I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Russian Federation activity in the UK and globally.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. This is an important issue for me and I hope that others will see it as important, too. I am thankful to those who are taking part in this debate.
One of the most significant challenges that we face in this era is the Kremlin’s political conflict against the west. It is one of our most complex problems. Western states arguably face a new kind of conflict, in which all the tools of the state, non-military as much as military, are combined in a dynamic, efficient and integrated way to achieve political effect. I have called this brief debate to seek updates from the Government on a series of issues. If the Minister will allow me, I will outline 10 ideas concisely, which I hope the Government will take on board. That does not mean that I am not supportive of government policy at the moment. We have some down time after the immediacy of the Skripal poisoning to think more comprehensively about our relationship with the Russian Federation and its Government.
It is important to note that this is not about being anti-Russian, despite some of the nonsense that comes out of the Russian Embassy and Russia Today. The friendliness of Russians to the English during the World cup, shows that the Kremlin’s hostility to the UK is not shared more widely, regardless of whether we think President Putin is a popular leader or not. The World cup, however, is proving to be a PR godsend to his regime, because elsewhere it is business as usual for the Kremlin. The same day that England beat Panama 6-1, which everyone was very happy about, Russian jets were in operation in southern Syria, allegedly hitting civilian targets, the war in eastern Ukraine continued and dirty money continued to flow through and to London.
Critically, Russia’s slide towards an authoritarian stance is part of a trend taking place around the globe—the rise of authoritarian states, which use open societies to protect and promote their interests, as well as to damage those open societies. China, Russia and Iran, as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah, all use a complex mix of tactics.
One of the problems for western states is that we have not had a definition of this hybrid or full-spectrum war. A month ago I presented what I think may have been the first comprehensive, peer-reviewed definition in the western world. I argued that contemporary Russian conflict was sophisticated and integrated. At its heart is the old KGB active measures conflict, as it was called, a form of political warfare, around which has been wrapped the full spectrum of state power. I argued that there are at least 50 tools within this full spectrum of warfare, which can be divided up in six broad elements with command and control at its heart. This Matryoshka doll of conflict is one of the forms of conflict that we in the west will have to get used to, because it will be used. It is important to understand that Russia is probably the most sophisticated user of those tactics, but not the only one.
Russia’s aims towards the west are perhaps more difficult to fathom. Contemporary Russian conflict appears to seek to divide and demoralise us—especially those states that border Russia—to damage the cohesion of NATO and the European Union, and potentially to break down the bonds that bind western alliances within the European Union.
Russia’s allies are doing rather well at the moment. The Freedom party in Austria and the Northern League in Italy are both in power. For me, the most important point is that it is about reorienting Russian society away from a liberal model of development—albeit a corrupt, chaotic and unsuccessful one in the 1990s—to a much more authoritarian model. We are the enemy, not only because we represent an alternative to that but because the Kremlin security establishment needs an enemy to help it to exert control over the Russian people. We see that in the daily diet of propaganda on Russian state television.
I strongly support the Government’s actions in recent months, but now that the immediacy of the Skripal case has passed, I would like to propose a series of measures, which I would be grateful if the Government would at least consider and maybe discuss with me at a time of their own convenience. First, I believe that we need to methodically expose what Russians and others are doing. In the 1970s and 1980s the United States established what it called an inter-agency active measures group, which investigated and publicised what was then known as active measures—the KGB form of subversion. As I said, that included tools such as disinformation, propaganda, assassination, support for terrorist groups, smears and espionage, running agents of influence, etc. I believe that we need to set up something similar, some kind of permanent structure to look at subversive operations against the west, the UK and our allies.
I am sure the hon. Gentleman will come on to this point. Does he agree that the Electoral Commission, in responding to measures aimed at subverting democratic processes in this country, is entirely unfit for purpose, that it is an analogue regulator in a digital age, and that, in fact, we should be integrating its functions into the National Crime Agency and giving it real forensic investigatory ability, to ensure that attempts to subvert our democracy are dealt with effectively and properly?
I think the hon. Gentleman is more of an expert than I am on that. I absolutely think that the strength of our electoral systems and their vulnerability is one of the critical issues. I think it is number 8 on my list, so I will come to it shortly. I am grateful for his suggestion, which goes further than what I would propose.
To wind up the first point, occasional Government statements are good, as are some excellent Select Committee reports, but I believe we need something more permanent —not something that points fingers at the Russians but something that seeks to methodically understand the way subversive operations operate in the western world. We face a new kind of political conflict from hackers, trolls, assassins, politically connected business executives and market manipulators, spin doctors, paid-for protestors and criminals, who are often more usable and useful than conventional tools of conflict. On that point about market manipulators, given the Bloomberg investigation earlier this week, which showed that hedge funds had been buying private polling data that effectively allowed them to front-run the Brexit vote, is it not time to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into the behaviour of those involved, especially considering statements made by some party political leaders at the time of the result, which appeared to concede defeat, despite possibly being told by their favoured pollsters that the Leave campaign would likely win? I choose my words carefully, but I think there is a prima facie case here, which is concerning.
Secondly, I believe we should introduce a list, as they have in the United States, of PR and other agents of Russian influence in the UK. Russians will have influence in this country that is clear and above board, but people who work for President Putin, one of the oligarchs, a proxy front or a third group linked to them need to be open about it and we need to have some kind of register. Perhaps that will be a voluntary thing for PR companies to do; it may be something for the Select Committees to do; but it may equally be something for Government to look at. We also need to ensure that the House of Lords has the same anti-sleaze standards as the House of Commons. It does not at the moment, and I think we can expect more scandals.
We do have a problem with Russian influence here, on both the hard right and the hard left. I have written about Seamus Milne’s mirroring of Russian lines in 2014 and 2015, when he was working for The Guardian. I wrote about it in The Sunday Times in the spring. He is clearly one of a number of people with uncomfortably close links to the Kremlin around the Labour leadership. I believe that that does not serve democracy well.
Thirdly, we should introduce laws to ensure a health warning on broadcasters and other media that are paid-for propagandists for authoritarian states. A counter-propaganda Bill is going through Congress to do just that. Just as we have a public health warning on a packet of cigarettes, we can have some kind of public health warning on a TV channel that is a propagandistic outfit for an authoritarian state, which does not have an independent editorial line. If we shut down Russia Today or RT—or whatever it is calling itself this week—in our country, we can expect the Russians to shut down the BBC in their country and they would probably quite like an opportunity to do so. I am not suggesting that we do that. I am suggesting that TV stations that do not have an independent editorial line should be forced to advertise that fact in some way. The Countering Foreign Propaganda Bill, which is going through Congress at the moment, is potentially a model.
Fourthly, we should properly fund the BBC World Service radio and TV, and boost the Russian service more than is currently being done. We are in a battle with authoritarian states globally to promote free speech and open societies. I do not think this is a battle we should aim to lose; it is an important one to win. For me —this is a wider point—the Department for International Development should be paying all £400 million for that, as part of a fundamental rethink of what global Britain means and how we spend that 0.7%, because I do not believe that we get value for money for it at the moment.
Fifthly, we should change our visa regime to make it easier for ordinary Russians, Ukrainians, Georgians and people from that part of the world to come here, and more difficult for oligarchs, rather than the other way around. At the moment, our visa regime with too many countries rewards kleptocrats at the expense of ordinary people. I congratulate the Government, potentially, on a recent oligarch visa decision.
Sixthly, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office needs to be more active in seeing Russian influence in the round. I am sure the Minister would say that it does, but more vocality, if that is the right word—being more vocal—on Nord Stream 2 would not go amiss. I am aware of recent statements by the German leadership about oil concerns for Ukraine, but we know how the Kremlin tends to get around such promises. We also need to ensure that the Kremlin’s appalling war crimes in Syria, which are genuine, significant, serious and consistent, are recorded for history. We should work with others, if need be, to shout about it and use open-source information to highlight it.
We should also take much more interest in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee in 2016, in relation to the manipulation of the US presidential elections, which may be one of the most serious and significant cases of Kremlin and Russian espionage that we will ever witness in our lifetime. An important part of that process took place in London and probably involved Mr Julian Assange as the recipient and online publisher of the material stolen from the DNC. It is bizarre that we have not heard more from the Mueller inquiry in relation to London, because so many links seem to go through it.
I ask the Minister, and I choose my words carefully, what the current Ecuadorian Government are doing to encourage Mr Assange’s exit and an end to this process. What representations have the Government had from Jennifer Robinson or other members of his Australian, UK-Australian and UK legal team? Two Australian consular officials recently visited Mr Assange, and I am curious as to why.
What passport does Mr Assange hold? I was told that it was an Ecuadorian diplomatic one, but it may not be. I ask that because the Soviets sprang George Blake from Wormwood Scrubs in 1966 and I am aware that under the previous Ecuadorian Government, the Ecuadorian secret service looked at a series of possibilities to get Mr Assange out, including a rooftop escape by helicopter, getting lost in the crowds in Harrods—I did not know it was that popular—being smuggled out in the ambassador’s car and being made the Ecuadorian ambassador to the United Nations. I stress that there has been a change of Government in Ecuador, and I suspect those plans are no longer in the state they were before, but I would be grateful for the assurance that the Government are aware of the risks, especially in propaganda terms.
There are several potential suspects. A courier—a cut-out—was likely used to take the DNC-hacked material from the GRU, Russian military intelligence, and the Guccifer 2.0 account from Moscow to Mr Assange in London, possibly via a diplomatic pouch or a third country. Two weeks ago, James Clapper, a former director of US national intelligence, said that a suspect had been identified last year, so this is a live issue that very much relates to Russian activity in the United Kingdom and the United States.
Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, who is making a most interesting and powerful speech, but I want to ensure that we are not straying into anything that is sub judice.
Thank you, Mr Bone. I am well aware of the point.
The suspects in this case range from the improbable to the possible. There are many Australians on the visitor logs to the embassy, which I have seen, but there is no evidence, and little reason, for those people to have been involved in handling stolen material. There have been allegations that UK politicians may have been conduits, but it should be clearly stated that again, there is no hard evidence.
The Guardian has indicated several people, including a courier who has worked for Mr Assange in the past. A German gentleman who fits his description visited the embassy in late September, on the same day as the date stamp on the second DNC dump, which included the Podesta emails.
The FSB might have continued to use journalists. The first dump of DNC emails ended on
Up to 80 people could be suspects, so I would be grateful if the Government could shed any light on who they believe is the culprit and whether they will encourage the US to name a suspect. I ask because the guilty parties were probably acting on behalf of the Kremlin to bring stolen material from the United States into Britain to influence the US presidential elections, which is incredibly serious.
To return to the main theme of my speech, my seventh point is that we should give Ofcom greater powers. The Latvian Government regularly complain about the content of Russian broadcasters from London who spew out propaganda in their country. Ofcom’s investigations take up to a year, while RT and Sputnik churn out a regular diet of anti-western nonsense. I do not believe that we should ban RT or Sputnik, as I have told the Minister, but we need to strengthen Ofcom’s powers, including fines and rights of reply, and ensure that it investigates broadcasters of knowingly fake or propagandistic news more quickly.
Eighthly, we should use our financial and legal powers to hurt people around the Kremlin regime. Transparency International has identified £4.4 billion-worth of properties in the UK that were bought with suspicious wealth, a fifth of which was Russian. I am curious to know whether any unexplained wealth orders have been used against people from eastern Europe.
Ninthly, we need to look at conventional deterrence as well, and I am sure we will do that at the coming NATO summit, which is causing a certain amount of consternation in political and military circles in Europe because of Mr Trump’s, shall we say, erratic tweets. Russia’s political and financial dealings with the west are part of a multi-faceted strategy that runs from information warfare to military dominance of its neighbours, including dominance in tactical nuclear weapons and conventional missiles. It is part of a holistic strategy that includes military and non-military elements.
Finally, to repeat the point that Stephen Kinnock made, we need to understand the threat of bots and fake news to our democracy and our electoral system. We have seen how divisive disputed elections are, and one only has to look to Capitol Hill to see that Democrats want to talk about the 2016 US presidential election but Republicans definitely do not. In much the same way, Brexiteers refuse to discuss the referendum here. I voted for Brexit, and I have seen no serious and significant evidence that the referendum here was manipulated, but the time to talk about it is now—as soon as possible. Does the Minister realise how disastrous it would be for our country to have disputed elections and referendums in the same way as the United States? The German secret service recently accused the Russians of being heavily engaged online in the Catalonian referendum and in other elections in the European Union. We have already discussed the United States. Does he realise the urgency of this issue? We should do this now, not in two years’ time.
To sum up, we need to spend more money on hard power, but we also need to get the balance between hard and soft power right. We need to fundamentally re-examine what global Britain means and how we can maximise our influence in the world to defend the existing order and gently but resolutely deter countries that wish to undermine it, such as the Russian Federation under its current leadership and other states. Russian conflict strategies are an example of how political and other forms of war and conflict are changing. I am ready and willing to help and support the Government in that challenge, and I hope that they are willing to listen to me and other hon. Members on both sides of the House who wish to contribute to that debate.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. It is also a pleasure to follow Mr Seely, who made an excellent and powerful speech.
I remember my first flight to St Petersburg in May 2005 as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to take up my post as director of the British Council’s operations there, and I felt a palpable sense of hope combined with a healthy dose of trepidation. I was looking forward to improving my Russian and getting settled into my new life in St Pete before formally starting the job in September, but I was also wondering what the coming years held in store for me, given the parlous state of the bilateral relationship.
Equally memorable, but for very different reasons, was my flight out of Russia in January 2008. The British Council had become a pawn in the stand-off that followed the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by two state-sponsored hitmen on the streets of London, and we had been forced to close our St Petersburg office. In spite of the aggression and unpleasantness that came to dominate the relationship between the British Council and the Russian authorities, Russia will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a fascinating country of contradictions, extremes, suffering and joy, and I will never forget my time there. A wise person once said: “You can leave Russia, but it will never leave you,” and I can certainly confirm the truth of that statement.
Being in the eye of that diplomatic storm for a couple of years enabled me to see at first hand the extent to which politics is underpinned by emotion, instinct, psychology and history. Russia is a proud nation, and its people are deeply attached to the concept of uvazhaniye, or respect. The national psyche is rooted in a sense that no Russian should ever be treated as second-rate, and anchored by the suspicion that Mother Russia is constantly being disrespected and destabilised by malevolent external forces.
The identity, instincts and mindset of the Russian people are shaped by geography. Inhabitants of a vast landmass, a country with borders so long that they are impossible to defend, the Russians have always suffered from encirclement anxiety. Their world view is shaped by the conviction that those who seek to exploit and undermine nasha rodina—the motherland—are constantly hovering on her doorstep, and their default position is therefore to strike first, to subjugate their neighbours and from this platform to build a sphere of influence.
From the empire-building of Peter the Great, to the establishment of the Soviet Union and its extension to the eastern bloc countries, the Russians’ constant and furious opposition to the expansion of NATO and Putin’s adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, the narrative of encirclement provides the backdrop to every chapter of Russia’s turbulent history and actuality. That potent combination of pride and paranoia lies at the heart of every big political decision that has ever been made in Russia. It is the iron thread that connects the Tsars to Stalin and Putin.
Understanding the historical, cultural and geopolitical forces that shape Russian behaviour is by no means the same as excusing it. The Russian Government have literally been allowed to get away with murder for far too long. There are 10,000 dead in Ukraine, and 10 times that number in Syria. Alexander Litvinenko was brutally murdered by the Russian state, and at least a dozen more adversaries of Mr Putin died in suspicious circumstances on the streets of London. Anna Politkovskaya and Boris Nemtsov were assassinated in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin. Now we have Sergei Skripal, his daughter and a British police officer struck down by a nerve agent on the streets of a quiet town in Wiltshire.
The Skripal attacks provoked a great deal of speculation about why the Kremlin would choose to carry out such a high-profile hit just a few short months before the World cup. In my view, the explanation is a simple one, encapsulated in two simple words: greed and self-preservation. The Putin regime has no guiding ideology. It exists to protect and further the financial interests of a narrow elite and to preserve its grip on power. It is a kleptocracy, turbocharged by hydrocarbons.
When oil is selling at more than $100 a barrel, there are rich pickings, and the nexus of government officials and mafia bosses who run modern Russia are able to live and co-exist in relative peace and harmony. A few years ago, the price dropped to near $40 a barrel, and although it has risen recently, it is still struggling to reach $70. The pie has shrunk, which has constrained the Kremlin’s ability to incentivise and buy loyalty. What does a Russian President do if they are no longer able to offer the carrot to their henchmen and cronies? They must deploy the stick. They must send the message, loud and clear, to all those who may know their secrets, and be thinking about betraying them, that retribution will be brutal, cruel and swift.
While assassination on the streets of Britain is Putin’s specific weapon of choice in securing the loyalty of the various clans and cabals that run Russia, he also knows that he must retain the broader support of the Russian people. He has done that through a series of cynical and ruthless foreign policy initiatives and military interventions. He knows that he needs to compensate for the abject failure of his Government to place the Russian economy on a sustainable growth footing, and he does so by seeking to unite his people against a range of common enemies. It is the oldest trick in the book. Thus the Russian threat to our security is not only through the Salisbury attack or the murder of Litvinenko. We see it in the invasion of Ukraine and the indiscriminate bombing of Syria. From 24 to
As we have seen with the refugee crisis and the threat from Islamic State, the effects of Russian intervention have rippled directly on to our shores. President Putin deploys state-sponsored murder to retain the loyalty and discipline of his immediate entourage, and he uses military aggression to secure the broader support of the Russian people. Those strategies represent a grave threat to our national security and the security of our partners and allies. Both strategies must be tackled and defeated.
Russia’s geopolitical influence and substantial military clout stand in stark contrast to the small size and fragile state of its economy. In 2013, Russia’s economy was roughly the size of Italy’s and considerably smaller than Germany’s. Russia is grossly over-reliant on hydrocarbons, with approximately 70% of its GDP linked to the oil and gas industries. With the price of a barrel of oil plummeting, the value of the rouble tumbling, the demographic time bomb ticking, sanctions biting and poor economic policy decisions compounding those problems, the Russian economy is facing a perfect storm.
Against that backdrop, sanctions as a foreign policy tool are ultimately likely to have real effect. The sectoral sanctions imposed by the EU in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 by a Russian-made missile in July 2014 certainly led Russia to tread more carefully in its incursions into eastern Ukraine. There is some evidence to suggest that President Putin is not actively seeking to up the ante there.
The UK Government must now build on the success of those measures by committing to the following things. First, we must ensure that the Magnitsky amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018 is implemented effectively. The Magnitsky amendment was a vital change to the legislation because it strikes at the hypocritical heart of the Putin regime, and makes clear to those with hidden assets in the west that Putin cannot protect them. For it to be effective, however, the sanctions list must be as accurate as possible, and the Government must therefore set out how members of the public, Members of Parliament and peers can suggest additional names to be added to the sanctions list and the visa bans.
Secondly, we must continue to support asset freezes, visa bans and economic sanctions against Russia until such time as the terms of the Minsk ceasefire agreement, under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, have been fully implemented. Minsk is far from ideal, but it represents the only hope for stability and peace.
Thirdly, we must continue to support sanctions that are specifically connected to the annexation of Crimea for as long as Crimea is occupied.
Fourthly, we must commit to supporting the training and equipping of Ukrainian forces in the event of any attempt by Russia to ramp up hostilities in Ukraine, for example through a new land grab.
Fifthly, we must press for full implementation of the EU-Ukraine deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. Russian concerns about the DCFTA are simply not credible. Ukraine is a sovereign country and is therefore free to sign international agreements as it sees fit.
Sixthly, we must argue forcefully for the completion of the EU energy union. The EU’s fragmented energy market and infrastructure cause several EU member states, including Germany, to be more reliant than is necessary on Russian oil and gas. That in turn gives Russia disproportionate influence in its dealings with the EU. By investing in interconnectors and integrating the energy trading market, the EU would fundamentally rebalance its relationship with Russia.
Seventhly, we must address the elephant in the room: the World cup. FIFA has handed Putin a propaganda coup, and in the wake of the Skripal poisoning, it was right for the Government to confirm that there would be no official UK representation at the Word cup. We must hold firm to that.
My abiding memory of my time in Russia was of a burgeoning sense of polarisation between society and state. I saw and heard the values, instincts and hopes of growing numbers of young, well-educated and internationally minded Russians contrasting sharply with an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian governing elite.
Support for Putin was, and still is, relatively strong and widespread, but it is brittle. He derives his legitimacy from the fact that people are prepared to trade the rule of law, pluralism, transparency and freedom of speech for the security, stability and economic growth that he offers. However, when Russian holiday jets are being blown up in response to military adventurism, and when recession and inflation become the dominant features of the Russian economy, many more Russians will start to draw the conclusion that their President is failing to keep his side of the bargain.
Change in Russia, however, will not come any time soon, as evidenced by the recent election. President Putin can still count on the support of the majority of Russian voters, with the only notable exception being the growing middle class in Moscow and St Petersburg. Clearly, the assiduously developed propaganda that is pumped out by the state media machine plays a major role in maintaining Putin’s approval ratings, but my time in Russia also taught me that the Russian people are still traumatised by what they perceive to have been the chaos and humiliation of the Yeltsin years. The stability that Putin brought following that turbulent period continues to underpin his popularity today.
It is essential that we respect the will of the Russian people. Vladimir Putin has been their leader of choice for more than 15 years, and he will continue as President until 2022. Let us therefore engage with Russia as it is, not how we would like it to be. Let us demonstrate through our words and deeds that we truly understand the history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives of this vast nation with huge potential.
Let us also be absolutely clear, strong and resolute in the face of Russian aggression. That clarity, strength and resolution must start right here in this House. The Kremlin will constantly and consistently attempt to divide us, and we must not allow them to do so. That is why it is vital that my party makes it crystal clear that we support both the words and actions of the Government, the EU and our NATO allies in dealings with Russia.
This is not the moment for whataboutery. This is the time for a robust defence of our values, and clear recognition that if a bully is given an inch, he will take a mile. Let us therefore move forward together, across parties and communities, to forge an unbreakable and unanimous position on this issue of profound importance to our national interest. Let us send this message to Mr Putin, loud and clear: “The British people will no longer tolerate the brazen and reckless actions of your regime, and we will no longer tolerate the way in which you and your cronies use London as a laundromat for your ill-gotten gains.”
We will act rapidly and robustly to deliver the changes that are long overdue. We have the utmost respect for the history and culture of Russia, and we will never forget the tremendous sacrifices that the Russian people made when they stood shoulder to shoulder with us to defeat the Nazis. We also accept that Russia will possibly—perhaps probably—never be a liberal democracy, and we have absolutely no desire to impose our world view. Nobody in their right mind is talking about regime change, but we need to see radical behaviour change.
At the outset of my speech I mentioned the Russian word uvazhaniye, meaning respect, and underlined the importance that Russia rightly attaches to being respected by others. Respect, however, is a two-way street, and it has to be earned. If the current occupants of the Kremlin wish to earn our respect, they must radically change their mindset and behaviour, and they must do so now.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the second time, Mr Bone, and to follow Stephen Kinnock. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Seely on securing today’s important debate, although my speech will be more about not letting our guard down than going through several points; I have no list.
As colleagues may be aware, this is an issue on which I have spoken several times since my election last year. Nevertheless, I continue to be concerned about Russia’s threatening activity. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and I remember the practice sirens to warn us of impending nuclear attack. That was the most chilling time of anyone’s life, and none of us wants to go back there.
Russia’s activity undoubtedly affects our country, and we continue to see Russian military forces probing our boundaries. That aspect of Russian behaviour poses a real danger to the UK and our overstretched armed forces. Russian submarine activity has increased tenfold in the north Atlantic in recent years, and last year we had to respond to 33 of those incursions. That is a concern, but the threat from Russia goes far beyond that. It is growing and adapting and the threat has now taken on a more malign form. In this country, we know that all too well, given the devastating and seemingly effortless use of the nerve agent Novichok on the streets of Salisbury earlier this year. Although that was indeed a reckless action, we would be naive to think that that is all that Russia has planned, given our level of exposure to a potentially catastrophic cyber-attack, similar to NotPetya in Ukraine. That follows warnings from GCHQ and the FBI that Russia is currently targeting millions of computers in preparation for a major cyber-attack.
Moreover, some of the evidence that we took in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee shows frightening use of bots and misinformation, which to my mind is aimed at driving wedges into the western alliance. We are not just dealing with traditional threats—those that come from land, sea and air. Hostile activity from Russia directed towards this country is becoming more common. It is also adapting and taking more aspersive forms: cyber-attacks. As I have said before, those are not the actions of a rational state with a stable leadership that wants to play by the rules. We should remember that when we consider our next steps.
When dealing with Russia we must try to look at the balance of power in Europe from a Russian point of view. As my hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh recently pointed out, there has been a sort of Russian national paranoia for most of its existence—especially since 1917—and with some reason. The hon. Member for Aberavon touched on that. Consider the losses and upheaval suffered through two world wars, with 20 million dead in world war two alone.
The Russian people are kept in a state of constant existential threat by their leadership. I do not believe that we in the west deliberately create that threat. We must maintain a strong defence, but that is read in Russia as a threat because that is how the modern Russian leadership clings to power and, incidentally, to unbelievable wealth. By portraying the west as an evil coalition determined to bring Russia to its knees, Putin’s administration manages the outlook of the Russian people. They feel surrounded, and therefore do what history teaches us that states in that condition do: they cling to a perceived powerful leader. It is no accident that Putin is often shown in a heroic light—sometimes bare chested, riding a horse and carrying a gun. I am very glad that our leaders do not do the same, although I am glad that our Government is showing strength and sending the strongest possible message of condemnation to the Russian leadership. Their continued provocations must be met with an appropriate and sustained response.
That response, however, must come from the international community as a whole, as we are seeing similar activity from Russia around the world. To pick just a couple of examples, we have seen the use of hard power in Crimea and Syria recently, as we saw it in Georgia and Chechnya in the past. Although I have no doubt that we will see that again in the future, it is right that, in the face of such hostility and overwhelming historical precedent, we deploy a range of tools from the full breadth of our national security apparatus, to prevent it from happening again. It is appropriate that we continue to push for NATO to strengthen its deterrence and defence capabilities, while ensuring that dialogue with Russia continues, as part of the alliance’s commitment to avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation.
We must also remember that the big scary bear to the east is not really that powerful at all, as was touched on earlier. Its economy is two thirds of ours; it is smaller than Italy’s. Its economy is also flatlining, showing no signs of growth. It does not stand a chance of competing seriously with us, Europe or America. So what does it do? It seeks to destabilise those around it, while concentrating the minds of its population on an existential threat. In the past, that meant massively investing in tanks, guns and aeroplanes, which they and we did, but they have discovered a new and much cheaper weapon of destabilisation, which could be equally devastating: the aforementioned cyber-attack. We have had several cyber-incursions of late. So far, we have dealt with them, but they are constant.
I have described Russia as not being so scary, but because it spends a significant amount of its GDP on defence, it has a very competent military—nothing close to the combined might of the west, but potentially devastating—and now the bear is wounded and cornered and therefore weak. Like any wild animal in such circumstances, it becomes incredibly dangerous. That is why we must maintain our alliances. We must maintain and enhance our defence spending. We need to secure our tier 1 military status as a matter of priority and maintain our position in NATO by increasing our own budget to 3% of GDP. We must also push for more NATO members to meet and exceed the target of investing 2% of their GDP on defence.
Overall, we must speak beyond the Russian leadership, who have a vested interest in maintaining the dangerous instability. We must speak directly to the Russian people, reassure them that we mean no harm and bring them into the fold of harmonious human co-existence. They might then rid themselves of their dangerous leadership and thus, as a peaceful neighbour, become a prosperous part of the European family.
We have no disagreement with the people of Russia, who have been responsible, as the Prime Minister said, for so many great achievements throughout their history—including the ongoing World Cup, which England will surely win. We must celebrate that which unites us, such as football, while being wary of that which divides us.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I am grateful to Mr Seely for securing time for this wide-ranging and topical debate. He also reminded us that the debate is not anti-Russian, and identified the need for a permanent structure against subversive measures. I agree with that and will return to it later.
I was pleased to listen to Stephen Kinnock with his direct knowledge of and insight into the Russian psyche and economy, and to Giles Watling, who raised cyber-attacks and incursions into the North sea, which are both issues that I will return to. I look forward to hearing the Front-Bench spokespeople in due course.
There can be almost nobody who disputes that the democratically elected Russian Government have some very draconian anti-gay and lesbian laws, have been implicated in the murders of a number of journalists and dissenters, and have form in ignoring international law and undermining state sovereignty; or that there are serious questions about Russian money laundering and dodgy cyber-activities promoting fake news and possibly influencing various electoral contests around the globe. The list seems almost endless, and I could go on, but I think everybody gets the idea.
Where should I begin? It is worth putting on the record my belief that the UK needs to maintain its co-operation with our allies in combating the various threats. That is best practice, irrespective of whether we believe the threats to be real or imagined. I have very real concerns that the UK is isolating itself through Brexit at a time when working with our European friends is more important than ever before. My colleagues and I in the Scottish National party believe the UK should pledge to remain a member of the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council post-Brexit. It is important that the UK maintains relations on the UN Security Council and keeps a united position with international allies on the matter of Russia. The SNP has been at the front of cross- party calls for the Government to adopt a Bill similar to the Magnitsky Act in the US, which would allow the foreign sanctions that the hon. Member for Aberavon spoke about earlier. I thoroughly agree with that.
We have heard much about the physical threats from Russia, including the Salisbury attack, Syria, the annexation of Crimea, and activity in the Georgian territories and Ukraine. I will not delve into those issues more deeply; I think we are all on the same page.
We know Russian bombers regularly probe NATO airspace with incursions as far south as Spain and as far north as Scotland. Russian jets pressing on the Scottish coast resulted in RAF jets being scrambled in January this year, and in September and May last year, and submarines pressed on the Scottish coast as recently as November and July last year. In October 2017, the then Defence Secretary told the Select Committee on Defence that there had been an “extraordinary increase” in Russian submarine activity in the north Atlantic. Scotland has a pivotal place in the High North and it is a critical point for national security.
In January 2018, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Sir Nick Carter, warned that the UK is trailing Russia in terms of defence spending and capability. There have been no maritime patrol aircraft since the last Nimrod left service in 2012. I call on the UK Government to restate their commitment to purchasing all nine of the promised Poseidon P-8 aircraft and to put defence resources in place as soon as possible.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of Russian activity relates to cyber-security infrastructure and threats to domestic politics and elections. No amount of conventional border controls or armed forces can protect against this new hybrid war. We need new specialists to counter the growing threat, and ensuring that the UK has the cyber-security experts it needs must be a priority for the Government. What steps are being taken to close the gap between the supply of and demand for those experts? What appraisal has been made of the effectiveness of programmes such as CyberFirst in encouraging students to pursue careers in cyber-security, because we are really going to need them?
The Select Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport inquiry into fake news has raised key concerns about Russia’s interference in UK politics and society, including evidence highlighting that between 6% and 7% of URL-sharing activity in the US election came from Russian sources. University of Edinburgh research has revealed that more than 400 Russian-run Twitter accounts that were active during the 2016 US presidential election were also actively posting about Brexit during the EU referendum. In March, the Sunday Herald reported that Scotland’s First Minister is facing online cyber-attacks from Kremlin trolls. She has been aggressively targeted on social media. The SNP has recommended that the Cabinet Office, the Electoral Commission, local government, GCHQ and the new National Cyber Security Centre establish permanent machinery for monitoring cyber-activity in respect to public figures, elections and referendums.
Accusations abound regarding potential Russian interference with the Brexit vote. I do not know how that stacks up. We will all have seen the press reports that appeared first in The Observer about Arron Banks, the millionaire businessman who bankrolled the Brexit leave campaign, having had multiple meetings with Russian embassy officials in the run-up to the referendum. The SNP wants to ensure that this specific case of interference in the Brexit referendum is investigated fully and impartially, and that the implications of Russian political interference, if proven, are treated with extreme severity, given that the outcome goes against the wishes of the Scottish electorate. I look forward to learning the results of the Electoral Commission’s investigation into the source of Mr Banks’s £8.4 million referendum donations and loans. We call on the Vote Leave campaign to engage with the authorities transparently and fully in the investigations.
In conclusion, it is fair to say that Putin and his regime have been portrayed as villains of the piece, not without some justification. He is not an imaginary bogeyman; he is very real. He is also serving what is likely to be his last term as President of the Russian Federation, barring similar shenanigans to what has previously happened. We must therefore begin preparations for the post-Putin era, but who are his potential successors? I do not know, but that may present a potential opening, with the possibility of not repeating past mistakes that have led us to the current situation of seriously strained relations. As the hon. Member for Isle of Wight has suggested, an easier visa regime may help assist that position. However, I fear that a diplomatic service consumed by Brexit will not be able to find the resources to do that. Nevertheless, we have to be able to defend ourselves against fake news and bot armies, as well as conventional attacks and terror-related incidents, irrespective of whether they be of Russian or any other origin.
It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank Mr Seely for his detailed introduction; he is clearly very close to the issue, particularly so in his previous life, before he came to this place. He shows a huge and continuing interest in security matters. I take issue, however, with his mention of a member of the Labour leader’s staff, who is not able to respond. That did not need to be aired here. It is possible to do that in other places, but it is not for this place.
Russian foreign policy making has become increasingly the preserve of Putin. Russian foreign policy is based on realist assumptions—a vision of zero-sum competition between nations, using largely hard power to establish spheres of interest based on geography. Policies are aimed at restoring national pride and Russia’s place at the top table in world affairs. Defence spending has gone up, and Putin’s popularity is reported to be a near-record high.
That reflects the comments of my hon. Friend Stephen Kinnock, who spoke of understanding the culture of the Russian people, how nationalistic they are and how deeply entrenched their national heritage is. That is one reason why Putin has been able to get away with his actions following the sanctions placed on Russia.
[Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]
My hon. Friend spent time in Russia with the British Council, which does a huge amount of great work, not only in Russia but across the whole world, as I have said before. Its presence in other countries is one of the United Kingdom’s best forms of access to them, which further increases our sphere of influence. We should always look, at the first opportunity, to get the British Council into those areas.
Most of our senior policy makers were not quite awake to Mr Putin’s returning to the presidency in 2014, since when there has been a stand-off with the west over the Russian intervention in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, and a dramatic fall in oil prices. Since then, hard-line nationalist assumptions have increasingly entered official Russian foreign policy, although they have no means of taking it over completely. Economic difficulties have increased, and Russian nationalism and assertive foreign policies have been increasingly used to bolster the legitimacy of the Government at home, who continue to use external threats for that purpose.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight mentioned Sergei and Yulia Skripal and the chemical agent Novichok being used on British soil, which is hugely serious. That has quite rightly been hugely condemned worldwide, with the rest of the world showing its distaste for the action and its significant support for the UK; several countries expelled Russian diplomats to show that that was not acceptable, and nor should it be in the arena we are in. The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the chemical weapons watchdog, was last night strengthened by a vote in which the UK was supported by its allies to overcome Russian opposition. After not getting the result they wanted, the Russians are now considering leaving OPCW. Dealing with that will be a serious issue.
Furthermore, the Skripals’ house was purchased by the British Government to the tune of £350,000. Obviously, a nerve agent being used in that house makes it difficult for anybody else to live there. The city of Salisbury has suffered hugely because of that incident, and we are fortunate that the effect on the Skripals and the police officer who was directly affected was not far more devastating. We need to compound that point and make it clearly.
Russia is subject to a sanctions regime imposed in a co-ordinated move by the EU and the US, and other western allies such as Canada, in reaction to the destabilisation of Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which continues and needs to be looked at closely. We need to look at what else we can to do to encourage Russia back into negotiations on that and back into politics. The sanctions are targeted against individuals and entities. As other hon. Members have already said, we need to understand who we should target—whether they be ordinary Russians coming into the United Kingdom or those oligarchs associated with Mr Putin and the Russian establishment.
The hugely important issue of money laundering has been raised, and it should be a serious part of trying to resolve the issues. There has been mounting pressure to introduce Magnitsky legislation in the UK. The original Magnitsky Act powers in the USA provided for the officials allegedly involved in Sergei Magnitsky’s death to be sanctioned, although it was later broadened into a general power for the US to impose sanctions against human rights abusers. We need to seriously consider implementing such important legislation.
I see that the occupant of the Chair has changed; it is a privilege to serve under you, Ms Buck. My hon. Friend the Member for Aberavon said that we need to further examine assassinations by Russian intelligence and security services across the UK but also in Russia. He clearly made the point that there must be a political solution to the issue but that that should not come at the expense of remaining robust in fighting against Russian intervention and aggression where it is not needed.
Giles Watling raised the World cup. I certainly hope that we win it—we are having such a good run. He also raised cyber issues and the weakness of the Russian economy. A significant amount of work has been done on the cyber issue, including reports produced by the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the Intelligence and Security Committee and several others. We should look at those and consider how to follow up on them.
Hon. Members also mentioned alleged war crimes in Syria—particularly the chemical weapons attacks in Douma and in the north-west of Damascus in Ghouta. The OPCW fact-finding mission arrived in Syria on
Martyn Day made several points on cyber-attacks. More importantly, he raised the protecting of the rights of the LGBTQ community. Although the Russians are making a show of doing so during the World cup, which in itself is a step forward, it needs to be embedded in Russia so that the right sort of support is provided.
The hon. Member for Isle of Wight raised a couple of issues that the Minister should address, particularly on regarding a cross-agency approach. Perhaps we could use the “Five Eyes” network. Such systems are crucial. Rather than looking only at networks internal to the UK, it is far more important to co-ordinate our networks across the globe. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the sorts of sectors we should cover, including the key sector of investment banking. Not all the money brought in is through money laundering—a lot is done through the financial sector. We must address that and look at what sort of people are involved. Allegations have been made regarding raffle tickles being bought for tennis matches, and the Minister should also address the serious issue of party donations.
I wholly agree with the hon. Member for Isle of Wight that, along with the British Council, the BBC World Service plays an integral role in the work that needs to be done. It puts across the British heritage angle. That is a huge tool in developing relationships. Many people rely on the BBC World Service to listen to what they believe to be factual information. We need to invest money in that. I am not sure I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Department for International Development should do that, but I am sure that the Minister can find money elsewhere for that investment.
I support the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the visa regime, but although we are talking about Russia, there are other countries we should support in that respect. On the policy of cutting professionals who come to the United Kingdom, I am glad that the Home Secretary has managed to reverse the position for doctors who come here. I hope that will also be the case for other professionals, such as the nurses and medical staff from eastern Europe and elsewhere across the globe.
Will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister is considering downgrading our status as a tier 1 defence nation? That serious issue has been developing in the newspapers, but I do not believe anyone in Parliament has asked or answered that question. If I may, I want to use the Minister as a conduit and get information from the Government about whether the Prime Minister is considering downgrading us to a second-tier defence nation. I do not believe that would be in the interest of the nation. There have been significant cuts, but in order to fund the national health service we should not cut our defence. Defence has been hugely strategic for the United Kingdom for a very long time and I hope it stays that way. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s response.
I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Seely for securing this debate and for his comprehensive and thought-provoking paper on contemporary Russian conflict, which the Foreign Office is digesting. I was particularly struck by his assessment in the report and his speech that Russia uses at least 50 tools of state power, grouped into seven elements with “command and control” at its heart.
I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I particularly appreciated the thoughtful speech by Stephen Kinnock, who has direct personal experience of working in Russia. His speech deserves to be widely read. Likewise, my hon. Friend Giles Watling gave us all a very cogent and comprehensive overview of the threats that we face from Russia.
It should be clear to us all that Russia has become more authoritarian, more nationalist and more aggressive in recent years. It increasingly defines itself in opposition to the west and as a victim of western aggression. It attempts to portray itself as a responsible global power, but its actions tell a different story. In reality, for some time it has been using a range of methods to undermine the international norms and laws on which our security and prosperity depend, and to destabilise our advanced democracies, open societies and free economies. Those methods range from conventional military intervention—as we have seen in Syria and its illegal actions in Georgia and Ukraine— to acts of non-military aggression in the form of disinformation and cyber-attacks, as we saw in Estonia in 2007. They range from stirring up trouble—as we saw in the attempted coup in Montenegro—to clamping down on dissent by locking up people such as Oleg Sentsov. All those methods are designed to destabilise by sowing chaos, fear, uncertainty, mistrust, and division.
Russia is expanding the range of its malign activities, as we found to our cost in Salisbury—I will say more about that in a moment—and it continues to strengthen its military capabilities. It engages in provocative military activity near NATO borders, for example by stepping up submarine traffic in the north Atlantic, which we heard about earlier. Russia is also undermining the treaties and norms of global arms control. Just this week we have observed the shameful spectacle of Russia trying to block the efforts of the Conference of States Parties to protect the chemical weapons convention. However, yesterday 82 countries voted in support of the proposal tabled by the UK, and the Conference of States Parties agreed that the OPCW would immediately start work to help to identify those responsible for chemical attacks in Syria. It will be able to attribute the use of chemical weapons to someone.
The attack in Salisbury was an especially egregious example within the pattern of increasing Russian aggression. It clearly showed the risks that Russia is prepared to take in its provocation of the west. We are quite clear that Russia was responsible for this outrageous act. It is also pretty clear that the Kremlin wholly underestimated the strength of global feeling. Following the expulsion of 153 diplomats from 28 countries and NATO, it can be under no illusion now about our collective resolve. In addition to the reckless use of chemical weapons in Salisbury, the Kremlin also seeks to sow discord here in the UK; it wants to disrupt our systems and undermine our institutions. We know that there have been attacks on the UK media, telecommunication companies and energy providers, along with attempts to interfere in our democratic processes. We have seen no evidence of successful interference, but we can see the threat and we must remain vigilant.
I assure the House that the Government are responding to those threats with strength and determination. I assure Martyn Day and everyone that we are working across Government to protect our democracy. We have invested nearly £2 billion in the UK’s national cyber security strategy and in the establishment of the National Cyber Security Centre, which will fight cyber-attacks by states and criminal organisations. We are collaborating with international partners, industry and civil society to tackle the threat of disinformation and propaganda.
Independent regulators such as the Electoral Commission and Ofcom are also playing their part. The Commission is investigating irregularities reported during the EU referendum campaign and Ofcom is conducting 11 investigations into breaches of the broadcasting code. Disinformation is not new, but it has been turbo-charged by the power of social media. In whatever form it takes—old-fashioned propaganda, fake news, or downright lies—it is designed to manipulate, confuse and divide. It is also designed to undermine trust in our institutions and our way of life.
Freedom of speech and a free, open and accessible media are hugely important components of that way of life. I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight’s requested a counter-propaganda Bill, but will he consider the possible unforeseen consequences that might ensue? I am sure he would agree that we would not wish to impose a legal strait jacket on the personal freedoms that we hold so dear. Nor should we assume that problems will be solved simply by passing legislation. We will continue to use all the tools at our disposal to bear down on disinformation, while at the same time continuing to champion freedom of speech. We will also look to enhance online safety. The Government will publish a White Paper on that in the coming months. Potential areas for legislation include a code of practice, transparency reporting and online advertising.
We are committed to tackling illicit finances in the UK, whatever their origin. I welcome the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report on the subject, to which the Government will respond in due course. We are determined that this country should not be a safe haven for dirty money and money launderers and we will ensure that the full weight of law enforcement is brought to bear on corrupt elites who look to use, move or hide the proceeds of crime.
Since the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 was introduced, more than £2.2 billion has been seized. The first unexplained wealth order has already been issued—there was a question about that—and we are cracking down on the use of shell companies to launder money through UK real estate transactions. Through the national economic crime centre, embedded within the National Crime Agency, the Serious Fraud Office will work with law enforcement partners to ensure that big business and wealthy foreign elites cannot use their wealth to obstruct justice.
Parliament recently passed the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018—indeed, I was in charge of the Bill’s passage—which gives us the powers to sanction individuals and entities for a wide range of purposes including money laundering, as the name suggests, and take action against those suspected of gross human rights abuses such as those committed against Sergei Magnitsky. Indeed, the whole House joined as one in welcoming the embodiment of the Magnitsky clause in that Act. While not directly related to the fight against illicit finance, the Counter-Terrorism and Border Security Bill will also strengthen our ability to counter hostile state activity by bringing in new powers to stop, question, search and detain individuals at the UK border.
In addition to domestic action, the UK continues to work closely with our international partners and allies to tackle Russian aggression across the globe. We have been at the forefront of the strong and determined international response to the Salisbury attack mentioned earlier. Sanctions remain a key part of the ongoing response, and we will continue to work proactively on that with our US, EU and G7 partners. Indeed, we are working with those partners to fight back against state-sponsored aggression in cyber-space. Together, for the first time on such a scale, we attributed the NotPetya cyber-attack to the Russian military. In April, in another first, we issued a joint statement with the US Government publicly exposing an extensive and sustained campaign of Russian intrusion into the internet infrastructure of both our countries.
At the G7 summit earlier this month, leaders agreed on a rapid response mechanism to share intelligence, co-ordinate action and develop new strategies to tackle malign state activity, and at today’s European Council the Prime Minister will be discussing how EU countries can work together to meet the range of threats we face. We hope that leaders will agree to work alongside NATO to build stronger defences against chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, take collective action to tackle Russian cyber-threats and extend EU efforts to counter Russian disinformation and interference in Europe.
At next month’s NATO summit in Brussels, we will seek unity and consensus on Russia and emphasise the need to work towards a strong defence and deterrence policy. At the western Balkans summit in London next month, the Government will stand firm in our resolve, alongside partners, to help the region counter Russian disinformation and cyber-threats. Indeed, the UK is investing more than £100 million over five years in countering disinformation that targets our national interests at home and overseas.
Countering disinformation also underpins our efforts in tackling the challenges faced by Russia’s neighbours—Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Belarus. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary attended the Ukraine reform conference yesterday, and our £30 million in support of Ukraine’s reform agenda includes strategic communications support and building the Ukrainian armed forces’ resilience.
We feel obliged to take our current approach because Russia appears increasingly prepared to test our collective response. However, as has been said on both sides of the House, I stress that we are not looking for confrontation. We have no quarrel with the Russian people. We are encouraged that they have warmly welcomed World cup fans from around the world, and we want to work with Russia on issues that matter to all of us, as we did on World cup preparations.
However, we will not compromise with states who seek to degrade the structures and treaties that keep us all safe. Russia needs to choose a different path. It must act as the responsible international partner it claims to be, and indeed, the partner it should be, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Until that happens—I hope that it will—we will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with our many partners and allies, resolute, determined and united against those who seek to divide us.
On the hon. Gentleman’s point, it is incredibly important to understand Russia’s complex, somewhat love-hate relationship with the west and, in debates such as this, to seek more to understand than to condemn. That is why I wrote the definition and have suggested measures that the Government can take. It is important to do that rather than simply see the world in binary terms.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Russian Federation activity in the UK and globally.