HC Deb 31 January 1995 vol 253 cc838-9
4. Mrs. Mahon

To ask the Secretary of State for Defence when he will next be meeting the Russian Defence Minister to discuss Chechnya.

Mr. Rifkind

I currently have no firm plans to meet the Russian Defence Minister.

Mrs. Mahon

Does the Defence Secretary feel ashamed that the west and the Government have continued to look the other way as the much-discredited Russian President has bombed a small nation into the dark ages? What, if any, humanitarian aid will the right hon. and learned Gentleman offer the tens of thousands of Chechens who are without food, water and the basic essentials?

Mr. Rifkind

We consider Chechnya to be an internal matter for Russia. We are, however, concerned about the way in which the crisis has been handled, and, in particular, about the appalling number of civilian casualties. We have pressed the Russian Government to end the fighting, to allow humanitarian relief and to work towards an agreement that allows the Chechen people to express their identity in the Russian Federation.

Mr. Elletson

Will my right hon. and learned Friend make clear to the Russian Defence Minister and to the Russian Government the utter abhorrence of the British people at the involvement of Russian armed forces in attacks on civilians, both Chechen and Russian, in Chechnya?

Mr. Rifkind

I think that we have all been appalled, as my hon. Friend rightly says, at what appeared to be the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, and at the way in which, despite various assurances to the contrary, those attacks have continued over a considerable period, leading to many casualties in Grozny.

Dr. David Clark

Does the Secretary of State agree that the extent of Russian use of military force, especially in Grozny, is beyond all that is reasonable? Has he considered any plans to suspend bilateral military activities that we undertake with the Russian Army to show the displeasure of the British people??

Mr. Rifkind

On the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question, clearly one must wonder whether the current military action will bring an end to the conflict in Chechnya. Many of the Chechen fighters have already retreated to the hills and will continue some form of attacks on Russian forces. Breaking links with Russia would be an unwise decision to take. No western interest would benefit from isolating Russia at the moment. In Russia, a vigorous, public debate has taken place, which has included condemnation of the Russian Government in their Parliament and by their people. That shows that Russia has become a much more open society than would have been conceivable in the days of the old Soviet Union.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

I deplore the loss of civilian life in Grozny, but does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that as Russia, even after the strategic arms reduction talks process has been completed, will have no fewer than 3,500 nuclear warheads, it is not in the interests of either this country or of the west to witness the disintegration of the Russian republic, which might happen if Chechnya is allowed its independence?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend has put his finger on a crucial consideration. As long as Russia remains a nuclear power with many thousands of nuclear warheads, it is very much in the interests of the west and of the world as a whole that the Russian Government should have sufficient authority to ensure that those nuclear weapons are kept under proper and effective control.