Mr John Whittingdale
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Sir Bernard Jenkin) on obtaining this timely debate on this extremely important subject. I want to start by making it clear, as one or two others have done, that we have no quarrel with the Russian people. Indeed, we have a considerable history with and affection for them. That dates back to the time of Queen Victoria, and since then this country has supported Russia. Immediately before the revolution, the Anglo-Russian Hospital was established, in which my father served as a medical orderly, first in Petrograd, as it was then called, and then on the eastern front immediately prior to the revolution. In the second world war, this country supported the Arctic convoys, which supplied essential food to the Russian people, with the loss of 85 merchant ships and 16 Royal Navy warships. I am glad that the Russian Government have more recently acknowledged that by awarding medals to those who survived.
When I worked with Margaret Thatcher, I saw the establishment of her relationship with Mikhail Gorbachev. He saw that the system over which he presided was flawed and would ultimately fail. History should give him credit for the fact that when the Soviet Union began to break up and Lithuania became the first Soviet country to declare independence, Gorbachev decided not to release the troops from their barracks. As a result, those countries obtained independence. All of that has changed and deteriorated under Vladimir Putin, as has already been set out.
There was a brief time when there were signs of hope. Those who have read the book by Michael McFaul, the former US ambassador to Russia, on the attempt by the Obama Administration to obtain what they called “reset” will recall that there was a brief period when it appeared that things were becoming slightly more liberal. That did not last. It was principally when Medvedev was President, but things deteriorated very quickly when Putin came back as President. Indeed, Mr McFaul was then declared persona non grata in Russia. Since then, there has been ruthless suppression.
The first victims of Putin are the Russian people. The strategy, which my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex and others have described, is multi-faceted and pursued on a number of fronts, but it is firstly a ruthless suppression of any opposition or dissent within Russia itself. That extends as far as murder. We have seen Boris Nemtsov killed and Alexei Navalny poisoned and detained in a corrective labour camp. In this country, we have seen the murder of Alexander Litvinenko and the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal, which led to the death of a British citizen, Dawn Sturgess. There are suggestions that a number of other deaths in this country are linked to the activities of the Russian security services.
There has also been massive suppression of human rights. Most recently, Memorial, the international human rights organisation, has been closed down by the courts. My own particular area of interest has always been media freedom. Media freedom does not exist in Russia. A recent assessment by Reporters Without Borders has stated:
“With draconian laws, website-blocking, Internet cuts and leading news outlets reined in or throttled out of existence, the pressure on independent media has grown steadily”.
There are currently 373 journalists imprisoned in Russia.
Then there is the strategy adopted towards Russia’s neighbours. Mention has been made of the occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, Transnistria in Moldova, and of course Crimea and Donbass in Ukraine, and threats are made to neighbours. When I was in Lithuania, we were shown the Suwalki gap, the short stretch of land along the Polish border linking Belarus and Kaliningrad, which is under Russian occupation—it is part of Russia itself. If the Suwalki gap were taken, it would cut off all three Baltic states completely from the west. There are already reports of migrants being driven into that gap, which some fear is such an attempt.
Of course, it is Ukraine that is currently in the frontline. It committed the cardinal sin of wanting to move towards becoming a more free and democratic society, and when Yanukovych attempted to suppress that, the Ukrainian people turned out in their thousands to protest, and 100 died under sniper fire in the Maidan. Shortly after that, Putin occupied Crimea. He first denied that he had any responsibility—the famous little green men—but subsequently he celebrated it. That was followed by the activity in the Donbass region, and of course there was then the appalling murder of 283 passengers and 15 civilian crew members who died when MH17 was shot down as part of that. Putin now is pursuing a policy in the Donbass of issuing passports; over 600,000 have been given to Ukrainian citizens within the Donbass region. As President Zelensky has pointed out, that was the precursor strategy used in Crimea. I visited, with Michael Fallon, the two ports of Berdyansk and Mariupol on the sea of Azov, which have now been cut off as a result of the building of the bridge across the Kerch strait, which allows Russia to squeeze those ports and stop any shipping going through.
Ukraine is on the frontline. We heard the Foreign Secretary’s very welcome statement earlier today. However, as I suggested earlier, the threat of massive consequences is extremely unspecific and at the moment the only concrete statement made by the Government as to the precise results of any Russian military action against Ukraine was the statement by the Secretary of State for Defence that it was “highly unlikely” that anyone was going to send troops.
I agree that Ukraine is not a NATO member at present and I do not think there will be great willingness to deploy military troops, but we need to do far more in terms of military assistance and setting out very clearly the consequences of Russia’s current tactic, which is not just to threaten Ukraine but to repress its own people internally and pursue an aggressive strategy of expansion outside.
Putin respects strength, but currently we are not showing much. I fully endorse the call of my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex and others that we need a clear strategy to demonstrate to him that we cannot accept the current behaviour of the Russian Government.