Armed Forces minister James Heappey has warned serving British soldiers and veterans who think they can “do a couple of weeks” in Ukraine and “take some selfies” not to travel to fight against Russian aggression.
Mr Heappey told Sky News the government position is that if you are a serving member of the armed forces and choose to join the conflict in Ukraine, you are considered to be breaking the law.
The defence minister told Kay Burley that any serving army personnel who choose to go to Ukraine “will be in a lot of trouble”.
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“This is not the time for people to be going there, and the Ukrainians have made clear, once you cross the border with the expectation to fight, you’re in it for good,” he told Sky News.
“So people who think they can go there, do a couple of weeks, take some selfies, get some Instagram shots and come home, that is not the way the Ukrainians are viewing the people that go and fight for them. British people should not be doing it.”
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He continued: “To be clear, the Army has put out a statement overnight to say this. It is illegal for British service personnel to first of all go absent without leave in the first place, but to go absent without leave in order to fight in a foreign war is simply unacceptable, and frankly risks the United Kingdom being wrongly claimed by Russia to be a belligerent in this.
“Service people who might think they are doing the right thing should reflect it is 100% not the correct thing to be doing.”
‘No good’ comes from British troops travelling to Ukraine
Mr Heappey said that he understood, as a former Army officer himself, that “there’s a thing deep inside you as a soldier that makes you see TV images and makes you want to fight”, adding: “But no good comes from British service people or veterans going to Ukraine to be a part of this.”
Read more: Briton who volunteered to fight against Russia turned down and told he would be ‘a liability’
The defence minister’s remarks seemingly row back on comments from Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, who last week said she would “absolutely” support volunteers who wished to travel to Ukraine to fight.
It comes after the Army yesterday confirmed a number of British soldiers have gone AWOL and may have travelled to Ukraine.
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Army ‘strongly encouraging’ soldiers to return
A spokesperson told Sky News: “We are aware of a small number of individual soldiers who have disobeyed orders and gone absent without leave, and may have travelled to Ukraine in a personal capacity.
“We are actively and strongly encouraging them to return to the UK.
“All Service Personnel are prohibited from travelling to Ukraine until further notice.
“This applies whether the Service Person is on leave or not. Personnel travelling to Ukraine will face disciplinary and administrative consequences.”
Minister: Strike on hospital in Mariupol ‘a war crime’
Mr Heappey also told Sky News that the UK is treating the Russian attack on a maternity hospital in Mariupol as a war crime.
He said: “Yes absolutely. There – it is – what you see on you TV screens is a war crime.
“Now clearly there is evidence to be gathered in which to prove that it is a war crime and western countries are working together to make sure that evidence is gathered in the best way so that people can be held to account.
“Let’s be clear what Putin is doing is not a war waged between two militaries, right now he has besieged a number of Ukrainian cities. He’s waged a war against Ukrainian civilians.”
Later, Ms Truss added that the UK “absolutely” believes war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.
Children buried under rubble
Yesterday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said children had been buried under rubble after a Russian airstrike hit a hospital in Mariupol.
The president tweeted that children were among people “under the wreckage”, calling the strike an “atrocity”.
He added that 17 people were injured in the attack.
Meanwhile, Mr Heappey said Home Secretary Priti Patel is considering changing the visa processes and the checks required for Ukrainian refugees to come to the UK.
Possible changes to visa processes
Sky News understands Ms Patel could make a statement in the Commons today to announce any changes.
“There’s effectively two sides to what can be done to bring refugees here more quickly,” Mr Heappey told Sky News.
“There’s a policy choice around the checks that we go through, but equally you can increase the capacity of the pipeline to process more people more quickly.
“We’ll supply as many people as they need in order to be able to get the highest number of people processed in the quickest time possible and then the Home Secretary has got some choices, which I know she’s considering, around how to further change the visa process and what checks might be necessary within it.”
Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees trying to get to the UK have turned up at Calais over the past few days but most have been told to go to Paris or Brussels.
It then emerged on Tuesday evening another centre would be based in Lille, more than 70 miles away from Calais.
Sky News understands over 1000 visas have now been allocated.