24 APR 2019

Speech in debate on Russian annexation of Crimea

John Howell (Henley) (Con) I beg to move,

That this House has considered the Russian annexation of Crimea.

[Geraint Davies in the Chair]

It was a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, however briefly, and it is a great pleasure to serve under yours, Mr Davies. 18 March 2019 was the fifth anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea. It is worth stopping at this point to dwell on the fact that Russia has been allowed to annex Crimea for five years, to carry out military activities in the Donbass, and also to invade two enclaves of Georgia. As I said in my speech in this Chamber in July last year,

"we are dealing with a serial offender."—[Official Report, 18 July 2018; Vol. 645, c. 102WH.]

I will first detail what happened five years ago, move on to the impact of the illegal annexation, then finally examine the current situation in the Azov sea.

On 20 February 2014, Russia's "little green men"—military without insignia—started the occupation of the Crimean peninsula. That began the process of annexation, as soldiers wearing Russian combat fatigues and carrying Russian weapons began seizing important institutions in the peninsula. Russia initially denied that those were Russian soldiers, but later said that they were. As a result of that annexation, a range of sanctions was imposed on Russia by the EU, the US and allies, including economic sanctions such as restrictions on access to financial markets; an arms embargo; restrictions on the export of oil extraction technology; targeted sanctions against certain individuals; and diplomatic sanctions, including exclusion from the G8 and the suspension of voting rights in the Council of Europe. I will return to that last point towards the end of my speech.

The Foreign Secretary has said:

"I condemn the illegal annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and the city of Sevastopol...five years ago. The UK will never recognise Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea and we call on Russia to end their illegitimate control of the peninsula and their attempts to redraw the boundaries of Europe."

Ambassador Jonathan Allen, who was the UK deputy permanent representative to the UN, has said:

"Russia's aggression towards Ukraine is not limited to the Donbas and Crimea—Russia seeks to undermine Ukraine at every opportunity...supplying the Russian-backed separatists with weapons and calling illegitimate elections—all in breach of the Minsk agreement.

Only this year, in a written answer in the other place, Lord Ahmad said:

"Sanctions imposed alongside our international partners, including the US, in 2014 have had a coordinated impact on Russia by increasing economic pressure to change its Ukraine policy and sending a clear, united message that Russian aggression in Ukraine will not be tolerated. This impact has been strengthened by the continuation and maintenance of 2014 sanctions since their implementation."

There has been widespread condemnation by the UK of Russia's activities, and it is good to see that strong line continuing.

Mr Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con)

I commend my hon. Friend on the beginning of his speech, which is superb. Does he agree that part of the problem with Russian aggression, and the boldness with which Russia has acted in Ukraine, has been the lack of a proper and effective response when Russia moved into South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia?

John Howell

My hon. Friend makes a good point. Many reasons have been given as to why Russia annexed Crimea, one of which is that keeping Ukraine at war prevents it from joining NATO. That goes beyond being a conspiracy theory; it is something we ought to recognise.

On 16 March 2014, Russia organised a sham referendum in Crimea. That referendum was followed on 18 March 2014 by the so-called agreement on the accession of the Republic of Crimea to the Russian Federation. Voters were not given the chance to choose the status quo in that referendum, which was conducted in polling stations under armed guard. That violated Ukraine's constitution and international law. It is claimed that 97% voted to join Russia, and according to Russian official results, that was on a turnout of 87%. However, it is interesting that later, a member of the Russian human rights council mistakenly posted the real election results, showing that only 55% had voted to join Russia on a turnout of 40%—a very significant difference.

The UN General Assembly produced two resolutions; I understand that we co-sponsored one. Those resolutions called on states and international organisations not to recognise any change in Crimea's status, and affirmed the commitment of the United Nations to recognise Crimea as part of Ukraine. The referendum also violated, among other agreements, the 1994 Budapest memorandum on security assurances for Ukraine. Under that agreement, Ukraine gave up the nuclear weapons that were on its territory in exchange for independence and undertakings given by Russia.

There is no precise data on what effect the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia has had, but a quick calculation shows that Ukraine has been robbed of the following assets: 3.6% of GDP; 4,000 enterprises; 10% of port infrastructure; 80% of oil and gas deposits; and 70% of potential natural gas deposits in the Black sea.

Bill Grant (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Con)

My hon. Friend is painting a very bleak picture, but in his introduction, he mentioned sanctions applied to Russia by the United States, the European Union and other allies. Do we have any measure of how effective those sanctions have been?

John Howell

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. Interestingly, in the other place, Lord Ahmad said that those sanctions had been very good at sending a clear and united message that Russian aggression in Ukraine would not be tolerated. However, I am not sure that they have had that much effect in practice: for example, Russia has been able to get round the arms embargo. The only sanction that has had some impact on the state of Russia has been the measure to deprive it of access to the financial markets in London and elsewhere.

I will now examine the impact on Ukraine of the annexation of Crimea, and will first deal with the illegal imposition of Russian law. Contrary to its obligations as an occupying power under the fourth Geneva convention, Russia has imposed its legislation in the occupied territory of Crimea. What is extremely dangerous is that Russian laws have been applied retroactively to acts and events that took place in Crimea prior to its occupation. This is not a dry legal debate; it has severe implications for the people of Crimea. For example, the policy of automatic naturalisation means that all Ukrainian citizens who remained in the occupied territory have had Russian citizenship forcibly imposed on them, which is a big change for them. Moreover, Russia's occupation and purported annexation of Crimea complicated the question of citizenship for children born after February 2014, since it is difficult for parents to register a child as a citizen with the Ukrainian authorities. Eight campaigns conscripting Crimean residents into the Russian Federation armed forces have been held since the beginning of the occupation. During the latest campaign, which ended in December 2018, approximately 2,800 men from Crimea were enlisted, bringing the overall number of Crimean conscripts to almost 15,000. As draft evasion is punishable under Russian criminal law by up to two years in prison, Crimean citizens are de facto forced to enter the Russian armed forces.

The atmosphere of fear, intimidation and physical and psychological pressure has forced 35,000 to 40,000 Ukrainian citizens, including an enormous number of Crimean Tatars, to leave Crimea and settle in other areas of Ukraine. The 2018 human rights report by the US Department of State states that the actual number could be as high as 100,000, as many remained unregistered. To replace those who left the peninsula, up to 1 million Russians have been brought in from Russia and resettled in Crimea.

Religious freedom has also been compromised, with 38 parishes administered by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine closing down in the occupied Crimea. Eight parishes of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine remain on the peninsula, but they have been constantly targeted by the occupying authorities since Russia seized control. It is not just individual churches that are affected. Russia has launched legal proceedings to seize the land where the only Orthodox Church of Ukraine cathedral in Crimea is located. Mosques and the Jewish community have been targeted, too. In March 2014, Reform Rabbi Mikhail Kapustin of Simferopol was forced to leave Crimea after denouncing Russian actions. His synagogue had been defaced by a swastika and, a month later, vandals defaced Sevastopol's monument to 4,200 Jews killed by the Nazis in July 1942.

Russia has set out systematically to eliminate Crimean Tatar and Ukrainian languages and culture. No schools are now left in Crimea with a curriculum entirely in Ukrainian and Crimean languages. Contrary to the 2017 order of the International Court of Justice, which requests that Russia ensure the availability of education in the Ukrainian language, the number of children studying in Ukrainian has decreased from 14,000 in 2013-14 to 172 in the 2017-18 school year.

Russia has banned the highest representative body of Crimean Tatars—the Mejlis—under false allegations of extremist activity. Despite the clear meaning of the 2017 International Court of Justice order to

"refrain, pending the final decision in the case, from maintaining or imposing limitations on the ability of the Crimean Tatar community to conserve its representative institutions",

two years have passed and Russia continues to maintain its ban. Members of the indigenous Crimean Tatar minority, many of whom vocally oppose the Russian occupation, have faced particularly acute repression by the authorities. In 2018, 367 infringements of the right to a fair trial were registered. More than 90 people, mostly Crimean Tatars, have been detained and/or sentenced under politically motivated charges, with some being transferred into Russia across an internationally recognised border. In detention centres, they are being mistreated and tortured as punishment or to extort confessions.

On 12 December 2018, Russia detained the amputee Crimean Tatar, Edem Bekirov. He has diabetes and four shunts in his heart. Since then, he has been denied urgently needed medical care. He now has an infection in the open wound where his leg was amputated. He is not allowed to go outdoors. His blood sugar level and blood pressure have gone up. He sleeps in a sitting position. The Russian FSB rejects his alibi in favour of a secret witness. Recently his detention was extended until June.

From 2014 to 30 June 2018, 42 people were victims of enforced disappearances, including 27 ethnic Ukrainians and nine Crimean Tatars. It is believed that Russian security forces kidnapped individuals for opposing Russia's occupation to instil fear in the population and prevent dissent. The Russian occupation continues to deny access to international human rights monitors to Crimea—access that is in line with United Nations resolutions.

Ukrainian cultural heritage is also under threat. One very big world heritage landmark and four landmarks submitted for consideration to UNESCO are located in the occupied territory. Having illegally announced the right of ownership for 32 historical buildings of the Khan's Palace array, the Russian occupying power has undertaken an unprofessional and incompetent reconstruction. That may seem insignificant in comparison with the life of the individual suffering from diabetes, but it has a personal association for me, as I was an archaeologist before I came into the House and it is sad to see such things happening. The removing of valuable cultural artefacts from Crimean museums to Russia continues.

That is as nothing compared with the Russian militarisation of the peninsula, which has continued at pace. Russia has substantially reinforced and modernised its Crimean military land, air and naval components. The militarisation of Crimea is a threat not only to Ukraine, but to the security of the whole of Europe. At any moment Russia can provoke a military conflict in the Black sea region with NATO.

Angela Smith (Penistone and Stocksbridge) (Change UK)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. He is a fellow member of the Council of Europe delegation. I have been to Ukraine three times in the past few weeks to monitor the election process, and I was privileged to witness the peaceful transfer of power on Sunday. In many ways and to most people's minds, it was a rather unexpected democratic change in Ukraine. Does he agree that that is something to celebrate? There is clear evidence that the Ukrainian people are embracing the democratic path to change. Ukraine is embracing democratic values. On that basis alone, should we not continue to fully support the country in its assertion of its territorial integrity?

John Howell

I pay tribute to the hon. Lady for her work with us on the Council of Europe. She makes a very good point. It would be so easy for Ukraine, when it is threatened with Russian annexation and military activity in Donbass, to take a very restrictive attitude to the conduct of elections and what they can achieve, but it has not. It has had full democratic elections that have produced a startling change. She is right that we should compliment Ukraine on that election and do all we can to support it.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con)

My hon. Friend has rightly set out a litany of sad human rights abuses and cultural vandalism—not only in Crimea and Donbass, but in South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia, too. Volodymyr Zelensky said in his campaign that he would not see Crimea exchanged for peace in Donbass. Does my hon. Friend agree that he needs to hold fast to that pre-election commitment? When he becomes President in the next couple of weeks, he needs to be robust with Russia and work along with western partners, which was another commitment he made. In seeking peace, he should not seek peace at any cost.

John Howell

I agree. I think we have all looked at the results of the Ukrainian elections with a degree of caution as to what the attitude of the new President will be, but this is not a time to back down from the demands being made for the restoration of Crimea and for an end to the fighting in the Donbass. This is a time for allies to keep making and pushing that point strongly.

Since 2014, Russia has increased the number of troops in occupied Crimea by three times. Armoured vehicles have been increased by five times; artillery by 10 times; jets by five times; and multiple launch rocket systems by 10 times. Most recently, Russia has deployed four battalions of S-400 Triumf missile systems in Crimea, which allows it to cover all of the Black sea, the Azov sea area and most of Ukraine. The Russian Black sea fleet can now fire in a single shot 86 Kalibr, known as "Sizzler", nuclear-capable missiles, able to reach not only Kiev but other EU capitals.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab)

The hon. Gentleman is giving an amazing speech: a real grounding in the problems faced across the region since the annexation of Crimea. This is not just a problem for Ukraine; as he said earlier, it is a problem for the whole of Europe. He is right about the weapons increase, but the real live-fire risk, towards Europe in particular and against Ukraine on a regular basis, is cyber-attacks.

The NotPetya attack cost the world economy $10 billion. Unless we also pay attention to sandboxing, the cyber-weapons that have been targeted on Ukraine, its infrastructure, airports, utilities and banks, will turn on Europe. They have been demonstrated to be lethal and will start attacking us, particularly as European elections loom.

John Howell

The hon. Lady makes a valid point. I do not underestimate the effect of Russian cyber-attacks not only on Ukraine, but on the whole of Europe. I am not sure what we can do about them, except to make sure that we are strong in resisting them. She has highlighted the key point: that the issue affects all of us. Once an attack has been launched on Ukraine, it can affect the rest of Europe.

What are we to make of the actions of the Council of Europe, which has now produced a motion that makes it easier for Russia to return by not having the credentials of its members challenged? The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has not suspended Russia; the decision was taken by Russia in 2015 not to present credentials for its own delegation in response to voting restrictions placed on it by PACE following the illegal annexation of Crimea.

The UK is clear that a Russian return to PACE would be contingent on the withdrawal of all Russian military personnel and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, as well as an end to the illegal annexation of the Crimean peninsula. I urge the Minister to reject or at least heavily modify the recent recommendation from PACE, which is coming his way as part of the Committee of Ministers and which liberalises the PACE approach.

Angela Smith

The hon. Gentleman is being generous in giving way. Does he not agree with me that the credibility of PACE and all the institutions of the Council of Europe is at stake here? It will be very difficult for bodies such as the Venice Commission to go into Ukraine and recommend legal reform if the Council of Europe is seen to be giving way to Russian threats to withdraw financial support for the institution.

John Howell

I agree. At the previous meeting of the Council of Europe, I moved what seemed like countless amendments to try to make the report that had been produced much better. Unfortunately, they were all defeated, although I pay great compliments to one of our Ukrainian colleagues, Serhii Kiral, who led a brilliant campaign with us at various times during the Council's proceedings. I agree with the hon. Lady that the credibility of the whole organisation is affected.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con)

As president of the European Conservatives Group, of which Serhii Kiral is a member, I want to echo my hon. Friend's sentiments that he did a phenomenal job. Also, the Ukraine delegation in the Council of Europe, regardless of party—socialists or whatever—are a formidable bunch of characters who really do credit to their nation under the most difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr Evans) is not in his place at the moment, but at the Inter-Parliamentary Union we have had to separate the Russians and Ukrainians because of provocation. The work that the Ukraine delegations do has been remarkable. I pay tribute to Serhii Kiral.

John Howell

I thank my hon. Friend for that tribute, and I agree with it. The Ukrainian delegations have been absolutely fantastic, regardless of politics. They have all stood as one in the Council of Europe and it has been a great pleasure to work with them.

Finally, I turn to the situation in the Azov sea. Stability remains elusive in eastern Ukraine, and Russia has moved to shore up its hold on Crimea. Russia has built a bridge across the Kerch strait, connecting Crimea to Russia. On 25 November 2018, Russian border patrol ships attacked and seized three Ukrainian navy vessels attempting to enter the sea of Azov from the Black sea through the Kerch strait, in a move that looked designed to gain complete control of the sea of Azov.

In December, suspicions that Russia has nuclear arms in Crimea were reported. Such developments suggest that, although the conflict in the eastern mainland regions of Ukraine may be resolved, Russia does not intend to restore Ukrainian sovereignty over Crimea. I am worried that succour may be given to the views I heard coming out of various organisations that both sides in the conflict are to blame. They are not. This is naked Russian aggression. The bridge breaches Ukrainian sovereignty—a particularly dangerous development that we need to condemn.

For all those reasons, the Secretary of State for Defence made a visit to Ukraine before Christmas and we sent a naval vessel to the area—not quite a harking back to gunboat diplomacy, but nevertheless a move that certainly sent a great deal of patriotism through some people's blood. It was meant to send a clear signal to Russia that we will stand by Ukraine, rather than being an act of further provocation.

I understand that we intend to send other Royal Navy ships to provide a more constant British presence. To our Ukrainian friends, I say, "We will support you. I hope that you take that in the intended spirit." This is a terrible tale of a big country throwing its weight around to the detriment of a country, which, as its role in the Council of Europe shows, is playing a full part in western culture while retaining its own identity. This is not a good situation. It has made Europe much more prone to instability and increased conflict. I look forward to the Minister's comments and his continuing commitment to trying to ensure that Russia withdraws from Crimea.

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