Russia: Baltic States - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:29 pm on 2nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 3:29 pm, 2nd November 2016

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Russia’s current strategic objectives in the Baltic states.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, Russia’s activity around the territory of our allies, including the Baltic states, is designed to test the responses of NATO members. As set out in the 2015 strategic defence and security review, Russia’s behaviour will remain hard to predict. Though highly unlikely, there is the possibility that it may feel tempted to act aggressively against NATO allies. Our response, with NATO and EU partners, includes promoting access to independent Russian language media, enhanced forward presence and air policing.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

I commend Her Majesty’s Government’s robust response through NATO, although we should all be rather concerned about seeming paralysis in the United States because of the presidential election. Those of us who are old enough to remember the Cold War will view the actions of Russia with very real concern, be it the 2008 invasion of Georgia, the Crimean annexation, the intervention in Ukraine, leading to the downing of an aircraft by Russian missiles, the bombing of Syria and Aleppo and, of course, not one mile from here on the streets of London, the murder of Alexander Litvinenko. Given the increasingly aggressive posturing of Russia in the Baltic, does the Minister think we should perhaps revisit last year’s SDSR? Perhaps our response, to which he referred, should be to look to increase defence spending, not just in the United Kingdom but particularly across the rest of NATO.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, my noble friend has made some very important points and he is right. The UK is leading the way in defence expenditure. We have committed to the NATO 2% target and, during this Parliament, a 0.5% real-terms increase in the defence budget. However, he is right that spending across the alliance is still too low. Having said that, the alliance is making good progress. There are now five allies spending 2% of GDP on defence, an increase from three before the pledge. Twenty allies have increased defence spending in real terms and eight have put plans in place to work towards reaching the 2% guideline for defence spending, which demonstrates a clear political will. The issue now is to translate the political will into actions.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, Russia is actually running a wartime economy. It has the GDP of Italy. Putin is replacing all his strategic triad of nuclear weapons; he is spending an immense amount on arms. He is a revisionist; he believes in spheres of influence. He has espoused the unbelievable policy that he calls “de-escalation”—in other words, if fighting starts you use a tactical nuclear weapon to de-escalate—which I find quite extraordinary. Does the Minister not believe that in this very dangerous period, we must open every channel we can of dialogue with Russia? We must try to have means of access to Russia in order to talk about these issues and have some dialogue about reducing tension and the escalation that is happening right now.

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord makes some very telling points. There is a balance here. He is right that it is important that we continue to engage with Russia, to avoid misunderstandings, to make clear where we disagree, to push for change where we disagree, but to co-operate where it is the UK’s national interest. We are committed to building stronger links—in particular, between the British and the Russian people. People-to-people exchanges will therefore remain important. Cultural and scientific exchanges are in our long- term interests, so we have to keep that balance as it should be.

Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru

My Lords, might Russia’s strategy be to use economic and ethnic issues to make the Baltic states appear unstable, so that they seem less attractive to the internal Russian Federation population which otherwise might see the Baltic states as a better model than that currently offered by Russia? Therefore, is it not in our interest to do everything we can to help the Baltic states in any economic challenges they have?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord is absolutely right. It is why we are standing by the Baltic states in a number of areas, not least in the sphere of defence. The noble Lord will know that the UK is leading on the enhanced forward presence that we are placing, as from next year, in Estonia, alongside the French and the Danes, to send a very clear message to Russia that it must not exceed its supposed sphere of influence.

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (International Development)

My Lords, the key thing that most people are concerned about is that, as the Minister rightly said, Britain has led the way in Europe on the common security and defence policy and in ensuring that Russia was clearly told what its actions would lead to. What assessment have the Government made of our relationship with Russia in the light of Brexit? What impact will that have on our security?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

My Lords, the UK’s decision to leave the EU has not changed our position on Russia. We will continue to protect the UK’s interests and those of our allies and partners. We will continue to engage with Russia in key areas of shared interest to promote our values—including the rule of law, human rights, and so on—and to build stronger links between the British and Russian peoples, as I have said. NATO will remain the bedrock of our security.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat

My Lords, cyberattacks of one sort or another have been a frequent way of trying to destabilise the Baltic states. Can the Minister say how closely we are working with the Baltic states in coping with this form of hybrid warfare?

Photo of Earl Howe Earl Howe The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, Deputy Leader of the House of Lords

The noble Lord is right. We are developing a better understanding of the tools and levers that Russia may seek to use. We know more now about how Russia plans, conducts and controls hybrid activity, including the use of cyber. Russia is modifying its approach. We are trying to stay a step ahead. To that end, we are pursuing a coherent approach. We have a long history of effective co-operation and co-ordination with our allies. As the noble Lord will know, we have created the National Cyber Security Centre, and we work closely with our allies in this field.