In a lecture at the University of St Andrews on 2 February 2017, Sir Michael Fallon, the Secretary of State for Defence, said that US President Donald Trump is “right” on the need for engagement with Russia and the costs of NATO.
His comments follow the less aggressive tone that the UK government has adopted towards Russia following Mr Trump’s election. Mr Trump made friendlier relations with Russia one of the centerpieces of his foreign policy agenda, praising President Vladimir Putin and appointing Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who has received the Russian Order of Friendship from Mr Putin, as his secretary of state.
Mr Trump has also been highly critical of NATO, describing it as “obsolete.” During his lecture, Sir Michael, a graduate of the University, said, “Great nations like the US and Russia will talk. Indeed, they must talk to preserve the rules-based international system underpinning our security and prosperity. The UK too needs to engage with Russia, including military to military.”
The defence secretary also said that Mr Trump is a “realist,” adding that,
“HE KNOWS ENGAGEMENT IS AN EQUATION OF RISK VERSUS REWARD WITH THE OUTCOME DECIDED BY A NATION’S DEEDS, NOT ITS WORDS.”
The remarks, made as part of an address on “Russian Resurgence,” also condemned Russian actions in the annexation of Crimea and the country’s interventions in eastern Ukraine and Syria.
Sir Michael argued that this aggression was part of a strategy used by Russia to reassert itself on the world stage. “Russian efforts have not been confined to Syria and Ukraine, nor limited to military means,” he said. “Russia’s doctrine advocates coordinating multiple instruments – military and non-military – as part of a hybrid approach.”
Sir Michael included snap exercises and “hybrid” attacks, including the “weaponising” of information, as Russian tactics used in a “post-truth” age.
The minister also specifically condemned Russian cyber-attacks on western nations, including France, Holland, Bulgaria, and Germany.
“There is the use of cyber weaponry to disrupt critical infrastructure and disable democratic machinery,” he said.
Sir Michael also accused Russia of trying to test the NATO alliance. He said, “Russia is clearly testing NATO and the west. It is seeking to expand its sphere of influence, destabilise countries, and weaken the alliance. It is undermining national security for many allies and the international rules-based system.
“Therefore, it is in our interest and Europe’s to keep NATO strong and to deter and dissuade Russia from this course.”
However, the defence secretary also warned of the need for reform within NATO, saying the alliance needs to both modernise and rebalance the funding given by each member state.
“We must be clear-eyed in exposing its actions and calling on all NATO members to recommit to strengthening our collective defence,” Sir Michael said. “It’s vital we demonstrate NATO is as essential to peace now as it was then. President Trump is 100 per cent backing NATO, and Europe needs to show that it does too. 19 of the 28 EU member states don’t spend 1.5 per cent of GDP on defence; five (and by no means the poorest five) don’t spend 1 per cent. After we leave, EU countries will pay only 20 per cent of NATO’s bills.
“So he is right to challenge NATO to raise its game. All members need to step up to ensure NATO fulfils its role as the cornerstone of the west’s defence as effectively as possible.
“THAT MEANS NOT FIVE, BUT ALL MEMBERS MAKING A STEP CHANGE BY MEETING THE TWO PER CENT COMMITMENT. WE’RE DOING THAT. OTHERS NEED TO, TOO.”
“It means supporting reform to make NATO more agile, resilient, and better configured to operate in the contemporary environment, including against hybrid and cyber-attacks. Cyber defence is now part of NATO’s core task. NATO must defend itself as effectively in the cyber sphere as it does in the air, on land, and at sea. So adversaries know there is a price to pay if they use cyber weapons.
“Alliance members are strengthening their capability, collectively and individual, to resist any form of attack. The UK is playing its part by almost doubling our investment on defensive and offensive cyber capability to £1.9 billion.
“Above all it means accepting that we need to commit our forces to defend other nations. Public support for NATO requires political leadership; it places a duty on us to keep making the case for the alliance and to keep explaining its obligations. Multinational institutions need commitment, reform, and leadership to command loyalty. Ultimately, Britain’s national security rests on NATO’s security.”
Sir Michael also issued a sharp rebuke of Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn, attacking his “failure to support the deployment of British troops to Estonia and Poland and Article five.”
The minister went on to say that the UK’s response to Russia must start with “showing that Russia’s actions cannot be regarded as business as usual.”
He called for “guarded engagement” with Russia while also saying that NATO and the West needed to do more to “tackle the false reality promoted through Soviet-style misinformation. Whatever else we do on deterrence and dialogue we must counter Putin’s Pravda with a faster truth.”
Sir Michael also noted the need for “deterrence” in the west’s relationship with Russia.
“Let’s not rule out the possibility that overwhelming international condemnation, sanctions, and above all the bravery [of] Ukrainians gave the Kremlin pause for thought and dissuaded it from embarking on a wider conventional war,” he said.
While also saying this deterrence goes “hand in hand” with dialogue and that as a major power Russia had “legitimate interests,” the defence secretary added that “we cannot accept the trading away of our interests and values or the continued violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and interference with the freedoms enjoyed by eastern Europe.
“Instead of weakening global stability, it’s time to strengthen the security architecture that guarantees the international rules based system.
“And above all we must not accept as any kind of new normal Russia’s propaganda, whether overt or covert, its easy disregard for hard facts and numbers, or its blatant distortions and evasions.”
In a question and answer session after his address, Sir Michael also spoke on a number of other topics.
The defense secretary said, in response to one question, that the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO was “a long way off,” and he also dismissed concerns about many of Mr Trump’s foreign policy comments by saying there is “always uncertainty” with a new American administration.