Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is on a hastily-arranged visit to Washington to talk with his counterpart and White House officials about “shared security concerns” including Ukraine and Russia, a source and an official said.
The secretive, last-minute nature of the trip and a comment by a second defence minister, James Heappey – who said the conversations that Mr Wallace would be having on Tuesday were “beyond belief” – suggested particularly sensitive and serious issues would be discussed.
It comes as the UK, the US and other NATO allies watch Russia‘s war in Ukraine closely, amid concerns that President Vladimir Putin may escalate his attacks even further, possibly even resorting to a nuclear strike as his forces lose ground to western-armed Ukrainian troops.
The UK defence source declined to offer any specific detail on the content of Mr Wallace’s trip other than to say: “The defence secretary is in Washington DC to discuss shared security concerns, including Ukraine.
“He will be visiting his counterpart at the Pentagon and senior figures at the White House.”
Brigadier General Patrick Ryder, the US Pentagon press secretary, offered a similar description: “He’s here today to discuss the Ukraine situation and the US and UK joint efforts to support Ukraine, as well as to, again, reaffirm the transatlantic ties and co-operation that our two countries share when it comes to issues like Russia.”
But Mr Heappey gave a sense that the discussions were particularly grave as he responded to questions on the UK political crisis during an interview on Kay Burley At Breakfast on Sky News.
“We here in the Ministry of Defence are doing a good job of keeping our nation safe at a time of incredible global insecurity,” he said.
“My boss, Ben Wallace, is in Washington this morning having the sort of conversations that… beyond belief really the fact we are a time when these sort of conversations are necessary.”
Asked by Sky News about the “beyond belief” remarks, the Pentagon press secretary said: “Refer you back to the minister on that one.”
No guard of honour
In an indication that the visit had been planned in a rush and was being kept low-profile, there was no guard of honour to greet Mr Wallace at the Pentagon.
The defence secretary had been due to appear before a committee of MPs in London to discuss the UK, US and NATO on Tuesday but had to cancel.
The possibility of Russia using nuclear weapons in Ukraine featured at a meeting of NATO defence ministers in Brussels last week. Mr Wallace and Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, both attended and held a bilateral meeting there as well.
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Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is ‘dangerous’ and ‘reckless’
Asked if NATO would consider a nuclear response should Russia use nuclear weapons in Ukraine, Jens Stoltenberg, the head of the alliance, last Thursday told reporters: “The fundamental purpose of NATO’s nuclear deterrent is to preserve peace and deter aggression, and prevent coercion against NATO allies.
“The circumstances in which NATO might have to use nuclear weapons are extremely remote. Russia’s nuclear rhetoric is dangerous, reckless.
“And they know that if they use nuclear weapon against Ukraine, it will have severe consequences. And they also know that a nuclear war cannot be won and should never be fought.”
NATO allies are this week conducing an annual exercise to test their ability to launch nuclear strikes. The training, hosted this year by Belgium, is taking place over the UK, the North Sea and Belgium.
Russia is also set to carry out annual nuclear drills. The US has said the Russians have not informed them of their nuclear drills, information they would normally expect to receive.