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3.2 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Committee, in the House’s consideration of what I believe to be an important report. I hope that the House will find it well informed and fairly balanced.

I find it difficult to be anything other than extremely concerned about the direction in which Russia has been going under President Putin—a direction that looks set to continue for several years to come, whatever post Mr. Putin holds. I note that in its response, the Foreign Office—in a wonderfully diplomatic Foreign Office-esque phrase—referred to

in Russia. I would have used rather plainer language. In my view, what has been going on is the steady erosion of fundamental human rights there.

As the hon. Gentleman observed, the writing is on the wall. The litmus test in most countries in the modern world is freedom of the media. On that test, Russia fails comprehensively. Since the Yeltsin era, one has seen a steady erosion of the media’s freedom, particularly in television and radio broadcasts, which are the main source of information for most Russian people. Those individuals courageous enough to stand out against the regime—those who are seen by the regime to be serious political opponents or serious thorns in the flesh—have been subjected to personal intimidation, harassment, violence against their persons and against their homes, jailing and in some cases straight murder. Such murders have been committed both in Russia and, it appears, outside Russia.

When it comes to democratic elections, Russia’s record is extremely disappointing. In its response, the Foreign Office referred to the obstruction being put in the face of international observers, describing it as

That, of course, led to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s specialist organisation for monitoring elections, the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, withdrawing from monitoring both the Duma and the presidential elections.

Mr. Wilshire: When the Select Committee was taking evidence about international election observers, was attention given to the internal feuding between the OSCE and ODIHR? As an election observer, I was in Russia at the time. I do not defend what the Russians did. It might not have been six of one and half a dozen of the other but there were circumstances that made the decision slightly more understandable.

Sir John Stanley: I think that ODIHR has a pretty good record in its independent monitoring and reporting of democratic elections. Its reports are therefore sometimes singularly unwelcome to less than democratic regimes. I believe that ODIHR was justified in withdrawing, given the restrictions put on its participation.

Of direct concern to the Foreign Office and the Committee was the appalling treatment of the British Council, a grant in aid body funded by the Foreign Office. It is utterly appalling that British Council, locally engaged Russian staff should have been subjected to
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intimidation, harassment and calls in the night from the police. As we heard earlier, the British Council’s offices outside Moscow had to be closed. Those actions were roundly condemned by the Foreign Secretary in a statement to the House on 17 January, and justifiably so.

The question that arises is what can the Government do in such circumstances. It has to be acknowledged that Russia is an independent sovereign state, and we therefore have only a limited ability to influence events there. That is particularly so given that Russia takes the view that almost anything concerned with human rights is an internal matter; it appears to turn a blind eye to the clear UN declaration of human rights, which stresses the total universality of those rights.

I offer the Minister three practical points. First, I hope that the Government will continue to take a positive and sympathetic position towards applications for political asylum from individuals from Russia. They have been extraordinarily courageous in speaking out and standing up to the regime, and they are likely to have to pay a severe penalty as a result. I was glad that earlier this week the Government decided to grant political asylum to Yelena Tregubova, an extremely brave journalist who outraged the Putin regime with her book, and then had a bomb explode at her home in Russia. One doubts whether those events were unrelated. The Government’s decision was welcome, and I hope that it will be their continuing policy.

Andrew Mackinlay: I listened carefully to what the right hon. Gentleman said and to the example that he gave. I do not doubt for one moment the reasons that were given for granting political asylum in that case, but they must have been volunteered by Her Majesty’s Government. The Government do not do that in every case, and the question is why not. The point is that, although some people should be granted political asylum, grave political misjudgements have been made in granting it to others, but that is never justified.

Sir John Stanley: I note the hon. Gentleman’s views. His point is one for the Minister, who will no doubt wish to respond when he replies to the debate.

My second suggestion to the Government relates to the resources that the Foreign Office devotes to supporting non-governmental organisations and others in Russia that are bravely battling for improved human rights and standards of governance. I have been looking at the Foreign Office’s latest human rights annual report, and the Foreign Office appears to be spreading its available help pretty thinly. The report says:

I put it to the Minister that a little more than £1 million spread over two years is a pretty marginal amount of support. Given the key importance of Russia and the human rights battle there, I hope that the Government will see whether they can find additional resources to devote to the issue.

I come now to my last suggestion. Although there is much that we can do bilaterally, we will have to act internationally if we are to stop and then reverse Russia’s
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downward human rights trend. I therefore strongly urge the Foreign Office to continue to do all that it can in the available international forums to exert additional pressure on the Russian Government to improve their human rights performance. I am referring to what the Government can do at the UN, through the EU-Russia human rights dialogue, in the negotiations on the EU-Russia agreement and through the not inconsiderable contacts that take place between Russia and NATO. All those forums give the Foreign Office an important opportunity to press its human rights agenda.

I turn now to the two biggest bones of contention between what I would broadly call the west and Russia. First, there is the enlargement of NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia. I support making progress on their NATO membership. Both have a clear western orientation and have made significant improvements in democratic and human rights terms. There is more to do in both countries, and more would need to be achieved before they gained NATO membership, but they have made significant advances. They have shown that they are committed to NATO as a defence organisation and have made useful contributions to NATO deployments in operational theatres. For all those reasons, their applications should be supported.

Some say that Georgia should be excluded because of the frozen conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, but I do not buy that argument. I know that the EU is not the same as NATO, but it has taken Cyprus in despite the frozen conflict there—that particular freeze might be beginning to thaw, but that is the history. I should add that the one absolutely certain way to ensure that the frozen conflicts in Georgia remain frozen would be to tell the Russians that they were the justification for keeping Georgia outside NATO—that would mean a permanent freeze. I am disappointed that the Government appeared from what one read in the press to be sitting on the fence on this issue in Bucharest, but I hope that the Prime Minister can clarify the situation further if he reports back to the House. I would have hoped, however, that the Government were more supportive of these applications.

I turn now to the other bone of contention—ballistic missile defence. In wider security terms, this is far more significant than our difference of view with Russia over the applications by Ukraine and Georgia for NATO membership. I have received several briefings on ballistic missile defence from both sides of the Atlantic, although they are, admittedly, all non-classified, as is appropriate for me as a Back Bencher. Although I have an open mind and I am ready to be persuaded, I have so far seen no overall security benefit to western European from the ballistic missile defence deployment proposed by the United States. On any objective assessment, the security benefit to Europe appears pretty marginal. We are talking about a site in eastern Europe with just 10 anti-ballistic missile interceptors. The technology is far from proven and is incredibly demanding—the process has been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet. Nothing that I have read suggests that anything like 100 per cent. success can be achieved.

One could argue that that does not really matter and that any degree of anti-ballistic missile defence is surely worth having, given the possible threat down the road from the Iranians, but we must look at both sides of the equation and at the downside, which appears considerable.
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The Russian reaction has been exceptionally hostile so far. The proposed deployment has brought out the Russian regime’s age-old and, it must be said, historically entirely understandable paranoia about encirclement and particularly about threats from the west.

Regrettably, President Putin has already suspended the agreement on conventional forces in Europe, which is a serious step. Much more serious, however, is his threat unilaterally to abrogate the intermediate-range nuclear forces treaty, which was concluded in 1987. That treaty is far and away the most significant nuclear weapons arms control agreement to have been entered into, and it has operated satisfactorily since it was first agreed. It led to the removal and dismantling of huge numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of between 500 and 5,500 km. Perhaps most importantly, it ended a most dangerous and terrifying situation in Europe, whereby the decision takers with the nuclear trigger at their sides had only a few minutes to decide whether nuclear retaliation was justified.

That was an extraordinarily dangerous position for us to have got into, and was significantly alleviated, in terms of warning times, by the INF treaty. All of us in western Europe must ask whether we want to risk creating the situation from which we managed to escape as a result of the 1987 INF treaty. Do we want Russian ballistic missiles to move west and US and NATO cruise missiles to move east? Do we want to recreate a situation in which literally less than 10 minutes’ warning is available for people living in Europe, including its capitals?

In January I was fortunate to hear someone who has made a remarkably important contribution to arms control issues for many years, former Senator Sam Nunn, in Washington with the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s defence committee. In a speech to us on 28 January entitled “The Mountain Top: A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” former Senator Nunn, who is now co-chairman of the Nuclear Threat Initiative, rightly drew attention to the fact that even today, supposedly after the end of the cold war,

He went on to say:

What we must consider is whether, instead of increasing the already terrifyingly short warning time of 30 minutes, which former Senator Nunn is campaigning to change to at least two hours, we want to go in the other direction and get the warning time for western Europe down to 10 minutes or less, with an impossibly short time scale for decision taking to determine whether an alarm is genuine or not. That is what is at stake with ballistic missile defence deployment if it does indeed lead to the unilateral renunciation of the INF treaty.

In my view there has been wholly insufficient disclosure in detail by the Government of the implications for western Europe of the proposed BMD deployment. I
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strongly urge the Government that they need to repair that and to set out fully what the implications would be for western Europe if the deployment were to lead to the unilateral renunciation of the INF treaty. That is a fundamentally critical security issue for the whole of western Europe and the UK in particular.

3.23 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): First, I join my colleagues in paying tribute to the United Kingdom ambassador in Moscow and expressing my shared concern for the staff at the British Council—both the United Kingdom staff and the Russian staff—who are the meat in the sandwich of the wider bilateral disagreement and conflict between the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom Government. It is a great pity that those staff members have suffered as they have; their careers have been damaged and in some cases truncated, which I greatly regret. However, as I shall explain, I think that there is a way forward, and that the cause of what has happened is not necessarily as has been detailed and enunciated in London.

My joining in those tributes concludes the elements of my speech on which there is a degree of unanimity in the Chamber, as I take a different view from many of my colleagues. I want to caution the House about “groupthink” and the flawed judgment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with respect to our bilateral relations with Russia, both currently and over many years. I interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) when he mentioned Ceausescu in passing, and I cheekily mentioned that we had given Ceausescu and Mugabe knighthoods. That is not irrelevant, as it is indicative of the flawed judgment of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on a range of major matters in years past, and today, particularly in relation to the Russian Federation.

I am not giving references for the Russian Federation. I see the flaws in its democratic procedures and justice system, but it is a country in transition, which has moved on enormously since the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the history of these times comes to be written from a different perspective, it will be recognised that there was an advance for the Russian people, for the wider interests of the global economy, and in other respects, during the period of President Putin. Despite all the deficiencies that can perhaps be attributed to his period of office, we need some balance, and should not be extravagant in our criticisms. It does us no good, it starts to be misleading, and it contributes to the flawed groupthink that is going on in London in respect of our bilateral relations with Russia. I caution the House against taking such an approach.

All too often one hears Ministers, to some extent, but more often diplomats, who still think that they are dealing with the weak Russia of the immediate aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is no longer weak. It is justifiably proud, and we should listen to it and acknowledge some of the great contributions that it is making to reducing the potential for conflict in a fragile and dangerous world. For example, Russia was the architect of the idea now being pursued by the United States, the European Union, the United Kingdom and others, that Iran should be offered a way of having civil nuclear energy through dealing with the fuel cycle outside its territory. Indeed, that might be a way forward
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for many states that need cheap energy from nuclear sources. Russia initiated that, but we never give it credit for its role as an interlocutor in many parts of the world where we have mutual interests, particularly in conflict resolution between or within states.

Mike Gapes: My hon. Friend is making an interesting contribution, and he knows that other members of the Committee did not always agree with his view. He has said that Russia’s efforts to stop the Iranian nuclear programme were not given credit, but the report explicitly focused on that issue and drew attention to the point that he makes.

Andrew Mackinlay: I like to think that in my small way I contributed to that report, and my frustration is that neither my hon. Friend nor I are Foreign Office Ministers. We are today debating the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report, but also the stewardship of foreign policy by my hon. Friend the Minister. I am addressing my remarks to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, buttressed by the Select Committee report, of which I am a co-author. There were areas on which I departed from its view, and I may refer to them.

To complete what I was saying, I think that we mistakenly dismiss Russia’s geographical scale and the fact that it is federal. In any federal system—I can think of another great big federal Government—there are flaws and deficiencies in democratic regimes, especially at state level. Justice is not consistent throughout the United States. That is even relevant in a small country like ours, where we talk about parliamentary democracy. I remember one of the criticisms made of Putin was that he appointed the governors of each state. On the face of it, perhaps they should be elected, but we must remind ourselves that half our Parliament is not elected. We cannot see the beam in our own eye. People may say that that is irrelevant, but I say that it is not. We should be cautious lest we trespass and form judgments about other countries’ constitutions, particularly when they are in transition.

At one point, a mood about Russia—a resentment that it was no longer weak—could be found in London. Then we had a change of ministerial team. That, unfortunately, coincided with the Litvinenko case, which we handled badly. I am not minimising the gravity of the crime—it involved loss of life and a threat to Londoners—but the Russian Government were found guilty and condemned by both the press and politicians here, and I think that that was foolish and mistaken. It aggravated the situation. It certainly has not resolved it, as there have been no trials.

We now have frosty bilateral relations, and there has been a vortex of falling-out between us. One of the innocent casualties, in my view, was the British Council; it and its staff lost out. There was also a ridiculous tit for tat of expelling diplomats. If the United Kingdom has four fewer diplomats in Russia, and Russia has four fewer diplomats in London, the only people rejoicing are the taxpayers of the United Kingdom and Russia. Either those diplomats were not fully and gainfully employed, or we ought to end the absurdity of making such meaningless gestures, which grab headlines in the newspapers but do not advance our bilateral relations or capacity for diplomacy.

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