With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the situation in Ukraine.
The past month has seen an escalation of violence in the eastern regions of Ukraine. Fighting has been intense around the town of Debaltseve, a strategically important rail and road hub between the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk. The Ukrainians have suffered indiscriminate missile attacks on buses in Donetsk and Volnovakha and to the port city of Mariupol.
What is happening on the ground now resembles, to all intents and purposes, a small scale conventional war.
Over 5,000 people have been killed since the crisis began last Spring and over 1.5 million people have been displaced from their homes.
In recent weeks Russia has aggravated the effects of its initial incursion by stepping up the military support it provides to its proxies. It has transferred hundred of heavy weapons, including rocket launchers, heavy artillery, tanks and armoured vehicles, and it maintains hundreds of regular soldiers, including Special Forces, in Ukraine, as well as command and control elements, air defence systems, UAVs, and electronic warfare systems. The Russian Army is also the source of ex-regulars, who resign their posts to fight in Donbas as “volunteers”. The recent escalation in fighting would not be possible without the military support and strategic direction that Russia provides.
In these circumstances it is vital that all those countries who have a stake in the rules-based international system remain clear and united against Russian aggression.
In Normandy last Summer we agreed with the US and our European partners that the most effective channel of communication with the Kremlin would be through a small group. This is known as the “Normandy Format”, comprising Germany, France as host of the Normandy meeting, Ukraine and Russia.
Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande met President Poroshenko in Kyiv last Thursday and President Putin in the Kremlin on Friday. On Saturday, in Munich, I held meetings with Secretary of State Kerry and German Foreign Minister Steinmeier to assess the prospects for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, and on Sunday the German Chancellor and French President held a conference call with Poroshenko and Putin, agreeing to meet in Normandy Format in Minsk tomorrow. Their aim is to reach agreement on an implementation plan for the Minsk Ceasefire Agreements that the Russians entered into last September, updated as they need to be to reflect subsequent changes on the ground.
Mr Speaker, the UK welcomes efforts to achieve a peaceful resolution of the situation in Eastern Ukraine, while remaining sceptical of Russian commitment to such a resolution. It is clear that Putin respects strength. So Britain’s focus has been, and will continue to be, ensuring that the EU remains robust, resolved and united on the maintenance of economic sanctions, and closely aligned with the US.
The consensus within the European Union that Russia must pay a price for its disregard of the international rules-based system remains strong. Equally there is a clear consensus that the EU does not, and will not, recognise Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. The emergency EU Foreign Affairs Council on 29 January agreed to roll-over all Crimea-related sanctions against individuals and companies (Tier 2 sanctions). This is another clear sign that the EU remains united in its response to Russian action in Ukraine.
The package of economic sanctions which the European Union and the US has imposed on Russia, coupled with the catastrophic impact on the Russian economy of the decline in the oil price, is a critical element of the pressure on President Putin to change his behaviour. Britain was and remains at the forefront of the successful effort to build and maintain an EU-wide consensus on a sanctions regime on Russia, to the evident surprise and dismay of the Kremlin. Yesterday in Brussels I represented the UK at the European Union Foreign Affairs Council which discussed the Ukraine and reconfirmed its decision to apply additional sanctions but, at the suggestion of the Ukrainian Foreign Minister and as a gesture of support for the political process, decided to delay their entry into force until next Monday. The Informal European Council of Heads of State and Government will have further discussions on Ukraine when it meets on Thursday.
Mr Speaker, the crisis has inflicted substantial damage on Ukraine’s economy. The World Bank estimates that it shrunk by 8.2% in 2014. Public debt has risen sharply, foreign exchange reserves have fallen and the currency has lost nearly half its value against the US dollar. Ukraine clearly needs support from international partners to stabilise the economy, in return for which it must pursue the reforms to which it has committed under the Association Agreement with the European Union and the IMF programme. Britain is providing £10 million in technical assistance to support economic and governance reforms and the humanitarian effort. The EU will make a substantial contribution to the immediate estimated $15bn financing needs of the country, the majority of which will be provided through an IMF-led package.
Mr Speaker, we will also continue to work through NATO to offer technical support to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and reassurance to our Eastern NATO allies. At the NATO Wales Summit last September, NATO Allies sent a strong message to Russia, agreeing to maintain NATO’s long -standing capacity building work in Ukraine by setting up five dedicated Trust Funds for Ukraine, one of which will be co-led by the UK.
The Wales Summit also agreed a “Readiness Action Plan” to reassure our Eastern Allies. As part of the package, NATO allies agreed to a new “spearhead unit”, the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force, within the NATO Response Force, which, supported by the newly created forward integration units in the Baltic and Eastern European States, will be able to deploy at very short notice wherever they are needed.
On 5 February, NATO Defence Ministers agreed the size and scope of that mission. My Right Honourable Friend, the Defence Secretary, has announced that the UK will lead the force in 2017 and on a rotational basis thereafter. The UK also committed to contribute to Headquarters in Poland and Romania and six NATO Forward Integration Unit Headquarters in the Baltic States, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. In addition, the UK will contribute 4 RAF Typhoons to operate alongside Norway in support of the Baltic Air Policing Mission.
The UK also remains a strong supporter of the OSCE’s Monitoring Mission in eastern Ukraine. We have provided funding of over £2million, the second largest number of monitors and ten armoured vehicles to allow monitors to move around dangerous areas in a more secure manner.
Mr Speaker, our policy since the start of the crisis has been to supply non-lethal assistance to Ukrainian armed forces, in line with our assessment that there must be a political solution to this crisis. We have increased our defence engagement with Ukraine and are providing additional support on crisis management, anti-corruption, defence reform and strategic communications. We have also offered three members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces who were wounded in the Donbas life changing specialist medical assistance in the form of reconstructive surgery at the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham. We are providing a substantial package of non-lethal equipment to Ukraine comprising medical kits, winter clothing and equipment, body armour, helmets and fuel. The package is focussed on reducing fatalities and casualties amongst members of the Ukrainian Armed Forces.
It is a national decision for each country in the NATO alliance to decide whether to supply lethal aid to Ukraine. The UK is not planning to do so, but we reserve the right to keep this position under review. Different members of the alliance take nuanced positions on this question and are entitled to do so.
However, we share a clear understanding that while there is no military solution to this conflict, we could not allow the Ukrainian armed forces to collapse.
Mr Speaker, by its illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilising activities in Eastern Ukraine, including its direct military support to the separatists, Russia has demonstrated its disregard for international law. It is clear that President Putin respects only strength, and by standing united, using our combined economic muscle to impose significant economic costs on Russia, the international community has shown its determination to rebuff Russia’s anachronistic behaviour.
The ball is now firmly in Russia’s court. Until we see Russia complying with the terms of the Minsk agreement on the ground - withdrawing troops, stopping the flow of weapons and closing the border – there must be no let up on the pressure. Fine words in a declaration tomorrow will, of course, be welcome – but we have seen them before. The proof of the pudding will be in actions on the ground. We will monitor the situation carefully. And we will only agree to a relaxation of the pressure when we see clear evidence of changed Russian behaviour and a systematic compliance with Russia’s obligations under the original Minsk agreement.
Meanwhile there will be no let up in our efforts, with the US, in the EU, and through NATO, to ensure that Mr Putin hears a clear and consistent message: civilised nations do not behave in the way Russia under Putin has behaved towards Ukraine, and those of us who live by the rules-based international system will be steadfast in defending it against such aggression.
I commend this statement to the House.