Missile Incident in Poland - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 12:01 pm on 17 November 2022.

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The following Statement was made in the House of Commons on Wednesday 16 November.

“With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will make a Statement about the missile strike in Poland overnight.

At approximately 7 pm local time last night, there were missile explosions in a village in eastern Poland, approximately four miles from the border with Ukraine, killing two civilians and wounding four, during an extended Russian bombardment of Ukrainian territory.

As soon as I received the report, I contacted my Polish counterpart to express the sympathy and solidarity of the United Kingdom—I am sure the whole House will share that sentiment—and to offer our practical support. I then spoke to my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in a trilateral call with my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary, while the Prime Minister was attending the G20 summit in Indonesia.

The Prime Minister immediately called President Duda of Poland to convey the UK’s condolences for the tragic loss of civilian life and to assure him of our unwavering support to a steadfast NATO ally. My right honourable friend then spoke to President Zelensky about the latest situation and also attended an ad hoc meeting of G7 leaders called by President Biden to discuss the evolving situation.

This morning, I spoke to the Polish Foreign Minister and I commended Poland’s decisive, determined but calm and professional response to the situation. It is wise to advise the House that, at this point, the full details of the incident are not complete, but, earlier today, Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO Secretary-General, said there was

‘no indication that this was the result of a deliberate attack’.

He added that the incident was

‘likely caused by a Ukrainian air defence missile fired to defend Ukrainian territory against Russian cruise missile attacks.’

Poland will lead the investigation to establish exactly what happened, and the UK stands ready to provide any practical or technical assistance. In the meantime, we will not rush to judgment; our response will always be led by the facts.

The House should be in no doubt that the only reason why missiles are flying through European skies and exploding in European villages is Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine. Secretary-General Stoltenberg was absolutely right when he said today that what occurred in Poland is ‘not Ukraine’s fault’ and that ‘Russia bears ultimate responsibility’.

Yesterday, Putin launched one of the heaviest attacks since the war began, firing wave upon wave of more than 80 missiles at Ukrainian cities, obliterating the homes of ordinary families, destroying critical national infrastructure and depriving millions of Ukrainians of power and heat just as the winter sets in. This brutal air campaign is Putin’s revenge for Ukraine’s successes on the battlefield, where Russian forces have been expelled from thousands of square miles of territory. Now he is trying to terrorise the people of Ukraine and break their will by leaving them shivering in cold and darkness. I have no doubt that he will be unsuccessful in that endeavour, but this is why Britain is helping Ukraine to strengthen its air defences, and we have provided more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles thus far. I know that the House will be united in our support for Ukraine’s right to defend her territory and her people.

On Monday, I signed a memorandum of understanding as part of our £10 million commitment to help Ukraine rebuild its critical energy infrastructure. The tragic incident in Poland last night is ultimately the result of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. That is the only reason why it has happened, and it would not have happened otherwise. That is why the UK and our allies stand in solidarity with Poland, and that is why we are determined to support the people of Ukraine until they prevail and their country is once again free. Madam Deputy Speaker, I commend this Statement to the House.”

Photo of Lord Collins of Highbury Lord Collins of Highbury Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and International Development), Shadow Deputy Leader of the House of Lords 12:02, 17 November 2022

My Lords, the loss of life in Poland is a brutal reminder of the tragic consequences that Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine is having. I am sure the whole House will wish to express condolences to the families of those killed. As NATO’s Secretary-General said yesterday, and as the Statement reflected:

“Russia bears the ultimate responsibility as it continues its illegal war against Ukraine.”

The Government of Poland, along with NATO, should be praised for their level-headed response. We should also recognise the risk of miscalculation that results from this war. Is the Minister able to give a further update on the NATO meeting yesterday to discuss its reaction to the incident? Can he also confirm that we are, either directly or through NATO, giving maximum support to the investigation to establish the full facts?

This week has seen the largest barrage of missiles against Ukraine since the war began, with a completely unjustified focus on civilian infrastructure, which we all know will have consequences for innocent people, families and children as the winter approaches. We must continue to offer our full solidarity with the people of Ukraine, and of course the Opposition are absolutely at one with the Government in our support for Ukraine. I hope, however, that the Minister can tell us that, in expressing our solidarity, we are also exploring new ways of bolstering Ukraine’s defences. In particular, can he tell us what further steps we are now taking to strengthen its air defence capacity?

In terms of maintaining global unity in support of Ukraine, I assume that the Prime Minister’s Statement on the G20 will cover a major part of this, but can the Minister tell us more specifically what we have been doing with the EU to ensure that we maintain absolute unity in the fight against Putin’s illegal war?

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, I also associate these Benches with the condolences offered by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, to those affected by this. We agree with the NATO Secretary-General when he said that

“this is not Ukraine’s fault” because the cause is Russia, which “bears the ultimate responsibility”. Putin will of course seek division, and therefore it is important that the UK and our allies are together with President Zelensky in supporting the Polish Government and investigating the direct cause of this.

It is to be welcomed that the UK and our allies at the G20 conference reacted in a sensible and cautious way. I support the work of the Government on this. The Foreign Secretary said in the Statement that

“the UK stands ready to provide any practical or technical assistance” to the Polish Government. Can the Minister say whether the Polish Government has asked for that from the UK and whether that is to be provided? We offer great resources when it comes to investigative capacity, and our intelligence networks are of course second to none. I hope that they are fully open to the Polish authorities.

The Government have said that the UK has provided

“more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles thus far” to Ukraine. We have supported the deployment of UK assets provided to Ukraine. Can the Minister give an estimate of how many of those have so far been used and whether UK support with regard to missile capability needs to be replenished? The Minister knows well enough from questions in previous debates that we have sought clarity as to UK stocks of supplies, not only for supporting Ukraine but for our own defensive capabilities. It would be helpful to know what level of resources that we have made available has been used.

Can the UK now work with our allies to move into a new phase of tackling what could well be apparent impunity? The random bombardment of cities with missiles from the Putin regime is fully grotesque. There is no question in my mind that this is now absolutely a clear crime of aggression, in addition to the crimes against humanity that we have already discussed. Can the Minister update the House with regard to the UK policy on the crime of aggression? The UK has not ratified the amendments to the Rome Statute made in Kampala in 2010. We have not been as clear as I believe we should be in support of those who have called for a hybrid chamber on the crime of aggression of the UN and Ukraine, so that we can see movement on reducing the prospect of impunity for the Putin regime. Is this not now the appropriate time to review the UK’s position on the failure to ratify the amendments to the Rome Statute on the crime of aggression? The UK should be seen as a facilitator in moving to establish a chamber where we can see some of the crimes that have so clearly committed by the Putin regime put to the judicial process, so that there can be punishments for the crimes that are so obviously taking place.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I first thank the noble Lords, Lord Collins and Lord Purvis, for their strong support of the Government’s position. I align myself totally with the condolences extended to those impacted by the tragic deaths in Poland, which I am sure reflect the view of the whole House. Let us not forgot that this is a direct action caused by Mr Putin. There were 80-plus missile attacks across Ukraine in a blanket manner. We are of course working with the Ukrainian Government, and again I am thankful to both the Front Benches and their respective parties across both Houses for their strong support for the position that the Government have taken in support of Ukraine, and indeed in our strong alliances with our key partners through NATO, the European Union and with other countries as well.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised the importance of co-ordination with NATO. As he may be aware, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister conducted, first and foremost, a direct call with the Polish President, showing absolute solidarity with President Duda. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to the Foreign Minister of Poland and the Prime Minister also spoke immediately to President Zelensky. Indeed, we co-ordinated some of these calls at the G20 with other key allies. As for the response, there was co-ordination with the EU through various partnerships, including the convening of a meeting of the G7 by President Biden, which the Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission attended. This underlines the strong unity of purpose and action across the piece among all allies in support of Ukraine, and of course standing in solidarity with a fellow NATO member, Poland.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about our co-ordination and support of air defences. As the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, said, we have provided support, and I assure both noble Lords that we work in a co-ordinated fashion with our NATO partners to ensure that the munitions and equipment required by Ukraine and other NATO allies are kept constantly under review in the current crisis. There was an emergency meeting of NATO ambassadors that the United Kingdom Permanent Representative to NATO also attended, which covered many of these issues around exact requirements and the response from Poland, but also, importantly, how we as the NATO alliance should react to the situation that arose.

It was quite notable—as I am sure all noble Lords would acknowledge—the restraint that was shown, including in public statements. I remember sitting in your Lordships’ House as this issue unravelled and, as I left, I sought an immediate update. With the continuing war and Russia’s indiscriminate bombing in Ukraine, it was, frankly, deeply concerning to see that this situation had crossed the border. I have been to the border and seen some of the air defences of the Polish Government. Again, I reassure both noble Lords that we are fully aligned and co-ordinate through NATO on the level of support required, not just the direct support that we are providing to the Ukrainian authorities, which we have listed many times, but how we can co-ordinate our best response as the NATO alliance.

On technical support to Poland, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, that those conversations have happened; he can take it as read that we are offering whatever support Poland needs. Poland has played a phenomenal role in the situation in Ukraine, as I and other noble Lords who have visited the region have witnessed, through the support it has provided for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, including support within Poland. We talked the other day about victims of sexual violence in conflict, and there are victims of sexual violence in this conflict. Again, we are working very closely with the Polish authorities to ensure that the correct information is provided to those seeking action on such crimes.

The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, talked about atrocity crimes and co-ordinating our response. I assure him that we have had detailed discussions, including with the ICC prosecutor. As he will be aware, we have set up a specific group with our key partners to look at atrocities on the ground in Ukraine. He asked about co-ordination with the EU. That group works specifically with the EU and the United States, and we will continue to work in a co-ordinated fashion to ensure that the perpetrators of crimes in Ukraine are brought to justice quickly. We need to learn from conflicts past. The mechanics, the structures and the systems being set up in Ukraine will allow prosecutions to take place effectively and in an expeditious manner. It is particularly important that we ensure that testimonies are collated. We are working on that front specifically, and I will welcome all noble Lords attending the conference at the end of the month, where we can have a specific focus on how we can further strengthen our response through testimonies, particularly those from survivors of sexual violence, to ensure that crimes inflicted can be documented appropriately. We are working with key groups such as Nadia’s Initiative to ensure that survivors are at the forefront of our mind.

I thank both noble Lords for their support. I assure them that we are co-ordinating with our G7 partners. It was interesting that this took place during the G20; it perhaps allowed other countries within the G20 who have not been as focused and strong in their support for Ukraine to reflect very carefully on what this conflict means, for not just Ukraine or Europe but the world as a whole.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour 12:15, 17 November 2022

My Lords, the war has now been raging in Ukraine for several months, and the danger of armed conflict is that you can get unplanned escalation. There have been a number of incidents that could have led to such unplanned escalation, including the one in Poland that we are discussing. That would lead to world war. We are having to replenish our own stocks and we are providing stuff to Ukraine. Does the Minister agree that it seems extraordinary that, in this many months, we have not actually increased our defence spending? As I say, this could easily tip over into world war. There are real pressures and we have real problems within the defence forces, and we really need to do something. Not only have we not done anything so far but it sounds as though we are about to cut defence spending, which is extraordinary in the world we are in.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I note what the noble Lord says. In the context of Ukraine, we have already committed to the funding we gave previously to Ukraine for military support. That £2.3 billion of military support will continue for next year as well; that is a standing commitment. The noble Lord talked about the importance of replenishing stocks. I assure him that, as we continue to support the requirements of countries such as Ukraine, and indeed our commitments through NATO, we keep a very close watch on our own assets and replenishing stocks for our own defences as well.

The noble Lord raises two very important points about the continued commitment from the Government to military and defence spending during the current crisis we face. As I speak, a Statement is being made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Chancellor. Equally, we have made commitments internationally, through our spending on NATO. I suggest that our commitment to NATO spending, particularly at this time, is an important call to the other countries of NATO to ensure that they are also spending the required 2% of GDP on their contributions to NATO defences.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

My Lords, I shall continue on this theme, strongly supporting the noble Lord, Lord West, in what he said. Is my noble friend absolutely confident that, if this conflict escalates, as well it might, this country is not only able to continue supplying Ukraine but has sufficient munitions itself to tide us through a decent period of time? That is vital. Can my noble friend give the House that assurance?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we work very closely with our colleagues in the Ministry of Defence. As I have said numerous times, the first duty of any Government is the security and defence of their own country and people. I am sure all noble Lords will agree that we have among the best—arguably the best—Armed Forces, with their experience, insights and the professionalism that they bring to the world scene. That is reflected in our contributions to NATO, which remain very strong. I agree with my noble friend that as we look to support Ukraine, it is important, as the noble Lord, Lord West, reminded us, that we stay equally strong in our defences and defence spending at home.

Photo of Lord McDonald of Salford Lord McDonald of Salford Crossbench

My Lords, one of the most remarkable features of the conflict in Ukraine since February has been the consistency and quality of the leadership of President Zelensky, but in his statement since the strike on Poland he seems not to be as co-ordinated with NATO. Indeed, he seems to be trying to drag NATO into more direct involvement in the conflict. Can the Minister assure your Lordship’s House that His Majesty’s Government are making it clear to President Zelensky that expanding the conflict is in nobody’s interest?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, the noble Lord will know from his own insights, experiences and dealings with Ukraine the importance of ensuring that we stand firm and solid with our friends and partners in supporting it. What President Zelensky’s country is going through is unimaginable. Let us not forget that, as I said, at the time of this incident in Poland missiles were flying in abundance over every city in Ukraine—every key city was under attack in a blanket, indiscriminate missile attack. What we saw in response from President Zelensky, whom we all agree has played an amazing role, was a strong defence of the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Ukraine.

I know the noble Lord is fully aligned with that objective, but I give him that reassurance. That is why, as I said, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, along with other key G20, G7 and NATO leaders, talked directly from the G20 to the President of Poland and, importantly, President Zelensky about the importance of co-ordination. As Ukraine is confronting a time of war, it is important that calm heads prevail.

Photo of Viscount Stansgate Viscount Stansgate Labour

My Lords, the risk of miscalculation in war is very great. The Statement we are discussing is somewhat outdated and has been overtaken by events, which have shown that cool and calm analysis is necessary in what would otherwise be a dangerous situation. The noble Lord referred to the moment when he first heard the news; when I first heard it, like many others, I feared the worst. Fortunately, we now know what happened.

It was a coincidence that the G20 leaders were meeting in Indonesia. It is not for nothing that the photograph of people clustered around the President of the United States and the British Prime Minister has been published all over the world, but they just happened to be there together. Can the noble Lord assure the House that the experience of this incident will be used to make sure that the mechanisms for conferring within NATO and, in light of the previous comments, with the President of Ukraine—whose views slightly diverged from what has otherwise been a fairly common front—are absolutely in order? God forbid that this should ever happen again, but if it did, we would need an effective and quick mechanism to avoid the risk of any terrible miscalculation.

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

I agree with the noble Viscount. I assure him that, even within our internal systems, the importance of how information is cascaded, decisions are taken and people are informed is part and parcel of learning from any type of incident such as this. That needs to be reflected in the systems within the FCDO and the MoD and across government. I talked to officials yesterday about this very point. As he said, the G20 was together and President Biden immediately convened a meeting of the G7. That is why NATO matters. Different steps were taken in different places at the same time, which reflected the planning that has gone into ensuring co-ordination at a time of war. As I have said time and again, and I know noble Lords agree, this is not about one country being at war with another or a war on one continent—an escalation of this crisis would have global implications and consequences.

While it was perhaps coincidental, I suggest that there was also a degree of divine intervention at work to ensure that those leaders who have perhaps not been as strong in recognising the impact of this war, not just in terms of food or energy security but its degree of escalation, had that reality brought home. I assure the noble Viscount that the systems and structures are in place. I hope he also recognises that in some of the calls my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made; one of the trilateral calls he immediately made was with my right honourable friends the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, to ensure that our response as His Majesty’s Government was fully aligned.

Photo of Lord Bellingham Lord Bellingham Conservative

My Lords, the missile strike on Przewodów was a tragedy. Even if it was not deliberate, it was in the context of a brutal Russian bombardment on many cities and civilian targets in Ukraine, so only one country can be responsible for it. The Minister said something about air defences. Supplying hardware is one thing but can he say something about the training we are giving to Ukrainian military personnel to man these systems?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we are fully engaged in training personnel; from the annexation of Crimea, we have been working strongly with the Ukrainian authorities and have specific programmes for it. There is currently a live programme training 10,000 personnel and a raft of other programmes and initiatives that we are running directly with the Ukrainian authorities to ensure that they do not just have the best equipment, which we are providing, but are well trained in using it.

Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour

The Minister and my noble friend were right to praise the restraint of the Polish Government—incidentally, they have also responded magnificently to the refugee crisis—but does this incident not reveal vulnerabilities? Poland held back and refused to invoke Article 5 of NATO, yet Russia is waging cyberwarfare at the moment on a number of NATO countries. Is it the Government’s view that cyberwarfare is capable of leading to an invocation of Article 5?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I will not speculate on the triggers of Article 5. The Polish Government followed the protocols very specifically; they reflected on the Article 4 elements of ensuring that consultation took place immediately with NATO members, which was the right approach as facts were being established. The noble Lord rightly raises the threat and challenge posed by cyberwarfare. I do not recall if he was in the House yesterday when we discussed the situation in Georgia—the continued occupation of the breakaway republics and the Russian influence in Abkhazia and South Ossetia—but one of the areas of support we are providing to the Georgian authorities is in exactly that space. The United Kingdom is among the leaders on cyber, in both dealing with cyber threat and cyber defences. I assure him that we are focused on all these fronts in our response to, and support of, not just Ukraine but other countries directly impacted by Russian aggression.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, the Minister did not reply to my question about the failure of the UK to ratify the Kampala amendments to the Rome statute on the crime of aggression, which means that we are unable to promote the UN General Assembly and Ukraine in setting up a hybrid chamber to prosecute Putin for the crime of aggression. Can he respond to that?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, I am aware of Ukraine’s request on this. It has approached us directly but we have reservations, not least about how the structures would work. I answered the question at least partially in saying that we have dealt with these issues directly with the International Criminal Court, which is working on the ground. We want accountability and justice for the perpetrators of crimes and are looking to work through the practical solutions that can best bring that about as quickly as possible.

Photo of Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Baroness Stuart of Edgbaston Non-affiliated

My Lords, are there any plans to offer Poland increased assistance in patrolling its airspace?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, as I said, we are working through NATO to identify exactly what the requirements are for Poland. It is a member of NATO, and the NATO protocols are very clear. We are working very closely with our NATO allies and the Secretary-General to ensure that Poland’s requirements are met by the alliance as a whole, of which the UK is a part.

Photo of Lord West of Spithead Lord West of Spithead Labour

My Lords, if the House will allow me to return to my previous question, we have been teetering on the brink of a possible world war. No one wants that to happen, but mistakes, errors and miscalculations occur. Does the Minister agree that, on that basis, bearing in mind that this has been happening for several months, our Armed Forces should be able to move seamlessly into an alliance that is in a position to fight that world war? Does he believe that the investment we have put into defence in the last few months has put us in that position?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

My Lords, we have made major investments. Without going into the territory of the Ministry of Defence, the Government have been strong in our commitment to our defences and our support for our NATO partners. Equally importantly, we have stood up for and strongly supported Ukraine. We have been among the leaders in military, humanitarian and economic support for Ukraine, which reflects the planning that has gone on.

However, I am sure I speak for every single noble Lord in recognising that we do not want to venture into an escalation. We have seen the dangers of that, and I fully concur with most noble Lords that a war such as the one on Ukraine can escalate very quickly, even through a missile which may have had other intentions. That could happen, or deliberate actions could happen. It is very clear that Mr Putin continues to wage this war on a sovereign nation. There is an easy fix to de-escalate: stop the war now.

Photo of Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Lord Brooke of Alverthorpe Labour

Could the Minister comment on the Norwegian Government’s decision to advise its people that they should take appropriate steps to prepare themselves for a nuclear attack?

Photo of Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office)

As I said earlier, I am not going to indulge in speculation. Every Government speak for their own citizens and my job is to speak for the United Kingdom Government. The primary responsibility of any Government, of any political colour, has to be, and should remain so, the security of its own citizens, first and foremost. I assure you His Majesty’s Government take that very seriously.