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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Davies. I thank Daniel Kawczynski for securing the debate. It has been exciting for me: I spend so much of my time talking about the European Union that it has been great to get out and look at something slightly wider.
The UK has had a difficult relationship with Russia in recent years. It could well be described as complex and fluid, and occasionally hostile; it has rarely got above cool in the past 70 years. Economically, this country’s trade with Russia is modest and has been on a decreasing trend in recent years. Nevertheless, it is important that disruption to our trading relationship with Russia is kept to a minimum, because it has an impact on companies in this country and particularly on pension funds that invest in companies such as BP.
Outside the economic and trade interest, several main potential threats to Anglo-Russian relations arise as a result of Russian foreign policy, particularly in Ukraine and Crimea, and NATO’s response. They include: the presence of a number of Russians in the UK whom the UK has refused to extradite to Russia; Russian money—I am talking about criminal money, money laundering of Russian criminal money in the UK and its impact on our society, which is largely on the housing market in the capital—and the UK’s response to recent Russian involvement in Syria.
The UK Government, in their 2015 national security strategy, stated that Russia’s actions in Ukraine justified a stronger NATO response, but deemed Russian military action against NATO “highly unlikely”. We have taken a quite pragmatic approach to Russia. We recognise that Russia is flexing its muscles, largely to impress and threaten those states on its borders, but is being very careful not to threaten larger and stronger states and organisations such as the UK, the EU and NATO. We would recognise that as typical bullying behaviour. Despite all that, the national security strategy, as has been said, seeks to build on successful co-operation with Russia where it can. We have seen that happen quite successfully in the Iranian nuclear programme and co-operation in seeking to address the global threat from ISIL/Daesh.
In the past decade, a number of controversial Russian figures have been granted political asylum in the UK, and the UK Government have refused to extradite them at the request of the Russian Government. That has put huge strains on the Anglo-Russian diplomatic relationship, with a series of expulsions on both sides. However, whatever the rights and wrongs of Russia’s criticism of our asylum system, it is absolutely unacceptable that Russian criminals can come to this country and commit murder on the streets of London, as in the case of Alexander Litvinenko, only for the Russian Government to refuse to extradite those against whom a prima facie case has been established, in breach of international law. That case has renewed focus on Russian money in the UK, and its alleged links to Russian corruption.
In 2015, the National Crime Agency said that foreign criminals—it highlighted Russian criminals—are laundering billions of pounds of corrupt Russian money in London, pricing average Londoners out of being able to buy or even rent in central London. In 2016, the Prime Minister is to hold an anti-corruption summit and, among other things, I hope it will hold up a mirror to tax havens in the UK Crown dependencies and overseas territories, and so improve transparency in the UK property market.
Finally, I want to say something about the UK’s response to Russian involvement in Syria. Russia has a long relationship with the Government of Syria and regards Syria as being in the Russian domain of influence. However, the recent Russian military intervention has had mixed results. Human rights organisations working in the region have reported that the Russian military targeted hospitals and civilians, claiming that, in the six months to February 2016, Russian air strikes killed 1,000 civilians, including 200 children. Equally clearly, the Russian military intervention has helped to drive back ISIL/Daesh and, without doubt, it has strengthened the position of Bashar al-Assad and his Syrian army. It has also had some impact on forcing him towards a shaky truce, which we hope will solidify and, in the days ahead, include Aleppo.
It is clear to me that Vladimir Putin understands strength and weakness, and very little else. He alone supports the UK voting to leave the European Union, when every other world leader and organisation that wish this country well want us to remain in the EU. That can only be because he sees a Brexit as resulting in a weaker UK and a weaker EU, which he views as a good thing. Anglo-Russian relations will remain stable and, we hope, improve only if the UK remains part of a strong NATO, a strong European Union and a strong western alliance that is prepared to stand up to the aggression of its neighbour to the east.