EU and Russia (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:36 pm on 24th March 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Morgan of Ely Baroness Morgan of Ely Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Wales) 7:36 pm, 24th March 2015

My Lords, I thank the committee, and the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, in particular, for the excellent analysis in this report. I know it has been widely read and appreciated, not just in this House but across the whole continent, and I thank them for their work.

There have been some excellent contributions this afternoon; it has been great to listen to so many people who understand this part of the world. In particular I express my appreciation for the maiden speech of the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, which gave a particularly insightful view of the situation in the area, and which was a very good analysis of what is going on today. The most shocking fact I heard this afternoon was that the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, served in the FCO in Russia 50 years ago—so he must have been about 15 years old at the time.

At the outset I underline that the Labour Party stands as one with the Government as regards their response to events in Ukraine, although it should be underlined that we were disappointed that the UK was not more involved and engaged in drawing up the Minsk agreements. The report looks at how the situation was arrived at and at where we go from here. Whether the situation in the Crimea could have been averted is a moot point. It seems that very few analysts saw the annexation coming and that, to a large extent, events on the ground ran ahead of diplomatic and political control.

One issue highlighted in the report is the decline in Russian expertise in the FCO. It seems as if certain elements within the coalition Government seemed to have taken Fukuyama’s “end of history” to heart, believing in the triumph of western liberal democracy—a point that the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, emphasised. Perhaps they were lulled into a false sense of security by the release of Mikhail Khodorkovsky and Pussy Riot just before the Sochi Olympic Games began. How wrong could they have been? Politics and international political tension is on the increase rather than decreasing, as was predicted, and we need to ensure that we have an adequate diplomatic and political response to the changing situation, as regards not just Russia but further afield in the world.

The lack of Russian speakers in the FCO is underlined in the report, as the noble Baroness, Lady Coussins, emphasised. The report also suggests that there might have been some misreading of Russia which could have been avoided if more experts had been in place in the EU, who would have been able to flag up the fact that, among other things, Russia was becoming increasingly upset—and felt “humiliated” and “encircled” —by the rapprochement of Ukraine to the EU.

We have learnt that it was a grave mistake to take our eyes off Russia, and that we misunderstood the character of Putin. When it comes to Russia, we do not need generalists but experts who are there consistently and who have built up a rapport with Russian diplomats. It is worth noting that China has been far more successful in its relationship with Russia through careful handling of where Chinese and Russian interests overlap. Can the Minister inform the House whether there has been a beefing up of the Russian department at the FCO and if there are any Ukrainian speakers on the staff? I wondered also whether the Minister would be open to using and engaging with think tanks that have a degree of expertise on Russia to help with advising on Russian affairs.

Russia’s foreign policy must be interpreted frequently as a tool of domestic policy in a country which prides the “strong man” standing up for his country. Russia still contests that many of the states which surround it geographically are its own sphere of influence. The speed of the Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement, according to the report, took the Russians by surprise, and it is clear that Russia often conflated the EU with NATO. It saw the association agreement as a direct threat to its own ambitions to develop further its own trade partnership, the Eurasian Economic Union. It seems that, at EU level, there was very little or no effort to reassure Russia that the association agreement was not a zero-sum game whereby Ukraine would have to curtail trade with Russia. But none of this excuses the fact that, for the first time since 1945, an invading army has redrawn the borders of a country in Europe through force and, in the process, has broken a whole raft of international agreements to which we and the Russians have signed up. The united condemnation of Russia and the imposition of sanctions was absolutely the correct response, and it is essential that the EU remains united in its dealings with Russia. As the report suggests, we need to be willing if necessary to step up sanctions.

It is vital that the Minsk agreement is implemented in full. We were pleased to note that in the European Council last week a commitment was made to the effect that EU sanctions on Russia should be eased only in the event of the full implementation of that agreement, despite misgivings in some quarters, as alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Anderson. It is clear that the security dimension of the EU is becoming more and more important. This demands common action, resolve, and a clear commitment to our continuing place in the European Union, on which, of course, it is very difficult for this Government to deliver.

There is without question a vast array of corruption in Ukraine, which must be halted. Ukrainian Assistant Defence Minister Yury Biryukov estimated that 20% to 25% of the money allocated to the military budget is stolen. But as the report clearly states, Ukraine is in an extremely precarious situation economically and it would be in nobody’s interest to see the country implode. There is a humanitarian crisis, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said. It would be in nobody’s interest to see the country go backwards, so let us support Ukraine, but let us do it with our eyes wide open—with tough love, as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat.

So what will happen next? Russia is undoubtedly feeling the pain of the sanctions, but more prominently perhaps the collapse in the price of oil. That is already having a real impact on the economy of the country, but there is no reason to believe that Putin’s attitude will change. Putin likes to play by Putin’s rules and nobody else’s. He is, as we are aware, enjoying popularity ratings of 80% in the polls, due in no small part to his so-called victory in Crimea. His support on this issue comes even from Russians who might be seen traditionally on the liberal wing.

The trust between Russia and the West has gone. Even Putin himself has admitted since the publication of this report that it was he who initiated the annexation of Crimea for the Russians. Russia seems to be determined to goad the West and the UK in particular—for example, through honouring Lugovoi, the “alleged poisoner” of Litvinenko, during the recent hearing in London. There does not seem to be much point in playing Mr Nice Guy with Putin; he does not respond to that kind of treatment, and we must respond directly to provocative action from Russia. Beyond this, however, we need to understand that we must do everything possible to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia; we must learn to live with each other, because we live in the same neighbourhood—we have no other option. Therefore, we need to elaborate a better understanding of the concerns of Russia, but, I should underline, without acting as if we are apologists for or appeasers of Russian aggression. We need to simultaneously show strength when necessary—a strength understood by Putin—and stop talking past the Russians in conversation. We need to develop a clear strategy, together with the rest of the EU, towards Russia, as my noble friend Lord Soley said. We need to be clear that we have absolutely no idea of what would replace Putin if he were to go, so let us make sure that we do not jump out of the frying pan and into the fire. The collapse of Russia is in no one’s interests.

Finally, we were slightly disappointed by Britain’s failure to take a leading role in responding to the events unfolding in the Ukraine, despite being a signatory to the 1994 Budapest memorandum on security assurances. Is this a symptom of Britain moving away from its traditional leadership role in EU affairs?

This is certainly the last time that I shall be speaking during this parliamentary Session from the Front Bench, so I thank the committee for its work over the Session and the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, for her work on the Foreign Affairs team—and, in particular, for the much appreciated initiative of the regular briefings that she has held with the FCO.