Ukraine: Update

– in the House of Commons at 4:18 pm on 16th January 2023.

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Photo of Ben Wallace Ben Wallace The Secretary of State for Defence 4:18 pm, 16th January 2023

Mr Speaker, may I start by apologising for the way the information contained in the statement has come out in the media? It does not do me any favours and nor does it make my job any easier. I apologise to Mr Speaker and to the House. It is certainly not my doing and it does not help us in furthering the policy.

It has been a month since I last updated the House on the situation in Ukraine. Over the last four weeks, extremely heavy and attritional fighting has continued, especially around the Donetsk oblast town of Bakhmut and in the less reported on sector of Kreminna in Luhansk. Over Christmas, Russia continued its assault on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, but no matter how cruel, or how much loss of life accompanies it, Russia has singularly failed to break the will of the Ukrainian people or change the policy of its leaders.

We continue to closely monitor how Russia’s long-range strike campaign will evolve as it eats deeper into the strategic reserves of its own modern missiles. It is notable that Russia is now using the forced labour of convicts to manufacture weaponry. Ukraine, however, continues to use its internationally provided long-range artillery to successful effect.

Throughout the war, Russia has managed to lose significant numbers of generals and commanding officers, but last week’s announcement that its commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, had been unceremoniously bypassed, with the chief of the general staff, General Gerasimov, personally taking over field command, is certainly significant. It is the visible tip of an iceberg of factionalism within the Russian command. Putin apparently remains bullish, and with Gerasimov’s deference to the President never in doubt, we would now expect a trend back towards a Russian offensive, no matter how much loss of life accompanies it.

In 2023, there is no loss of momentum from the international community—quite the opposite. President Putin believed that the west would get tired, get bored and fragment. Ukraine is continuing to fight, and far from fragmenting, the west is accelerating its efforts. The United States has invested approximately $24.2 billion in support for Ukraine since the beginning of Russia’s invasion on 24 February last year. It has delivered thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-armour systems and has recently stepped up that support, delivering Patriot air defence battery and munitions and 45 refurbished T-72 Bravo tanks, as well as donating 50 Bradley infantry fighting vehicles to assist with the counter-offensive. We also welcome the decision of the French Government to provide Ukraine with the AMX-10 light, highly mobile tank, which has been used very recently in reconnaissance missions by the French army and was deployed as recently as the Barkhane mission in west Africa.

Important as those contributions are in and of themselves, what matters more is that they represent part of an international effort that collectively conveys a force multiplier effect. None of this is happening unilaterally; no one is doing this on their own. I shall soon be announcing the first round of bids to the jointly Danish and UK-chaired international fund for Ukraine. I am grateful to Sweden for adding, over the festive period, to the pot of money donated. Those who have donated to the fund now include Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Iceland and others.

Meanwhile, Russia, isolated and without such support, has now lost more than 1,600 main battle tanks in Ukraine since the start of the invasion. However, if we are to continue helping Ukraine to seize the upper hand in the next phase of the conflict, we must accelerate our collective efforts diplomatically, economically and militarily to keep the pressure on Putin.

In December, I told the House that I was

“developing options to respond” to Russia’s continued aggression

“in a calibrated and determined manner”.—[Official Report, 20 December 2022; Vol. 725, c. 157.]

Today, I can announce the most significant package of combat power to date, to accelerate Ukrainian success. It includes a squadron of Challenger 2 tanks, with armoured recovery and repair vehicles. We will donate AS-90 guns to Ukraine; this donation, which comprises a battery of eight guns at high readiness and two further batteries at varying states of readiness, will not impact on our existing AS-90 commitment in Estonia. Hundreds more armoured and protected vehicles will also be sent, including Bulldog. There will be a manoeuvre support package, including minefield breaching and bridging capabilities worth £28 million; dozens more uncrewed aerial systems worth £20 million to support Ukrainian artillery; another 100,000 artillery rounds, on top of the 100,000 rounds already delivered; hundreds more sophisticated missiles, including guided multiple-launch rocket system rockets, Starstreak air defence and medium-range air defence missiles; and an equipment support package of spares to refurbish up to 100 Ukrainian tanks and infantry fighting vehicles. While the tanks and the AS-90s will come from our stocks, along with their associated ammunition, a significant number of the other donations are being purchased on the open market or from supportive third-party countries.

Today’s package is an important increase to Ukraine’s capabilities. It means that it can go from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil. President Putin cannot win, but he is equally certain that he can continue inflicting this wanton violence and human suffering until his forces are ejected from their defensive positions and expelled from the country. That requires a new level of support: the combat power only achieved by combinations of main battle tank squadrons, operating alongside divisional artillery groups, and further deep precision fires enabling the targeting of Russian logistics and command nodes at greater distance. We will be the first country to donate western main battle tanks, and we will be bringing a further squadron of our own Challenger tanks to higher readiness in place of the squadron sent. Even as we gift Challenger 2 tanks, I shall at the same time be reviewing the number of Challenger 3 conversions, to consider whether the lessons of Ukraine suggest that we need a larger tank fleet.

We will also build apace on the Army’s modernisation programme. Specifically on artillery, I am accelerating the mobile fires programme so that, instead of delivering in the 2030s, it will do so during the current decade. I have also directed that, subject to commercial negotiation, an interim artillery capability is to be delivered. After discussion with the United States and our European allies, it is hoped that the example set by the French and us will allow the countries holding Leopard tanks to donate as well, and I know that a number of countries want to do the same. As I have said, no one is going it alone.

It is worth reiterating why we are doing this. In 2023, the international community will not let Russia wait us out while inflicting terrible suffering on Ukrainian civilians. The international community recognises that equipping Ukraine to push Russia out of its territory is as important as equipping it to defend what it already has. This week dozens of nations will meet in Ramstein, Germany, to progress further donations and international co-ordination. The Kremlin will be in no doubt that we are resolved to stand by Ukraine in her fight.

Doubling down on the success of our basic training of Ukrainian military personnel in the United Kingdom in 2022, we are increasing the number this year to a further 20,000. Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, Lithuania, New Zealand and the Netherlands have already joined this effort, and I am pleased to say that we are to be joined by a group of Australian military to train in the UK as well—leaving their summer to join our winter, brave souls.

Our decision today is a calibrated response to Russia’s growing aggression and indiscriminate bombing. The Kremlin must recognise that it is Russia’s behaviour that is solidifying the international resolve, and that despite the propaganda, Ukraine and her partners are focused on the defence of Ukraine. None of the international support is an attack on Russia, or NATO-orchestrated aggression, let alone a proxy war. At its heart, it is about helping Ukraine to defend itself, upholding international law and restoring its own sovereignty. We believe that in 2023, increased supplies, improved training and strengthening diplomatic resolve will enable Ukraine to be successful against Russia’s poorly led and now badly equipped armed forces.

From the outset, President Putin believed that his forces would be welcomed with open arms, that Ukrainians would not fight, and that western support would crumble. He has been proved wrong on all counts. Today’s package will help to accelerate the conclusion of Putin’s occupation and all its brutality, and ensure that in 2023, and beyond if necessary, Ukraine will maintain its momentum, supported by an international community that is more than ever determined that Putin’s illegal and unprovoked invasion will fail.

Photo of John Healey John Healey Shadow Secretary of State for Defence 4:28 pm, 16th January 2023

I welcome the Defence Secretary’s statement, and thank him for advance sight of it. Mr Speaker, 2023 will indeed be the decisive year in this war in Ukraine, and the most decisive moment is now, when Ukraine has the tactical and morale advantage over Russia; now, when Ukraine needs more combined military firepower to break the battlefield deadlock. As the Secretary-General of NATO said yesterday,

“it is important that we provide Ukraine with the weapons it needs to win”.

That is why this first package of military assistance for 2023—with tanks, artillery, infantry vehicles, ammunition and missiles—has Labour’s fullest support.

Challenger 2 is a world-class tank that can help Ukraine retake lost ground and limit the cost in Ukrainian lives. We are now sending 14. How many tanks does Ukraine need for a successful counter-offensive? Are the 14 Challengers currently in active service or in storage? When will they be delivered into the field in Ukraine? What combat engineering vehicles will be delivered to support those tanks? Will any UK forces personnel be deployed into Ukraine with those vehicles?

The integrated review cut Challenger tanks from 227 to 148. I welcome the Defence Secretary’s review of Challenger 3 numbers. When will he announce the results of the review? Is he reviewing other Army cuts? The Armed Forces Minister told me in a parliamentary answer last week that Challenger 2 training takes 33 days for gunners, 46 days for drivers and 85 days for crew commanders. The Defence Secretary made no mention of Challenger training. Will the UK provide training alongside the tanks? How long will the training be for Ukrainian troops?

President Zelensky has confirmed the wider importance of this UK military package. At the weekend he said:

“that will not only strengthen us on the battlefield, but also send the right signal to other partners.”

The Defence Secretary today said that hopes that this UK military aid will help to unlock more co-ordinated support from other nations. Like him, I welcome similar moves already announced by other NATO nations in recent days, particularly the US and France. How many of the 14 Leopard-using nations may provide those tanks to Ukraine? What more does he expect from allies at the Ramstein meeting on Friday? It has been five months since he announced the international fund. When will allocations be made?

The Prime Minster talked at the weekend about a surge in global military support for Ukraine. How will the Defence Secretary ensure a continuing surge in UK military support? What more can Ukraine expect from the UK? You know, Mr Speaker, as does the Defence Secretary, that I have argued for months that Ministers must move beyond ad hoc announcements and set out a full 2023 action plan for military, economic and diplomatic support—a case that the Defence Ministry has fully accepted. That will help to give Ukraine confidence for future supplies. It will help to gear up our own industry. It will encourage allies to do more and it will make clear that things will get worse, not better for Russia.

One of the clear lessons from the last year in Ukraine is that nations need large reserve stocks of certain weapons and ammunition, or the ability to produce them quickly. The UK has neither. We are still moving too slowly to replace the weapons donated to Ukraine or to find new wartime ways of making weapons more rapidly and cheaply. There was no mention in the Secretary of State’s statement about replenishing UK stockpiles or a new industry plan. Can he update the House on the action he is taking?

Finally and importantly, he said that today’s military package means that Ukraine can go from resisting to expelling Russian forces from Ukrainian soil. Will he confirm that this is the UK’s strategic aim for Ukraine?

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

If you would indulge me, Mr Speaker, there were lots of questions and I will do my best to answer them all. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) and his party for their support, which, as he said, has been ongoing and enduring throughout this process. That is what allows the UK to be prominent in standing tall for international human rights and defending Ukraine.

The right hon. Gentleman asked what scale of support Ukraine will need; I cannot be too specific, as I do not want to set out to the Russian Government the exact inadequacies or strengths of the Ukrainian armed forces. However, it is safe to say that the Ukrainians will require an ongoing commitment that grows to the size of divisions in its armed forces. Also, in the last year we have seen Ukraine grow its own army, to hundreds of thousands of men and women under arms, who are now equipped not only with western equipment but with captured or refurbished former Soviet or Russian equipment. The Polish Government have donated more than 200 T-72 tanks, for example.

The key for all of us in the next phase is to help Ukraine to train and to combine all those weapons systems in a way that can deliver a combined arms effect in a mobile manner to deliver the offensives required to achieve the goal of expelling, which the right hon. Gentleman also asked about. It is the UK Government’s position that Putin’s invasion fails and Ukraine restores its sovereign territory, and we will do all we can to help achieve that. This package is part of that. The Challengers should be viewed alongside the 50 Bradleys from the United States. Those are effectively the ingredients for a battlegroup with divisional level fires of either AS-90s or other 155 howitzers. The 14 tanks represent a squadron, and the 50 Bradleys would roughly form an armoured infantry battlegroup.

We are trying to take the Ukrainian military, with its history of Soviet methods, and provide it not only with western equipment but with western know-how. In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question, the training will be delivered almost immediately, starting with Ukrainians training in the UK and in the field, so to speak, either in neighbouring countries or in countries such as Germany, where we saw the artillery train with the Dutch, I think, at the beginning of this process. The training of these Ukrainian forces will be administered and supported in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, with the US being in the lead for much of that formation training. It is incredibly important and supportive of the United States to do that.

There will be no UK forces deployed in Ukraine in this process. As I have said, that is because our job is to help Ukraine to defend itself and we can do that from neighbouring or other countries. Yes, I know the training cycle. I was a trooper in the Scots Dragoon Guards in 1988 and I started my time in a Chieftain tank, which you would be lucky to see in a museum these days. The Ukrainians have shown us, in their basic and specialist training, that they are determined to go back and fight for their country, and their work ethos and the hours they put in are quite extraordinary. I am confident that, on one level, they will soon be showing us the way to fight with this equipment.

The right hon. Gentleman referenced the Army cuts. I have come to this Dispatch Box on numerous occasions and admitted how woeful our Army’s equipment programmes have been in the past and how behind and out of date they have been. That is why we have committed investment of more than £24 billion in Army equipment alone over the next 10 years. As I have said, I am bringing forward Deep Fire and Recce and getting Ajax back on track, as well as our intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability, the Challenger 3 tanks, the Boxer fleet, plus many other investments in the Army. This is incredibly important. I take it seriously and I know that the right hon. Gentleman does too. We have to deliver an Army that can stand shoulder to shoulder with its peers, never mind its enemy, and it is important to say so.

On the Leopard coalition, as it is calling itself, it is being reported that Poland is keen to donate some Leopard tanks, as is Finland. All of this currently relies on the German Government’s decisions, not only on whether they will supply their own Leopards but whether they will give permissions for others to do so. I would urge my German colleagues to do that. These tanks are not offensive when they are used for defensive methods. There is a debate in Germany about whether a tank is an offensive or defensive weapon. It depends what people are using it for. I would wager that if they are using it to defend their country, it is a defensive weapon.

Also, we are not on our own. This is a joint international coalition. I know that there have been concerns in the German political body that it does not want to go it alone. Well, it is not alone, and I think that the conference in Ramstein will show that. I pay tribute to the commitment by the French to put in the tanks at Christmas time, and we are obviously joining alongside them. They are the key to unlocking the Leopard, and we will do all we can to help that.

The answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question on the international fund is imminently: I will announce it in the next couple of weeks. We had $27 billion-worth of bids to a fund that has reached $500 million. I am very grateful for the recent Swedish donation to the fund, which we intend to keep growing, but I want to make sure that the fund is spent sustainably. It is not a petty cash or slush fund though which people can just go and buy something. I want it to be invested in things such as production and supply chains. Whether it is maintaining tanks or artillery supplies, an active production line is needed.

That goes to the right hon. Gentleman’s last point about being too slow to place orders. One of the reasons it has taken time to place orders, as he knows, is that there is sometimes no supply chain and we have to wait for a supply chain to be reinvested in, redeveloped or re-founded with new suppliers before we can get a price for the taxpayer or a contract delivered. That is what happened with NLAW. As much as we would have loved to have placed that order on the next day, some of the supply chain was 15 years old and we had to find new suppliers. Then we got a price and some partners. By placing an order with Sweden, we reinvigorated the supply chain and, hopefully, more jobs with it.

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

This conflict will not end any time soon. Putin is moving his country to a war footing as he prepares for a spring offensive. Tactically speaking, it is very welcome that we are finally seeing some serious, NATO-standard tracked hardware gifted to Ukraine. It is another example of the UK leading and ever pushing the envelope of international support for Ukraine.

As other nations follow our lead, maintaining so many NATO variants of vehicles and equipment—tanks, armoured personnel carriers and artillery pieces—will not be practical in the long term. Will the UK consider leading again by establishing a western-funded, Ukrainian-operated weapons factory and assembly line in eastern Poland so that Ukraine can become self-sufficient in procuring and replenishing the military kit and munitions it needs for its long-term security, without fear of the facility being targeted by Russia?

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

My right hon. Friend’s suggestion is correct. He is right to say that, unless there is a supply chain or, indeed, a sustainability package behind all this gifting, these vehicles and artillery pieces will become junk on the battlefield when they run out or wear out, so it is important that we think in that way. That is why we will be putting in some recovery vehicles with the Challenger 2 donations. There is a lot of thought going on right now about the sustainability of supply chains, which ties into the international fund, as I am looking for intelligent application of the fund to stimulate just that.

Ukraine has shown itself to be incredibly successful either at reverse-engineering what it captures from Russia or at designing and developing its own equipment. It recently opened a production line for 155 mm or 152 mm shells, and it is now manufacturing within the country. We will get to where my right hon. Friend wants to be by using the international fund or Kindred to fund supply chains over the border. If Ukraine approaches us with ideas for transferring intellectual property so that we can make equipment for Ukraine, or so that Ukraine can make the equipment here or anywhere else, I would be very open to doing that.

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

I welcome the detail and the substance of the Secretary of State’s statement. Moreover, I believe the timing is very welcome as we close in on the first anniversary of the outrageous attack on Ukraine by Putin and his forces last February.

All of us, regardless of our political allegiances or differences in other areas, must stand up for the international rules-based system, the right of sovereignty and the value of self-determination where they are under attack, not simply at the outset of conflict, when hackles are raised and outrage piqued, but as we endure almost a year of the conflict’s effects on these shores, in our homes and on our industry and wider resources, and as we continue to witness Russia’s hybrid terror heaped upon the people of Ukraine. Now is the time to double down on the west’s support and commitment to Ukraine in defending itself against this aggression. It is time to leave Putin in no doubt that the west’s resolve, politically and in every other respect, is there for Ukraine to see.

I would like to know three things. The Secretary of State said on 12 December that he would not pursue sending redundant UK Warrior infantry fighting vehicles to Ukraine because they are tracked vehicles weighing 28 tonnes and because of the logistical tail that comes with them. So what has changed in a month to allow him to now send a squadron of 68-tonne Challenger tanks, with the very much more complex logistics and support burden that go along with them? Can he also set out the duration of the period between this announcement and those Challengers 2s having operational effect within the Ukraine battlespace? And given that European NATO nations must doubtless follow this development with similar donations of Leopard 2 tanks, is he prepared to review not just the number of Challenger 3s, but whether the Challenger 3 will be the right solution for the UK going forward at all? When we see the Challengers and Leopard 2s going toe to toe with the same peer adversary, we will see much more clearly which is the better tank.

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

I am always happy to keep under review the number of tanks and what we have. One lesson of Ukraine, however, is that, whether it is a modern or not-so-modern tank, unless it is properly protected and supported, by counter-drone capability, electronic warfare or a proper wrap, it can become incredibly vulnerable, going from being the lion on the savannah to being a very vulnerable thing. When we look at the finite amount of money we all have in government, how much do we commit to make a perfectly formed battle group, or how much do we take a risk? The Russians took a risk on the road to Kyiv and that is where we are.

The Warrior and the Challenger are obviously different vehicles, but as I referenced earlier the 50 Bradleys—the United States vehicles—are probably in better condition than our Warriors and these Challengers are designed to complement those. Hopefully, we will be training together, with the Challenger and the Bradley interoperating. In addition, there are issues with the Warrior fleet. Obviously, I am happy to constantly look at that and I will not rule it out but, for now, on taking 12 tanks as opposed to what would probably have to be 40-odd Warriors to make it a company-sized level, I would prefer to focus on the AS-90s and the Challenger tanks to make that difference.

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

I welcome the statement from my right hon. Friend. Along with Judith Cummins, I had the privilege just before Christmas of working south of Kharkiv with a British charity, Siobhan’s Trust, feeding thousands of dispossessed Ukrainians. While there, I was able to talk to a lot of the Ukrainian military. I want to congratulate my right hon. Friend, because the one thing they were saying was that they were very disappointed by Germany’s failure to give permission for the Leopard tanks to be sent to them as originally arranged. They now believe that this decision by His Majesty’s Government will help unlock that.

I visited the military hospital in Kharkiv, which is shelled two or three times a week—the devastation is appalling—and people there asked me for some things that are not offensive things. First, they desperately need more armoured ambulances because they say that the experience of getting the wounded quickly to the hospitals is terrible. Secondly, they have a great shortage of paramedics; they need those very much, too. Thirdly—this is shocking—the number of Ukrainian military committing suicide as a result of battlefield stress is astonishing and help is desperately needed. They said that the US and the UK, who have experience in Afghanistan, Iraq and so on, could really help by sending some people over to help train in those mental health practices.

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

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments. I would be fascinated to follow up with him on his experience with Siobhan’s Trust. It is easy to forget that lots and lots of Ukrainians are suffering post conflict, whether we are talking about members of the military committing suicide, or ordinary individuals. The tragedy is that, nine or 10 months in, people get slightly immune to what they see in the media, on the telly and on social media, which is violence and destruction on a staggering scale. The Minister for Defence People, Veterans and Service Families, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, has just said to me that the surgeon general is going to visit soon to see what more we can do to help those individuals, especially those suffering from acute mental challenges.

On armoured ambulances, I know that there have been some donations already, some of which have been private donations. A colleague of ours in this House from Yorkshire approached me about a company that donated some armoured ambulances. I notice in the announcement that we have sent some Bulldogs—for people as old as me they are called 432s. I believe we gave them a new coat of paint and called them Bulldogs. Fundamentally, they have ambulance variants, so I will see whether they are included in that. I can write to my right hon. Friend with details of the medical support.

On the Germans, we should not forget that they have made huge donations. While it is probably the best sport of the media of the day in the UK to always pursue them, they have, like us, delivered M270 GMLRSs. They are one of the biggest contributors to the Ukraine fight and we should give credit where credit is due. I am grateful for what they are doing. I just hope that on the Leopards they will unlock and that, if they do not do so, other nations will.

Photo of Derek Twigg Derek Twigg Labour, Halton

I thank the Secretary of State for what he is doing and for the support that he is giving to Ukraine. Basically, we have to do what it takes to ensure that Ukraine wins this war and that Putin understands that there will be no weakening on the western side in support of Ukraine. But it is a war of attrition at the moment and it is very important that it is clear that the support we will be giving Ukraine will be ongoing and done in a strategic way. Although I welcome the supply of the Challenger tanks, they were needed many months ago. We seem to be giving bits of help to Ukraine in a piecemeal way. I am not in any way undermining the amount that has been given so far, but a much more strategic approach is needed to ramp up production in the west as a whole in terms of support and to replenish our own supplies, as my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State said.

The Secretary of State did not mention Belarus. With reports coming through today of Belarus doing joint training exercises with the Russians, are we giving a clear message to Belarus that there will be serious consequences if there is any infringement on Ukrainian soil from Belarus?

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

On Belarus, it has been interesting that it seems Putin’s most loyal ally has still not committed his forces. That speaks volumes. I think the neighbours are sensing quite how weak Putin in one sense has become. When the bully is no longer able to bully in the playground, we start to see consequences in Kazakhstan and elsewhere. We have seen the Russians move units to Belarus and then back out again. We saw them recently carrying out training in those units, which is, I think, what the hon. Gentleman is referring to. Absolutely, we engage with Belarus. I think Belarus understands what further action would mean to its status in relation to Russia and, indeed, Ukraine. Ukraine does speak to Belarus, as does President Putin. No good would come of the addition of Belarus.

On the piecemeal claim, I understand that, but I mention the calibration that we are trying to achieve with what we are doing now. It is important that we do it as a coalition—together. The amazing thing about the support for Ukraine is that it includes a huge amount of bilateral arrangements. It is not, as Russia would like to accuse us of, a NATO-orchestrated event. It is not a proxy war. It is not an attack on Russia or Russia-phobia. Fundamentally, it is like-minded countries recognising the wrong that has gone on in that country and through the invasion and coming together. Russia would like us to believe all those other narratives—it is not about those. It is about defending a country to defend itself. What is great is how many countries around the world agree with upholding human rights and international law and want to come together to help.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

I warmly welcome the Secretary of State’s statement this afternoon, not least as the Ukrainians are now clearly fighting for our freedom as well as for their own. After what one might call a bruising encounter battle last week between departmental witnesses and the Defence Committee over the achingly slow re-equipment of our own British Army, I welcome the Secretary of State’s sense of urgency on that, too, but could he specifically declare some of our armoured fighting vehicle programmes, such as Boxer, the Challenger 3 upgrade and the Mobile Fires Platform, as urgent operational requirements? That would mean that we effectively cut all the usual procurement bureaucracy and bring those vital systems into service as soon as possible.

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

My right hon. Friend is as keen as I am to change the history on procurement. It is remarkable, when it comes to assisting Ukraine, how speedily we can get things into the field or adapt them, and how manufacturers seem magically to adapt things. There are lessons there. I had already started the process of accelerating the Challenger 3 programme last year—I did not want to take the gap in the middle of the decade —but of course, when we accelerate, we take risks. Nevertheless, I think that is important. I will definitely look at his suggestion, although the elephant in the room on the suggestion of accelerating procurement is His Majesty’s Treasury, which would have to reprofile the budget. As the time of the integrated review approaches, I shall engage with my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Labour, Leeds Central

Night after night, the Russians continue to fire missiles at the Ukrainian civilian population. We saw at the weekend the attack on the residential block in Dnipro, which has so far claimed at least 20 lives. Just before Christmas, the United States announced it would provide the Patriot missile system to Ukraine. What assessment has the Defence Secretary made of the impact that that will have on Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against those missiles, and what further capability could Ukraine use to mitigate further the effect of those frequent attacks, which are intended to destabilise the country and cut off the energy supply?

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

The right hon. Gentleman makes an observation on the powerful and enduring impact of those horrendous attacks. There are echoes of the V1 and V2 campaigns, with little intelligence targeting, by the looks of things, and an attempt to terrify people across Ukraine. Patriot has improved defence of the airspace: despite Russia’s claims, the vast proportion of those munitions still do not make it through, but the tragedy is that some do, and we would all like to work to make it 100% certain that none will.

The Patriot is a long-range anti-ballistic missile and interceptor, so it is probably more use at some stages against some of the more sophisticated unmanned aerial vehicles or missiles that could be fired, or are fired occasionally—we would all be worried about the next Iranian ballistic missiles if they were put in. What the Ukrainians need is volume of short-range and medium-range ammunition to deal with the whole range of UAVs. That is the real key. They might have the most sophisticated launchers in the world, but if they cannot afford the missiles, they will soon run out, as Russia is now finding.

Ukraine needs volume, better co-ordination and better targeting. The United Kingdom has helped; as I said in the House last time, we used our knowledge to advise and help them on how to layer their air defence better and prioritise the infrastructure they need to defend. The Russians are firing at so many targets that the Ukrainians need to start with a priority list, as they are now doing, and that is having an effect. That is why we now see Russia being more indiscriminate, just throwing in anything, so its attacks are less predictable and therefore harder to defend.

Photo of Wendy Morton Wendy Morton Conservative, Aldridge-Brownhills

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and the welcome news of the latest UK package of support, including the Challenger 2 tanks and Bulldogs, and support from other international partners such as the US and France. Can he reassure us that he and colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and our diplomatic routes will continue to do all they can to ensure that we bring on board maximum support from other countries through our bilateral relationships? That will be crucial to maximising the force multiplier effect he referred to in his statement, in terms of both military and humanitarian support.

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

My right hon. Friend is right. I come to this House to talk about defence, weaponry and lethal aid, but there is also the diplomatic pillar, which is incredibly important, and the economic pillar, through sanctions. That is an important track to engage on. I know some of that work is not made public, but some of it is, and Russia is seeing its economy damaged by those sanctions, which will not be removed any time soon. It is important to recognise that there is a diplomatic track—there is a diplomatic track open to President Putin, should he wish to end this senseless violence and invasion and seek to remove his forces from Ukraine—because this is not a one-way thing and we all work very hard on it. The military goes hand in hand with diplomacy and the economy, and we must ensure we keep that up, whether in the UN, bilaterally or in new forums.

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

The Liberal Democrats very much welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. Building on his exposition of the economic, diplomatic and military levers, communication levers are also key. We know that Russian propaganda wishes to twist international support for Ukraine into a narrative suggesting that this is somehow a war of self-defence, with Russia fighting in self-defence against NATO. How is the Secretary of State working with Cabinet colleagues, and with people who work on strategic communications at the MOD, to counter that narrative?

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

The hon. Gentleman is right: it is incredibly important that we counter that narrative. He will have heard me say twice from the Dispatch Box what this is not. It is not an attack on Russia; it is not a proxy war; it is not a NATO-orchestrated aggression in any way at all. It is fundamentally about helping Ukraine to defend itself. We make sure that we message that throughout Government, and that we message it as much as possible into Russia, so that Russians understand the consequences of President Putin’s badly thought through special operation. I think that is why we are seeing fractures in the Russian general command and, indeed, among its political leaders, who themselves know that nothing is going to plan.

This is important, and it is important further across the globe. When there are grain shortages in Africa, or people cannot afford it, it is not because of the west; it is because of what Russia has done in the Black sea and what Russia is doing to the ports in Mariupol and other such places. That is why Africans are finding it hard to get grain and are paying more for it—because of Russia.

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

My right hon. Friend describes the Russian armed forces as “poorly led” and “badly equipped”. What assessment does he make of the Wagner Group, which seems to be operating independently and, allegedly, with more successful effect? Am I right in thinking that an organisation that pulls criminals out of jail and sends them into battle is surely operating well outside the law of armed conflict?

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

My right hon. Friend makes an important point about Wagner. For a long time, Wagner has operated outside the rules of any law. That has been its selling point in Libya and Mali in Africa: “Pay for us with contracts, diamonds or whatever”—there are no rules. Wagner has been observed on numerous occasions engaged in war crimes and events, but given its proximity to the Kremlin, it does not fool anyone that it is somehow some unilateral, purely commercial operation. Currently, we think that two thirds of the Wagner force around the Bakhmut area are convicts taken from prisons. They are suffering approximately two thirds casualty rates, so it is not a good deal for convicts in the Wagner Group.

It is also a very worrying reflection. If I were General Gerasimov, I would be asking myself why I am outwitted and outperformed by a bunch of mercenaries and, by the looks of things in Moscow, rivals. What does it say about the Russian army that it takes a bunch of mercenaries, as they would see it, to get some traction? However, I would not believe Wagner’s propaganda either. There is not much traction; there is only death, at the hands of Jafar Montazeri their paid commanders or, indeed, their own men. We have seen the social media videos in which the group executed a convict of their own using a sledgehammer.

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

This war has been going on not for 10 months but for nine years. We need to make sure that Putin ultimately loses, but it is not just about military solutions, it is also about economic ones: rebuilding, reconstructing and, frankly, protecting many Ukrainians from the freezing cold this winter and enabling them to put food on the table for their children over the years to come. At the moment, we have guaranteed something like £3 billion-worth of financial support, but there is an easier solution. More than £23 billion-worth of Russian assets are sitting in British banks. Why do we not seize them and send them to Ukraine?

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

The hon. Gentleman makes the most important point first: even before 24 February, Russia had killed 18,000 Ukrainian troops since 2014; not a week or month went by on that border when they were not shot. When we said to people, “It might escalate, or it might be a war,” Ukrainians often looked at us and said, “Where have you been for the last decade?” It is very sobering to go to the memorial in Kyiv; most of those plaques are from way before February 2021.

On the point about building, refurbishment and support to refugees, that is where I think Germany needs to get the credit. Germany and Poland have hosted tens of thousands of Ukrainians. It is putting a lot of money into aid and support for Ukraine and is making a significant difference. I have often said that the strength of an alliance of 30 or 40 is that we can move at different speeds.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about Russian assets, as the former criminal finance Minister and Security Minister, I would be quite interested to know why we cannot do that.

Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford

I join others in thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement and for our ongoing support to Ukraine.

I want to follow up on what my right hon. Friend Sir Julian Lewis just said about the Wagner Group. We heard last week how the brutal attack on the tiny town of Soledar has left the fields littered with the corpses of men. My right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary has just agreed from the Dispatch Box that the organisation has been guilty of many war crimes in many parts of the world—not least last year in Mali, but we can also add the Central African Republic to his list.

It has been put to me that if the Wagner Group were proscribed as a terrorist organisation, that could make it much more difficult for Prigozhin to recruit into the organisation. I urge my right hon. Friend to work with the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary to make sure that we are gathering all the evidence we have against the Wagner Group and taking every single action we can to try to curtail its activities, including proscribing it as a terrorist organisation if it comes to that.

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

I am very happy to look at exactly that, although I am not sure that the group recruits at all any more; I think it just piles people in.

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

I thank the Defence Secretary for his full exposition of the military aid that he is providing. It is so important that Ukrainians have the most advanced systems at their disposal. However, we also know that Putin is targeting the energy infrastructure across Ukraine, so could the Defence Secretary say a little more about what we are doing to help protect that infrastructure and rebuild it for the future?

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

Yes. First of all, we and the international community are providing generators—I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with the exact numbers—to mitigate the effect of those strikes. At the same time, as I said in response to Hilary Benn, we have helped with co-ordination and prioritisation. A number of international partners are helping with the training and support of the brave men and women who go out there to fix that infrastructure almost immediately once it is hit and taken down, ensuring that more and more people are able to look after the electricity infrastructure. That is incredibly important. Of course, Putin knows that the weather will improve, hopefully, in the spring, and then some of his impacts will be lessened. I think that is one of the other reasons why we are seeing an increase in strikes.

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Chair, Liaison Committee (Commons), Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements, Chair, Liaison Committee Sub-Committee on National Policy Statements

How many defence reviews can my right hon. Friend recall that were preceded by fashionable commentators decrying the idea that main battle tanks had any utility in modern warfare? Now that that has been disproved and my right hon. Friend has made a hugely significant move this week by agreeing to send main battle tanks in support of Ukraine’s defence, will he consider sending more if those tanks prove to be effective and can be effectively supported? Can we use this as an opportunity to bolster and strengthen the supply chain and manufacture of our next generation of tanks now that he has proved to the Treasury that they are not a waste of money?

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

First, the good thing about the Challenger 3 supply chain is that we are doing the work in Stockport and Telford, and I am delighted that we are also doing the Boxers near there. We are reinvigorating the land systems supply chain. On my hon. Friend’s point about tanks, no one was ever writing that we should get rid of tanks. Hopefully my defence review was a bit better than the defence review that said there was no use for a machine gun after the Japanese-Russian war, or indeed the brave admiral who said that submarines had absolutely no utility in the lead-up to being sunk in the Firth of Forth by a German U-boat. I do not think we have said tanks should be got rid of, but Ukraine has shown that armour is important, and not just for the basic protection from hand grenades dropped by UAVs.

Ukraine also shows that without armour properly protected in a 360° way, forces are incredibly vulnerable to handheld anti-tank weapons. The House may have noticed that the British NLAW and the US Javelin are successfully remodelling hundreds and hundreds of T-72s from very short distance. We have to have proper protection, both electronically but also in the layered defence that we need on the modern battlefield.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

Whatever the manifold differences we have in this place, it is good that people across Ukraine and Russia will have heard once again the resolute message from all parts of the House. We support the Secretary of State’s move to donate the Challenger tanks, and we are resolute in saying that Putin’s aggression must fail. The Secretary of State said in his statement that the Challenger tank donation will help not only to resist the Russians, but to expel them. We have heard Ukrainian officials and the NATO Secretary-General saying that Russia is planning a major offensive this spring. Can the Secretary of State tell us what more the UK can do provide broad support beyond tanks to the Ukrainians to repel that major Russian aggression?

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

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I recognise that 14 tanks will not change the course of history, but it is also about trying to be a force multiplier. If we can put the 14 tanks with the 50 Bradleys and deep long-range artillery at divisional level, as well as hopefully unlocking Leopard tanks across Europe, we can raise a significant mass that is important to enable the fire and manoeuvre warfare that will be needed to push Russia out. Of course Russia has planned for an offensive. With Gerasimov being reappointed, effectively, he will be able to make the same mistakes as he did the first time. Nevertheless, Russia is not giving up, but neither are we. I noticed social media in Russia commenting that our decision to send Challenger tanks would change nothing. That is right, it will not change anything; Ukraine will continue to win and Russia will continue to lose.

Photo of James Sunderland James Sunderland Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, Chair, Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill

May I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement, which I welcome, and commend him and his Department for the superb work being undertaken right now to help defend Ukraine? As he knows, armour is logistically very challenging. Can he confirm how it will be deployed, whether risks to the supply chain can be mitigated at all and whether we have a plan for how we will turn our own land equipment availability from red back to green?

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

On my hon. Friend’s last point, we must first be honest about the state of our armoured fleet and our land systems. I have been pretty brutal in the House about how the state of it is not acceptable. It has not been in a good state for more than a decade, if not much longer. How it has happened, I do not know. If we are not honest, we cannot start that process. We are putting in £24 billion to modernise or change that fleet as much as possible.

My hon. Friend is right on the supply chain. We are well supported by some of the neighbouring states in thinking that through—the Slovakians have been forward-leaning in helping to support the T-72s and refurbishing them—but we are also assessing our supply chain to see what is needed. That is timely, because with our Challenger 3 upgrade, we need the supply chain to be reinvigorated, and that is what we are working on. I am happy to meet him to discuss it further.

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

I congratulate the Secretary of State and the UK Government on following through on their commitment to support Ukraine, as evidenced by this statement and the provision of 14 Challenger 2 tanks and other donations. With the potential of a Russian offensive, more tanks were clearly needed, and more anti-missile defences are critical to enable Ukrainians to get on their feet, to survive and to end this conflict with Russia once and for all. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has shown the will and the physical commitment, but I make a special appeal for anti-missile defences so that Ukrainians can keep the lights on, heat their homes and save lives, and so that, with the generators and engineering help, Ukraine can rebuild.

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

Yes, we are committed to that. Today, I also announced more high velocity and low velocity missiles, both of which are made in Northern Ireland and are doing a fantastic job.

Photo of Richard Graham Richard Graham Conservative, Gloucester

The Defence Secretary clearly laid out the reasons why the Government are providing a squadron of 14 Challenger tanks to help the defence of Ukraine, and he implied that issues of supply chains, spares, ammo and training have been carefully considered. He will also accept that the Challengers’ biggest contribution may be diplomatic by helping him to unlock solid commitments from the 14 Leopard-using nations. What might be the impact of any commitments made at the meeting in Germany, combined with the Challenger tanks, on the Russian armed forces’ leaders?

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

I hope that the Russian armed forces recognised over the Christmas break that their best bet is to cut and run or, indeed, to stop and withdraw. I think that is dawning on a significant number of commanders, but the problem is that they are not around for long enough to pull the levers and make a difference. Surovikin has been replaced by Gerasimov, who perhaps has been put in prime position to be the fall guy in three months’ time, as all his predecessors have. That might be the cunning Kremlin plan—I do not know—but it is important to recognise that somehow, Russia needs to come to its senses about what is happening: the special operation has failed and is failing, and the best thing that it can do is to leave. We will then try to find a way forward.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

Sadly, we saw more evidence this weekend of Putin’s barbaric targeting of civilian infrastructure in Ukraine, particularly with the residential blocks in Dnipro, which is why I welcome today’s announcement about the Challenger 2 tanks. Can the Secretary of State confirm that we are not going it alone? On behalf of my Ukrainian community in Huddersfield and Colne Valley, who are proud of our steadfast support for Ukraine, can he also confirm that we will continue with our donations, as he mentioned, of generators, humanitarian support and medical supplies for the Ukrainian people?

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

Yes, those supplies will become even more important and I will do everything I can to stimulate more of them. If right hon. and hon. Members have companies in their constituency that are keen or are facing barriers to do that, they should ensure that I am made aware and we will see what we can do. In the next few months, we have to do everything to stop the targeting of cities and infrastructure, and to help Ukrainians to see it through and defeat Russia. Targeting civilian blocks in Dnipro does nothing but commit murder.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

The removal of Russian forces from cities such as Kherson has led some civilians to return to their homes, even though the areas are contaminated with explosive weapons. Last week, as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on explosive threats, I met a Ukrainian MP who is seeking to put together a civil de-mining programme. Can the Secretary of State ensure that his officials will be available to meet me and other interested parties to put together a programme to help people as they return to conflict areas in an appropriate and timely manner?

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

I or my officials will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend. He will have noticed that in the statement, I announced £28 million for minefield breaching and bridging capabilities—combat engineering that is desperately needed.