Ukraine Update Debate

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Department: Ministry of Defence
Thursday 20th October 2022

(1 year, 6 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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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?

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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.