Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Ben Wallace Portrait The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Ben Wallace)
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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.

Luke Pollard Portrait Luke Pollard (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Lab/Co-op)
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I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. At a time of much Government chaos, I also thank him for his calmness and professionalism in the job.

The incident with the RAF Rivet Joint surveillance aircraft that the Defence Secretary described is serious. He outlines that the correct steps have been taken, the malfunction has been confirmed and the incident has now been resolved. It is welcome that RAF flights have restarted and that there has been a clear recognition from Russia that the aircraft was flying in international airspace. The RAF has this House’s full support; we are grateful to it, to other UK forces and to our NATO allies for their work protecting the alliance and protecting freedom. The incident is a serious reminder of the importance of avoiding escalation and miscalculation while continuing with the UK’s united support for Ukraine.

Almost eight months on from Russia’s criminal invasion of Ukraine, I pay tribute to the remarkable and continuing Ukrainian resolve in the face of Russian aggression. Putin has made a huge strategic miscalculation in invading Ukraine, which has resulted in Russian forces suffering heavy losses: the MOD estimates 25,000 Russian dead, tens of thousands injured, tens of thousands who have deserted and more than 4,000 armoured and protected vehicles destroyed.

At a time when Ukrainians have shown incredible resilience in defending their homeland, Britain must honour their bravery by remaining unwavering in our support for Ukraine. I am grateful that the Defence Secretary has set out the UK’s continued support under Operation Interflex for training Ukrainian forces; we thank UK members of the armed forces for their work. I would also be grateful if he confirmed when the promised action plan for continuing UK support for Ukraine will be published, outlining the type and quantity of military, economic and diplomatic support that Ukraine will receive. Putin needs to be in no doubt that our resolve will continue; whether the Defence Secretary’s party or mine is in charge, that will not change.

I think it is time the Defence Secretary made a statement about the planned drawback of troops from Estonia and about how that decision can be properly scrutinised. I would also be grateful if he set out whether orders have been placed for the replacement next-generation light anti-tank weapon missiles and when our stockpiles will be replenished.

There has been a concerning increase in Iranian drone activity. I would be grateful if the Secretary of State set out what additional support can be provided by the UK and our allies to ensure that the Shahed 136 and Mohajer 6 drones from Iran can be properly intercepted and defeated to protect Ukrainian infrastructure.

In his speech last night, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, threw into doubt the planned rise in defence spending to 3% of GDP, referring to it as a “potential increase”. I would be grateful if the Defence Secretary spelled out the Government’s position on defence spending and whether the increase is confirmed or—as Admiral Sir Tony Radakin says—only potential.

The Opposition’s support for Ukraine is unwavering. The Defence Secretary knows that he has Labour’s full support in the provision of military aid to our friends in Ukraine. Putin must fail in his aggression. As we enter an incredibly difficult period of the war, with cold weather drawing in, we must make sure that we support not only our friends fighting in Ukraine, but those civilians who are there fighting on its behalf. I would be grateful if the Defence Secretary set out what support the UK can offer to civilian infrastructure. The protection of energy sources is particularly important, not only for Ukrainian industry but for the Ukrainian people.

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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I am grateful to the shadow Minister for his questions. To assure the House, I did not choose to make my statement when my counterpart on the Opposition Front Bench, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), was not here; I spoke to him at length yesterday. I also assure the House that although there are some things that are of the highest sensitivity and cannot be said in public or in this House, I continue to engage with the party leaders on the most sensitive areas to ensure that they are fully apprised throughout this process.

Calibration is incredibly important to me. We are dealing with a President and with Russian forces who, as we have seen from the Rivet Joint incident, are not beyond making the wrong calculation or deciding that the rules do not apply to them. That is why I ask those constituents who are fearful that this report could lead somewhere to have faith that all of us in this Chamber are working on a detailed response to ensure that we walk what is sometimes a tightrope.

On Rivet Joint, as I said, we have made sure that the flight path is pre-declared, so that it is no surprise to the Russians and is logged in the normal manner. Indeed, I informed the Russians that they would be escorted, so there were no surprises.

The shadow Minister asked about the action plan; I think he was referring to the broader Government action plan, including foreign aid and support. I concur that the foreign aid package and helping Ukraine’s economy to survive, stand on its feet and go from strength to strength are as important as an effective military response. I will press my colleagues in other Departments to ensure that we get the shadow Minister details of the time and date, but it is a fundamental plank for Ukraine. Some of what I discussed when I was in the United States was in that area.

On the second battlegroup deployed in Estonia, hon. Members will remember that after the invasion a number of countries deployed what we called enhanced forward presence groups in Bulgaria, in Romania and around Europe. There was some talk about deployment in Hungary, but that did not materialise. Germany stepped up in Lithuania, and so did we in Estonia. The second battlegroup was always going to come back; our fixed position in Estonia is effectively a battlegroup that we vary in size and capability. To recognise the changed threat, we will keep our guided multiple launch rocket system, our longer-range deep fires and indeed our air defence capabilities, which are not always an accompaniment to that battlegroup. We have effectively beefed up the existing battlegroup, but we need to bring back the next battlegroup, which has been extended for another six months. I thank the men and women of the armed forces whose time out there has been extended. That battle- group will come back.

We should not forget that we also have a squadron of tanks in Poland, more forces, a company—a sort of small battlegroup—in Bulgaria, part of a US strike brigade, and we are now exploring having more Royal Engineers in Poland to assist with training Ukrainians and with things like combat engineers. That is why the battlegroup came back. I engage with my Estonian counterparts, whom I met only last week; indeed, I met them the week before in Poland to talk them through this, and they were given prior notification. We are very keen to continue to work strongly with them.

We have given an extra commitment on Estonia to have a brigade headquarters and a brigadier. In the same way, the German plan in Lithuania is to allocate a brigade for fast response to deploy, and that is one of the ways we seek to go. We are also helping Estonia to develop its own divisional headquarters, hand in hand, but we always keep things under review. We are all waiting for the NATO regional plans that will set out in detail how our forces should be deployed across Europe as part of a bigger comprehensive plan. It is really important for us all to be guided by that.

The Ukrainians are having success in shooting down a number of the Iranian drones, but it is a question of sheer scale. Members will not have missed the similarity with V1 rockets. I urge the Iranian Government to understand that supplying Russia so that it can indiscriminately kill civilians, including women, children and babies in prams, is surely not an activity with which Iran wants to be associated. I urge them to desist as soon as possible. We are not at all convinced by the Iranian Government’s denials that they are not supplying the drones.

We will use some of the funding that I have mentioned to invest in other novel capabilities that we can find to deploy. In the meantime, we are continuing, and will step up, our supply of low-velocity missiles to Ukraine to work with the Stormer system and ensure that we can help with detection or electronic warfare schemes. Obviously the Ukrainian conflict has flushed out counter-drone technologies that we all need. Members will recall the Gatwick airport scenario. Everyone came up with magic solutions, but, if memory serves, when we tested them almost none of them did what it said on the tin. However, we are helping rapidly, and the best of innovation is being used to help the Ukrainians.

When I was in Washington, it was made very clear from No. 10 that the commitment on 3% of GDP by 2030 would stand. I should be interested to know whether the Labour party will match that important commitment. If Labour Members are getting ready for government, as they seem to think they are, these are the questions that they will need to answer for the British public and the British armed forces as they lay out their timetable and their plan. They will have at least two years in which to do it, so I am not too worried—[Interruption.] It is when I am guessing the election will be, but that is definitely above my pay grade.

As for how we can get the Ukrainians through the winter, we are all working internationally to see what we can do. The European Union has announced a fund, and we will ensure that we do what we can to help Ukraine with critical infrastructure and energy.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns.

Alicia Kearns Portrait Alicia Kearns (Rutland and Melton) (Con)
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I thank my right hon. Friend for his calmness, and for the consistency of his support for our friends in Ukraine. Our leadership on defence spending matters, and it is important that we meet the target of 2.5% of GDP by 2026, because between now and 2050 it is spending on, and investing in, artificial intelligence, quantum and other new technologies that will allow us best to protect ourselves from hostile states. However, I am concerned about the escalation over the Black sea. I know that my right hon. Friend has a close relationship with his Turkish counterpart. Can he please give us an insight into how he is working with our allies in Turkey and Romania to protect air policing?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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One of the allies with which I discussed this incident was Turkey, at the time when it happened. I have a good and close relationship with the Turkish Government, and I will be visiting Turkey next week. The Turkish Government are aware of the position, and, as ever, offered as much assistance with this process as we wished.

We do not consider this incident to constitute a deliberate escalation on the part of the Russians, and our analysis concurs that it was due to a malfunction, but it is nevertheless a reminder of quite how dangerous things can be when you choose to use your fighters in the manner in which the Russians have used them. While this obviously involved the release of a weapon, we have seen very close flying next to United States, United Kingdom and NATO assets over the last few years. In one case, a Russian fighter went within 15 feet of a NATO aircraft. Such action is reckless and unnecessary, and puts many people’s lives at risk.

I am not naive. We are incredibly lucky that what we saw over the Black sea did not become worse. I am not trying to trivialise it, but we do not consider it to have been a deliberate escalation on the part of the Russian state.

Brendan O'Hara Portrait Brendan O’Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP)
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I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) appreciates the collegiate way in which both he and his staff have acted throughout this crisis.

Understandably, much of the attention arising from the statement will be focused on the incident involving the RAF surveillance aircraft and the Russian Su-27 fighter which took place in international airspace during a pre-notified flight over the Black sea last week. I commend the Secretary of State and the Ministry of Defence for their calm and measured response to a situation that could easily and very quickly have escalated into something far more serious.

Of course, the situation in Ukraine is serious enough, with Putin having now declared martial law in the four newly annexed territories. That gives him a level of control over industries that could possibly be repurposed to support his illegal war effort. As the Secretary of State said, in recent days we have seen more Russian war crimes. Ukrainian civilians and civilian infrastructure have been targeted with missiles, rockets and Iranian-made drones—which, I believe, makes Iran directly complicit in these war crimes. When will the Government follow the example of our US allies and EU partners in actively pursuing and sanctioning Iranian companies which have been involved in making those drones, as well as the individuals behind the companies? What, if anything, is being done to try to cut off the international supply of components to Iran?

Let me end by echoing what was said by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard). As winter approaches and we continue to provide military support, what thought has been given to protecting the civilian population? Is there scope for us to send more generators and specialist electricity equipment to help Ukraine to keep the lights and the heating on this winter?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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That last point is extremely important. The Department of Health and Social Care has already done significant work in securing medical supplies during the conflict, but the hon. Gentleman prompts me to see what we can do in a more international, co-ordinated manner. I will, perhaps, write to him giving the details of that. He is right to say that this is going to be a tough winter, and we need to make sure that the Ukrainians can cope.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the calmness of the RAF. Incredibly professional men and women are doing an incredible job, and not only here. Some of those same aircraft, and the P-8s from Lossiemouth, go out to protect us in the very high north from aggression and Russian activity. It is often in Scotland that Russia enters our airspace with its long-range bombers and the patrols that it did not give up after the cold war. The difference that should be noted is that we were in international airspace. However, we try to retain a professional manner with Russia. It is important that we maintain that professional link with the Russian Ministry of Defence, and recognise that we can still have those important engagements at times like this.

John Whittingdale Portrait Sir John Whittingdale (Maldon) (Con)
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Given the extraordinary success of the Ukrainian armed forces in pushing back Russian troops, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a danger that Putin may consider escalating the conflict? While attention has focused on the potential use of battlefield nuclear weapons, does he agree that any use of chemical or biological weapons equally represents a red line which Putin must not cross?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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When it comes to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the chemical weapons convention which all of us, including what are viewed as some of the key anchor countries, have signed up to—when chemical weapons were used in Syria, for instance, military action was taken by countries including ourselves and France—it is extremely important to uphold that convention. Breaking the taboo, or allowing it to be successfully broken, would have severe consequences for all of us. Similarly, the messaging is that the use of nuclear or chemical weapons would lead to severe consequences for the Russian state, and we urge that none of those be resorted to.

As for President Putin’s position, he has obviously made a number of speeches, and he has annexed illegally parts of countries that are still full of Ukrainian forces. His ambitions do not seem to match the realities on the ground. The key message to him is that we are interested in helping Ukraine to succeed in defeating Russia’s illegal invasion. If he understands what that is about, he should be able to calibrate his response so as to leave Ukraine in an orderly manner, and we can start the process of trying to rebuild that amazing country and ensuring that Russia is held accountable for its crimes.

Kevan Jones Portrait Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)
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I thank the Defence Secretary for his statement and his leadership during this difficult time. I also thank the members of our armed forces who are supporting our efforts in Ukraine and in eastern Europe, and, indeed, the civil servants behind the right hon. Gentleman in his Department.

In his statement, the Defence Secretary mentioned the Russians targeting drone attacks on civilians. Over the last few weeks, as the Ukrainians have gained ground, it has become clear that war crimes have been perpetrated against civilians and members of the armed forces in Ukraine. What expertise and support are we providing to enable the Ukrainians to log evidence and enable the individuals concerned to be brought to account?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for what he has said. When the war crimes in Bucha and not far outside Kyiv were exposed, a group of us—including the United Kingdom, alongside the Canadians—began the process of gathering evidence for the International Criminal Court. My colleague the now former Home Secretary, who was then the Attorney General, visited Ukrainian herself, and worked with the then prosecutor. The Red Cross is also engaged in gathering such information. Its biggest challenge is the sheer scale of the amount of evidence that we are now uncovering.

The fact that Russia does not invade and occupy a country with any civility towards or regard for its people adds to the anxiousness of our friends in the Baltic states; Russia seems to destroy everything in its path. The worry of a small Baltic state is that it does not have time for the rest of us to get there. That is why we are committed to a battlegroup in Estonia. If we give Russia time, there will not be much left when we arrive. That is why we have to send a message that this course is unacceptable.

Robert Courts Portrait Robert Courts (Witney) (Con)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his calm yet robust response to the Rivet Joint Sukhoi incident, which is of course of great concern. I also pay tribute to the calmness and professionalism of the RAF crews during the incident.

Will the Secretary of State commit to continuing to keep under review the adequacy of the fighter forces we have available, bearing in mind the escort duties that he has now referred to as well as the ongoing combat air policing duties on NATO’s eastern front in any event?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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Yes; making sure we have more aircraft fighter capability in this country has been one of my priorities. On almost my first day in the job, I sent a letter to the Chief of the Air Staff stating that his No. 1 priority was to improve the fighter pilot pipeline; there is no point in buying planes if there is no one to fly them. It is incredibly important that we get those pilots.

Of course one of the challenges with the new F-35 is growing instructors. It is a Catch-22: there have to be enough pilots in the planes to grow the instructor body, but if there are not enough pilots in the first place, how do we do that? We are getting there, and the situation is improving. The Typhoon is proving its worth every single week. I went to the ceremony to hand over to Qatar the next iteration of the Typhoon. It is a formidable aircraft, which I hope will be bought by many other countries around the world.

Feryal Clark Portrait Feryal Clark (Enfield North) (Lab)
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The Secretary of State touched on the help that we are providing. Will he elaborate on that? He talked about equipment. What are we doing to provide small diesel generators to ensure that key services such as hospitals or water cleaning plants keep going, given Russia’s attack on civilian infrastructure?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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Non-lethal military aid is collected and corralled in the same place as military aid: through the international donor cell based in Germany—a multinational cell staffed predominantly by military and civil servants who collect the ask from Ukraine, which they try to match with donors. That is predominantly for military and non-lethal military aid, which includes generators, field hospitals and medical stuff. Predominantly, that is related to the war effort.

I will make sure that we write to the hon. Lady with the broader detail of what other assistance is happening. I visited Ukraine about three or four weeks ago. People there were in a pretty good mindset about their ability to see through the winter, but the use of Iranian mass drones will have an effect if it continues and we must make sure that that does not catch up.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I forgot to answer the question about sanctions put by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara). My understanding is that the Foreign Secretary will make a statement about that in the near future.

Andrew Bridgen Portrait Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con)
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I commend the Secretary of State on his statement and his ongoing handling of the UK response to the illegal invasion of Ukraine by President Putin.

I have long been of the view that spending on our armed forces should be viewed as an insurance policy to protect not only our security but our national interests. As with any insurance policy, when the risk profile increases so must the premiums. My right hon. Friend has already reconfirmed that the Government have committed to raising defence spending to 3% of GDP by 2030. Given the acute security situation in which we find ourselves at the moment, will he also commit to keeping that 2030 date under review?

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Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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My hon. Friend is right; I have often stood at the Dispatch Box and said that as the threat changes so must our investment and funding. That has been all too forgotten when it has come to defence during the last three decades, to be honest. It was interesting that we always understandably responded to pressures in the NHS or the financial markets, but that did not seem necessary when it came to threats. That is how we have ended up with a need to go up to 3% by 2030.

As long as I am Defence Secretary, I will keep the view that as the threat changes we should always review the issues. That is fair and consistent for the men and women of the armed forces. It also sends a strong message to people such as President Putin: that we mean what we say.

John Spellar Portrait John Spellar (Warley) (Lab)
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In answer to the challenge from the Secretary of State, I can say that Labour Front Benchers are very ready for government—and by the way, his lot seem to be actively working to be ready for opposition.

The statement was helpful, but ignored the gorilla in the room. Earlier this week, the Secretary of State urgently flew to Washington DC for talks about the situation in Ukraine. There has been quite a bit of briefing in the media on what that may have been about. I fully understand the sensitivities, but surely it is owed to the House and indeed the nation for there to be some indication of how we and our allies see the conflict evolving.

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He and I went to Washington ourselves in calmer times; it now seems decades ago. I was in opposition and he was in government, although he is well qualified to know what opposition is—sadly for him, he has probably spent more time in opposition than government.

There has been a lot of what I would describe as speculation rather than briefing about why I went to Washington; I noticed that yesterday two mainstream media publications gave different reasons for why I went. Fundamentally, President Putin makes his speeches, things change and we need to be absolutely prepared to discuss that with our closest allies. Sometimes it is important to do so in person. I thought it was important after the appointment of the new general, after President Putin’s speech about annexation and during the issues around Ukraine’s success on the battlefield and what that could mean for President Putin, his actions and what happens next.

It is important that we have such discussions in person. I went to the Pentagon and the State Department. I met the National Security Adviser and had other meetings to make sure that we all understand our planning processes about what we would do in the event of a whole range of things.

People should not be alarmed, but I hope they take comfort from the fact that my priority is, if necessary, getting on a plane to go and do that, not dealing with what is currently going on in our mainstream media.

James Sunderland Portrait James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)
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Following the Defence Secretary’s recent visit to Washington and other travels, will he provide for the House a short assessment of the continuing resolve within NATO for supporting Ukraine, so that we can see this through?

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Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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My hon. Friend will have noticed two things in the last few weeks. First, we had our NATO Defence Ministers meeting last week. The resolve is absolutely rock solid. When it comes to the nuclear issue, the line is consistent that there would be severe consequences for Russia if it uses tactical nuclear weapons. Our commitment to responding to such issues and the threat they pose to the world order in breaking the nuclear taboo is determined and united.

My hon. Friend will also have noticed that the European Union has started to use much more hawkish phrases about this issue. That is because its member states are clearly resolved. They want this issue to be concluded successfully. They recognise that constituents in all our countries face higher food and energy prices because of what is going on in Ukraine. The quicker and more permanently we can solve that, the better for all of us. We can then get on and deal with the inflationary pressures and all the other stuff.

Richard Foord Portrait Richard Foord (Tiverton and Honiton) (LD)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement; his transparency is welcome and serves to prevent misreporting of the Rivet Joint incident and inadvertent escalation. We in the Liberal Democrats would like to add that we also pay tribute to the professionalism, values and standards of the Royal Air Force and all our armed forces.

I particularly appreciate the Secretary of State’s recognition that communication is crucial to ensure that we avoid miscalculation. He said that he has communicated his concern directly to his Russian counterpart, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, and that the Chief of the Defence Staff has done the same using his channels. On 7 March this year, the Chief of the Defence Staff, Admiral Sir Tony Radakin, said lines of communication were

“not as strong as we would want them to be”.

Can the Secretary of State comment on whether top-level lines of communication with Russian counterparts have deteriorated further or improved since then?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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It is possible for us to communicate with the leadership of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the leadership of the Russian Government when we need to, and there is a constant capability to do that. That is not particularly easy across the international community at the moment, because General Gerasimov and Minister Shoigu are clearly engaged in the activity that has led us all to the House today, and they are busy doing that. Communication is possible, and I assure the House that, if it became impossible, I would seek other ways of making sure. I also have close allies and partners who can make calls, if necessary, and we utilise them where needed.

Bob Seely Portrait Bob Seely (Isle of Wight) (Con)
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Given all that is happening in Russia, Ukraine and elsewhere in the world, does the Defence Secretary agree it is right that the Prime Minister has brought forward a commitment to reach defence expenditure of 2.5% of GDP by 2026? We cannot wait until 2030 to deal with the great threats we face now.

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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First and foremost, 2030 is the key point, because we have to pass through 2.5% to get to 3%. The reality is that we need to make sure that the rise to 3% is done sustainably. I cannot be given a blob of money in 2029 and be expected to buy a warship in five weeks. There has to be a proper, graduated response. I will make sure the response includes 2.5% en route to 3% of GDP.

It is also important to remind the House that being part of NATO helps us to achieve global mass, or certainly mass within the north Atlantic, and enables us to deploy very large numbers of troops, if necessary. On paper, NATO still far outnumbers Russian forces. Since Russia has significantly degraded nearly all of its land armed forces, the ratio is even more imbalanced in the favour of NATO.

Barry Sheerman Portrait Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op)
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It gives me great confidence that we have heard a competent and trusted Secretary of State and a competent and trusted shadow Secretary of State having an intelligent conversation about this issue, followed by a question and answer session. That is what our constituents expect to happen in Parliament, as opposed to recent events.

May I push the Defence Secretary a little? The credibility of our armed forces relies on how many men and women they have and, as he knows, many years ago I campaigned for a 100,000 minimum. I still have no answer on whether the 72,000 aim in the most recent Conservative party policy is still working. I support the 3% target for expenditure; and please can we have more aid going to the civilian population of the places that the Russian air force is bombarding?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. If, at the end of this, we do not help Ukraine rebuild itself, it will all have been for nothing. It is important that, alongside the military response, we help Ukraine’s economy get on its feet. Ukraine has the means—it has agricultural produce, et cetera. As the hon. Gentleman says, Ukraine’s military and other values are different from Russia’s, but the economy, the poverty and all the other issues are also important.

On the credibility of our armed forces, we have to make sure that, whatever their size, our armed forces are properly protected, perfectly formed at the forefront of capabilities and able to interoperate and integrate with our biggest allies. That is as important as the size of our armed forces. Russia went for size, and its armed forces cannot talk to each other or defend themselves. For all Russia’s boasts about how many BMPs and T-72s it has, they all ended up dead or broken on the road to Kyiv.

There is an important balance to strike but, like the hon. Gentleman, I believe we also need to invest to deliver armed forces of scale so that we are able to be present around the world to deter our enemies, and so we can make choices about being in the Baltics and in Poland and in the Pacific and in Africa, where violent extremism is getting bigger and threatens the stability of Africa.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. I am having a meeting with the Treasury this afternoon. If he would like to come with me, I would be delighted to take him. We have been in the House together for many years, and he is formidable at delivering what he wishes to achieve. I also remember him being formidable to his own Front Bench at certain times when they needed to hear the right messages. He would be very welcome. If I could squeeze him into the Treasury meeting, I would.

Richard Holden Portrait Mr Richard Holden (North West Durham) (Con)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. I echo the comments of the whole House, including those of my constituency neighbour, the right hon. Member for North Durham (Mr Jones). I praise my right hon. Friend for his leadership on the issues we have been facing in Ukraine and over the last few years.

Obviously, in addition to the supply of lethal and non-lethal weaponry and supplies, one of the big things the UK has been doing is helping to train Ukrainian forces. Can my right hon. Friend confirm how many Ukrainian troops have been trained so far by the UK’s training programmes and how many we plan to train in the coming year?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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We have trained 7,000 so far. We are on target to complete 10,000, and then another 20,000-plus next year. It often depends on whether the Ukrainians are able to give us the training pipeline. Some of these people will be coming off the frontlines. It is always a challenge, but we are in the right position. We are well supported by the international community, and it is making a difference. We are now looking at what we can do with larger units, by helping Ukraine to train at company and battalion level. That would probably happen within Europe.

Hilary Benn Portrait Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
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In describing Russia’s increased targeting of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, which we learned this morning has led to restrictions on power supply, the Secretary of State referred to the sheer quantity of cruise missiles and drones that are being used in those attacks. Is it now a question of increasing the equipment and capability he has announced to the House today to enable Ukraine better to resist those attacks, or are there other capabilities—he referred to some—that could be supplied or that Ukraine has requested?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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From the international community, for example, Ukraine has consistently requested some of Israel’s electronic warfare capability. It is regrettable that, at the moment, Israel has not chosen to do that. I will be seeing the Israeli ambassador in the next few weeks to try to press the case.

One of the challenges I have talked about is the proliferation of precision weapons into the hands of basically low-level troops. We have highly sophisticated, complex weapons that take months to make and were originally designed to shoot down fighter aircraft. When they are used against fairly cheap, mass drones, Ukraine will run out of them quicker than they can be replaced. That is one of the lessons, and it is why electronic warfare to jam, divert or take over these things plays an important part. That is why we will all be looking at our capabilities and thinking about future challenges. It is as much about how we are going to do that as about how we can help the Ukrainians. Right now, we are helping the Ukrainians, and what we have learned is coming back into our system for ourselves.

Tom Hunt Portrait Tom Hunt (Ipswich) (Con)
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I had the great privilege of attending a delegation to the Tapa British Army base in Estonia last week. We met His Majesty’s ambassador to Estonia, who is doing a fantastic job. There is obviously huge affection between the peoples of Estonia and Ukraine, as we saw when we had the great privilege of attending the Ukrainian ballet.

I also met my constituent, Laurence, at the Tapa army base. He is in 19 Tank Transporter Squadron, and I asked him, “How can I help you? What message can I take back to the Secretary of State for Defence?” His whole thought was about the vehicles and how they are looked after, protected and maintained; it was not about himself. Will the Secretary of State join me in respecting the dedication of Laurence, everyone in 19 Tank Transporter Squadron and every one of those proud British armed services personnel working at the Tapa army base to keep us and the people of Estonia safe?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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Yes. My hon. Friend was brave asking that question of a soldier—I have often had answers people did not expect. He espouses the real professionalism of our men and women. We were always taught, and I have never forgotten this, that it was, “My men, my kit, myself.” I hope Members will forgive the gender issue there. That shows the difference between us and the Russians: they do not seem to care about their men and their women, and seem to care only about themselves. That is why we see their army doing what they are doing. It is incredibly important that we have ready, capable equipment—that is the point I make to the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman): it is not just about mass and it has to be about things being properly serviced and maintained. The job that my hon. Friend’s constituent was doing is one of the key things—he is an enabler. In the past, it was the enablers they hollowed out, as long as they could talk about having a “frontline regiment” or “frontline tank regiment”. However, if you do not have the transporters, there is no point in having lots of tanks, because you will not go anywhere.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. It is encouraging for all of us in this House to know that we have a Secretary of State who is very much committed, in every sense, to ensuring that Ukraine has everything it needs. Is there any further support that he can and will make available to ensure that the damage left by the drone attacks that were designed to disrupt power and water supplies is repaired urgently? This might not necessarily be a Ministry of Defence thing, but this is about repairing the damage and ensuring that these supplies are not attacked again. Can he make that happen with any manpower, expertise and supplies, in order to thwart Putin’s determination to leave Ukrainians in the dark and with no water?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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The positive side is that the Ukrainians are incredibly skilled at being able to fix, repair and build their equipment. In many cases they have managed to turn around the shortages of electricity in a matter of days and Putin has not been successful. On wider skills, I offered at one stage to send Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, not into Ukraine but into neighbouring countries to assist with the refurbishment of tanks and such things. Those are some of the skills we can provide. In my experience, this is about “Mechanics, mechanics, mechanics”, as they will fix a Challenger tank as quickly as they will fix a T-72. They are always on offer; if the Ukrainians ask, we will be happy to help.

Margaret Ferrier Portrait Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Ind)
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I agree with Members from across the Chamber in praising the right hon. Gentleman and his handling of the Ukraine-Russia situation. After the NATO Secretary-General said that NATO allies will act if Sweden or Finland comes under pressure from Russia or another adversary before they become full members of the alliance, how does the Defence Secretary predict that that might antagonise Putin and what risk does he assess there to be for the UK?

Ben Wallace Portrait Mr Wallace
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If Putin attacks Sweden and Finland, the Russians will antagonise Sweden and Finland; I do not think they will antagonise themselves. If Russia chooses to lash out at Sweden and Finland, not only would NATO meet and discuss what it can do to protect some of its closest allies, who are choosing to join, but the UK has a number of security arrangements we have made recently with both Sweden and Finland, and we would ensure, even bilaterally, that we would step up to the plate. However, what we can see is that because of Russia’s poor and failing invasion of Ukraine, the conventional military forces it would have previously had near those countries are hollowed out or have been destroyed, so Russia has much less to threaten them with. However, we are alert for things around critical national infrastructure, pipelines and electricity cables, which is why I recently deployed two ships to the area—I believe one was HMS Enterprise and the other a Type-23 frigate—to make sure we help to protect Norway’s pipelines and our infrastructure.

Nigel Evans Portrait Mr Deputy Speaker (Mr Nigel Evans)
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I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for updating the House on events relating to the war in Ukraine.