John Healey – 2022 Speech on Support for Ukraine

The speech made by John Healey, the Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, in the House of Commons on 2 March 2022.

I beg to move,

That this House condemns Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine; stands in solidarity with Ukrainians in their resistance to Russia’s invasion of their sovereign state; supports the UK providing further defensive military, humanitarian and other assistance to Ukraine; recognises the importance of international unity against Russian state aggression; and calls on the Government to ensure that the United Kingdom’s NATO defence and security obligations are fulfilled to counter the threats from Russia.

This is an Opposition day and a Labour-led motion, but we have called this debate to unite, not divide, this House of Commons. We have called this debate for Parliament, on behalf of the public, to stand united in condemnation of President Putin’s invading of and killing people in a sovereign democratic country; for Parliament to stand united in support of heroic Ukrainian resistance; and for Parliament to stand united with western allies and other countries around the world in confronting Russia’s aggression.

Putin’s attack on Ukraine is an attack on democracy—a grave violation of international law and the United Nations charter. He wants to weaken and divide the west. He will not stop at Ukraine; he wants to re-establish Russian control over neighbouring countries. Britain has a long tradition of standing up to such tyrants. Our country believes in freedom, in democracy, in the rule of law, in the right of nations to be able to decide their own future. These are the very values that Ukrainians are fighting for today. They are showing massive bravery. We must support their resistance in every way we can.

Putin certainly miscalculated the strength of the Ukrainian military and the resolve of Ukrainians to fight for their country. But this is only day seven, and Russia has such crushing firepower, and Putin such utter ruthlessness, that we must expect more of their military objectives to be taken in the weeks ahead—and I fear that we must expect greater brutality, with more civilian casualties.

Whatever short-term success Putin may secure, we must make sure that he fails in the longer run. This has to be the beginning of the end for President Putin. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said in his remarkable speech on Sunday:

“The twenty-fourth of February 2022 marks a watershed in the history of our continent.”

President Biden said in his state of the union speech yesterday:

“Vladimir Putin sought to shake the very foundations of the free world, thinking he could make it bend to his menacing ways, but he badly miscalculated…the United States and our allies will defend every inch of territory that is NATO territory”.

When the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy), and I were in Kyiv in January, we were told time and again that western unity was Ukraine’s best defence. I am proud of the way that we in Britain, with our parties in this House together, have helped to build that western unity in recent weeks, but it will be severely tested in the weeks to come. It must endure, and it must endure for years to come, to ensure that it is Putin who fails in the long run.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)

Of course I agree 100% with the tone of what my right hon. Friend is saying: we all want to stand united. Some of us on this side of the House have been arguing for much more substantial sanctions. We need to throw everything at this. It is about artistic sanctions, sporting sanctions, financial ones, educational ones—literally everything. We seem to be going very slowly in this country. The Prime Minister said earlier that we had sanctioned hundreds of people in this country, but that simply is not true. We have sanctioned eight so far. We are going much slower than Europe or the United States. Is there any way that we can get the Government to work with those of us who want to work to help the Government to go faster?

John Healey

My hon. Friend has been at the forefront in pushing for this, not just in recent weeks but over several years. I sincerely hope that the answer to his question is an emphatic yes, and that we will hear it from the Minister for the Armed Forces today. From the Labour Benches we have given, and will continue to give, the Government our fullest possible backing for the sanctions they are willing to make and the steps they are willing to take, but this has been too slow, so we will continue to do our job as the official Opposition to push the Government to go further, to meet the imperatives of Putin’s aggression, and to meet our duty to stand by the Ukrainian people.

Chris Bryant

Some of the people who have not yet been sanctioned are military leaders who are already active in Ukraine, including the commander-in-chief of the Black sea fleet, Mr Osipov, and the Defence Minister. Surely by now these people should not be able to remove all their possessions from the VTB bank, for instance. They have 30 days to do so unless we manage to sanction them today.

John Healey

Our guiding principle must be that the sanctions are swift, severe and sweeping. On those three tests, what has been done so far still falls short, as my hon. Friend says. This House and Members from all parts of it have an important role to play in ensuring that we maintain unity, but also that we do more.

I say to the Minister that we will give Labour’s full support to the economic crime Bill introduced into this House on Monday, but it was promised more than five years ago. We will give our full support to the reform of Companies House, but that was first announced two and a half years ago and we still have only a White Paper, not legislation. I urge him to urge his colleagues in other Departments to step up, to speed up and to display the kind of leadership that he and his Front-Bench comrades from the Ministry of Defence have shown in recent weeks. We also give them our full support.

This is a debate for Members far more expert than I to speak in, so I will be brief. I want to emphasise that there are six areas in which action is required and in which our unity will be tested. These are six areas in which the Government have had Labour’s full support in the action they have taken so far. To the extent that the Government go further, they will maintain Labour’s support.

First, there is military support for Ukraine. As further Ukrainian requests come in—I know the Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence are serious about this—we must respond by scouring our inventories, stockpiles and weapon stores to provide the Ukrainians with what they can use immediately. We must reinforce their capability and capacity to defend their country.

Tony Lloyd (Rochdale) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. We need to ensure a supply of arms for the Ukrainians, but could we also look at the possibility of our Polish and Czech allies furnishing weapons that we backfill? It would be quicker to move them into Ukraine from Poland or the Czech Republic than waiting to move them from the UK.

John Healey

My hon. Friend is right, and I expect we may hear from the Minister that exactly that sort of action is being taken. It is certainly what some other European countries are doing, because the premium is on providing the defensive weapons and lethal aid that the Ukrainians require now. The fastest route to do that is required.

The second area is the requirement to cut Russia out of the international economic system. Putin himself has opened up a new front. The western sanctions are now opening up a new home front for Putin to fight on, because people in Russia are rightly asking why they cannot take their money out of the bank, why they cannot use their credit card and why they cannot use the metro. People in Russia are bravely coming out on to the streets to demonstrate the growing dissent in Russia for Putin’s rule.

But to be effective, we must do more and act faster. As I said a moment ago in response to interventions, to the extent that the Government are willing to act, they will continue to have Labour’s full support.

John Howell (Henley) (Con)

I agree that Russia must be cut out of the international economic system, but does this not go further? We cannot have Russia as part of an organisation that sponsors the rule of law, democracy and human rights, which is why my colleagues and I were very firm in getting Russia suspended from the Council of Europe.

John Healey

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the action he and his Council of Europe colleagues from all parties and all nations took last week.

Russia must feel that Putin is leading it in the wrong direction, towards increasing isolation, increasing cost, increasing damage and increasing uncertainty. We must ensure the people of Russia see that, whatever success he may secure in the short term in Ukraine, he fails in the longer run. As I said earlier, this must be the beginning of the end for President Putin.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Ind)

The right hon. Member probably has not had time to see it, because it has only just appeared on the wires, but there is a manifesto from socialists across Russia who absolutely condemn this war and absolutely condemn Putin and the oligarchs. They say the war is actually being fought on behalf of the very wealthy, and they look for a different Russia, one of peace that is not at war with Ukraine. We should send a message of support from this House to people in Russia who are opposed to the war, as well as supporting the people of Ukraine in the horror they are going through at the present time.

John Healey

My right hon. Friend is right: I have not had time to see that declaration. To that extent that it has been made, it is clearly welcome, brave and part of a growing chorus of brave voices within Russia of those who are ready to resist the way Putin has run their country and to stand up and say, “This invasion, this killing, this contravention of international law by President Putin is not being done in my name.” To the extent that they are taking that stand, I am sure that we in all parts of this House would honour them and support them.

I said that I wanted to mention six areas. Further military support for Ukraine is essential. Cutting Russia out of, and taking further steps to isolate it within, the international economic system is essential. The third thing is pursuing Russia for the war crimes it is committing in Ukraine. The International Criminal Court chief prosecutor has confirmed that he already has seen evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity. He wants to launch an official investigation, and he requires the backing of ICC states such as the UK. This will be a difficult job: identifying, gathering and protecting evidence, and investigating in the middle of a war zone. He will need resources and expert technical investigators. Britain can help with both, so I hope we are going to hear from the UK Government, sooner not later, that they formally support the ICC opening the investigation and that they will support that investigation with the resources that we, as a long-standing, committed member of the ICC, are rightly in a position to provide.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con)

I very much commend the right hon. Gentleman on his motion. Does he agree that this war, like no other before it, is capable of such a thing, as the evidence will be that much easier to collect, and that there must be no stone that these individuals can crawl under when this is all over that will hide them or protect them? The message must go out loud and clear: if you are in any way complicit in the horrors being perpetrated in Ukraine at the moment, you will be found out and you will be held to account. You will be pilloried internationally, in the appropriate legal setting, for the crimes you have committed.

John Healey

I simply endorse what the right hon. Gentleman has said. It is very much in the spirit of the unity of this House on all necessary fronts. I say to the Minister, as I have said on the other dimensions of action required in this crisis, that if the Government are willing to take that step to ensure the ICC can pursue those aims, they will have Labour’s full support.

Chris Bryant

I am sorry to be irritating, but would my right hon. Friend mind giving way again?

John Healey

My hon. Friend is never irritating. He is a constant presence in this Chamber and I have so much respect for him that I would not dream of doing anything other than give way when he asks.

Chris Bryant

I am enormously grateful. I completely agree with the point that the right hon. Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) has made, but there is a difficulty here, as international law has not yet recognised that initiating a war of aggression is itself a war crime. I think it should be, and the British alternate judge at the Nuremberg trials said it should be and declared that it was, but this has not actually been put into law. We need to change that, as I hope my right hon. Friend would agree.

John Healey

That was certainly a point raised with the Prime Minister earlier today. For me, action immediately, in the current crisis, given the current invasion and the killing going on in Ukraine, is more important than constitutional change in the ICC. The fact that the chief prosecutor already says that he can see evidence of war crimes and of crimes against humanity, giving him the grounds to investigate and, I hope, pursue and prosecute, means that, as a starter, that is where I want to see the concentration at present.

The fourth area is not within the Minister’s brief. As the Official Opposition, we have urged the Government to take action on this, backed the steps that they have been willing to take, but pointed out that so much more needs to be done, and this, of course, is in helping Ukrainians fleeing the war—Ukrainians who need a safe route to sanctuary. We welcome the Home Secretary’s further steps yesterday, but there are questions about how this scheme will work. There are still gaps and there are still likely to be delays, but to the extent that this really is a route for the reunion of families, it is welcome, and we want to see it in place and working as soon as possible.

However, the fact is that many of those now fleeing Ukraine are leaving behind family members. Their first preference will be to stay as close to their country as it is safe for them to do. What we have not yet heard from the Home Secretary is what the UK Government will do to help those countries that, certainly in the weeks and months ahead, most immediately are likely to bear the biggest burden and have to offer the greatest refuge to those fleeing war. On behalf of the Labour party, may I say that, to the extent that the Government are willing to step up and play that part alongside other European countries, they will, again, deservedly have Labour’s full backing.

Christine Jardine (Edinburgh West) (LD)

Although I share the comments about the Government stepping up and helping those countries and those who have family in this country, does the right hon. Member agree that we have to do more to help refugees in general? When people are fleeing for their lives, often in the middle of the night, under attack, leaving everything they know, everything they own and everything they love literally with what they can put their hands on at that moment, it is unreasonable to expect them to be thinking and planning for making a visa application. We should simply waive it and make it easier for them.

John Healey

The first thing that I want Ukrainians now forced to flee Ukraine to know is that if they have family in Britain, they can be reunited. This is about extended family members who need to get out of that country and seek the sanctuary that Britain has a proud record of providing for many decades. That is our first priority. The second must be to support those countries on the refugee frontline, on the borders of this country that is now beset by war caused by President Putin. That is what I want to see the Government doing and that is where I want to see their first priority.

Clive Lewis (Norwich South) (Lab)

My right hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. Does he agree that resistance takes many forms and that one of its forms is that of independent journalism? I know that a number of journalists are now trapped in Ukraine. Many of them have chosen to stay in Ukraine, but some are trapped. They are worried about their families. They want to know that they can have safe passage to the UK or to Europe. Like Members on both sides of the House, I believe that all these restrictions should be lifted, but in the interim I urge the Government to pay particular attention to journalists who are doing an admirable job in reporting on what is happening. We know what Putin thinks of these journalists—he has already attacked the UN public service broadcasting tower. They know what is in store for them. They are potentially on lists. Perhaps my right hon. Friend could make a comment on that.

John Healey

Indeed, one of our fundamental values as a British democracy is the right to free speech and information. Those freedoms come at a price, and that is often the price that journalists, under pressure, have to pay. Those brave Ukrainian journalists, especially those who are staying in the country to try to make sure that those of us beyond their boundaries know what is really going on, deserve our honour and our respect. If necessary, we need to be willing to act where we can to assist them.

John Howell

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

John Healey

I did promise to be quite brief, but I will of course give way.

John Howell

I promise to be as brief as possible. Yesterday, when the Home Secretary made her statement, I made her an offer, which I am not sure the right hon. Gentleman heard. He is right to say that we need to keep contact with the neighbouring countries to Ukraine. I offered to use the good offices of the delegation to the Council of Europe, which knows these countries and their leaders very well, to make sure that we maintain that contact and to help her in taking forward the discussions that she needed to have with them.

John Healey

I did not hear the hon. Gentleman’s offer to the Home Secretary, so I did not hear her response, but I sincerely hope she bit his hand off for that assistance —if not, I am sure he will follow it up directly with her.

John Howell

She did indeed.

John Healey

Then the hon. Gentleman has answered his own question; I am delighted he was able to answer it with an emphatic yes.

I turn now to the fifth dimension, where the Government will have Labour’s full support if they act as they should. It is one thing to confront Russian aggression abroad, but we must also strengthen our defences at home. We know that the UK is not immune to Russia’s aggression. We have had chemical weapons used on our soil to kill people. We have had dissidents murdered on British soil. We have had cyber-attacks against UK Government Departments, our defence agencies and even the organisations trying to develop our covid vaccines.

I say to the Minister that for too long that has been the poor relation of our national security and our national resilience. The Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russia report in 2020 said:

“Russia’s cyber capability…poses an immediate and urgent threat to our national security.”

The recommendations of that report have still not been implemented in full. The Government’s integrated review, almost a year ago, promised a national resilience strategy, but that has not yet been published. Our armed forces are essential to both our national defence and our national resilience. With the Army already cut to its smallest size for 300 years, in the light of the circumstances and the threats we now face, Ministers’ plans to cut a further 10,000 troops from Army numbers over the next three years must now be halted.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)

I thank my right hon. Friend for the excellent speech he is making. I asked the Prime Minister about Russian cyber-activity last week, particularly with the well-known history of bot farms and misinformation, and he did not have a response in terms of taking action. Bot farm activity has reduced in recent days because Russia has limited access to the internet. Is it not the case that we as a sovereign nation should be looking to take action to limit the influence of Russia’s bot farms and misinformation on our economy and society, rather than leaving it to the Russians?

John Healey

Indeed, we have been slow to appreciate the scale of the disinformation driven by the Russian state directly and by its proxies. We have been slow to realise the extent to which it is corrupting our public discourse and in some cases interfering with our elections. Once again, the steps the Government could be taking, but that they seem very slow to take, have been set out in this House by my hon. Friend and others who are experts in that area.

Finally, on the sixth dimension, talking is always better than fighting. Even in these circumstances, President Zelensky in Ukraine has displayed outstanding leadership. Even as Russia continued to intensify its attacks, he was willing to hold talks, saying that there was

“still a chance, however small”.

He is also right to say:

“It’s necessary to at least stop bombing people…and then sit down at the negotiating table.”

I see as a significant development today’s confirmation that China is ready to play a role, saying that it is

“looking forward to China playing a role in realising a ceasefire”.

Matt Rodda (Reading East) (Lab)

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for the six dimensions that he has laid out: I wholeheartedly support him on all those points. There are so many other things that I am sure other colleagues across the House would want to add. I just wanted to make my own personal tribute to President Zelensky. He has shown outstanding leadership during this brutal war. He has been asked to step up in the most difficult and most challenging situation facing his country, and he has demonstrated great leadership and incredible resilience. I am sure the whole House would support him, and it was wonderful to be able to show our support for the Ukrainian ambassador today.

John Healey

I thank my hon. Friend and endorse what he has said. I hope he will endorse the fact that as a party and, I hope, as a House, we are ready to back calls for a ceasefire. We want to see serious negotiations and we want to see a Russian withdrawal from Ukraine.

Finally, let me turn to NATO. Labour’s post-war Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, was the principal architect of NATO and, in particular, its article 5 commitment to collective defence. When he introduced the North Atlantic treaty to Parliament in 1949, he told this House:

“Unity against aggression has…become more than ever important”

and that this aggression

“usually comes when one man, or a small number of men, start by getting complete control of their own country and then create an atmosphere of fear and mistrust among those around them.”—[Official Report, 12 May 1949; Vol. 464, c. 2016-17.]

Bevin could have been talking then about President Putin today. NATO remains a defensive alliance built on diplomacy and deterrence, with not just collective security but democracy, peace and the rule of law enshrined in its founding statutes.

Over 70 years on from Bevin’s speech, NATO has proven to be one of Britain’s most essential and most successful alliances. However, a decade-plus of Russian aggression, cyber-attacks, assassinations, annexations, disinformation and mercenary groups, culminating now in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, demands that NATO change. New security priorities, longer-term deployments, more integrated operations, more advanced technologies, better spending to match threats, and closer co-ordination with the Joint Expeditionary Force, with the European Union and with other democratic nations beyond the alliance should become the hallmarks of a stronger NATO.

We have taken settled peace and security in Europe for granted since the end of the cold war. We cannot do so any longer. We will be dealing with the consequences of this illegal Russian invasion for years to come. But for now, through these very darkest days that Ukraine is facing, we must simply stand united with Ukraine.