(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on Russian action in the sea of Azov and the subsequent declaration of martial law in parts of Ukraine.

 

I thank my right hon. Friend for his question. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stated yesterday, we condemn Russia’s aggression against the Ukrainian vessels that sought to enter the sea of Azov on 25 November. We remain deeply concerned about the welfare of the Ukrainian sailors detained by Russia and call for their release urgently. Russia has again shown its willingness to violate Ukraine’s sovereignty, following the illegal annexation of Crimea and the construction of the Kerch bridge.

 

The United Kingdom remains committed to upholding the rules-based international system, which Russia continues to flout. Our position is clear: Russia’s actions are not in conformity with the United Nations convention on the law of the sea or the 2003 Russia-Ukraine bilateral agreement, which provides free passage in the sea of Azov, including for military ships. The United Kingdom ambassador reiterated that position at emergency meetings held yesterday at NATO, the European Union, the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the UN Security Council.

 

In response to Russian aggression, the Ukrainian Parliament agreed to impose martial law in 10 Ukrainian regions for 30 days, commencing at 09:00 local time on 28 November. We welcome President Poroshenko’s reassurances that martial law will not be used to restrict the rights and freedoms of Ukrainian citizens, and that full mobilisation will be considered only in the case of further Russian aggression. We also welcome the Ukrainian Parliament’s resolution confirming that presidential elections will go ahead on 31 March 2019.

 

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a serious escalation of the ongoing conflict between Russia and Ukraine, which has already led to over 10,000 deaths in Donbass since 2014? Will he recognise that we, as signatories of the Budapest memorandum, have a special responsibility? May I therefore welcome the support we are already giving, including the announcement by the Defence Secretary, following his own visit to Donbass very recently, that we will be deploying HMS Echo to the Black sea in 2019?

 

May I also welcome the Minister’s statement that what Russia has done is a clear breach of international law? Will he now specifically seek to find opportunities for the Prime Minister to discuss this with President Poroshenko? Will he reiterate his call for the immediate release of the 23 sailors now being held by the Russians, some of whom we understand are now in Simferopol in occupied Crimea and six of whom are badly wounded?

 

Will the Minister also look at imposing personal sanctions on the military personnel who have already been shown to be involved in co-ordinating this operation, as well as at increasing the economic sanctions on Russia, at least to the level that Canada and the United States are already imposing?

 

 

Again, I thank my right hon. Friend. Yes, he refers to a serious escalation that the recent incidents have illustrated, and the UK Government absolutely agree with him on that. I am pleased that he mentioned the recent visit of my right hon. Friend the Defence Secretary. On other proposals, we have no plans to change our conduct of activity in the area.

 

My right hon. Friend asked whether this is a breach of international law. The United Kingdom’s assessment is that, under the UN convention on the law of the sea, states can require any warship not in compliance with the laws and regulations of the coastal state to leave immediately. However, Russia’s actions in ramming, boarding and seizing vessels do not conform with the law of the sea. Russia’s actions were disproportionate, particularly as the ships had left the area and were returning to the Black sea. The 2003 sea of Azov bilateral treaty between Ukraine and Russia provides for the free passage of the military and civilian vessels of both states through the Kerch strait and in the sea of Azov, so my right hon. Friend is right to suggest that this is a breach of international law. I know the Prime Minister has today received a request to speak to the Ukrainian Prime Minister and that, in her busy timetable, she will be giving that urgent consideration.

 

On sanctions, measures have been taken in the past in relation to previous activity by Russia and sanctions were recently considered in relation to both the Crimea annexation and of course the building of the Kerch bridge. Any further sanctions will be considered in co-operation with European partners and others. It is very important that there is a sense of unity in response to what has taken place. The United Kingdom was active in calling a meeting of EU partners yesterday, and the other meetings that took place also saw a very strong response from the United Kingdom and others.

 

The House is right to see this as a serious matter, and it is important that it is not escalated further. That is why we have indeed called for the immediate release of the sailors, and we ask that all parties act with restraint but certainly recognise where the act of aggression came from in the first place.