Jonathan Djanogly leads a Westminster Hall debate on Georgia and the war in Ukraine.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Georgia and the war in Ukraine.
During the Easter recess, the all-party parliamentary group on Georgia sent a delegation to Georgia, which I was pleased to be a part of. I declare my related interest as set out in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. I am also pleased to have the opportunity to discuss issues that arose from the visit and also to thank the Speaker and MPs in Georgia, the Georgian ambassador to London, Sophie Katsarava, whom we are honoured to have here with us this afternoon, and also our ambassador to Tbilisi, Mark Clayton, all of whom made it a very useful, fascinating visit. We had meetings with the Prime Minister, many other Ministers, Select Committee Chairs, Opposition Members, and civil society activists.
I will start with a general observation: I doubt that UK-Georgia relations have ever been as good as they are at the current time. Under the Wardrop dialogue, bilateral discussions have improved relations in the diplomatic and ministerial spheres. I am very pleased to report that parliamentary-level relations are also excellent. During our visit we saw great potential for improved economic ties, with our post-Brexit free trade agreement in place, and also cultural ties—for instance, going with my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey) to visit the Georgian rugby headquarters. They are crazy for the sport, by the way.
There is no doubt that Georgia is a country that faces west and wants to be part of the wider family of free and democratic countries with western values and economies. It is a young democracy and has a somewhat politically polarised society, but united, with huge polling majorities in their wish for membership of the European Union and also NATO. In fact, both aims have now been written into the constitution. As with Ukraine, a formal EU membership application has been made. That builds on Georgia’s existing EU accession agreement and its three-month EU visa, which it entered into at roughly the same time as Ukraine.
In practice, the EU often looks at developments with those two countries together. Russia, before its 24 February wider invasion of Ukraine, occupied roughly 20% of both countries and in practice runs the puppet regimes that it props up in both from the same Moscow office. Whenever President Putin warns against Ukraine membership of the EU and NATO, he usually simultaneously warns against Georgian membership. We can debate the rights and wrongs of the EU and Russia lumping Ukraine and Georgia together, but in practice we need to acknowledge that it happens to some degree.
As far as NATO is concerned, both Ukraine and Georgia have been forming closer links over recent years. Georgia, for instance, provided significant detachment operations in Afghanistan. Our delegation took the opportunity to visit the NATO-Georgia joint training evaluation centre, which was set up after the 2014 NATO summit in Wales. Georgia’s troops are trained in NATO tactics by NATO troops and, clearly, the ground is being set for ever-closer NATO compatibility, whatever the speed of Georgia’s membership application may be.
Of course, the threat presented by Russia hung over much of our delegation’s meetings in one way or another. It is important to realise that the intransigence, brutality and violence expressed by Russia under Putin did not start with Ukraine in 2014. Rather, it started with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. As a result, to this day, 20% of Georgia—Abkhazia and South Ossetia—is occupied by Russian troops, and Georgia supports some 250,000 internally displaced persons from those regions.
The pattern of Russia’s use of disinformation and cyber-warfare and its escalating use of agents provocateurs, special forces and devastating slash and burn techniques have consistently recurred where Russia has meddled. So we should be horrified and disgusted by Russian actions in Ukraine, but we should not be surprised. As with the occupied Donbas, post occupation, Russia puts virtually no investment into these places, other than garrisons. They are effectively left to rot, in a kind of limbo. Sokhumi, the capital of Abkhazia and once the pearl of the Black sea, is now an empty ghost town of tumbleweed. Mariupol—need I say more? This is Russia’s plan: to have weak, corrupt and malleable puppet states, that it preferably does not have to pay for, to act as buffers on its borders.
In the case of Georgia, every few weeks Russia stages some farcical provocation action in the occupied territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, such as moving the barbed wire fence forward a few metres, or closing crossing points, or arresting shepherds rounding up their sheep—always to stir the pot and maintain tension and leverage. The United States calls these occupied territories, “occupied territories”. Can the Minister explain why the UK Government still refuse to do so?
We should recall that the year 2008 was a difficult time, with the global financial crisis. Standing up to Putin was not the No. 1 priority in the west. The west, led by the US, refused to intervene on behalf of Georgia, while in the UK Russian investment was being actively encouraged as one way of propping up our failing economy and banks. In 2008, Putin received his first of numerous free passes from the west. Sensing the west’s disinterest and lack of cohesion, onward he marched to Crimea and Donbas, not to mention with the stamping out of democracy in those countries directly in Russia’s ambit such as Chechnya, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Each time, more or less, he received a free pass.
During this time, the UK failed to arm Ukraine and Georgia. Yes, we gave army training and other aid, but not guns. Of course, the UK did more than most other countries and that should be recognised, as should our very significant contribution of weaponry after the start of the recent war, but the question does need to be asked: would Putin have attacked if Ukraine had received the means to fight back then, as it has now? Would so many people—some 8,000 civilians so far—have been killed? Would such physical and cultural disruption as we have seen have happened?
Both Ukraine and Georgia have been receiving high-level assistance from the UK to counter cyber-warfare. We must not forget that the prediction in the first days of the February war was that Russia would wipe out Ukraine’s infrastructure through the use of cyber-attacks. That has not happened. Frequent Russian cyber-attacks on Georgia have also failed. We gave help on cyber before the war started and it worked. Why did we not do so with weapons? Surely, we need to learn the lesson here: prevention is better than cure. The US has provided the Javelin anti-tank system to Georgia, but we have not sent arms. Let us not make the same mistake again. Let us give Georgia the weapons they need.
Georgian public opinion is pro Ukraine’s fight for survival and liberty to an overwhelming extent. In Tbilisi, every third house I saw flew the Ukrainian flag and there were huge rallies held in support. I understand that hundreds of Georgians have unofficially volunteered to fight in Ukraine. The Georgian Government have been very vocal in their support for Ukraine. They have been supporting anti-Russian motions at the UN. They have sent a very significant amount of non-military aid to Ukraine and are hosting some 25,000 Ukrainian refugees. Georgia has not adopted the western sanctions directly, although it is applying them indirectly, for example in financial services.
Georgian opposition parties and Ukraine have been demanding a tougher position on sanctions and military intervention. Against this is Georgia’s proximity to and partial occupation by Russia, with a population of only 3.5 million and without the cover of being a NATO member. The pain of being left alone against Russia in 2008 remains raw with the Georgian governing party and so the Government tread carefully with Russia. This approach has resulted in varying degrees of friction with Ukraine.
The recent arrival of some 30,000 Russians to Georgia is contentious. They tend to be young, middle-class Russians who do not want to be involved with the war. They can live in Georgia for a year and set up businesses there. The practical if not official position taken by the Georgian Government is that this is a welcome benefit to Georgia of the Russian brain drain. Opposition parties tend to be less charitable towards these Russians and there can be tension in public when Russian is heard spoken. Given that huge numbers of Russians are fleeing—there are another 200,000 in Istanbul alone—I would be interested to hear the Minister’s view on them and whether we know how many are in the UK.
It is also important to recognise that the strategic issues for the UK and the west go beyond Ukraine and into the wider Black sea region. Possible Ukrainian neutrality—subject to a referendum—was apparently mooted by President Zelensky at the Istanbul peace talks. A heavily-armed Swiss-type neutrality might work for a large and very populated country such as Ukraine, but that is not the case for Georgia, which is small geographically and has a small population. Indeed, the ground taken by Russia on the first day of its February offensive was more than exists in the whole of Georgia. Georgia’s long-term security is considered by the Georgians to be effectively bound up in joining the NATO umbrella, not in neutrality. If Ukraine were to go neutral, Russia’s attention would be drawn to Georgia—possibly with disastrous implications for Georgian security.
Although the UK Government’s security documents seem to be slowly coming around to recognising the importance of the wider Black sea strategic balance, the 2021 integrated review, “Global Britain in a competitive age”, mentions the Black sea only once. Britain conducts £21 billion-worth of bilateral trade in that region. That makes up 3% of our exports and it is significantly expanding. I believe that we still have the largest Navy in Europe. In April 2021, HMS Defender was deployed to challenge illegal Russian claims around Crimea, and was very much welcomed in Ukraine and Georgia. In the current war, we have started to provide Ukraine with our anti-ship missiles.
Let us assume that Ukraine prevails in this war. How, Minister, are we going to get trade going again in the Black sea region? Will we help to get rid of the mines? Will we work with Ukraine, with Georgia and, importantly, with Turkey, to keep the lines open and uphold maritime law? What kind of post-war planning is going on?
Let me state the obvious. The Georgians, like the Ukrainians, will always tell people that they do not want war and they do not want instability in their region. They want recognition of their sovereignty and the democratic freedom to embed themselves in the European family, encourage free trade and improve the economic lot of their people. The sacrifices and suffering of the Ukrainian people since 2014—as for the Georgians since 2008—have been immense and totally unjustified. I hope that our Ministers are looking at the clear pattern established by Russia and are learning the lessons of our earlier years of relative inaction, so that we can stop the rot from Russia spreading further.