Ukraine and its neighbours: the Government view

On 22 May Sir Alan Duncan MP, Minister of State for Europe and the Americas, spoke in the Macmillan Room, Portcullis House, to members of the British Ukrainian Society.

His talk was entitled, ‘Ukraine and its neighbours: the Government view’.

A transcript of his speech can be found below.

Lord Risby, thank you very much indeed for that kind introduction and indeed everything you do as Chair of the British Ukrainian Society, which I can see is thriving – not many All Party Groups get such a large audience, and I’m very grateful to you all for coming this evening.

I’m very pleased that you’ve asked me to speak because I believe very strongly, and of course I speak for the British government when I say this, that Ukraine’s success and security really matter, and not just for the people of Ukraine – their interests are of course paramount – but also to the UK and to Europe and to the rest of the world. It may only have been independent in its current form for less than 30 years, but Ukraine is nonetheless a nation with a long, proud history of culture that is as varied as its past.

Russia has sought to undermine all that. It annexed Crimea, it’s stirred up conflict in Donbas, it’s waged a campaign of dirty tricks in cyberspace alongside more conventional warfare, what all the experts call hybrid acts. So in doing so, the Kremlin is also deliberately undermining international rules that have served as our collective safety net over the last 70 years. The UK has taken a leading role in challenging unacceptable behaviour by Russia, as of course have Ukraine. No country, however large, can be allowed to get away with tearing its neighbour apart, and tearing up the international law book. As we all know, Russian aggression has not been limited to Crimea and the Donbass, many countries have felt the effects of Russian interference, and the willingness of the Russian state to flout international rules.

These rules and institutions are the very cornerstone of our security and prosperity. Eroding and undermining them is no abstract threat as Ukraine and its neighbours know only too well. Doing so threatens the very foundations of our advanced democracies, our open societies and free economies. The only sensible response is to stand firmly united in the face of this threat. That’s why the unprecedented international response to the nerve agent attack in Salisbury was so very important. In time, it may be seen as a watershed moment. Russia, in my view, has seriously miscalculated, and cannot have anticipated the strength and unity of the international response. Ukraine was one of 28 countries who stood with us, throwing out 13 Russian diplomats, the third largest expulsion after those of the US, and of the UK itself. Just as the UK has been robust defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity, so Ukraine has shown strong support for us after Salisbury, for which we are very grateful.

In response to that, the Kremlin’s disinformation machine has gone into overdrive. The media mouthpieces and bots linked to the Kremlin have spread more than two dozen different narratives to explain the Salisbury attack. These have ranged from the bizarre such as claims that Sergei Skripal was a chemical weapons smuggler who accidentally poisoned himself, to the outlandish such as the notion that Novichok was actually invented by the Prime Minister Theresa May. This is a classic Russian tactic – to deny, to distort and to distract and it’s all designed to befuddle and confuse and divide Russia’s opponents. We’ve seen this time and time again. After the last chemical weapons attacks in Syria, you see the annexation of South Ossetia in 2008, we’ve seen the hacking and leaking of emails in the Macron campaign in the 2017 French Presidential election, and many other similar such examples. Now of course in the run-up to the illegal annexation of Crimea, Ukraine was hit with a barrage of concerted disinformation campaigns and the push in that direction continues to this day. Working with our allies, the UK and Ukraine have pushed back against these narratives. We have not allowed them to take hold, and we’ve called them out for what they are: they are attempts to undermine countries’ sovereignty and legitimacy.

But of course our approach to Ukraine is not and should not be all about Russia. Ukraine watchers often talk about the two struggles for Ukraine: the struggle against Russian aggression, and the struggle to put in place the fundamental changes Ukraine needs in order to build long-term security and prosperity. Now these two struggles are inextricably linked. The UK is committed to supporting reform in Ukraine as part of our support for its sovereignty, because we recognise that Ukraine’s best defence is to build robust institutions that Russia cannot corrupt.

While the emphasis and the action on reform must come from within, we recognise that Ukraine also needs support from outside. The UK has played a leading role in shaping international discussions on such topics. Last year we hosted the Ukraine Reform Conference to explore how Ukraine’s friends could help to support what they call the Ukrainian government’s reform action plan. After the conference, I was pleased to visit Ukraine and speak at the Yalta European Security Conference, where I reaffirmed the UK’s support of the reform programme, and it’s an event to which I hope to return this year.

Ukraine has made more progress since 2014. The ProZorro has transformed public procurement systems, energy reforms have ended dependence on Russian gas and the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine is doing fantastic work in investigating high-level corruption. But I have to say frankly that we are still very concerned about what remains to be done. Key reforms are yet to be completed. The work of the Anti-Corruption Bureau will come to nothing without an independent anti-corruption court to prosecute those cases and to show the guilty parties what they will not and cannot get away with it, no matter how high their position. So it’s vital that momentum is not lost and that there is no backtracking.

Elections in 2019 must not be used as an excuse to delay implementing the reform agenda. The expectations of the Ukrainian people for improvements in their government and prosperity deserve to be fulfilled, so there’s absolutely no time to lose. Next month’s Ukraine Reform Conference in Copenhagen will be a key moment to analyse what progress has been made since we met in London a year ago. Ukraine’s leaders have a choice. Their legacy can be to take Ukraine down their chosen European path, or to take the path of their predecessors. Having come so far, it would be deeply disappointing if Ukraine were to lose ground now.

We’re also keen to see progress in other countries in Ukraine’s neighbourhood, and in the former Soviet Union. I’ve taken particular interest in the potential to bring Belarus and Uzbekistan more in line with western standards. In March I welcomed Vladimir Makei to London, the first visit by the Belarussian Foreign Minister in almost 25 years. It was a good opportunity to discuss our views on regional, political and security issues and the fact that his visit took place at the height of the Salisbury crisis shows that Belarus stands on its own two feet, and makes its own decisions. It was also a sign that it wants to pursue a foreign policy that also looks west as well as east as can also be seen from its greater engagement with NATO and its recent hosting of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly. Belarus’ membership of the EU’s Eastern Partnership Policy is important not only in supporting its sovereignty and independence, but also in promoting reform. We hope that Belarus will seize the opportunities that this framework offers to secure its long-term future as a prosperous, independent state. Making improvements on human rights will be essential in securing their future prosperity, and I am encouraged that Belarus has resumed discussions on this issue.

In Uzbekistan, the reform programme led by President Mirziyoyev over the last two years has transformed regional relations in Central Asia. It’s liberalised Uzbekistan’s economy and has improved its human rights situation. I was able to demonstrate the UK’s support when I met the President in Tashkent two days after his inauguration. And I met him again last week, here in the UK, and reaffirmed our strong support of the new direction he’s taking.

Our support has been practical as well as political. Within days of my first visit, I linked the Uzbeks up to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. That connection has helped to facilitate the EBRD’s return to Uzbekistan. No institution is better placed to assist the country’s economic transformation, and the bank is now committing itself to enormous investments in the country.

Our emphasis on Uzbekistan is also providing practical support for reforms. They contributed expert advice on new laws, supporting freedom of the media and brought in the BBC to train the country’s journalists. We’ve also funded projects supporting gender equality, judicial reform and the growth more generally of civil society. And this year, the Embassy is bringing in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to work with the Uzbek Parliament, and the National School of Government International to advise on judicial reform.

The UK is also supporting reform in the countries south of Ukraine. In July, we will host the Western Balkan Summit here in London welcoming prime ministers, foreign ministers and interior ministers from Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. Together with a number of European parliaments, we will focus on strengthening regional security cooperation, we will focus on increasing economic stability and we will focus too on enhancing political cooperation. So you can see that the UK is heavily engaged in efforts not only to push back against Russian aggression, but also to support democratic reform and economic development in Ukraine and its wider neighbourhood.

We support greater democracy and prosperity for their own sake, and also to strengthen the ability of countries to defend themselves against Russian encroachment and aggression. In doing so, we don’t claim to have all the answers ourselves, in fact we’re working hard to build our own capabilities by investing in defence and cyber protection. I’m also taking legislation through Parliament that will give us our own sanctions regime after we leave the EU including the ability to continue sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine.

So I can say that our relations with Ukraine will continue to be a key priority, because defending sovereignty and supporting reform in Ukraine will remain crucial to Europe’s broader security and prosperity. So I look forward to working together with Ukraine on this and as I do so, I’m confident I’ll have the support, and perhaps the benefit of the wisdom, of the British Ukrainian Society.

Thank you.


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