British Defence Secretary Michael Fallon travelled to Estonia on Thursday to formally mark the deployment of 800 British troops to the Baltic country to defend against potential Russian aggression. The British soldiers, who will work alongside 300 French marines, form part of a renewed push to bolster NATO’s eastern flank in the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for secessionist forces in eastern Ukraine.
Last month, in a separate deployment, about 1,200 US-led NATO forces arrived in Poland, with Latvia and Lithuania due to receive international troops later in the year. Fallon took the opportunity to criticise the UK Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, during his speech at the welcoming parade near the Estonian border with Russia.
“Russia will be watching Labour’s feebleness that Jeremy Corbyn has not supported this deployment. He has questioned it. He has questioned this deployment,” Fallon said.
“He has not made clear how they would finance our 2% commitment to Nato and at every point he has voted against a stronger defence, including the renewal of Trident last July. Russia will be watching that, will have noted that feebleness and will be watching it throughout this campaign,” he added.
Corbyn, who will be leading his party in a snap general election called by Prime Minister Theresa May to take place in June, has said that he favours demilitarising the border between the NATO countries and Russia.
“I do think there has to be a process that we try and demilitarise the border between what are now the Nato states and Russia so we drive apart those forces, keep them further apart … we can’t descend into a new cold war,” Corbyn told the BBC last year.
When asked about the US commitment to NATO in light of Donald Trump’s about-face on the issue in recent statements, Fallon said, “The American defence secretary and the American secretary of state are under no illusions of how we have to deal with Russia now as a competitor.”
“We have to talk with Russia where necessary, but we also have to beware. We are at one in our approach to Russia and the potential threats that Russia embodies,” he added.
Last year, Russia moved nuclear-capable Iskander-M missiles into Kaliningrad, its Baltic enclave between Poland and Lithuania, and deployed the S-400 anti-aircraft missile defence shield, in what the Kremlin said was a response to NATO expansion.