Ukraine and Georgia

– in the House of Commons at 12:35 pm on 15 May 2024.

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Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health) 12:35, 15 May 2024

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Defence if he will make a statement on Russia’s aggression relating to Ukraine and the situation in Georgia.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

We are on day 811 of Putin’s so-called special military operation—an operation that was supposed to last for three days—and he has failed in all of his objectives. The conflict is, of course, evolving and challenging. Russia’s newly formed northern grouping of forces has attacked Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, taking control of several villages. By opening up an additional axis of attack, Russia is almost certainly attempting to divert Ukrainian resources away from other parts of the frontline and to threaten Kharkiv, the second largest city in Ukraine.

We will not be diverted from our commitment to providing Ukraine with the support that it needs to prevail—because Ukraine will prevail. In April, the Prime Minister announced our largest-ever and most comprehensive package of equipment from the United Kingdom, including equipment relating to long-range strike, air defence, artillery, reconnaissance, protected mobility, development of Ukraine’s navy, airfield enablement, and munitions to support the introduction of the F-16.

The Prime Minister has also announced £500 million of additional funding, which takes us to £3 billion of military aid to Ukraine this financial year. We continue to work with international allies and partners to ensure coherence, and to co-ordinate our support to Ukraine, including through the international capability coalitions; we co-lead the maritime and drone coalitions. We recently announced a complete package of £325 million for cutting-edge drones. That will deliver more than 10,000 drones for the Ukrainian armed forces.

In March, we were pleased to congratulate the first 10 Ukrainian pilots who completed their basic flying training in the United Kingdom. Those trainees join more than 65,000 Ukrainians who have received training in the UK since 2014, including more than 39,000 recruits trained since 2022 through Operation Interflex.

Turning to Georgia, we continue to observe with concern the events in Tbilisi, including yesterday’s violent clashes in and around the Georgian Parliament and the intimidation of peaceful protesters. The United Kingdom, along with our partners, is committed to the right of peaceful protest, and we are concerned about the introduction of the law on transparency of foreign influence. The UK is a close friend of Georgia, and as such, we call for calm and restraint on all sides. We hope to continue to work with Georgia, with which we have a deep and long-standing partnership, and to support the legitimate aspirations of the Georgian people, as they pursue a free, sovereign and democratic future.

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

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting a UQ on this important issue; it is much appreciated. I also thank the Minister for his helpful response, and all right hon. and hon. Members who have stayed in the Chamber.

We woke up to reports of Ukraine attempting to push back in the Kharkiv region, and then heard the Russian Defence Ministry claim that its air forces have destroyed 10 long-range missiles, known as ATACMS—army tactical missile systems—that Ukraine’s military launched at Crimea overnight. The media reporting may have settled down, but the situation there is as volatile as it has ever been, and the ripple effect across the entire region continues. Secretary Blinken from President Biden’s Administration is visiting Ukraine to give it physical and military assistance and encouragement. The Minister will know that Georgia is also pushing forward legislation, as Russia tries to restore its empire of old and control all its former satellite states.

The Russian threat is clearly undermining democratic processes in the entire region. I understand and agree with the UK’s clear public stance of support for Ukraine, and I congratulate the Government and the Minister on what has been done, and what will be done in future, but the situation demands further action. I am keen to get the Minister’s response on what that further action will be. Will he make clear what further, enhanced help we can give to facilitate the democratic process, aside from our vital military aid to the region? The war that began in 2022 is on the precipice. How can we ensure that the result is a victory for democracy and freedom—not simply for Ukraine but for Georgia, and for all of us globally?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for asking an extremely good and valid question that puts the issue of Ukraine in regional context—in the context of the influence that Russia has sought to exert over its former satellite states. He is right that the frontline in Ukraine is turbulent. A full picture is yet to emerge, but we can be certain of our continued resolve to ensure that our Ukrainian friends prevail; that is the unavoidable direction of travel. The ongoing visit of Secretary Blinken reminds us of the remarkable heft and scale of western support, in which we play our part very proudly. The resolute support of the friends of Ukraine will help it to prevail, despite turbulence and Russia’s attempts to create a new dynamic on a very turbulent frontline.

The hon. Gentleman asks cogent questions about Georgia. He is right that Georgia knows more than any other country about the depredations of a Russian invasion, following the horrifying events of 2008. We are clear that Georgia has the sovereign right to pursue its own autonomous path. If it seeks to turn its eyes to the west—towards NATO membership, and maybe membership of the European Union—it is the sovereign right of Georgia to forge its own destiny. We will continue to co-operate in earnest and sincere partnership with the Georgians, with whom we have a very meaningful defence relationship. I have had the pleasure of visiting Tbilisi twice as a Foreign Office Minister, and of seeing the tremendous institutional work that we do with the Georgians, who have a fine defence tradition.

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

Do the Government share my view that just as Soviet failure in Afghanistan led, to a considerable extent, towards the downfall of the Soviet empire, Putin’s failure in Ukraine could have a similar effect on his future and ambitions; and that it is no coincidence that this renewed Russian attack takes place before the aid that America has belatedly decided to give Ukraine has had a chance to arrive?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The answer is yes. One can see the extraordinary mobilisation of the Russian state and society, and the huge expenditure that Putin is having to incur to maintain momentum in his failed military operation, as confirmation of long-term weakness.

Photo of Luke Pollard Luke Pollard Shadow Minister (Defence)

I thank Jim Shannon for securing this urgent question. It is 811 days since Putin began the full-scale illegal invasion of Ukraine. Russia has opened a renewed offensive in the Kharkiv region, but Ukrainians are continuing to fight with huge courage. The UK is totally united in support of Ukraine. The shadow Defence Secretary and shadow Foreign Secretary were in Kyiv for the last two days, and reaffirmed that Labour’s commitment to Ukraine is ironclad.

If Putin wins, he will not stop at Ukraine. That is why the Government have had, and will continue to have, Labour’s fullest support for military aid to Ukraine and for reinforcing NATO’s allies across eastern Europe. Every commitment of UK military aid since Putin invaded has had Labour’s fullest support, and that will continue. With a general election later this year, there may be a change in Government, but there will be no change to Britain’s resolve in standing with Ukraine, confronting Russian aggression, and pursuing Putin for his war crimes.

On Georgia, we are deeply concerned by the increased pressure on civil society freedoms and by the intimidation of protesters. The proposed draft law is not in line with democratic values, and risks taking Georgia away from the Euro-Atlantic aspirations of the Georgian people. What discussions has the Minister had with the US, the EU and other regional partners on the latest developments in Georgia? Is the UK putting Georgia on the agenda for the G7 meeting in Italy and the upcoming European Political Community meeting? What steps is he taking with our allies to counter Russian disinformation and hybrid activities in Georgia and across the Caucasus, the western Balkans and the rest of Europe?

What support has been given to help Ukraine build up its air defences to stop air and drone strikes on critical infrastructure, especially in the Kharkiv region? How much of the money committed to the international fund for Ukraine has been spent and how much is left to be spent? The UK will stand with the Ukrainians for as long as it takes for them to win.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman pointed out the remarkable courage of our Ukrainian friends in their efforts to counter the new axis of advance in the Kharkiv region, and we sincerely welcome the continued cross-party support for Ukraine.

The hon. Gentleman expressed a concern, which we share, about the new law passed in Georgia. That is on the agenda of our discussions with allies; it is beyond my scope to comment on what might be on the agenda for the G7 or the EPC, but it is certainly an issue of concern that we discuss with trusted partners, and we have done so very frequently recently.

A huge amount of institutional effort from our side is going into countering disinformation across the entire region, as well as in the western Balkans and central Asia—the former so-called satellite states of Russia, which have a particular vulnerability to disinformation from the Kremlin. I will not go into detail about that effort, but it is a significant piece of work and will continue to be important.

The hon. Gentleman asked a good question about air defence. We have gifted thousands of units of air defence to Ukraine. There will surely be more to come. The uplift in financial support that we have announced will clearly be an issue for the Ukrainians through our gifting programme, and air defence will feature heavily in that.

Photo of Alicia Kearns Alicia Kearns Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories, Chair, Foreign Affairs Sub-Committee on the Overseas Territories

I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing this important urgent question.

The brutalisation of peaceful, ordinary Georgians and the hospitalisation of opposition leader David Katsarava are utterly shameful. Can the Minister assure us that he will protest directly to the Georgian Government and call in the ambassador regarding the abuses of the public that we are seeing on our screens daily?

On Ukraine, the fall of Avdiivka at the start of this year was the shameful result of allied inaction on getting Ukraine what it needed. That falls on us. We cannot now see the same take place in Kharkiv, which is under assault for the reasons set out already in this discussion. Can the Minister please assure us that sufficient ammunition is reaching the frontline now and update us on what we are doing to procure sufficient artillery shells? Ukraine, as ever, needs us to give it enough to win and not just to survive.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

We of course express our concerns about the direction of travel with regard to protest in Georgia. I know that the Foreign Office has made representations to the ambassador here and will continue to keep a watching brief on that issue.

My hon. Friend asks about Kharkiv. Of course, ammunition supply is a central component of our effort, both politically and in terms of what we are gifting and sourcing. We have given over 300,000 units of ammunition. However, we acknowledge that we must all, in the coalition of friendly western nations, mobilise to a far greater degree. That is why we think that initiatives coming from the Czech side and across all European and NATO partners are important. We must strain every sinew to ensure that the flow continues.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence)

Those of us on the SNP Benches join the cross-party support, and I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing the urgent question.

To follow the question from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee on what more we can do for Ukraine, does the Minister agree that now is the time for the UK to join other NATO allies in supporting the Czechia munitions programme, on top of what has already been provided?

On Georgia, the Government state that their aim is

“to advance Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic integration through…security cooperation and support for democratic reforms.”

Given the Dream party’s lurch away from democratic reform, how stable is that integration and security co-operation? Does the Minister agree that it is time for the people of Georgia to have their say on the Dream party’s agenda?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

We have not joined the Czech programme because it would replicate work that we are already doing, but we commend its activities and see it as part of a broader solution to mobilise effort to increase the flow of munitions, so it is welcome.

Clearly, the political future of Georgia is a question for Georgians themselves, but we note that there is a lively debate, which has of course spilled out on to the streets of Tbilisi, about the direction of travel. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the direction of travel—whether Euro-Atlantic or anything else—should be a function of the democratic expression of the people of Georgia.

Photo of Sarah Atherton Sarah Atherton Conservative, Wrexham

I applaud the number of personnel trained under Operation Interflex, but does the Minister support my call to extend that operation to train Ukrainian female defender volunteers?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Yes, of course. We will train whoever the Ukrainians send us.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Shadow Minister (Creative Industries and Digital)

I warned in 2014 that if we kept on feeding the crocodile, the danger was that we would be last on the menu. That is why it is so important that we get the next steps right over the next two years in making sure that Putin does not win in Ukraine. Two things still perplex me. First, why have we and our allies, as a united team, not dramatically ramped up the production of the artillery that Ukraine actually needs? Secondly, why have we yet to seize Russian state assets sitting in British and European banks to repurpose them for reparations to pay for the reconstruction of Ukraine?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

We are ramping up the production of artillery right across Europe and in states beyond Europe. That is a complex effort involving the military industrial base. Those steps are in place, and I am confident that we will see an increase in supply. The hon. Gentleman asks about state assets. Of course we want that to be the outcome, but the route must be legal.

Photo of Mark Francois Mark Francois Conservative, Rayleigh and Wickford

We in Britain, relative to the size of our Army, have given more military equipment to Ukraine than anyone. We have now given the Ukrainians all our heavy artillery to help them fight. Kharkiv cannot be allowed to fall. But let us be honest: all the kit that the Ukrainians needed to have won this war already—from F-16s to long-range missiles—has been sitting in American storage depots for two years. When will we get it through to the occupant of the White House that if he carries on dithering and the Russians take Kharkiv, not only do the Ukrainians lose, but he loses, too—literally?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

My right hon. Friend makes a pertinent and correct point. Of course, we led as hard as we could in the aftermath of the invasion, and we led the way with the critical provision of systems such as NLAW—the next generation light anti-tank weapon. Historians will reflect on whether the months following the invasion were an opportunity missed to give a decisive advantage to our Ukrainian friends, but our focus now is on ensuring that, in the round and overwhelmingly, the combined effect of the huge package from the United States, as well as ours and that of all friendly nations, can ensure that the Ukrainians maintain their defence and, ultimately, liberate their sovereign homeland.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

Some time ago, I asked the Prime Minister about our relationship with Turkey. We might have some issues with Turkey, but the fact remains that, as it is geographically next door to Georgia, its strategic position is crucial. Furthermore, Turkey has important links with many of the players in this deeply dangerous situation. What conversations is the Foreign Office having with Ankara about resolving this situation?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I think I can answer on behalf of my cross-departmental colleagues by saying that there are many conversations. We recognise the centrality of Turkey’s importance as a strong NATO ally and a nation with tremendous military confidence. It has also made a remarkable contribution to the defence of Ukraine’s sovereignty by the provision of the remarkable Bayraktar weapons system.

Photo of Mark Pritchard Mark Pritchard Conservative, The Wrekin

I welcome the fact that the Minister says that the UK Government want to continue working with Georgia—that is quite right—but is he aware that Jim O’Brien, the senior US State Department official, said yesterday that the relationship between the US and Georgia could be at risk and reviewed, and that financial and travel restrictions could be imposed? Is it not the case that all that could be avoided if the Georgian Government dropped the foreign agents law, or at least amended it significantly?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

My right hon. Friend, who speaks with authority, is right in his analysis. Of course we note the US view, and we have expressed our concerns. We will continue to use our strong relationship with the Georgians to ensure that they amend, for their own interest, their behaviour.

Photo of Alex Sobel Alex Sobel Labour/Co-operative, Leeds North West

Leeds’ sister city is Kharkiv. The people of Leeds are gravely concerned that the invasion of Kharkiv is imminent. Colleagues have already asked about artillery shells, which are in short supply, but even bullets are in short supply. What is the UK doing to supply the Ukrainian defence of Kharkiv with bullets? Are we upscaling humanitarian aid to Kharkiv and utilising it for the evacuation of civilians who want to leave? Will the UK Government supply additional visas for Kharkivians who want to come to the UK? The people of Leeds are ready to welcome them into their homes.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question—I now realise Leeds is the sister city of Kharkiv, which is interesting. We are putting more money than ever before into lethal aid support for Ukraine—an additional £500 million will take our support this year to £3 billion, and a lot of that will go on munitions—but humanitarian aid is also significant and is an important part of the picture.

Photo of Mike Penning Mike Penning Conservative, Hemel Hempstead

Like any bully, Russia will advance if it feels that the west is not supporting Ukraine. The Russians have seen that we in the west have not been supporting Ukraine enough because of the lack of ammunition going in. For any soldier, the supply of ammunition is—as the Minister is fully aware—crucial to confidence and morale. Can we give the biggest possible push to ensure that what the Americans have said is going to the frontline reaches it? I saw this morning that they said that some ammunition has already arrived. Has it already arrived, and what is the timetable for the rest? This is completely unfair on the armed forces out there.

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

My right hon. Friend’s analogy of Russia as a bully is absolutely correct. We are focused on increasing ammunition supplies. My judgment is that the $61 billion package from the US, combined with our additional support, will result in a tangible improvement in the operational situation on the frontline.

Photo of Jason McCartney Jason McCartney Conservative, Colne Valley

As we know, Georgia, alongside Ukraine, aspires to join NATO. Does the Minister agree, therefore, that it is important that Georgia respects peaceful protest? On Ukraine, with the Russians closing in on being within artillery range of Kharkiv, what military support can we deliver now to prevent Russia from being able to bombard that city, which would be catastrophic for the civilian population?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I agree with my hon. Friend’s analysis of Georgia’s NATO aspirations—that is clear. The support we can give now is to continue our remarkable supply of lethal aid, particularly with regard to air defence.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Labour, Exeter

What Putin is doing in Georgia now is exactly the same thing that he tried to do in Ukraine 10 years ago, yet unlike the American Government, the British Government do not seem to be thinking of any recalibration at all with the current Georgian regime, which is beating up its own citizens in the streets of Tbilisi. Why has the Georgian ambassador in London not at least been summoned? What action, rather than just words, has been taken to make our views completely clear to the current Georgian Government that their behaviour and this legislation is unacceptable?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

In truth, those are questions for my colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but our analysis is that the strong relationship we have with the Georgians in the defence sector is an important means of ensuring that their direction of travel is a positive one.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

There is growing concern across central and northern Europe about Georgia. Will the Minister have conversations with colleagues in government to ensure that the commitment to NATO of our partners across Europe is increased, to prepare for the undoubted expansionism that Putin is currently engaged in and that he will probably step up in the coming months?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

The answer is yes, Mr Speaker. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will have observed, as I have, that the consequence of Putin’s effort to demonstrate NATO’s weakness has been exactly the opposite: NATO is now larger and stronger than it was before February 2022. We will lead the way in ensuring that all members meet the investment required to be a member of that tremendous defensive alliance.

Photo of Rehman Chishti Rehman Chishti Conservative, Gillingham and Rainham

I congratulate Jim Shannon on securing this urgent question. The United Kingdom has led the world in supporting Ukraine militarily, economically, diplomatically and politically, and as a former Minister with responsibility for sanctions, I saw the real impact that the United Kingdom could have with its partners in working together on this issue. There is, however, a real loophole within the international strategy to cut off Putin’s finances: the United Nations peacekeeping force, of which we are a member, currently procures its military helicopters from Russia, so that money goes back into Putin’s pockets. Were the Minister or the Government aware of that fact, and now that they are, will the Government raise it at the G7 to urgently ensure we cut off Putin’s finances?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that point, and will ensure that my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for sanctions, takes it into account.

Photo of Lilian Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport)

We are united in our determination to support Ukraine as it seeks to defeat Putin. Labour welcomed the creation of a new UK-Latvian drone capability coalition earlier this year and the UK’s commitment to spend £200 million on drones for Ukraine. Can the Minister confirm when the first drones under that initiative will be delivered to Ukrainian forces?

Photo of Jonathan Djanogly Jonathan Djanogly Conservative, Huntingdon

As chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia, I have watched the demonstrations in Tbilisi with no little concern. Although I have noticed no new movement of Georgia towards Russia, as some have been suggesting—whether culturally, economically or militarily—it would appear that the current Georgian Dream Government are becoming more ready to use the apparatus of the state to suppress political dissent, free speech and the media, sometimes with violence. Will my hon. Friend impress on his Georgian counterpart, as an ally and a friend, that this is not how democratic countries behave if they wish to join western institutions and participate as a free democratic values country?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

My hon. Friend is correct: Georgia must live up to the standard required if it is to be sincere about its democratic aspirations, and we do make that point to our friends in Georgia.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

We are all rightly proud of the skills of our armed forces personnel and the training that they are providing for Ukrainians through Operation Interflex, but I understand that that programme is only designated up until this summer. Can the Minister confirm that it will continue for as long as it is needed?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

Wholeheartedly, Mr Speaker. Our commitment to training our Ukrainian allies is enduring, and of course, we will always respond to the type and form of training that they themselves require.

Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Science, Research and Innovation)

Events in the United States, and the understandable focus on the conflict in Gaza and the unacceptable loss of life there, have led some to argue that our support for Ukraine is wavering. Can the Minister seek to put a stop to that deliberate disinformation by setting out that our support for Ukraine is absolute; that we stand in solidarity with the Ukrainians in their fight against Putin’s illegal aggression; and that in some respects they are battling on our behalf, because as we see, Putin’s aggression will not stop with Ukraine? Given that, will the Minister also set out how we will ensure that the ammunition that is so desperately needed gets to the frontline as quickly as possible?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

I welcome the hon. Lady’s question. By any measure, our commitment to Ukraine is significant and unwavering—that was recently expressed by the increase in our annual support from £2.5 billion of lethal aid to £3 billion, and by the 100-year defensive alliance that the Prime Minister signed with President Zelensky on his recent visit to Kyiv.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Education), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Transport), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Transport)

I thank my colleague and hon. Friend Jim Shannon for securing this urgent question. What help and support are we as a nation giving to those countries in eastern Europe, such as Estonia, that feel under threat from the potential threat of Putin wanting to expand back into what was formerly Russian territory?

Photo of Leo Docherty Leo Docherty Minister of State (Ministry of Defence) (Minister for the Armed Forces)

That is a very good question. The support we are giving is welcoming those countries as brother and sister countries into the defensive NATO alliance. In our case, we are very proud to have our enhanced forward presence battle group in Tallin and Estonia. Any Members who have visited that battle group, as I have, know that there is a tremendous esprit de corps generated by the tremendous joint defensive work carried out by our British soldiers alongside their Estonian allies.