The chief of the general staff, Gen Sir Nicholas Carter, has described Russia as the biggest state-based threat to the UK since the cold war and warned that hostilities could begin a lot sooner than the UK expects.
Carter’s speech on Monday evening at the Royal United Services Institute was the most pointed and expansive portrayal yet of Russia as a hostile state intent on undermining the US-led Nato alliance.
In one of the most hawkish speeches from a senior UK military chief in recent years, Carter said conflict with Russia could begin in an unpredictable way.
He devoted almost all of his 40-minute speech to the threat he said was posed by Russia. To ram home the point, he included a three-minute Russian video that set out its strength in planes, submarines and other hardware.
He described Russia as presenting “the most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the cold war”. The deduction the UK and the west should draw from watching Russia’s moves in the last few years, he said, is that there are no longer distinct states of peace and war, but a series of stages in between.
“The risk we run in not defining this clearly, and acting accordingly, is that rather like a chronic contagious disease it will creep up on us, and our ability to act will be markedly constrained – and we’ll be the losers of this competition.”
Although the UK is gradually withdrawing troops from Germany, Carter said he was considering retaining a forward base so that forces could make a quick return if necessary. The base would have tanks, fuel and other materiel prepositioned to help speedy redeployment, he said.
Carter may be hyping up the threat from Russia in a bid to deter it from launching a major cyber-attack on the UK or any action against Nato in the Baltic states, where UK forces are deployed. He may also be aiming to try to persuade the Treasury to increase the Ministry of Defence budget at the end of a scheduled strategic defence review.
He compared the position today, when Russia believes that the west may gain technological superiority in the next decade, to 1912, when the Russian imperial cabinet assessed “it would be better to fight now, because by 1925 Russia would be too weak in comparison to a modernised Germany – and Japan drew similar conclusions in 1941 against the US”.
He said the greatest risk was from miscalculation, as witnessed in the recent false alarm of a missile attack on Hawaii, noting that this was vividly illustrated in 2014 by the downing of a civilian flight over Ukraine.
“Russia could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect, and a lot earlier than we would in similar circumstances,” he said. “Most likely they will use nefarious sub-article 5 actions to erode the credibility of Nato and threaten the very structure that provides our own defence and security – this is the divide and rule which the international order is designed to prevent.
“It won’t start with little green men – it will start with something we don’t expect. We should not take what we’ve seen so far as a template for the future.” The “green men” were Russian regular troops disguised as insurgents in the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Carter said weapons in this new warfare would no longer have to involve “something that goes bang” but could involve the exploitation of energy, bribery, corrupt business practices, cyber-attacks, assassinations, fake news, propaganda and military intimidation.
He listed a series of Russian increases in military capability, including an 12-fold increase in its long-range missiles. “This is not a crisis, or series of crises, which we face. It is a strategic challenge. And it requires a strategic response.”
Asked by Lord West, the former first sea lord, who would pay for new upgrades and new capabilities, Carter said it was up to the government to decide on priorities and he would make the best of whatever funds were available, though he would continue to argue for more money.
The video Sir Nick Carter showed at his speech.
Meanwhile, the former defence secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, used his first speech since resigning in November to add to calls for increased defence spending, citing what he called growing threats from Russia and cyber-attacks.
Fallon, who had to resign after admitting his behaviour had fallen short in past dealings with women, said: “We have all the evidence we need of Putin’s intent to subvert western democracies, from the Netherlands to Montenegro, from Germany to even the United States.”
The cyber threat, too, is intensifying at an unparalleled rate, he said. “Through cyber, our enemies can target us anywhere on the planet: not only stealing our information, but exploiting us, coercing us, disrupting our energy supplies, our armaments, even our governments. Almost anybody can become a cyber-warrior: a laptop and some smart software can inflict enormous financial and physical damage on individuals and entire countries.”
He called for the defence budget to be increased to 2.5% of GDP, an extra £7.7bn a year.