Will Britain have to fight Russia?

New chief, Gen Sir Patrick Sanders, says British Army must be capable of winning wars on land

British troops take part in a Nato exercise
British troops take part in a Nato exercise on the Estonian-Latvian border in May
(Image credit: Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)

Britain must prepare “to fight in Europe once again”, the new head of the Army has warned.

General Sir Patrick Sanders, who took over as chief of the general staff last week, “issued a rallying cry to troops – telling them they need to be ready to face Russia on the battlefield”, said the BBC.

In an internal message, seen by the broadcaster, Sanders said the Ukraine war showed the need to “protect the UK and be ready to fight and win wars on land”. There is a “burning imperative to forge an Army capable of fighting alongside our allies and defeating Russia in battle”, he added.

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Slashing troops

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February and the continued conflict has “changed the outlook and context for the Army, which faces cuts to the workforce in the coming years”, said the BBC.

The invasion “sparked a major push for increased defence spending” in the UK after last year’s Integrated Review “slashed troop numbers by 10,000, bringing the Army to the smallest size in its history, at 72,500”, said The Telegraph.

The Daily Express said there were now “serious questions” about how Britain would “actually fare in warfare”, as the country, “along with the US, France and other Western powers, has, over time, whittled down its defensive and, of course, attacking capabilities”.

The paper pointed to comments from Alex Vershinin, a retired US lieutenant colonel and war-gaming expert, who has warned that the West also lacks the necessary manufacturing capacity to produce the ammunition required for a conflict with Russia. “The winner in a prolonged war between two near-peer powers is still based on which side has the strongest industrial base,” he wrote in a commentary for the Royal United Services Institute last week.

Vershinin noted that in a “recent war game involving US, UK and French forces, UK forces exhausted national stockpiles of critical ammunition after eight days”.

Steeling for a long war

In The Sunday Times yesterday, Boris Johnson said that “we need to steel ourselves for a long war” in Ukraine. The West must ensure Kyiv has enough equipment, funding and training so Ukrainians can defend their country, he said. “In so doing, we and our allies will be protecting our own security as much as Ukraine’s.”

It comes after Johnson paid a second “surprise visit” to Kyiv at the end of last week “in another strong show of support for Ukraine”, said Politico. The UK prime minister and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have become “firm” allies since the invasion, said the site.

Although the UK government has been clear that it will not be involved directly in the conflict, it has provided a range of economic, humanitarian and defensive military assistance. On Friday, Johnson extended the offer of an expanded training programme, in which British instructors plan to work with Ukrainian forces “with the potential to train up to 10,000 soldiers every 120 days”.

The risk of escalation

Nato, of which the UK is a founding member, has echoed Johnson’s sentiment about a long war ahead. In an interview with German newspaper Bild, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said: “We must prepare for the fact that it could take years. We must not let up in supporting Ukraine.”

But defence planners across Nato are also “reassessing Moscow’s military might in their contingency plans in the unlikely event of a conventional war between the alliance and Russia”, said Foreign Policy, citing multiple current and former defence officials.

Describing relations between Nato and Russia as the “most precarious” in the post-Cold War era, the magazine said some analysts “feel it is time to start drawing preliminary conclusions for what a Nato-Russia conflict might look like, in the event that the Ukraine conflict spills into alliance territory”.

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior US intelligence official now with the Center for a New American Security think tank, said this was “prudent” as the “risk of escalation still remains”.

Indeed, Gen Sanders told British troops he is the first chief of the general staff since 1941 to take command of the Army “in the shadow of a land war in Europe involving a continental power”. He said: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine underlines our core purpose to protect the UK by being ready to fight and win wars on land.”

One defence source told the BBC that the tone of Sanders’ message was “unsurprising”, and that while all armies train to fight, the threat has clearly changed.

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