Georgia and the War in Ukraine

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:12 pm on 24th May 2022.

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Photo of Amanda Milling Amanda Milling Minister of State (Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office) 5:12 pm, 24th May 2022

It is a real pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Djanogly on securing this important debate. We have some real experts on Georgia, and it is marvellous to see the ambassador with us in the Public Gallery. I also thank my hon. Friend for chairing the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia, and welcome the recent visit about which we have heard from several hon. Members.

The Minister for Europe and North America, my right hon. Friend James Cleverly, would have liked to have taken part in this debate, but he is currently travelling on ministerial duties. It is therefore my pleasure to respond on behalf of the Government, and I am grateful to hon. Members for their contributions and the points raised.

The United Kingdom fully supports Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. Diplomatic relations between our countries are the strongest they have been since they resumed 30 years ago. As my hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon and others have mentioned, we enjoy excellent political, parliamentary, security and economic co-operation. Our landmark agreement on strategic partnership and co-operation was the first the UK concluded with an eastern European country after leaving the European Union. The agreement, which sets out our unwavering support for Georgia, and our joint commitment to peace and security, also provides the framework for deepening our economic and business ties. It is testament to the strong bonds between us.

We continue to stand shoulder to shoulder in the face of Russia’s illegal, unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, which has had such dire consequences for the Black sea region. Russian aggression against its neighbours is nothing new, but the scale, speed and brazenness of Putin’s assault on Ukraine has underlined the threat that countries such as Georgia continue to face. On the first day of the invasion, Russia took territory greater than the size of Georgia. It is of course true that heroic Ukrainian resistance has driven Russian forces back from Kyiv, but Ukrainian suffering under the Russian attack and occupation has been catastrophic. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has therefore confirmed Georgia’s view that it will never be safe until it joins the EU and NATO, as Members have mentioned.

Of course, Georgia does not need to look at Ukraine to understand Russian aggression. For decades, Russia has tried to exert control over Georgia and the region by fuelling conflict and division. Following the 2008 war, which resulted in Russia’s recognition of the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Georgia has faced relentless pressure and hybrid attacks from Russia. Today, roughly 20% of Georgia’s territory is under Russian control, with Russian troops just 30 minutes from Tbilisi. In parallel, Russia deploys trade restrictions and other forms of economic and political pressure to try to break the will of the people of Georgia. Despite all that, Georgia has bravely stood with the people of Ukraine in their hour of need.

As the Minister for Europe highlighted during his call with the Georgian Foreign Minister on 28 February, the UK remains a steadfast supporter of Georgia’s sovereignty, territorial integrity and Euro-Atlantic aspirations. The UK will also continue to use our influential role in the Council of Europe, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN to call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Like the overwhelming majority of the international community, the UK does not recognise those breakaway regions.

As colleagues have asked questions in relation to the breakaway territories, it is worth clarifying that the UK does not refer to them as “occupied” due to the wide-ranging implications that would have for UK policy. Any acknowledgment of occupation would provide additional powers, in law, to the Russian Federation. The UK’s position is consistent with the position of the UN, OSCE and EU as conflict mediators, with NATO institutionally, and with most international partners.

Russia’s support for the breakaway regions’ so-called independence demonstrates contempt for the very foundations of international relations—sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the right of nations to decide their own future, free from aggression and fear of invasion. We condemn the recent announcement by the de facto authorities in South Ossetia of their intent to carry out an illegal referendum on membership of the Russian Federation. We also consistently call on the Russian Federation to fulfil its clear obligations under the EU-mediated ceasefire agreement of 2008. It must withdraw its forces to pre-conflict positions and meet its other commitments to dialogue under the ceasefire agreement.

Despite Russia’s constant threats and interference, the Georgian people have bravely chosen the path towards Euro-Atlantic integration, with more than 70% of the population in favour. The UK remains steadfast in our support for Georgia’s aspirations, including its recent EU membership application. EU membership is a sovereign choice for Georgia and EU member states. This Government support that choice and strongly believe that no third country should have a veto over Georgia’s decision. We also believe that further integration with the EU and NATO will deliver greater prosperity and security for Georgia and for Europe.

The UK will continue to support Georgia in its implementation of the EU association agreement and its NATO commitments. We are leading calls in NATO to step up practical and political support to Georgia as a matter of urgency. We continue to encourage all allies to deliver on commitments made under the substantial NATO-Georgia package, including assisting Georgia in the implementation of reforms and enhancing resilience, accountability and transparency. During the April NATO Foreign Ministers meeting, the Foreign Secretary agreed a package of additional support to Georgia, boosting work to build resilience and defence capacity. We will continue to develop this with the Georgian Government ahead of the Madrid NATO leaders summit in June.

Colleagues mentioned security. We are supporting Georgia in cyber-space and at sea. On cyber, along with international partners, we are supporting Georgia’s cyber-security strategy and wider work in this realm. In these times of hybrid warfare, Georgia must have the strongest possible defences. When it comes to security in the Black sea, the UK routinely provided a maritime presence before the recent Russian invasion of Ukraine. That includes, as colleagues have mentioned, HMS Defender’s visits last June to Odesa in Ukraine and Batumi in Georgia. We are keen to re-establish that presence and to expand co-ordination among international allies.

We are encouraging Georgia to accelerate democratic reforms and overcome polarisation in the political arena, as that is crucial to achieving its ambition of greater Euro-Atlantic integration. Genuine, far-reaching reforms will anchor Georgia’s democracy against those who would seek to undermine it.

Let me conclude by reaffirming the UK’s unwavering support for Georgia. Drawing on our strong and enduring relationship, and with our international partners, we will continue to help Georgia boost its security, strengthen its democratic institutions and achieve its Euro-Atlantic goals.