West may need new bases to deter Putin – UK defence committee chief
Rory Stewart, chair of Commons defence watchdog, warns US and Europe to take fears of Russian military action seriously
The west may need to build military bases in eastern Europe to deter Russian president Vladimir Putin from invading a Baltic state, the new chairman of the House of Commons defence watchdog has said.
Rory Stewart, the Tory elected to lead the defence committee last week, said the west has proved poor at assessing risks and threats, so should take seriously the fears of Russia's neighbouring states that Putin may be training for further military action.
In a blogpost offering thoughts on Putin, he said the US and Europe should not overreact to the annexation of Crimea but ought to plan for "some testing scenarios".
Stewart, who has served in the army and diplomatic service, said the dominant view in Britain is that the threat from Putin is still minimal. But he highlighted the alternative viewpoint from eastern Europe that Putin is very dangerous, with his defence spending increasing by 50% as Nato's drops by 20%.
If this assessment proves true, Stewart said "we may need to consider pre-positioning supplies and building bases in eastern Europe, increasing surveillance, redeploying troops, and planning and training to deter Putin.
"Recent military exercises have suggested that Russia could mobilise up to 100,000 troops in 72 hours, and that they have already trained for invading the Baltic," he said . "Those states [Estonia and Latvia] argue that Putin only understands strength, that there is no point pretending any more that he is a potential partner, or worrying about irritating him. And that Putin may be tempted to destabilise or even invade a Baltic state."
He warned that Nato would be "fatally weakened" if this happened and the west was unable to respond.
Stewart said the UK's poor track record in predicting threats such as the Arab spring and how military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan would turn out partly "reflect the hollowing out of our strategic institutions".
Too many Foreign Office officials were tied to their desks rather than spending a significant time focused on the politics of other cultures, he said.
"We have got away with this for the last 20 years, when the major issues seemed to be economics, and terrorism. But Crimea reminds us that we could face much more direct threats to the European alliance. This does not mean we should overreact to Putin. But it does mean we have to understand what he is doing, and is likely to do, and plan for some testing scenarios."
Stewart's warning comes after James Arbuthnot, the outgoing defence committee chairman who served under six secretaries of state, warned that UK defence cuts have emboldened countries such as Russia.
"They are now smaller, very powerful still, but smaller armed forces than they have been for many decades and that will inevitably reduce our influence in the world," he said last month. "It will leave us open to the sort of bullying power that Putin feels free to exercise in Ukraine."
Prince Charles also caused controversy by suggesting last week during a tour of Canada that Putin was acting like Hitler by annexing Crimea.
Downing Street's response to Russia's actions in the region has been to condemn the decision to take Crimea but emphasise the need to calm the situation in Eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are at the centre of violent protests.