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Anglo-Russian Relations

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:27 pm on 4th May 2016.

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Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 5:27 pm, 4th May 2016

This has been a well-informed and useful debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski on bringing it to the Floor of the House.

My hon. Friend began with a personal statement and a reflection on his own journey and his understanding of the importance of such bilateral relations. I pay tribute to him for adding value to the House by bringing to our attention not only Russia, but other countries, and aspects of the relationships, concerns and issues that we might not necessarily have been aware of. That is important, and I pay tribute to him for it. I absolutely agree with him that we need to have such debates and that we need to understand better our complex relationship with Russia.

Russia is a country that I did not know an awful lot about before I came into the House. I took a huge interest in Afghanistan, but I had not really appreciated Russia and what had happened in Afghanistan until I did some reading. I read an amazing book, “Afgantsy”, by Rodric Braithwaite, who did a fantastic job in letting me understand the details rather than the headlines, which might often articulate a very different picture. I recommend the book.

The lesson there is to ensure that we continue to develop relationships, to have dialogue and to further, where we can, the bilateral bond that exists, despite some of the challenges that have been focused on today. There is no doubt an aspiration for a more co-operative relationship with Russia. Indeed, at the end of the cold war, I remember those amazing scenes with Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Gorbachev, and I remember glasnost and perestroika—these words became known and are now, I think, in the Oxford English Dictionary. The end of the cold war brought a new opportunity to re-engage with a country that, after the end of the second world war, had denied to Europe the chance to work as it should.

However, it is now clear that the integration of Russia into the international system was short-lived. Efforts were made to include Russia in the G8, the World Trade Organisation and the Council of Europe, of which my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh was an active member, and to address the Russian perception that the west was determined, and had a strategy, to encircle Russia. Efforts were made across those fronts and to mollify Russia and say that NATO is not a threat, but a reactive organisation, ready to go proactive if required.

For a time, those efforts brought Russia and the international community closer together, but a more mature and co-operative partnership has not blossomed. Much that we now see is because of President Putin’s unfortunate disregard for international law and standards. One issue that affected us directly, and was on the front pages of all our newspapers, was the 2006 poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, a British citizen, here in London with a radioactive substance. An independent judicial inquiry in January 2016 concluded that the crime was probably approved by the then FSB director, Nikolai Patrushev, which led to concerns about the manner in which Russia goes about dealing with those who wish to speak up or challenge what it says.

Other actions by Russia have also been raised in this debate, and concerns have been raised about its direction of travel. Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, and my hon. Friend talked about Crimea as if it had been written off. I wonder whether the people of Crimea are aware of how people in South Ossetia or Abkhazia are enjoying life now. They are completely isolated, and are recognised only by Argentina and Russia itself. The rest of the world has no formal relations with that part of the world. Is that really where Crimea wants to go? I do not know.

The occupation of Crimea in 2014 raises a question mark, and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham asked the Prime Minister at Question Time whether he encourages greater relations. The international community must stand up when nations decide to redraw the lines on the map. It is important to recognise that the international community must work together, and we have seen Russia providing military support to separatist forces in eastern Ukraine in a blatant attempt to destabilise the country. The United Nations suggests that more than 9,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed, with more than 20,000 wounded. Sadly, the situation created the conditions for the Malaysia Airlines MH17 tragedy, in which 298 passengers and crew, including 10 British citizens, were killed.

All that instability, and human misery, was and is entirely avoidable. We can move forward from this—for those who are not aware, sanctions are divided into two separate categories: those affecting Crimea and those relating to the Minsk agreement on the eastern Ukraine—and, yes, we can get back towards more normalised relations if the Minsk agreement is recognised. It is in Russia’s gift to do so, and we encourage it to take the necessary steps to provide a diplomatic solution to the crisis that we face.

On a positive note, despite our differences, there is no desire to isolate or ostracise Russia, or to push it away. Quite the opposite: we want Russia to be included in the international community. We have heard examples of the role that Russia plays as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, participating in a range of foreign policy priorities, not least on the Iranian nuclear deal, which has profoundly changed the trajectory of where the middle east may go—I say “may” because there are an awful lot of caveats and concerns. To date, Iran still has yet to change its behaviour and outlook towards places such as Bahrain, Yemen, Damascus, Syria and Beirut. Nevertheless, the people of Iran now have an opportunity and that has been brought about because of the collaboration between the United States of America, Britain, France and so forth and, of course, Russia.

Syria has also been mentioned, but I can only repeat what I said in the Chamber yesterday. We look to Russia, with its unique influence over the regime, to ensure that the cessation of hostilities does not break down. Russia has a unique relationship with Assad because of a historical relationship and an influence in that neck of the woods that goes back to 1946 and the independence of the country. We expect Russia, and want Putin, to place pressure on Assad to stop the attacks, and to allow the ceasefire to embed and peace negotiations to continue.

I would just mention to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough that there has been a period of Russia unbalancing Syria, by not attacking Daesh, but deliberately attacking Assad’s opposition—and not only that, but denying airspace for us, the international community, to freely take on Daesh in the wider context of Syria.

On a positive note, there is an awful lot of engagement. The Prime Minister has met President Putin at the G20 summit, the Foreign Secretary does speak and engage with Foreign Minister Lavrov, on a number of multilateral engagements, and the Minister for Europe visited Moscow very recently indeed. I had the opportunity to meet President Putin at the European Games in Baku in Azerbaijan last year. I was not quite expecting to see him, but I told him that a friend of mine had cause to use Russian transport and was a bit concerned about international developments—the east and west—in case he got stuck at the end of his destination and was unable to get back. That friend of mine was called Tim Peake. He was using a Soyuz space capsule to get up to the international space station and did not want to be abandoned up there. Mr Putin grabbed my arm and said, “Mr Ellwood, tell Mr Peake that we will not abandon him.” That gives an indication that it is possible to isolate some of the enormous concerns we have. The sanctions that are put in place allow us to work on the international stage to tackle some of the problems. Culturally, professionally and, indeed, from an industrial and commercial perspective, we are able to continue those relationships.

Since the cold war, successive British Governments, quite rightly, have wanted Europe to build a strategic partnership with Russia. However, this Russian Government have made it clear that they regard the west with mistrust and view NATO—and, increasingly, the EU—as a threat to their interests. A fundamental divergence of values and interests, combined with the unpredictability of Russian behaviour, has increasingly limited the scope of Anglo-Russian relations, but the Government’s objectives regarding Russia are to protect the UK’s interests and those of our allies and partners; to uphold the rules-based international order in the face of Russian aggression; to engage with Russia on global security issues; in key areas of shared interest, to promote our values, including the rule of law and human rights; and to build stronger links between the British and Russian people more widely. That balanced approach is aligned to British interests and I hope that hon. Members of all parties can support it.