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Speech on “Ukraine: Tactical Nuclear Weapons”

Summary:
My Lords, I am grateful, as we all are, to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate and for drawing attention to the real danger of nuclear escalation. I am in profound disagreement with the Government’s policy on Ukraine—I have said it before in this House and I shall say it again. This disagreement can be stated in one sentence: the Government’s policy is a war policy; I support a peace policy. I shall try to justify that. The then Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, stated on 27 April: “We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.” This policy has been repeatedly restated by government spokesmen. It is supported by the Opposition and echoed by the media. In calling for peace, I may be an isolated voice

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My Lords, I am grateful, as we all are, to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, for initiating this debate and for drawing attention to the real danger of nuclear escalation.

I am in profound disagreement with the Government’s policy on Ukraine—I have said it before in this House and I shall say it again. This disagreement can be stated in one sentence: the Government’s policy is a war policy; I support a peace policy. I shall try to justify that.

The then Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, stated on 27 April:

“We will keep going further and faster to push Russia out of the whole of Ukraine.”

This policy has been repeatedly restated by government spokesmen. It is supported by the Opposition and echoed by the media.

In calling for peace, I may be an isolated voice in Britain, but not in the world. Everyone outside the NATO world is calling for negotiations and some within it—I draw attention to President Macron in particular. Let me try to be logical. The Government’s policy makes sense on one assumption: that Ukraine, with NATO military support and economic sanctions on Russia, will soon complete the reconquest of Ukraine, including Crimea. In this case, there will be nothing to negotiate; the deed will have been done—it will have been accomplished.

I am not privy to secret military intelligence, but such evidence as I have, plus a dose of common sense, suggests that neither Russia nor Ukraine can achieve their war aims at the present level of hostilities, so the pursuit of victory is bound to bring escalation on both sides. Russia will intensify its air war, and NATO will provide Ukraine with more weapons to shoot down Russian aircraft. At what point such escalation leads to the accidental or deliberate deployment of tactical nuclear weapons is anyone’s guess, but the danger must be there, as the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, pointed out. That is why the war should be ended as soon as possible, and that can be done only by negotiations based on a ceasefire.

I utterly reject the premise underlying the Government’s policy that it is up to Ukraine to decide if and when it wants to end the war. President Zelensky’s policy is to get his “land back entirely”. Of course, it is up to Ukraine to decide what to do, but we cannot give Ukraine carte blanche to determine its war policy when we are in fact providing it with the weaponry to continue the war at considerable sacrifice to our own people. The decisions for peace and war, and on what terms to end the war, must be taken by Ukraine and NATO jointly.

I have reached one conclusion which is more compatible with government thinking: that no meaningful negotiations are possible as long as President Putin remains in office and, more importantly, in power. It is not only that his personal prestige is too heavily implicated in an impossible object but that his attempt to achieve it is leading his country to disaster. His invasion of Ukraine has galvanised Ukrainian nationalism, expanded NATO, shifted the balance of power in Europe to its most anti-Russian eastern states, exposed hitherto hidden Russian military and technical weaknesses, subjected Russia to the most sweeping economic sanctions ever imposed, and provoked the emigration of many of the most talented Russian scientists, technicians, thinkers and artists. In sum, he has erected a new monument to imperfect and incompetent statesmanship.

Any settlement of the war which can inspire confidence in the future will require Mr Putin’s departure from the scene. I do not know how this is to come about; it is beyond our control. However, we can offer an incentive: our Government can say that they would be willing to join our partners in serious negotiations to end the war with a new Russian Government. This negotiation would include the future status of Crimea and the dropping of sanctions. It would encourage forces within the Russian state to implement a change of government. This is a tough but constructive policy that I would understand and support; I do not understand the present policy in intellectual terms. It might not succeed, but it is infinitely better than the dangerous bellicosity we seem to be trapped in.

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Robert Skidelsky
Keynesian economist, crossbench peer in the House of Lords, author of Keynes: the Return of the Master and co-author of How Much Is Enough?

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