Speaking in the debate on the Salisbury Incident, I spoke about my time in Russia, the UK’s relationship with Russia and the need to send Mr Putin a clear message: the British people will no longer tolerate the brazen and reckless actions of your regime, and we will no longer tolerate the way in which you and your cronies use London as a laundromat for your ill-gotten gains.
Stephen Kinnock: I remember my first flight to St Petersburg in May 2005 as clearly as if it were yesterday. I was on my way to take up my post as director of the British Council’s operations in St Petersburg and felt a palpable sense of hope, combined with a healthy dose of trepidation. I was looking forward to improving my Russian and getting settled into my new life in St Pete, before formally starting the job in September. I was also, however, wondering what the coming years held in store for me, given the parlous state of the bilateral relationship.
Equally memorable, but for very different reasons, was my flight out of Russia in January 2008. The British Council had become a pawn in the stand-off that followed the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko by two state-sponsored hitmen on the streets of London, and we had been forced to close our St Petersburg office.
In spite of the aggression and unpleasantness that came to dominate the relationship between the British Council and the Russian authorities, Russia will always hold a special place in my heart. It is a fascinating country of contradictions, extremes, suffering and joy, and I will never forget my time there. A wise person once said, “You can leave Russia, but it will never leave you”, and I can certainly confirm the truth of that statement.
The world view of the Russian people is shaped by the conviction that those who seek to exploit and undermine nasha Rodina—the motherland—are constantly hovering on her doorstep, and their default position is therefore to strike first, to subjugate their neighbours and, from that platform, to build a sphere of influence. From the empire-building of Peter the Great to the establishment of the Soviet Union and its extension to the eastern bloc countries, to the constant and furious opposition to the expansion of NATO, through to Putin’s adventurism in Georgia, Ukraine and Syria, the narrative of encirclement provides the backdrop to every chapter of Russia’s turbulent history and actuality; but understanding the historical, cultural and geopolitical forces that shape Russian behaviour is by no means the same as excusing it.
The Russian Government have literally been allowed to get away with murder for far too long. There are 10,000 dead in Ukraine, and 10 times that number in Syria. Alexander Litvinenko was brutally murdered by the Russian state; at least a dozen more adversaries of Mr Putin have died in suspicious circumstances on the streets of London; Anna Politovskaya and Boris Nemtsov were assassinated in Moscow, a stone’s throw from the Kremlin; and now we have seen Sergei Skripal, his daughter and a British police officer struck down by a nerve agent on the streets of a quiet town in Wiltshire, followed by the tragic death of Dawn Sturgess.
The Skripal attacks have of course provoked a great deal of speculation about why the Kremlin would choose to carry out such a high-profile hit just a few short months before the World cup. In my view, the explanation is a simple one, encapsulated in two simple words: greed and self-preservation. The Putin regime has no guiding ideology. It exists in order to protect and further the financial interests of a narrow elite, and to preserve its grip on power. It is a kleptocracy, turbo-charged by hydrocarbons.
Kevin Hollinrake: The hon. Gentleman has mentioned the dependence of the financial elite on the economy in Russia. He will be aware that Russia depends primarily on oil and gas for its exports, while countries in the European Union are very dependent on oil and gas exports from Russia which are not currently part of the sanctions regime. Does he agree that it is the responsibility of every nation in Europe to try to reduce that dependence on Russian gas, so that we can make the sanctions much more effective?
Stephen Kinnock: I agree that a tough sanctions regime is absolutely the right one. The question is how targeted it should be, and how best to target it. A sanctions regime which has a very general broad-brush impact on the Russian people may well not be hitting and targeting the right people. What I like about, for instance, the Magnitsky sanctions and the unexplained wealth orders is the fact that they are directly targeting the Russian elite. Our argument is not with the Russian people; it is with the Russian state and the corrupt nexus of Government officials and oligarchs that are making this happen. I think that we must tread very carefully.
In the case of oil and gas, the secret, in my view, is the European energy union. If we invested in the interconnectors and the integrated energy market, we would drastically reduce Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. That relates particularly to Germany, 30% of whose gas imports come from Russia. The key to Russia is through Germany, and I think that the key through that is the energy union of the European Union.
Stephen Kerr: Does the hon. Gentleman share the concerns felt by many Members about the Nord Stream 2 project, which leaves our allies in the Baltic states and in central Europe feeling particularly exposed?
Stephen Kinnock: Yes, I do share that concern. I think it is clear that, at the very least, a pause is necessary, and I think that the European Union needs to take the required action to make that happen. We need to pause and review how it will work, but Europe needs a plan B for its energy, and the key must be to reduce its dependence on Russian hydrocarbons. That must be the strategic objective.
When oil is selling at over $100 a barrel there are rich pickings, and the nexus of Government officials and mafia bosses who run modern Russia are able to co-exist in relative peace and harmony, but a few years ago the price dropped to nearly $40 a barrel, and although it has risen recently, it is still struggling to reach $70 a barrel. The pie has therefore shrunk, which has constrained the Kremlin’s ability to incentivise and buy loyalty. What do you do if you are a Russian President who is no longer able to offer the carrot to your henchmen and cronies? You must then deploy the stick. You must send a message, loud and clear, to all those who may know your secrets and may be thinking about betraying you that retribution will be brutal, cruel and swift.
While assassinations on the streets of Britain are Putin’s specific weapon of choice when it comes to securing the loyalty of the various clans and cabals that run Russia, he also knows that he must retain the broader support of the Russian people, which he has done through a series of cynical and ruthless foreign policy initiatives and military interventions. He knows that he needs to compensate for the abject failure of his Government to place the Russian economy on a sustainable growth footing, and he does so by seeking to unite his people against a range of common enemies. It is the oldest trick in the book. Thus the Russian threat to our security is not only through the Salisbury attack, or through the murder of Litvinenko; we see it in the invasion of Ukraine, and we see it in the indiscriminate bombing of Syria. From 24 to 28 February, Russia conducted 20 bombing missions every day in eastern Ghouta. The month-long assault on eastern Ghouta alone is estimated to have killed over 1,600 people, most of them thanks to Russian bombs, bringing the death toll in Syria to over half a million people, with 5 million refugees and over 6 million displaced people.
As we have seen with the refugee crisis and the threat from IS, the effects of the Russian intervention have rippled on to our shores. President Putin deploys state-sponsored murder in order to retain the loyalty and discipline of his immediate entourage, and he uses military aggression in order to secure the broader support of the Russian people. Both of these strategies represent a grave threat to our national security and the security of our partners and allies, and both must therefore be tackled and defeated.
Russia’s geopolitical influence and substantial military clout stand in stark contrast to the small size and fragile state of its economy. In 2013 Russia’s economy was roughly the size of Italy’s and considerably smaller than Germany’s. Russia is grossly over-reliant on hydrocarbons, with approximately 70% of its GDP linked to the oil and gas industries. With the price of a barrel of oil plummeting, the value of the rouble tumbling, the demographic time-bomb ticking, sanctions biting and poor economic policy decisions compounding these problems, the Russian economy is facing a perfect storm. It is against this backdrop that sanctions as a foreign policy tool are ultimately likely to have real effect. The sectoral sanctions imposed by the EU in the wake of the shooting down of flight MH17 by Russian-made missiles in July 2014 certainly led Russia to tread more carefully in terms of incursions into eastern Ukraine, and there is some evidence to suggest that President Putin is not actively seeking to up the ante there.
The Government must now build on the success of those measures by committing to the following. First, we must ensure that the Magnitsky amendment to the sanctions Act is implemented effectively. It needs to be implemented effectively without excuses about our membership of the EU being an impediment; that clearly is not the case because Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have all implemented their Magnitsky legislation.
Mr Wallace: I have now seen the Estonian and other measures, and I would not want the hon. Gentleman to make out that they are sanctions regimes. They are a travel ban regime under which the country sets out a list of named people it will prevent from entering it. They are not sanctions regimes in the way we would understand that; they are travel bans saying, “You can’t come to our country.” We in this country do it differently; we have always had that power and we regularly take steps to keep people out of this country either through exclusion or refusal of visas if they pose a threat to the common good or a security threat and so forth. I am afraid that the Baltic states regimes are not sanctions regimes; they are a predetermined list of people not allowed into the country. We already operate a case-by-case scheme; we just do it differently.
Stephen Kinnock: I thank the Minister for that clarification, but it remains a mystery to me that it is now four months since the Magnitsky amendment was passed by this House and we have not even drawn up a list of names and made it publicly available, whereas the United States, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have all produced lists of names of Russian citizens whom they intend to sanction, or have sanctioned albeit initially by travel bans which can clearly be built on. It is still a mystery to me why four months have passed and there has been absolutely no follow-up whatsoever on the Magnitsky amendment, so I look forward to hearing a little more from the Minister on that in his winding up.
The second key point is on unexplained wealth orders. Again, far too little action has been taken to instigate those targeted measures. Thirdly, while I have been robust in my comments on the Magnitsky amendment and on the unexplained wealth orders, I believe that the measures that the Minister set out from the Dispatch Box on the work we are doing multilaterally and internationally, through the G7, the UN and elsewhere, are absolutely to be welcomed and fully supported. The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), has already expressed support for them.
It is also vital that we argue forcefully for the completion of the European Union’s energy union. The EU’s fragmented energy market and infrastructure are causing several EU member states, including Germany, to be more reliant than necessary on Russian oil and gas, which in turn gives Russia disproportionate influence in its dealings with the EU. By investing in interconnectors and integrating the energy trading market, the EU would fundamentally rebalance its relationship with Russia.
My abiding memory of my time in Russia was of a burgeoning sense of polarisation between society and state. I saw and heard the values, instincts and hopes of growing numbers of young, well-educated and internationally minded Russians contrasting sharply with an increasingly reactionary and authoritarian governing elite. Support for Mr Putin was, and still is, relatively strong and widespread, but it is also brittle. He derives his legitimacy from the fact that people are prepared to trade the rule of law, pluralism, transparency and freedom of speech for what they perceive to be security, stability and economic growth. However, when Russian holiday jets are being blown up in response to military adventurism, and when recession and inflation become the dominant features of the Russian economy, many more Russians will start to draw the conclusion that their president is failing to keep his side of the bargain.
Change in Russia will not come any time soon, however, as evidenced by the recent election. President Putin can still count on the support of the majority of Russian voters, with the only notable exception being the growing middle classes in Moscow and St Petersburg. Clearly, the assiduously developed propaganda that is pumped out by the state media machine plays a major role in maintaining Putin’s approval ratings, but my time in Russia also taught me that the Russian people are still traumatised by what they perceive to have been the chaos and humiliation of the Yeltsin years, and the stability that Putin brought following that turbulent period continues to underpin his popularity today. It is therefore essential that we respect the will of the Russian people. Vladimir Putin has been the leader of choice for more than 15 years, and he will in all probability continue as president until 2022.
Let us therefore engage with Russia as it is, not how we would like it to be. Let us demonstrate through our words and deeds that we truly understand the history, culture, interests and foreign policy objectives of this vast nation with its huge potential, but let us also be absolutely clear, strong and resolute in the face of Russian aggression. That clarity, strength and resolution must start right here in this House. The Kremlin will constantly and consistently attempt to divide us, and we must not allow it to do so. That is why it is vital that my party makes it crystal clear that we support the words and actions of the Government, the EU and our NATO allies in the action that we are taking against the Russian state. This is not the moment for whataboutery. This is the time for a robust defence of our values and for the clear recognition that if we give a bully an inch, he will take a mile.
Let us therefore move forward together, across parties and communities, to forge an unbreakable and unanimous position on this issue of profound importance to our national interest, and let us send this message to Mr Putin, loud and clear: the British people will no longer tolerate the brazen and reckless actions of your regime, and we will no longer tolerate the way in which you and your cronies use London as a laundromat for your ill-gotten gains. We will therefore act rapidly and robustly to deliver the changes that are long overdue. We have the utmost respect for the history and culture of Russia, and we will never forget the tremendous sacrifices that the Russian people made when they stood shoulder to shoulder with us to defeat the Nazis. We also accept that Russia will probably never be a liberal democracy, and we have absolutely no desire to impose our world view. Nobody in their right mind is talking about regime change, but we do need to see radical behaviour change.
I referred to respect, the Russian word for which is uvazhaniye, and underlined the importance that Russia rightly attaches to being respected by others. But respect is a two-way street, and it has to be earned. If the current occupants of the Kremlin wish to earn our respect, they must radically change their mindset and behaviour, and they must do so now.