Boris Johnson is considering offering Nato a deployment of another 900 troops to Estonia — doubling the size of the British force in the Baltic state — as tension continues to rise in the region.
Downing Street announced that the UK prime minister was considering the “biggest possible offer” in order to protect Nato allies in eastern Europe.
Estonia is a member of Nato — the West’s mutual defence pact — in contrast to Ukraine, which has been partially encircled by Russian tanks and about 100,000 soldiers in recent weeks, prompting speculation about an invasion by Moscow.
Downing Street said that Britain could send jets, warships and military specialists to Nato allies in the region in the coming days to strengthen Europe’s borders “in the face of rising Russian aggression”.
British officials will be sent to Brussels to discuss the potential offer with Nato next week, with ministers discussing military options on Monday.
One European official described the idea of western countries increasing their forces in eastern Europe as a “purely defensive” mechanism to reassure Nato allies, rather than a direct threat to Putin’s Russia. “These are not substantial combat forces, they don’t compare with the current build up by Russia.”
French president Emmanuel Macron has already offered to send hundreds of troops to Romania if Nato requests them, as part of the alliance’s “enhanced forward presence” programme to protect its eastern European members.
“I know the security situation is worrying at present on Europe’s eastern flank,” French defence minister Florence Parly said in Bucharest on Thursday when she repeated Macron’s offer. A French military mission arrived in Romania on the same day to prepare for the possible deployment.
France and other Nato members have also been increasing their presence in the Black Sea in recent months. “We see a policy of access denial by Russia,” said one French diplomat. “They are using Crimea as a kind of permanent aircraft carrier.”
Johnson is also seeking talks with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, in the coming days. The prime minister, who is at the centre of a domestic political storm over “partygate”, is expected to make a visit to eastern Europe next week.
A second trip is being planned for early February for Johnson to meet Nato member counterparts, although the location is not yet confirmed.
On Monday, the UK’s Foreign Office is expected to announce a toughening of its sanctions regime — to enable the UK to target Russian interests — although officials have not yet disclosed the details.
Johnson said the potential deployment of more troops to Estonia would send a “clear message” to the Kremlin.
“We will not tolerate their destabilising activity and we will always stand with our Nato allies in the face of Russian hostility,” he said.
“If President Putin chooses a path of bloodshed and destruction, it will be a tragedy for Europe. Ukraine must be free to choose its own future.”
Downing Street said Johnson still believed in the importance of pursuing diplomatic efforts at the same time.
The prime minister has asked foreign secretary Liz Truss and defence secretary Ben Wallace to prepare to visit Moscow for talks with their counterparts. “They will be asked to improve relationships with President Putin’s government and encourage de-escalation,” Downing Street said. Wallace will also hold meetings with allies in Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia in the coming week.
Sir Tony Radakin, the chief of defence staff, will brief ministers at cabinet on Tuesday about the situation in Ukraine.
The current British presence in eastern Europe includes 900 military personnel in Estonia, 100 in Ukraine and 150 in Poland.
Downing Street said the aircraft carrier HMS Prince of Wales was on standby to move “within hours” if necessary.
Talks on the Ukraine situation will take place at the UN Security Council in New York on Monday.