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Mike Gapes: We must fundamentally challenge how Russia is behaving internationally

Mike Gapes spoke about Russia and Ukraine in Parliament on 29 January 2015. Below is an extract of his comments and questions to Foreign Office Minister, Tobias Ellwood:

Mike Gapes (Ilford South):

I want to ask the Minister two questions initially. First, does he agree that the position taken by Russia is not simply to do with Ukraine? Does he recognise that the Putin regime has had an agenda of establishing a Eurasian union? In September 2013, Armenia—which was more advanced in discussions on an association agreement with the European Union—was preparing for a meeting to be held in November 2013 in Lithuania, where the signing of the agreement would have happened. Suddenly, over a weekend in September 2013, President Sargsyan of Armenia was summoned to Moscow and given an offer he could not refuse, in the form of money for the Armenian economy and secret agreements concerning strategic relations with Russia—a Russian military base, and, I guess, issues concerning the dispute over Nagorno-Karabakh with Azerbaijan.

Suddenly, over a weekend, Armenia’s position changed, and President Sargsyan, without consulting either his Parliament or his Government, changed the Armenian position on the EU association agreement. Putin, having done that with Armenia, thought he could get the same type of result by putting pressure on the Ukrainians, but Yanukovych had more domestic opposition, which led to the Maidan. The hon. Member for Daventry said it was not a view universally held in the House that the Russian occupation of Crimea was illegal. Actually, under the terms of the Budapest agreement of 1994, Russia gave undertakings about the territorial integrity of Ukraine, which it has torn up, and would do the same with regard to other states as well.

My second question relates to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East made about the issue of a corridor. Is there not a concern that what is happening in Ukraine might also have serious implications in Moldova, given the problem of the divided, frozen conflict in Transnistria and the fact that people cannot get from Russia to Transnistria unless they go through Ukraine? Is there not an argument that there might be an agenda to create a corridor from Russia, via Crimea, through the southern part of Ukraine to Transnistria to create a Greater Russia? What is the Foreign Office’s assessment of the long-term aim of Putin? Is it realistic to think that a policy of sanctions will change the strategic approach of trying to create a Greater Russia, which seems to be the agenda of Putin and the people around him?

Here is the reply by the Minister

Mr Ellwood:

The hon. Gentleman describes the leadership style of President Putin very well indeed. If he has any idea of President Putin’s long-term aim, I would be grateful to know about it, because that is a significant question; we simply do not know where he wants to go. We do not understand his philosophy and agenda, particularly after the unfreezing of the relationship following the cold war. These are retrograde steps from Russia.

I answered, as much as I could, the question about the landlocked countries and the corridor. It is of huge concern. The hon. Gentleman is right to imply that the situation is not about simply Russia and Ukraine alone, but about strategic territorial influence. To some degree, it is about overshadowing Putin’s domestic challenges by having an international issue that he is able apparently to look strong with. That is what we saw in Georgia as well.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Budapest memorandum, which was the original document that was supposed to give Crimea a guarantee for the future. We wanted to engage with Russia to discuss that document, but so far it has refused to do so. It is not only that document that Russia is breaching; its intervention in Ukraine, as an illegal annexation of Crimea, is a flagrant violation of a number of other international commitments, not least the UN charter, the OSCE Helsinki final act and the 1997 partition treaty. That gives us the legal grounds to impose those sanctions, which will not relent.

Later Mike Gapes made a speech in which he drew attention to Putin’s support for far right groups and also raised concerns about the foreign policy of the new Greek Syriza led government.

Mike Gapes:

I want to make three points. First, I agree that we should support the motion, but I share the concerns of the hon. Member for Cheltenham. Events have moved on. In that context, I hope the Minister will tell us a little in his response about the implications of the current political developments in Europe for future European Union sanctions policies.
Putin and his supporters are clearly active. They are trying to buy off and undermine European Union solidarity on many issues. One way they are doing that is through their propaganda channel, RT—those of us who use Freeview and want to get biased news coverage and propaganda will know well what I am talking about—which is well funded and cleverly put together. They are also financing political parties. They are giving millions of euros to the National Front in France and, at the same time, they are organising conferences. One of Putin’s acolytes, Dugin, a man with neo-fascist connections, has been organising groupings of various far-right groups in Moscow and elsewhere.

There is another worrying development. Although I have every sympathy with the democratic choice of the Greek people, I was concerned yesterday to read press reports that one of the first acts of the Syriza Government was to object to statements by the European Union in relation to future sanctions against Russia. Not only are there people in the new Greek coalition Government from Maoist, Trotskyist or Stalinist political backgrounds; there is a coalition with a small right-wing group of so-called independents who are avowed homophobes, anti-Semites and racists. Of course, Putin’s own Parliament contains people with similar, strident views on various issues, so there will be soul mates in the new Greek political establishment for Putin and his agenda. That raises concerns for all of us for the future.

My final point relates to the not very well-founded belief that the sanctions regime will change the behaviour of Russia. If the position being taken by Putin and the people around him is an ideological position, how far would the sanctions regime and the collapse of the Russian economy have to go before they changed their behaviour? Even with world oil and gas prices plummeting, and even with the exchequer problems that they potentially have with their existing commitments, they are nevertheless prepared to have a revanchist, almost imperialistic foreign policy. There is no sign yet of any modification in Russia’s attitude, its rhetoric, or, more importantly, the way in which its irregular, unofficial, un-uniformed Russian special forces are behaving in Ukraine.

We have also seen incursions into the airspace of other European Union/NATO partners. The Baltic states, where there are Russian-speaking populations, are very concerned about what might happen. The Russian regime’s ideological position is that any Russian-speaking person, or anybody of Russian culture or linguistic history, is somehow the responsibility of the Russian state. If we follow that logic, we will have wars between Hungary and Romania and between Italy and Austria. We will have wars in the Netherlands and Belgium, and we could end up with the Balkanisation of the peaceful Europe that the European Union has helped to contribute to over the past 50 years. We need to challenge that directly. The territorial integrity of Ukraine—yes, with autonomy, decentralisation, respect for minorities and everything else—is fundamental. The European Union and our country cannot—must not—concede that Russia has a right to intervene in neighbouring countries if it feels that people who speak Russian are somehow under threat, because if that is conceded in Ukraine, it will then follow on in the Baltic states and elsewhere. That is a fundamental issue.

There is no sign yet that sanctions are able to change behaviour. The record of sanctions, historically, is a patchy one. They may sometimes get countries to change how they behave in words, but do they really change in practice? The question of Iran and its nuclear aspirations is still open. Sanctions did not lead Saddam Hussein to change his behaviour; more forceful action was required to deal with that regime—although I will not go into that, because we are going to discuss the Chilcot report in the Chamber later.

We need to review and reassess UK, European Union and NATO approaches to Russia. It cannot be business as usual. We cannot go back to saying, “If it behaves slightly less aggressively in Ukraine, we will somehow recognise Russia’s annexation of Ukrainian territory.” That is not acceptable. We must fundamentally challenge how Russia is behaving internationally.

You can read the full debate here.

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