Alicia Kearns is the MP for Rutland and Melton.
Last week, I had the humbling privilege of hosting a delegation of Ukrainian MPs. They call themselves the Women’s Diplomatic Battalion of Ukraine: Lesia Vasylenko, Alona Shkrum, Maria Mezentseva, and Olena Khomenko. It is currently treason for a Ukrainian MP to leave their country, but the four had secured special presidential dispensations to visit the UK to secure further support from their foremost bilateral ally.
At the time of writing, it is Day 23 of Putin’s invasion – an invasion that has followed almost exactly the intelligence assessments I received in Kyiv in January: Putin would invade within the month, he would seek to decapitate the country by occupying Kyiv and that, contrary to his assessments, the Ukrainian people would fight like lions.
It was also foreseen then that there would be an enormous capability and speed gap between Putin’s understanding of his armed forces and the reality. This has all played out, with our Ukrainian allies pulverising Russian troops thanks to British NLAWs (Next Generation Anti-tank weapons), American Javelins and Turkish Bayraktar drones provided in anticipation of invasion.
The Russian setbacks are extraordinary. There are rumours that ultra-loyalist “Zagradotryady” had to be formed – barrier units to shoot Russian soldiers who retreat or desert. But these losses have unleashed a new level of barbarity; in which Putin’s forces indiscriminately bomb civilians in an attempt to break Ukraine’s resolve.
This week, an emergency NATO Summit is being held, and the UK’s voice is pivotal. We must redouble our efforts around Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, surge support for the humanitarian catastrophe and bolster deterrence against chemical weapons’ use, as well as launching deterrence diplomacy to prevent Putin’s aggression from turning to the Western Balkans.
On defensive capabilities, the UK is walking a line whereby we cannot be accused by Putin of escalating the conflict, and culpability for any escalation is on him. There has been much discussion about a no-fly zone and, whilst all options must remain on the table, these are proving a distraction from the meaningful efforts of the UK to establish a de-facto no-fly zone through the use of surface-to-air weapons.
Through this means, Putin’s forces have already been unable to establish air dominance and are barely able to fly in the daytime. We must entirely deny them the air, and the deployment of new StarStreak missiles announced by Ben Wallace will further support this aim.
It is artillery causing a great deal of the damage we’re seeing, and at the NATO summit our allies must step forward with anti-artillery weapons. In this respect we have been world-leading, but our counterparts are not pulling their weight. Just one-fifth of Germany’s promised (if very late) defensive weapons have arrived. Ukraine fights for our shared freedoms, and if our allies fail Ukraine now, they fail us all.
On the humanitarian side, just one word is needed to understand the depravity of Putin: Mariupol. Once a coastal hub for heavy industry and education, Ukraine’s besieged city has become a byword for the barbarity of his campaign.
Ninety per cent of its buildings are damaged or destroyed, and its population of just under half a million has been without food or water for days. Civilians are forced to drink sewer water and, last Wednesday, the city theatre – where women and children were sheltering – was destroyed by Russian air strikes. Satellite photos show that before it was hit, the Russian word for children, “DETI” had been spelled out in large letters by the building in the hope Russian pilots would find a conscience. Mariupol is Ukraine’s Aleppo.
However, there’s one enormous difference: aid agencies just aren’t on the ground working to preserve life and protect the vulnerable. The Government has just pledged another £80 million of aid, and the generosity and goodwill of British public is likely also in the millions.
But while we are giving, Ukraine is having difficulty receiving, as international agencies squabble over mandates and appallingly, the idea that Russian permission is needed to be on the ground. These same agencies were working on the ground in Syria, Libya and Afghanistan – why have they abandoned Mariupol? We must lead calls for international humanitarian bodies to step in to save lives; it is not enough to be in Lviv alone.
There is an equally dark element of this conflict that has been largely absent from reporting: rape and sexual violence. Survivors of sexual violence are too often silenced by the shame that is wrongly inflicted upon them. In Ukraine, women are being raped, and that almost certainly means that men and children are as well. There are reports of women over 60, those unable to get out, being raped and then hung or committing suicide. The International Criminal Court prosecutes crimes against humanity, including rape. The UK should lead efforts to expose and document these war crimes and support survivors.
As Putin grows more desperate, his use of thermobaric bombs and cluster munitions becomes more extensive, and we face the threat of chemical weapons use. We and our allies must determine now the repercussions Putin would face: we have a legal duty to intervene if chemical weapons are used, and that is a duty we must not fail.
Much has been made of the threat of Putin pressing his big red button, but this belies a much more likely reality. Ukraine has fifteen nuclear reactors, several of which are now controlled by invading Russian forces. Destroying a nuclear reactor is very difficult, but damaging a nuclear waste facility is frighteningly feasible, and any such incident would disperse radioactive particulates across Europe, reaching the UK, as they did following the Chernobyl disaster.
NATO and all freedom-loving nations must be resolute in telling Putin now, that any nuclear incident in Ukraine – no matter how extensive the false flags – will be met with the swiftest and harshest repercussions.
Whilst we rightly focus on Ukraine, we must not forget Putin’s wider ambitions and the potential of a second front in the Western Balkans.
Earlier this week, Russia’s Ambassador to Bosnia & Herzegovina threatened the country with the “same” as Ukraine. There is a fragile peace, one already under attack from Putin’s stooges such as the secessionist leader, Milorad Dodik.
Now is the time for NATO to prove that deterrence diplomacy can work, and prevent bloodshed on two fronts. Certain European countries disregarded the UK and US’s intelligence assessments on an invasion of Ukraine. At the NATO Summit we must ensure the same complacency and arrogance does not enable bloodshed in Bosnia.
It was a difficult goodbye last week. These courageous women travelled back to Ukraine knowing that Putin has put all Ukrainian MPs on one of two lists: a kill list, and those to be taken to Moscow.
One sentence our Ukrainian counterparts used repeatedly haunts me: “You will have no choice but to intervene, but this decision is being measured not in hours or days, but by the numbers of Ukrainians killed.” These brave MPs made their mark in Parliament this week, and did their country proud. When the war is over, and Ukraine has won, we’ll all meet again in Kyiv; but for now we must use this NATO summit to do all we can to hasten Putin’s defeat.