Ukraine (UK Relations with Russia), Backbench Business

John Whittingdale (Maldon, Conservative)
I beg to move,

That this House
has considered Ukraine and UK relations with Russia.

May I start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to hold this debate this afternoon? I also thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe, who changed his diary so that he could respond to the debate.

Some might think that events in Ukraine have calmed down and that there is no longer the same conflict raging as a few weeks ago, as there is not nearly as much coverage of it in our own media. It has been superseded by events in the middle east and the threat from Ebola in west Africa, but the truth is that the situation in Ukraine is no better. It dominated a large part of the recent discussion at the G20, and the war, which has now been raging for several months, has led to more and more people being killed every day. Therefore, it is absolutely right that this House should debate the events in Ukraine and their consequences for our own relations with Russia.

I should perhaps start by referring to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I chair the all-party British-Ukraine group and I have received support from the British Ukrainian Society in that capacity.

It is difficult to believe that it was only a year ago that we saw the start of what has become known as the revolution of dignity. On 21 November 2013, after many months of negotiation on Ukraine signing the European Union association agreement, it was announced that it would not actually happen. That is what proved to be the catalyst for the protests, which became known as Euromaidan. The protests may have been sparked by that announcement, but they were not actually about the EU as such; they were, I think, much more about the overwhelming feeling of the people that they could no longer tolerate a corrupt and discredited Government who had sent a clear signal that, instead of moving closer to western values and the freedoms we uphold, they were turning in the opposite direction and moving closer to Russia.

Over the next few days, the numbers grew, and on 8 December—its anniversary was only a few days ago— 1 million people came out across Ukraine in the march of the million. They converged in Independence square in particular, and the Lenin monument was toppled. Today is the first anniversary of when the Berkut riot police first tried to attack the Maidan and the Ukrainian people came out in the middle of the night to resist the attack and defend the protesters.

It had been a peaceful protest by hundreds of thousands of people, but during the following weeks the protesters suffered beatings, disappearances and shootings. I want to take this opportunity once again to pay tribute to those who are now called the Heavenly Hundred, the activists who died in January and February in the Maidan. Like the Minister, I had a meeting yesterday with Vitali Klitschko, who is now the mayor of Kiev. He talked about the crimes committed against those people in Kiev and the fact that they still have not received any justice: nobody has been arrested for or convicted of those crimes. There is no question but that the people of Ukraine still want justice, and they look to their new Government to try to obtain it. I hope that they will concentrate on that, because the crimes that took place there were too great for no one to be held responsible for them.

Following the Euromaidan protest, events deteriorated. First, there was the Russian intervention in Crimea. The Russians already had a military presence at the naval base in Crimea, but there was then the illegal occupation and annexation of the entire Crimea. That was followed by the so-called referendum, which upheld no democratic standards whatever and was entirely bogus.

Since then, the situation in Crimea has got worse. We know that large-scale violations of human rights are taking place there. Both pro-Ukrainian activists and particularly Crimean Tatar activists have been persecuted, and a large number of them have disappeared. At the same time, there has been a large increase in the Russian military presence. We understand that some 50,000 Russian troops have moved into Crimea, with Iskander tactical missiles that can carry nuclear warheads and can reach Romania and Hungary.

The completely unacceptable situation in Crimea led to the first imposition of sanctions. Since then, attention has obviously focused on what is happening in eastern Ukraine.


Gerald Howarth (Aldershot, Conservative)
I am delighted to take part in this very important debate. I am surrounded by some of my closest political soul mates, but I suspect that my view is slightly different from theirs. I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Whittingdale on introducing the debate, but it is disappointing that a matter of such significance to the security of our country, and of Europe more widely, has not attracted the participation of more Members.

I agree with the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my right hon. Friend Sir Richard Ottaway, that we face a very serious situation. My excellent hon. Friend Dr Lewis and my—also excellent—hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh were right to have been inspirational in setting up the Coalition for Peace through Security. Its work during the cold war contributed to the understanding in the United Kingdom of the need to face up to the Russian threat. I agree with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East said about our not making threats that we cannot fulfil, and not offering NATO membership to countries that we are not prepared to send our children to defend and put their lives on the line for.

I agree with much of that, but my hon. Friends were instrumental in establishing the Coalition for Peace through Security, whereas we face a threat to our security and a threat to peace. I do not know whether anybody saw the BBC programmes on the “37 Days” leading up to the war. I normally fall asleep watching such things, but I was absolutely riveted during the programmes, because the language of the conversations 100 years ago was the same as the language we are using in this place and in the corridors of power today.

It worries me that we might be in real danger of sleepwalking into some sort of very substantial regional conflict. That is because our minds are on Syria, and on the Gulf and Iran. Not enough minds are on China, and on what it is doing in the South China sea, where it is building port facilities and runways on uninhabited atolls. We face a very turbulent world, which is the price we are paying for the fall of the Berlin wall: the balance of terror has been exchanged for a very unstable world.

It is important that we take very seriously what is going on in Ukraine at the moment, and that we look at the Russians’ intentions. We know their intentions without having to look in a crystal ball, because they have been there historically. I have already mentioned what the Russians did to Ukraine in the 1930s: they starved the people who were providing them with their food. As recently as 2008, we saw what President Putin did in Georgia: he successfully provoked the Georgians—

Saakashvili probably should not have risen to the bait, but he did—and the result was that the Russians invaded South Ossetia and Abkhazia with complete impunity.

We have seen what I warned would happen—forgive me for saying that, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I could see what was going on in Crimea earlier this year. I understand what my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough says about Ukraine having been part of Russia, and about the need not to poke Russia in the eye. Yes, Sevastopol is as important to the spirit of the Russian navy as Portsmouth is to the spirit of the Royal Navy, but that does not justify walking into Crimea and annexing part of another sovereign country, in explicit contravention of the Budapest agreement which was signed in 1994 by Boris Yeltsin, John Major and Bill Clinton. I accept that that agreement did not provide an article 5 guarantee of Ukraine’s borders, but it was a deal with the Ukrainian people in which Ukraine gave up a massive arsenal of nuclear weapons that could have threatened us all, in exchange for recognition of its borders. What are we to make of a man, in the form of President Putin, who has so flagrantly breached an agreement to which his country was a solemn party? Should we regard that as an aberration or a one-off, or as what I believe it to be, which is a complete lack of care for how Russia is viewed, and complete disregard for international norms?

Mike Gapes (Ilford South, Labour)
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about the pattern of behaviour that has formed over recent years. We probably had illusions a few years ago about where Russia might go, but sadly we have been very disappointed. He referred to the Budapest agreement. Does the way that Russia has abrogated those undertakings underline the fact that Russia also appears to be abrogating arms control agreements? Certainly the agreement on conventional armed forces in Europe is in tatters, and the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty is now being questioned. There is no progress on strategic arms reduction, but rather a big build-up in Russia’s nuclear programme.