James Cleverly, Foreign Secretary, makes a statement to the House of Commons on the situation in Russia.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I will update the House on the situation in Russia.
The long-running feud, played out in public, between Yevgeny Prigozhin, with his Wagner Group, and the leaders of the Russian armed forces reached a peak over the weekend. On 10 June, Russia’s deputy Defence Minister said that “volunteers” fighting for Russia must sign contracts with the Russian Ministry of Defence by 1 July. Prigozhin announced immediately that his personnel would refuse to do so.
We—along with many Members of this House, no doubt—had been following closely the open escalation of rhetoric from Prigozhin. Last Friday, he denounced Russia’s military leadership, accusing them of bringing “evil” on the country and of invading Ukraine for their own personal benefit. He drove a coach and horses through President Putin’s case for war, saying:
“The war was needed for Shoigu to receive a hero star… The oligarchic clan that rules Russia needed the war.”
Prigozhin added, and I stress that I quote him directly:
“The mentally ill scumbags decided: ‘It’s OK, we’ll throw in a few thousand more Russian men as cannon fodder. They’ll die under artillery fire, but we’ll get what we want.’”
In the early hours of Saturday, Wagner forces entered the city of Rostov-on-Don in southern Russia and Prigozhin announced that he would march on Moscow. This finally drew a response from Putin, who accused Prigozhin of an “armed rebellion” and promised “tough” action and punishment. Wagner troops promptly advanced more than 500 miles northwards towards Moscow, before Prigozhin abruptly called off his operation and announced that Wagner would return to its bases. Having condemned him as a traitor in the morning, Putin pardoned Prigozhin in the afternoon, when a Kremlin spokesman announced that no charges would be brought.
The Government, of course, consider that this is an internal Russian affair and that the leadership of Russia is a matter exclusively for the Russian people, but everybody should note that one of Putin’s protégés has publicly destroyed his case for the war in Ukraine. Prigozhin said on Friday that
“there was nothing out of the ordinary before 24 February 2022, the situation was frozen with exchanges of military action and vicious looting”
by the Russian side. He also said that Russia’s Defence Ministry is
“trying to deceive both the President and the nation…that there was incredible aggression from the Ukrainian side with NATO support ready to attack Russia”.
The Russian Government’s lies have been exposed by one of President Putin’s own henchmen.
The full story of this weekend’s events and their long-term effects will take some time to become clear, and it is not helpful to speculate. However, Prigozhin’s rebellion is an unprecedented challenge to President Putin’s authority and it is clear that cracks are emerging in Russian support for the war. I, of course, hold no candle for Prigozhin or his forces; they have committed atrocities in Ukraine and elsewhere. But he has said out loud what we have believed since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion: that this invasion was both unjustified and unprovoked. The events of this weekend are an unprecedented challenge to Putin’s authority, with an armoured column approaching his own capital city.
As the situation unfolded, the Government monitored and responded to developments carefully. I was briefed on Friday evening and again regularly throughout the weekend by my officials. On Saturday, I chaired a Cobra meeting on the situation. We have also been in close touch with our allies. On Saturday, I spoke to Secretary Blinken and my G7 colleagues, and I have been in touch with other regional partners. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke to President Biden, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz on Saturday afternoon.
Despite these internal developments in Russia, Putin’s bloody war in Ukraine continues. The Ukrainians fight for their survival, and our Ukrainian friends are mounting a determined counter-offensive and steadily clawing back their territory. We will not be distracted from our work to support Ukraine’s self-defence and subsequent recovery. This weekend’s events show that it is Ukraine and its partners, not Russia, that have the strategic patience and resolve to prevail. At last week’s Ukraine recovery conference, we sent a clear message that we will stand with our Ukrainian friends not only as they resist Putin’s onslaught, but in the subsequent peace. Now that Russia’s leadership cannot justify this war even to each other, the only rightful course is for Putin to withdraw his troops and end this bloodshed now. Mr Speaker, I commend this statement to the House.
I call the shadow Foreign Secretary.
May I start by thanking the Foreign Secretary for being in touch over the weekend and the Government for providing briefings on Privy Council terms to His Majesty’s official Opposition? Our greatest strength in support of Ukraine and against Putin’s invasion is our unity. With that in mind, we are reassured to hear that the Government have been working closely with our allies and partners around the world. May I ask whether the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have spoken to their counterparts in Ukraine today, or over the weekend, to reiterate to Ukraine that those on all sides of this House are in for the long haul and that the UK will always support them in their fight for democracy over tyranny?
The events that unfolded shone a light on serious problems in Russia. Prigozhin has been a long-time close ally of Putin. His military company, the Wagner Group, started becoming involved in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Not only is he the owner of Wagner, but he has a media empire that has been involved in hybrid campaigns around the world.
It is staggering that Prigozhin publicly challenged not only Putin’s leadership but the false narrative Putin used to justify his full-scale invasion, challenging the lie that Ukraine or NATO posed a threat to Russia and stating clearly what we all know: Putin’s full-scale invasion is failing on its own terms. It showed that the reality and costs of the war, which Putin is trying to suppress, are coming back to haunt him. The Opposition agree that it is not helpful to speculate about where this will end up in the long term, because this is a puzzle that is constantly shifting in size and shape, but it raises many questions about the here and now.
As well as in Ukraine, the Wagner Group has been responsible for atrocities in Syria and across the continent of Africa. We in the Opposition have long called for its proscription as a terrorist organisation. We may have seen the end of the Wagner Group in its first iteration, but what does the Foreign Secretary know about where this leaves its future? What was Prigozhin offered that led him to run back, just 200 km from Moscow? Will Prigozhin now disappear into obscurity following his denunciation of the lies behind and conduct of Russian aggression in Ukraine, or could this pose a new threat to Ukraine from Belarus? And will Wagner troops continue to sow the seeds of violence and discord around the world as a private militia or as part of the regular Russian military?
The most important effects of this weekend of chaos will be on the bloody conflict on our continent. As Secretary Blinken has said, last February, Russian forces were approaching Kyiv, thinking they would be able to capture the capital in just a few days. One year and four months on, Russia has had to defend Moscow from an internal rebellion. What happens in Russia is a matter for Russia, of course, but one thing remains completely certain: the security of our continent depends on Ukraine winning this war.
I commend the Foreign Secretary for hosting the Ukraine recovery conference in London last week. Following discussions with Foreign Ministers, is he confident that Ukraine will get the military, economic, diplomatic and humanitarian support it needs in the months ahead? When are we going to get on with not just freezing, but seizing Russian state assets, as our Opposition day debate calls for tomorrow? How do the Government plan to use diplomacy to galvanise support for Ukraine among a wider global coalition of countries, including those in the global south, many of which have maintained a neutral stance?
We must maintain the depth of support Ukraine has from UK, and from our allies and partners. We must also grow its breadth, so that Putin has no choice but to withdraw his troops, so that Ukraine wins and the Ukrainian people get the freedom and justice they deserve.
The right hon. Gentleman raises a number of important points, and asks questions that we and our allies are asking about what situations may evolve as a direct repercussion of this very public attack on Putin’s authority, by one of his protégées and closest allies. I am not comfortable with speculating, as I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will understand, but analysts within my Department and others will look at potential scenarios and ensure that we have mitigations in place, if appropriate. He makes the important point that the Wagner Group is operating not only in Ukraine, but in many other parts of the world, including Syria and Africa. We will look at the potential implications and destabilising impacts in those parts of the world.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for the points he raised about the Ukraine recovery conference. I put on record the fact that he and the leadership of his party have made clear their enduring support for Ukraine. A number of Members from the shadow Front Bench made themselves available to attend the Ukraine recovery conference.
I have been in contact with my interlocuters in Ukraine, predominantly through digital means, through the unfolding events in Russia and we will, of course, continue to be in contact with them.
On diplomacy in the global south, with Prigozhin’s words—as I have said, I hold no candle for that man or his organisation—the mask slipped. He made it clear that there was no legitimacy for the invasion. There was no risk at all to Russia’s territorial integrity from NATO or others. He has made it clear that this war of aggression was driven by the egos of President Putin and the immediate cohort around him. They wanted to recreate an imperial Russia, and the lives of thousands of Ukrainians and others have been lost in pursuit of one man’s ego.
It is telling that President Putin and his military thought it appropriate to bomb the city while President Ramaphosa was there. The almost performative rudeness that Putin displayed towards President Ramaphosa and those African leaders proved the lie that Russia is in any way their friend. They should recognise that what is happening here is an assault on the UN charter, which keeps those countries safe. They should now recognise that Vladimir Putin’s actions should be denounced.
It is clear that Putin has been significantly weakened in Russia. We must not use this time to let up in our support for Ukraine. First, we need to make sure that Ukrainian membership of NATO is fast-tracked at the Vilnius NATO summit. Secondly, we need to make sure that there is no talk of deals, concessions or lifting of sanctions on Russia in any circumstances until the war criminals are held to account. Finally, we and our allies, including the Ukrainians, the Poles and the Baltic states, need to make sure that we have a plan in case Russia implodes. Does my right hon. Friend agree?
My right hon. Friend makes incredibly important points. I have said regularly that Ukraine’s transformation on the battlefield proves how serious it is about the reform programme that will see it ultimately become a member of NATO, and that action should mean that, however long that NATO membership would otherwise have taken, it should now be truncated. I have made that point clear and I know that that is a view echoed by a number of NATO allies.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that we should recognise that some of the talk about cutting a deal—Ukraine sacrificing some of its sovereign land in the pursuit of what would only be an artificial and perhaps even temporary peace—is completely inappropriate. Putin will not stop until he has been ejected from Ukraine by the Ukrainian people. To that end, we will continue to support them until they have achieved that end.
Ultimately, we do need to make sure that the people responsible for initiating and facilitating this conflict pay for the reconstruction. That is why we brought through legislation to make sure that assets remain frozen until meaningful and significant reparations have been made to help Ukraine to rebuild itself after this conflict.
Prigozhin’s attempted coup failed, but this shows that Putin is in a much weaker position than portrayed. He has had to pardon Prigozhin as he has withdrawn to Belarus and, of course, the Russian troops should now withdraw from Ukraine. Until they do, the SNP sits squarely behind the words of the NATO Secretary General this morning:
“As Russia continues its assault, it is even more important to continue our support to Ukraine.”
It is also the case that the Wagner Group should be proscribed for the crimes that it has committed. However, nothing from Russia can now be taken for granted, as we have seen. Fears that Prigozhin, now in Belarus, with Wagnerite forces could be used to attack Kyiv are real. What assessment have the UK Government made of that threat and what co-ordinated plans are there, with allies, to bolster Kyiv’s defences in such a scenario?
I am pleased the Secretary of State convened Cobra and it has been reported that UK diplomats are preparing for the collapse of Putin’s Government. How likely does the Secretary of State think that is in the short to medium term, and will the Government be better prepared for this collapsing regime than they were in Afghanistan?
Finally, this morning, Ukraine reiterated its calls for a simplified accession to NATO at the upcoming NATO summit, asking international partners to support this move. Will the Secretary of State put on the record his support for that accession and can he detail any steps his Government are taking to facilitate it?
Our support for Ukraine in its self-defence is unwavering. The Ukrainians have earned our support and have shown that the equipment we donated and the training we provided have been put to good use. That is why I have no doubt that ultimately they will endure.
On Belarus, we have made it clear since the start of the full-scale invasion that any action by Belarus to get involved in this conflict would be met with severe repercussions from the United Kingdom. The sanctions package we put in place for Russia is in large part also transposed to Belarus and we will keep a close watch on the actions that it has taken.
When I became Foreign Secretary, I ensured that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office looked at a range of future scenarios, including instability in Russia. We have always said, and for the sake of clarity I will repeat, that the leadership of Russia is for the Russian people. We do not speculate or attempt to predict; what we do is plan and put in place contingency arrangements. Therefore, whatever the outcome of the conflict, we shall be prepared. However, I have no doubt that, with our international support, and in the light of the visible lack of discipline on the Russian side, the Ukrainians will prevail. We will continue to work side by side with our international partners in supporting them until they do.
I call the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement and for prior sight of it. What we learned over the weekend is how deep the rot sits within the Russian military and security services. We have also seen that the social contract between Putin and the people of Russia, whereby they are forced to give up their rights in return for security and stability, is utterly broken. We have also learned that the internal security apparatus is as broken as Putin’s offensive military foreign capabilities.
However, this is not over yet and there is too much that frankly does not add up. Can my right hon. Friend update us on how many British nationals remain in Russia? Will he now launch a register for British nationals so we know how many are there, should we need to get them out? Can he update us on how the Ukrainians have capitalised on this chaos? We now hear that they may have taken back villages held since 2014 by Russian troops and crossed the Dnipro river, which would be an enormous turning point, because it would allow them to establish a bridgehead to push Russia out of southern Ukraine.
My hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point. There is a quote—I will paraphrase it, because I do not have the precise words in front of me—that says, “If you trade freedom for security, you end up with neither.” I think the Russian people are now recognising that. With regards to what may happen in Russia, as I have said, we look at scenario planning to make sure we are able to respond to whatever happens.
On British nationals within Russia, my hon. Friend will know we do not force British nationals to register with the embassy and therefore it is not possible for us to give an accurate figure. The UK travel advice has for some years made it clear that we advise against all travel to any part of Russia and we make it clear that, unless someone’s presence in Russia is essential, they should consider leaving by commercial routes. The House should recognise that, because of the situation in Russia and the conflict, the UK’s ability to conduct an extraction operation as we did in Sudan would be severely limited, probably to the point of impossibility. I reiterate our travel advice: British nationals should consider leaving the country by commercial routes unless their presence is absolutely essential.
On my hon. Friend’s final point, the fractures and cracks we have seen running through the Russian system will of course have had an impact on the Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries on the frontline, who will now be looking over their shoulders as much as they will be looking forward out of their trenches. We will continue to support Ukraine in its steady and methodical recapturing of the ground stolen from it by the Russian forces.
It was always a phenomenal demonstration of weakness by Putin that he chose to subcontract part of his criminal invasion of Ukraine last year to a bunch of fascists, murderers, rapists and criminals who are mercenaries in the Wagner Group. Is it not time for us to press home the advantage? Should we not be saying “Get out now” to every British business that has any presence in Russia, including Unilever, Mantrac, Infosys and all the rest of them? Is it not time that we seized Russian state assets presently sitting in British banks to give them to the reconstruction of Ukraine? Can the Foreign Secretary explain to me why we have still not handed over the money taken from the sale of Abramovich’s Chelsea FC to the charity that has been set up to reconstruct Ukraine?
The hon. Gentleman sadly displays a lack of knowledge about international law. Governments cannot simply seize the assets of individuals; to do so would be in complete violation of the normative standards of international law. We have passed legislation making it very clear that frozen assets will remain frozen until significant and appropriate reparations are made by those individuals and entities that have facilitated the conflict. With regard to the frozen Chelsea FC assets, I refer him to the answer that I gave him when he asked his factually incorrect question at the Foreign Affairs Committee session.
That is really not very clever.
Order. I say to those on the Opposition Front Bench that they should not be heard while they are sitting down.
Russian leaders have a reputation for eliminating or locking up those who show public dissent, so it is a sign of Putin’s weakness that the leader of a full-scale mutiny is offered exile. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, although it is also expected of any dictator to blame the international community and outside interference for domestic woes, Putin cannot do that this time because he is directly responsible for the Wagner Group, which is his creation and his private army? He is also responsible for the Ukraine war. Does the Foreign Secretary also agree that although Putin may be wounded and his days numbered, he is likely to stoop low to stay in power and justify his invasion of Ukraine?
My right hon. Friend makes a number of important points. Prior to this invasion, Vladimir Putin’s desire was to limit other countries joining NATO, but because of his attack, we have had direct applications from Sweden and Finland. Finland has now joined NATO, and Sweden is well on the way towards doing so. His desire was to prevent Ukraine from further integrating with western structures, but his invasion has driven Ukraine to do that very thing. His invasion was meant to fracture NATO, fracture the transatlantic alliance, but it has strengthened it. He created the Wagner Group to bolster his power in Russia, but his creation has undermined his authority. Everything that Vladimir Putin has done has been counterproductive to his own explicit aims. That is why I have no doubt that, with our continued support and that of the international community, the Ukrainians will prevail and return their country to its sovereignty.
May I start by wishing the Foreign Secretary and his family well?
At the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Luxembourg, we unanimously passed a declaration with a clause that specifically recognises the Wagner Group as a criminal and terrorist organisation. Could the Foreign Secretary ensure that the Prime Minister also supports that at the Vilnius summit?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point about the nature of the Wagner Group. I know that there are variations in the definitions used to describe it. The UK sanctions the Wagner Group in its entirety and also certain key members of it. We will continue to ensure that we undermine the ability of that mercenary organisation to create conflict, not just in Ukraine but around the world.
My instinct is that there is an awful lot more to this than meets the eye; no doubt we will know more as military and foreign intelligence bears fruit. Given, however, that NATO’s imperative must be to eject Russian forces from Ukraine and not to interfere in domestic Russian affairs, does the Foreign Secretary feel that this now makes a Ukrainian victory in Ukraine more or less likely?
My hon. and gallant Friend will know how important the moral component is in the success of a military operation. Those Russian troops and Wagner mercenaries will now be less confident about their logistics supply to the frontline, the integrity of their military leaders and the strength of their military planning. That will inevitably make them less effective as a fighting force. However, we should recognise that wars are inherently unpredictable. The Ukrainians have always had the stronger morale, their willingness to endure is legendary, and Putin’s expectation that the west or the Ukrainians would run out of resolve first has been shown to be a fundamentally flawed hypothesis. We are seeing the cracks emerging within the Russian system rather than in the west.
The global evil that is the Wagner Group has finally come home to cause problems for the President in the Kremlin. The Foreign Secretary is absolutely correct that we should not speculate on regime change, which would not be helpful. With that in mind, we should focus on what he can do. As has been mentioned a number of times, the Wagner Group has been an evil in Syria and Ukraine, and right across the continent of Africa. Will he outline how he intends to formulate a plan, along with other allied countries, to start degrading the Wagner Group’s capabilities—its logistics and finances? Will he also give consideration to the Foreign Office funding the collection of evidence of Wagner war crimes across the world, which many universities in this country alone would be well placed to help with?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important and valid point. We have worked closely with our international partners on the collection of evidence of war crimes in Ukraine. He makes a very good point, and I will need to look at the logistical and practical implications of doing that on a wider scale. A big part of the Wagner Group’s sales pitch to the vulnerable countries that employ it, in lieu of having credible armed forces, is the idea of its invulnerability and inevitable success, which has been massively undermined by its own actions. We will continue to highlight the inappropriateness of Wagner’s activity around the world, including in Africa. We will continue to impose and enforce sanctions to undermine the evil that that organisation does around the world.
Many commentators have pointed out that this weekend’s activity may have wounded Putin, and we know that wounded animals can be very dangerous. With that in mind, how concerned is my right hon. Friend about reports that Russian forces may have placed mines at the nuclear power plant? Are we facing the potential risk of a major nuclear incident, perhaps as part of a scorched earth policy?
My right hon. Friend makes a very important point. I had a meeting with Rafael Grossi, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, at which we discussed the safety of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, in terms of its being the centre point of a military conflict and also, in the light of the damage to the dam, the low water levels in the Dnieper, which is used for cooling. I assure my right hon. Friend that we assess all potential credible scenarios and look to mitigate wherever we can.
Back in May, it was widely reported that the UK Government were actively considering proscribing the Wagner Group as a terrorist organisation. Accepting that it is early days, may I ask the Foreign Secretary whether an assessment has yet been made of what the ramifications would be for Putin if he sought to amalgamate the Wagner Group into the Russian conventional armed forces?
I thank the hon. and gallant Gentleman for the point he has made. As always, we keep decisions about proscription of organisations open across Government Departments, but as he will know, we do not typically comment on future proscriptions or designations. Back in June, when the announcement came out that volunteers would be contracted to the Russian Ministry of Defence, we looked at the implications of that for the sanctions structure and others. I am not at liberty to discuss the outcome of those deliberations, but I can reassure the hon. and gallant Gentleman and the House that we have had those things under consideration.
Many in the House and elsewhere are commenting on the opportunity provided to the Ukrainian armed forces to press home their advantage while the Russian command chain is in a shambles, but is it not a truism that the more help we can deliver to the Ukrainians now, and the quicker we can do it, the more likely it is that we will end the war quickly with a favourable outcome? What are we doing to press home the advantage by galvanising ourselves and our allies to give more support to the Ukrainian armed forces?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the situation over the weekend makes the command and control of the Russian forces less effective. I assure him and the House that we have never been distracted from our primary goal, which is to support the Ukrainians financially and militarily so that they can press home their counter-offensive, and we will continue to do exactly that.
Media reports over the weekend suggested that President Putin decided to flee Moscow and relocate to St Petersburg when he learned of Prigozhin’s and Wagner’s advance towards Moscow. That, of course, is in stark contract to President Zelensky, who bravely remained in Kyiv when faced with a full-scale Russian invasion. What assessment has the Foreign Secretary made of those reports and their veracity?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point about the personal courage that President Zelensky demonstrated at a point in time when Russian tanks were advancing on Kyiv. I have had the pleasure of meeting him on a couple of occasions, and it is a genuine privilege to do so.
We of course look at a wide range of open-source reporting. Much of that reporting is speculative, and much turns out to be inaccurate; we attempt to sift as much as we can, but it is difficult to get a clear picture of the events on the ground. As such, what we tend to do—as the hon. Gentleman will understand—is work on a range of potential scenarios and plan around the most credible and likely of them.
The latest news, if it is to be believed, is that 8,000 Wagner mercenaries will be joining Yevgeny Prigozhin in Belarus, in a small town called Asipovichy where I understand some bases are being built at the dictator Lukashenko’s request. Without wishing to speculate on whether that brigade-sized force will be a greater threat to Lukashenko or to Putin in the short to medium term, may I ask the Foreign Secretary to assure us that that base will be very closely monitored, given its proximity not only to Russian nuclear weapons—we have seen the dual loyalties that the Russian army has towards Wagner—but to NATO borders?
My hon. and gallant Friend makes an incredibly important point: I am not at all sure that I would be comfortable with 8,000 Wagner fighters being my friends any time soon. We have made it absolutely clear to the Belarusian Government that we expect them not to be involved in or to facilitate attacks into Ukraine. We will of course keep a very close eye on reporting about the locations and activity of those Wagner fighters in Belarus.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights says that, from the start of the war up to this May, there have been 15,000 civilian casualties. What support are this Government giving in situ to those civilian victims of Russia’s illegal war?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. What we have seen, horrifically, is the specific targeting of civilians and civilian infrastructure by Russian forces in Putin’s war of aggression. The UK has, in addition to our military support, supported the work to rebuild Ukraine, and particularly the energy infrastructure that was so essential during the winter. The Ukraine recovery conference, which we hosted in the UK last week, saw the commitment of $60 billion—including a €50 billion promise from the European Union, which was hugely valued—for Ukraine’s recovery, reconstruction and reform, and we will keep working to support the rebuilding of civilian infrastructure. I have witnessed that on my visits to Ukraine, and that will remain part of the UK’s support to the Ukrainians in their self-defence.
With the increased threat of the disintegration of the Russian Federation, does my right hon. Friend agree that it will become even more important to monitor and protect Russia’s future leaders and influencers, such as Free Russia’s Vladimir Kara-Murza—already twice poisoned and now sentenced to 25 years in prison for promoting democratic values? Will he look to extend the sanctions on his tormentors from only five people to more of the 38 Russian state gangsters who have been identified so far?
The work that has been done by Vladimir Kara-Murza and others like him who have stood up publicly to criticise the brutality of the Putin regime is admirable, and we continue to call for his immediate release. My hon. Friend is of course right that we have sanctioned a number of the individuals involved with his completely inappropriate and unjustified detention. He will know that we do not speculate about future designations, but I and my Department have heard what he has said.
Have the Foreign Secretary and his Department managed to ascertain the rationale behind Prigozhin’s move towards Moscow? Was it because Russian forces were shelling the Wagner Group in Ukraine, was he not being paid enough or not being paid at all, or was it because he was critical of Shoigu and Gerasimov and the effectiveness of Russian forces’ actions in Ukraine? Indeed, why did he stop short of going as far he could towards Moscow?
It is hard to know with any certainty what the trigger event for this advance on Moscow was. Over a number of weeks, we have seen increasingly escalating rhetoric from Prigozhin. He has complained about his troops being starved of supplies, complained about ineptitude in the Russian military leadership and made all kinds of claims. It is not possible for us to assess which one of those is the trigger point, but we have of course been watching as his comments have become increasingly critical and increasingly intense. I think that, for me, the main thing I take away from this is the fact that he makes it absolutely clear this is a war of aggression and a war driven by Vladimir Putin’s ego, rather than by any threat to Russia itself. While there is much that we do not know and much that we do not believe, I think I am willing to believe that that is very much the case.
The Wagner Group has a nefarious interest in a whole raft of African countries below the Sahel and across central Africa. I am particularly concerned about places such as Mali, which takes direct instructions from the Wagner Group as if it were the Russian Government; Niger, where the French get all their uranium; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where there are many critical minerals. In these countries, we have small but excellent representation. Can I urge the Foreign Secretary to consult them to see what is happening with the Wagner Group on the ground, and whether we can fill the vacuum left by the Wagner Group in a more productive way for both their economies and ours?
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the nature of Wagner Group activities in Africa. I speak with African leaders, including those who have Wagner mercenaries in their country or near their borders, and I have highlighted that these are not people who can be trusted and that any country that relies on them for its defence is, as the Russians have now discovered, inherently vulnerable. Of course I will talk with our representatives in Africa to look at the impact of the Wagner Group activities and what we can do, in close co-ordination with our international friends and allies, to ensure those African countries are safe without the need for mercenary forces.
Many of us can accept the Secretary of State’s point that this is an internal matter in Russia and is for the Russian people, but it does of course have a bearing on Ukraine’s self-defence. The UK MOD estimates that about 60,000 Russians have been killed in the adventure in Ukraine and the BBC and its local partners have verified and confirmed a figure of about 25,000, yet the Russian state is suggesting only 6,000 have been killed. What can the Secretary of State’s Department do to improve awareness in Russia of the toll this is taking on conscripts, soldiers and their families?
The hon. and gallant Gentleman makes the important point that Vladimir Putin has not only been lying to the world about his motivations for this war of aggression but lying to the Russian people about the implications. Maintaining that lie became increasingly difficult because of the events of this weekend. Of course our primary sympathy is with the people of Ukraine—their country is being brutalised, their people are being murdered, their women and children are being raped or stolen—but it is also the case, as Prigozhin said in his comments, that Russian soldiers are being used as cannon fodder by a Russian leader who does not care for them or their families. The more Russians see this, the more they will realise that they are just as much victims of Putin’s ego as anyone else in the world. The hon. and gallant Gentleman is absolutely right that the leadership of Russia is exclusively for the Russian people, but I think the Russian people will now see how very badly they have been led.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced today that he is content for the Wagner mercenary group to continue its activities in Africa notwithstanding Prigozhin’s role in the attempted coup over the weekend. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that statement simply serves to underline the increasing weakness of the Russian regime, but does he also agree that a leaderless Wagner is potentially even more dangerous and demands the most careful scrutiny by the United Kingdom and its allies?
My right hon. Friend makes an important point. It is not possible for us to predict and I do not intend to speculate, but he is absolutely right that the events over this weekend have made things potentially more dangerous and more predictable in all the places where Wagner is active, which is why we must and will keep a very close eye on Wagner Group activities not just in Ukraine but around the world. We will seek to show leaders who are relying on Wagner that their reliance on that mercenary group is wholly ill placed.
There is no doubt that the events of this weekend show again why we need to ramp up our support for Ukraine, but I have a question about the intelligence. We have heard various scenarios and views about what went on and the consequences of this weekend, but is the Secretary of State concerned that we are having trouble in getting decent intelligence of what is going on in the Russian leadership and the support group and powerbrokers around Putin, and what are we doing about that? His answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Sir Mark Hendrick) served to underline that point, and I have a concern that we are struggling to get any real intelligence about what is going on inside Russia.
The hon. Gentleman will understand that it is a long-standing convention in the House that we do not discuss intelligence matters at the Dispatch Box.
What is the Foreign Secretary’s estimate of the number of Wagner troops deployed in the Ukrainian theatre, and what is his estimate of the proportion of those who will agree to come under Russian military command on 1 July?
My hon. Friend asks an important question. The figures are of course now massively less predictable than they were just 72 hours ago. We will keep a close eye on which troops might transfer to the Russian Ministry of Defence and which troops might desire to remain independent, and Russia’s reaction to them. This is a continually evolving situation. We will keep a close eye on it, and we will ensure that throughout, we remain committed to supporting Ukraine in its counter-offensive.
The events this weekend shine a spotlight on the weakness of the Putin regime in Russia, although we knew the weakness was there anyway, because that was the whole reason for invading in the most aggressive and unprovoked manner: to deflect attention from the internal travails within Russia. Nevertheless, whatever this weekend’s events, Prigozhin is not a catalyst for peace or an advocate for good governance, and he is no friend of anybody in the international rules- based system. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the international community must maintain the utmost vigilance on how this dynamic between Prigozhin and Putin unwinds? Can he advise the House of what that vigilance will look like from a UK perspective?
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly important point. Prigozhin and the Wagner Group have been responsible for truly appalling acts of violence, not just in Ukraine but in other parts of the world. He is absolutely right. The fact that Prigozhin turned into an enemy of Putin does not suddenly make him a friend of ours. We remain clear-eyed about the nature of that individual and that organisation, and while I cannot go into detail, I can assure him that we will keep a close eye on the Wagner Group’s activities not just in the European theatre, but in other parts of the world.
It is wise that we are not drawn into speculation in this Chamber about what is happening or has happened in Russia, but it is equally important that we are not distracted and remain focused on supplying and supporting Ukraine as this bloody conflict that it is engaged in continues. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that that military support for Ukraine will continue? On a practical point, will the delivery of military equipment, as requested and agreed to here—in particular, vital air defence missiles—continue?
I can assure my hon. Friend that throughout, including during the high-profile events of this weekend in the UK—I confirmed this in my phone call with G7 Foreign Ministers and our friends around the world—we remain relentlessly focused on proving Ukrainians with what they need, where they need it and when they need it, to give them the best chance of a successful counter-offensive this year.
It was reported in The Wall Street Journal that the US is considering delaying further sanctions on the Wagner Group after this weekend’s events. Given all that the Foreign Secretary has said about the danger that the Wagner Group presents worldwide, can he comment further on where the UK stands on further sanctions against it?
The UK has sanctioned the Wagner Group in its entirety and members within it. Obviously it would be inappropriate for me to comment on other countries’ sanctions decisions, although I make the point that while we regularly do a compare and contrast between Governments’ sanctions, different domestic legislation means that the nature of our sanctions does not always match exactly. However, the US, the UK and our friends around the world are relentlessly focused on the evil being perpetrated by this organisation, and we will continue to respond robustly.
My right hon. Friend is right not to speculate on the implications for the Russian state of the events of the past couple of days and to focus instead on the illegal invasion of Ukraine. Beyond that, the rebuilding of the state is also important, and one of the clearest routes to doing so is using the seized assets of kleptocrats and criminals. Does he agree?
The UK Government’s position is clear: those people who have funded, facilitated and supported the brutal invasion of Ukraine must be the people who bear the brunt of its rebuilding. A huge number of companies with a combined net value in excess of $5 trillion from almost 60 countries were represented at the Ukraine recovery conference last week. All of us were committed to ensuring that we support Ukraine in its recovery, but while we may look to de-risk, to pump-prime and to give first line of support, ultimately the people responsible for this destruction should be responsible for rebuilding.
I thank the Foreign Secretary very much for his statement and for the encouragement that he gives the House and, more importantly, Ukraine. With the interesting developments in Russia over the last few days, will he outline the steps taken to send a message to Putin that while his alliances are on a shaky footing, the alliance of those in support of Ukraine has never been more solid and strong? Does he believe that now is the time to increase arms and aid support to Ukraine to underline that very point?
We often wait for the hon. Gentleman’s contribution because he is always thoughtful and has an unerring ability to hit the nail on the head when it comes to the main thrust of our debates. He is absolutely right in his assessment that Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine believing that Ukraine was vulnerable and fragile and that the west was vulnerable and fragile—that somehow we were fickle and lacked resolve. What we have seen in the intervening 15 or 16 months is the Ukrainians standing firm and their alliance of friends getting larger and stronger by the day. The commitment that we saw at the Ukraine recovery conference underlines that. Indeed, it is Russia, Putin and the mercenaries he has contracted to do his brutality who have shown fragility and fracture. The hon. Gentleman is right that now is the time to enhance our support for Ukraine and give it not just encouragement and political support but practical financial and military support to get the job done. I assure him and the House that that is exactly what we are going to do.