UKRAINE (UK RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA) – 11 December 2014

Dr Julian Lewis: It is 33 years since I first met my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), and it is a real pleasure to sit beside him in the Chamber today and listen to his very sensible remarks about a situation that might see him classified as a bit of a peacenik. [Interruption.] He snorts at the suggestion. However, the circumstances in which we met all those years ago were the depths of the Cold War. We co-operated with our colleague Tony Kerpel and others sadly no longer alive, such as George Miller, to do everything we could to counter Communist-inspired campaigns to undermine the defences of Western Europe in general and NATO in particular. Therefore, I do not think that either of us has a track record of being soft on the Russians. Why is it, then, that without having compared notes, we both find ourselves today urging caution in this scenario?

My hon. Friend concentrated on his historical analysis. I will concentrate on a rather simpler analytical approach. It boils down to one clear proposition: do not make military threats that cannot be or are not intended to be fulfilled. If military threats are made under those circumstances and they are not then fulfilled, there is a danger that your credibility is undermined for a time later, when you might have to issue a threat of retaliation that you intend to fulfil, and your adversary will not believe you mean it. That is how wars can start by mistake; because people do not take each other’s statements of position seriously.

Why does that relate specifically to Ukraine? It relates to Ukraine because the danger of the approach we are taking toward Ukraine in our rhetoric is to lump that non-NATO country together with other countries that are members of NATO. I must say to my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (John Whittingdale), whom I congratulate on securing the debate and on the way in which he presented his case, that I agree entirely with his view of the condemnation-worthy activities that Russia is carrying out. However, I do not agree with saying that if Russia gets its way in Ukraine and in places such as Moldova and Georgia, then its next step will be to threaten the Baltic States, because we must not lump these things together.

NATO membership must never be offered glibly, lightly, or without thought of the consequences. [Interruption.] I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) agrees. We must consider the consequences of offering NATO membership without a serious intent to apply Article 5 in circumstances of potential war. We all know what Article 5 means: if any NATO country is attacked, the attacker is automatically at war with all the other members of NATO.

I never tire of making the point I am about to make. I have made it many times before and I am not going to be deterred from making it again; it is, indeed, a point about deterrence. In order for deterrence to work, it is not only necessary to show that if someone is attacked, the consequences – the retaliation – will be unacceptable; one must also show that it will be unavoidable. One must not give the potential aggressor any reason to gamble that he might be able to commit an act of aggression without facing the consequences.

When countries came together to form the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, the intention was precisely to remove that uncertainty, which had existed in the 1930s. Then Hitler was able to gamble, while picking off one country after another, that the Western democracies would do nothing. In fact, he got away with it in several countries, in a succession of aggressive manoeuvres, but then picked on one country too many and ended up involved in a war with the United Kingdom – or the British Empire, as it still was at the time – on which he did not originally wish to embark.

By talking tough in military terms on the question of Ukraine, we are, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough suggested, in danger of avoiding the realities on the ground. As I have pointed out before, when Russia stood in control of the whole of Central and Eastern Europe, there were periods when one country after another tried to shake off the Communist yoke. We saw it in East Germany in 1953; we saw it in Hungary in 1956; and I personally remember seeing it in Czechoslovakia when I was 16 years old in 1968. At that time, when Czechoslovakia seemed to have got out from under totalitarian control, I argued very strongly that we should offer it NATO membership in order to try to protect it. I realise now, because I am rather more experienced in the ways of the world, that that would have been a counsel of madness, because given our ability to protect the country that we would be promising to protect, the promise would have been totally lacking in credibility.

It totally lacks credibility to suggest that countries such as Georgia and Ukraine should be offered NATO membership. Not many people are present in the Chamber today, but I predict – I hope I never have occasion to see this prediction come true – that if the country about which we were concerned were a NATO member, the Chamber would be packed, and that is because we would effectively be debating whether we were prepared to start World War Three on behalf of that country, whichever NATO member it happened to be.

I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee that the Baltics must be our red line. I was very interested to hear my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Beckenham mention in an earlier intervention how, during his time in NATO, he had expressed concern about the extension of the NATO guarantee to so many countries from Central and Eastern Europe. I must say that I felt we were stretching the elastic to its limit when we extended that guarantee to the Baltic States, but I accept that we have a long history of trying to secure the independence of those states, stretching right back to the days of the Russian revolution itself. Therefore, there is a significant degree of credibility that we would be willing to resist militarily an invasion of the Baltic States, but that is not true in the case of Ukraine.

I can imagine four principal scenarios in Ukraine. The first is that, in an ideal world, Russia will have a change of heart, or sanctions will work and she will withdraw and restore the pro-Russian areas of Ukraine to Kiev’s control. I think that a fairly unlikely outcome. The second scenario, which in my opinion would be the best, would be an agreed decision to create an autonomous area within Ukraine, comprising the pro-Russian elements and territories. The country could therefore continue as a political entity, but with a loose federal structure.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend is talking about dividing up a sovereign nation. Surely it is a question of self-determination and up to the people of Ukraine to decide that.

Dr Lewis: Yes, in an ideal world it would be, but there is a slight problem with that scenario, namely that the Russians have the power to impose a solution and nobody else is willing to fight them to prevent them from doing so. That is the hard reality. We may not like the situation any more than we liked that in 1968 when Russia imposed its will with the crushing of the Prague Spring; but I do not think anybody would suggest even now, with the benefit of hindsight, that it would have been right to provoke World War Three at that time. In situations where we are up against people with a lot of power, we have to contain them until political affairs evolve gradually in the direction we want them to go.

Sir Edward Leigh indicated assent.

Dr Lewis: I am glad that my hon. Friend agrees with me. Let me deal with the other two scenarios before drawing my remarks to a conclusion. The third scenario is a split. It would be either a de facto split, which is being referred to as a frozen conflict – in other words, the pro-Russian communities would end up in control of their areas, glaring at Kiev and vice versa – or a de jure split, which would obviously be a less satisfactory solution than an agreed decision to stay together with an appropriate amount of autonomy.

Finally – this is the dread scenario, which really could happen – if we really were crazy enough to offer military assistance to Kiev and encourage it to think that there would be enough military supplies to enable it to overwhelm its adversaries in the pro-Russian parts of the country, it is an absolute certainty that Russia would respond militarily. In any conflict of that sort, Russia would prevail and it would not then be content to confine itself to the pro-Russian areas; it would invade and take over the whole country.

It is what is colloquially called a no-brainer that if the Russians are determined – however wrongly, as my hon. Friends have variously suggested – not to let the pro-Russian provinces go, and they are not prepared to do so, the best outcome we can hope for is an agreed negotiation of autonomy for those areas. Such agreements are not unprecedented. It took us 38 years to reach some sort of agreement even in a province such as Northern Ireland, which was a rather less fraught or challenging situation than the one that we and the international community face in Ukraine.