James Heappey – 2022 Speech on Support for Ukraine

The speech made by James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, in the House of Commons on 2 March 2022.

The House stands united today in our support for Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. We showed that in the way we rose to support the Ukrainian ambassador before Prime Minister’s questions, and, for all the necessary challenge over policy that goes on in this place, we will show it again this afternoon, because fundamentally we in this House are agreed that President Putin’s ill-conceived enterprise in Ukraine must not and will not succeed.

But how we achieve that is not just through the sanctions we impose, the military aid we provide or the breadth of the cultural and diplomatic isolation we secure, as important as all those things are; it is through the beacon of hope we provide, and not only for the Ukrainian people but for the Russian people too. How they would love to have a day where the opposition choose the topics for debate, immediately after a session in which the legislature, without fear, can challenge the Head of Government. Indeed—perhaps no Government Minister has ever said this from the Dispatch Box before—how lucky we are to have an Opposition altogether.

We have grown complacent over that freedom. We do not value it as we should. It is no cliché to remind the House that freedom is not free and that no matter how much we complain about the imperfections of our own politics, people have fought and died so that we can argue in this place and in our national media over whatever we wish. Today in Ukraine, people are fearful that those days may soon be over for them. They know only too well that freedom is not free. In the lifetime of their most senior citizens, they have lost their freedom and recovered it twice already. It is no wonder that so many thousands of Ukrainian men and women are rallying to the flag to ensure they do not lose it again.

Mr Kevan Jones (North Durham) (Lab)

I put on record my thanks to the Defence Secretary and the Minister for their actions over the past few weeks. They have shown proper leadership on this. Will the Minister support comments from Gerry Connolly, who is the president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly? He is arguing within NATO for a centre for democracy, to make exactly the arguments that the Minister is making, to reinforce among our populations why we have NATO and what it is defending.

James Heappey

I think I instinctively support the proposition. It is extraordinary—forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker; I know you were keen on brevity, but this is a tangent too interesting to miss, frankly—but when we came together after the second world war to bring NATO into being, it went without saying that the freedom, liberty and democracy we all enjoy was something we should collectively stand for, but in the 70 years or so that have passed since, we have forgotten what a luxury that is. We have forgotten how to speak proudly about freedom without being criticised as somehow trying to shut down the other side. There absolutely is a market for the west to relearn that we can disagree with each other ferociously and we can have polarised societies in which one side simply cannot abide the very existence of the argument of the other, yet we can still see the good in that and communicate it strongly to those who do not have that luxury.

In this debate today, we must also be clear on who our quarrel is with. When we talk of aggression, deceit and contempt for the international system, we must not talk about “Russia”; we must talk of Putin and the kleptocrats that surround him. When we talk of who must pay the price for this grotesque violation of international law, we must blame Putin, the Russian elites and the hubris of the Kremlin’s military leaders, but again, not the Russian people.

We want the Russian people to enjoy the freedom, democracy and security that we have been taking for granted. We want them to know that NATO and the west mean them no harm. We are a defensive alliance, and we were recasting ourselves for an altogether different future until President Putin annexed Crimea and challenged the sovereignty of so many other countries in eastern Europe and the Caucasus. When President Putin fails—and he eventually will—we look forward to a Euro-Atlantic where Russia and the rest of Europe exist as friends and neighbours. In the meantime, we stand our ground not to intimidate the Russian people, but to deter their President, who is a bully and has caused too many in our alliance to think that they could be next.

I would like to provide the House with a brief update on the situation in Ukraine. Russian forces have met strong resistance and are behind schedule on their intended plans. We recognise, unfortunately, that the cities of Melitopol and Kherson in the south of the country have fallen, but that brave resistance remains in both. Colleagues, those were both day one objectives for the Russian armed forces, and both only fell in recent days after fierce opposition. Everywhere else in the country, no other city or major town has fallen to the advancing invaders. As much as that should be a cause for celebration and hope, it is important we remain realistic about what is still to come. The harder the Ukrainians fight back, the harder Putin will order his military to push. Already, we have seen a horrific artillery and missile barrage on Kharkiv among other places. I am fearful for what is to come in Kyiv. As the Prime Minister has said today, and as the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) rightly noted, there is already clear evidence that in applying indiscriminate force in the way that he has, President Putin and his military leadership have already committed war crimes.

Margaret Greenwood (Wirral West) (Lab)

I thank the Minister for the update. It is an absolutely tragic situation and we all stand in support of people in Ukraine. More than half a million residents have already left the country in a short time, and the UN estimates that the number could go up to 4 million, which would create the largest refugee crisis that Europe has witnessed in decades. Will the Government offer the UK as a place of sanctuary for people regardless of whether they have family here?

James Heappey

If the hon. Lady will allow me, I will come to the humanitarian aspect towards the end of my remarks.

Many hon. Members and our friends in the media have been increasingly concerned about the advancing column to the north of Kyiv. They are right to be—it is an enormous concentration of military firepower and it contains the stores needed for a battle in the capital. Let us be clear, however: no Russian military planner wanted to see that column move at such a glacial pace.

There have been cries for the column to be disrupted or destroyed, which is not something that NATO could ever do without entering the conflict, but the reason it is inching forwards so slowly is that it is being held up by blown bridges, obstacles, artillery fire and fierce attacks from the Ukrainians. That column may yet reach Kyiv—it will reach Kyiv—but it will be vastly depleted when it does and we have already given the Ukrainians the tools with which to attrit it further.

The real scandal is not that the column exists—we have known all along that Russia would need to encircle and take Kyiv—but for the Russian people. How on earth could their military leaders think that such a large concentration of military hardware on a single road, backed up in a traffic jam for tens of miles, could lead to anything other than an awful loss of Russian life? Like so many of President Putin’s plans, I am afraid that there is hubris, tactical naivety and a total disregard for the brave young Russian soldiers who he has sent into battle. We should take no satisfaction in their slaughter. The Ukrainians are doing what they must to defend their country and its capital city, but there will be an awful number of casualties because of such dire Russian military planning.

The UK stands with Ukraine in providing further defensive military, humanitarian and other assistance to the country. As I have told the House already, we have trained 22,000 members of the Ukrainian armed forces under Operation Orbital since 2015 and we were among the first European nations to send defensive weapons to the country with an initial tranche of 2,000 anti-tank defensive missiles.

It is an odd feeling, because those missiles are deadly weapons and I am afraid that, every time they succeed, they take young lives. We should reflect, however, that the UK has sent forward a weapon that has become almost a symbol of the defiance of the Ukrainian armed forces, so as brutal as the effect of that weapons system is, it is something for which the Ukrainian people will regard us favourably and be grateful for a very long time.

In the next hours and days, we will provide a further package of military support to Ukraine, including lethal aid in the form of defensive weapons and non-lethal aid such as body armour, medical supplies and other key equipment as requested by the Ukrainian Government. It is not possible to share with the House more of the detail at this sensitive point in operations, but we will do our best to share it with hon. Members after the event as much as we can.

Meanwhile, in response to the growing humanitarian crisis, we are putting more than 1,000 more British troops at readiness, some of whom have started to flow forwards into neighbouring countries. That complements the hundreds of millions of pounds already committed to building Ukrainian resilience and providing vital medical supplies. Last Friday night, the Defence Secretary organised a virtual donor conference on military aid for Ukraine, during which all 27 nations present agreed to provide the country with much-needed lethal aid and medical supplies.

In the midst of this catastrophe, it is important to recognise the importance of the unity that the international community has shown against Russian state aggression. The United Nations General Assembly has been holding an emergency special session, just the 11th in its history, with nation after nation speaking up in condemnation of President Putin and in favour of peace.

We have also seen an extraordinary change in the defence posture of several nations. Germany has increased its defence spending to more than 2% per cent of its GDP, and changed a decades-long policy of not providing lethal aid. Sweden and Finland—nations proud of their respective neutrality and non-alignment—have agreed to donate arms to Ukraine. Even Switzerland has been party to sanctions against Russia. This is a seismic shift in the Euro-Atlantic security situation. If Putin hoped for fracture, he has achieved consensus. Countries such as South Korea and Singapore have also in recent days unveiled sanctions on Russia, despite south-east Asia having largely avoided taking sides in the previous conflicts.

Yesterday, new financial legislation was laid in the House that will prevent the Russian state from raising debt in the UK and that will isolate all Russian companies, of which there are over 3 million, from accessing UK capital markets. Alongside the measures taken by other nations, these crippling economic sanctions are already having an effect. Russia’s central bank has more than doubled its key interest rate to 20%, while Moscow’s stock market remains closed for the third consecutive day in a bid to avoid major slumps. Ultimately, it will not be Putin who pays the price of the economic constrictions, but the Russian people, with soldiers dying, inflation rising and the country cut off from the outside world. As I said at the start of my remarks, we need to show the Russian people some hope for the way that things could be when President Putin eventually fails, as he surely will.

Dr Murrison

I am following the Minister’s remarks with a great deal of interest. In his very fine speech, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), who spoke for the Opposition, mentioned China in his sixth point. I hope my hon. Friend will do so also, because there is one country that could turn this off tomorrow if it wished to, and that is China. What position have the UK Government taken on China? Although my enemy’s enemy is my friend, will he be wary and cautious about his dealings with China, given that China of course continues to commit human rights abuses in Xinjiang, potentially in Taiwan and in Hong Kong? While it is commendable that it abstained at the United Nations, we need to be very careful about how we position ourselves with respect to China in the weeks and months ahead.

James Heappey

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Asia and the Middle East will want to talk about China in her concluding remarks. Right now there is an opportunity to work with Beijing to bring about an outcome that is right for Euro-Atlantic security in the short term, but I do not think that that automatically means we close our eyes to our wider concerns about China and our competition with that country over the decades ahead.

Finally, I want to update the House on NATO defence and security activities. In addition to HMS Trent, HMS Diamond has now sailed for the eastern Mediterranean. We are doubling the number of UK troops in Estonia, with the Royal Tank Regiment and the Royal Welsh battlegroups now complete in Tapa. We have increased our fast air presence from RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from where those jets are now engaged in NATO air policing activity over Poland and Romania.

In his excellent speech, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne asked two questions of the MOD about capability. The first was on cyber-resilience, and he will not be surprised to know, I hope, that there has been a series of Cobra meetings on homeland resilience and that the cyber-threat to the homeland has been an important part of those discussions. It is a capability that the UK has invested in through the National Cyber Security Centre. I would never go so far as to say we are well prepared because, frankly, we cannot know fully what is thrown at us, but the right discussions have been had and the right investments have been made, and I think what we have as a defensive cyber-capability is one of the best in the world.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me a question about the shape and size of the Army, and he knows from his many clashes over the Dispatch Boxes with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it is subject to some debate, but the Secretary of State, to his credit, has always said he is a threat-based policy maker. It may well be that we learn something new from what is going on in Ukraine at the moment, but my reflections in the immediate term, from the operational analysis I am seeing, is that precision deep fires and armed drones are doing exactly what we saw in Nagorno-Karabakh and Syria, on which we based the integrated review. For those in massed armour in a modern battlespace, that is a pretty dangerous and difficult place to be. We may yet see something different when we get into the close fight that will cause us to reconsider. Right now, however, the lessons we are learning from what is going on are exactly the same as those from Nagorno-Karabakh and northern Syria, and the IR was based on that operational analysis, with the Army rightly observing what it would call a deprioritisation of the close fight.

Chi Onwurah

I thank the Minister for giving way and for his update. He is right to emphasise the unanimity of the international consensus on the invasion of Ukraine and on sanctions. He may be aware of reports that Russian oil producers are not able to find purchasers for some of their oil production; however, there are purchasers and movements of oil shipments in the gulf of Finland. What is our position and the international position on Russian oil shipments and starving Russia of the foreign currency that delivers?

James Heappey

I do not feel entirely qualified to answer in the detail I would want, but my analysis of the geostrategic situation in eastern and southern Europe is that we certainly need to have our eyes wide open to who else beyond the obvious western European countries are customers for Russian oil and gas. We need to be having a discussion within the international community about how some very vulnerable countries, perversely including Ukraine, but also Serbia and others in the Balkans, are still drawing on Russian gas, and how we get them off that without causing a situation that completely cripples their economies. But I am somewhat out of lane and dare say the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy would be concerned to have heard me offer even those thoughts.

Chris Bryant

Will the Minister deal with something else?

James Heappey

I will try.

Chris Bryant

If I may take the Minister down another lane, I think Ministers accept that everybody in the House wants the Government to be able to move as fast as possible on sanctions. I just note for instance that Abramovich is now trying to sell his football club, and clearly lots of oligarchs are rapidly divesting themselves of things, including through auction houses, and I hope that Sotheby’s, Christie’s and others are taking action on that today. Can the Minister update the House on the measures the Government will take—perhaps this will be done later by the Minister winding up the debate—to speed up those sanctions? We are a long way short of what the US and the European Union have done; there may be legitimate reasons for that, but we do worry about it.

James Heappey

I do my best to inform myself as widely as I can. I suspect the Minister for Asia and the Middle East will be able to give a fuller reply to the hon. Gentleman later. I think there is a requirement to launch the widest and quickest set of sanctions we can in a way that is legally acceptable, but neither should we diminish the effect of the sanctions that have already been put in place thus far. I share the hon. Gentleman’s sentiment that we could and should do more, but let us not forget just how punitive what has been done is and the effect it is having.

I want to finish by talking about the humanitarian situation, which I am afraid risks becoming a catastrophe. Ukraine will keep fighting; so it should. Russia must stop. Europe—the world—must be ready to support that situation as it evolves because the fighting is going to get worse. We should explore, and we are exploring, what humanitarian corridors could look like, but they will not be easy and will need the support of both sides.

Colum Eastwood (Foyle) (SDLP)

The Minister is making an impassioned speech. The scenes in Ukraine are heartbreaking and it is my strong view that we should do everything we can to allow refugees to come here. The Prime Minister said in today’s Prime Minister’s questions that European Union countries were able to move more quickly and waive visa requirements because they were part of Schengen, but that is simply not the case. The Irish Government and Ireland are not part of Schengen—as we should all know by now after the long discussions around Brexit, they are part of the common travel area—but Ireland was able to do it; why are this Government not waiving visa requirements for refugees fleeing Ukraine?

James Heappey

Again, the right of family members to come here has already been offered, and it is for 100,000 people, as I understand it, which is extraordinarily generous. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point and his concern, and I know that many hon. Members see this as an increasingly totemic issue.

Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD) rose—

James Heappey

I will take the right hon. Gentleman’s point, but I do want to conclude.

Mr Carmichael

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but is this not a moment to reflect that if the Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently in the other place, were to pass with clause 11 as part of it, any Ukrainian coming here to seek refuge who passed through another country to get here would be criminalised and treated as a second-rate refugee? Does that not make him feel a little uneasy? Is this not a moment for the Government to reconsider that proposal?

James Heappey

The right hon. Gentleman, who is a skilled parliamentarian, asks his question in a way that makes it uncomfortable to hear. However, the reality is that the criminalisation of those illegal routes—as they will be—is an important deterrent against the illegal criminal gangs who so viciously and exploitatively bring people across the channel at huge expense and in huge danger. Actually, legislation that might change that situation, provided that it is accompanied with safe and legal routes, and I have every confidence that it will be—[Interruption.] Well, I beg to differ. I do not share his analysis of the Bill or its effect and the need for it.

Jeremy Corbyn

Will the Minister give way?

James Heappey

I really want to make progress. Madam Deputy Speaker has already been generous with Front-Bench speakers, and many Back-Bench colleagues want to speak.

This is an important point, because the humanitarian crisis will get worse.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab) rose—

James Heappey

I am sorry; I will not give way any further. The international community needs to consider what the options could be for humanitarian corridors and, potentially, safe havens. However, that will be challenging.

Yasmin Qureshi rose—

James Heappey

I really will not give way; I am sorry.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)

Order. Let us make this perfectly clear. If the Minister gives way now, some of the hon. Lady’s colleagues will not get to speak in the debate at all. Actions have consequences everywhere.

James Heappey

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.

That will not be easy, and we should not get our hopes up, because both sides in the conflict will need to agree. However, we should want to explore that urgently.

I believe passionately that Ukrainians do not want to leave their country. As the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) said in his speech, they do not want to be refugees. Therefore, once they have reached the west of their country—or, in extremis, crossed the border immediately from it—our mission should be about making them as comfortable as possible there so that they can go home as quickly as they want to, because they are patriots who want to be Ukrainians living in Ukraine.

I am afraid that this will get much worse before it gets any better—that is what keeps me awake at night. We must work out how we can alleviate the humanitarian challenge and the sheer misery of the millions of people who find themselves living in cities that are under siege without risking escalation that could make this world war three.

There is cause for optimism as the Ukrainians are fighting heroically, but we must brace ourselves, as the Ukrainian people are, for something much worse. Putin could stop this now if he wanted to. We must all continue to insist that he does and that Ukrainian territorial sovereignty is restored completely.