The British Army must act rapidly to prevent any further military action by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia beyond the borders of Ukraine, the force’s new head said on Tuesday, adding that Britain must be ready to defend NATO territory if necessary.
“This is our 1937 moment,” the military leader, Gen. Patrick Sanders, said, making reference to Western Europe’s failure to confront Nazi Germany’s territorial expansion in the years preceding World War II. “We are not at war, but we must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion.”
The British army chief’s comments, part of his first speech since taking up his post, came as Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain prepared to meet Western leaders at a NATO summit in Madrid, where they are expected to agree on the alliance’s biggest overhaul since the end of the Cold War.
Later, Ben Wallace, the British defense secretary, urged more investment in defense, describing Russia as the “most direct and pressing threat to Europe to our allies and to these shores.” He added: “I am serious when I say that there is a very real danger that Russia will lash out against wider Europe.”
Mr. Wallace said that he had “always said that as the threat changed so must the funding,” and that it was time to signal that the peace dividend that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and end of the Cold War was over.
Investment in defense “needs to continue to grow before it is too late to address the resurgent threat,” he told a conference organized by the Royal United Services Institute, a London-based defense think tank.
However, he did not call publicly for any specific increase in funding as some had expected. In fact, Mr. Johnson is expected to set aside a promise he made in his 2019 general election manifesto to keep military spending above inflation — a pledge that would now be extremely expensive if fulfilled because of a sharp rise in prices.
General Sanders said that Britain would lead by example to confront the threat posed by Russia and that his own army was mobilizing to prevent, rather than provoke, war.
“Russia will be an even greater threat to European security after Ukraine than it was before,” he said.
General Sanders said that deterring Russia would involve a higher degree of readiness and training. He also said that any move to further reduce Britain’s troop numbers would be “perverse” given the situation in Ukraine, but that he would be open to a possible restructuring of the army.