HL Deb 18 May 1995 vol 564 cc668-70

3.26 p.m.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, as reported in The Times of Friday 12th May, Britain is planning to step up its military co-operation with Russia to an unprecedented level in spite of the continued conflict in Chechnya.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Henley)

My Lords, my department signed a memorandum of understanding on military co-operation with Russia in 1993. That began a valuable, but relatively modest, programme of contacts which we believe is important in establishing good relations with Russia and promoting security and stability in Europe. Planning and implementation of the programme is of course taken forward in the light of all recent developments.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that reply but he does not seem to have answered my Question, which is whether the article to which I referred in The Times is correct.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I have seen the article and, to some extent, I think that it overstates the amount of defence co-operation envisaged. The exercise that is mentioned in the article is due to be held in the United Kingdom and not in Russia. We have not invited a group of Russian officers to train in the United Kingdom as such. They will merely visit some of our defence establishments. However, we recognise the need to nurture our defence links with Russia in order to promote growing stability, as I said earlier, in the post Cold War era.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, do not the Armed Forces welcome the opportunity to train in new areas? Contacts between our servicemen and their counterparts in the host nation help to contribute to an understanding of Western values and objectives.

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble and gallant Lord is absolutely right. We certainly welcome any opportunities to train in other parts of the world, in particular because it relieves some of the pressure on our own training lands in the United Kingdom, which may cause a degree of concern in this country. The noble and gallant Lord is absolutely correct as regards his assertion that co-operation among the armed forces of parties which were formerly not exactly friendly can only be for the benefit of all concerned and help to promote greater stability.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, how can it be said that Western values have been drawn to the attention of the Russian forces when they continue to bombard indiscriminately towns and villages in Chechnya and even shoot at columns of refugees? That is contrary to the Geneva Conventions and the Budapest Declaration of the OSCE. What measures are available to the Council of Ministers of the OSCE when Russia continues to flout the recommendations made by that council that there should be a ceasefire and a negotiated settlement in relation to the problem in Chechnya?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord will realise that we are very concerned about all reports of human rights abuses and civilian casualties in Chechnya. What is going on there is certainly a setback for hopes of greater Russian-Western co-operation. We have made that absolutely clear to the Russians. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister made that clear to President Yeltsin on his visit to Moscow on 9th May.

We welcome the establishment of the current OSCE mission in Chechnya. We hope that it will make an extremely positive contribution to resolving that crisis. We have heard some fairly encouraging news that round table talks may be arranged under its auspices and we hope that that may lead to further progress.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, was not the timing and the publicity given to the remarks by the Chief of the General Staff in Moscow very unfortunate, following so close on the atrocities that we have witnessed in Chechnya? Further, will the Minister accept that the long-term objective of military co-operation is very desirable, especially to give real meaning to the rather nebulous partnership for peace?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the noble Lord will appreciate that I am not responsible for what The Times publishes and when it does so. As I believe I made clear earlier in my response to my noble friend, we believe that The Times overstated the case and the amount of co-operation that was envisaged. I welcome the point made by the noble Lord that military co-operation, in the main, can probably only be for the good.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, in the light of what the Minister said about the desirability of building bridges with Russia and, indeed, integrating her into a European security order—something which the Labour Party endorses—can he comment on the desirability of expanding NATO to include Poland and other East European countries while excluding Russia and other CIS states?

Lord Henley

My Lords, we shall continue to co-operate with Russia and develop links with that country. We obviously would like to see NATO developed further. I understand the concerns of the Russians on those particular points. However, I do not believe that we can allow the Russians themselves to impose a veto on any further development of NATO, particularly in terms of taking in—should the time come when it is possible to do so—Poland and the other Visegrad nations.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister tell the House whether the report that British officers are being enrolled in the Russian Army programme for potential peacekeepers is true? If it is true, can my noble friend assure the House that the sort of peacekeeping that the Russians have in mind is not what we have seen in Chechnya?

Lord Henley

My Lords, the sort of peacekeeping that we have in mind is certainly not what is reported from Chechnya. However, as I said earlier, we believe that co-operation between our Armed Forces and the Russians is something which can contribute to the stability of relations between the East and West. That is certainly something that we shall continue to build upon.