In an interview with The Daily Telegraph published on November 23, General Mark Carleton-Smith said Britain and its allies “cannot be complacent about the threat Russia poses.”
The Russian Embassy in London responded to the comments with a tweet on November 24, saying “Army chief doesn’t care about [IS]? Great global strategic vision!”
Carleton-Smith made the comments at a time of heightened tensions between the West and Russia over issues including Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine, its alleged election meddling in the United States and Europe, massive international cyberattacks, and the poisoning of a Russian double agent and his daughter in Britain.
“Russia today indisputably represents a far greater threat to our national security than Islamic extremist threats” such as Al-Qaeda and IS, Carleton-Smith said in his first interview since becoming chief of Britain’s General Staff in June.
The 54-year-old former SAS commander said Moscow had “embarked on a systematic effort to explore and exploit Western vulnerabilities, particularly in some of the nontraditional areas of cyber-, space, undersea warfare.”
With the threat from Islamist groups in the Middle East now reduced, the focus needs to shift to Russia, the British general also said, warning, “We cannot be complacent about the threat Russia poses or leave it uncontested.”
During a visit to Lisbon, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov also poked fun at the remarks, saying, “We cannot influence the British government’s decisions as to whom they trust to head its armed forces,” according to the Interfax news agency.
“I hope they check the appropriateness of such decisions,” Lavrov added.
In October, U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson accused Russia of acting like a “pariah state,” whose “reckless and indiscriminate” attacks had left it isolated in the international community.
The Russian Foreign Ministry described the accusations as “fantasy.”
Britain and most of the West has blamed Russia for a nerve-agent attack on Russian former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter, Yulia, in the English city of Salisbury in March. Moscow denies any involvement.
The Skripals survived the poisoning, which used a Soviet-made military nerve agent known as Novichok.
Two other British citizens were exposed to the nerve agent in June, apparently by accident; one of one of them, Dawn Sturgess, died.