Ukraine - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:25 pm on 25 February 2022.

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Photo of Lord Owen Lord Owen Independent Social Democrat 2:25, 25 February 2022

My Lords, as we debate, people are laying down their lives for the freedom of their country. I know we all respect that very greatly. We are helped in doing so by the serious tone of this debate, particularly the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Sedwill, who is very welcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Robertson, who knows the President of Russia very well and has met him, pointed to what he believes is a change, and to what has changed him. Quite apart from power, which tends to change people, there is a contempt and hubristic mendacity about him which is alarming and needs serious study.

There is also a possibility that he has made a grave mistake. It is very noticeable how little time he has spent trying to convince his own people about this invasion, unlike the tragedy of eight years ago. We signed a guarantee of the territorial boundaries of this country. Our response to that attack on another country was disgraceful, negligible and lamentable. It shook me so much that I gave up doing business in Russia. It was very clear that, from that moment on, we were dealing with a different Russia.

However, I strongly support the many noble Lords in this Chamber who have fulfilled a Churchillian attitude to Russia—engaging with it at all times and respecting its people. We must not turn our anger at what is being done by the present President against the people of Russia.

What is there new to say? The one point I want to leave the House with is this: do not believe that this is the end of the story. In 1977, after a six-year lapse of any contact, I spent time in Moscow negotiating and talking with President Brezhnev and Foreign Minister Gromyko. At times, particularly on a social occasion with Gromyko, the atmosphere turned very nasty when they argued that our signature on the Helsinki Final Act meant that we had accepted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania would be incorporated into the then Soviet Union. I argued back very toughly, but I was left with a deep-seated impression that this view would still be held by a lot of people in Russia—and it is certainly held, in my view, by the present President. We ought to look at this very seriously.

He has already placed nuclear weapons in the enclave of Kaliningrad. There was an ominous tone to his speech—he clearly did not mention nuclear weapons but everybody knew exactly what he meant—on what would happen if we changed our position and started to fight, which I think we could not and would be wrong to do. NATO is a defensive organisation; it cannot embark on this intervention. But if we do not take this warning seriously now, who knows what will happen in future?

I do not think it is of anywhere near the same seriousness to those Russians who want a large empire to try to now take the battle to those three states. I do not think they will do it immediately anyhow. But what are we going to do? I have listened to many debates in this House; I wish it were more powerful. Who is going to say, as the noble Lord, Lord Davies, said in a good speech, that there is a financial cost to what has happened in Ukraine? This Government increased defence when they came into office. It was a praiseworthy decision. They did something more: they gave a four-year guarantee to the Ministry of Defence that that was going to be its budget. The Chancellor will no doubt feel he ought to hold that, but no. Two years in, we have to increase defence now and we have to do it with direct evidence of what we have seen. There is now, for the first time, I believe, a leader of Russia who would contemplate using nuclear weapons without any great concern—even Stalin, I do not think, would have lightly embarked on using nuclear weapons. I think this man could do so. We need much more evidence than what we have seen over the last few days.

I wanted to say something else in this Chamber, although my time is up: thank goodness for President Biden and his extremely good Secretary of State. They have bound NATO together in a way that has been missing for many years. I hope we will stop any form of criticism. I never believed a word of any criticism over Afghanistan; we had lost in Afghanistan. Let us think very carefully about our next few steps, but it will demand sacrifices from the people of this country if we are serious, and woe betide us if we are not.