It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship for the second time, Mr Bone, and to follow the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Seely) on securing today’s important debate, although my speech will be more about not letting our guard down than going through several points; I have no list.
As colleagues may be aware, this is an issue on which I have spoken several times since my election last year. Nevertheless, I continue to be concerned about Russia’s threatening activity. I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, and I remember the practice sirens to warn us of impending nuclear attack. That was the most chilling time of anyone’s life, and none of us wants to go back there.
Russia’s activity undoubtedly affects our country, and we continue to see Russian military forces probing our boundaries. That aspect of Russian behaviour poses a real danger to the UK and our overstretched armed forces. Russian submarine activity has increased tenfold in the north Atlantic in recent years, and last year we had to respond to 33 of those incursions. That is a concern, but the threat from Russia goes far beyond that. It is growing and adapting and the threat has now taken on a more malign form. In this country, we know that all too well, given the devastating and seemingly effortless use of the nerve agent Novichok on the streets of Salisbury earlier this year. Although that was indeed a reckless action, we would be naive to think that that is all that Russia has planned, given our level of exposure to a potentially catastrophic cyber-attack, similar to NotPetya in Ukraine. That follows warnings from GCHQ and the FBI that Russia is currently targeting millions of computers in preparation for a major cyber-attack.
Moreover, some of the evidence that we took in the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee shows frightening use of bots and misinformation, which to my mind is aimed at driving wedges into the western alliance. We are not just dealing with traditional threats—those that come from land, sea and air. Hostile activity from Russia directed towards this country is becoming more common. It is also adapting and taking more aspersive forms: cyber-attacks. As I have said before, those are not the actions of a rational state with a stable leadership that wants to play by the rules. We should remember that when we consider our next steps.
When dealing with Russia we must try to look at the balance of power in Europe from a Russian point of view. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) recently pointed out, there has been a sort of Russian national paranoia for most of its existence—especially since 1917—and with some reason. The hon. Member for Aberavon touched on that. Consider the losses and upheaval suffered through two world wars, with 20 million dead in world war two alone.
The Russian people are kept in a state of constant existential threat by their leadership. I do not believe that we in the west deliberately create that threat. We must maintain a strong defence, but that is read in Russia as a threat because that is how the modern Russian leadership clings to power and, incidentally, to unbelievable wealth. By portraying the west as an evil coalition determined to bring Russia to its knees, Putin’s administration manages the outlook of the Russian people. They feel surrounded, and therefore do what history teaches us that states in that condition do: they cling to a perceived powerful leader. It is no accident that Putin is often shown in a heroic light—sometimes bare chested, riding a horse and carrying a gun. I am very glad that our leaders do not do the same, although I am glad that our Government is showing strength and sending the strongest possible message of condemnation to the Russian leadership. Their continued provocations must be met with an appropriate and sustained response.
That response, however, must come from the international community as a whole, as we are seeing similar activity from Russia around the world. To pick just a couple of examples, we have seen the use of hard power in Crimea and Syria recently, as we saw it in Georgia and Chechnya in the past. Although I have no doubt that we will see that again in the future, it is right that, in the face of such hostility and overwhelming historical precedent, we deploy a range of tools from the full breadth of our national security apparatus, to prevent it from happening again. It is appropriate that we continue to push for NATO to strengthen its deterrence and defence capabilities, while ensuring that dialogue with Russia continues, as part of the alliance’s commitment to avoiding misunderstanding and miscalculation.
We must also remember that the big scary bear to the east is not really that powerful at all, as was touched on earlier. Its economy is two thirds of ours; it is smaller than Italy’s. Its economy is also flatlining, showing no signs of growth. It does not stand a chance of competing seriously with us, Europe or America. So what does it do? It seeks to destabilise those around it, while concentrating the minds of its population on an existential threat. In the past, that meant massively investing in tanks, guns and aeroplanes, which they and we did, but they have discovered a new and much cheaper weapon of destabilisation, which could be equally devastating: the aforementioned cyber-attack. We have had several cyber-incursions of late. So far, we have dealt with them, but they are constant.
I have described Russia as not being so scary, but because it spends a significant amount of its GDP on defence, it has a very competent military—nothing close to the combined might of the west, but potentially devastating—and now the bear is wounded and cornered and therefore weak. Like any wild animal in such circumstances, it becomes incredibly dangerous. That is why we must maintain our alliances. We must maintain and enhance our defence spending. We need to secure our tier 1 military status as a matter of priority and maintain our position in NATO by increasing our own budget to 3% of GDP. We must also push for more NATO members to meet and exceed the target of investing 2% of their GDP on defence.
Overall, we must speak beyond the Russian leadership, who have a vested interest in maintaining the dangerous instability. We must speak directly to the Russian people, reassure them that we mean no harm and bring them into the fold of harmonious human co-existence. They might then rid themselves of their dangerous leadership and thus, as a peaceful neighbour, become a prosperous part of the European family.
We have no disagreement with the people of Russia, who have been responsible, as the Prime Minister said, for so many great achievements throughout their history—including the ongoing World Cup, which England will surely win. We must celebrate that which unites us, such as football, while being wary of that which divides us.
Read the speech here.
Watch the speech here.