British Army chief: Ukraine is our ‘1937 moment’

·6 min read
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, visits British and French troops in Estonia - Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph
General Sir Patrick Sanders, the Chief of the General Staff, visits British and French troops in Estonia - Eddie Mulholland for The Telegraph

Britain is facing its “1937 moment” and must be ready to “fight and win” to ward off the threat from Russia, the head of the British Army will say on Tuesday.

In his first public speech as the Chief of the General Staff, General Sir Patrick Sanders will warn that the UK must be prepared to “act rapidly” to contain Russian expansionism.

Sir Patrick’s comparison of Russia’s invasion to the rise of Nazi Germany came as a missile strike on a crowded shopping centre in the central Ukrainian city of Kremenchuk on Monday killed at least 16 civilians and wounded dozens more.

Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, said there were around 1,000 civilians inside the building, describing the strike as “one of the most daring terrorist attacks in European history”.

The leaders of the G7 on Monday night called the attack “abominable” as they vowed to hold Vladimir Putin accountable for the war crime.

In a joint statement, they said: “We, the leaders of the G7, solemnly condemn the abominable attack on a shopping mall in Kremenchuk.

“Indiscriminate attacks on innocent civilians constitute a war crime. Russian president Putin and those responsible will be held to account.”

Boris Johnson said the attack demonstrated the “depths of cruelty and barbarism” of Putin.

Images from the scene showed giant plumes of black smoke, dust and orange flames, with emergency crews rushing in to search for victims and put out fires. Casualty figures were difficult to determine as rescuers searched the rubble.

On Monday night, Nato pledged to increase forces available on high alert to more than 300,000 troops – a more than sevenfold rise.

In his speech on Tuesday, Gen Sanders will say deterring Russia means having “more of the Army ready more of the time”, from “the general … to the young lance corporal in the barrack room, from the reservist on a weekend exercise to the civil servant in Army headquarters”.

His comments are likely to put pressure on Boris Johnson to maintain the size of Britain’s Armed Forces after plans were announced to reduce numbers in a move to a more modern military.

“This is our 1937 moment,” Sir Patrick will say. “We are not at war, but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”

In a separate speech on Tuesday, Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, will call for increased investment in defence.

Under current plans, the Army will decrease from its current target manpower of 82,000 troops to 72,500 by 2025. Its main battle tanks will also be cut from 227 to 148, although the remaining vehicles will be upgraded.

Lord Dannatt, the former head of the Army, told Parliament on Monday that the military faced an “untenable” situation after cutbacks to tanks and troops.

He said the Army’s capability was “well below what it should be for a nation of our standing”, adding that while the UK fielded four armoured divisions in Germany during the Cold War, “we cannot field a single armoured division at the present time and there is a land war going on in Europe at the present moment”.

Soon after Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr Wallace wrote to Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor, warning that Britain risked missing its target of two per cent of GDP by 2025 if it did not increase military spending.

He said the cost of arming Ukraine, coupled with inflation, meant the UK faced a real-terms cut in security spending. On Tuesday, he is expected to emphasise that “governments must be prepared to invest to keep us safe”.

On Monday night, a defence source said both the Prime Minister and Mr Wallace agreed that “the Government will respond to any changes in threat, which is why in 2020 the Ministry of Defence received a record defence settlement”.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato secretary general, on Monday announced the most significant overhaul of the alliance’s defence strategy since the Cold War.  He said the alliance would ramp up its defence forces and move to fortify borders against any Russian attack.

Speaking ahead of the Nato leadership summit, he said: “We will transform the Nato response force and increase the number of our high readiness forces to well over 300,000.

“Russia has walked away from the partnership and the dialogue that Nato has tried to establish with Russia for many years. They have chosen confrontation instead of dialogue. We regret that – but of course, then we need to respond to that reality.”

Nato will increase its combat-ready, rapid response forces of 40,000 troops, in which governments have largely lost confidence, more than seven-fold.

The alliance will pledge to abandon its “tripwire” defence strategy after a warning from the Baltic States that they would be “wiped off the map” in the event of a Russian invasion.

Mr Wallace recently told Nato allies the “tripwire doctrine was not really up to what we have seen happen in Ukraine” and said: “The first fight is the most important.”

Mr Johnson is expected to announce “significant reinforcement” for Estonia, potentially more than doubling the number of British troops available to the Baltic state.

Mr Stoltenberg also confirmed that Nato units deployed across eight eastern and south-eastern alliance members would be strengthened to brigades, normally comprising around 3,000 to 5,000 troops.

Nato officials on Monday said the transition to the new model would not be completed until next year, with details still being hammered out.

The defining Nato summit comes as diplomatic tensions simmer over freight shipments to Kaliningrad. Lithuania received threats from Moscow for stopping Russia using railways to transport coal, metals and other sanctioned goods to the military exclave.

Mr Stoltenberg said: “I’m confident that Moscow, President Putin, understands our collective security guarantees, understands the consequence of attacking a Nato allied country. It will trigger a response from the whole alliance.”

Nato will also change its outlook on Russia from the current description of Moscow as a strategic partner. Russia would be designated as the “most direct and immediate threat to our security”, Mr Stoltenberg said of the language to be adopted as part of the “Strategic Concept” – Nato’s plan for the next decade.

The secretary general poured cold water on hopes of Sweden and Finland being admitted to the alliance at the summit. He said he would host talks between Turkey and the Nordic nations in Madrid, but warned against an immediate breakthrough on Ankara’s opposition to them joining.

Nato will also announce plans to run training missions to bring Ukraine’s armed forces to the alliance’s standard.

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