The warning came as the Prime Minister flew to Madrid for a crucial meeting of Nato leaders, which is expected to agree a fundamental shift in the alliance’s security strategy following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg yesterday announced plans to increase the size of the alliance’s rapid reaction force from 40,000 troops to 300,000 to bolster Europe’s eastern flank against Russia.
But General Sir Richard Shirreff, Nato’s former deputy supreme allied commander Europe, said it was a “long way” from being ready to engage in any direct conflict with Russia.
Sir Richard told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “We cannot begin to think about fighting this war until we are ready for war. Nato has come a long way and there is a long way to go before Nato is ready to engage in any form of operations against Russia.”
Referring to the plan to increase the rapid reaction force, he added: “This is a massive strategic shift by Nato. I think finally the penny is beginning to drop. The mindset of alliance members needs to change. This is a massive shift, on the face of it.
“But there are profound implications for every Nato member in terms of building up the armed forces in order to achieve that readiness… there are really, really big jobs to be done there to ensure Nato forces can sustain that level of readiness.”
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace was expected to use a speech to the think-tank, the Royal United Services Institute, to call for a big increase in UK defence spending from two per cent of GDP to 2.5 per cent.
The new head of the UK’s army, General Sir Patrick Sanders, speaking at the same event, said the invasion of Ukraine was “our 1937 moment”, referring to the build up to the Second World War, and also called for Britain’s military to be ready to fight.
General Sanders said: “In all my years in uniform, I haven’t known such a clear threat to the principles of sovereignty and democracy, and the freedom to live without fear of violence, as the brutal aggression of President Putin and his expansionist ambitions.
“This is our 1937 moment. We are not at war — but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion. I will do everything in my power to ensure that the British Army plays its part in averting war.”
While Mr Johnson has made it a priority to support Ukraine, military chiefs want to see a reversal of plans to cut the size of the Army, announced as part of last year’s integrated defence review. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Commons defence committee, said Britain should increase spending to three per cent.