Russia an 'acute threat,' Britain's top soldier says as NATO leaders convene

NATO leaders convened in Brussels to discuss reshaping the military alliance for the future at a time of increased saber-rattling with Russia. In an exclusive interview with CBC News, The head of Britain's military told CBC News in an exclusive interview that Moscow's recent actions mean it is now "an acute threat."

Gen. Nick Carter concerned by recent activities, including build-up of forces on Ukraine border

British Gen. Nick Carter, pictured onboard HMS Tamar in London last September, said recent Russian acts are 'assertive and in some ways aggressive.' (Contributed/British Ministry of Defence)

Most G7 leaders, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, traded the breezy English seaside community of Carbis Bay for NATO's fortress-like headquarters in Brussels as a watershed summit began Monday amid stark warnings about — and from — Russia.

The secretary general of the western military alliance, Jens Stoltenberg, set the tone in his opening remarks as the leaders gathered for the first time since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

"Our relationship with Russia is at its lowest point since the Cold War," he said. 

Britain's top military commander told CBC News in an exclusive interview that the Russian military is far more capable, active and potentially dangerous than it was seven years ago when Moscow annexed Crimea — an occupation Ukraine considers illegal.

"The balance has changed and I think it is right for us to now think about Russia as an acute threat," Gen. Nick Carter said on Sunday.

In addition to the annexation, Carter said recent activities add up to acts that are "assertive and in some ways aggressive."

He referenced cyberattacks attributed to proxies with ties to the Kremlin, increased submarine activity in the North Atlantic, the reactivation of Cold War bases in the Arctic and the build-up of forces on the border with Ukraine that remain despite pledges they would be withdrawn.

Ukraine still waiting on NATO membership

Trudeau, taking part in a question and answer forum ahead of the summit, said Canada recognizes Russia is a "very real and present threat."

Few countries feel that heat more than Ukraine, which faces an ongoing, protracted war with Russian-financed proxy forces in two eastern districts.

The government of President Volodymyr Zelensky appears to be growing impatient with the more than decade-long desire to join NATO — agitation that has not gone unnoticed by Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Last week, Putin issued a harsh warning over prospects of Ukraine joining the western military alliance and obtaining the cherished security guarantee of Article 5 of the North Atlantic Charter, which stipulates that an attack on one member is an attack on all.

Putin said more than half of Ukraine's population is opposed to joining NATO and were not prepared to see themselves in the crossfire of a potential conflict.

"These are smart people," Putin said in an interview with Russian state television last week. "They understand, they don't want to wind up on the firing line, they don't want to be bargaining chips or cannon fodder."

It's unclear what Ukrainian public opinion data formed the basis of Putin's assessment. A survey conducted three months ago found 57 per cent of Ukrainians support becoming part of the alliance.

"We are looking forward to the upcoming NATO summit," Andriy Shevchenko, Ukraine's ambassador to Canada, told the House of Commons foreign affairs committee earlier this month.

"We believe this is the time we should finally lay down a clear path for Ukraine to become a NATO member."

This image from April shows the Russian flag flying over a temporary military base about 200 kilometres from the Ukraine border. (Dmitry Kozlov/CBC)

The recent build up Russian forces on the border of Ukraine and the pledge by Moscow to place 20 new military units along its western frontier are sobering events that require reflection, but also resolve, Shevchenko said.

"Canada and its NATO allies should rethink, upgrade and boost their response to the Russian aggressive actions," he said.

The message was, in all likelihood, politely reinforced in a recent phone call between Zelensky and Trudeau just before the G7 Summit.

While the summit's final communique is expected to address Ukraine, it is, according to a senior Canadian official, not expected to give the country the clear path it has been demanding.

Ukraine's understandable angst puts the Liberal government in an awkward spot. Canada has been one of the eastern European country's biggest backers on the international stage and within NATO.

Canada also has 200 troops training Ukrainian soldiers in the finer points of small-unit combat,  as well as specialties such as mine-clearing and medical evacuation.

Fears of 'unwarranted miscalculation'

Moscow has undoubtedly been made nervous by NATO's eastward expansion over the last two decades — including Latvia, Estonia and Poland — but Carter said there are other internal and external factors driving the Kremlin's political calculations.

He believes Russia feels "very threatened" in its sphere of influence. "I think they're worried about the way in which the Russian population currently respects — or doesn't — the Russian state," Carter said.

"And so, they've got reasons to be nervous, but this sort of assertive behaviour is dangerous. And what we don't need is escalation leading, as I said earlier, to unwarranted miscalculation."

WATCH | Head of NATO says summit comes at 'pivotal moment' for the alliance:

Head of NATO says summit comes at 'pivotal moment' for the alliance

2 years ago
Duration 9:29
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CBC's chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton that he wants to strengthen the transatlantic alliance now that U.S President Joe Biden has replaced Donald Trump.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg deferred when asked about Ukraine's seeming impatience by CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton in an interview broadcast on Sunday.

"When leaders meet on Monday, I expect them to reiterate NATO's open door policy, meaning that we are open for new members," Stoltenberg said on Rosemary Barton Live. "We have demonstrated that over the last few years by admitting two new members, Montenegro and North Macedonia.

"We stand by the decision we made in 2008 regarding Ukraine and Georgia, but the focus now is on reforms to enable those two countries to meet the NATO standards and need to support them in those."

Others, such as defence analyst Tina Park, see a reluctance more broadly among NATO countries to formally admit Ukraine. 

"While they recognize the threats posed by Russia, there are critical areas, like climate change for instance, where Russian co-operation is necessary for us to move forward as an international community," said Park, vice president of the NATO Association of Canada.

"Some NATO countries are not very interested in antagonizing Russia or having to deal with their own citizens reaction to NATO enlargement."


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.