I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the situation in Ukraine.
Since the most recent statement on Ukraine, which was given in June by the former Secretary of State, my right hon. Friend Mr Wallace, the armed forces of Ukraine have launched their land offensives to retake their country. I therefore thought it useful to start with an update on the status of the conflict before I outline the strategic consequences and considerations for where we are today.
The impact of Ukraine’s summer offensive has been widely reported in the media. Although it is true that the conflict remains hard going for both sides, Ukraine’s determination remains steadfast. The Ukrainian armed forces have shown extraordinary resourcefulness and their determination to win is stronger than ever. They have adapted, necessarily, their approach to overcome the Russian use of mines, artillery and drones, resulting in steady progress, with notable success in recent weeks. We have witnessed the clever prioritisation of their operations and they are husbanding the battle-winning equipment provided by their allies and partners to have maximum effect.
The Ukrainian armed forces continue to prioritise offensive action in the Robotyne area and are currently fighting through the first Russian main defensive line, which is heavily fortified. Ukraine is carrying out operations around Bakhmut, pushing the Russians back to the edge of the town and ensuring no significant territorial changes within the past month. Despite the large numbers of Russian forces committed, they are not succeeding. Ukraine has made notable successes in destroying several Russian command and control centres and ammunition storage sites.
It is difficult, from the comfort of our position here in the House of Commons or watching on television as observers, to imagine the ferocity of the fighting and the sacrifices of the Ukrainians. It has been bloody, brutal and painstakingly slow as they have penetrated a defensive minefield that is 30 km in depth, but they are succeeding.
I thank the Minister very much for his introduction and for our clear commitment in the United Kingdom, and through the Minister’s office, to helping Ukraine. One thing that is currently prevalent—the Minister referred to it—is the clearance of mines. I understand that in the past perhaps 10 or 12 months Russia has had time to set different levels and lines of mines. What help are we in the United Kingdom and, indeed, all of the free world able to give to the Ukrainians to clear the mines?
There are two parts to mine clearance in-country. First, there is the tactical mine clearance of lanes through which to launch the Ukrainian offensive. The tactic to which the Ukrainians have resorted to preserve combat power has been to clear the minefields very slowly, deliberately and methodically with dismounted infantry, in a way that those of us who served in Afghanistan or Iraq will remember as a tactic for improvised explosive devices there. It is quite something that that has been the tactic for clearing a minefield, but it has preserved combat power and therefore has been necessary. The other part is that there will obviously need to be a demining effort for the country at large after the war, and that is a concern for all of Ukraine’s donors and friends—[Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, it seems odd to talk about the progress of the war and the atrocities when others are so busy in their conversation, but I am sure they mean nothing by it.
Despite the large numbers of Russian forces committed, they are not succeeding. Ukraine has had notable successes, destroying several Russian command and control centres and ammunition storage sites. It is difficult from the comfort of our position as observers to imagine the ferocity of the fighting and the sacrifice of the Ukrainians. Russia is suffering heavily on the battlefield and has taken some 200,000 casualties, of whom we believe 60,000 have been killed. In addition, more than 10,000 armoured vehicles have been destroyed.
However, the value of today’s debate is not simply to reflect on the tactical situation on the ground in south-east Ukraine, but to zoom out and assess the strategic scorecard.
My right hon. Friend makes a valuable point about demining, but demining could be put in place now, and it is important now, because even areas that are retaken still have significant numbers of seeded mines. There is not only traditional mine clearance, of the kind that he will be familiar with from Afghanistan, but the use of artificial intelligence and software to predict how mines move and spread. That work can be done now—we do not have to wait till the end of the war.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend’s observation. The reality is that, as the frontline moves, it is in Ukraine’s interest to bring the agricultural land back into productive use as quickly as possible, and we have seen some extraordinarily innovative efforts to do that, from the most low-tech to the most high-tech. The challenge is that neither the UK nor any other supporter of Ukraine would want to put a combat engineering capability into the country, for fear of any miscalculation that that would cause. That effort necessarily sits with the non-governmental organisations, but there are a number working with the Ukrainian Government, some of which are based here in the UK.
I suggested that the House zoom out a bit to look at the strategic scorecard. As a result of Putin’s war, the Russian people are needlessly suffering, the Russian economy is faltering and we are seeing Ukrainian strikes deep into the interior of Russia. An aborted coup and its aftermath laid bare the nature of Putin’s regime and the strength of feeling of so many Russians against his so-called special military operation. It has become a standard line in these updates, but on day 564 of Putin’s three-day operation he still has not achieved any of his strategic objectives. Russia’s economy is failing, the rouble continues to fall and sanctions are biting.
As we have seen before, Russia will resort to terrorising Ukraine’s population whenever its battlefield objectives cannot be met. Just last Wednesday, a Russian strike hit a crowded market in the Ukrainian city of Kostiantynivka, killing at least 17 people and wounding a further 32. Over the weekend we have seen sham elections run in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, Zaporizhzhia and Crimea, but, as the Foreign Secretary tweeted, the problem for Putin is that
“You can’t hold elections in someone else’s country.”
Putin continues to use food as a weapon to hold the world to ransom. Russia is using its Black sea fleet to attack Ukrainian ports with impunity in order to prevent the export of grain and exacerbate global food insecurity. I have travelled extensively across Africa and the rest of what is sometimes lazily referred to as the global south. Whatever Putin might think he achieves through the security conference he hosts in Moscow and St Petersburg, I am yet to meet anyone who is not clear that it is his attacks on Ukrainian port infrastructure that threaten food security across the developing world. He is using food as a weapon. We encourage a return to the Black sea grain initiative, but we are clear-eyed about Putin’s actions and his likely intent.
It is self-evident that Russia’s behaviour on sovereign Ukrainian territory means that he is interested neither in finding a path to peace nor in stability in the world beyond. Make no mistake, the fastest route to peace in Ukraine and to security and stability for the rest of us is through Putin withdrawing his forces and ending this illegal and unjustified war.
The UK has been at the forefront of efforts to support Ukraine’s offensive. As the House will know well, we provided £2.3 billion in military support to Ukraine last year, and by being the first to send tanks and Storm Shadow missiles, we galvanised a coalition of like-minded nations to follow suit and come to the defence of the broader international rules-based system. At the NATO summit in Vilnius in July, the Prime Minister announced a new tranche of support for Ukraine, including thousands of additional rounds for Challenger 2 tanks, more than 70 combat and logistic vehicles, and a £50 million support package for equipment repair, as well as the establishment of a new military rehabilitation centre. We are also seeing increased contributions to the international fund for Ukraine. So far, £782 million has been pledged, and 10 contracts worth £182 million have been placed, to assist Ukraine in critical areas such as intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and air defence. The first deliveries arrived in Ukraine this summer.
Two organisations in Putney have raised a lot of money and contributions of medical aid for Ukraine. They have, with volunteers, taken ambulances out to Ukraine. That is a big need that has been communicated back to us. Can the Minister say anything more about the medical aid being supplied to those on the frontline in Ukraine?
The hon. Lady is absolutely right to raise that. There is, of course, the aid that the MOD gives the Ukrainian armed forces in combat medical equipment and, indeed, in medical support, but the most amazing thing in the medical aid space is what has been done by small groups around the country, such as those in her constituency. People have banded together and pooled whatever supplies they can lay their hands on. Very often, they then deliver those supplies in person —exactly as she says her constituents have done—which takes some bravery, as well as real commitment to gathering them in the first place. In reality, those endeavours will always be of enormous value to communities across Ukraine, just as the medical aid that we give more directly to the Ukrainian military is to them. Her constituents and others are to be commended. The Government will continue to support the military with the medical aid it needs, and to consider what more we as a nation can do to complement the work done by voluntary groups.
A charity similar to those the Minister describes is Medics4Ukraine, which is based in my constituency. I visited those at the charity and asked them what they would request of the Government. They said that expired medical equipment from the NHS—specifically dressings approaching their expiry date—would be enormously useful to their charitable endeavour.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment and pay tribute to the work of the group in his constituency. On a Government-to-Government basis, it is important that we are led by the Government of Ukraine and what they ask us for. They are clear in their communication with us about their priorities, and those are what we resource. However, I will of course ensure that his point is noted. In the meantime, I encourage the groups in his constituency to continue doing what they can in support.
We have now trained more than 23,000 Ukrainian personnel under Operation Interflex, with contributions and knowledge from international partners, as demonstrated by the growing coalition of countries now joining us in training Ukrainians here on UK soil. Nearly 1,000 Ukrainian marines are returning home after being trained by the Royal Marine and Army commandos during a six-month UK programme. That training saw the commandos training Ukraine forces in small boat amphibious operations and in conducting beach raids. We have also commenced basic flying training for up to 20 Ukrainian pilots to support the recent decision by Denmark and the Netherlands to donate F-16 jets. That, in addition to the ongoing work from the Royal Navy to train the Ukrainian minesweeping crews, makes the UK the only country on earth that is training soldiers, sailors, aviators and marines—something about which we should be very proud.
My right hon. Friend is making a great speech, and I apologise for interrupting again and thank him for taking the intervention. Apologies if I have missed it, but when it comes to training people, is any thought being given to a Sandhurst package or starting to get junior officers through? One thing that the Royal United Services Institute has identified—it is not necessary to go through a year-long course to do it, but it may help—is the lack of junior officers, and of people with J3 ops experience and of putting together basic plans. That is one point that has been identified, and I was wondering whether my right hon. Friend could answer it.
My hon. Friend thinks deeply about the problem, and his observations are absolutely correct. It would be inelegant to reflect on the private conversations that we have with Ukrainian Ministers and defence chiefs, but I think Ukraine is going through exactly the same as any other country that has been fighting a war: it is very hard to strike the balance between keeping its most combat-experienced and battle-hardened on the frontline, in command of tactical situations, and bringing those people rearwards and making them part of the planning or training effort. That can have an exponential impact, but it is a very big opportunity cost to accept.
The UK remains one of the largest bilateral humanitarian donors to Ukraine. At the Ukraine recovery conference in London in June, co-chaired by the UK and Ukraine, we added a further £127 million of humanitarian support to the £220 million we have already provided. This week, we have proscribed the Wagner Group as a terrorism organisation, a further measure of the UK’s commitment to compete with Russian influence wherever in the world it manifests itself. Through our sanctions, we are frustrating Russia’s attempts to prosecute its war and hindering its efforts to resupply. The UK alone has sanctioned over 1,600 individuals and entities since the start of the invasion, including 29 banks with global assets worth £1 trillion, 129 oligarchs with a combined net worth of over £145 billion, and over £20 billion-worth of UK-Russia trade. In June, we introduced legislation to reinforce our approach by enabling sanctions to remain in place until Russia pays for the damage it has caused in Ukraine.
Russia’s failures on the battlefield demonstrate that its much-vaunted and much-feared capabilities are anything but. Russia has been proven to be an unreliable partner, unable or unwilling to satisfy export orders due to outdated and inferior-quality materials, alongside inadequate logistics and equipment care. Moscow is having to prioritise its own forces over its international order book. Potential Russian export customers see clearly the opportunity to diversify their defence supply and seek out the reliable and effective equipment that Britain and others in the west manufacture.
What is true for defence exports is increasingly true for all other exports, too. That matters, because Putin’s illegal war in Ukraine is increasingly costly to him, not just in blood and treasure on the battlefield, but in influence in the international arena. More and more countries in Russia’s near abroad are looking for other friends because they see that Russia cannot be trusted, while countries that have been in the Russian sphere for decades, and depended on it for their defence and security, now realise the need to diversify. That is not just in NATO, where Finland and Sweden have gone through huge strategic shifts: others around the world are doing likewise. The cost to Russia of Putin’s folly will last for decades.
I commend the Minister for the full range of strategic initiatives being conducted by the British Government, but it strikes me that the best way of supporting Ukraine in toto is for all 32 member nations of NATO to be contributing the agreed 2% per nation. As of today, seven of those 32 are doing so. May I please ask the Minister—with the FCDO Minister, Leo Docherty, in his place as well—what we are doing to compel, or at least coerce or encourage, other NATO nations to do so?
At the Vilnius summit earlier in the summer, the Prime Minister and others who are spending 2% of GDP were very clear in their expectation that others quickly move to do likewise. Moreover, they were clear that that cannot be just a short-term capital commitment, but a long-term, enduring commitment to spend 2% for good, as a minimum—a floor—because Euro-Atlantic security has not been so threatened for well over a generation.
One day, the war in Ukraine will cease, so we must make sure that Ukraine is in the best possible shape to help its economy recover, and quickly. To bring prosperity back to Ukraine, the Ukraine recovery conference committed a further £3 billion of guarantees to unlock World Bank lending; £240 million of bilateral assistance; and up to £250 million of new capital for the UK’s development finance institution, British International Investment, to advance Ukraine’s economic recovery. Critically, we are also spending some £62 million on a programme to help Ukraine rebuild a sustainable and resilient energy system and to keep the lights on.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am sure those in the Kremlin pay particular attention to the Commons when you are in the Chair, so I have no doubt that they are watching this afternoon, and they need to be clear that we recognise the need—
I am most grateful, because I think he is reaching the end of his remarks—
But I was waiting for him to get on to the bigger strategic picture. It is quite clear that Mr Putin is playing this long in the hope that the patience of our allies—we can think of who they are—will wear thin, our attention will wane and by a process of attrition he will gain something out of this conflict. I congratulate the Government on refusing to accept that that should be the outcome, but what confidence does the Minister have that we will carry all our allies to ensure that we sustain the Ukrainians’ effort so that that they achieve total victory, not some sell-out of half their territory already occupied by the Russians?
Well, Hansard already has the final few paragraphs of my speech, so I will simply agree with my hon. Friend. He is absolutely correct. The tactical support that we provide to the Ukrainians to win, tonight and tomorrow, will continue for as long as is needed. Putin cannot wait this out, and to prove that, increasingly over the last few months the UK Government’s focus has been not just on that tactical support for tomorrow, but on giving Putin the certainty that the Ukrainian armed forces will be helped to continue to modernise and grow over the next decade so that they finish this war superior to the Russian armed forces. We will help Ukraine to recover more quickly and to grow faster than Russia, so that the economic cost and difference are clear for all to see. The UK has the strategic patience to make sure that this illegal war finishes in Ukraine’s favour, and that Putin or his successors are shown that Russia will never succeed by throwing its might around in its near abroad.
It has been 564 days since Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine. War in Europe is a harsh reminder that to be secure at home we must be strong abroad, and that our allies are our greatest strategic strength in doing so.
Our commitment to Ukraine must be long lasting. Fine words do not defeat the tanks of an invader; only weapons, training, courage and determination stand up to them. The Ukrainian war effort in recent weeks and months has been slow going, but effective. Despite deeply dug in and heavily mined Russian defences, the Ukrainians are steadily getting the upper hand on the battlefield in the south of the country by targeting supply lines and outlying areas in the western Zaporizhzhia oblast and Robotyne. In its defence, the Ukraine operation is also diversifying the ways it is hitting its enemy—airfields at depth in Russia, targets in Crimea and Russian ships in the Black sea. Some have criticised the slow pace of Ukraine’s counter-offensive, yet Ukrainian forces are making a similar rate of progress as British troops did in the days after D-day and the Normandy landings. Now, as then, it is brutal conventional trench warfare, and I want to pay tribute on behalf of all on the Opposition side of the House to the extraordinary heroism and resilience of the Ukrainian military in the face of Russian aggression.
In contrast, Vladimir Putin is fighting a war on a number of fronts with a military battlefield and a political one, too. He is fighting to fix his failing war strategy as Russia’s armed forces continue to fight on the back foot in Ukraine, without the supplies they need, the leadership they need and the rotation of troops they need. Putin is fighting increasing hostility on Russian soil, with a growing number of drone attacks and economic headwinds facing the country because of the grip of sanctions. He is fighting increasing scrutiny of his leadership, as we saw in the aborted coup over the summer, as concerns about the war continue to grow in Russia. However, more than 18 months on, there is no sign that his strategic aims have changed, nor are there any signs that he is any closer to achieving a single one of them.
Going back to the hon. Member’s comments about D-day and Normandy, the Americans and Brits were bogged down in hedgerow country there, and the way they broke out and started to make real progress was with overwhelming aerial superiority and bombardment. That is exactly what the Ukrainians need.
It is telling that neither Ukraine nor Russia enjoys air superiority over the contested parts of Ukraine at the moment; nor does either enjoy superiority in the electronic warfare spectrum or in uncrewed aerial vehicles. That contest in EW and the airspace makes the contest on land even more brutal, so the hon. Gentleman is right about the importance of ensuring that we continue to support our friends in Ukraine not just with artillery systems but with the shells and spare parts required to ensure the artillery can keep firing. We must also ensure a continual supply of aerial combat systems—not only F-16s, but the uncrewed drones, which Ukraine is using with such effect—and training. This is a long-term commitment, and while there is no air superiority we need to make sure that every single available advantage that Ukraine can have from the provision of western support is available to it. I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.
Putin believes that the west will not stay the course, as the Minister suggested, but Putin is wrong. Those who call for the Ukrainians to sue for peace and negotiate are doing Putin’s dirty work for him. In over 20 years, Putin has never given up territory he has taken by force. A ceasefire now would cede territory to Russia, allowing Putin’s forces to regroup, deepen the occupation and pretend there is legitimisation for the regime of torture, rape and execution, including the theft of Ukrainian children and their removal to parts of Russia.
The threats we face from Putin are long term, and our resolve must equally stand the test of time across Parliaments, across changes of Ministers and across changes of Governments. There may well be a change to Labour next year, but let me say clearly that there will be no change in Britain’s resolve to stand with Ukraine, confront Russian aggression and pursue Putin for his war crimes.
The defence of the United Kingdom starts in Ukraine. The support that has been offered to Ukraine by the UK should make us all proud, and I agreed with the Minister when he set out clearly the contribution that has been made by UK forces through Operation Interflex, with the training of our Ukrainian friends and the provision of military systems. Now it is time for Ukraine’s allies to double down on that support, because this is a long-term fight. The UK does deserve credit for its support for Ukraine and the leadership shown among allies to get them to do more, but it is vital that we are able to say the same thing in six months’ time, because stockpiles are being depleted, energy levels are lowering and there is a risk of fatigue. We cannot afford that fatigue, and that is why we must be in this for the long term.
Once Ukraine has prevailed, the rightful place for Ukraine is in NATO, alongside the allies that share common views on democracy, freedom and territorial integrity. That is the rightful place for Ukraine once it has prevailed. However, let me also reiterate that the UK Government will continue to have Labour’s fullest support on military aid to Ukraine and on reinforcing our NATO allies. Labour’s support for NATO is unshakeable, and our backing for Ukraine is solid and firm.
Ukrainians are now urgently asking for more, to help with their current counter-offensive and ensure that it succeeds. Since January, the Prime Minister has repeatedly pledged to accelerate UK support for Ukraine, but one concern on the Opposition side of the House is that momentum behind our military help is faltering. The 14 Challenger 2 tanks that the UK sent to Ukraine may be seen as top of the range, but our effort has now been dwarfed by other European allies. Poland has committed 324 tanks, the Czechs 90, and our friends in the Netherlands 89. There is an urgent need to help Ukraine ramp up its domestic industrial production of key weapons and equipment such as ammunition and shells. BAE Systems’ move to set up a local entity in Ukraine is a start, but the Government could be doing far more to help facilitate deals from a variety of partners, so that Ukraine can produce both modern and Soviet-era systems closer to the frontline, so that they can be used quicker.
Ministers are also yet to provide accelerated support on new drone technologies, including counter-drone measures such as electronic warfare systems and armoured vehicles, despite there being a clear need to do so. Finally, our friends in Ukraine need further support with their de-mining capability—that was raised earlier by a number of Members across the House. It is important that such de-mining support continues, not only on the frontline to ensure a breakthrough, but in the liberated areas to ensure that proper economic activity can return.
Now is the time when the UK should be stepping up support for the Ukrainian offensive. Will the Minister clarify how the new Defence Secretary will be accelerating UK assistance to Ukraine, and will he set out the scope of assistance that Ukraine can expect from us as part of that acceleration? How is he removing some of the bureaucratic hurdles that prevent partnerships between UK industry and our friends in Ukraine from taking place? Jack Lopresti raised a similar point during Defence questions, and this is about breaking down the barriers between businesses and allies, rather than a simple intergovernmental transfer of support being required. Boxing clever here could produce good results. To be the lead nation in providing support for Ukraine, we must be faster in delivering the support that is required.
On help with rebuilding Ukraine, the European Union has already set out a plan to shift frozen assets into a fund to help rebuild Ukraine, Canada has passed laws allowing it to do the same, and now the US has also drafted a Bill to do so. The Government said in July that they support using frozen assets to rebuild Ukraine, so what is causing the delay? When can we expect frozen assets to be used for that purpose? If Ministers come forward with a workable plan, it will enjoy cross-party support. This Parliament will be agreed on it, so when will that happen and what will it look like?
The Government finally decided last week to proscribe the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation, but on
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, I and Labour colleagues have responded eight times to debates, statements or urgent questions concerning Ukraine. Time and again in such debates we have reiterated the urgent need for a stockpiles strategy to sustain support for Ukraine and rearm Britain. Time and again, the Government have failed to provide a coherent long-term stockpiles strategy. That is not good enough. Our generosity to Ukraine, correct as it is, is depleting our current military stockpiles, and despite the Government having known about this problem for over a year, they continue to act too slowly to replenish them. The capability gaps that are being created are concerning, because if we want to be in this for the long term—and I believe that on a cross-party basis we do—we cannot afford capability gaps. Nor can we afford to empty our cupboard to ensure that the front line is well supplied, while having nothing for our own defence, that of our allies or the continuing support we need.
Next generation light anti-tank weapons have been vital to Ukraine, and it was 287 days after the invasion before the MOD got its act together and signed a new contract, with the first newly made NLAWs not due until 2024. What active steps are the Government taking to improve the British magazine depth, as the Americans would describe it, and our stockpiles? Does the Minister accept that the UK needs a stockpiles strategy so that we can finally shift parts of our defence industry and MOD procurement on to urgent operational footing, to ensure that that we have the supplies of both the armaments and the military systems that we need to ensure long-term support? At the moment the Government are continuing to fall short on that front.
I have been listening to what the hon. Gentleman is saying about NLAWs, and there was a very quick response—some credit should be given to Thales for its response when the Government put the order in. Almost straight away Thales was able to respond, manufacture those NLAWs and get them out to Ukraine. Some credit must be given to the Thales factory and the workers back in Belfast, for what they were able to do.
I am grateful for that intervention, because it gives me a chance to thank not only those in Britain’s military industries who have been supporting the effort in Ukraine, but those in Plymouth who are supplying the parts that go into some of the missile systems that are made in the factory mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. This is a long-term effort, and that is why we need a stockpiles strategy to ensure that investment is going in across the United Kingdom, especially in missiles and missile systems that are proving their worth on the battlefield in Ukraine, but that were developed, designed and built many decades ago, and that we have been using as part of our stockpiles ever since.
The Government need to show us that they are learning the lessons from the war in Ukraine, and part of that is about our homeland defence and how we better protect these shores. There was a brief mention of that in the defence Command Paper refresh published recently, but in light of developments in missile technology and the weaponisation of drones that has been on display in both Ukraine and Russia, I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify what the Government are doing to protect the UK and our own homeland defence from such threats. Our cities are as vulnerable as Russian cities to those kinds of attacks, and as we begin the autumn and winter months we must learn from the experience of the attacks in Ukraine last year, especially Russian targeting of supply chains and, importantly, civilian energy installations. What are we doing in advance to ensure that those energy installations are better defended, and that there is an ongoing supply of power? I realise that there will be things the Minister cannot say, but I am sure there are things he can say to ensure certainty in this House. Russia will try to force Ukrainians into darkness once again. What additional support can the UK provide for increased Ukraine air defence, which is critical to ensure that Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure survives over the winter?
Ukraine must win this war, and Russia must lose. The former Defence Secretary understood that well, and his successor must now give that his full focus when he can. The new Defence Secretary has taken this job at a time when political leadership is just as vital as military leadership. Earlier this year, his predecessor conceded in the Commons that successive Conservative Governments had “hollowed out and underfunded” our forces. Since 2010, the Government have cut 25,000 full-time soldiers from the British Army, removed one in five ships from the Royal Navy, and taken more than 200 aircraft out of RAF service in the last five years alone. As the new Defence Secretary takes his place, he should pursue an accelerated UK plan to help support Ukraine and defeat Putin. First, he must accelerate military support, secondly he must redouble UK defence diplomacy to help maintain western unity, and thirdly he must spell out the long-term security guarantees announced with G7 partners at the recent NATO summit.
The hon. Gentleman is giving full solidarity, and the pledge on behalf of the Labour party to continue the Government’s policy in Ukraine is extremely welcome and will be heard around the world. Does that extend to guarantees on funding for defence? I appreciate that this is a loaded question, but will the hon. Gentleman match whatever the Government promise to spend on defence?
The hon. Gentleman invites me to write Labour’s manifesto from the Dispatch Box, and I am sure that the shadow Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Rachel Reeves, would not be too keen on me doing that. Let me say clearly that Labour in power has always spent what is required on defence. When we left power we were spending 2.5% of GDP on defence, a figure never matched by Conservative Governments in 13 years. It is important that when it comes to defence, we not only have a reasonable budget for security, but that the money is well spent.
What we have seen recently, as the hon. Gentleman will know, is a huge amount of waste in MOD procurement. That is not only on wasted systems, but through money going to foreign contractors that in the Opposition’s mind should have gone to UK contractors, because we believe in building in Britain first and foremost. As we have seen from the recent Royal Fleet Auxiliary solid support ship contract, which was sent abroad rather than to a UK supplier in its first instance, we are seeping money out of our system when we allow such contracts to go abroad. We need to make sure that as we build new platforms, there is an adequate work share for all partners involved. There is a balance to be struck, but I take the challenge that the hon. Gentleman makes. I am afraid he will have to wait for our manifesto for those commitments.
The final thing I will do is to thank all the communities up and down the country that have been supporting our Ukrainian friends throughout the 564 days since Putin’s illegal invasion. Madam Deputy Speaker, I know you have been supporting people in your constituency in Doncaster and met some of them to thank them for their support. Members from both sides of the House have been supporting their communities over the summer recess, including in making sure that Ukrainians who have come to the United Kingdom can remain here. In particular, I pay tribute to some of the Ukrainian young people in Plymouth who have succeeded in achieving GCSEs and A-levels, despite the enormous pressure upon them and their families. In many cases, they were studying subjects in a new language and a new country while their friends and families are facing bombing and attack in Ukraine. It is an incredible achievement, and I put on record our thanks and, I am sure, those of the entire House to all those British families who have been making Ukrainians welcome here in Britain.
We still have a lot more work to do, and our commitment needs to be long term, not only in our military support for Ukraine, but in our support for Ukrainians for whom it is unsafe to go home. For as long as it is unsafe, we need to make sure there is a safe home for them here. Should there be a change of Government at the next general election, there will be no change in Britain’s support for Ukraine. We must rise to the same heights as our Ukrainian friends to ensure that Putin loses and Ukraine wins.
The paralysis of the G20 statement reflects the difficulties of the geopolitics we face. The absence of a communiqué to confirm that it is Russia at fault here shows what leadership is still required in leaning in to what is happening in Ukraine. This remains the biggest war since world war two. Although it is dragging on—as the Minister for Armed Forces said, we are on day 564—we should not be desensitised to what is happening; we should be concerned that there continues to be economic and security disruption right across the continent. This is a test of our staying power and our ability to continue our support. To dry up our support for Ukraine is exactly what Putin wants us to do.
Since the last time we had a debate on this matter, dramatic events have taken place over the summer. They affect what is happening on the ground in Ukraine and in Russia, and they could be game-changing. It is worth remembering that Putin thought he could win this war because he saw a divided Ukraine. President Zelensky did not enjoy the command and support that he has today. If we go back to the Maidan in 2014, Viktor Yanukovych was pressed by Putin to lean his country to the east when it was clear that the nation—or at least half of it—wanted to face the west. Putin saw the west being risk-averse in wanting to support Ukraine in its hour of need. He then pressed further by taking on Crimea and the Donbas. Again, the west did little. He then invaded in 2021, as we know, hoping to repeat what happened in 1968, when the Soviets marched into Czechoslovakia with 50,000 troops and, I think, around 5,000 tanks. It was the courage of Ukraine that meant it stood up to the mark and stood up to the third largest army in the world.
This is where we can pay tribute to what the British Government have done, because there has been commendable engagement, even prior to the invasion itself. They have provided those important anti-tank weapon systems, training on Salisbury plain, those main battle tanks—the Challengers—as well as Storm Shadows and Brimstones. They have been leading in the Ramstein group, co-ordinating efforts with other allies to make sure that Ukraine has the necessary military assistance. We have learned and become less risk-averse as time has moved forward, conscious of the escalatory ladder and knowing we are dealing with a nuclear power that has invaded another state. The west has rekindled its cold war statecraft skills, but the fundamental issue is: if we want Ukraine to win and Russia to lose, we should not be half-hearted in giving what Ukraine requires. We need to be fully committed to giving Ukraine the tools to succeed for victory.
It has been clear and mentioned already in the Chamber today that the war has not gone well for President Putin. He expected a quick win and is now frustrated on the frontline. There is little to show for his efforts. He is using conscripts and prisoners and having to replace successive generals, because command and control is not what it was. He has spent the past 23 years coup d’état-proofing, as it were, the Kremlin, Moscow and Russia to make sure that he will not be removed, because that is the Russian way. Russian leaders remain in power because they exhibit strength and are infallible. As soon as they show any signs of weakness, that is when the oligarchs, the elites and so forth realise they can no longer have their back watched by the leader in charge, and they move to replace them. That is what we are seeing today because of the game-changing events involving the Wagner rebellion and Yevgeny Prigozhin. His removal by Putin was inevitable, for the very reason I have just raised: when a Russian leader is attacked in any way, it is the Russian way to crush one’s enemies—to remove them and to eliminate them in one form or another.
Prigozhin did something exceptional: not only did he challenge Putin and bury the myth that this war was going well, but he used his own forces to charge up through Rostov-on-Don towards Moscow. That illustrated that no Russian forces were able to take on the Wagner Group—the private army—to prevent a coup d’état and a mutiny. That weakness is now recognised across Russia; Putin’s time will eventually be up.
The other dynamic is that, of all the fighting forces in Ukraine, the most powerful, capable, potent and best equipped was the Wagner Group. It had the best equipment and was the most motivated. It has now been removed from the battlefield and that provides an opportunity for Ukraine.
Lots of western pressure has been placed on Ukraine, saying, “We have given you all this expensive, exceptional, ever-complex equipment. Why has the counter-offensive not advanced further?” Again, it is because—this happened in the second world war—various phases of operations need to be conducted. We have seen Ukraine probe the frontline across 1,000 km, and we are now seeing advances taking place as it penetrates through complex minefields and anti-tank defences, particularly in the Zaporizhzhia region. That is the progress we need to see, but we need to exhibit patience. This is not going to happen overnight—there will not be a quick phase of war, with this all being over by Christmas.
What Putin is now realising is that this could be the beginning of the end of his war in Ukraine, and it could be the beginning of the end of his existence as leader, too. I do not believe he will be replaced overnight, but I do believe that the weakness exhibited is enough to unrest and unnerve many of the leaders in Russia who will be looking for a replacement in the longer term. We therefore need to be cautious and perhaps stand up to those voices in the west who are saying, “Let’s draw a line. Let’s start negotiating. Let’s get round a table and draw a close to what is happening in Ukraine.”
We need to recognise the bigger picture and what Putin —indeed, even his successor—might be trying to do, and that is to expand Russian influence in the Slavic area of eastern Europe. Again, that is the Russia way. Let us go back hundreds of years; the view has been, “If we are not being attacked, the best way is to attack, otherwise, our defences will not be enough to hold the motherland together, so let’s take advantage of the west’s weakness or risk-averseness.” I am pleased to see that we are now starting to change that.
What is next for the west? Absolutely, we must keep up that military support—that is the tactical that has been talked about today—but I would advance two further areas where we could do more to support Ukrainians. First, we must recognise that more than $300 billion-worth of frozen assets belong to Russia. We need to develop a legal mechanism that would allow each month about $20 billion of that to be slid across the table to Ukraine to help in its reconstruction and development. That might focus minds in Russia—in Moscow, in the Kremlin and Putin himself—that the longer the war continues, the more Russian money it is costing.
Secondly, I would stress the grain shipments—I brought them up with the Prime Minister—which are critical for Ukraine as well as fundamental for our own economy, where food inflation remains in double figures. I would stress the symbiotic relationship between our economic security and our national security. I am pleased that the Government are organising and participating in a global food security summit. I hope that we will look towards creating some form of expeditionary force that can provide the necessary defence and support for a maritime taskforce to protect those ships and ensure they can depart from Odesa to feed the rest of the world.
I end simply by stressing what I think many colleagues will express: because our world is getting more dangerous, not less, our peacetime defence budget of just over 2% of GDP is simply not adequate. We had the 2021 integrated review, which introduced so many cuts across all three services. Because of Ukraine, we had another IR—IR ’23. Unfortunately, none of those cuts was reversed. I hope that the new Defence Secretary, who has the Prime Minister’s ear, will be able to persuade him on that and recognise that we have done so much in advancing our hard-power capabilities, but we need to go further because of where this very dangerous world is now headed.
It is a pleasure to speak from the Front Bench for, I think, the third time today. On this subject, however, I think there will be much more unanimity and agreement across the House.
As someone who has been speaking about the plight of Ukraine essentially since I was elected in 2015, I have always been happy to state my support and that of my party for the Ukrainians’ ongoing struggle to establish control of their homeland across the full extent of their 1991 borders—and as someone who it is fair to say has never been shy in criticising the Government when they deserve it, I think the political will they have shown to remain ahead of the curve when it comes to the international response is to be commended. Given that my opinions and those of my party are well understood and an matter of extensive record in the House, I intend to keep my remarks relatively short, but needless to say it is important to reflect on where we are at this stage in the war.
It is fair to say that a little too much pressure was put on the Ukrainian armed forces before their summer offensive. Not only is it an eternal adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy, but Russia had a significant amount of time to dig in as well as to learn from the mistakes it made at the beginning of the conflict and adapt. These Russian forces are riddled with corruption, clientelism, cronyism, racism and poor morale, as witnessed by the attempted coup, as was mentioned earlier. However, that does not mean that they are entirely incapable of learning on the battlefield and, as satisfying as the initial successes of capabilities such as Javelin or Himars were, there is no doubt that they adapted and changed their approach, becoming a harder opponent to break down in the process. That said, recent advances are to be welcomed, and the sacrifices made by the armed forces of Ukraine in advancing past those initial lines in certain areas should be recognised. While it may be all too soon to talk about whether this is a breach, a breakthrough or anything more, it is welcome news at the end of the summer.
I have always been one of those who have felt it important to allow Ukraine to lead this strategy. I hope that we will not be hearing anything more of the veiled criticisms of that that emerged from some allied quarters. It is a similarly solid adage that things always take a little longer in war than is initially anticipated, and we know that it will be perseverance and adaption in response to the battlefield in front of them that will win the war for Ukraine. Our patience and resolve are therefore needed at this time along with an ongoing appraisal of what we can do to continue supplying matériel to Ukraine that could prove decisive. In that context, the recent conversations about the army tactical missile system are most welcome and it will hopefully provide the opportunity to strike deep behind Russian lines and further disrupt the morale of those Russians preventing a Ukrainian advance.
Our patience and resolve must extend further. I will never tire of saying here that winning the peace in Ukraine, and providing the funding for the civilian authorities there to rebuild after the conflict is over, will be as important as winning the war. That work will probably take decades and I believe it is already beginning. Again, I commend the Government for the work they have started on that with this year’s donor conference held here in London, but we cannot take any of this for granted.
Let us not be naive. The Kremlin’s strategy is, as we have heard, to try to wait Ukraine and its allies out. It is placing a lot of hope in an amenable result in next year’s US presidential election. While we cannot thank our American friends enough for the breadth and depth of their bilateral military and economic aid to Ukraine, we know that that that has become something of a live question in that country’s political debate. We should prepare ourselves for the possibility that that bilateral support may not continue in its current form. It is therefore most disheartening to read reports in the press of former UK Prime Ministers stating publicly their preference for candidates in that election who have pledged to roll back support for Ukraine. It would be most disheartening should broader culture war tropes that have infected the American debate on Ukraine also cross the Atlantic. I therefore hope that we can continue the agreement on the broad strategy of aiding Ukraine, while of course reserving the right occasionally to disagree on how best to do that, and show patience and resolve as they go about liberating their homeland.
I am happy to say that I have the unwavering support of my party for those sentiments. It passed a motion on Ukraine at last year’s party conference, which stated unequivocally:
“As a party which has as its founding principle the ability of people to self-determine, Conference...states unequivocally that Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporizhizhia are all Ukraine.”
The people of Ukraine are suffering in a manner that we in Britain are unaccustomed to in recent times and we are horrified by. Russian forces are committing war crime after war crime with no regard for civilians, including women and children. While visiting the Ukrainian town of Irpin, just north-west of Kyiv, in February, I saw what the local Ukrainians referred to as the cemetery of burnt cars. That was what was left on a day when families had packed what they could to escape the Russian advancing forces, but they did not make it out because the Russians fired upon them, killing those attempting to escape. It could not even be said that they were killed by stray small arms rounds. Looking at the number and size of the holes in the backs and sides of the cars, it was clear to anyone that those poor people were deliberately targeted by heavy weapons.
All that is taking place on the continent of Europe, in a sovereign state with a parliamentary democracy. The people of Ukraine are fighting for their lives and their freedom and democracy—our shared values. In August, I was able to visit the frontline, south of the city of Zaporizhzhia. I spoke with some of the troops, and it was great to see the very high morale among them. Many of those brave men were trained in the UK, especially the gunners trained at the Royal School of Artillery in Larkhill. I was proud to see British kit and equipment used in the fight to eject Russians from Ukraine. I saw an AS-90 gun, which had come from my son’s regiment, 1 Royal Horse Artillery.
The Ukrainian gunners spoke to me about how they preferred British ammunition because the charge bags did not fall apart and the gun barrels needed less cleaning. We saw the guns in action, with rounds landing on Russian targets. They asked me to convey their thanks to the Prime Minister, the Government and the House of Commons for our unwavering ongoing support. If Ukraine is to win the war, the Government must continue to provide such equipment, weapons, training and aid. I welcome my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s announcement of plans for an additional UK-led training programme, to include Ukrainian fighter jets and marines.
Over the weekend I made my third visit so far to Ukraine, when I attended the Yalta European Strategy conference with other Members from across the House. We discussed the power, importance and profundity of Ukraine’s ideals; how helping Ukraine is best for global peace, security and the global economy; and how we may bring this illegal, bloody, terrible war to an end. Since the war started in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, and the subsequent expansion of Russian aggression in February 2022, Ukrainians have proven themselves to be a strong, determined and fiercely patriotic people, who are passionate about defending their home of beautiful and diverse landscapes, as well as preserving their culture and traditions. With many refugees from Ukraine now living in our constituencies in the United Kingdom, I hope Members across the House have sought to experience that culture, along with many of our constituents.
The United Kingdom coming to the aid of Ukraine is imperative in defending the freedom of our friends overseas, but those working on that noble effort are also contributing much here at home. MOD Defence Equipment and Support—DE&S—at Abbey Wood in my constituency employs several thousand MOD personnel, who are not only running the entire procurement for our armed forces, but are largely ensuring that the Ukrainians get all the equipment they need. At Prime Minister’s questions back in June, the Prime Minister joined me in paying tribute to all their work. In addition, there are several defence companies in my constituency with hard-working teams working around the clock, developing the technology and equipment that will continue to help Ukrainians liberate their country.
As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for sovereign defence manufacturing capability, I follow these issues closely. At an event hosted here in the House of Commons by Leonardo and BAE Systems, we discussed the incredible support that the British defence manufacturing sector is providing the Ukrainian military. While in Ukraine in August, I met the then Ukrainian Defence Minister, Oleksii Reznikov, to discuss defence procurement and how our countries are working and will continue to work together in this area. To that end, the APPG is currently running an inquiry on the impact of the Ukrainian war on the resilience of our defence industrial capacity and capability, not only to continue to supply and support Ukrainians but to look at our own stocks and how we can replenish them.
I have been in discussions with British companies who want to co-operate with their Ukrainian counterparts. The need for closer co-operation between our two countries is urgent; unfortunately, some elements of the bureaucratic machinery here seem not to have woken up quite yet to the urgency of the situation. The Ukrainian defence industry has high levels of skill, innovation, synergy and capacity for manufacturing advanced technology, as well as basic mechanical components. The Ukrainians need the materiel, they need it now and, what is more, they want us to produce some of it jointly.
Ukraine is a significant trading partner of the UK, the EU and our NATO partner Turkey. Ukraine’s exports of iron ore, semi-finished iron, seed oils, wheat and corn are vital to the rest of the world, as has been demonstrated by Ukraine’s recent difficulties in exporting those goods. For foreign direct investment to return to Ukraine, Russian forces must be out of the country entirely, and programmes must be in place to ensure peace, stability and protection from attack. That will provide better security of commercial assets, factories, offices, technological systems and so forth. Therefore, securing a victory for freedom in Ukraine, as well as the stability of the region, is of the utmost importance in helping to maintain global trade, peace and security.
Only once Russian forces are expelled from the whole of Ukraine will Russia learn that it cannot prey again upon Ukraine, or allies such as Poland and Estonia, without terrible and catastrophic consequences. Guaranteeing security and stability in the region is paramount for the resumption of trade in and out of Ukraine, as well as for foreign direct investment in the country. However, for that to be achieved, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to help defend our friends and defeat the Russians.
On the future for Ukraine, the United Kingdom should be at the centre of promoting security guarantees for the country, and assisting and supporting its application for NATO membership. The rebuilding of towns, cities and infrastructure must be a priority for the international community. Such proposals being part of future foreign aid expenditure, incentivising FDI by the British private sector, and having multilateral asset transfers and other reparations are all worthwhile suggestions for funding the reconstruction.
To sum up, the United Kingdom’s defence sector, much of which is based in my constituency, has been at the forefront of defending freedom in Ukraine, as I have seen at first hand on the frontline. His Majesty’s Government must continue to lead and to ramp up support for Ukraine to ensure victory and lasting peace, and to promote the rebuilding of the country and its economy and prosperity. Together with the Ukrainians and with the help of our allies, we will finish the job.
It is a pleasure to follow Jack Lopresti, who I seem to have been following recently. Just this weekend we were at the Yalta European Strategy conference, and before leaving for Ukraine we were in Leeds, which I will come back to. At Yalta European Strategy we were joined by the Minister; the shadow Europe Minister, my hon. Friend Stephen Doughty; my co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, Bob Seely; and Adam Holloway, who is not here. We had a strong UK contingent. However, my journey into Ukraine this time starts a bit earlier, with the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke and the Leeds Ukrainian community centre, for Ukraine’s national day.
Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking groups—which I am such he is about to mention—such those in Newport West, who have joined together to fund medicines, equipment, money and all sorts of vital things to go to Ukraine to support the war effort and the people of Ukraine?
Absolutely. It is incredible to see groups up and down the country doing that. At the event that I attended in Leeds at the Ukrainian centre, I was shown a picture of a support vehicle that they had bought and were taking to Ukraine. It had been purchased thanks to an auction in Morley and Outwood, which I attended with Dame Andrea Jenkyns, where I bought a vyshyvanka, which I wore in Ukraine. The auction raised enough money to buy that vehicle. We have seen such activities right across the country.
Exactly two weeks ago today, I set out to Ukraine from Dover with the Ukraine Freedom Company, Emergency Ukraine and Macclesfield Ukrainian Aid, taking five vehicles of aid. That is the second time the APPG has done that this year. We not only talk about the support we will give, but deliver in a practical way to the people of Ukraine. We left to go through the Eurotunnel and had to cross four different sets of customs borders. At each stage there were minor delays, and there was quite a long delay at one, which I will come back to. The UK Government need to do more to ensure that small, local voluntary organisations can get through those customs borders quickly, because they are volunteers and they will not wait three, four or five hours at each border. The UK Government need to speak to their partners to ensure that that does not happen.
We left and drove through France, Belgium, Germany, Hungary and Romania, and arrived at the Danube where we crossed into Ukraine. The next day, Shahed drones attacked the very same port where we had crossed the Danube. That reflects—others have mentioned this—the importance of the fertile Black sea plains, which produce most of the world’s sunflowers, much of its grain and, in Kherson, the world’s best watermelons. The ports are being attacked because the Black sea grain corridor is now closed.
We drove through the night from the Danube to Odesa. I have never seen so many heavy goods vehicles in all my life. It made the route down to Dover look like a small car park. They were there because the grain cannot be taken from Ukraine by sea. It has to be driven to Romania or other Black sea ports and then transported on. It is a purposeful attack by the Russians to try to close the port, so that not just us in Europe but those in the Gulf, the horn of Africa and right across the global south do not receive this vital food. It is an act of ecocide.
We arrived in Odesa and met the mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, who highlighted the strikes on vital infrastructure. We visited the headquarters of a local mobile telephone company and were shown how the Russians had stripped out telecommunications. The UK must do more to support Ukraine’s telecommunications infrastructure, because without it, it cannot progress the war or support the nation.
From there, we travelled to Mykolaiv and met the deputy mayor for infrastructure. We saw the devastation and the need for reconstruction. We then went to a town—this was one of the most horrifying things I have ever seen in my life—called Posad-Pokrovske in the Kherson region where not a single building was undamaged. Nearly every single building had been destroyed. What had been supplied for the people by the international effort were, effectively, plastic boxes. We went into one and it must have been 50° in there. They were horribly hot in the summer and they will be freezing cold in winter. We must do more to support civilian infrastructure, in particular housing, in areas that were occupied and destroyed by Russia but are now liberated. Brave Ukrainians are living in their hometowns without decent housing, so much more needs to be done. Some of the aid partners we went with are now committed to trying to bring housing solutions to them. I hope the UK Government can work with them.
Afterwards, we visited a renewable energy project—a wind farm. There is an irony here in that half the wind farm was completed after the Russian invasion. Just last week we had a wind farm auction in the UK where nobody put in a bid. In Ukraine, however, they can somehow build them in the middle of a war. It is a part of Ukraine’s security strategy, and is not just about climate and transition. It is easy to take out a single power station, but much harder to take out a distributed network of wind or solar installations. Again, the UK and other partners need to support and invest, because this is not just about peace and rebuilding; it is about the war effort now.
We then went on to Kharkiv. Leeds is in the process of twinning with Kharkiv. I am really proud of our efforts and we will put our full support behind raising money and delivering for the people of Kharkiv. I met the mayor, Ihor Terekhov. The north of the city had been assaulted. We visited a school that was the same distance from the centre of Kharkiv as my children’s school is from the centre of Leeds. It had been completely destroyed and gutted, and the children do not have adequate school facilities. We went to multiple blocks of flats which had been destroyed. In all locations—this was the case in Posad-Pokrovske, too—we were told, “You cannot walk over there or over there,” because they were heavily mined. People are living and children are playing in places next to areas that are mined. At the rate the area is being de-mined, and at the rate of de-mining in previous conflicts, it will take 40 years or more to de-mine Ukraine. That is just not acceptable. In liberated areas, we need to step up and support the de-mining effort, because without de-mining there will be no reconstruction.
We met some troops from the frontline—Kharkiv is not that far from the frontline. There is a lot of talk about Russian troops not being as good. The Chair of the Defence Committee, Mr Ellwood mentioned Wagner and said that Russian elite troops are now no longer on the frontline. We asked the troops what they thought of the Russian troops they were fighting. They described them as worthy adversaries. They are taking nothing for granted. They are on the battlefield risking their lives. We should not think that there is an easy victory here. Every inch of ground is hard-fought and hard-won.
After Kharkiv, we went to Kyiv and, as the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke said, to the Yalta European Strategy conference. I will not go into great detail about all the speeches and meetings that took place, but there were a number of takeaways. We have been hearing, more or less from the start of the conflict, about the need to close the skies. It is still being discussed. We are only now in the early days of training pilots. Why were we not training pilots much earlier? Why are we not much further on? I know the UK does not have F-16s, but the point stands. The Ukrainians were very grateful for the Storm Shadow missiles from the UK, but the missiles they have are the export variants. I will not go into detail, but to be able to prosecute within the territory of Ukraine, they need the Storm Shadows that we use because their range is greater.
The Minister needs to redouble his efforts and look again at our stockpile of weapons and what will help Ukraine to progress the war quickly. I warn Ministers that in Kyiv the view is beginning to set in—the UK is not at the front of this; other countries are—that whatever is asked for arrives but takes too long, is too slow and too bureaucratic, and that the supply is to keep the war going and to ensure Ukraine does not lose, but not to ensure the speediest victory. That is a deep concern of the people in Kyiv and the rest of Ukraine who are progressing the war.
We need to do everything we can to ensure a rapid victory, because the Ukrainians are not just fighting for themselves. They are fighting for democracy, our way of life and our civilisation. One of the most interesting speeches at the conference was by Timothy Snyder, a Yale professor, who said that in the 4th century BC, Athens was able to have a democratic republic because it was supplied with grain by the Scythians in the Black sea region—now southern Ukraine and Crimea. That is the history of the region. Without Ukraine, we all fail. That is why we need to step up our efforts on every front to ensure the war is completed and there is not a single Russian soldier on Ukrainian territory.
This evening is possibly the last warm and balmy evening of the British summer. We are on a one-line Whip and I suspect there will be wine glasses clinking on the Terrace. It would be very easy to forget about Ukraine. I am therefore very grateful for this opportunity to bring us together and ensure that we do not forget the people of Ukraine. Freedom and democracy matter, and it is in Ukraine that the war between freedom and oppression is being fought out. I thank the Minister for Armed Forces, my right hon. Friend James Heappey for giving us such a detailed update on the current military situation.
Sometimes it is difficult to think about the human cost of the war. I was looking for some numbers because I am a mathematician. Although Kyiv does not release estimates of the numbers of military killed, there is a recent estimate that Ukraine has lost 70,000 military personnel. The number of those wounded is estimated to be between 100,000 and 120,000—and more on the Russian side as well. Human Rights Watch suggests that 9,500 civilians have been killed, of whom 550-odd were children, that 17,000 civilians have been injured, of whom 11,000 are children, that 16,000 children have been stolen from their parents and abducted, many never to be seen again, and that women and girls as young as four and as old as their 80s have been raped and sexually assaulted.
When the invasion first started we said that Russia must not be allowed to win, because we knew that if that happened, Ukraine would not be the last: that brutality, that barbaric behaviour would continue. Time and again since the invasion, Russia has blatantly disrupted global supply lines of food and fuel, driving up inflation, hiking up food and fuel prices, and hitting the customers and consumers in our own constituencies—but hitting the world’s poorest and most vulnerable hardest. There is no end to the Russian evil, so the UK has led from the front, through military support, through sanctions, through humanitarian and military aid, and in so many other ways.
I was very pleased when we led the Ukraine recovery conference. I went to a reception at Lancaster House afterwards, and it was uplifting to see many of the Ukrainian friends whom I have made over the past year and a half. Their faces are normally so harrowed, but there were genuine smiles because of what had been achieved during the days at the conference, and the hope for the future. It is great news that the UK will host a conference on food security as well. We must stand shoulder to shoulder for as long as it takes.
The human cost, as well as the infrastructure costs, will take a long, long time to mend. My constituency is home to Blesma, formerly the British Limbless Ex-Servicemen’s Association, which has been supporting male and female veterans who have lost limbs since the aftermath of the first world war, when 40,000 servicemen lost their limbs. In the 90 years of its existence it has supported 60,000 people who have lost limbs in war, and today it is supporting 2,800 members who have lost their limbs in British conflicts in Afghanistan and Northern Ireland and, in a handful of cases, back in the second world war. Blesma told me that in the period between the start of the war in Ukraine and the beginning of the present offensive, more than 5,000 Ukrainians had already become limbless: 5,000 in that year and a bit, in contrast to the 2,800 who lost limbs in our wars dating back to 1945.
The president of the commission for the rehabilitation of veterans in Ukraine—it is a long title—has estimated that many, many more multiples will be affected. Many multiples more will be injured, and between 10% and 15% of veterans will have serious injuries, including limb loss, loss of part of limbs, and/or post-traumatic stress disorder. The human cost of support will go on for decades. It is a sad part of our own history that the UK has particular expertise in caring for these veterans, and I was moved to learn that charities such as Blesma, Help for Heroes and the Royal British Legion have already been “leaning in” with support and advice for our friends in Ukraine.
As others have said, it is crucial that Russia pays for the damage that it has done—not just the physical damage, but the damage to humanity. I was very pleased when the Prime Minister announced earlier this year that the frozen assets that we have in the UK would not be defrosted, or taken out of that freeze, until Russia had paid. We need to make sure that every pound and every dollar that can be raised for Ukraine is being well used. I therefore gently ask the Minister whether, in his closing remarks, he can give us an update on what has happened to the Chelsea football club money, the £2.3 million of Abramovich funds, which I believe has still not left the bank account to help with humanitarian aid. I think I was possibly the first Member to call for Wagner to be proscribed, so I was pleased by last week’s news; it has been a very long time coming.
Over the summer, I have been more and more concerned about what has been happening in Africa and across the Sahel. The civil war rages on in Sudan, where ethnic cleansing is continuing in Darfur and elsewhere. That is important, because we know that Russia controls the gold, and we do not know where the gold from Sudan is going. We have seen a worrying military coup in Niger. Was it a coincidence that Prigozhin was at the Africa conference just before he died, stirring up malign activity again across that part of the world? I believe that Russia likes to cause further instability in parts of the world that are already unstable. The Russians know that instability will lead to further humanitarian disasters and further migration, and they know that that migration will put more pressure on western Europe and western European allies. The fact that the head of Wagner may have died in a plane crash does not necessarily mean that Russian malign influence through evil proxies—or the risk of that—has gone away. I therefore say to the Minister, “Please keep a very close eye on that Russian malign influence, and the malign influence of others in that part of the world.”
Every day in Ukraine, military personnel and civilians face brutality and horror that are unimaginable, and they react with bravery and fortitude that are incredible. We must leave no stone unturned, and we must continue to support them for as long as it takes.
It is a privilege to follow the speech of Vicky Ford, who gave us a heartrending reminder of what life must be like in Ukraine right now. I am also pleased to follow Alex Sobel, and other Members who spent the weekend in Kyiv at the Yalta European Strategy conference. I found it, in fact, offensive that the Republican candidate Ramaswamy described as offensive the fact that we have professional politicians making a pilgrimage to Kyiv. I say hats off to those people, and I think that that candidate for the US presidency would do well to make the journey himself.
I would like to talk about two specific things today that are probably a little bit operational in nature: drone attacks on Russian soil and the supply of cluster munitions. Then, finally, I would like to comment on when might be the right time to move the conflict to the negotiating table. This is Russia’s war. It is Ukraine’s defence, and it is not for Ukraine’s allies and partners—and not for the UK in particular—to tell Ukraine how to fight it, but we have seen a couple of developments since the House last held a general debate on Ukraine, in February, that I would like to comment on.
It is entirely possible that the drone attacks in Russia are the work of Russian dissidents in Ukraine. The level of dissent is difficult to judge from afar. If those drone attacks on Russia were the work of the Ukrainian Government, they would be legal as an act of self-defence in accordance with the UN charter, but we have seen how galvanising the attacks on Ukrainian cities have been. We need only think of the devastating effects of the various railway station attacks in 2022 to imagine that if Ukraine were to attack Russian cities, it could have the opposite effect to the one that was intended.
What of the supply of cluster munitions? The United States announced in July that it would be supplying cluster munitions to Ukraine. We know from the use of cluster bombs in Kosovo, where I served, that unexploded ordnance including cluster bombs killed many innocents in the years after the war, including tens of children. As the United States’ closest ally, it is our responsibility to speak out when we think our friend has made the wrong decision. Given that some in the US want to supplement the existing provision of cluster rounds for artillery with cluster munitions for rocket systems, it remains, to my mind, the responsibility of the British Government to speak privately but frankly. We need to pledge support for Ukraine for the long haul, rather than simply offering munitions that it is easy or convenient for us to give from our existing inventories.
On the sum of money that the UK should give next year, it is an interesting coincidence that we saw £2.3 billion of frozen assets from the sale of Abramovich’s Chelsea and that the UK Government are currently giving £2.3 billion to Ukraine in military assistance. In September last year the then Prime Minister, Elizabeth Truss, made an announcement about £2.3 billion being made available this year. That expires in April, so now that we are in September once again, it would be good to hear from the Minister what sum the MOD is seeking from the Prime Minister and whether the Ukrainians can depend on the same amount of money again.
May I also ask the Minister whether NATO members are contingency planning for the withdrawal of generous funding from any one of our members, so that Russia cannot wait this out? I agree wholeheartedly with Sir Bernard Jenkin that Russia could potentially be seeking to do that. We need to give Russia absolute certainty that it cannot simply wait this out, and that the partners and allies of Ukraine are in this for the long haul.
Finally, Luke Pollard dismissed the voices calling for an armistice and a negotiated settlement based on the current lines and the current occupation of territory. I would go further and suggest that the reason for not accepting such a settlement is that the vast majority of Ukrainians do not want it. As someone who believes in liberal democracy—as I believe we all do—I believe that it is only for Ukrainians to determine when the conflict is fit to be taken to the negotiating table.
Apologies for my absence earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker, and thank you for your understanding.
Like others here, I spent roughly a week in Ukraine last week, with two and a half days in Kharkiv, Kramatorsk and Konstiantynivka—which was also sadly bombed—followed by two days in Kyiv, along with the co-chair of the APPG, Alex Sobel, to understand the changes on the battlefield, to see what was happening in Ukrainian society and also to understand the Ukrainian way of fighting and how it is evolving, some of the Russian changes and whether there needs to be some tweaking to the support we provide—the training and other things that we can do.
I want to look first at the Ukrainian style of fighting. It is always a pleasure to listen to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Armed Forces and he will probably be interested in this because, as a former serviceman, he was used to the intense tactical battles in Helmand and Sangin, and we are seeing something similar in Ukraine. If a Ukrainian way of war is evolving, it is being formed around creative problem solving and around strongly empowering junior officers because they need to make decisions. There is a real mission command culture, which is radically different from Russia with its intense hierarchy that effectively slows operations down massively.
There is a volunteer culture and an openness about using external support—perhaps unlike the British Army at times, dare I say it—which makes up for the Ukrainian army’s size. The most obvious example of that external support and the volunteer experience is in the use of drones, which is well documented, with commercial drones now being engineered for military work as well. Other examples include patriotic businessmen raising regiments—I have had the pleasure of meeting a few—and the original use of commercial comms kit. When I was in an ops room near Kramatorsk, they were using gaming software to communicate with the frontline, their mortar positions and their drone positions. They had basically taken the commercial gaming software used by the shared gaming sites around the world and were using it in battle. There is very much an emphasis on what works.
There is also a focus, as I am sure the Armed Forces Minister will appreciate, on the tactical battle rather than on large-scale manoeuvres, which cannot be carried out because Ukraine does not have air superiority and its forces are faced with kilometres of mines in front of them. Perhaps most importantly, commanders are having to fight in a very economical style because there is not much kit. Long-range missiles are used sparingly. Even standard 155 shells are fired back at the rate of maybe one for every five or sometimes one for every eight. Russia is still using between 10,000 and 40,000 shells a day, and we really underestimate the scale of resource needed.
This is also about having to conduct assaults while minimising casualties, and it was remarkable how many of the military vehicles we drove past were medical vehicles. It was quite upsetting at times. Having to assault while minimising casualties means that the Ukrainian forces are not assaulting with a traditional 3:1 ratio. They are having to assault effectively while being mindful that the Russians can lose four people for every one the Ukrainians lose. If Putin were given the option of sacrificing another 500,000 Russian lives for 150,000 Ukrainian lives, he would take that, because that would effectively shatter Ukraine’s volunteer army. So there has to be an economical use of force.
The Russians are changing and learning. They are doing it slowly, but we should not delude ourselves that they are not doing it. I would that anyone who wants to know what is going on on a daily basis and to understand the tactics of the war reads the report by Jack Watling from RUSI and the one from the Institute for the Study of War. Jack has said:
“It is also important to recognise that Russian forces are fighting more competently and with reasonable tenacity in the defence”.
That is the critical point. The hon. Member for Leeds North West and I had a conversation with soldiers who they were saying that the Russians were fighting well enough. They were not dismissive of their enemy, because the Russians are dying in place. If they are retreating, it is a controlled retreat. They have a depth of defence that they did not have last September. This is a big argument against tactical or strategic pauses, or indeed negotiations, because every time the Ukrainians stop, the Russians will dig more lines. I see no evidence that a collapse like the one that happened last September in Kharkiv is going to happen again. I wish it would, but there is no evidence.
I spent about 24 hours with a unit called Tsunami, a volunteer unit out of Odesa with additional soldiers from the Luhansk area, which is right over in the east of the country. They are a lovely bunch of people and I am incredibly grateful to them for hosting us. I was in their ops room, 20 km or so from the front. It was a very professional ops room with lots of screens and drone screens, and we were watching a tactical battle as it was taking place in Bakhmut. They were using gaming software, as I said, to connect drone operators with small teams on the ground. In some places in these villages and streets where people are dying in large numbers, as has been happening over the last few months, the soldiers are 50 metres apart. Normally at a British shooting range, we start at 100 metres and go up to maybe 400 metres. On the Ukrainian training grounds, a mile or so out from the frontline, they are practising trench clearance and doing range shooting at 50 metres, because 50 metres is probably what they are going to be up against in and around Bakhmut and other areas of the frontline because those frontlines are so close together.
The command guys in the Tsunami unit had a lot of communication with the teams on the ground to walk their mortars into position. Their drones and the base were communicating using gaming software—there were lots of screens—to strike the Russian position with 120 mm mortars, reducing it to rubble. They were watching for the splash every couple of minutes, adjusting their aim until, unfortunately—well, fortunately, but sadly—they killed the Russian invaders. I take no pleasure in saying it, but huge numbers of Russians are dying, which is a tragedy for them on so many levels. The Russians fought until they were killed. The Ukrainians also took three prisoners that day, one of whom was carrying propaganda cards explaining why they were fighting. An argument is being put for why they are there.
During the 24 hours I was there with that one unit, there was one Ukrainian dead and seven injured. We sat down with the commanders and asked, “How much land have you taken, and what are your casualty rates?” We worked out that a man is dying every 80 metres or so. They are fighting and taking back their country, but every 80 metres, and certainly every 100 metres, on this section of the front a man is giving up his life for that small piece of ground, and that is not including the injured.
One of the improvements in Russian arms is the Lancet drone, which is now made in Russia. Some of us went to see the head of the National Security Council on Saturday afternoon, and it was explained to us that there are 490 bits of kit in that drone, 60 of which are still coming from the United States and the west. Sanctions leakage is still doing damage to the Ukrainian war effort, and it is killing people.
These guys are rotating out every 24 hours, and we went to see them in the house they had rotated out to. When the people we met the day before went back to the frontline, their soft-top vehicle was struck by a Lancet. One of them was killed, one lost his testicles and two others were injured. A price is being paid. There is no war weariness in Ukraine, but nor is there the early rush of adrenalin they had when the initial positions collapsed last September. There is a grim realism that this will potentially be a long war, and that tens of thousands more people will die. Even if we accept a quarter of a million Russian casualties, we have to accept that if Ukrainian casualties go above 50,000 it will have a phenomenal effect on that society.
On the military convoy train that we took back from Kramatorsk, I sat opposite a lovely guy called Volodymyr, who was going back to comfort his wife because his brother-in-law had been killed on the southern front the week before. We know that drones are critical, and the Russians are improving their drones.
I will finish with a few points about how we can maximise our positive influence. The Government are doing a phenomenal amount, on which I congratulate them. I have some mates who are involved in the training, and I was chatting with them the other day. They love training these Ukrainian soldiers, so this is not a complaint but a suggestion for how we can train them a little better. Ministers will know from their experience in Afghanistan that the OPTAGs—the operational training and advisory groups—went out into the theatre and continually tweaked our training. Every time there was a change in the Taliban’s tactics, it would come back very quickly to the training programmes that people attended. I wonder whether we can speed up our learning from the battlefield in the drills we are putting these guys through. I worry that five weeks is not enough, and I know the Armed Forces Minister would say that is what the Ukrainians want and that that is how much time they are giving us, but I wonder whether a week or two extra, with a few more significant exercises built into the programme, could help to keep more of these fantastic guys and girls alive.
Looking at that OPTAG experience, is there more we could do to get drones involved in the training exercises? This is effectively a tactical war of 120 mm mortars and drones, and sometimes big, fat, horrible artillery shells. The problem is that we do not have enough drones in the British Army, and we do not have the commercial drones that could help. If the Armed Forces Minister is minded to do so, I wonder whether we could see how we can speed up our learning from the Ukrainian frontline, in the same way that we did with OPTAG. There is also a question about whether we can further vary some of the special purpose courses we are doing for the special purpose units—I will not say where it is—at one of the bases that is hosting the Ukrainians.
There are a few little tweaks, but the head of the National Security Council also made a wider point to me about the desire for a strategic relationship with the UK. Having listened to the Armed Forces Minister, it is very difficult to argue that we do not have a fantastic strategic relationship, and I am mindful of the fantastic work this Government have done. Indeed, I pay tribute to Boris Johnson. I know he is not popular with some Members, including on the Opposition Front Bench, but he is phenomenally popular in Ukraine, where people still see him as the man who helped to make the difference. Whether the Opposition like it or not, the Ukrainians love us partly because they are very grateful for what Boris did. They want that depth of strategic relationship, and I wonder whether there is more we can do across the board. We have done huge amounts—lots of short-term stuff and some medium-term stuff—but they complain that not enough Ministers come out. They say that Tel Aviv gets bombed more often than Lviv. People can easily get insurance to go to Tel Aviv, but they cannot get insurance to go to Lviv. Is there more we can do on the insurance market? I know we are doing good stuff on the grain convoys, but we are not quite there yet.
The Ukrainians are talking about wanting a greater strategic relationship. They love this country, and they see us as their closest political and military ally, although they know they are getting more kit from the US. I just wonder whether we can formalise that depth of relationship for the benefit of both our nations, not only in the short term but in the medium and long term too.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I thank hon. and right hon. Members for their pertinent and appropriate contributions touching on all the important subjects. The key point coming out of the debate is our strength of purpose, as the Minister illustrated, in standing by Ukraine. Each and every Member has mentioned that.
I thank the Armed Forces Minister not only for his gallant service but for his clear commitment and for setting the scene so well today. Many of us thought that he would be called to higher office, which may still happen, but we are very pleased to see him in his place and to hear his contribution.
The UK Government have stood fast by Ukraine, and they have committed themselves to the military help that is needed. They have done so much, and they have never been found wanting. Over the last few weeks and months, I have been somewhat concerned about the apparent weakness of the Biden Administration, bearing in mind that their overarching interest may be not only in helping Ukraine but in reminding Russia that it cannot simply do as it pleases. Through our conversations and speeches today, we are encouraging our Government and the whole of the west to stand firm. There must be a clear message.
Like other Members, I care about the personal suffering of those men, women and children who are victims of Putin. They have lost loved ones, lost their homes, lost years of education, lost confidence and lost themselves. I care for those people who refused to cower before Putin’s demagoguery, and for all the Ukrainians who are defending their homeland, their way of life and, ultimately, their freedom. Their battle for freedom is our battle for freedom, too. The job we have to do is clear.
I have been reading a lot of commentary on the current situation in Ukraine, and I was struck by a comment in the Telegraph outlining the scenario if Ukraine cannot stay strong and bring Putin to the negotiating table:
“If anything like this scenario plays out, a humiliated West will need a robust damage-limitation strategy. This would involve building up Nato forces, which still has not yet been seriously approached on either side of the Atlantic. There is no indication, for example, that Germany is budgeting to reach the minimum Nato defence spend of 2 per cent of GDP, despite promises. The UK continues to make further cuts to its undersized army.
A second prong would be continued economic warfare against a weakened Russian economy, to emphasise the price for waging aggressive war and undermine Moscow’s ability to rearm.”
That is the view of the commentator in The Telegraph. I cannot disagree with the fact that more does need to be done and that the countries that are not stepping up need to do so to bring Putin to the negotiating table. Not enough is being done to step it all up.
Bob Seely referred to an incident where one Ukrainian was killed and seven were injured. The one good thing—if anything good comes out of war—is that, because the healthcare and response times have been so significant and helpful, many people who are injured do not die now, as they have would have perhaps in the past. The medical treatment is so significant that they live. The medical progress has empowered the emotional and post-traumatic stress disorder support that is given.
I am proud of our Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme and the fact that Ukrainians have been able to come over and be safe here, in my constituency and in others. But I also know that many of those I have spoken to want to have a safe place back home. Some who are here will probably stay; many others want to return home. They want their children to return and they want to work in Ukraine. They want to go home and rebuild, and they want us in this place to help them to do that. So the Government and the west have to be thanked for their clear commitment to rehousing and to rebuilding. I want to put on record my thanks to Willowbrook Foods and Mash Direct in my constituency, which have offered jobs and even accommodation to Ukrainians, and were among the first to make that available. The Ukrainians have integrated greatly into society in my constituency, and I am very pleased that the Government have made that happen.
We need to encourage fellow NATO countries to change what they do, to contribute more and to give the full commitment. Words have never impacted Putin, but action does. As a nation, and as a full member of NATO, we need to increase the military equipment. We need to act on behalf of not only the Ukrainian people, but the ideal of democracy and a free world. Russia is not the only superpower that watches us. The statement earlier today referred to China. The Chinese are very aware of the steps that have been in the news over the weekend. It is clear that the message that has been sent is not a deterrent—it could, should and must be.
As chair of the all-party group on international freedom of religion or belief, I wish to comment on the evidential base coming out of Ukraine that shows that the Russians have persecuted Christians and those of the Ukrainian Church. I am a member of the Baptist Church, and my church and the Baptist religious groups also support many missionaries out in Ukraine. We were aware early on in the battle for Ukraine that some pastors had disappeared from the eastern part of Ukraine. They have never been found, but no action has been taken to try to find out what happened to them. We suspect that they have been murdered simply because of their religious belief. I know that this is not the Minister’s remit, but I must put on record my concerns about those persecuted Christians and other ethnic groups in the east of Ukraine, where Russia has taken over and systematically, brutally and violently killed and displaced many, many people. We have seen attacks upon the faith, religion and churches in Ukraine, and the theft of historical and church artefacts. Again, I have great concern over where we are. Like others, I hope that the day will come when we can see the retribution and the accountability—something in the process that makes Russia accountable, financially, physically and emotionally, in every way possible.
So I ask the Minister to firmly outline how we are going to take even more decisive action, that words are not enough and that the actions that we take are the strong ways of doing things. The long-term security of the free world will rest on decisions taken not just by our Government, but by NATO as a whole and our allies. These decisions must be taken soon, before Putin and China decide to press on against what appears, in some eyes, to be a weakened west. We must stand strong for Ukraine and for the freedom, liberty and democracy it has, because the threat to it today is a threat to us tomorrow.
I thank colleagues across the House for their considered contributions to today’s debate. It is important that the House has the opportunity, soon after the summer recess, to debate Ukraine, and the egregious and illegal war against its people, For me, as for a number of Members here today, this debate is particularly timely. Like the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, Leo Docherty, I have just returned from Kyiv; I came back yesterday. I had meetings there with senior Ministers, officials, parliamentarians, members of civil society and aid workers, and I heard from many in the Ukrainian military. It was clear to me that, despite a profoundly challenging summer of Russian bombardment and the ongoing counter-offensive, the spirit of Ukraine continues to burn bright. The resilience and courage that we have seen endure throughout Russia’s years of aggression, which we must remember started in 2014 or even before, have never been more evident, from the individual citizen to the soldiers on the frontline.
During our visit, we had the privilege to meet many who had returned from the frontline. It is a pleasure to be opposite the Minister, who, as I said, was also in Kyiv—that is illustrative of the unity in this House and in this country and our resolute support for Ukraine against Russia’s aggression.
Of course, I draw attention to my current and future declarations in relation to the visit to the Yalta European strategy conference and other events. The title of that conference was “The Future is Being Decided in Ukraine” and it is clear that it is. This is not just about the future of Ukraine or of European security; it is fundamentally about the future of the world and whether we want to stand up for democracy, the rule of law, the international system and the principles that have guided us since 1945, or whether we succumb to autocracy and barbarism.
We have heard some excellent contributions today. It was a pleasure to hear from my hon. Friend Luke Pollard at the start, who clearly set out the military needs of Ukraine, which we must continue to deliver on with our allies.
We also heard important speeches from Jack Lopresti, who was there with me as well and who talked about the importance of the UK training and the industrial support we must continue to provide; from my hon. Friend Fleur Anderson, who spoke about the importance of medical aid; from my hon. Friend Ruth Jones, who talked about the support from UK citizens, which of course has been there from my constituents; from Vicky Ford, who spoke about the impact of veterans—we met many veterans in Kyiv—and the work of Blesma, which actually supported my grandfather, who served at Arnhem; from Bob Seely, who always gives hugely informed contributions and was a pleasure to travel with; and from the hon. Members for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon). However, I want to single out my hon. Friend Alex Sobel, not only for the comments he made about the importance of dealing with the delays facing small organisations providing aid, the issues relating to grain exports, the importance of getting those Black sea routes open, and the issues affecting children and schools, but for his bravery and resilience in travelling with a number of others, including people from across the UK, who are providing critical aid to communities that have been devastated by the Russian aggression. I thank him for all the work he did on that visit.
I took away three major reflections. The first is that Russia’s barbarism knows no bounds. I heard horrific stories about what happened in Mariupol—stories of torture and abuse. I heard of the horrors of what has happened to children, not just in the east of Ukraine, but in Crimea—I heard about the false narratives about Crimea and we met a special representative of the president for Crimea. I heard about the attacks on civilians, which occurred in the market while we were there, and about the daily impact on the lives of Ukrainians.
I was able to travel over to the left bank of Kyiv with an MP, Lesia Zaburanna, who has also visited my constituency to thank UK volunteers supporting Ukraine and meet Ukrainian refugees. We were able to go into some of the bomb shelters that Ukrainians have to spend so much time in under those aerial attacks and to see how children were able to carry on their education. Tragically, they were doing it in bunkers underneath their schools and they are having to do that multiple times in a week.
I also took away the continued strength and resilience of Ukrainians. The fighting is grinding, but there have been significant successes in the south and the east. Work is being done to support internally displaced persons within Ukraine in places such as Bakhmut and elsewhere, and Ukrainians who are already struggling are giving support to others who have been displaced in Ukraine. It is a whole-country effort.
Lastly, I took away the fact that our support is making a critical difference, whether we are talking about individual aid convoys, Government-to-Government support, which we in the official Opposition fully back, or the crucial diplomatic support that we are providing on so many levels to maintain the coalition. I underline Labour’s enduring support for the people of Ukraine and our unshakeable commitment to them and the wider NATO alliance, and to all those facing the consequences of the war. If a Labour Government were elected, there would be no change in providing the necessary economic, diplomatic and military support to Ukraine and in supporting Ukraine’s reconstruction.
I add Labour’s voice to the condemnation of the sham elections that took place on Friday in Russian-occupied Ukraine. We are in absolute agreement with the Council of Europe, which described the bogus votes as a
“flagrant violation of international law”.
We also condemn the perverse attempts at continued Russification in the occupied territories. That must be dealt with, as must—this has been spoken about a number of times—the illegal and utterly barbarous deportation of Ukrainian children and young people into Russia and the separation from their families.
I want to cover a few other issues in the remaining moments. In the diplomatic sphere, the NATO Vilnius summit rightly underscored the strength of our alliance’s support for Ukraine, but there is still much work to be done. As the Secretary-General said last month, Ukraine’s “rightful place” is in NATO. Does the Minister agree that once, with our support, Ukraine has prevailed in its war against Russia’s invasion, there can be no Minsk III and that Britain should play a leading role in securing Ukraine’s path to joining NATO?
We heard the concerns that the Leader of the Opposition raised with the Prime Minister about the G20 declaration. Will the Minister say more about that and why there was no specific mention of Russian aggression, which is plain for the world to see? Will he say what we are doing to support President Zelensky’s peace formula and how we are working diplomatically to support those aims, securing Ukraine’s future sovereignty and territorial integrity? As has been said, we do not want false negotiations when, frankly, this could quite easily be solved by Russian troops getting off Ukraine’s soil.
The crucial United Nations General Assembly meeting is coming up in New York. What plans do we have there to further support Ukraine in our diplomatic efforts across the world and through the United Nations?
On sanctions and Russian state-owned assets, the Minister will know that 75 days ago, we passed a motion in the House relating to the Government bringing forward a Bill to seize and repurpose Russian state-owned assets. It was supported across the House, and there are 15 days to go. Will he give us an update on when the Government will introduce legislation to seize, not just freeze, Russian state-owned assets and use them for Ukraine’s reconstruction? We have seen the progress being made in the US Congress and by other international partners, so when will we get on with it?
Significant concerns are being raised about the circumvention and enforcement of our sanctions regime. A lot of hard work has gone into our regime, but unless it actually delivers, a lot of papers and orders passed by the House will be meaningless. I raised specific concerns with the Minister’s colleague, the Minister of State, Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, Anne-Marie Trevelyan, who is responsible for the Asia-Pacific region, about growing evidence of the transport of Russian-origin crude oil being refined in third countries and exported onwards—skirting existing sanctions regulations—into countries that have sanctioned its direct import. I am sure that all Members would find the possibility of the importation of Russian-origin oil, irrespective of its constitution, deeply troubling and recognise that that runs counter to our efforts to undermine Putin’s war machine. Will the Minister tell the House whether oil originating from Russia and being refined elsewhere is reaching the UK or our allies? If so, in what quantities, and what will we do to close any such loophole? Similarly, we also need to close any loopholes that exist for steel and iron, which have been raised regularly with me, and dual-use items, which were rightly raised in relation to the components used for drones.
When are we going to get on and prosecute people for sanctions avoidance? I find it hard to believe, given that the Office of Foreign Assets Control in the US has managed to clamp down with a number of sanctions-busting measures for individual companies, that we do not seem to have done any of that in this country.
We continue to support a special tribunal for the crime of aggression. Will the Minister say more on that? We are a member of the core working group but our support appears to be tentative. When are we going to get on and move that forward?
The Ukraine reconstruction conference was an excellent event. I was pleased to be there—many of us attended—and I was delighted to be invited. There was a real sense of spirit in the room about what was going to be done. Will the Minister update us on what has been delivered since the conference?
Will the Minister say a bit about de-mining? That has been raised a number of times in this debate and it is crucial to the military operations and to economic reconstruction in Ukraine. It took us 38 years to get mines out of the Falklands; we have to be up to dealing with the scale, time and cost of the task.
Will the Minister also join me in welcoming the very clear messages that we heard from President Zelensky and others about reform and dealing with corruption, and so on, and making sure that there is zero tolerance of that in Ukraine? It was very pleasing to hear some of the comments that the President and others made. I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming them.
There is a huge amount more to be done in support of Ukraine. We must continue to stand with Ukraine in everything, in every aspect that it needs, until it is victorious over Russia in the defence of its territory. We must remember that this is not just about what happens to Ukrainians and to their country—as well as our aim being morally just, it is absolutely right for our national security—but about what happens in the world more generally. Russia must be defeated, Ukraine must win, and we must stand the course with it.
I am very grateful to right hon. and hon. Members for their thoughtful and useful contributions. Like many in the Chamber, I have just returned from Ukraine and the Yalta European strategy conference. While I was there, I saw at first hand the tragic impact of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion, and the ever-inspiring bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people. At the conference and in my meetings with the Deputy Foreign and Defence Ministers, I underlined the UK’s unwavering commitment and determination to help Ukraine win the war for as long as it takes.
As I said, I am grateful for the many contributions today. Luke Pollard spoke of the brutal warfare that has been inflicted on Ukraine, the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the heroism of Ukrainian forces. He spoke about the headwinds that exist for Putin and the fact that he has not achieved his strategic aims. The hon. Member also praised the UK’s Operation Interflex effort, to which we are entirely committed, and it was very welcome that he reiterated Labour’s continued support for the Government’s policy.
The hon. Member asked some good questions, including on frozen assets and when we might move from freezing to seizing. A considerable amount of institutional effort is going into looking at that and we will keep the House updated as we progress through that issue. He endorsed the Government’s approach to the Wagner Group. I assure him that we are acutely focused on its continued malign activities, whether in Belarus or beyond.
The hon. Member asked some good questions about UK stockpiles. MOD colleagues are working very hard across industry to ensure that we grow the capacity. A lot of that work is wrapped up in the Defence Command Paper. He made some good comments about drones and drone attacks. I confirm that we are working on that kind of technology as well, and we are helping Ukrainians to improve and expand their critical air defence. The hon. Member was not very clear on Labour’s endorsement of our plans for defence spending, but the House will make its mind up on the future importance of that.
My right hon. Friend Mr Ellwood gave a very useful speech outlining the geopolitical context and made an important reference to the experience from Prague in 1968, which informs how we see Russian malign activity. He spoke of the need for statecraft on behalf of the west and the fact that commitment is needed. I assure him—this was my message to our friends in Ukraine on Friday—that that commitment is unflagging.
My right hon. Friend spoke about Putin’s brutality and the crushing of the Wagner Group, and the fact that that is a sign of weakness. He asked some good questions, again, about when we might move to seizing frozen assets. We will keep the House updated as and when we develop our plans on that. He spoke usefully about the importance of Ukrainian grain exports. We are very much focused on that, given Russia’s totally unacceptable undermining of the Black sea grain initiative.
My right hon. Friend also made a plea for more money to go into defence expenditure, which is good because this Government have delivered a unique £24 billion increase in our defence budget. Colleagues across the House will be very grateful for that.
Martin Docherty-Hughes delivered a commendably and characteristically knowledgeable and wide-ranging speech. He spoke about the importance of lethal aid, but also about the reconstruction efforts that should happen concurrently. He posed the question whether the west can stay united and stay the course. Having heard the collective view of the House and having been to Ukraine last week, I think the answer to that question is yes. No matter the machinations of European politics, overwhelmingly the collective interests and the security of the west—including, of course, the US—are furthered by continuing to support our friends in Ukraine.
I am grateful for the reflections of my hon. Friend Jack Lopresti on his three visits to Ukraine, covering the ground in Irpin and giving us the striking image of a cemetery of burnt-out cars. I am also grateful for his reflections on his visit to see artillery—British-supplied artillery—in action, taking out important targets, and on the importance of the Yalta European Strategy summit and the need for continued UK resolve. The House will agree with his analysis.
We are all very grateful for the reflections of Alex Sobel on his remarkable and very long journey with the aid vehicle delivery, undertaken over the last two weeks. The way he spoke about the terrible destruction in civilian areas was very moving, as was his description of the grain industry destruction as ecocide. We agree with his analysis. He also spoke of the destruction in the Kherson region, the importance of air power and of our continued support for our Ukrainian allies and the urgency of the situation. I am sure we are all grateful for his remarks.
My right hon. Friend Vicky Ford gave an important and moving speech about the human costs of this tragic war. She reflected on the important work done by Blesma, which we entirely endorse. She asked a good question specifically about the assets from the sale of Chelsea football club. We continue to work on that. It is important to get the vehicle right to distribute those funds, and we will keep colleagues and the House updated as those plans develop. My right hon. Friend spoke from a background of considerable knowledge about Wagner’s malign activity across Africa and elsewhere. I assure her that we are institutionally watching this very closely and will take steps to counter such activity.
We are grateful for the reflections of Richard Foord, who made a very useful contribution, particularly bringing into view the necessity of continued NATO unity. We should never take that for granted, and we will always be at the front of the pack in making those arguments.
The House will have appreciated the detailed reflections of my hon. Friend Bob Seely on his recent long visit. They were most welcome. He spoke knowledgeably about the Ukrainian style of fighting and their economical approach, but also about the formidable depth of the Russian defence, which is a particularly important shaping context. He gave some unique insights into his time with the tsunami unit and spoke of their astonishing casualty rates, which showed us the heavy costs of this war. He made some useful comments about our efforts in Operation Interflex. I saw our right hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces nodding during that part of my hon. Friend’s speech, and I am sure that his comments will be taken on board.
My hon. Friend also made a good point about our long-term strategic relationship with Ukraine. That is exactly what I was discussing with Ukrainian Ministers on Friday in Kyiv. We are already in the middle of a deep and wide strategic relationship with Ukraine, but I am sure that we will formalise that as we move through the more dynamic stages of this conflict.
The House is, I am sure, grateful to Jim Shannon, for his characteristically useful and powerful speech. He spoke about the utility of lethal aid, but also about the importance of Russia’s accountability for its outrageous actions. I assure him that we are focused on that. In Kyiv last week, we continued our discussions on the right sort of vehicle to hold Russia to account, and we will keep the House updated as and when that process develops.
I am very grateful for the comments made by Stephen Doughty. It was fantastic to see him in Kyiv last week. He spoke correctly about the Ukrainian spirit burning brightly. That is exactly the impression I got, and I share his analysis. We continue to be grateful for the Opposition’s support for our policy. He spoke of Putin’s barbarism and asked a very good question about NATO accession. Following this conflict, the path toward NATO for Ukraine is of course clear, and we will be at the front of the pack in ensuring that that path is a smooth one.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about Zelensky’s peace formula. We will help Ukraine to win; that is the best step toward peace. We will keep the House updated on seizing frozen assets. He made some good observations about circumvention, and we are focused on countermeasures to that. He also spoke about a special tribunal. We have to get the legal vehicle right and make sure it is legally watertight. We are very focused on that with our Ukrainian friends, and we discussed that again in Kyiv on Friday.
The hon. Gentleman asked questions about the Ukraine recovery conference and de-mining. We are putting cash and institutional effort into de-mining efforts through the HALO Trust. We are also encouraging our Ukrainian friends to reform their state, to ensure that all the innovation and progress made during the conflict is sustained and benefits Ukraine in the long term. I discussed that with Ministers on Friday.
“Backed by our support, Ukraine’s counter-offensive is making hard-won progress. We will continue to stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes, until we see a ‘just and durable peace’ that respects its sovereignty and territorial integrity. That is the only possible outcome to Putin’s illegal war, and Ukraine, with our support, will prevail.”
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the situation in Ukraine.