I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Russian annexation of Crimea.
[Geraint Davies in the Chair]
It was a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, however briefly, and it is a great pleasure to serve under yours, Mr Davies.
“we are dealing with a serial offender.”—[Official Report,
I will first detail what happened five years ago, move on to the impact of the illegal annexation, then finally examine the current situation in the Azov sea.
The Foreign Secretary has said:
“I condemn the illegal annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol…five years ago. The UK will never recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and we call on Russia to end their illegitimate control of the peninsula and their attempts to redraw the boundaries of Europe.”
Ambassador Jonathan Allen, who was the UK deputy permanent representative to the UN, has said:
“Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine is not limited to the Donbas and Crimea—Russia seeks to undermine Ukraine at every opportunity…supplying the Russian-backed separatists with weapons and calling illegitimate elections—all in breach of the Minsk agreement.
“Sanctions imposed alongside our international partners, including the US, in 2014 have had a coordinated impact on Russia by increasing economic pressure to change its Ukraine policy and sending a clear, united message that Russian aggression in Ukraine will not be tolerated. This impact has been strengthened by the continuation and maintenance of 2014 sanctions since their implementation.”
There has been widespread condemnation by the UK of Russia’s activities, and it is good to see that strong line continuing.
I commend my hon. Friend on the beginning of his speech, which is superb. Does he agree that part of the problem with Russian aggression, and the boldness with which Russia has acted in Ukraine, has been the lack of a proper and effective response when Russia moved into South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many reasons have been given as to why Russia annexed Crimea, one of which is that keeping Ukraine at war prevents it from joining NATO. That goes beyond being a conspiracy theory; it is something we ought to recognise.
The UN General Assembly produced two resolutions; I understand that we co-sponsored one. Those resolutions called on states and international organisations not to recognise any change in Crimea’s status, and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognise Crimea as part of Ukraine. The referendum also violated, among other agreements, the 1994 Budapest memorandum on security assurances for Ukraine. Under that agreement, Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons that were on its territory in exchange for independence and undertakings given by Russia.
There is no precise data on what effect the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia has had, but a quick calculation shows that Ukraine has been robbed of the following assets: 3.6% of GDP; 4,000 enterprises; 10% of port infrastructure; 80% of oil and gas deposits; and 70% of potential natural gas deposits in the Black sea.
My hon. Friend is painting a very bleak picture, but in his introduction, he mentioned sanctions applied to Russia by the United States, the European Union and other allies. Do we have any measure of how effective those sanctions have been?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Interestingly, in the other place, Lord Ahmad said that those sanctions had been very good at sending a clear and united message that Russian aggression in Ukraine would not be tolerated. However, I am not sure that they have had that much effect in practice: for example, Russia has been able to get round the arms embargo. The only sanction that has had some impact on the state of Russia has been the measure to deprive it of access to the financial markets in London and elsewhere.
I will now examine the impact on Ukraine of the annexation of Crimea, and will first deal with the illegal imposition of Russian law. Contrary to its obligations as an occupying power under the fourth Geneva convention, Russia has imposed its legislation in the occupied territory of Crimea. What is extremely dangerous is that Russian laws have been applied retroactively to acts and events that took place in Crimea prior to its occupation. This is not a dry legal debate; it has severe implications for the people of Crimea. For example, the policy of automatic naturalisation means that all Ukrainian citizens who remained in the occupied territory have had Russian citizenship forcibly imposed on them, which is a big change for them. Moreover, Russia’s occupation and purported annexation of Crimea complicated the question of citizenship for children born after February 2014, since it is difficult for parents to register a child as a citizen with the Ukrainian authorities. Eight campaigns conscripting Crimean residents into the Russian Federation armed forces have been held since the beginning of the occupation. During the latest campaign, which ended in December 2018, approximately 2,800 men from Crimea were enlisted, bringing the overall number of Crimean conscripts to almost 15,000. As draft evasion is punishable under Russian criminal law by up to two years in prison, Crimean citizens are de facto forced to enter the Russian armed forces.
The atmosphere of fear, intimidation and physical and psychological pressure has forced 35,000 to 40,000 Ukrainian citizens, including an enormous number of Crimean Tatars, to leave Crimea and settle in other areas of Ukraine. The 2018 human rights report by the US Department of State states that the actual number could be as high as 100,000, as many remained unregistered. To replace those who left the peninsula, up to 1 million Russians have been brought in from Russia and resettled in Crimea.
Religious freedom has also been compromised, with 38 parishes administered by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine closing down in the occupied Crimea. Eight parishes of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine remain on the peninsula, but they have been constantly targeted by the occupying authorities since Russia seized control. It is not just individual churches that are affected. Russia has launched legal proceedings to seize the land where the only Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Crimea is located. Mosques and the Jewish community have been targeted, too. In March 2014, Reform Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin of Simferopol was forced to leave Crimea after denouncing Russian actions. His synagogue had been defaced by a swastika and, a month later, vandals defaced Sevastopol’s monument to 4,200 Jews killed by the Nazis in July 1942.
Russia has set out systematically to eliminate Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages and culture. No schools are now left in Crimea with a curriculum entirely in Ukrainian and Crimean languages. Contrary to the 2017 order of the International Court of Justice, which requests that Russia ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language, the number of children studying in Ukrainian has decreased from 14,000 in 2013-14 to 172 in the 2017-18 school year.
Russia has banned the highest representative body of Crimean Tatars—the Mejlis—under false allegations of extremist activity. Despite the clear meaning of the 2017 International Court of Justice order to
“refrain, pending the final decision in the case, from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions”,
two years have passed and Russia continues to maintain its ban. Members of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, many of whom vocally oppose the Russian occupation, have faced particularly acute repression by the authorities. In 2018, 367 infringements of the right to a fair trial were registered. More than 90 people, mostly Crimean Tatars, have been detained and/or sentenced under politically motivated charges, with some being transferred into Russia across an internationally recognised border. In detention centres, they are being mistreated and tortured as punishment or to extort confessions.
From 2014 to
Ukrainian cultural heritage is also under threat. One very big world heritage landmark and four landmarks submitted for consideration to UNESCO are located in the occupied territory. Having illegally announced the right of ownership for 32 historical buildings of the Khan’s Palace array, the Russian occupying power has undertaken an unprofessional and incompetent reconstruction. That may seem insignificant in comparison with the life of the individual suffering from diabetes, but it has a personal association for me, as I was an archaeologist before I came into the House and it is sad to see such things happening. The removing of valuable cultural artefacts from Crimean museums to Russia continues.
That is as nothing compared with the Russian militarisation of the peninsula, which has continued at pace. Russia has substantially reinforced and modernised its Crimean military land, air and naval components. The militarisation of Crimea is a threat not only to Ukraine, but to the security of the whole of Europe. At any moment Russia can provoke a military conflict in the Black sea region with NATO.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is a fellow member of the Council of Europe delegation. I have been to Ukraine three times in the past few weeks to monitor the election process, and I was privileged to witness the peaceful transfer of power on Sunday. In many ways and to most people’s minds, it was a rather unexpected democratic change in Ukraine. Does he agree that that is something to celebrate? There is clear evidence that the Ukrainian people are embracing the democratic path to change. Ukraine is embracing democratic values. On that basis alone, should we not continue to fully support the country in its assertion of its territorial integrity?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work with us on the Council of Europe. She makes a very good point. It would be so easy for Ukraine, when it is threatened with Russian annexation and military activity in Donbass, to take a very restrictive attitude to the conduct of elections and what they can achieve, but it has not. It has had full democratic elections that have produced a startling change. She is right that we should compliment Ukraine on that election and do all we can to support it.
My hon. Friend has rightly set out a litany of sad human rights abuses and cultural vandalism—not only in Crimea and Donbass, but in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, too. Volodymyr Zelensky said in his campaign that he would not see Crimea exchanged for peace in Donbass. Does my hon. Friend agree that he needs to hold fast to that pre-election commitment? When he becomes President in the next couple of weeks, he needs to be robust with Russia and work along with western partners, which was another commitment he made. In seeking peace, he should not seek peace at any cost.
I agree. I think we have all looked at the results of the Ukrainian elections with a degree of caution as to what the attitude of the new President will be, but this is not a time to back down from the demands being made for the restoration of Crimea and for an end to the fighting in the Donbass. This is a time for allies to keep making and pushing that point strongly.
Since 2014, Russia has increased the number of troops in occupied Crimea by three times. Armoured vehicles have been increased by five times; artillery by 10 times; jets by five times; and multiple launch rocket systems by 10 times. Most recently, Russia has deployed four battalions of S-400 Triumf missile systems in Crimea, which allows it to cover all of the Black sea, the Azov sea area and most of Ukraine. The Russian Black sea fleet can now fire in a single shot 86 Kalibr, known as “Sizzler”, nuclear-capable missiles, able to reach not only Kiev but other EU capitals.
The hon. Gentleman is giving an amazing speech: a real grounding in the problems faced across the region since the annexation of Crimea. This is not just a problem for Ukraine; as he said earlier, it is a problem for the whole of Europe. He is right about the weapons increase, but the real live-fire risk, towards Europe in particular and against Ukraine on a regular basis, is cyber-attacks.
The NotPetya attack cost the world economy $10 billion. Unless we also pay attention to sandboxing, the cyber-weapons that have been targeted on Ukraine, its infra- structure, airports, utilities and banks, will turn on Europe. They have been demonstrated to be lethal and will start attacking us, particularly as European elections loom.
The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I do not underestimate the effect of Russian cyber-attacks not only on Ukraine, but on the whole of Europe. I am not sure what we can do about them, except to make sure that we are strong in resisting them. She has highlighted the key point: that the issue affects all of us. Once an attack has been launched on Ukraine, it can affect the rest of Europe.
What are we to make of the actions of the Council of Europe, which has now produced a motion that makes it easier for Russia to return by not having the credentials of its members challenged? The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has not suspended Russia; the decision was taken by Russia in 2015 not to present credentials for its own delegation in response to voting restrictions placed on it by PACE following the illegal annexation of Crimea.
The UK is clear that a Russian return to PACE would be contingent on the withdrawal of all Russian military personnel and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as an end to the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula. I urge the Minister to reject or at least heavily modify the recent recommendation from PACE, which is coming his way as part of the Committee of Ministers and which liberalises the PACE approach.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Does he not agree with me that the credibility of PACE and all the institutions of the Council of Europe is at stake here? It will be very difficult for bodies such as the Venice Commission to go into Ukraine and recommend legal reform if the Council of Europe is seen to be giving way to Russian threats to withdraw financial support for the institution.
I agree. At the previous meeting of the Council of Europe, I moved what seemed like countless amendments to try to make the report that had been produced much better. Unfortunately, they were all defeated, although I pay great compliments to one of our Ukrainian colleagues, Serhii Kiral, who led a brilliant campaign with us at various times during the Council’s proceedings. I agree with the hon. Lady that the credibility of the whole organisation is affected.
As president of the European Conservatives Group, of which Serhii Kiral is a member, I want to echo my hon. Friend’s sentiments that he did a phenomenal job. Also, the Ukraine delegation in the Council of Europe, regardless of party—socialists or whatever—are a formidable bunch of characters who really do credit to their nation under the most difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend Mr Evans is not in his place at the moment, but at the Inter-Parliamentary Union we have had to separate the Russians and Ukrainians because of provocation. The work that the Ukraine delegations do has been remarkable. I pay tribute to Serhii Kiral.
I thank my hon. Friend for that tribute, and I agree with it. The Ukrainian delegations have been absolutely fantastic, regardless of politics. They have all stood as one in the Council of Europe and it has been a great pleasure to work with them.
Finally, I turn to the situation in the Azov sea. Stability remains elusive in eastern Ukraine, and Russia has moved to shore up its hold on Crimea. Russia has built a bridge across the Kerch strait, connecting Crimea to Russia. On
In December, suspicions that Russia has nuclear arms in Crimea were reported. Such developments suggest that, although the conflict in the eastern mainland regions of Ukraine may be resolved, Russia does not intend to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea. I am worried that succour may be given to the views I heard coming out of various organisations that both sides in the conflict are to blame. They are not. This is naked Russian aggression. The bridge breaches Ukrainian sovereignty—a particularly dangerous development that we need to condemn.
For all those reasons, the Secretary of State for Defence made a visit to Ukraine before Christmas and we sent a naval vessel to the area—not quite a harking back to gunboat diplomacy, but nevertheless a move that certainly sent a great deal of patriotism through some people’s blood. It was meant to send a clear signal to Russia that we will stand by Ukraine, rather than being an act of further provocation.
I understand that we intend to send other Royal Navy ships to provide a more constant British presence. To our Ukrainian friends, I say, “We will support you. I hope that you take that in the intended spirit.” This is a terrible tale of a big country throwing its weight around to the detriment of a country, which, as its role in the Council of Europe shows, is playing a full part in western culture while retaining its own identity. This is not a good situation. It has made Europe much more prone to instability and increased conflict. I look forward to the Minister’s comments and his continuing commitment to trying to ensure that Russia withdraws from Crimea.
Thank you very much, Mr Davies. I warmly commend John Howell for introducing the debate, which is both timely and important. I gather that a joke is going round in Moscow these days: President Putin is asking General Secretary Stalin for advice on what he should do politically, and Stalin says, “You should execute all members of the Government and paint the Kremlin blue.” Putin replies, “Why blue?” and Stalin says, “I thought that was the only part you would query.” Perhaps there is some exaggeration in the joke, but perhaps there is some truth as well.
The point that the hon. Member for Henley, and others who have been on the delegation with him, made very clearly, and which I am sure Mr Whittingdale, who is a known expert on the subject of Ukraine, will make as well, is that the annexation was illegal, full stop—end of story, in a sense. That is, of course, contested by the Russian Federation, but under any judgment of international law, it is clear that the annexation of Crimea was illegal.
As the hon. Member for Henley said, it followed on from other annexations, attempted annexations or invasions that were also illegal. I warmly commended David Cameron for going to Georgia, as one of his first acts as Conservative leader, to stand with the Georgian people and say that the invasion of Abkhazia and South Ossetia were illegal acts. Unfortunately, the agreement that was subsequently signed with President Sarkozy has still not been implemented. There are still Russian troops in Georgia and, as has been laid out today, the problems in relation to Crimea grow day by day.
The truth of the matter is that the annexation would not have happened had the Russian Federation not signed up to the Budapest memorandum, because Ukraine would have had nuclear weapons. In that accord, the Russian Federation guaranteed the territorial integrity of Ukraine, including Crimea as part of Ukraine, so there is understandable cynicism and scepticism. I do not know what the highest level of cynicism and scepticism that one can have is, but that is what the international community shares regarding any international treaties signed by the Russian Federation under President Putin.
Many have drawn comparisons with the situation in the 1930s. Such comparisons are important to bear in mind, though it would be wrong to make a direct comparison between Putin and Hitler, because their ideologies were fundamentally different. However, their nationalism and deliberate attempts to use violence to secure their aims probably amounted to the same.
In 1938, the German Chancellor was determined to persuade the international community that he would seize only the Sudetenland—the part of Czechoslovakia that, in his words, was dominated by German-speaking German nationals. In fact, by seizing the Sudetenland he undermined the whole of the rest of Czechoslovakia and made it impossible for it to survive as a nation state. I think that is exactly the intention of the Russian Federation in relation to Ukraine. In the 1930s, British politicians did not really care; they thought that Hitler sort of had a point. Politicians in the UK have also said that President Putin sort of has a point about Crimea, because a lot of the people in Crimea are Russian and identify as Russian speakers. However, that is wholly to miss the point that there has been a deliberate process of political destabilisation in Ukraine that went on for a considerable number of years. As the hon. Member for Henley said, it included a fake referendum that was deliberately engineered. The results were falsely counted, and an incorrect version of them was given out.
One of the most important things that we must focus on is the softening-up period before invasion takes place. There is a deliberate disinformation campaign targeted at the Russian-speaking populations, not just in Georgia and Ukraine but on a daily basis in the Baltic states. Such disinformation prepares an expectation among the Russian-speaking population that change is coming, and that they should support it. Is that something to which we should also pay attention?
I commend my hon. Friend. She is right, and that is one of the reasons why I am particularly anxious that we, as a political class in this country, have seemingly decided that we are not all that interested in Russian interference in our elections and electoral processes. I think that we will rue the day in the end. We need to be extremely careful, because we have seen what the Russian Federation has managed to do through cyber-warfare in other countries around the world, and continues to do in Ukraine, because it wants to soften up the rest of the country.
The process of disinformation continues. The latest version of that is the Russian Federation maintaining that Crimea lost 1.5 trillion roubles during the 25 years that it was part of Ukraine. Many would argue that the loss to Crimea is from being taken out of Ukraine. Russian spokespeople do not half have a cheek sometimes.
There is another clear aspect to the annexation. In 1938, Hitler wanted to seize the Skoda factory, which was one of the most productive factories in Europe, and turn it into an arms manufacturer; it was soon making Panzers for the Wehrmacht. Just so, Putin has had his eye for a considerable period on not only the natural resources in Crimea but the ports, which are vital to any future military intentions that he may have. It is all part of a pattern; President Putin always has a tendency to resort to violent options when they are available to him.
Putin was, of course, in political trouble in his own country when the annexation commenced, and it was extremely popular, re-enhancing that nationalist sense in Russian politics. In large measure, one can see the reinvention of Putin as a nationalist hero, in Russian terms, on the back of the annexation of Crimea. There is a sense of political doldrums in the Russian Federation, because Putin clearly has no idea who his successor should be or where the future should lie. He is kind of bored with governing Russia, which potentially makes for a very dangerous time for the international community.
The Government need to be careful about key issues of UK policy. We have referred already to sanctions. As I have said to the Minister many times, I fear that the Government are still dragging their heels—he will say that they are not—on implementing a full set of secure sanctions in relation to individuals who have committed human rights abuses in the Russian Federation and Crimea. I think that the Russians have noticed that that has not yet happened, and that other countries have moved faster. It is time that we proceeded faster. I am sure that the Minister will say that the Government are doing their best, and that it will all happen in the fullness of time, but I am not convinced.
Secondly, there was a time when the UK led within the European Union on trying to bind Ukraine into the international community, and on standing up for it in international affairs. That will be more difficult in the future when/if we are no longer a member of the European Union. I wish to know how we will achieve that in the future. I hope that the UK has made strong representations to the United States of America that one cannot oppose annexation in Crimea and support it in the Golan Heights. Annexation is annexation. One cannot simply turn a blind eye because it involves a big ally on one side of the Atlantic, rather than a country that one wants to criticise on the other.
Finally, we of course wish Mr Zelensky, who has been elected, well. It is difficult to see exactly how things will play out. I very much hope that the UK will want to extend a warm hand, to ensure that he ends up on the right side of the argument.
I congratulate my hon. Friend John Howell on securing this debate at an extremely important time for Ukraine, and on doing an excellent job of setting out the facts about the Russian occupation of Crimea.
Like Angela Smith, three weeks ago I spent my Sunday sitting in a polling station in Desnianskyi district, a poorer suburb of Kiev, and this Sunday I was in a polling station in Bucha, watching democracy in action. It is always inspiring to see a democratic election in a country that has only recently become free.
One of the striking things about the Ukraine election was that there was absolutely no question about the people’s desire for change. As overseas observers, we had some criticisms about access to the media, financing and resources, but there can be no doubt that the result—the election of President-elect Zelensky—reflects the will of the Ukrainian people. I pay tribute to President Poroshenko, who I think achieved many things, but there is a real and deep-seated wish for change, and it was undoubtedly a genuine election.
One of the first things that President-elect Zelensky will have to do is decide how best to confront the Russian aggression and the occupation of parts of his country. The war in Donbass gets a lot of attention—it is a hot war and people are dying there; I went last year to Avdiivka, which is right up against the frontline and is regularly subject to shelling—but we must not overlook Crimea, which has spent five years under occupation.
President-elect Zelensky has not yet said a great deal about his policy, and we must wait to see who he will appoint to key positions such as Foreign Minister, but he has referred to the Budapest memorandum. The signatories to that memorandum—my hon. Friend the Member for Henley rightly drew attention to the fact that the UK is one—have said that they will protect the territorial integrity of Ukraine. The Ukrainians have an expectation that that commitment will be honoured, even though one of the signatories is responsible for the invasion and occupation of their country. I know that our Government want to pursue the existing dialogue with Russia through the Normandy agreement and the Minsk process, but President-elect Zelensky has said that he sees a role for the Budapest signatories, so if he approaches the UK Government to assist in resolving the situation, I hope that they will respond positively.
My hon. Friend made several points about the invasion of Crimea five years ago; I do not want to repeat them, but I will make a couple of observations. One of the reasons given for the invasion was that, following the revolution of dignity in the Maidan, Kiev was under the control of a fascist and antisemitic Government. Ironically, not only is there no evidence of that Government ever being fascist or antisemitic, but as of Sunday, Ukraine will be only the second country in the whole world, after Israel, to have a President and a Prime Minister who are both Jewish.
The second reason given for the invasion was the referendum in which the occupants of Crimea expressed a wish to rejoin Russia. It is true that in 1990, when there were genuine plebiscites across Ukraine to determine its future, the biggest minority in favour of joining Russia was in Crimea, although it was only 41%. However, the so-called referendum that took place five years ago did so under the barrels of Kalashnikovs after all media from Ukraine had been cut off. There was a relentless barrage of Russian propaganda, including footage that showed thousands of Ukrainians allegedly fleeing from what the Russian Foreign Ministry described as threats of a massacre—I say “allegedly” because it subsequently emerged that it was footage of a traffic jam of Ukrainian vehicles heading across the border to Poland to do some weekend shopping.
The referendum offered a choice between joining Russia immediately, and retaining independence with the right to join Russia after a specified period. Remaining part of Ukraine was not on the ballot paper. Just imagine if a similar question had been asked in our EU referendum three years ago. As my hon. Friend said, the referendum on joining Russia rightly received international condemnation, including by the United Nations General Assembly; resolutions have been passed that point out that the annexation and occupation continue to be illegal.
My hon. Friend was right to highlight the relentless abuse of human rights in Crimea since the Russian occupation. I draw particular attention to the events of
My hon. Friend rightly referred to the military build-up in Crimea since the Russians took over. There was already a naval base at Sevastopol, of course, but before the occupation there were only 12,500 Russian troops there, whereas there are now estimated to be 32,000. There has also been a build-up of aircraft, naval forces and military vehicles; indeed, it is now reported that there may well be nuclear weapons in Crimea, which is ironic given that the Budapest memorandum was signed specifically in return for Ukraine’s agreement to give up its nuclear weapons.
My hon. Friend also spoke about the situation in the sea of Azov. Just before Christmas, I travelled to Berdyansk and Mariupol, which are both on the sea of Azov, to see the effect of the blockade across the Kerch strait. The bridge that was built prevents a large number of larger ships from entering the sea of Azov, and since the blockade Russian warships have imposed checks on all ships going in. That has had the effect of delaying passage and rendering the businesses of Mariupol and Berdyansk almost uneconomic. Those two cities are subject to economic warfare and must be relieved.
My hon. Friend was right to say that the Ukrainians have done a fantastic job of raising these issues in every international forum. He spoke about his and his colleagues’ work in the Council of Europe; at the annual Inter-Parliamentary Union Assembly some 10 days ago, I listened to a very powerful address by Mr Parubiy, the Speaker of the Ukrainian Rada. It was then countered by the Russians, who said that of course there were no Russians whatever in Donbass and that there never had been—it was an entire fiction. There is an absolute denial of reality by Russia, despite overwhelming evidence.
I pay tribute to the representation of Ukraine in this country. It is a great pleasure to see the Ukrainian ambassador, Her Excellency Natalia Galibarenko, listening to this debate. She is an assiduous attender of such events and does a fantastic job.
My hon. Friend spoke about the need to increase the pressure on Russia, particularly through sanctions. I agree absolutely that it was very important that we passed the Magnitsky amendment. We eagerly await its implementation; I know that the Government intend to move forward, but we would like them to do so somewhat quicker.
I hope that the message that comes out from this debate, and the number of speakers in it, will demonstrate that across the House of Commons there is unanimous support for Ukraine against the illegal occupation of part of the country and the aggressive action of the Russian Federation.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies.
It is quite unbelievable that the events in the Maidan, in which hundreds of peaceful protesters were murdered by the Yanukovych regime, happened only five years ago, because the sequence of events that his flight to Russia set in motion have changed so much. As for the justifications for the invasion, the most prominent of which seems to have been the idea that Crimea was somehow being returned to the Russian Federation, it is as if the decision of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet in 1954 was some sort of bureaucratic error that could be corrected only by the application of blunt military force.
The point was well put by John Howell, whom I thank for securing this debate: the invasion had less to do with the rights of Russophone Ukrainians living in Crimea than with the most brutal of geostrategic realities, namely that Russia needs a Black sea port, its “place in the sun”, just as much now as when Her Imperial Majesty the Empress of All the Russias first annexed it for her Empire in 1784. One could equally say that the presence of Ionian colonists in the 7th century BC means that it should be made an outpost of the Hellenic Republic. If it were predicated on the rights and needs of the people who live there, the Russian Government’s record of maltreatment towards those people would not be so prominent, which is a point that was well put by the hon. Member for Henley in his discussion of the Tatars.
The only extremism we have seen in Crimea is the clampdown on ethnic and religious freedoms enjoyed by the residents of what is a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional place. Just as Crimea’s Tatar population has seen persecution, so has the Ukrainian-language community, with the closure of several Ukrainian Orthodox churches, and the arrest of Archbishop Klyment last month, and the persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. This attack on the most basic rights and democracy in Crimea leads me to my last point, and I hope hon. Members will allow me to indulge in a little introspection.
The Russian invasion of Crimea was followed by a referendum that fraudulently stated that 97% of participants had voted to be subsumed into the Russian Federation, although the real number was closer to 55%, and there was open intimidation at polling stations, so many would be forgiven for not taking part. As someone who has campaigned for the independence of my own country all my adult life and saw the independence referendum in Scotland as a final point in a democratic process that should be held up as the gold standard for this type of constitutional referendum, I say that that standard was not even close to being met in Crimea. Colleagues agreed and disagreed with me during the Scottish referendum, but we all agreed on the process. That was not true in the case of Crimea. Furthermore, when my country does become independent, it will not be to the detriment of the rights and lives of my fellow Scots.
I ask the Government of the Russian Federation to have the courage of their convictions. If the principle of self-determination is so important to them, why do they not extend it to their own subjects and allow status referendums inside the Russian Federation? I am sure the Tatars, Bashkirs, Chuvashs, Chechens, Avars, Udmurts, Dargins, Tuvans, Ossetians and Kalmyks, among others, would be delighted to be asked about their participation in the Russian Federation. To begin with, I would settle for Russia returning Crimea to Ukraine and withdrawing its forces and military completely.
I pay tribute to the recent electoral process in Ukraine and I thank the ambassador, who is in the Public Gallery today, for the commendable work that she does across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in promoting peace and democracy within the Ukrainian state.
My hon. Friend John Howell is the most assiduous of members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and I am delighted that he secured this debate. I am also very pleased, as the leader of the delegation, to have seen so many hon. Friends from that delegation here this morning.
I ask the Minister specifically to address the situation that currently faces the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. My hon. Friend the Member for Henley was absolutely right when he said that, following the annexation of Crimea, the Assembly suspended certain voting rights for the Russian Federation’s delegation. We must make it absolutely clear that the Russians were not expelled from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe; they chose to walk out. Having walked out, they have since singularly failed on any potential occasion to present their credentials.
Far from taking any remedial action in respect of Donbass, Crimea, Georgia or Moldova, the Russians have now threatened to withhold their payments to the Council of Europe to the tune of many millions of euros, which of course causes financial embarrassment. The United Kingdom delegation has made it plain that the Council of Europe is not for sale and its principles are not open to blackmail, but, unfortunately, money has become the driving force that has driven the outgoing secretary-general Thorbjørn Jagland and the current president of the Parliamentary Assembly, Liliane Maury Pasquier, to seek to negotiate with Russia, not over the Donbass region or Crimea or human rights, but over money. We now find ourselves in a position of grave danger. Diplomatically, the Russians expect that there will be an extraordinary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe to seek to readmit Russia and to lean upon the rules committee of the Parliamentary Assembly to change the rules to make that possible. That would be an absolute outrage. It would make the future of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and its whole raison d’être very precarious indeed.
The Russians have made no move to release the sailors who were arrested on the warships that were boarded, no moves towards improvements in human rights, no movement towards withdrawal from Donbass and no movement towards a resolution of the situation in Crimea. That is entirely unacceptable.
It cannot be right that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, established after the war by Churchill, Jean Monnet and others to seek to bring an end to the twin threats of fascism and communism should be sold out by its current leadership in this way. The new president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, needs the support of the western world, not appeasement. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will send the message very clearly through the ambassador to the effect that the United Kingdom stands resolute and will remain resolute in its support of Ukraine.
History is everything and the history of Crimea is a lot more complex than today’s debate has so far suggested. Crimea was annexed by Catherine the Great in 1783 and was Russian for the best part of two centuries. After the Russian revolution and the establishment of the Soviet Union, Crimea was part of the Russian, not the Ukrainian, Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Changes to boundaries in the USSR were of course arbitrary and were decided solely by Moscow, with no reference to the peoples of the Soviet Union.
In 1946, Crimea was stripped of its status as a so-called autonomous republic and reduced to a mere oblast of Russia, equivalent to a county. In another entirely arbitrary move by Khrushchev, the oblast of Crimea was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954. Needless to say, not a single Member of the House of Commons or the House of Lords objected to that arbitrary denial of the right of self-determination of the people of Crimea.
During the fall of the USSR, we recognised self-determination as the paramount factor. That is why we supported the independence of Kazakhstan, Belarus and other federative republics. The Crimea oblast also wanted self-determination and in January 1991, Crimean voters voted to be an equal partner in Gorbachev’s new union. A few months later of course, Ukraine voted for independence. We never recognised the Crimean right to self-determination.
As we know, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. I am sure the referendum was inadequate and we have heard all about that, but no one doubts for a moment that for a considerable part of its history, Crimea has been part of Russia and that the overwhelming part of the population, following heavy immigration over the best part of two centuries, is Russian. The people of Crimea would probably—although we really have no idea—rather like to be independent of both Ukraine and Russia. Ideally, there would be a referendum held under independent international scrutiny and that would be the result, but we do not know.
The situation is extremely complex. Russia is not going to give up Crimea. I do not condone that, and I do not condone the annexation. I have argued against the annexation in the Council of Europe. With my colleagues, I have argued that the Russians should not be allowed in just because of the blackmail to which they are subjecting the Council of Europe. We should stand firm. I think the Council of Europe would benefit from restructuring and becoming a leaner place and, after that, of course, we on the Council of Europe have to decide whether Russia should be readmitted, despite the fact that it will almost certainly never give up Crimea.
That is why the Minister’s summing-up speech is all-important. As my right hon. Friend Sir Roger Gale said, the Council of Europe has simply stripped Russia of its voting rights; it has refused to present its credentials, but it is still a member of the Committee of Ministers. The Minister must now tell us what the attitude of the United Kingdom Government is. Do the Government believe that Russia should stay in the Council of Europe as a member of the Committee of Ministers? Following the debate we had in the Council of Europe a couple of weeks ago, the decision on whether Russia should be readmitted to the Parliamentary Assembly will almost certainly depend on the Committee of Ministers. Frankly, the Government can no longer be mealy-mouthed about this. They can no longer have good relations with Russia but say that we should bear the brunt in the Council of Europe for its exclusion. We look forward to hearing what the Minister says.
It is good to see you in the Chair, Mr Davies. I congratulate John Howell on securing the debate, and on his excellent speech. It was factual, considered and forensic in laying out the current situation in Crimea.
Like other hon. and right hon. Members, I congratulate President-elect Zelensky. As Mr Whittingdale mentioned, Zelensky is a Jewish national, and Ukraine becomes only the second country in the world with both a Jewish President and Jewish Prime Minister. I look forward to Sputnik news and the Russia Today headline telling us that the fascists and Nazis have just elected a Jew as their leader—no doubt such nonsense will follow. It somewhat scorches the myth that Russian speakers in Ukraine are being uniquely persecuted by the Government, given that the new President-elect is a Russian speaker and Russian is his first language.
Given that the ambassador of Ukraine joins us here today, I want to mention the appalling events that took place in Holland Park two weeks ago this coming Saturday, when the ambassador’s car—thankfully, she was not in it—was deliberately rammed more than once by someone who is currently being held under the Mental Health Acts.
I want to address a few of the issues that have been raised by hon. and right hon. Members, starting with the illegality of the referendum. The Scottish National party does not recognise the referendum that took place in 2014, and we do not recognise the status of Crimea somehow being reunified with Russia either. We know a thing or two about independence movements and referendums in my party. Indeed, Bill Grant knows a thing about them as well. What took place in Crimea in 2014 was a sham and should be called out as such by anyone who believes in the democratic rights of people to express how they wish to be governed.
Like other hon. and right hon. Members who have spoken, I have visited Ukraine on a couple of occasions. In common with the right hon. Member for Maldon, I once went out to Avdiivka. As he says, it is right on the frontline with the illegally occupied Donbass region. In that context, we need to get the terminology right. Indeed, the last time I was there, I had this discussion with a journalist. These are Russian-led forces. They are not Russian-backed separatists or forces; they are Russian-led, and they are not all separatists. Some of them wish Donbass to be independent, some wish it to join Russia, and some wish it to be more autonomous within Ukraine. They are Russian-led terrorists and nothing else.
I turn to how we can support Ukraine as individual Members of Parliament, part of which includes not appearing on channels such as Russia Today and Sputnik. Indeed, there are hon. Members who have spoken in this debate—they are no longer in their place, so I will not name them—who do exactly that. They are part of the problem. They include members of my own party, and one quite high-profile former member even has his own television show on Russia Today. For shame that they continue to appear on those channels. For shame that there are Members of this House who not only appear, but take money in return. There are also former Ministers of the current Government who appear on RT. It must stop, otherwise all the poetic speeches mean absolutely nothing.
I apologise, as I could not be here earlier, as I wanted; I was at a Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearing. The hon. Gentleman is referring to Crimea, where human rights have been denied. In eastern Ukraine, Baptist Church ministers have gone missing and cannot be found. Churches have been destroyed and people have been persecuted. Wherever Russia’s right-wing influence is, it is clear that Christians are persecuted and human rights are abused. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should take every opportunity to approach the Russian Government, and Putin in particular, to ensure that Christians are not persecuted beyond any other religion in that part of Ukraine?
I absolutely agree. The hon. Gentleman speaks on these issues regularly and with authority. He is an hon. Gentleman, and I chastise him gently by pleading with him—beseeching him—not to appear on the state broadcaster of the Government who do the terrible things that he has outlined.
I shall conclude, because I see that time is pressing on. The Minister is sound on the issue of Ukraine. Will he tell us what work is being undertaken to free the Azov sailors who are being held illegally by the Russian Federation? In addition to strengthening the sanctions, which he is regularly asked to do, can we lead an international effort to halt Nord Stream 2? It is one of the most dangerous economic and political projects going on in Europe right now. In response to questions that I have asked, the answers that have come from the Minister suggest that the Government do not see it as their issue. It is an issue for all of Europe and everyone who believes in the stability of Europe.
I believe that Crimea will come back to Ukraine one day. Just as the Berlin wall fell, surely Crimea will be reunited with Europe, as it rightly should. There are Russians who look on with envy at what took place in the Ukrainian elections, and they deserve better than what they have right now. We should extend our friendship to them, because some people want to see a change in Russian society and its political leadership so that it too can be democratic, prosperous and free, and get rid of the miserable tyranny that it suffers under right now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your stewardship, Mr Davies. I congratulate John Howell on securing this debate. I commend him for the great interest he has taken in this issue for a long time, and for the depth of experience that he showed in his speech. It was very comprehensive and it enlightened people who have not visited Ukraine or been so aware of the relevant issues.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of the non-suspension of Russia from the Council of Europe. How we deal with Russia is important, particularly as it is not currently taking part in the Council. As a former member, I understand that. The Council of Europe occupies a pivotal position in this dispute and in relation to Europe as a whole. In that sense, it is a phenomenally important institution, and its great work must continue.
The hon. Gentleman also referred to the “sham referendum” in Crimea and challenged the official statistics. An issue of concern to us all is the illegal occupation of Crimea and the legislative position that Russia has taken, particularly in giving people Russian nationality. The conscription of the Crimean people into the Russian army is also a significant concern.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned, too, the desecration of religious places, which is really important for us to address. Certainly, Orthodox churches, the Jewish community and mosques have been targeted. As he rightly said, the treatment of the Tatar community, a significant group in Crimea, has been a long-standing issue in the occupation of Crimea. Russia’s treatment of the Tatars, its persecution of the Jewish and Muslim communities and its targeting of Orthodox churches is to be condemned.
Angela Smith spoke about the military activity in Donbass and praised the election. I, too, welcome the election of Volodymyr Zelensky, who has followed a fairly untraditional route. Mr Whittingdale observed the election, and deemed the process to be reasonably good. When the election was suspended in December, I was slightly concerned that it would not go ahead, but Ukraine has shown itself to be a mature democracy. That peaceful election is a positive step forward for it, and electing somebody who was not previously involved in the political process is a phenomenally good thing. The new President will have to look at serious issues, such as corruption and how to move democracy forward.
I was slightly concerned by the comments of Mark Pritchard, who said that the President may seek to exchange peace in Donbass for Crimea. It is not our place to direct the thinking of the President of Ukraine or influence how he sees fit to negotiate. No elected Member of any country would seek to give away any part of their territory. On the contrary, Ukraine continues to fight to be reunified with Crimea.
If the hon. Gentleman is not seeking to tell people how we should react to situations, he will need to clarify why he said during the Kerch strait aggression that there needs to be de-escalation on both sides, when there was no fault from the Ukrainian side: the only aggressor was the Russian Federation. Will he clarify whether he believes that the Ukrainian Government were an aggressor, or whether it was just the Russian Federation?
I certainly agree that there was no aggression on the part of Ukraine. There has only been aggression by the Russian state in relation to the occupation of Crimea—I say that unconditionally. I was trying to say that it is not our position to guide or interfere in the policies that the President of Ukraine makes in relation to his own country. He was elected in a peaceful, democratic election. I was taking issue with the comments of the hon. Member for The Wrekin. It is important that we look at those issues and resolve them.
My hon. Friend Mrs Moon, who, I believe, is on her way to Brussels as we speak, made some pointed comments about interference in elections, particularly in relation to cyber and digital aggression against Ukraine. The Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee has published a fairly significant report into that, and its Chair has done some significant work on the matter. We continue to be concerned about that issue, and my hon. Friend Tom Watson continues to take a keen interest in it.
What is happening in the Azov sea is very serious issue, and we should look at addressing it through sanctions. That is where the Nord Stream 2 pipeline comes into play. We must look not just at Russian participation in the Council of Europe, but at how the Minister can work with Germany, given that a significant trade deal involving gas supplies has been done. There are underlying problems with Nord Stream 2. The initial pipeline that was put in takes money away from Ukraine as a way to punish it, so we must look at how we can support Ukraine. We should use the pipeline as a negotiating tool to try to push this issue forward. That is a serious issue for us to deal with. My hon. Friend Chris Bryant made, I think, a reasonably good joke. He made a comparison with Georgia. We must bear that in mind and ensure we stop any further interventions.
Time is running short, and the Minister wants to get in. I ask him to address the issue of the sailors currently being held by the Russians. We must look at how we can influence that situation. The passage to the Azov sea, the bridge that has been built and the Nord 2 Stream pipeline are serious issues. We must try to get influence so we gain a reasonable negotiating position with Russia to deal with the issue of Crimea. The Magnitsky amendment, which the right hon. Member for Maldon spoke about, is very important. If the Government can push it along, it would go some way to dealing with the situation.
Finally, I pay tribute to the Ukrainian ambassador, who is in the Public Gallery, for the great work that she continues to do. I hope that the recent attack on her car will not hinder our relationship or her great work.
I thank my hon. Friend John Howell for initiating this debate, and for setting out the arguments so clearly and in such a well-informed manner—as did all hon. Members who contributed.
At the outset, I want to comment on the outcome of Ukraine’s presidential election. With the vast majority of votes counted, Volodymyr Zelensky won Sunday’s second round run-off with just over 73% of the vote. It is a testament to the development of Ukraine’s democracy that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights judged the second round to be peaceful and competitive. Its representative stated that the process respected fundamental freedoms.
I also pay tribute to President Poroshenko, who led Ukraine over the past five years in the face of unprecedented security and foreign policy challenges. He has accepted the choice of the Ukrainian people with great dignity and has offered to work with the President-elect. Our Prime Minister spoke to President-elect Zelensky yesterday. She congratulated him on his clear victory and assured him of the UK’s ongoing support. That important commitment is at the heart of today’s topic. We will debate one aspect of Ukraine’s territorial integrity: Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The Government’s position is absolutely clear: Crimea and Sevastopol are part of Ukraine. Russia’s illegal annexation and its continuing destabilisation of Ukraine is reprehensible. This Government will never recognise or legitimise Russia’s status in Crimea.
It is now five years since Russia illegally annexed 10,000 square miles of sovereign Ukrainian territory. Russia’s military intervention and subsequent unlawful referendum violated not only the Ukrainian constitution, but international law. As my hon. Friend the Member for Henley clearly outlined, Russia is now using a whole range of strategies to maintain its hold on Ukrainian territory and undermine Ukrainian sovereignty. It uses political manipulation and disinformation to fuel the conflict and interfere with elections; it forcibly moves Ukrainian citizens out of Crimea and moves Russian citizens in, in violation of the Geneva convention; and it persistently fails to meet its commitments under the Minsk agreements. It should withdraw its forces from all of Ukraine.
As we have heard, in November, Russia attacked and seized Ukrainian vessels and 24 servicemen as they sought to enter the sea of Azov through the Kerch Strait, as they have every right to do. Those servicemen continue to be detained in Moscow. I call on Russia to release these servicemen immediately and return the vessels to Ukraine.
Russian authorities have overseen the militarisation and the systematic restriction of fundamental rights and freedoms in Crimea, including freedom of expression, of movement and of religion, as well as the right to peaceful assembly. Despite repeated calls in UN General Assembly resolutions, Russia has not permitted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit to make a full independent assessment of the human rights situation. Even without such an assessment, the weight of evidence is damning. Minority groups, such as Crimean Tatars, face clear and increasing levels of persecution. Twenty-three Tatars were unlawfully detained following raids on their homes on
The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights has also documented a catalogue of abuses against political opponents and minorities in Crimea. Those abuses include arbitrary detentions and arrests, enforced disappearances and torture. Those who refuse to recognise Russian-based legislation applicable to Crimea are denied their basic human rights. Ukrainians face pressure to renounce their citizenship in favour of Russian citizenship; if they refuse, they are denied access to basic services. Crimeans are being forcibly conscripted into the Russian military—nearly 15,000 have been conscripted since 2015.
The UK is instrumental in ensuring a robust international response to Russia’s actions. Following the annexation of Crimea, Russia was suspended from the G8. The EU, the US, and partners including Canada and Australia, imposed a robust package of sanctions targeting key sectors of Russia’s economy, and we continue to co-ordinate our response to Russia’s actions.
I hope that everyone in this Chamber is in favour of the consistent application of such rules across the world, be it with Israel or with Russia. That consistent application is essential if we are to defend what is widely known as the rules-based international order.
Many of those responsible for the annexation have been sanctioned. We have imposed stringent restrictions on doing business in Crimea, for instance. Importing goods from Crimea is illegal and exports to key sectors are banned. We will not legitimise the annexation by making it easy to do business there.
Following the visit to Odesa in December by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence, the UK also extended and deepened our military assistance to Ukraine through the Operation Orbital training mission. NATO measures to enhance allies’ capability and presence in the Black sea will also contribute to an increased regional deterrent.
With respect to the human rights situation, the UK continues to provide funding to Crimean human rights non-governmental organisations and to the UN human rights monitoring mission in Ukraine, to help document and highlight human rights abuses.
It is testament to the bravery and fortitude of Crimean civil society that it continues to speak out in the face of relentless harassment. I know that some hon. Members took the opportunity to meet some remarkable Ukrainian human rights activists in Parliament last month. They were here for the screening of a documentary—partly funded by the UK—that highlights Russia’s human rights record in the peninsula, and the plight of over 70 political prisoners. Among such prisoners is Oleg Sentsov, who has been detained since 2014. The Foreign Secretary and I have consistently voiced our serious concerns about his welfare and deteriorating health. We have also condemned Russia for failing to provide Pavlo Hryb and Edem Bekirov with the urgent medical care that they need. They have been detained since August 2017 and December 2018 respectively.
Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol, and its continued interference in Ukraine, are illegal under international law. Ukraine chose a Euro-Atlantic future, and Russia must respect Ukraine’s sovereign decision, its independence and its territorial integrity. Until that happens, there can be no return to normal relations with Russia. That is why we will work to strengthen the resolve of the international community to stand firm against behaviour of this sort by Russia, to keep Crimea in the spotlight, and to expose Russia’s human rights violations.
We will continue to work with the Ukrainian Government to support its sovereignty and territorial integrity. We welcome the peaceful conduct of the presidential election on Sunday, and I congratulate Ukraine on holding the elections in an open and transparent manner. I offer my personal congratulations to Volodymyr Zelensky. Not only are the Prime Minister and the President-elect both Jewish, but they are both called Volodymyr. I also express gratitude to President Poroshenko for his leadership over the last five years in the face of the unprecedented security and foreign policy challenges for Ukraine. I welcome the strong partnership that we have built with Ukraine, in which we will continue to invest considerable energy.
In her call with President-elect Zelensky, the Prime Minister reiterated that the UK stands shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine. We will continue to remind the world that Crimea and Sevastopol are Ukrainian, that we will not recognise Russia’s illegal annexation, and that Russia will continue to face costs for its flagrant disregard for international law.
The debate has been excellent. I thank all who participated, and the Minister for his response. I add my welcome to the Ukrainian ambassador, who has sat through our proceedings and witnessed every moment of the debate. Ukraine can be assured of our support, and that we will do everything we can to ensure that it is safe and has an integral borders on which it can rely.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered the Russian annexation of Crimea.