James Heappey – 2022 Statement on Ukraine

The statement made by James Heappey, the Minister for the Armed Forces, in the House of Commons on 25 February 2022.

Yesterday morning saw the launching of the largest combined arms offensive operations seen in the European theatre since 1945. From land, sea and air, a massive Russian offensive commenced from forward positions in Belarus, all around Ukraine’s northern and eastern borders, from the Crimea and from ships in the Black sea. As leaders around the free world have said, this is an outrage against international law that violates Ukrainian sovereignty and brings a profound change to the security landscape of the Euro-Atlantic.

The Ukrainian armed forces have stood their ground heroically, forcing fierce fighting around several Ukrainian cities. The Antonov-2 airfield north of Kyiv was taken by Russian airborne forces as part of the initial assault yesterday morning but was reportedly retaken by the Ukrainian forces overnight.

As the world has now seen, the intelligence available to the British and American Governments over recent weeks has proven to be entirely accurate. That allows us to assess that the Russians have failed to achieve any of their planned objectives for the first day of combat operations. The Ukrainian armed forces claim to have shot down six fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters. They report that 137 Ukrainian service personnel have been killed in action as well as 57 civilians; hundreds more have been injured. The Ukrainian Government report that 450 Russian service personnel have been killed in action. As a former soldier with the vivid experience of death on the battlefield seared forever in my mind, I take no satisfaction in reporting those numbers to the House, and nor do I propose that we keep a score every day. These are the lives of innocent civilians and the lives of the bravest and best Russians and Ukrainians.

As we gorge on the live footage of a peer-on-peer war broadcast from a European capital just two-and-a-half hours’ flying time from London, we should remember that behind those pictures is incredible fear and misery. That is why I pay tribute to those in Moscow, St Petersburg and other Russian cities who protested last night against this pointless loss of Russian life. President Putin and the kleptocrats who surround him have miscalculated badly. Young Russian men and women are needlessly losing their lives. The responsibility sits entirely with the Kremlin.

Yesterday, British Royal Air Force Typhoon jets took part in NATO air policing from their base in RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, from which they patrol over the Black sea and south-eastern Europe. HMS Trent is already part of a NATO standing maritime group and further Royal Navy ships are being deployed to other NATO standing groups in both the Baltic and the eastern Mediterranean. In addition to the Royal Tank Regiment battlegroup that has been in place in Estonia for the last six months, the Royal Welsh battlegroup will be arriving in Estonia earlier than planned to double up our force levels. Those doubled-up force levels will remain indefinitely and will be augmented by the headquarters of 12 Mechanised Brigade, meaning that the United Kingdom will have an armoured brigade in Estonia, reassuring one of our closest NATO allies.

Mr Speaker, as you have heard from the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and others in recent days, we will explore all that we can do to support the Ukrainians in the next few days. All hon. Members in this House must be clear that British and NATO troops should not—must not—play an active role in Ukraine. We must all be clear what the risks of miscalculation could be and how existential the situation could quickly become if people do miscalculate and things escalate unnecessarily.

The Government do not feel that they can share with the House the detail of the support that the UK will provide to the Ukrainians at this sensitive point in operations. We apologise for that. We will do our best to give the House as much as we can, but hon. Members will appreciate that the detail is operationally sensitive. I hope that is acceptable to you, Mr Speaker.

Finally, Mr Speaker, you and Front-Bench spokespeople from across the House have had briefings from Defence Intelligence. We will make sure that continues to happen, so that, on Privy Council terms, briefings can be received by those who need to have them. Colleagues were also given a briefing last night by Defence Intelligence, which I know colleagues from across the House have found useful. We intend to keep up those briefings for as long as we feel there are kinetic combat operations that warrant a daily update. Beyond that, a number of cross-party briefings have been given by the Foreign Secretary and the Defence Secretary, the next of which will take place this afternoon, when I will be joining the Foreign Secretary and a representative of the intelligence community to brief colleagues further.