My Lords, with the leave of the House, the noble Earl, Lord Cork, has kindly agreed to finish up if the ails of the season intervene during my remarks.
At a time of escalating rhetoric, some of it ill-informed, misinformation and polarisation, relations with Russia must command our attention. The perspective of the United Kingdom, and that of the West more generally, in addition to that of Russia require consideration. Time constraints do not permit me other than to commend to the Minister to take note of Russia’s enhanced relations with China and Turkey, nor will I comment on the internal affairs of Russia given the proximity of the upcoming presidential election.
The UK’s current disagreements include: Russia’s actions in sovereign countries—Ukraine, with eastern Ukraine and Crimea, and Syria; serious contentions of election interference and the cyber sphere; and the death of Mr Litvinenko. The UK therefore supports the strict EU and US sanctions regimes. We have a long-held view also that attempts to undermine a rules-based order—universal human rights, rule of law and democracy—are unacceptable and must be challenged.
The visit to Moscow by the Foreign Secretary in December might suggest a degree of bilateral progress, despite differing views. The bilateral relationship hitherto remained deadlocked, with co-operation and dialogue held hostage, all official contact blocked, zero intelligence co-operation and the intergovernmental steering committee on trade and investment on hold since 2014, with inevitable consequences. This is not helpful in these turbulent times.
As things stand, with our current policies and approach, Moscow is dismissive of the UK. It insists on respect and to be engaged with as a player on the world stage. Russia views the current international order as detrimental to its interests. Western concern is that Russia could up-end the existing balance of the world if allowed to act in an unfettered manner, free of constraints.
Russia believes it would be better served by a system of spheres of influence, in which major powers are pre-eminent in their respective regions. This pre-eminence would be determined by those able to be responsible for their foreign policy—the US, China and Russia—with each to have an equal say on matters of importance and with the Security Council being the venue for managing world affairs.
Russia perceives itself as disadvantaged by the current security order in Europe and is strongly opposed to continued NATO expansion, which it sees as a threat. Not consequentially, Moscow has made modernising its nuclear arsenal central to its strategy.
Russia was of the view that US diplomacy in Syria was marginalising its interests and took an opportunity to step in with military intervention when it perceived western democracy was failing. It appears satisfied that its regional geopolitics has been enhanced. Nevertheless, it remains concerned with the security situation in the Middle East region, particularly with its border areas currently destabilised by returning extremist jihadists.
A commitment to early negotiations between Ukraine and Russia would be a useful development, with continuing support for the Normandy peace process. Beyond that, a more proactive role and trust for the OSCE by Russia would be viewed positively, while commitment and reconsideration of financial contributions to the Council of Europe and a resolution to the impasse regarding the presentation of credentials to the Parliamentary Assembly would be welcomed.
Current economic sanctions are designed to both punish Russia for aggressive actions and deter it from future coercion. It considers that the US sanctions law means that resolution of the Ukraine crisis will not result in the lifting of US sanctions and therefore questions whether the EU will lift sanctions if the US does not. There are indicators of future dilution of the EU sanctions regime, possibly led by Germany when it confronts its national priority to secure gas. This is in addition to recent reported violations of sanctions in the Far East.
The current level of co-operation on cybersecurity is reflective of the overall relationship, and mechanisms are urgently required to define the rules of the game. There appears to be broad western consensus of comprehensive orchestrated interference. One challenge is that the West and the Russians have very different views as to what constitutes hacking. There is potential, nevertheless, for all sides to work together to combat cybercrime and the use of the internet by terrorists. I have called on HMG to consider taking a lead internationally by devising and promoting a new global treaty to nail this issue. A mutual cyber non-interference pact would be helpful. I understand that Russia would welcome the opportunity to participate.
As things stand, with current policies and approaches, we in the UK would be deluding ourselves if we believed that we are a priority for Russia. However, the UK now has a real opportunity globally, in a new-look UK post Brexit, to play to our strengths; to carve out a valuable future acting as an honest broker on the world stage. We are respected the world over for our natural sense of fairness and world-class diplomacy. The world’s problems, including climate change, global terrorism, the rising gap between the rich and the poor and cybersecurity all need co-operation between the world’s players, which should include the UK and Russia. We should focus more on areas of common interest, and not just on what divides us. There is scope for a summit meeting to define these areas. A new era of mutual respect would serve both sides well.
So what might lie ahead for UK-Russia relations? Engagement is naturally preferable, although conundrums exist over the present UK official mindset. HMG could become more positive, bold and innovative and might wish to develop a more constructive, clearly defined engagement by advancing along four tracks: track 1 would be Government to Government; track 2 would be security co-operation and military dialogue; track 3 would be trade, scientific research, climate change, health, the international drugs problem, culture, sports and the all-important civil society co-operation including educational exchanges; and track 4 would be parliamentary interaction.
Economic co-operation can reshape the course of any relationship. I am reminded of the recent MOU and road map between Russia’s Ministry of Economic Development and France’s Ministry for the Economy and Finance on innovative clusters development, with Germany having more than 10 times the number of active joint ventures or entities registered with or in Russia that we do. Engaging with the Patriarch and the Russian Orthodox Church and co-operation in the Arctic would be equally useful. The strength of a relationship is determined by how broad it is, and by it not being an exclusive preserve of government.
I draw towards a conclusion. Noble Lords might possibly have read the lead article in Friday’s Daily Telegraph with the strap-line:
“Russia is ready to kill us by the thousands”.
I feel compelled to comment briefly in light of this evening’s debate. While I certainly do not advocate that the UK throws caution to the winds, the suggestion of impending apocalypse is excessive. The Russian ambassador has reacted vehemently to the article on his embassy’s website. If, however, the Defence Secretary’s assertion was indeed correct, we have to ask ourselves why. It could be the result of a bilateral relationship that has been in the freezer for many a year. In that case, what is going to be done about it?
Much could be gained by conducting patient and persistent diplomacy; a broad bilateral engagement and an atmosphere of good relations would be a preferable route. HMG might wish to recall Henry Kissinger’s advice,
“to be wary of those who encourage anti-Russian sentiment when it is not in the long-term strategic interests of the West”.
It might serve us well also not to forget that Russia, as the Soviet Union, came to our aid in the Great Patriotic War, known to us as the Second World War. Their losses were immense. Without them, we would not be here today. I have in my library Memoirs of a Soviet Ambassador 1939-1943. One of Ivan Maisky’s observations was that his recollection of official meetings he attended in London differed from the official records of the day. Therein might lie a clue to the United Kingdom’s engagement with Russia: bridge that gap and build the trust vital to underpin a productive future relationship. I look forward to a robust debate on these issues.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for promoting this debate and for the constructive tone of his remarks. I shall make a few quick observations in the limited time allowed. First, it is often forgotten that although Russia has a huge land mass and many talented people, in global terms it has a dwarf economy: half the size of Italy’s, less than half the size of ours, one-ninth the size of China’s and fourteen times smaller than that of the USA. The amazing thing is how such a shrunken economy, so poorly run, manages to have such an impact on the world.
For example, Washington nowadays seems in a permanent frenzy about Russia. There is talk of a new cold war. As we have heard, Russia is conducting a vicious war in Syria, although to what end is not at all clear. It has caused mayhem in Ukraine, grabbed back Crimea, as well as chunks of Georgia, is busy doing its best to destabilise central Europe and the Balkans, developing new forms of hybrid and deceptive maskarova warfare, has forced the whole of NATO on to the alert, threatened our subsea energy links and, of course, allowed, and maybe even encouraged, a sort of botnet wild west of cyberhacking and false and fake news, through a maze of criminal syndicates, and possibly official sources as well. Russia spends about the same as the United Kingdom on defence but seems to get a lot more for the money.
Putin mark 2 in his second presidency will not, of course, last for ever, even with arranged elections, and the oil and gas revenues on which he floats will steadily drain away, like the Aral Sea, and leave a lot of Russia high and dry, regardless of any temporary OPEC deals with the Saudis. Gas sales to western Europe will fall, and so will oil and gas prices as American shale exports compete and renewables replace hydrocarbons. The danger for a weakened Russia in the longer run, as the future Eurasia emerges, is that having lost the chance to modernise back at the time of the end of the Soviet Union, it could now be bypassed while China and Europe link up. It should be careful not to become the “black hole” between Europe and China that Zbig Brzezinski called it. But in the meantime, let it be clear that despite all the talk of current bad relations, the British people feel a real warmth for the Russian people, for their heroism and their endurance. The country is rottenly led but its people are our friends. We should always make that distinction clear. However, I am afraid that is not the view of the Russian leadership at the moment, so what should be our approach?
First, it is not just a question of firm NATO military postures on the ground. Nowadays the battle is just as much via non-military means, in the narrative as on the physical front line. We are much better placed than during the Cold War. There is no coherent ideology uniting the Russians, as in communist times. Secondly the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, is right that we have to trade with Russia as much as possible. Trade and commerce are great pipelines of truth and awareness. The opening northern Arctic route should help here greatly.
Thirdly, we have to strengthen our already good cultural relations through all possible channels. Russian scholars and Russian students should be welcome here, suitably checked of course, and we have to continue with, and increase, our excellent space co-operation with Russia. Fourthly, we have to show zero tolerance for Russian criminality, wherever it occurs, including, of course, in London, as the TV show “McMafia” has shown us so vividly. Fifthly, we have to use every device of soft power and information power which the digital age allows, as the Russians themselves do, to counter Russian weaponising and twisting of information, as the Prime Minister reminded us the other day. Sixthly, we have to keep pressing all the time for Russia’s full adherence, as a nuclear power, to the disarmament treaties and processes. Seventhly, we have to focus sanctions on identified miscreants, fraudsters and rogues, such as the murderers of the lawyer, Magnitsky—I declare a former interest as an adviser to the great Bill Browder—but we should not go overboard on general sanctions, which never work well, halt trade and often have the opposite effects.
Our policies need to get smarter. We have to change the way we think about today’s world and its connections. We have to look beyond Putin to a new kind of international networking, as much non-governmental as official. I believe that is the right approach for this medium-sized, but awkward and persistent disrupter of efforts to establish a more stable world order. The Russian genius is not dead, but it is time it woke up to a transformed world.
My Lords, first, I draw attention to my entry in the register of interests, particularly my work with the Nuclear Threat Initiative. I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Howell. I agree with much of what he said and join him in congratulating the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on securing and introducing in such a balanced way this overdue debate on such a polarising issue.
For my part, I shall concentrate on strategic security. Since the historic events of the 1990s changed Europe for ever, efforts to build mutual security in the Euro-Atlantic region have lacked urgency. For a decade or more, trust and confidence have deteriorated, as has the security environment. In the absence of new initiatives by all parties, including the United Kingdom, things are only likely to get worse in the short term. If, in the words of the Foreign Secretary, we want to work together with Russia to achieve a better future, the first step in acting to advance our common interests is to identify concrete, practical, near-term initiatives designed to reduce risks, rebuild trust and improve today’s Euro-Atlantic security prospect.
For about 10 years, I have devoted significant energy to keeping lines of communication open between the West and Russia. NATO countries and Russia possess about 95% of global nuclear inventories, with many weapons minutes from use. My motivation is that current NATO-Russia relations help create an environment where miscalculation, accident, mistake, or catastrophic terrorism are the most likely catalysts for nuclear use. With little communication or co-operation between NATO and Russian military leaders, issues around decision time and the command and control of nuclear forces, particularly, are most acute. Magnifying the risks of a nuclear mistake is the emergence of cyberthreats to strategic warning systems and command and control. Increasingly, experts are warning of the threat of a cyberattack on our strategic weapons systems.
I commend to the House two excellent studies over a period of four years by the US Department of Defense, Defense Science Board. In the first it says in terms that,
“the cyber threat is serious and that the United States cannot be confident that our critical … (IT) systems will work under attack from a sophisticated and well-resourced opponent utilizing cyber capabilities”.
In the second, the authors recommend that the highest priority is to protect a select limited set of nuclear and other strike capabilities: a specially protected subset, as it were, to ensure survivability. The implication is that because of the cyberthreat they cannot be sure that their deterrent and command and control systems will work as designed. The significance of this for strategic stability is grave. If the US cannot assure its leaders of this, we—the United Kingdom—cannot be certain that we are immune to this risk either.
In these difficult circumstances, dialogue is essential and it is possible. For the last 10 years, I, Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, former Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and former Senator Sam Nunn and, increasingly, a wider group—a mix of senior government officials and experts from the US, Canada, Russia and 15 European nations— have been advocating urgent co-operative action between the West and Russia on areas of existential common interest. Our arguments have developed and are now concentrated on a few urgent matters. They are set out in public reports and documents and go as follows. As we did during the darkest days of the Cold War, Americans, Europeans and Russians must work together to avoid catastrophe, including by preventing terrorist attacks and reducing the risks of a military, or even nuclear, conflict. The carefully considered view of a wide range of senior political, diplomatic and military figures across the whole region is that this should include reducing the risk of nuclear use; increasing, not suspending, military-to-military communications; increasing transparency in the air to avoid military activity in the NATO-Russia shared area presenting an unacceptable risk to civilian air traffic; reducing the threat of insecure nuclear and radiological materials; and recognising that we have crossed over to a new nuclear era in which cyber capabilities transform the nuclear risks, engaging in urgent discussions for reaching at least informal understandings on cyber dangers related to nuclear facilities, strategic warning systems and nuclear command and control.
There are many important issues facing Europe, America and Russia today, but identifying a new policy frame—existential common interests—that can stop the downward spiral in relations is vital and the near-term, practical steps identified here are the only place to start.
My Lords, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on securing this timely debate.
I will focus on the ongoing crisis in Syria and seek assurance from the Minister that the United Kingdom will work with Russia to promote peace and progress. As the military war abates, political conflicts will undoubtedly escalate. I will highlight Russia’s role in freeing Syria from Islamist terrorism, promoting reconciliation and building foundations for democracy. I will also briefly refer to apparent attempts to discredit Russia, including allegations of the use of chemical weapons.
Russia has assisted the Syrian army to liberate Syria from Islamist terrorists by, inter alia, protecting Damascus from ISIS attack in 2015; liberating hundreds of square kilometres of ISIS-occupied territory, including Deir ez-Zor and Palmyra; and disrupting ISIS oil trade and supply routes. Russia has also helped to establish four de-escalation zones and facilitated over 1,000 local truces, bringing peace to hundreds of towns and villages. In Damascus, I have twice met the Minister for Reconciliation, a member of the political opposition, who describes the risks taken by those involved in reconciliation and the immense value of these reconciliation initiatives. It is widely believed that the UK position is that the West should provide financial support for reconstruction only if a transition away from al-Assad is achieved. What is the United Kingdom’s position regarding support for reconciliation and reconstruction initiatives in Syria?
I turn to the latest allegations of the use of chlorine gas in eastern Ghouta. The only evidence emanates from the discredited White Helmets and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Birmingham. While chlorine gas creates highly visible clouds of vapour, no photographic evidence has been provided to substantiate these allegations. Few media reports mention that eastern Ghouta has for years been under the control of jihadist groups classified as terrorists by the United Kingdom. Those groups have been shelling the old city of Damascus, especially the Christian quarters. When I was there in November, the shells were still coming in on Damascus and targeting civilians.
Today marks the beginning of the Syrian national dialogue congress in Sochi, which aims to promote the UN-led Geneva process in compliance with UN resolutions. It calls for an inclusive dialogue between the Syrian Government and the broadest possible spectrum of the opposition. The congress is not an alternative but a supplement to Geneva. Together with Iran and Turkey, Russia has invited the main regional and international actors, including the United Kingdom, to the congress. Will the Minister indicate how Her Majesty’s Government have responded to this invitation?
On my last visit to Syria, I met a wide variety of religious leaders, representatives of diverse political parties, internationally respected artists, musicians and intellectuals, humanitarian aid organisations and members of local communities. Every one to whom we spoke expressed sincere appreciation of Russia’s support, which has recognised the primacy of expelling ISIS and other Islamist terrorist groups, and helped the Syrian army to achieve this important objective.
There is also deep concern that Her Majesty’s Government’s response to the war in Syria may prioritise political objectives over the well- being of the Syrian people, including imposing regime change; supporting Islamist-related opposition groups; undermining Russian initiatives; refusing to recognise the validity of Russian contributions to end the conflict; and refusing to co-operate in initiatives to promote the development of democracy and the reconstruction of a devastated land. I hope the Minister will reassure the people of Syria that Her Majesty’s Government respect their right to determine their own future, and will work with Russia and other nations to bring an end to the war, promote democracy and enable the rebuilding of their historic land.
My Lords, in August 2015, when I was a member of neither House of Parliament, I was contacted by the Foreign Office and informed that I had been banned—put on a stop list—and was unable to go to Russia. I was in very good company, including Malcolm Rifkind and other rather more distinguished people than myself. I saw it as a bit of a badge of honour but the best reaction was that of a Dutch MP on the same list, who said, “Not even my wife reads my speeches but I’m delighted that President Putin does”.
For those noble Lords who have not seen it—some may have done so—I recommend the film “The Death of Stalin”. It is a very funny comedy but also factually true. It takes the mickey out of the Stalinist Soviet state. Of course, the authoritarian Russian Government cannot cope with the ridicule of a regime which so many look back on fondly. Apart from the fact that I would like to visit St Petersburg, why should any of us worry? We have to deal with a host of unpleasant regimes. At the moment, there is a huge furore from rather ridiculous left-wingers about a proposed visit by the President of the United States; I rather wish that they would make more noise about the situation in Putin’s Russia.
In Russia, opposition leaders and journalists are murdered. I cannot cover them all but Alexei Navalny, the opposition leader, was arrested during a peaceful demonstration at the weekend. I understand that he has now been released, so that is all right then. But what about Boris Nemtsov, the former Deputy Prime Minister, who was murdered in Moscow in 2015? What about Sergei Magnitsky—I am not very good on my pronunciation—who died in prison in 2009 and was referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Howell? If there is anybody who has not read Bill Browder’s Red Notice, they really should. That is of course all domestic Russian stuff and it should not concern us. Noble Lords may believe that Boris Berezovsky committed suicide in Sunninghill in 2013, and that in 2012 perhaps Alexander Perepilichny—it is a bit of a tongue-twister—died from overexertion while out running in Surrey. But there is absolutely no doubt that not one mile from where we sit, Alexander Litvinenko was murdered with polonium by Russian agents in 2006.
Is Russia really a threat to us? I spent the best part of a year of my life on the inner German border. There are no longer serried ranks of Warsaw Pact tanks facing us but Russia did invade Georgia 10 years ago, and is still there in Abkhazia and elsewhere. It annexed the Crimea four years ago; many people living in the Crimea may wish to be Russian but there were international treaties, especially the Budapest memorandum of 1994, which was signed by Russia and guaranteed the borders of Ukraine. Also in 2014, Russia annexed Donbass in eastern Ukraine; it is still fighting there. Have we forgotten that flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 by Russian missiles, whomsoever pulled the trigger? It was probably Russian allies in Ukraine and there were 298 deaths, of whom 200-odd were European and 10 were British. So it does affect us. Others will, and indeed have, talked about the real threats of cyberattacks, or attacks on our infrastructure and hacking. The Defence Secretary and the Chief of the General Staff have referred to these things recently. But we also need to be able to defend our NATO allies in the Baltic and eastern Europe from a more conventional, or even somewhat unconventional, attack with little green men.
We had the ambassador here a couple of weeks ago, courtesy of the noble Viscount, and he certainly fulfilled the second half of Sir Henry Wotton’s old adage about diplomats. He would not tell me why I was banned, but he said that he believed that the EU would shortly lift sanctions. I agree with my noble friend Lord Howell and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, about both the people of Russia and the need for dialogue. However, I also commend the British Government, the US and the EU on their sanctions. We must maintain them, because Russia, however much we may deny it, is a threat to our allies, to international stability and, as I hope I have illustrated, to our own country and to people here.
My Lords, I remind all noble Lords of the speaking time, as we are already eating into the Minister’s time.
My Lords, as I watch the horror of the Russian bombs in Syria and the refusal of the Russians to see the counterproductivity of what is happening—they are boasting about victory when there is no victory at all in the battle for hearts and minds, and the cost of what they are doing is yet to be seen by mankind across the world—my mind goes back to the time when I was rapporteur to the Council of Europe on the conflict in Chechnya. During the conflict I visited Chechnya nine times, and I was in Russia 12 times in connection with it. I was one of the first, with a small group, to arrive in Grozny after the bombardment. I shall never forget that experience. A group of good friends from the Council of Europe, we were stunned and silent for the best part of an hour as we looked at what confronted us. It was a ghost city, bombed to smithereens, and it seemed that any building still standing would have to be demolished before rebuilding and reoccupation could begin. Following that came the experience of the disappearances, torture and oppression, and barbarity—the absolutely indiscriminate attacks on communities and families because it was alleged that people had done things against the Russians.
I was one of those who, after the fall of communism, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the rest, had high hopes that we could see something special emerge in Russia. It has been a profound disappointment that that did not happen. I agree with those who say that we must not lose sight of the importance of dialogue because we must not give up on that hope. There are wonderful people in Russia, and exciting things could still happen. But we must be realists about the barbarity. I personally knew Anna Politkovskaya and Natalya Estemirova, and I had been at a meeting with Colonel Litvinenko, and I saw what happened to them. But it is not just about what happened to them but about what happened to countless ordinary people in Chechnya and Russia itself. We must be realists—it is a ruthless regime. Quite apart from anything else, we were extraordinarily decent about it, but I smart at the thought that the murderers who brutally murdered the former KGB colonel trailed radioactivity around our capital city with apparent impunity. They have never been brought to trial. We must face up to what Russia is in reality, but we must also look at the Russian people as a whole and see that, in the end, we must build peace and reconciliation with them. We must not just slip back into a Cold War mentality, which would be fatal.
However, counterproductivity is the issue. We are dealing with a situation across the world about how we win hearts and minds, which is as important and vital in our own stand against terrorism as it is with Russia itself. It is too easy to slip into a counterproductive position in which we in fact encourage the extremists of tomorrow.
My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd. I declare an interest in that until the beginning of this year I chaired the liaison group between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Church of England.
Our understandable concern with current Russian policies does not, I imagine, blind any of us to the trauma through which the Russian people have passed over the last century and the resulting impact on their world-view. There is no excuse now for misunderstanding the nature of the Bolshevik regime—as there was, because there was a period in our country when it was impermissible to question the importance and the goodness of the great Soviet experiment—and its hangover in present political patterns. One of the most impressive figures to emerge from the twilight of the Soviet era, Alexander Yakovlev, said:
“I came to the profound conviction that the October coup d’état was a counterrevolution that marked the beginning of a criminal-terrorist fascist-type state”.
The civil war, the gulag and the Second World War claimed millions of victims, and among them some of the finest representatives of Russian culture. There were huge numbers of Russian, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish martyrs.
Given the nature of the trauma visited on the Russian people during the Soviet years and the social and economic distortions, it was perhaps naive—I share the disappointment that the noble Lord expressed—to believe that the transition to anything like liberal democracy and the market economy would be easy in Russia. Russian commentators who are prone to see conspiracies everywhere are especially sceptical about what seems to be a recent western faith in peremptory regime change. With their own experience of the revolution and its aftermath, they argue that deposing a Saddam Hussain, a Gaddafi or an Assad in a structure where power is concentrated at the top is simply inviting chaos.
So while we do, and ought to, refrain from loose talk of the kind which caused so much confusion about the precise intentions of the West in Georgia, and while we demonstrate our utter seriousness about defending our NATO allies in the Baltic states and developing and improving our cyber defence capabilities, as other noble Lords have said, we ought not to be cynical about the Russian capacity for regeneration and ignore the progress being made to restore civil society after its devastation during the Soviet period. I think particularly of the extraordinary achievement of building 30,000 churches since the end of the communist period and developing a community which, as far as the Russian Orthodox Church is concerned, embraces 100 million believers. As the noble Viscount said, the dialogue must include a wide engagement with the whole of culture.
Politicians in our country notoriously are advised not to do God, but wise diplomats in Russia should, and in my experience very often do, recognise the huge potential of people of faith and good will in bringing about social transformation in Russia and, crucially, the need to engage with them.
My Lords, whatever one’s view of the state of our bilateral relations with Russia, and despite the overheated rhetoric that prevails in London, there are some objective issues which have to be recognised. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, whom I congratulate on securing this debate, has mentioned some of the main points.
First, there is the Litvinenko case. Then there are the allegations of Russian interference in political campaigns, referenda and elections and so on. Thirdly, there are some aspects of Russian foreign policy—Syria, for example—and, finally, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the intervention in the Donbass. Those are four genuine obstacles which the British Government encounter in their bilateral relations and they need to be addressed in this debate.
Because of the Litvinenko case, our Government will no longer engage in liaison with the Russian security services—the FSB in particular—and that effectively blocks off counterterrorist and related police co-operation. Other countries which do not have a comparable problem consequently find themselves in a more advantageous position, but I do not think that this House has a role to play in recommending how to resolve or ameliorate the problem here.
There are so many lurid allegations of Russian political interference that, frankly, I am a little sceptical of what we are being told at the moment, and I sense that this is a subject best left to the cyber experts to sort out between themselves. It would probably help to clear the air if a working group could be formed to engage in direct dialogue with the Russians—dialogue in which British concerns could be addressed. The worst scenario is to persist with allegations and scare stories that somehow imply that the health of our democratic institutions is so fragile that a spate of Russian-sourced tweets can subvert or discredit them.
On the broader issue of Russian espionage in this country and whether the recent remarks of our Secretary of State for Defence were well or ill considered, I think it is quite strange to affect surprise that the Russians snoop around our infrastructure: it is what they have done for decades, and actually for a century. If they are not able to mix in polite society, as it were, they do not have anything better to do.
On the matter of Russian foreign policy in Syria and elsewhere, our Government may disapprove but I doubt whether this should be a real blocker to dialogue, any more than it was in the days of the USSR, when Soviet activity around the world was, if anything, more interventionist than Russian policy is now. No, the real problem for us is Russia and Ukraine. I believe that there is no more likelihood of the Russian annexation of Crimea being internationally recognised than was Stalin’s annexation of the Baltic states in the 1940s. Perhaps I should declare an interest here because I was the first drafter of the Budapest memorandum back in 1992. The move into Crimea was and is a strategic mistake by Putin, and maybe it cannot be undone except through the passage of time and history, and when circumstances have fundamentally changed. Putin will not leave Crimea but one day lack of recognition will ultimately have the effect that we must desire. It could take a long time.
That leaves Russian aggression in Donbass. This is one issue that is resolvable by engagement with the Russians. Without a resolution there can be no stability and no serious reconstruction in Ukraine. It is a drain on Russia and a disgrace to her reputation, and it is of strategic concern to the European continent. This is not the place to suggest how a resolution could be achieved: in the final resort, the Ukrainians and the Russians are the ones who have to sort it out between themselves. France, Germany and the US have failed so far to effect a breakthrough, but I believe that there is a specific role we can play here and that Britain should become engaged. Until we do, we cannot expect to have any influence on the matter at all.
That is the simplest lesson of all. Russia has plenty of potential partners and interlocutors to act with and talk to. However, as one eminent Russian recently said to me, the Russian relationship with Britain resembles a marriage which no longer works: at least when there were daily rows and arguments, it meant that the couple retained an interest in each other; when indifference sets in, the relationship is dead. I fear that indifference is setting in. Very simply, if we do not engage, we do not have any influence.
My Lords, I first visited what was then the Soviet Union 41 years ago in 1977 as a member of an all-party parliamentary delegation. That visit made an indelible impression on me. I returned with two reflections, which, in a broad sense, remain the same today. First, I believed that we must retain our defences in the West and ensure that Soviet leaders, as they then were, understood our determination to do so. Secondly, I recognised that we are both proud nations and share a European culture, but are massively ignorant about each other, and need to get to know each other better as a people. I learned for the first time on that visit that 20 million Russians had been killed in the Second World War, and that millions more died under Stalin in the 1930s. I came back with the view that they were a tired, worn-out people, whose leaders were spending a disproportionate amount of their resources on defence. These characteristics apply broadly today.
We have seen the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the chaos, the anarchy and the lack of the rule of law. This has been exploited by gangs of oligarchs at the expense of the people. Ironically, many of their children are educated in the United Kingdom and the west today. As they often do in that country, they have swung from anarchy to authoritarianism. Putin has become a nationalistic dictator, tightening his grip in order to stay in power. We in the west need to carry out a penetrating and accurate analysis of the nature and scale of that threat.
Today, I want to make one point. The vital part of our strategy must be sustained: long-term dialogue between our people, as well as Governments, to strengthen our mutual knowledge and understanding, because there is so much ignorance about each other. Of course, ignorance breeds fear. I do not know how many in this Chamber have read the works of Svetlana Alexievich, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Her diaries are based on interviews with hundreds of Russians, and they are very telling. They demonstrate that the lives of so many Russians are, to use my own words, nasty and brutish, but that these people are also deeply spiritual and Christian.
“must look beyond … Putin and develop a long-term strategy to engage with the Russian people”.
There must be more exchanges in education, culture, business and science, recognising the work of the British Council and the BBC World Service. Above all, there must be a,
“people-to-people strategy building bridges”.
I will therefore end on one example of an already very successful people-to-people strategy, which could be followed by others. The Pushkin Trust was established in 1987 by the Duchess of Abercorn, who was a descendant of Pushkin. It now involves thousands of schoolchildren in Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Russia using modern networking to link up and encourage creative programmes in the spirit of Pushkin and, through dialogue, to establish common ground and understanding. It has broken down barriers between Roman Catholics and Protestants and is now breaking down barriers between the Irish and Russian schoolchildren. This is truly about the future and it stimulates mutual understanding among young people. We now need a flowering of initiatives such as that of the Pushkin Trust. I hope the Minister will endorse the policy of dialogue and encourage more people-to-people contact.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating the debate. I will specifically talk about the UK’s relations with Tatarstan and how we can strengthen our ties with it. Tatarstan is a semi-autonomous republic in Russia located in the centre of a large industrial region of the Russian Federation. I have been to Kazan, which is the capital of Tatarstan, and spent a few days there. I spoke to the people of Kazan, both Tartars and Russians, and I found that the relationship between Muslims, Christians and others is extremely friendly and cordial. In Kazan there is a place called the Kremlin, where a mosque and a cathedral face each other. This is symbolic of the friendship between all the communities in the region. As someone who is interested in promoting interfaith dialogue, that pleased me a great deal.
The President of Tatarstan visited the United Kingdom in November last year and met with us in the House of Lords. He was indeed very friendly and requested that I attend a business conference in Kazan. He also invited us to send a trade delegation from the United Kingdom to Tatarstan. I will attend the conference in May, and I hope that we will be able to arrange a trade delegation of British businessmen to Kazan. The president is very keen to strengthen trade and educational and cultural ties between Tatarstan and the United Kingdom. We should actively pursue these and achieve the right results, which will be mutually beneficial.
I will mention some details about Tatarstan and the opportunities that we can pursue. Tatarstan is one of the leading and most economically developed regions in Russia, rich in natural resources. It is prosperous in many ways, presenting opportunities for us to be involved in. At a conference held in London in November last year, His Excellency Mr Rustam Minnikhanov, the President of Tatarstan, said that Tatarstan is interested in attracting British businesses, technology and investments to the region and that they will readily provide support for these activities. The president further said that there are opportunities for British companies to be involved in areas such as power engineering, the automotive industry, production of auto components, IT, agro-industrial activities, engineering, pharmaceuticals, aircraft construction, the oil and gas industry and the transport sector. In addition, they would like to develop and expand their Islamic finance market. That was music to my ears as I am actively involved in promoting our expertise and knowledge in Islamic finance overseas.
President Minnikhanov also noted that Tatarstan is an innovative region which ranked first in the Russian national rating for investment for the third year in a row. In addition, the Russian Federation Government have launched a project in which special economic zones have been created for businesses to manufacture, manage or invest. We can get involved in those zones.
Tatarstan would also like to strengthen and forge educational links with British institutions in the UK. Given that there is only one university partnership with Tatarstan—with Cardiff University—this is an area that is worth looking into. I hope very much that we can look seriously at expanding our links with Tatarstan, and there is certainly an appetite in Tatarstan to do so. I ask my noble friend the Minister if she would like to comment on our relations with Tatarstan.
My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on securing this debate and introducing it so expertly. At the outset I wish to declare an interest as chair of the advisory board of the Russian Gold Fund, a private equity investment fund.
It is a commonplace to say that the UK’s relations with Russia are approaching an all-time low, including during the Cold War. The Foreign Office asserts that this is because of Russia’s own behaviour, most notably the conflict in Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea, general meddling and much else. The declared aim is to punish Russia so that it sees the error of its ways and returns to the path of international righteousness. This may be the aim, but it falls short of a strategy. Russia has said that Ukrainian membership of NATO and the return of Crimea is a red line. It fought wars in the 19th and 20th centuries to retain the strategic Black Sea port of Sevastopol and will not give it up, as was said earlier in the debate.
The United States, for its part, has its America First strategy as enunciated by Donald Trump and its new national security strategy document. This may not be to everyone’s liking but at least it has an internal coherence. Russia and China, we are told, are global competitors and revisionist powers. In a fresh “great power” struggle not witnessed since the fall of the Berlin Wall, both countries are labelled the primary threats to US economic dominance and the American-led world order. The status of the United States as the world’s only post-Cold War hyperpower is being challenged. Washington’s unipolar leadership rejects Russian and Chinese attempts to create a multipolar world of competing centres of power. Putting aside President Trump’s assertion for a moment that he wants to build a great partnership with Moscow and Beijing, it is apparent that the US military-industrial complex sees both Russia and China as competitors on the world stage. Relations with China are complicated by its importance as a global trading partner, but as far as Russia is concerned, there are no such constraints. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, mentioned the relative size of Russia’s economy.
The Brookings Institution has shown in a study how sanctions themselves rarely make countries abandon their perceived vital interests. But in a way, the sanctions now seem almost irrelevant. They are having an economic impact on Russia, but are far less important than the price of a barrel of oil, given that oil and gas revenues still provide the bulk of Russia’s federal funding. Incidentally, with the price of a barrel of oil at around $71, it is in a healthier state than it was a year or two ago. In constantly ratcheting up sanctions, the US Congress could arguably said to be not seeking a change of behaviour, but aiming for the emasculation of a geopolitical rival.
I have some sympathy with the Ministry of Defence seeking additional funding from the Treasury. The state of our Armed Forces is pitiable. The Russians do have some good capabilities, but to say that they would launch a conventional attack against any member of the north Atlantic alliance, which outspends them by a ratio of around 20:1, is a fantasy. What Russia can do is be a major headache and source of nuisance for the West. The Gerasimov doctrine publicly states how the Russians will apply asymmetric warfare, short of war, in any political conflict, and that is undoubtedly what we have witnessed.
There is a way forward on UK-Russian relations, and a number of noble Lords have proposed ways that that could be done. But to make progress, I believe that we need to work together to ensure that there is a resolution of the Ukrainian conflagration. We should fully engage with Russia over issues such as Syria, Iran and North Korea, and in fighting international terrorism, drug and people trafficking. We need to move beyond the current mindless rhetoric and tit-for-tat diplomacy, which is dangerous and, if unchecked, can lead us all to disaster. If we are not careful, talk of war can itself become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
My Lords, I add my thanks to those of every other speaker to the noble Viscount for securing this timely debate. It is timely because over recent weeks we have heard much about resurgent Russia’s intentions. Such talk and reporting is generally laced with hyperbole concealing another purpose. In this case it is clear what the Secretary of State for Defence was driving at. I cannot say that I blame him, but that is for another debate; actually, it was last week.
But we must look more objectively at our relations with that country. If we trace the timeline of history back to the 17th and 18th centuries, when leaders such as Peter I and later Catherine II, both later known as “the Great”, reigned over a vast country with massive social divisions, we see a country where strong and stable government was a prerequisite for controlling the population. When weaker Governments or rulers became established, things tended to fall apart. Sounds familiar, does it not? Democracy is a little-understood concept in Russia, both pre and post revolution. Strong rulers have always been the most successful. We therefore delude ourselves if we seek to impose our liberal democratic standards on a country that has never seen itself as fundamentally a western state. We have to take it as it is and seek to work with it in any way we can.
When I first came face-to-face with Russians during the Cold War, I tended to think that they must be 10 feet tall and particularly good at walking on water. Longer experience of underwater operations revealed the feet of clay that decisively prevented them from such aquatic initiatives. Later, in the Russia of Gorbachev and Yeltsin, I met many ordinary Russians who came across as normal people who had had inculcated into them a vast amount of propaganda about what the western allies would do to them if war were to break out. Most were healthily sceptical about all that.
President Putin, who fits a mould which goes back centuries, is the second-longest serving ruler since 1918, having not yet overtaken Stalin, although I do not seek to draw any parallel between them. When I met him in the office of mayor Anatoly Sobchak in St Petersburg in the 1990s, he was a typical KGB officer. Fundamentally, nothing has changed and he sees his role as being to give Russia and its people their self-respect back after the, as many of them see it, disastrous collapse of the Soviet system. While we laud Gorbachev and tend to despise Yeltsin, Russians often see it the other way round.
With its economy in a mess and substantially smaller than our own, Russia does not necessarily seek to expand its military influence beyond what it sees as its natural borders. Rather, it seeks to expand its economic hegemony and influence through the levers of power available to it. These consist largely of oil and gas reserves, but also lie in its ability, as a command economy, to take centralised decisions quickly and act upon them. It believes that its diplomatic initiatives, backed by limited military force, will assist its climb towards the pinnacles of respect that it seeks. It has embarked on modernisation of its armed forces, although it is hard to see how it appears to have achieved so much in so short a time without spending far more than the advertised 5% of GDP on such programmes. There is nothing new about such deceptions. Some estimates put its Cold War spending at near to 50% of real GDP.
Putin has moved steadily to re-establish the state’s authority over its rebels, especially the financial rebels liberated by Yeltsin’s largesse, and has given the official classes their respect back by building on anti-western feelings. However, it is in the areas of AI and robotics that Russia believes that it cannot outspend the West. These areas will therefore constitute our new levers of power and we must build on them to establish a new and more open dialogue with the Russian state.
It is time to stop cold-shouldering this physically massive player on the world stage and start to bring it in from the cold, as Smiley would say, by engaging it using the very considerable tools at our disposal. What it craves is respect—respect for its contributions to defeating Hitler and for its recovery from the failure of communism. Respect costs nothing to give, but we must find a way to open the doors, start to unwind sanctions, and begin talking about mutual threat reduction—in a modern sense.
My Lords, I will use my four minutes to make a few points. I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for initiating the debate. I hope he will find that my response fits into his demand for robustness.
My basic thesis is that Russia is a European country with whom we need a good relationship. I quote in support of that the Russian ambassador himself, who, in response to the report of the House of Commons last year wrote as part of his letter to Crispin Blunt:
“I’d like to state without any reservation that Russia is and will remain a part and parcel of Europe and European civilization”.
That was Alexander Yakovenko writing to Crispin Blunt last year.
We can have sanctions for as long as we like, but they do not appear to be working and I am not sure that we are clear about why we have them. It seems to me that we always need to have an enemy somewhere or other. It has been demonstrated by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, the distinguished chair of the committee I sit on, exactly how small Russia is in relation to the rest of the world. My view is that we need a new Helsinki: Russia, after all, demonstrated that it was a European power by signing Helsinki at the height of the conflict between the West and communism. That no longer exists.
Russia, as the former Bishop, the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, has said, has built 30,000 churches, I think he said. Patriarch Kirill was in London last year; he went to see the Queen. He is now a respected international traveller and person but someone, I remind noble Lords, who had immense trouble in the Ukraine, with the Ukrainian Government trying to confiscate the property of the Russian Orthodox Church, something we should maybe be concerned about.
The point I want to make is that a lot of the conflicts that exist need talking about, not demonstrating against. The borders of Ukraine have been adjusted five times in the last 100 years. Russia is not going to leave Crimea. It is as simple as that. The Ukrainian Government provoked the Crimeans; they tried to abolish the Russian language at one point; they said they would not renew the base lease at another point; there was a huge amount of provocation. The least we owe the Russians is to sit down and have a conference where we can all talk about the differences that exist.
There are another couple of differences. I am probably a very sad person, but over the Christmas holidays I was reading the account of the Soviet Politburo of the 1930s. That clearly does make me very sad. The republic of Abkhazia was causing problems because it would not unite with Georgia; it said that it was a separate place. This is in 1933. South Ossetia was also causing problems. These are not new problems. Some of these people, whether we like it or not, do not regard themselves as being part of the states to which they were assigned, probably wrongly, during the Soviet era. The point I make is that, if we believe in self-determination for Gibraltar and the Falklands, we need to find some way of having self-determination for some of the other bits and bobs around the world that we seem to get very worked up about.
I finish by just pointing out that I was in the Ukraine; I was in the Ukrainian Parliament. All they would say to me—this is during the time when it was part of the Ukraine—was, “We are in the wrong country; we are Russian”. So this is nothing new and my message, all I ask the Minister to do, is to ask her policy people to read what has been said in this debate because what comes through is the need to develop a new policy in our relations between the West and Russia.
My Lords, as a member of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, on initiating this interesting and timely debate on Russia. I have visited Russia privately several times, including driving through it for one month with my wife and five children to many locations, including Moscow and St Petersburg. Russia is a great and large country and one of our partners in the Security Council of the United Nations. In the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe I worked and co-operated with Russian MPs for several years in Strasbourg. This increased my respect for Russia. It is a proud nation. We differ from Russia over its illegal annexation of Crimea, its involvement in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia, where it is still increasing its presence, and of course its support for the inhuman regime in Syria, its cyberattacks and, as we saw at the weekend, the imprisonment of opposition leaders. But we also have common challenges, such as radical Islamic terrorism, as the bombs in St Petersburg and Moscow prove, and the terrorism in Chechnya and Dagestan. As a former member of the parliamentary assembly in Strasbourg, I place on record the wonderful work done by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, as rapporteur on Chechnya.
Dialogue is important and we should co-operate more where possible, such as in the exchange of intelligence on Islamic terrorism, the development of tourism and co-operation on energy. There is insufficient contact between parliamentarians in Westminster and Moscow, as the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, mentioned. There should be more visits by elected Members to each other’s countries.
The European Union has been unhelpful by encouraging neighbouring countries of Russia to seek membership of the EU and NATO. Russia has a legitimate interest in events in neighbouring countries and the EU policy is perceived as a provocation and destabilising.
I welcome the recent visit to Russia by our Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson. While it is clear that we have major differences, it is a shame that this was the first such visit in more than five years. I hope that it will not be long before Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, has a return visit to the United Kingdom. The more they get to know each other, the better for UK-Russia relations. The personality of our present Foreign Secretary could well be helpful in this respect.
I want to see an improved relationship between the United Kingdom and Russia. Of course we have differences, but it is in the interests of the people of the United Kingdom and of Russia that we work more closely together, as well as in the best interests of a greater and more stable Europe.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Viscount for introducing this incredibly timely debate. Defence and diplomacy are the key ingredients for developing our relations with Russia. The Defence Secretary’s recent statement may have been full of hyperbole but the words of General Sir Nick Carter are of greater concern, when he said that the UK “would struggle to match” the Kremlin’s growing and increasingly aggressive expeditionary force.
Since his 2013 state of the nation address, Putin has set out to wreck the Gorbachev vision in which Russia and Europe could work together to create “an all-European home”, subject to a common legal space and governed by the European Convention on Human Rights. Despite this, I agree with the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that some interaction with Russia is preferable to no interaction, if only to maintain the basis for a more positive relationship in future, to clarify areas of disagreement and to de-escalate points of difference. Theresa May, too, made it clear that her policy towards Russia is to “engage but beware”. We need to hear from the Minister the impact that that engagement has had on those areas where there appears to be scope for at least a partial alignment of interests, as my noble friend Lord Browne and the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, highlighted.
Boris Johnson said after his meeting with the Russian Foreign Minister in Moscow in December that they had identified common ground on issues such as North Korea, Syria and trade, and said that UK and Russian security services should co-ordinate ahead of the World Cup. But what of those other areas of UK interest where the Government say they continue to engage, such as climate change and supporting UK businesses within sanctions parameters?
Last but not least is the important issue of the protection of human rights, as we have heard in this debate. I particularly highlight the persecution of LGBTI citizens, particularly in Chechnya, to which my noble friend also referred. I know the UK has called publicly for it to cease, for thorough investigation and for those responsible to be brought to justice. We have also had the condemnation of the Russian law prohibiting the promotion of non-traditional sexual relations to minors, with its potential to legitimise homophobia and encourage violence. I know the Government have raised these concerns bilaterally at a number of levels since the law was passed in June 2013, but how are the Government supporting businesses because trade is an important part of leverage and of changing attitudes? Businesses can change attitudes. We know from our experience that diversity in business is good for economic growth, and Russia certainly needs economic growth, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said.
Theresa May expressed the hope that one day Russia will choose a different path and become a Russia that will play by the rules. To translate that hope into reality, the Government need to be better prepared and better resourced.
My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for tabling this important debate. I am so sorry about his indisposition, and I am heartened that he stuck it out. The quality of the contributions and the interest in the debate have sustained him. I thank all noble Lords for their very perceptive contributions, and I shall try to respond to all the points raised.
On the general issue of the UK/Russia bilateral relationship, our diplomatic relationship with Russia goes back more than 450 years to when Queen Elizabeth I sent an envoy to the court of Ivan the Terrible. In the intervening centuries, we may not always have been allies, but Russia has always been an important power and more often than not one with which it has been in our interests to engage. My noble friend Lord Howell rightly pointed out the warmth between the peoples of Russia and the peoples of the United Kingdom. That is an important relationship and is certainly the case today.
However, we cannot pretend that this is an easy time in the relations between our two countries. There are tensions, and many noble Lords referred to them. My noble friend Lord Robathan chronicled various events which have caused deep concern, as did the noble Lord, Lord Judd. It is necessary for the context of the debate to be mindful of all that. Not surprisingly Ukraine was mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, and by other contributors. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its continued destabilising actions in the Donbass are a blatant violation of international law and the rules-based international order. Its actions disregard the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. They violate Russia’s international commitments and, frankly, demonstrate callous indifference to human suffering. The United Nations estimates that the conflict in eastern Ukraine has claimed more than 10,300 lives and internally displaced almost 1 million people by the end of 2017. Russia has ignored repeated calls to cease providing financial and military support to the so-called separatists it backs. It has neither complied with its Minsk commitments nor intervened to stop the intimidation and attacks on the OSCE special monitoring mission, which currently includes 66 UK secondees.
There are other threats which various contributors mentioned, such as Russian activities in cyberspace, its threats to western democracies and the incursions by its jets into European countries’ airspace. They are further cause and reason for caution in our dealings with Russia. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, raised the particular issues of cybercrime and cybersecurity. We remain open to appropriate dialogue with Russia: we want to reduce risk, talk about our differences and co-operate for the security of both nations and of the international community. However, we want to make clear that intimidation and interference with sovereign states is not acceptable.
The noble Lord, Lord Browne, made a number of important points in relation to a possible future strategy, and I shall certainly look with interest at the text of what he said. The noble Earl, Lord Oxford and Asquith, rightly warned of the need, amid all the tumult, to be alert to the realities of the situation. That is a timely reminder.
In relation to the UK’s attitude to this and various other issues, as your Lordships will be aware, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister mounted a staunch defence of the rules-based international system in her Mansion House speech last November. She made clear that Russia would not succeed in undermining the free, open and resilient democracies of the West or the alliances between our countries. That message was repeated, and delivered similarly robustly, by my right honourable the Foreign Secretary when he visited Moscow in December. On that occasion, he raised concerns about Russia’s recent activities in Ukraine and the western Balkans, and its threats to cybersecurity and democracy. He also made clear there could be no “business as usual” with Russia while it continued to support destabilising activities in Europe.
A number of your Lordships brought up human rights in their contributions. The Foreign Secretary also raised serious UK concerns about human rights, in particular: the increasing curbs being placed on civil society organisations and human rights defenders in Russia, due to restrictive legislation; the restrictions on freedom of expression, including freedom of the media; and the appalling harassment and intimidation of the LGBT community, most notably in Chechnya. The noble Lord, Lord Judd, referred specifically to Chechnya, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins. These concerns have all been raised by my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas.
It is important to say again that we do not want to be in a state of perpetual confrontation, an issue identified by many of your Lordships. As two P5 countries, it is vital for international security that we continue to talk to each other and to work together, where possible, on issues of global concern. Many of your Lordships urged continuing contact and dialogue—the noble Lord, Lord Kilclooney, spoke powerfully about this, as did the noble Lord, Lord Collins.
Our strategy is to engage with Russia, to avoid misunderstandings and manage risks, to push for change where we disagree, and to work together where it is in the UK national interest. Encouragingly, there are a number of issues on which we can and should engage. In foreign affairs, for example, there is North Korea. Yes, we are disappointed at the recent media reports of Russian ports being used as transit hubs for illicit North Korean coal shipments, to evade sanctions. We call on Russia, and all nations, to fully implement all sanctions measures agreed by the United Nations Security Council. But both of us want to get North Korea back to the negotiating table and ultimately want a denuclearised Korean peninsula.
Both Russia and the UK have responsibilities to see progress towards peace in Syria, where the noble Baroness, Lady Cox, raised specifically the matter of reconciliation and reconstruction. The UK and EU will provide no support for reconstruction until a comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition is firmly under way, because this would disproportionately benefit the regime, which bears overwhelming responsibility for the sufferings of the Syrian people. The UK has committed £2.46 billion since 2012 in response to the Syrian crisis, our largest ever response to a humanitarian crisis.
Ultimately, we hope to see Russia play a more constructive role on the international stage and to see an improvement in the relations between our countries and our people. Aside from the political track, there are two obvious ways to make that happen: one through trade, and one through cultural exchanges.
Clearly, as was acknowledged by the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, our economic relations with Russia cannot be business as usual. Formal ministerial dialogue on trade was postponed in 2014 following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and, given Russia’s continued destabilising activities in Ukraine, we have no plans to revive the talks. The UK remains fully committed to sanctions enforcement until Russia meets its commitments under the Minsk agreement.
My noble friend Lord Balfe questioned whether our sanctions were having an impact on Russia. I have to say that, beyond the bravado, the Kremlin is very concerned about the condition of Russia’s economy and the impact of sanctions exacerbating negative trends. Of Russia’s 3.7% overall GDP decline in 2015, Citibank assesses that sanctions caused nearly 0.4%. Moscow knows what it needs to do to remove the pressure of sanctions: implement the Minsk agreement, withdraw its troops from Ukrainian soil and end its support for the separatists.
I say to both the noble Viscount and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, who raised this issue, that, where sanctions permit, Russia remains an important market for British businesses. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly pointed out the significance of trade, and that is correct. Russia is currently the UK’s 24th-largest export market. Bilateral trade in non-sanctioned industries is increasing: Russia was the third-fastest-growing market for UK services between 2010 and 2015. Bilateral trade in goods and services in the 12 months has been growing. UK imports from Russia increased by more than 25% and our exports to Russia increased by over 10% in the same period. The UK supports businesses engaging in sectors of the Russian economy that are not affected by sanctions.
I turn to the important issue of cultural links, about which the noble Lord, Lord Luce, spoke eloquently. The UK and Russia are working hard to strengthen our cultural ties. Last year the British Council and our embassy in Moscow worked with Russia to run a successful Year of Science and Education. Events throughout the year helped to stimulate scientific collaboration between our countries. The British Council is now making plans for the UK-Russia Year of Music in 2019. We are looking forward to working with Russia to make the most of that special cultural collaboration. Indeed, we in Scotland have been celebrating our national bard, Robert Burns, and I was interested to learn at a Burns supper in Glasgow that in November a group of schoolchildren came over to Glasgow from St Petersburg to learn more about him. Robert Burns is important to Russia, both the poet himself and his works, and the Russians take a keen interest in that. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Luce, that that is quite an interesting example of people-to-people engagement, which is encouraging.
Of course we have a World Cup coming up in Russia, and both the UK and Russia share the common goal of ensuring that it is successful. The British team will be based near St Petersburg in the town of Repino. Many thousands of fans are expected to travel from Britain, and we are working closely with Russia to ensure that the arrangements for that run smoothly and that the World Cup is a great success.
In conclusion, we must recognise that the relationship between the UK and Russia is difficult. Many of its activities, from its aggression against its neighbours to its human rights abuses at home, are unacceptable. We continue to support the international sanctions regime and to express our concerns robustly to the Russian Government. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, emphasised, it is important that we keep channels of communication open, not only to raise these areas of concern but to discuss important areas where we can work together in our mutual interest. The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the interesting idea of a four-step process. I was intrigued by that. To some extent we do some of that work already, but I will certainly read Hansard with interest to see what the detail of that is.
As the Prime Minister said, in our relationship with Russia we must engage but beware. We will continue to take this approach and maintain the long-term goal of an improvement in the relations between our countries. I thought the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Chartres, made a very optimistic contribution in pointing out the role of the Church, the need not to be overwhelmed by cynicism and the potential for positive progress in Russia. He is correct; we should not be blind to any of that. We should hope for better things and that, with determination on the part of Russia and a willingness on our part to engage as best we can, a better future may be achieved.
House adjourned at 9.14 pm.