55.In December 1994, the United Kingdom, the United States and Russia signed the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, under which the signatories made promises to each other as part of the denuclearisation of former Soviet republics after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Under the memorandum, Ukraine promised to remove all Soviet-era nuclear weapons from its territory, to send them to disarmament facilities in Russia and to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Ukraine kept those promises. In return, Russia and the western signatory countries recognised the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine as an independent state, which involved applying the principles of territorial integrity and non-intervention in the Helsinki Accords.
56.In the Budapest Memorandum, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States promised that none of them would ever threaten to use or use force against the territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine. They also pledged that none of them would ever use economic coercion to subordinate Ukraine to their own interest and that they would refrain from making each other’s territory the object of military occupation and from using force in violation of international law. All sides agreed not to recognise any occupation or acquisition and that they would consult each other if those commitments were ever called into question.
57.On 21 November 2013, Ukraine’s Russian-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych, abruptly reneged on preparations to sign an Association Agreement with the EU under reportedly heavy pressure from the Kremlin. A similar process had taken place a few months earlier, when President Serzh Sargsyan of Armenia was summoned to Moscow in September 2013 and over a weekend, without consulting either his Parliament or his Government, changed the Armenian position on the EU-Armenia Association Agreement. President Sargsyan’s change of policy resulted in limited protests in Armenia, but in Ukraine President Yanukovych’s decision prompted a wave of mass protest, known as the Euromaidan movement, which culminated in late-February 2014 with President Yanukovych’s removal from office and flight to Russia.
58.Following President Yanukovych’s departure from Kiev, pro-Russian demonstrations broke out in the Crimean city of Sevastopol. Tensions escalated on 26 and 27 February, when thousands of demonstrators supporting the new government in Kiev clashed with pro-Russian protesters outside Crimea’s regional parliament in Simferopol. On 27 February, masked gunmen—widely thought to be Russian special forces—seized Crimea’s parliament building and raised the Russian flag. A referendum was then held on 16 March 2014, in which a large majority of those who voted reportedly supported joining Russia. Russia formally announced the annexation of Crimea two days later. The EU declared the referendum “illegal and illegitimate” and refused to recognise the outcome, along with the vast majority of the international community. Independent observers from the United Nations and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe were not allowed to scrutinise the referendum.
59.The Russian–Ukrainian Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet, signed in 1997 and prolonged in 2010, allowed Russia to maintain military bases and vessels in Crimea. The Russian Black Sea fleet had basing rights in Crimea until 2042. Dr Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House told the Committee that the primary reason for Russia’s annexation of Crimea was to ensure that the peninsula “did not fall out of Russian strategic control”. He said:
The Ukrainian Government in Kiev was renting out the main base at Sevastopol to them at a very, very high fee. One of their main strategic concerns was either that the price would be raised yet further or that the deal would be cut entirely, and not only that but the Ukrainian Government might then say, “Well, we will have NATO ships.” That is, I think, less important than the idea of the base being removed from Russian control. For me, that is the primary reason for the Crimean operation.
60.Although most human rights monitoring organisations are barred from Crimea, since its annexation the human rights situation has become “repressive”, especially for non-Russian ethnic minorities. According to Human Rights Watch:
People who decline Russian citizenship and retain their Ukrainian citizenship experience serious difficulties in accessing education, employment opportunities or social benefits. The authorities have not conducted meaningful investigations into the 2014 enforced disappearances of Crimean Tartars and pro-Ukrainian activists.
61.In September 2016, the Russian Supreme Court declared the Mejlis—the representative body for Crimean Tatars—an “extremist” organisation. In October 2016 we met with two representatives of the Mejlis in exile in Kiev. They, one of whom had been subject to the expulsions under Stalin, painted a grim picture of widespread arrests and intimidation of Tatars and ethnic Ukrainians by the Russian-installed authorities, as well as increasing restrictions on freedom of speech, assembly and the press.
62.In March 2014, pro-Russian separatist groups began to stage protests in Donetsk and Luhansk provinces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. Some of the leaders of the separatist movement, such as Igor Strelkov, were linked to Russian nationalism and the Kremlin. Following referendums that were not recognised as legitimate by the international community, the separatists declared the two provinces to be “independent republics” in May. After a rapid initial advance by the separatists, a ceasefire deal (Minsk I) was reached in September 2014 on the basis of principles advanced by Ukraine’s President Poroshenko. The agreement broke down almost immediately.
63.On 12 February 2015, the leaders of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France announced the signing of a second Minsk agreement. The provisions of the agreement included a ceasefire and immediate withdrawal of heavy weapons from the zone of contact. The agreement also placed a number of obligations on Ukraine, including constitutional reform to bring about political decentralisation and the introduction of “special status” for areas of Donetsk and Luhansk.
64.On 17 July 2014, Malaysia Airlines flight MH-17 was shot down near Donetsk killing all 283 passengers and 15 crew on board, including 193 citizens of the Netherlands, 43 people from Malaysia and 10 British citizens. Although Russian officials denied that Russian personnel or equipment had been deployed in Ukraine, the subsequent inquiry by a Dutch-led Joint Investigation Team (JIT) concluded that
flight MH17 was shot down on 17 July 2014 by a missile of the 9M38 series, launched by a BUK-TELAR, from farmland in the vicinity of Pervomaiskiy (or: Pervomaiskyi). At that time, the area was controlled by pro-Russian fighters. Furthermore, the investigation also shows that the BUK-TELAR was brought in from the territory of the Russian Federation and subsequently, after having shot down flight MH-17, was taken back to the Russian Federation.
65.Although a nominal ceasefire remains in place in eastern Ukraine, the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) has reported hundreds of explosions and incidents of mortar fire. When we met OSCE SMM officials near the line of contact in October 2016, they told us that, at that time, both sides of the conflict were equally responsible for the ceasefire violations. The OSCE SMM recorded a major surge in violence in late January and early February 2017, including an unprecedented 11,000 ceasefire violations on 31 January, mostly around the area of Avdiivka and Yasynuvata.
66.Civilians living in the separatist-controlled zones and close to the borders also continue to face many challenges in their daily lives, including major damage to infrastructure, long waits at border-crossing checkpoints and lengthy periods without access to basic public services and facilities. We saw the distressing impact of those conditions on people’s daily lives during our visit to the region and witnessed the resilience of those affected including some who had established a university in exile.
67.FCO Minister of State with responsibility for Russia, Sir Alan Duncan, told us that Russia’s actions in Ukraine
involved direct aggression towards a neighbouring country, and seeking to change borders by force. Russia has flouted the basic principles of European security and the international rules-based order and challenged the territorial integrity of a sovereign nation in Europe. The human consequences of this have been severe; with the death of almost ten thousand people, the wounding of over 20 thousand and the displacement of up to one million within Ukraine.
68.During the initial stages of the unrest in eastern Ukraine, Russia denied direct involvement or support for the separatists. In December 2015, however, President Putin appeared to admit that Russian “military specialists” were on the ground in the region. In evidence to this inquiry, Russia’s Ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, wrote that after what he described as the 2014 “coup d’etat” in Kiev
Radical nationalists came to the fore, dictating their agenda to the Government, including the present one, formed after Petro Poroshenko’s election as President. People in various regions were left to decide for themselves whether to stay in a nationalist Ukraine or leave. Some decided to leave taking advantage of the opportunity provided by the destruction of the Constitutional order. They were mostly ethnic Russians or other non-Ukrainian nationalities. It happened on our borders, including in the Crimea. Russia couldn’t help supporting them, if need be by the force of arms (how in particular is another matter; here I’d rather refer you to a character in one of Guy de Maupassant’s short stories, who suddenly had to face the reality of the Prussian occupation: he acted comme ça se trouvait).
69.Journalist Mary Dejevsky supported the Russian Embassy’s narrative of events, telling the Committee that Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine had been “exaggerated from [a western] point of view”, and that Russia did not have “the slightest designs on eastern Ukraine.” She added that Russia “has a degree of concern about the whole cultural thing and the Russophones in Ukraine, in Russia’s view, not being able to have a federated system.” Dr Andrew Monaghan also told us that the “federalisation” of Ukraine is Russia’s primary goal in supporting the separatists, but argued that Russia’s aim was to create “a more broadly diluted sense of power” in the country.
70.Other witnesses placed Russia’s actions in destabilising Ukraine in the wider context of Russia’s desire to prevent any of its neighbours from developing closer relations with the West. Sir Roderic Lyne, former UK Ambassador to Russia, wrote that “it is a core Russian belief that their security requires a cordon sanitaire of weak or neutralised territories which they can dominate.” Similarly, Ian Bond of the Centre for European reform stated:
Russia has supported the separatist enclave of Transnistria in Moldova since the break-up of the Soviet Union, as well as backing other separatist groups and pro-Moscow political parties in the country; invaded and divided Georgia (creating internationally unrecognised statelets in Abkhazia and South Ossetia); and invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and deploying its troops covertly to remove other areas of eastern Ukraine from Kyiv’s control. It dissuaded the Armenian government from signing an Association Agreement with the EU inter alia by selling arms to Armenia’s enemy, Azerbaijan, thus reminding Yerevan that its security depended on staying on the right side of Moscow. For Russia, the 1944 analysis of the great American diplomat and Kremlinologist George Kennan still holds good: “The jealous eye of the Kremlin can distinguish, in the end, only vassals and enemies; and the neighbours of Russia, if they do not wish to be one, must reconcile themselves to being the other”.
71.When the Soviet Union invaded and annexed the three Baltic States in 1941, the United Kingdom along with most other countries refused to accept the incorporation of the Baltic States into the USSR. The independence of the Baltic States was restored following the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Today the UK must not accept or recognise the illegal Russian occupation and annexation of Crimea. This is particularly important because the UK is a signatory to the Budapest Memorandum (see paragraph 55). Ukraine is a sovereign state, and it must be able to choose its own future. The UK national interest would be served if Ukraine had positive relations with both Russia and the West. However, such an outcome cannot be achieved until Russia ends its illegal annexation of Crimea, stops supporting separatist groups in eastern Ukraine and abides by international law.
72.Ukraine held elections for a new President on 25 May 2014. Petro Poroshenko, a prominent oligarch and political independent, won in the first round with more than 50% of the vote, although votes were not cast in Crimea, Donetsk and Luhansk. This was followed in October 2014 by parliamentary elections in which Poroshenko’s Bloc received the most seats and formed a broad ruling coalition along with several other political parties. However, amidst difficulties in implementing the political and economic reforms demanded by the Minsk II process and Ukraine’s international donors, the coalition began to break apart in late 2015.
73.President Poroshenko’s Government is more openly committed to economic reform and anti-corruption than any previous Ukrainian Administration. The reform agenda has made considerable progress and has enjoyed some successes including police reform, liberalisation of the energy market and the launch of an online platform for government procurement. Recognising this progress, in September 2016 the IMF voted to unlock $1bn in macro-financial assistance to Ukraine, ending a 13-month delay on the release of the funds due to concerns over corruption. However, the challenges to this programme—including corruption and the Ukrainian economy’s continuing reliance on oligarchs—remain significant.
74.Progress in reforming Ukraine’s judiciary and public administration has been slow. Such reforms are key to tackling corruption and delivering good governance. To support the reform process, the UK Government set up the Good Governance Fund in March 2015. It will fund £20 million of technical assistance up to September 2018 to support economic reform and good governance in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
75.The UK is currently a party to the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. The European External Action Service described the agreement as “unprecedented in its breadth (number of areas covered) and depth (detail of commitments and timelines)”. It includes a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, and provides for co-operation across a wide range of economic sectors, governance and anti-corruption reform, foreign and security policy, and justice and home affairs. Elements of the agreement including co-operation on the rule of law and the fight against crime and corruption have been applied since November 2014, and the Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement has been provisionally applied since 1 January 2016.
76.The implementation of the Association Agreement has not been smooth. Dutch voters rejected the agreement in an April 2016 referendum, halting the ratification process. In an attempt to address the concerns expressed during the referendum, in December the European Council agreed a text that explicitly stated that the agreement did not make Ukraine a candidate for EU membership, did not issue a collective security guarantee and did not give Ukrainians the right to live and work freely in the EU. The agreement included provisions to grant visa-free travel to Ukrainians seeking to visit the Schengen area for up to 90 days, but those provisions have not yet been fully implemented.
77.In order to support the reform process in Ukraine, the UK and EU must follow through on the obligations they have undertaken both bilaterally and through the Association Agreement. David Clark of the Russia Foundation argued that
Nothing is more likely to shape Russian perceptions of its own future possibilities than the success of Ukrainian efforts to rebuild itself as a stable and prosperous European democracy. It would undermine Putin’s assertion that liberal democracy is unworkable in Eurasian conditions.
We therefore welcome the FCO’s commitment to “continue to show international leadership in supporting the Ukrainian Government’s reform efforts, recognising how crucial these are to building a stable, democratic state which can withstand Russian aggression.”
78.It is unclear how the FCO will organise and administer UK policy towards Ukraine after the UK’s departure from the European Union. Sir Tim Barrow, then Political Director of the FCO, told us that
Clearly the EU relationship with Ukraine will continue and we will need to develop our own bilateral relationship with Ukraine, which we will want to do. It will be supportive of Ukraine and Ukrainian reform and trade, where our interests remain.
Sir Alan Duncan added that “Where we are the United Kingdom outside the EU, we could do EU plus. We could do.” He could not clarify his meaning, however, when asked to explain what “EU plus” would entail:
It is a phrase that I just picked off the top of my head—don’t take it as formed Government policy with that language. We will be an independent, strong, significant power in the world. We could do further forward deployment. We may have further defence engagement. We may have more military and diplomatic engagement with individual countries on a bilateral basis. Any such thing is possible, as it always indeed has been.
79.The FCO should continue to work with the EU, Canada and USA on supporting Ukraine. The UK and its allies should pursue a robust policy whereby support is conditional on Ukraine addressing domestic corruption and maladministration. In the long term, the UK and its allies should support Ukraine in developing resilience to further Russian encroachment and in building its social, political and physical infrastructure, which will facilitate further engagement with the West and allow Ukraine to engage with Russia on a level playing field.
80.The £20 million Good Governance Fund seems woefully inadequate to address the task in hand in Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ukraine alone would justify the investment of British resources of hundreds of millions of pounds to improve governance, if that were to secure the central objective of supporting Ukraine as an independent country with a liberal European outlook. Support could also be provided by embedding British diplomats and experts into Ukrainian administrative structures.
81.The FCO must clarify whether the Ukraine-EU Association Agreement will apply to UK-Ukraine political and economic relations post-Brexit. If the UK will no longer be a party to the Association Agreement after it leaves the EU, the FCO should begin planning a successor agreement as a matter of urgency, and we invite it to set out the areas that would be covered by this agreement in its response to this Report.
82.The EU and US introduced the first set of targeted sanctions against Russia in March 2014 in reaction to the annexation of Crimea. Those sanctions largely consisted of measures against some 151 individual Russian officials and a number of firms and entities, including asset freezes and travel bans. The EU stated that the list
includes persons and entities responsible for action against Ukraine’s territorial integrity, persons providing support to or benefitting Russian decision-makers and 13 entities in Crimea and Sevastopol that were confiscated or that have benefitted from a transfer of ownership contrary to Ukrainian law.
The annexation of Crimea also resulted in a ban on importing products from Crimea, on investing in or providing services linked to tourism and on exporting certain goods for use in the transport, telecoms and energy sectors.
83.Wider economic sanctions were introduced in July 2014 and reinforced in September 2014 in response to Russian support for separatists in eastern Ukraine. Those sanctions included the freezing of credit to certain Russian banks, energy companies and defence contractors, the imposition of an arms embargo and the prohibition of the export of dual-use technologies with military applications and of specialist equipment used in the energy industry.
84.Both sets of EU sanctions must be renewed every six months, although they operate on different timetables. The sectoral sanctions are up for renewal in July and January, while the asset bans and visa freezes against individuals are renewed in September and March.
85.The UK is one of the strongest western supporters of the sanctions on Russia. The FCO told us:
By working with likeminded EU Member States and other international partners, the UK was at the forefront of efforts to ensure Russia was held accountable for its actions. We worked hard to ensure EU support for linking a robust sanctions package to the full implementation of the Minsk agreements. With oil prices at a 12 year low and wider structural economic problems, international sanctions have added to the pressures on Russia’s economy. Sanctions are designed to have the maximum impact on the Russian leadership while minimising the impact on the UK and EU.
86.It is difficult to measure the precise economic impact of the sanctions on Russia, particularly since their introduction has coincided with a sharp decline in the price of oil and natural gas. Alex Nice of the Economist Intelligence Unit told us:
Trying to disaggregate the specific financial impact of sanctions on Russia at the moment is very difficult, because at almost the same point that sanctions were imposed, the oil price collapsed, so many of the things that have happened as a result of sanctions—reduced investments and a fall in the rouble—would have happened anyway. The IMF has come up with an estimate that they have cost 1% to 1.5% of GDP. Obviously, that also has an impact on ordinary people and on income levels, wages and employment, but I would treat that estimate with a lot of caution because the impact of the oil price so outweighs, in the short term at least, the impact of sanctions.
87.The UK Government conceded that measuring the economic impact of sanctions is difficult, but argued that the regime has nevertheless succeeded in sending a message of disapproval to the Kremlin. Sir Alan Duncan, FCO Minister of State with responsibility for Russia, told us that the sanctions regime
has had a serious effect on putting economic pressure on Russia. [The regime] also targets some individuals, of course, and the Russian economy in general is under some pressure. It is quite oil-dependent. It is thought to have contracted by 3.7%. Perhaps up to half a per cent. of that general picture has been caused by sanctions. Put it this way; if you were to lift them, it would set them free and, I think, release a lot of activity, which we would regret. I think that to keep sanctions and keep the pressure on is the right policy; and so we should persist with this continuing, if you like, broad policy of disapproval, which is clearly making the statement and is understood and is causing a bit of pain.
88.It is questionable whether the state of the whole Russian economy is an appropriate barometer by which to measure the effect of targeted sanctions. For example, the Russian manufacturing and defence sectors depend on parts imported from the West. Drilling down into the performance of those particular sectors might provide a more accurate measure of the efficacy of the sanctions regime.
89.UK and Russian business leaders whom the Committee met on its visit to Russia criticised the sanctions and highlighted their negative impact on business. They argued that sanctions only reinforced Russian feelings of exclusion and a “siege mentality” towards the West. This view was echoed by Lord Truscott, who told us:
My main idea or thought to put into the pot when you make your deliberations is that we should end sanctions against Russia because I don’t think they are helping. I think, in fact, they play into the hands of those who demonise the West and point to us as an enemy. That is very much the message that is coming across in Russian. It is harmful to relations between Britain and Russia and does not achieve anything, apart from punishing the Russian people. The message they are getting from the media and the Kremlin is that the West is hurting them for its own particular reasons.
90.The Oxford Research Group suggested that the sanctions could actually be helping the Kremlin to deflect criticism from its own failings and that there would be benefits to normalising relations. It stated that
potential exists for the UK and the West to gradually and responsibly increase co-operation with Russia given Moscow’s apparent appetite, and to some extent need, for normalised relations. This may be done through security dialogues, expanding trade and investment ties or engagement on culture, tourism, technology and science in exchange for Russian cooperation on, for example, international security. The point of doing so would, in the first place, be to stabilise relations. Secondly, there is a need to find ways to bolster the more progressive and liberal sectors within the Russian state and society. This includes the Russian public, which suffers from coercive acts such as sanctions, leading them to turn their ire away from the Kremlin and towards the West. Ultimately, a Russia alienated from the West is more likely to move away from European integration and towards deeper integration with Asia, not least China.
91.Mikhail Khodorkovsky, a former oligarch and prominent critic of President Putin, agreed that the sanctions could prompt Russians to rally around the regime but cautioned against lifting or easing them:
I believe that Europe and the US have not acted very clearly or properly on the whole question of sanctions [ … ] I do not think that broader sectoral sanctions will have a big influence on Russia. It will actually bring my compatriots to rally round the Kremlin. I do not think it will help western Europe either. To my great regret, at the moment lifting sanctions will only mean that Putin will sell that line to the Russian public as his victory over the weak West and it will give him the possibility of saying to society in the future that there is no point in paying any attention to the positions or stances of western society.
92.Other witnesses also argued that sanctions should be maintained, but that more clarity should be given on the precise circumstances under which they would be lifted. Alex Nice of the Economist Intelligence Unit stated:
I agree that it is useful to have an off-ramp for the current tensions, to use that phrase—a road map of actions that could be taken that would lower tensions and possibly lead to a reduction in sanctions. The other side to that is that we have absolutely to be clear about and to maintain a principled stance on sanctions in the current environment. The Foreign Secretary has made this clear, and the EU as a whole has drawn a clear conditionality between the current sanctions regime and progress on the Minsk II agreement.
93.Recent developments in both the EU and the US have put the future of the sanctions regime in doubt. As the UK is among the strongest supporters of the sanctions regime inside the EU, its withdrawal from the EU might add weight to the voices of those inside the bloc who would like to see the sanctions eased or lifted. In France, two of the most prominent presidential candidates, Francois Fillon of the UMP and Marine le Pen of the FN, have advocated ending the sanctions. In the US, the question of relations with Russia has gained significant political salience in the wake of allegations by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that the Russian state was behind cyberattacks that interfered in the 2016 presidential election. President Donald Trump has drawn criticism in the US for favourable comments that he has made about President Putin.
94.On 16 January, then President-Elect Trump stated in an interview that he would like to “make some good deals with Russia” and implied that he would consider lifting the sanctions on Russia in exchange for agreement on nuclear arms reduction. In our view, such an approach would constitute an abrogation of the international community’s responsibility toward Ukraine and would embolden Russia in its efforts to dictate the terms on which it engages with the West. We agree with the assessment of FCO Minister of State Sir Alan Duncan, who stated:
If we were to ease sanctions, I do not think anyone would think the Russians would then say, “Oh, thanks very much, we are now going to behave much better as a result”. Probably you would end up fossilising the Ukraine. In my view, this would have a retrograde effect. What you need is agreement in advance for something that is properly implemented after which you might then contemplate reducing or removing sanctions.
95.If the UK is determined to maintain a principled stance in relation to the sanctions on Russia, this may require uncomfortable conversations with close allies. The withdrawal of the existing sanctions should be linked to Russian compliance with its obligations toward Ukraine, and should not be offered in exchange for Russian co-operation in other areas. This approach would avoid ceding moral and legal legitimacy to Russia and departing from UK values and standards. The challenge in this approach is that the practical effect of economic sanctions on Russian decision-making is doubtful. It looks as though it will be increasingly difficult to sustain a united western position on sanctions, not least if they become a bargaining point during Brexit negotiations. The UK faces the possibility of becoming an isolated actor supporting a policy towards Russia that is failing. This could lead to further damage to Britain’s long-term ability to influence Russia.
96.The international community must remain unified in the face of Russia’s assertion of its perceived sphere of influence and its disregard for the international norms in its treatment of Ukraine. The FCO should prioritise international unity on policy towards Russia in talks with the new US Administration, and should continue to work closely with EU partners to maintain support for Ukraine, whether this is delivered through sanctions and/or assistance to Ukraine.
97.The withdrawal of some EU sanctions is specifically linked to the completion of the Minsk II process. Yet the process has stalled amid frequent ceasefire violations and debates in Ukraine over the decentralisation measures that Minsk II requires. Officials we met on our visits to Russia and Ukraine both blamed the other side for the lack of progress.
98.This stalemate in part reflects the flaws inherent in the text of the agreement. The terms of Minsk II require Ukraine to reform its constitution, to grant a “special status” to Donetsk and Luhansk and to hold elections there. Yet the agreement’s lack of clarity on the precise sequencing of these steps has led to disputes and deadlock in the Ukrainian parliament. By contrast, Russia is not named in the text, which requires only that “armed formations from certain areas of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions” adhere to the ceasefire terms and that “foreign armed formations, military equipment, as well as mercenaries” withdraw from Ukraine. This allows Russia to deny any responsibility for implementing the Agreement, as Dmitry Peskov, spokesman for President Putin, did in an interview with BBC News’ HARDtalk programme in January 2017. The fact that Russia is not given any direct responsibilities also means there are no specific actions that would demonstrate Russian compliance with the process.
99.The FCO should be open to considering any proposals that the Russian Government may advance to resolve the situation in Ukraine outside the Minsk II process that are in line with international law. Russian actions demonstrating compliance with the rule of international law in Ukraine could be linked to the gradual removal of sanctions and would provide Russia with a route map to restoring positive relations with the West. We invite the FCO in its response to this report to detail the exact responsibilities of Russia with regard to the Minsk II agreement. The measure of success in relation to sanctions is their no longer being needed. It is therefore imperative that the international community recognises the need for an achievable route to rapprochement.
100.Russia’s relations with Syria have been its most longstanding and durable in the Middle East in the post-second world war period. After formal diplomatic relations between the USSR and Syria were established in 1956, bilateral relations have been further cemented and institutionalised through substantial military co-operation in the form of arms sales, training, and the establishment of a permanent naval base in Tartous in 1971.
101.Since the outbreak of the conflict in Syria in 2011, Russia has maintained its support for the Government of Bashar al-Assad through continued arms exports, economic support and diplomatic cover. Since 2011, Russia has exercised its veto in the UN Security Council on draft resolutions in relation to Syria on six occasions.
102.Russia has been directly engaged in the Syrian civil war since 30 September 2015, when US officials announced that they had been asked by the Russian military to clear Syrian airspace in order to allow Russia to carry out direct air strikes on Syrian rebels. On the same day, Russia’s Federation Council voted unanimously to approve the Kremlin’s proposal to allow the Russian air force directly to intervene on behalf of the Assad regime, in response to a request by the Syrian Government. Although Russia has conducted some airstrikes against ISIL, it has focused its military action on supporting the Assad regime in re-capturing Syria’s largest cities from rebel control.
103.The position of the Syrian Government has improved considerably since the beginning of Russian operations in Syria, during which time Russia claims to have “eliminated” 35,000 fighters, 12,700 facilities, 1,500 heavy weapons, 725 training camps, and 405 weapons factories. Russia claims to have supported 1,091 “reconciliations” to revert opposition controlled areas to Government control, notably in Homs, Daraya, and other smaller towns and villages, and to have provided humanitarian assistance throughout Syria. Russia has supported forces associated with the Assad regime to re-capture substantial territories from opposition control, notably Aleppo and Palmyra, although ISIL subsequently retook Palmyra in December 2016.
104.President Putin has twice announced that he would partially withdraw Russian forces from Syria, first in March 2016 and again in December 2016. In practice, however, these announcements have heralded reallocations of Russian capacity, rather than genuine withdrawals from the Syrian theatre. On 14 March 2016, for example, President Putin stated that the “objective set before the Defence Ministry and the Armed Forces” had been “generally fulfilled”. However, it was subsequently reported that while Su-25 strike aircraft and Su-34 bombers had been withdrawn, they had been replaced by Ka-52 and Mi-28N helicopters. Similarly, on 29 December 2016, President Putin’s announcement that Russia’s only aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, would be recalled, was followed by the reported deployment of Iskander nuclear-capable missile systems and the redeployment of 12 Su-25s to the Hmeimim airbase. Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) commented that “Russia’s declaration about scaling back in Syria is for political consumption only—to tell the Russian people that a corner is turned and that a short operation was delivered as promised.”
105.To date, Russia has facilitated three cessations of hostilities in Syria. The first two were brokered between the Russia and the United States in February and September 2016 and were due to be followed by peace talks between Syrian factions in Geneva. However, both cessations collapsed quickly, before progress could be made towards any resolution. The third cessation of hostilities was brokered between Russia and Turkey in December 2016 and was followed by peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, which also involved Iran but not the United States. The third cessation of hostilities appears to be more sustained than the first two agreements. Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Astana on 6 February 2017 to discuss how to strengthen this agreement. Subsequent UN-sponsored peace talks are due to take place in late February 2017.
106.Even with a cessation of hostilities, the ability and willingness of the Russian Government to bring Bashar al-Assad’s Government to the negotiating table in good faith is still to be determined. Lina Khatib of Chatham House stated that “in Syria, ceasefires have become another tool of warfare. They are tools for making military gains, political statements, and playing power games.”
107.Since their direct entry into the conflict, there have been widespread accusations that Russian forces have committed violations of International Humanitarian Law. The Atlantic Council report, “Breaking Aleppo”, stated that
the distinction between combatants and civilians is fundamental. Deliberately targeting civilians and conducting indiscriminate and disproportionate attacks on civilian-populated areas, are potential war crimes. Reports in late-2016 from reputable organisations including Human Rights Watch and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights alleged that war crimes had been committed in Aleppo, precisely because of such attacks.
In one incident, on 19 September 2016, a United Nations aid convoy was attacked in a Syrian Arab Red Crescent Compound in Urem al-Kubra, resulting in the death of 10 people, the wounding of 22 others, and the damage or destruction of most of the humanitarian supplies. The Russian Government provided a range of contradictory explanations for the event, including that the convoy might have accidentally caught fire, have been struck by US forces, have been hit by opposition forces on the ground or have been a hoax. The Foreign Secretary said that there was “strong evidence” that Russian warplanes were responsible, as the attack occurred at night and “we have our doubts about the Syrian capability to fly at night”.
108.Asked whether he considered the incident to be a war crime, the Foreign Secretary said that “a war crime is defined as when you attack something, attack a civilian target in the knowledge that it is a civilian target [ … ] we should be looking at whether or not that targeting is done in the knowledge that those are wholly innocent, wholly innocent civilian targets, that is a war crime.”
109.The UN Headquarters Board of Inquiry report into the incident concluded that the convoy had been attacked from the air and rejected the possibility that it had been a hoax. The Board also found that both the Russian and Syrian air forces had the capabilities necessary to conduct the attack, including at night. The Board was not able to determine whether the incident was a deliberate attack on a humanitarian target and therefore constituted a war crime.
110.Russian involvement in the heavy bombing of Aleppo in the autumn of 2016 drew considerable international criticism, including comparisons to Russia’s levelling of Grozny in 2000. In October 2016, the Foreign Secretary directly alleged that forces allied or associated with the Syrian Government, including the Russian air force, were committing war crimes in Syria. Speaking to the Conservative Party Conference, the Foreign Secretary condemned the “continuing savagery of the Assad regime against the people of Aleppo and the complicity of the Russians in committing what are patently war crimes—bombing hospitals, when they know they are hospitals and nothing but hospitals”. On 11 October 2016, the Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that “Hospitals have been targeted with such frequency and precision that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this must be deliberate policy. As the House will know, intentionally attacking a hospital amounts to a war crime.”
111.In the United Nations Security Council, the British Ambassador to the United Nations, Matthew Rycroft, accused the Assad regime and Russia of using bunker-busting bombs, incendiary munitions, and targeting water supplies. He stated that “it is difficult to deny that Russia is partnering with the Syrian regime to carry out war crimes”. Mr Rycroft walked out of the Security Council with the US and French Ambassadors when the Syrian Ambassador took the floor.
112.The Russian Government has repeatedly denied accusations that its forces are responsible for committing war crimes in Syria, and it has suggested that western powers and media are acting hypocritically in making these allegations. In a January 2016 interview with the German newspaper Bild, President Putin said that western powers accusing Russia of hitting civilians in Syria were “telling lies”. He added:
Look, the videos that support this version appeared before our pilots even started to carry out strikes against terrorists. This can be corroborated. However, those who criticise us prefer to ignore it.
American pilots hit the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, by mistake, I am sure. There were casualties and fatalities among civilians and doctors. Western media outlets have attempted to hush this up, to drop the subject and have a very short memory span when it comes to such things. They mentioned it a couple of times and put it on ice. And those few mentions were only due to foreign citizens from the Doctors Without Borders present there.
Who now remembers the wiped out wedding parties? Over 100 people were killed with a single strike.
Yet this phony evidence about our pilots reportedly striking civilian targets keeps circulating. If we tag the “live pipelines” that consist of thousands of petrol and oil tankers as civilian targets, than, indeed, one might believe that our pilots are bombing these targets, but everyone is bombing them, including the Americans, the French and everyone else.
113.The Russian Embassy in London has also challenged the Foreign Secretary to substantiate these allegations. In an open letter to MPs, the Russian Ambassador to the UK wrote that “Members of Parliament with no grounds whatsoever accused Russia, along with the Syrian government, of deliberate strikes against civilians, which the Foreign Secretary tried to qualify as ‘war crimes’”. The Ambassador called the British Foreign Secretary’s reference to information in “social networks” to substantiate claims as “bizarre, since serious accusations must be supported by strong evidence”.
114.The Atlantic Council report, “Breaking Aleppo”, stated that
Throughout the siege [of Aleppo], the Syrian and Russian governments waged a battle against the evidence, denying the facts, misrepresenting the victims, and attacking the witnesses. These attacks were consistent across so many platforms that they took on the appearance of a separate disinformation campaign, aimed at distracting attention from events on the ground by focusing on discrediting, and silencing, the ones who were reporting them.
115.On 13 December 2016, the Foreign Secretary told the House of Commons that the UK Government is “gathering all the information that we think will be necessary for the prosecution of those guilty of war crimes.” In oral evidence to our inquiry, Neil Crompton, Director of Middle East and North Africa at the FCO, told us that
[the FCO] have asked the UN commission of inquiry to look at the question of whether war crimes have been committed by either the regime or the Russians. We are providing evidence, and we have trained a lot of people on the ground in Syrian NGOs and others to provide objective evidence to support them in standing up in an international investigation or in a court of law, if it ever comes to that.
116.The UN Commission of Inquiry was established in 2011 to establish the facts and circumstances of potential violations if international human rights law. On 19 December 2016, the UN General Assembly resolved to establish the International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism (the Mechanism) to collect and analyse evidence of violations of international humanitarian law and to prepare files in order to facilitate criminal proceedings in national, regional or international courts that have or may in the future have jurisdiction over these crimes. In terms of actually prosecuting individuals for war crimes committed in Syria, the Foreign Secretary told the House that “we do think that there could be advantage in the procedures of the International Criminal Court (ICC)”. Sir Alan Duncan also told us in oral evidence that “we are pushing for a lot of this to go to the ICC”.
117.However, neither Syria nor Russia are members of the International Criminal Court (ICC). In addition, Russia can veto the referral of the situation in Syria to the ICC, because it is a Permanent Member of the United Nations Security Council. When asked whether the ICC route was realistic given the Russian veto and the Russian and Syrian status as non-signatories, Neil Crompton admitted that it was “probably not”. The Foreign Secretary has stated that the UK raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Russia in response to its actions in Syria at the European Foreign Affairs Council in October 2016 and that EU partners did not support this proposal.
119.The UN inquiry into the air strike on the convoy demonstrated the challenge of establishing the intent behind an attack on a plainly civilian target in order to sustain a conclusive view on whether or not a war crime has been committed. The Russian response to these charges was consistent with its view that it is held to different standards from those to which we hold ourselves. The Government is right to call out the Russian military for actions that potentially violate International Humanitarian Law. However, if the Government continues to allege that Russia has committed war crimes in Syria without providing a basis for its charge, it risks bolstering the Kremlin’s narrative that Russia is held to unfair double standards by hostile and hypocritical western powers. Un-evidenced rhetoric from both sides also makes it difficult to implement the practical co-operation measures necessary to deliver lasting peace in Syria.
120.Breaches of International Humanitarian Law—with evidence of clear Russian violations in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria—are unacceptable. Those responsible must be held accountable. Coalition failures in Afghanistan and Iraq do not permit breaches of International Humanitarian Law in Syria.
121.The introduction of powers in the Criminal Finances Bill to allow the civil recovery of the property of individuals involved in gross human rights abuses or violations carried out abroad is welcome and should allow the UK unilaterally to sanction Russian individuals who have committed or who have facilitated the commission of human rights abuses or war crimes in Syria. The Committee invites the Government to present its assessment of how the new powers will be exercised and to report to the House orders made against individuals.
122.Since the beginning of direct Russian participation in the war, Russia insisted that it is supporting the internationally recognised Syrian Government on the legal basis of a formal invitation to assist Syrian forces. The Russian Government claimed that its actions are targeted against “terrorists”, as permitted in agreements of the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) and UN Security Council Resolutions 2249 and 2254, which call on member states to “redouble and co-ordinate their efforts to prevent and suppress terrorist acts committed specifically by ISIL also known as Da’esh as well as Al-Nusra Front, and all other individuals, groups, undertakings, and entities associated with Al Qaeda, and other terrorist groups, as designated by the United Nations Security Council.”
123.The definition and designation of terrorist groups in Syria has been contested since the outbreak of the war. The atomisation and complexity of identity of the Syrian opposition has hindered a common understanding between Russia and the wider international community regarding which entities are associated with Islamist terrorist groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. President Assad publically dismissed the notion that there is a “moderate opposition” and stated that the West has not “been able to market this lie because the facts on the ground proved the opposite, that all those they support are extremists, whether they belong to al-Nusra, ISIS, or other organisations with the same extremist and terrorist ideology.”
124.The Russian authorities take a similar view to President Assad. When Russia commenced operations in Syria, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov stated that “If it looks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it’s a terrorist, right?” Foreign Minister Lavrov has blamed the US for failing to fulfil promises to separate moderate forces from terrorist groups. He also presented western requests for Russia not to target moderate groups as giving cover to Al-Qaeda. In evidence to this inquiry, the Russian Embassy wrote:
No one should make a mistake of believing that terrorists can be used for whatever political purposes and can be later pushed aside. Surely, they accept financial, military and any other aid they can get, but they are ready to turn their back on their sponsors at any moment.
125.In 2016 Russia pushed for the UN Security Council to designate two groups in particular, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, as terrorist organisations, although this was blocked by the US, UK, and France. However, in December 2016, Russia published a list of “moderate opposition” groups that joined the ceasefire and were invited to the Astana talks, which included both Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam. This demonstrates the challenge to effective policymaking based on accurate analysis when it is confused by public rhetoric about terrorist status. The Russians are not uniquely guilty of this.
126.Neil Crompton, Director of the Middle East and North Africa at the FCO, told us that 80% of Russian airstrikes were not directed against ISIL and that Russia has largely been fighting the “moderate opposition” in Aleppo. According to Mr Crompton, the FCO estimated that there were only between 200 and 300 al-Qaeda fighters in Aleppo and that the rest were “moderate opposition fighters”. He acknowledged, however, that this group certainly included “large numbers of Islamist fighters” and that the FCO’s understanding of the situation was “certainly not 100%”. Sir Tim Barrow, then Political Director at the FCO, said it was “absolutely” correct that this lack of clarity in defining which Syrian groups qualified as terrorists made the job of countering the Russian narrative more difficult. However, he added:
The tragedy is that if you accept the narrative that lumps everyone together, you do, if you are not careful, create a greater terrorist threat from the people who are seeking to defend their own families and their own places, by saying that the only choice they have is to align themselves with the most extreme elements or, indeed, ultimately, terrorist elements.
127.In evidence to this inquiry, the Russian Embassy in the UK made clear its desire for the UK and Russia to co-operate more closely in the fight against terrorism:
We must realize that we are facing a dangerous and ruthless enemy who can be defeated only by a collective, coordinated effort, involving all players concerned both inside and outside the Middle East [ … ] It is evident that Isis will not be defeated by airstrikes alone and the Syrian army is the main force fighting terrorists on the ground. A broad global anti-terrorist front based on the UN Charter should be formed, relying on all those who combat terrorist on the ground [ … ] We believe that all forces that can be instrumental in fighting Isis—including the Syrian army, the Kurdish militias, patriotic groups of the Syrian opposition, and all those who are ready to support the ground operations from the air—should join the fight. Operations by the Russian Aerospace Force at the request of the legitimate Government of Syria have contributed to this task. We welcome Britain’s participation in air strikes at Isis targets in Syria.
128.Dr Andrew Monaghan of Chatham House, however, warned that “the Russians define terrorism differently from us. They define the solutions and the outcome in Syria differently from us. The Russian counter-terrorism policy, shortly put, is to defeat terrorism by any measures possible.” Similarly, former UK Ambassador to Russia, Sir Roderic Lyne, wrote that “President Putin’s definition of a terrorist is not necessarily the same as ours, and Russia’s methods are not ours (Russia having been accused of many breaches of international humanitarian law in Chechnya and Syria)”. Russia also has specific domestic concerns relating to the involvement of Islamist terrorists from the North Caucasus in the fighting in Syria. Dr Monaghan noted that
the Russians think about 4,500 people from the former Soviet Union are fighting in Syria and Iraq at the moment, and there is a concern that they will go home, and therefore measures are being taken to enhance security. I think those would potentially be more robust in Russia than here.
129.Sir Roderic Lyne explained the potential pitfalls of co-operating more closely with Russia in the fight against terrorism:
The argument has been made, not only by President-elect Trump but also by some politicians in Europe such as Francois Fillon, that the West should bury its differences with Russia and seek to collaborate in order to defeat terrorism. The superficial attractions are obvious and the idea needs to be debated. However this would be a deal struck on President Putin’s terms. He is demanding that NATO should pull back from measures to defend the Baltic States and other territory close to Russia. His annexation of Crimea and intrusion into the Donbas and Lugansk—blatant violations of international law—would be accepted as a fait accompli. Russia’s claimed “zone of influence” around its borders would be recognised de facto; as would be its defence of the Assad regime in Syria.
130.Russia and the United Kingdom have a shared interest in combatting Islamist terrorism and extremism. It is difficult to envisage how to progress this shared interest considering the differences between the two countries’ respective definitions and analyses of terrorism, and acceptable methods to defeat it. Any dialogue with Russia must be handled with the greatest care, but it is at least worth exploring. The Government and its agencies should be having a regular dialogue with their Russian counterparts about the causes of Islamist extremist violence and the potential strategies to address it. This shared objective could be utilised to open constructive dialogue with Russia in the area of common shared security and anti-terrorism. That dialogue should be used to improve relations, better understand Russian foreign policy and initiate discussion on freedom of expression, the rule of law and human rights, and the ongoing issues in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
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28 February 2017