Britain and other Nato allies are considering a request from the US to deploy hundreds more troops to support member countries in eastern Europe in advance of any Russian invasion or attack on Ukraine.
UK defence sources indicated that the US wanted contributions to help reinforce Nato’s eastern flank, from the Baltic states to Romania and Bulgaria in the south, as the Ukraine crisis continues.
Any extra British troop deployment would probably involve a few hundred personnel in the Baltic region. The UK already leads a Nato battlegroup in Estonia with 900 personnel, and it has 150 based in Poland under a US command.
It is one of a number of options being considered by the UK in a rapidly evolving response to the Russian buildup of forces on the borders of Ukraine. Analysts estimate that as many 125,000 troops have now massed near the country’s borders.
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said on Wednesday that the UK was considering how it could contribute to increased deterrence across land, sea, air and cyberspace, as he visited Nato’s headquarters in Brussels. “The US has asked us, and we are considering it,” a defence source said.
A day earlier, Boris Johnson told MPs: “If Russia invades Ukraine, we would look to contribute to any new Nato deployments to protect our allies in Europe.” But the latest discussions go further.
Earlier this week the US put 8,500 troops on heightened alert for deployment to Europe if Russia invades Ukraine, while France indicated it was willing to move soldiers to Romania under Nato command.
Wallace was engaged in a series of visits in Europe, visiting his Dutch and German counterparts as well as Nato. A key focus, he said, was to press Berlin, where me met his counterpart, Christine Lambrecht, to support tougher sanctions on Russia if it were to attack.
“What we want from Germany, as the biggest economy in Europe, is a stronger signal on sanctions,” the defence minister said to journalists travelling with him, reflecting UK concerns that Berlin is worried about the impact of Russia cutting off the export of gas to Europe in retaliation.
On Tuesday Johnson told MPs that Britain had to “encourage our friends” – a veiled reference to Germany – to sign up to “a tough package of economic sanctions” despite the fact that they had a “heavy dependence … on Russian gas”.
On Tuesday night it emerged that the US was making plans to find alternative supplies of gas for Europe if the flow from Russia is cut. Germany depends on Russian gas for about a third of its supply; the UK about 3%, according to Johnson.
Wallace pressed for Berlin to halt the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany in the event of a Russian attack. The UK minister said that the pipeline represented a “genuine piece of leverage” although the German government is split on the issue.
Divisions between the UK and Germany over the response to Russia have surfaced over a number of fronts, with Berlin declining to supply arms to Ukraine and blocking the re-export of German-made artillery from Estonia, while the UK has supplied about 2,000 short-range NLAW anti-tank weapons.
But the British minister sought to smooth over the differences. “Obviously the UK has taken a view that lethal aid of a tactical defensive nature is something that the Ukrainians need. But we’re not sitting in judgment over other countries.”