The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace)
With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a statement on the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
We are now 239 days into the operation that President Putin planned to conclude within a month. Active Ukrainian offensive operations continue in the north-east, near Svatove and the Kherson region in the south. If Ukraine successfully advances on Svatove, a key road and rail junction, it will constitute another severe blow to the logistical viability of the northern sector of Russia’s Donbas front. Yesterday, the new Russian commander in Ukraine, General Sergey Surovikin, offered an unusually candid public statement of the difficulty of the Russian position in Kherson, on the right bank of the Dnipro River. Pro-Russian occupation forces have now started to withdraw some categories of civilians east of the river. They claim 7,000 people have already departed, and aim to move another 10,000 a day, although we cannot yet verify those figures. Russia’s limited hold on the bank of the Dnipro looks shaky. It is likely more seriously considering a draw-down of its forces in the area.
Russia’s ground campaign is being reversed. It is running out of modern long-range missiles and its military hierarchy is floundering. It is struggling to find junior officers to lead the rank and file. Meanwhile, its latest overall commander, Surovikin, has a 30-year record of thuggery marked even by the standards of the Russian army. What will worry President Putin is that the open criticism is inching closer and closer to the political leadership of his country. Russia has strong-armed Belarus into facilitating its disastrous war, but the newly announced Russian-Belarusian “Group of Forces”, supposedly to be deployed in Belarus, is unlikely to be a credible offensive force. It is far more likely that Russia is attempting to divert Ukrainian forces from their successful counter-offensives.
As Russia’s forces are pushed back, they are resorting to directly striking Ukraine’s critical national infrastructure, especially the power grid. It should be noted that these facilities have no direct military role, but the impact is multiplying the misery of ordinary Ukrainian citizens. Notably, these strikes are partially being conducted by loitering munitions—so-called “kamikaze drones”. Despite Tehran’s denials, these weapons are being provided by Iran. This, in itself, is another sign of the strategic degradation of Russia’s military.
In the wake of these ongoing and indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure, the UK will continue—and is continuing—to gift air defence missiles to Ukraine. We are proud to be the second largest donor of military equipment, and last week I announced that the UK will provide additional air defence missiles to Ukraine to defend against Russian missile strikes. These include AMRAAMs—advanced medium-range air-to-air missiles —which, used in conjunction with NASAMS—national advanced surface-to-air missile system—air defence, pledged by the United States, are capable of shooting down cruise missiles. We continue to provide sophisticated electronic warfare equipment that gives additional protection against long-range drones and missiles.
Supporting Ukraine remains the Ministry of Defence’s main effort. We are helping Ukraine to replenish its stocks to keep us fighting. As winter approaches, we are developing a package to support Ukrainians through the winter, including 25,000 sets of winter clothing, so that they are more effective on the battlefield than their poorly trained, badly prepared and ill-equipped Russian counterparts, many of whom have been mobilised at short notice with little training, equipment or preparation.
As part of Operation Interflex, we are also continuing to train Ukrainian recruits in the United Kingdom alongside our Canadian, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Lithuanian, New Zealand, Norwegian and Swedish partners. We have so far trained over 7,000 soldiers and are currently on track to train 10,000 by the end of the year, with up to 20,000 to follow in 2023.
Furthermore, we have worked with allies and partners to establish an international fund, which will ensure the continued supply of essential lethal and non-lethal military support to Ukraine, as well as manufacturing capacity. To date, we have received pledges totalling approximately £600 million and continue to work with international partners to secure further funding. Today, we will launch the first urgent bidding round to identify and procure critical capabilities that can be rapidly deployed to Ukraine.
I would also like to share with the House details of a recent incident that occurred in international airspace over the Black sea. On 29 September, an unarmed RAF RC-135W Rivet Joint, a civilian ISTAR—intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance—aircraft on routine patrol over the Black sea was interacted with by two Russian armed Su-27 fighter aircraft. It is not unusual for aircraft to be shadowed and this day was no different. During that interaction, however, it transpired that one of the Su-27 aircraft released a missile in the vicinity of the RAF Rivet Joint aircraft beyond visual range. The total time of the interaction between the Russian aircraft and the Rivet Joint was approximately 90 minutes.
The patrol completed and the aircraft returned to its base. In the light of this potentially dangerous engagement, I have communicated my concerns directly to my Russian counterpart, Defence Minister Shoigu, and my colleague, the Chief of the Defence Staff, has also communicated his concerns. In my letter, I made it clear that the aircraft was unarmed, in international airspace, and following a pre-notified flight path. I felt that it was prudent to suspend these patrols until a response was received by the Russian state.
The reply by the Russian Ministry of Defence on 10 October stated that it has conducted an investigation into the circumstances of the incident and that it was a technical malfunction of the Su-27 fighter. It also acknowledged that the incident took place in international airspace. The UK Ministry of Defence has shared this information with allies and, after consultation, I have restarted routine patrols, but this time escorted by fighter aircraft.
Everything that we do is considered and calibrated with regard to ongoing conflict in the region and in accordance with international law. We welcome Russia’s acknowledgment that the incident was in international airspace. The UK has conducted regular sorties of the RAF Rivet Joint in international airspace over the Black sea since 2019, and we will continue to do so. For security reasons, I will not provide further commentary on the detail of these operations, but I want to assure the House that the incident will not prevent the United Kingdom’s support for Ukraine and resistance to Russia’s illegal invasion.
The UK Government’s position remains unchanged, with—I am pleased to say—consistent support across the House. We will continue to support the Ukrainian people to defend their homeland. The rules-based system has protected all nations from such naked and unprovoked aggression over the past 75 years; it has also been shaped by Russia in that time. This Government will always defend the rules-based system, because it is fundamental to who we are. It provides peace and security for this country and for our partners and allies. I commend this statement to the House.