Armed Forces — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:13 pm on 7th April 2014.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 8:13 pm, 7th April 2014

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Dannatt, on bringing this issue before the House. I agree with a very large amount of what he said, in particular that we need a longer debate on this. I wrote to the Chief Whip the other week, saying that we needed a debate on our relationship with Russia, because it is far more important than just Ukraine. The countries of eastern Europe and the Russians need to hear what we are saying here and in the House of Commons through their defence attachés and political advisers. It is very important that they hear that.

My own view, which I spelt out on 18 March in a debate on Ukraine, is that this is far more serious and long running than we are allowing ourselves to believe at the moment. What is implied in the Question before the House is whether we think the balance between our reserve and other forces is right and whether it meets the current needs of the day. I suppose the short answer to that is that it might, if we are very lucky. However, I do not think that we are going to be that lucky. The Government and both Houses have to look much more seriously at what is happening with defence at the moment and at our relationship with Russia. It is not just about Ukraine. What President Putin has done is to bring out the Russian nationalist card and, in doing that, he has given a great boost to morale in Russia. As I said on 18 March, I understand why Russia feels marginalised and undervalued. I understand all of that, and the disastrous history that it had throughout the 20th century, but the way it is being dealt with is profoundly serious.

Commentators tend to focus just on the issue of what Russia will do in Ukraine, but there are other questions here. It is about the Russian population in the other east European states. If they choose to say, “We want to have our voice heard, we will do what they are doing in Ukraine or did in Crimea”, it would not just be about a confrontation between NATO and Russia—serious though that would be—but about whether some of those states began to disintegrate, rather in the format of the former Yugoslavia but without the religious factors that were present there. You cannot underestimate that. If NATO is then required to undertake a policing operation, or something rather more than that, you would have to say that the balance between reserve and volunteer forces is probably wrong and that reducing the size of our Armed Forces at the moment is also wrong. I have no wish to return to the Cold War—and even less wish to talk about hot wars—but when you are in as uncertain a situation as this, reducing your defences is a mistake. We ought to be doing exactly what the United States and one or two other NATO countries are doing, which is building a military presence in some of those east European countries. The United States has a new air squadron in some of them and the Italians have deployed a ship off the Baltic states.

Can the Minister say in his response what we are doing? There needs to be a clear message that we have a military impact there and we want to make that known. At the same time we must have very serious discussions with the Russians about how we address some of their genuine and understandable concerns, and how we address the issue of minority Russian groups in those east European states. There are important arguments to be had there. They are not just about the military balance, but without the military balance bit you risk things getting out of control.

Often we look at Mr Putin and think that he is in some way a master planner of the old KGB variety. I am sure that he is of the old KGB variety, but I am not so sure that he is quite the master planner and certainly not sure that he is in control of events in the way that he likes to be. Once you release that Russian nationalist card there is no controlling it. That is why I say to the Minister that we need to think about the strategic defence review due next year. We need to start thinking about it right now. The debate on defence would be an important part of that. A deployment of some type of military forces in east Europe would be welcome. I would be in favour of some increase in military expenditure in order to meet the needs that we are facing.

This is not just about recreating a Cold War situation. It is about recognising that the present situation is far more serious and ongoing and that in such a situation you need to have preparation on the military side while developing a different diplomatic response from what we have had in the recent past.