'Enemies are gathering around us,' warns UK Defence Secretary

Britain to send 20,000 personnel to one of largest Nato exercises since Cold War, to provide 'vital reassurance against the Putin menace'

British soldiers at the Kosovo-Serbia border. Some 16,000 UK troops, plus other personnel, will take part in Steadfast Defender. Reuters
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The UK is sending 20,000 personnel from the armed forces to one of Nato’s largest military exercises since the Cold War, as Defence Secretary Grant Shapps warned on Monday that “the enemies are gathering around us”.

Britain's pledge to deploy Army, Royal Navy and RAF members as part of the 31-nation Europe-wide drill was announced by Mr Shapps during a speech at Lancaster House in London.

He said the Steadfast Defender exercise will provide “vital reassurance against the Putin menace”, as the West stands at a “crossroads” in a more dangerous world, where Britain's adversaries are ever more connected.

“Today our adversaries are busy rebuilding their barriers,” he said.

“Old enemies are reanimated. New flows are taking shape, battle lines are being redrawn.

“The tanks are literally on Europe's Ukrainian lawn and the foundation of the world order are being shaken to their core.

“We stand at this crossroads. Whether to a surrender to a sea of troubles or do everything we can to deter.”

But in reality, it is “no choice at all”, he said.

“The enemies are gathering around us. We need to ensure we lead our allies in whatever conflicts to come. Defend our nation in whatever threats should arise. This is what Britain has always done,” added Mr Shapps.

The Nato war games come after ministers announced a further £2.5 billion ($3.2bn) support package for Ukraine, and RAF air strikes, along with the US, on the Houthis in Yemen.

In the speech, Mr Shapps set out his vision for how the UK will deter threats, as allies remain concerned about the threat posed by Mr Putin as the war in Ukraine approaches its second anniversary.

“Last week, in less than 24 hours, the United Kingdom was able to both take action to defend ourselves against the Houthis and uplift support to Ukraine to new record levels,” said the Defence Secretary.

“The result is that the Houthis have been dealt a blow.

“Our decisive response in the Red Sea and our uplift and support for Ukraine have a direct blueprint for how the UK must continue to lead in the future, offering our unwavering support to our allies and in times of struggle galvanising global response to any malign actors seeking to break the rules-based international order.

“And acting decisively when the moment calls for us to defend ourselves.”

Nato through the years – in pictures

Some 16,000 troops with tanks, artillery and helicopters will be deployed by the British Army across eastern Europe starting next month, as part of the exercise.

The Royal Navy will contribute more than 2,000 sailors across eight warships and submarines, while more than 400 Royal Marines Commandos will be sent to the Arctic Circle.

The RAF will send F-35B Lightning attack aircraft and Poseidon P-8 surveillance aircraft.

Defence sources said that the exercise would prepare for the invasion of a member state by any aggressor, with the main threats being considered to be from Russia and from terrorism.

The Labour Party opposition backed the commitment of UK forces to Nato, but said the Defence Secretary's speech was “little more than PR spin”.

“Grant Shapps is reheating old announcements from other people,” a party spokesman said.

“The PM confirmed 20,000 UK troops will exercise in Europe three months ago, while Nato released details of Steadfast Defender four months ago.”

Updated: January 15, 2024, 11:51 AM