Russia — Motion to Take Note

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Lord Anderson of Swansea (Labour)
My Lords, I broadly agree with the noble Baroness’s analysis and congratulate her, and I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that we are not back in the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and we do not foresee a Cold War of the scale of the last. However, perhaps we were optimistic following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as indeed we were over the Arab spring. Hopes were raised at that time that we would be dealing with a new Russia, a democratic Russia with rule of law, and a more co-operative Russia abroad. We have speedily moved from that, as we saw at the NATO summit in Newport, where Russia, the problem country, was the main focus of the debate.

We contrast the position post 1989 in Russia with that of eastern and central Europe. We have to ask ourselves why there is a difference in Russia and perhaps less of a difference in the Caucasus republics. I would follow the analysis of Putnam when he examined the difference between north and south Italy. There is a lack of a mature and civil society in Russia, an equating of opposition with treason and a centralisation with very limited checks and balances in Russian history.

Perhaps we need to turn to Russian history to obtain an accurate analysis of Russia today. The 19th century saw tsarist autocracy. Yes, serfs were then liberated but it is interesting that the former so-called

“Kremlin’s banker”, Pugachev, has stated that businesses in Russia are serfs to the state, with none beyond the reach of the President. After the brief opening under Kerensky, the Bolsheviks took power and we had democratic centralism, which was harsher than the 19th century autocracy. We saw in the 1930s the purges and climate of intense fear, followed by, yes, the great patriotic war and the heroism of the Soviet people. Then there was Kruschev, then Yeltsin’s anarchy, followed by Putin in 2000. This was helped by—as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said—great oil and gas resources, to the extent that some US critics talk of Russia today as a gas station with nuclear weapons. Abroad, we have heard the traditional fear of encirclement which continued through the Brezhnev doctrine. We could read the position well: we were warned in the speech of President Putin at the Munich Security Conference in 2007. Nevertheless, we should remind ourselves that promises were made to the Russians in the early 1990s that there would be no eastward expansion of NATO. There is a danger that those promises may be forgotten.

The noble Baroness detailed the issues of human rights in Russia. There is no need for me to follow her over that trail. One sees it equally in the reports on human rights by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the State Department and Congress, and Human Rights Watch. All have common themes, with perhaps the only bright light being that of a better treatment of the disabled. Of course, we return to the old themes in Putin’s Russia: the triumphs of the Second World War on the lines of Yaroslavsky, the glory of the tsarist empire allied with the Orthodox Church, Slavophilia and, perhaps most of all, the cult of personality—which we saw in spades during the birthday celebrations of the President and the 12 labours of Hercules. I invite noble Lords to look at the case of Magnitsky, who was killed in 2009 having exposed tax evasion. None of those responsible for his death has been punished. That is a tragic commentary on the state of Russia today.

Outside the borders, we have been ready to give Russia the benefit of every doubt as it flagrantly ignores international law. It still occupies parts of Georgia; Crimea has been annexed and is a new frozen conflict in Europe; eastern Ukraine is invaded by Russian troops. That is all in spite of Russia’s international obligations. However, perhaps there is a good side. Do I detect a new realism as the western response slowly is mobilised? Certainly, there is much less trust in Russia. Particularly now, we are much more wary than we were prior to events in Ukraine. The old naivety may have evaporated but nevertheless there will be common mutual interests such as counterterrorism, nuclear proliferation and ISIL. We will perhaps just have to sup with a longer spoon.

One brief postscript: if we are to make valid criticism of Russia, we must come with clean hands. Our own commitment to human rights is in peril because the Conservative Party has pledged to walk away from the European Convention on Human Rights, in effect to make it only advisory. Dominic Grieve, who was sacked as Attorney-General, said of this plan:

“It’s incoherent, it’s a bit anarchic, it breaches our international legal obligations. It’s a complete breach of precedent”.

I end on this point: those in the Kremlin must be rubbing their hands with glee—I repeat, with glee—at this because we have a very clean record with the European Convention but the Russians have had far more breaches. If we are to sully our hands in this way, we can hardly expect to be taken seriously either by the Russians or our allies and those concerned with human rights in the world.

Baroness Williams of Crosby (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I join my noble friend Lady Falkner in congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, on being about to reply to this international debate, which I am perfectly certain that she will do with the eloquence, common sense and competence that she has shown throughout her career. I am delighted to see her on the Front Bench on this issue.

I have been involved in trying to teach democracy in Russia for the past 12 years. My memory goes back to the days of glasnost and perestroika, when it was possible to have open discussion about the problems that Russia had: the problems of establishing proper local government, issues of corruption and all the rest of it. Those were the years of trust between our country and Russia. Among the many things that were achieved during those years of trust, perhaps the most remarkable was the securing of all nuclear materials in the whole of what had previously been the Soviet Union over a period of only three or four years in collaboration with the United States. That was one reason why, after the fall of the Soviet Union, we did not encounter the terrifying terrorist outbreaks that one might have seen, given that there was a great deal of nuclear material loosely distributed all over what had been the Soviet Union. That shows what trust can achieve.

Trust has steadily eroded ever since in a way that, as my noble friend Lady Falkner pointed out forcefully in her speech, has affected our relations with Russia. I can bear that out to some extent from my experience, because in running seminars about democracy throughout Russia, from Siberia to Ukraine, we have run into more and more difficulties and less and less approval from central government in the Kremlin. I could give details, but there is not time. However, there has been a slow decline, and distrust between Russia and the western alliance is now so great that it is very hard to get co-operation on almost anything. One of the most disturbing aspects of that is the decline of discussions within NATO of the best possible ways to try to deal with some of the threats that confront us. That does no one any good. The fact the NATO-Russian Council does not meet now, at a time of great tension, tells us a great deal about the perils that we run in the world.

Secondly, as a result of that deterioration of trust, we have seen a steady change in the attitudes and behaviour of the Russians. That has culminated in what has happened in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea. I very much agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said: the Ukrainians did not start very sensibly by trying to rule out Russian as the second language of Ukraine. The blame is not entirely distributed on one side. The noble Lord was also absolutely right to say that we do not sufficiently consider the history of Russia. The history of Russia is a history of one invasion after another, one occupation after another, and growing fear within Russia herself which has led to security being the overwhelming consideration for those who vote. Mr Putin has very strong support within Russia at present. That does not flow from a lack of love for democracy; it flows directly from fears about the security of the country which are deeply rooted in history.

Thirdly, although I agree with my noble friend Lady Falkner’s statements about what has happened to human rights, and the wise remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, on the subject of trying to go back to national human rights when we desperately need to protect international human rights, we are underestimating the consequences on Russian politics of the steady eastward drift of NATO. I consider that to be very serious. Of course we should accept the independence of Georgia and Ukraine, but it is unwise to talk as widely as we do about the possibility of both joining NATO. Ukraine has long been the buffer for Russia against the attacks of other countries. The thought that she might roll NATO’s power right up to the border of Russia itself is not timely. I hope very much that Her Majesty’s Government will consider carefully, as to their credit they have done up to now, the idea of strongly backing some forces in the United States that want to see Ukraine and Georgia become members of NATO as quickly as possible. They should be independent countries and supporters of the European Union, yes. But should they be members of NATO? Not yet, I suggest, as it is much too soon to walk in that direction.

Finally, we desperately need Russian co-operation. The noble Lord, Lord Howell, pointed out the particular dependence of the former parts of the Soviet Union in the Baltic, which are on up to 100% Russian gas and oil. These countries could very easily be brought down industrially within a matter of weeks unless we can re-establish some sort of co-operation—not just about oil but in two other fields. One is terrorism, to which the noble Lord also referred; the other, strangely enough, are crises such as the infectious disease crisis represented by Ebola, where we have to have international co-operation to deal with those challenges. We have to recognise that fact.

In conclusion, I say simply that we need Russia, as Russia needs us, but that should not stop us being critical of the massive attacks on human rights that have been experienced. We also need to recognise the absolutely essential need for co-operation on the challenges now facing the world. That means that we have to take into account the special Russian sensitivity towards the onward eastward movement of NATO and ask ourselves whether that should not perhaps be paused for the time being until we are able to get co-operation and trust back on track.

Lord Owen (Crossbench)
My Lords, I have been involved in business in Russia since 1995—mainly with a steel firm in Stary Oskol, some 600 kilometres south of Moscow—because I believed then and believe now that through business relations we will best establish good relations between the United Kingdom and Russia.

I have also been a very strong believer in the Budapest memorandum, which relates to the subject of this debate, feeling it absolutely essential that countries which give up nuclear weapons should be strongly supported and feel that they have some form of military guarantee. It is of course nowhere near as strong as an Article 5 NATO agreement. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said just now: it is a great mistake to expand NATO to either Georgia or Ukraine. We were advised about this many years ago by George Kennan; he was completely correct.

Although I disapproved of the way that the former President of the Ukraine was removed from power, I strongly condemned the annexation of Crimea. It might be possible—I said so publicly very soon after it happened—for an eventual agreement, on the lines of the Cuba-US agreement, between Ukraine and Russia over the military base of Sebastopol. I still think that that is one of the routes through. There has to be a resolution between those two countries about Crimea. The world cannot accept that annexation without there being a negotiated settlement between President Putin and President Poroshenko. They are meeting, probably as we speak, in Milan and there is a real possibility of concluding a serious negotiation.

There has been progress made over gas supplies, which is the first essential. The second essential is to get a real ceasefire, which has not yet materialised. The third essential is devolution to east Ukraine. It will never be content without some serious measures of devolution. It is something which we in this country ought not to be standing in the way of but encouraging. The fourth element is getting back into the international community on things like international air conventions. It is still a terrible tragedy that we have not achieved that resolution in the light of those appalling casualties from the shooting down of the Malaysian plane, and we need to know the full facts of that.

However, the essential issue seems to be that the people of Ukraine and the people of Russia have to understand that a peace negotiation and continued and increasing business relations are in both countries’ interests. It is very hard to see Ukraine, with all the financial difficulties that it has had and its considerable and long record of corruption, achieving the economic growth and prosperity that it deserves without co-operation, first, heading towards membership of the European Union, and secondly, retaining good, strong working relations with the Russian Federation. There is no escape from that, and some of the language that we have heard in the past few months, seeming to think that a solid division between Ukraine and Russia is in the interests of Europe, let alone the world, is a great mistake. We need to say that constantly to our Ukrainian friends on this issue. I have always supported the decision by Boris Yeltsin and President Kravchuk to separate out the Russian Federation and Ukraine, but no one could believe that this could be done without full cognisance of the history of those two countries at every stage. Sometimes in our debates we seem to have been blind to that factor.

So I think that a negotiation can be achieved between these two countries. They may make agreements that we in the West would not necessarily make—for example, there is another border dispute involving Russia, and that lies between Moldavia and the Ukrainian frontier. This is an area ripe for negotiation and solution, and might be one of the ways of easing the problem for the Ukrainians of the loss of Crimea. It is in this pragmatic way that I would like to see negotiations.

I say this to the Government: only four countries are signatories to the Budapest memorandum: the Russian Federation, Ukraine, the United States and Great Britain. Quite frankly, we ought to have been involved in the negotiations right from the start. When the crisis blew up on the streets of Ukraine and the President was in the process of being toppled, an EU initiative was taken, with three Foreign Ministers—German, French and Polish—going in and negotiating on our behalf. The Russians were there with an observer, after strong pleas from President Obama. They made an agreement. While the ink was still not dry, that agreement was broken, which did terrible harm to relations. We have to find a better way of dealing diplomatically with the Ukraine and Russia problem.

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Lord Watson of Richmond (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I declare a number of interests. I was an adviser to the Romanian Government when they were negotiating their membership of the European Union. I am a vice-president of the English Speaking Union and I have been involved in establishing branches of that union in Russia, particularly in St Petersburg, and eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. I am also a visiting professor at St Petersburg State University, which, as many noble Lords will know, is Vladimir Putin’s alma mater.

I must say that I am not entirely persuaded about the popularity of Mr Putin. I know what the opinion polls say and I know about his control of the media, which reflects that judgment. However, from my own conversations, particularly with people in St Petersburg, there is deep unease among many in Russia over what is happening. Also, there is occasional derision towards Putin’s position. The ludicrous assertion that the level of voting in the Scottish referendum was North Korean was greeted with embarrassment and derision by many people I know in Russia. We should be realistic.

I was somewhat shocked by the assertion of the noble Lord, Lord Truscott, that we were in danger of—I think I have got the words right—picking a fight with Russia over Ukraine. May I remind the House that it is President Putin who has picked a fight with democratic principles and international law over Ukraine? It is not the West that has picked a fight with him. I hope that, in her reply to this debate, the Minister will reassert that. There is a very important issue of principle involved.

Because of ISIS and its present command of the headlines, the ambitions and, indeed, the ambiguities of Vladimir Putin are somewhat misunderstood and ignored. However, his activity, particularly in east Ukraine, is destabilising for very specific reasons. I shall focus on just two aspects of this destabilisation.

The first is the economic dimension. Reference has been made to the impact of western sanctions on Russia and we all know about the West’s dependence—which, at 40%, is still considerable—on Russian oil and gas. Let us look at the impact of western sanctions. It is a very complicated picture. The Russians have self-inflicted much of the impact of these sanctions. They have, for example, forbidden agricultural imports across a very wide range of products from the United States, the European Union and Norway. The result is that there are now shortages of important foods in the shops in many Russian cities and prices have risen dramatically. That is a self-imposed impact. The fourth tier of sanctions has also significantly impacted on access to capital and investment, particularly for smaller entrepreneurial companies in Russia.

At a lecture in St Petersburg, I was once asked: what is the basic economic relationship that Russia should look for with the West? I replied that to benefit trade you must have reciprocity. It has to be a two-way street. One of the problems is that the Putin Administration has viewed it as a one-way street. It has been about using the power of oil and gas—the so-called nuclear weapon—to gain what he wants. What will happen about that? There have been references, rightly, to the fall in the oil price. That has happened for all sorts of reasons, not least of which is the impact of shale in the United States. But let us not underestimate the almost total dependence of the Russian economy on oil and gas. If this fall continues it will, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, indicated in his speech, have a very dramatic effect on Russia.

What are we doing to lessen our dependence on oil and gas from Russia? There is a lot of infrastructure investment. In particular, the new pipeline going through Albania is going to be of considerable significance. Albania, incidentally, now has candidate status. It is hoped that its President will visit this country before the end of the year, and I think that we have to really stretch out a hand in that relationship.

I end by looking at the relationship between EU enlargement and this whole issue. When Helmut Kohl, as German Chancellor, negotiated with Mr Gorbachev, he indicated to the Russians that we would not allow a situation where NATO and the EU reached the borders of Russia. I think that that was prudent and right, and we should not entertain the idea of Ukraine joining NATO. However, that is not to say that we should allow a situation in which permanent destabilisation of eastern Ukraine is permitted. Therefore, I think that we must remain committed to EU enlargement where that is applicable but, above all, we must maintain the present levels of sanctions until there is a significant change, and we may not have to wait too long.

We used to talk about an EU-Russian agreement. That may now seem a very distant prospect, but the fact that it is distant should not in any way reduce our commitment to trying to achieve it. However, to achieve it, we have to be realistic, not optimistic, about Mr Putin and contemporary Russia.

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