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Venezuela: Russian Troops - Question

– in the House of Lords at 3:00 pm on 2nd April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Liberal Democrat 3:00 pm, 2nd April 2019

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the deployment of Russian troops in Venezuela.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, given the deteriorating political situation in Venezuela, we believe that the arrival of Russian military aircraft, military personnel and equipment at Caracas airport on 23 March is provocative and ill-conceived. The United Kingdom supports a resolution to the current crisis in Venezuela through a peaceful, democratic transition following free and fair presidential elections in accordance with international democratic standards, as demanded by the interim President, Juan Guaidó, and the national assembly, in line with the Venezuelan constitution.

Photo of Lord Lee of Trafford Lord Lee of Trafford Liberal Democrat

I thank the Minister. As in Syria, an opportunist Russia comes in to prop up a hugely unpopular President, seemingly impervious to the appalling suffering of the people—only this time it is in America’s back yard. President Trump has called on Russia to “get out”, and Secretary of State Pompeo has said that America,

“will not stand idly by”,

so clearly this is potentially a very serious situation. Can the Minister give the House any update on the scale of Russian deployment or its mission?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. Russia is sending military aid to Venezuela. Troops arriving in public view do not help to resolve the crisis in Venezuela, and the US—as he rightly acknowledges—has been strongly critical. While Foreign Minister Lavrov’s defence remains that this is part of a regular military deployment, bearing in mind the situation prevailing in Venezuela it is far from that. This is why we believe it is time to ratchet up the diplomatic efforts, as the United Kingdom has been doing in working hand in glove with the Lima Group.

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, I think all sides of the House are at one in condemning Russia for this external interference and in saying that the only way forward is for Maduro to leave and for free and fair elections to take place. However, also key for the future is the terrible economic situation and the humanitarian crisis—inflation this year is forecast at 10 million per cent. What are we going to do? Are we working with our allies to ensure that once we get rid of Maduro, we will have economic support for the people of Venezuela?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I totally concur with the noble Lord. He and I have talked about the situation prevailing in Venezuela. He is quite right that the humanitarian situation is dire. In a recent survey of hospitals, 88% were reported to be in dire need of medical equipment. There is one small glimmer of hope: I heard this morning that it has been agreed that the International Committee of the Red Cross will be given access and, on the timeline for that, I can share with your Lordships that we are hoping it will start delivery of aid within the next two weeks. The noble Lord is also right to draw attention to the dire economic consequences. I assure him that we are working to step in with partners through the Lima Group and with European partners. What is required right now, I concur, is free, independent, fair elections, and support for the interim President to ensure this happens in a short time.

Photo of Lord Garel-Jones Lord Garel-Jones Conservative

Can my noble friend bring the House up to date? As a counterpoise to military intervention by Russia, what progress has the United Kingdom made in bringing humanitarian aid to this terrible crisis? And has any progress been made in persuading the leader of the Labour Party that President Maduro should not receive any support at all?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I am sure that, like all of us, my noble friend heard the shadow Minister’s words about the support for the position across your Lordships’ House. It is important that, wherever we are in the world, we get behind the interim President, most importantly because he is the representative voice of the people of Venezuela. As I have already indicated, we are seeing a small glimmer of hope in the access provided to the International Committee of the Red Cross, but clearly much more needs to be done.

Photo of Viscount Waverley Viscount Waverley Crossbench

Would the Minister agree that Russia becomes more assertive with failing western diplomacy and when it perceives weakness? If strength is the answer, how will our policy towards Venezuela be sharpened to counter the Russian presence?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, diplomacy is one Britain’s great strengths on the world stage, and I assure the noble Lord of the strength of our diplomacy, both in the region and with European partners. Indeed, 24 EU member states have now recognised Juan Guaidó as the interim President. I believe we need to pursue that particular avenue to ensure international pressure continues. We are looking at broadening sanctions on Venezuela but at the same time ensuring humanitarian aid, both food and medical, is delivered, which the people of Venezuela are in dire need of.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that Venezuela owes Russia $3.1 billion in payments for military and other equipment, and it owes Rosneft $2 billion, so that is $5 billion altogether. Clearly, one can understand the Russian interest in this, but we must have been aware that Russia was going to deploy troops, yet it seems to have gone under the radar. In that context, can I ask the Minister how concerned we are with the huge Chinese investment and the pull that they are beginning to put on to Venezuela in the same way?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

As the noble Lord will be aware, both Russia and China continue to recognise the Maduro regime. In terms of the justification for what Russia has done, as I have alluded to, Russia has a long-standing commitment to sharing military deployments and is claiming that this is part of that. We recognise that the situation in Venezuela tells a different story, and that is why it is important that we increase our diplomatic efforts, broaden international alliances in the region through the Lima Group and add our efforts to ensuring that we isolate those who are responsible. To Maduro there is a simple message: “Step aside. The people of Venezuela demand it; the people of the world demand it”. I hope our Russian and Chinese colleagues are listening very carefully. We continue to work bilaterally and through international organisations to deliver just that message.

Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My Lords, I am glad that ratcheting up diplomatic efforts is going well with our European partners. Has the Foreign Office done sufficient work yet on how we will replace that European diplomatic network if we crash out of the EU without a deal within the next 10 days?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State

My Lords, I can speak directly to that: we continue to work with European partners. Last week, I was at the United Nations, where we were working hand in glove with both Germany and France on important issues, including the promotion of women in peace-keeping. We will continue to strengthen those international alliances. I want to be absolutely clear that, notwithstanding our departure from the European Union, we remain part of Europe. Our European alliances are important, and we continue to strengthen and collaborate on them. The Iran nuclear deal and the nuclear proliferation deal are recent examples of how European partners continue to work together. We are beyond Brexit when it comes to international co-operation—that will continue internationally and with our European partners.