resh measures to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion are likely to be introduced, the Defence Secretary has hinted, as the UK Government came under pressure to act.
Ben Wallace said on Monday that the move to allow immediate family members to join Ukrainians settled in the UK is only a “first step” as Vladimir Putin’s assault continued.
Mr Wallace dismissed the Russian president putting his nuclear forces on heightened alert as being a part of the Kremlin’s “battle of rhetoric” rather than a real threat.
With Western sanctions biting, the Russian central bank was forced to sharply raise its key interest rate to save the rouble from collapse as the war worsened the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.
The UK Government announced the relaxation of visa rules for immediate family members of Ukrainians settled in the UK after coming under intense criticism over the weekend.
But Labour called for ministers to immediately extend the opportunity to wider relatives before setting out a “broader sanctuary route” to help other Ukrainians.
Mr Wallace said he does not doubt the UK will go further to match the “very generous” schemes that have helped in other conflicts.
“I think what I would say is, you know, our track record so far, both with Afghans and (the) Arap (Afghan Relocations and Assistance Policy) scheme, and indeed with the Hong Kong nationals who were suffering persecution, has been actually very generous,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“So there’s no reason to doubt we won’t continue on that path.”
He said it is not yet clear whether the European Union’s approach will be to support refugees on the border, with the hope they will be able to return to Ukraine soon.
But he added that the UK response will be discussed by senior ministers on Monday.
Home Secretary Priti Patel is understood to be preparing to address further measures to support refugees when she takes questions in the Commons on Monday afternoon.
Tom Tugendhat, the senior Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, also anticipated further measures for refugees as being “likely”.
“I’ve been speaking to ministers this morning and I can tell you there are many who are hopeful that this will be something that’s reviewed in the coming days,” he told Today.
Asked about the EU scheme to grant asylum to Ukrainian refugees for up to three years, Mr Tugendhat said: “I suspect that’s likely to be where we end up, to be honest.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said it is “shameful” for the Government to “refuse to even help other relatives in a terrible European war like this”.
Mr Putin cited “aggressive statements” from the Nato defence alliance and the financial sanctions imposed in response to his invasion in issuing orders to increase the readiness of Russia’s nuclear weapons.
The Treasury is targeting Russia’s central bank with sanctions in a response co-ordinated with the US and European allies.
Chancellor Rishi Sunak said the move shows the “steadfast resolve in imposing the highest costs on Russia and to cut her off from the international financial system so long as this conflict persists”.
Mr Wallace said his 12-year-old son called him, worried about Moscow’s nuclear alert, but the Cabinet minister played down the shift’s significance as not being a change to the current “nuclear posture”.
“We will not do anything to escalate in that area, we will not do anything to feed any miscalculation, we take it very, very seriously,” he told Today.
“But at the moment this is a battle of rhetoric that President Putin is deploying, and we just have to make sure we manage it properly.”
He warned that the Russian offensive in Ukraine is likely to become “more violent”, as troops close in around the capital, Kyiv.
Despite the continued assault, Ukraine has agreed to talks with Moscow and is sending a delegation to the border with Belarus for the meeting.
A rare emergency meeting of the United Nations General Assembly will discuss the crisis in Ukraine on Monday.
In other developments:
– Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said 16 children have been killed and another 45 injured during the Russian invasion, adding “every crime, every shelling by the occupiers bring our partners and us even closer”.
– Average UK petrol prices exceeded £1.51 for the first time after the Russian invasion led to oil prices hitting an eight-year high over concerns about the reliability of supplies.
– The European Union said it will supply arms to Ukraine while imposing a fresh round of sanctions banning Russian aircraft from EU airspace and barring the Kremlin-backed media, RT and Sputnik.
– BP shares dropped sharply after the company announced it is selling its £10 billion stake in oil producer Rosneft, which it co-owns with the Kremlin, after pressure from the Government.
During a call on Saturday, Boris Johnson told Mr Zelensky that Britain will do all it can to get more arms to his military.
Mr Zelensky warned the Prime Minister that the next 24 hours will be a “crucial period” for Ukraine as his army puts up a fierce resistance against invading forces.
The sanctions imposed by Britain and allies appear to be having an impact, with the rouble having sunk by nearly 26% against the US dollar by Monday morning.
Mr Johnson said on Sunday that ministers “want to be as generous as we possibly can” in helping Ukrainian refugees, adding “certainly we want people who have relatives in Ukraine to be able to bring them over as fast as possible”.