted on the streets of Moscow should think again. What Russia wants is to get away with this and to be able to mix in civilised society. It should not be allowed to partake in luxury brands or other brands. It should realise that the consequences of its actions are greater isolation, not a broader coalition.

Photo of Greg Smith Greg Smith Conservative, Buckingham

The UK should be proud of its role in training 22,000 Ukrainian forces to get them ready to defend themselves and supplying defensive weaponry. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that our UK-led, and now internationally supported, training programme continues to adapt to give our Ukrainian friends the skills they need to take on Russian forces?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes. The operation we run to teach Ukrainians, with bases in Cumbria, Yorkshire, Wiltshire and down at Lydd, started life as a three-week course. It is now over five weeks and is fully equipped. Our forces and international forces are now learning from Ukrainians, because a number of their directing staff who return have been on the frontline. I had a conversation with a platoon commander who had himself used British NLAWs to destroy two Russian tanks. We are learning from each other about what to do, which is incredibly important for our resilience and our future. It also helps to refine the course. We are now teaching Ukrainian non-commissioned officers: we are doing an NCO course to ensure that we develop their junior leadership, too.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Shadow Minister (Home Office)

The Royal United Services Institute has confirmed that component parts from the UK are appearing in Russian weaponry. Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the Government are looking at further sanctions, much like those announced by the US in October, to prevent both Russia and, for the reasons he outlined, Iran from being able to use UK components in their weaponry being used in Ukraine?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

It is an incredibly important point that time and time again we see international components. I noticed that in some of the Iranian drones there were, I think, 28 components that came from the United States, all through smuggling, illicit means or dual use issues. One job our intelligence services have is monitoring and trying to understand supply chains, to find when covert agencies or covert agents of Russia, Iran or others are out trying to buy them, and ensure that we frustrate them. That is easier said than done in a world where highly complex supply chains exist—indeed, you can do anything on the internet and DHL will deliver it in 24 hours to a third country—but it is a really important part of our vulnerability in the west. Our intellectual property can be stolen and we have to do more to keep an eye on it. We have done quite a lot more recently, but this is a timely reminder of what we are finding inside Russian equipment.

Photo of Luke Evans Luke Evans Conservative, Bosworth

Thousands of UK troops are placed all across the world, including, as the Secretary of State mentioned, in some NATO states. That can be tough at Christmas, so will he give our thanks from this House? Does he also have a message for why they are actually there?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Yes. The sad thing about what we have seen in Ukraine is that Russia will be a threat for some time to come. The world is more unstable and more anxious wherever that may be in the globe. The stability we so desperately need is provided by soft and hard power. We need to be better at it in the international community and certainly in the west, where our open liberal societies get taken for granted or are easily attacked by our adversaries. As we speak, the men and women of our armed forces are deployed, whether that is in Estonia, to send a message to Russia that just because Estonia is small, it is not going to be vulnerable and left on its own, or policing the air to ensure that when we have Russian breaches of our own air space we are there to send a strong message. Those men and women will be working over Christmas and new year, through the cold not only here but all over the world, ensuring that British values are upheld and that we send reassurance to our allies. Part of this is about reassurance and resilience, as well as being ready should anything happen.

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

I thank the Secretary of State for his leadership and the confidence he gives. I believe it inspires us all in this House, and inspires the people of Ukraine and across the world, and it is certainly worth noting. In recent weeks, as Ukraine has retaken territory seized by Russia, there has been a significant number of discoveries of mass graves, the use of cluster munitions, and the torture and execution of prisoners of war. Ukraine estimates that Russia has committed at least 34,000 war crimes, including 400 in Kherson alone as it targeted civilians before abandoning that city. Given Russia’s continued role on the UN Security Council and the veto that gives it, what steps will be taken to ensure that Russia is held accountable for those crimes? It should never ever get away with them and it should know that.

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Russia can veto all it likes at the UN Security Council, but the International Criminal Court investigations will endure and continue. We will support it in collecting evidence. It is very important that we send the message that no one can escape justice for what is going on and that justice should be delivered blind of nation. It should be delivered on what crimes are alleged and people should face the full wrath of the law.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

I share the widespread pride in Britain’s support for Ukraine over the last year, and the satisfaction that that support will go on over the course of 2023, in particular the 200,000 visas for Ukrainians to come here and the 20,000 soldiers we will train in the United Kingdom to assist the Ukrainians. Will my right hon. Friend have a word with the Home Secretary to ensure that Ukrainian combatants whose relatives are here in sanctuary get the visas they need to come and spend their short time on leave with their loved ones?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

I am happy to write to the Home Secretary on their behalf. When you visit the troops being trained, you often find that the interpreters are the women of the men fighting, who have volunteered their services to help translate for the troops we are training. It is incredibly important that we help so that when they have their rest and relaxation, they try to meet up. I would be happy to write to my right hon. and learned Friend.

Photo of Jane Stevenson Jane Stevenson Conservative, Wolverhampton North East

As Jim Shannon pointed out, many of us are increasingly concerned by the growing list of human rights and war crimes committed in this conflict. How can we offer specialist support to Ukraine to keep records? We know that rape is used as a weapon of war, and we have mass deportations into Russia. How can we ensure that evidence will be there so that those crimes can be fully prosecuted?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

Sadly, Britain has some experience from the past because of the proliferation of war crimes. The UK military and the police are currently providing technical assistance to the investigations. The Metropolitan police war crimes unit has commenced the collection of evidence. We are working closely with the Ukrainian Government to make sure that continues.

Photo of Robin Millar Robin Millar Conservative, Aberconwy

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. It sets out a compelling narrative of, on the one hand, Russian terror, overreach and folly, on the other hand, the bravery of the Ukrainian troops and the resilience of the Ukrainian people. I know that many people in Aberconwy will welcome the role that the Government have played in supporting Ukraine and the role of our British troops. Can he offer assurances that UK armed forces will remain in Ukraine, not least in support of our diplomatic presence in the country?

Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence

As long as our diplomats are there and people need that type of protection, the military are often part of providing security. It is not an offensive capability and they are in small numbers but they will do that.

It is Christmas time and I want to pay tribute to the men and women of our armed forces and the civil servants in the Ministry of Defence who will be working through Christmas and new year. We have heard in the previous question about the inadequacies of the accommodation, which is simply not good enough and needs to be fixed. I am determined that we stand by those men and women. They are doing what many others are not doing at Christmas—they are separated from their families. They will be keeping us safe, and I want to wish them all a very happy Christmas.

Photo of Roger Gale Roger Gale Conservative, North Thanet

Let me wish both Front Benches a happy and peaceful Christmas.