War in Ukraine - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 25 October 2023.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 24 October.

“Since I last updated the House in my opening remarks in the debate on Ukraine on 11 September, the situation on the ground has remained largely unchanged. Slow and steady progress is being made by the Ukrainian armed forces, which continue to grind their way through the main Russian defensive position. Defence Intelligence estimates that the number of Russian permanent casualties—in other words, those who are dead or so seriously wounded that they cannot return to action—now stands at between 150,000 and 190,000 troops. Total casualties are estimated to number up to 290,000.

A limited Russian offensive is under way at Avdiivka on the outskirts of Donetsk city. Fighting has been fierce, and we assess that the average casualty rate for the Russian army was around 800 per day in the first week of the offensive. As ever, Putin and his generals show no more regard for the lives of their own troops than they do for the people of Ukraine.

However, even this ex-soldier can admit that wars are not only about the fight on the land. Since the last debate on Ukraine, the Ukrainians have opened up a new front in the Black Sea, destroying a Kilo-class submarine and two amphibious ships, as well as making a successful strike on the Russian Black Sea fleet headquarters. The consequence, as President Zelensky has rightly said, is that the Russian Black Sea fleet is no longer capable of resistance in the western Black Sea. As we move beyond day 600—it is day 608, to be precise—of Putin’s ‘three-day’ illegal war, he has still not achieved any of his initial strategic aims, and he has now ceded sea control in the western Black Sea to a nation without a navy.

The UK continues to donate significant amounts of ammunition and matériel, paid for from the £2.3 billion commitment for this financial year. That follows the same amount being given the year before, and that is an important point. Our gifting is about more than headline-making capabilities such as Challenger 2 or Storm Shadow. It is the delivery, month after month, of tens of thousands of artillery rounds, air defence missiles and other small but necessary items of equipment that positions the UK as one of the biggest and most influential of Ukraine’s donors. The UK is also the only country to have trained soldiers, sailors, aviators and marines in support of the Ukrainian effort; we have now trained over 50,000 soldiers, sailors, aviators and marines since 2014.

Events in the Middle East have dominated the headlines, but in the Ministry of Defence and across the UK Government—and, clearly, in His Majesty’s Opposition, as they brought forward this Urgent Question—Ukraine remains a focus. I think that seeing this very timely Question will matter enormously to our friends and colleagues in Kyiv. I remain every bit as confident today as I have been on all my previous visits to the Dispatch Box over the last two years that Ukraine can and will prevail.”

Photo of Lord Coaker Lord Coaker Shadow Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Opposition Whip (Lords) 5:40, 25 October 2023

My Lords, obviously our attention is focused elsewhere at present for understandable reasons, given the current horrors in the Middle East, but can the Minister update us on the Ministry of Defence’s current analysis of the situation in Ukraine? As we know, war still rages there. Cities are still being bombed. People are being killed and maimed, with claims and counterclaims being made. In particular, can the Minister update us on the supply of winter support that Ukraine has asked for as a matter of urgency, and whether it is correct that our stockpiles are still dangerously low and that we are having trouble sourcing weapons to purchase on the international market?

Hamas must be defeated, and so must President Putin. As we enter this period of sometimes being here and sometimes not, I want to say to the Minister, once again, that President Putin expected us and others to be disunited. In the face of the illegal war, we remain united in our determination to see this to a victorious end.

Noble Lords:

Hear, hear!

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The sentiment and reaction of the Chamber will reaffirm to the noble Lord how much his expressions of support are appreciated. It is important not just for this Chamber and Parliament as a whole but for the message it sends to the wider world, not least to Mr Putin.

I assure the noble Lord that there is evidence that the counteroffensive is having a very significant impact. It inflicts chronic pressure on Russia deep beyond the front lines. We know that the Russian defence industry is severely stretched and unable to access western components to produce sufficient equipment. Russia now desperately searches for foreign armaments and has had to resort to mobilising Soviet-era tanks.

If we in the United Kingdom are united in our resolve to maintain our support for Ukraine and to continue doing everything we can, whether individually or in concert with friends and allies to deliver that support, it is worth noting that in Ukraine itself there is no war fatigue. Polling in Ukraine shows huge positivity about its future, which is to be commended. Once again, the courage of the people in Ukraine is admirable and deserving of our respect and commendation.

On the matter of replenishment, as the noble Lord will be aware, the Government are engaged on their own replenishment mission with industry. The UK’s position is not unique in NATO with regard to industrial capacity and stockpile replenishment. The UK is driving thinking on solutions to this issue. We will continue to work with international partners and deepen engagement with industry through meetings with the NATO armaments director, the Ukraine Defense Contact Group and the NATO Industry Advisory Group.

Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Defence), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence)

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Coaker, pointed out, eyes are all turned towards Israel and Gaza at the moment. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made about the impact that that is having on President Putin and whether he is taking an opportunity to engage further in Ukraine while we look to Israel and Gaza? Beyond that, the House was told last night by the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, that there has been a British deployment of support to the eastern Mediterranean of two Royal Naval ships, RAF surveillance aircraft and a company of Royal Marines—and we have bolstered forces in Cyprus and across the region. All that is in many ways welcome, but can the Minister explain what assessment is being made in the MoD about our own resilience to make sure that we can continue to support the training of troops in Ukraine as well as in the eastern Mediterranean, because both those fronts are vital?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble Baroness is absolutely right to indicate that there is nothing that Mr Putin would like better than to imagine that everybody is distracted by another dangerous conflict and that somehow or other he is off the radar screen. For the United Kingdom and our allies, the tragic situation with Israel and the Gaza Strip and the situation in Ukraine continue to be deeply worrying conflicts. We will do our level best, as we have indicated, to provide support where we can. The noble Baroness designated the support that we have indicated we can make available in the eastern Mediterranean. I can confirm to her that that is not impugning our resilience on other fronts. As she will understand, the support that we are offering to Ukraine is somewhat different in character, but we are able and absolutely committed to continue doing that. I hope that there will be opportunities to update the House in forthcoming months as to exactly how that support will continue.

Photo of Baroness Fall Baroness Fall Conservative

My Lords, we witnessed Putin in China last weekend, a guest of honour at the Chinese celebrations to mark the 10th anniversary of the belt and road initiative. He noted that they had common threads bringing together Russia and China and, as we know, China has offered economic and diplomatic support to Russia the whole way through. Neither state has condemned the atrocities that we have seen by Hamas on Israel. Are we witnessing a growing coalition of authoritarian states, including Iran and North Korea? What is His Majesty’s Government’s response, especially with regard to the future of Ukraine?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

As my noble friend will be aware, the combination of the two integrated reviews, not least the integrated review refresh of this year, demonstrated His Majesty’s Government’s analysis of what we consider the challenge position to be globally. That reaffirmed that our primary objective is Euro-Atlantic security but of course Euro-Atlantic security is, frankly, indivisible from Indo-Pacific security. Therefore, we are active on all fronts to use all the measures available to us to support friends and allies who believe in the same values that we believe in. That includes calling out activity that we find unacceptable. For example, we have called out China’s activity in the South China seas and called out the deeply concerning situation in Xinjiang with regard to the treatment of Uighurs. In the United Nations, we regularly call out the activities of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

I reassure my noble friend that, across a whole range of fronts, we are very clear about what we need to do to stand up for rights, values and democratic freedoms. Encouragingly, we do not do that alone—we do it in concert with very important friends and allies.

Photo of Lord Craig of Radley Lord Craig of Radley Crossbench

My Lords, UK defence spending needs long-term clarity. What assessment have His Majesty’s Government made of the cost of current levels of support for Ukraine over the next two years and its impact on provision for UK defence over a similar period?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

I have been able to indicate to the Chamber, and reiterate it to the noble and gallant Lord, that we are satisfied that we have the resource not only to attend to our indigenous domestic security and defence needs but to continue affording the help that we have been affording to Ukraine, for example. The noble and gallant Lord will be aware of figures that have been settled for last year and this year in respect of that aid. I do not want to pre-empt the Autumn Statement—it would be quite wrong to do that—but I reassure him that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor, the past Secretary of State for Defence and the current Secretary of State for Defence are absolutely aligned on wanting to continue our support of Ukraine.

Photo of Lord Berkeley of Knighton Lord Berkeley of Knighton Crossbench

My Lords, there has obviously been great emphasis on support for Ukraine in terms of arms, but is the Minister aware— I am sure she is—that one of the things it most badly needs is medical supplies? This, of course, can save a lot of lives; indeed, probably on both sides. It is something that I feel the Government could manage rather more easily than many of the other demands that are made of them.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

It is an important area, and we have been able to provide significant help with medical support. That has included supply of equipment and goods that are assisting Ukraine in defence of its country. We are also, within the UK, helping to treat some wounded members of the Ukrainian armed forces. We have expert medical facilities available within the MoD medical services and there are other ways that we are investigating, along with allies, how we can continue to provide that essential area of support.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, following on the humanitarian theme, the Minister may be aware of a documentary airing on ITV this week, “Ukraine’s Stolen Children”, about the very large number of children that have been kidnapped, deceived and dragged into Russia and not returned except after the most difficult struggle. Can the noble Baroness assure me that the British Government are doing everything they can to help the families who are trying to recover their children and to document what is happening for potential future prosecutions—in essence, doing everything they can to assist families in this terrible situation?

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip), The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence

The noble Baroness raises a very important issue that will strike at the cords of the hearts of us all. I can reassure her that the United Kingdom Government have been assisting the International Criminal Court with resource, advice and support. We have also been assisting Ukraine with its internal domestic legal system. She is quite correct: what has been happening in respect of these children is utterly appalling and repugnant. We will do anything we can within the limited scope we have—limited because those children are now in some other state’s jurisdiction. She is right, it is appalling, and we will continue to do whatever we can to help Ukraine resolve these matters.