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Boris Johnson arrives at NATO poised to boost UK defense spending

MADRID — The U.K. prime minister is expected to announce a military spending boost at the NATO summit in Madrid this week and call for other allies to follow suit.

Boris Johnson told reporters as he departed the G7 in Germany Tuesday that a commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense should be treated “as a floor, not a ceiling.”

The prime minister, who flew directly to Madrid for a dinner with NATO leaders, refused to be drawn on reports suggesting U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is pressing him to increase Britain’s defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP — boosting the current budget by an extra 20 percent a year. The reports coincided with a stark warning from the head of the British Army that the West must get ready for war with Russia.

Any increase would be welcomed by the U.S. administration, which spends more than 3 percent of GDP annually and insists European allies are falling short. However, the British boost would fall short of the Conservative manifesto commitment of increasing defense spending by 0.5 percent above inflation every year.

A U.K. government source told reporters that manifesto commitment — from 2019 — had been made in a “different age” pre-Covid, and would now have to be ditched. Johnson later appeared to row back somewhat, claiming the target may yet be hit by measuring inflation over a longer time period.

In letter leaked to selected British newspapers, Wallace had urged the prime minister to follow the example of some other NATO allies above the current minimum target of 2 percent, which the members of the transatlantic alliance set as a long-term aspiration at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales.

Johnson is expected to argue during this week’s sessions with NATO allies that the coming decade is likely to be more dangerous than the last, and that a discussion about increasing NATO’s resources is vital as the 2024 deadline for reaching the 2 percent target looms closer.

Speaking at a land warfare conference organized by the RUSI think tank Tuesday, Wallace said the “threat has changed” and “so must our response.”

“Russia is not our only problem. An assertive China ready to challenge the rules based system and democracy, terrorism on the march right across Africa, Iranian nuclear ambitions to date still unresolved,” he said. “The threat is growing and is global and is multi-domain. It is now time to signal that peace dividend is over and investment needs to continue to grow.”

A Downing Street spokesman refused to comment on any future spending, but said Johnson has always been clear the government “will respond to the change in threat” as the conflict evolves.

In a speech to the RUSI think tank Tuesday, Patrick Sanders, the new chief of the general staff, said the U.K. faced a “1937 moment” and likened Russia’s increasing aggression with the rise of fascism in Europe leading to the Second World War.

“We are not at war, but must act rapidly so that we aren’t drawn into one through a failure to contain territorial expansion,” Sanders said.

Johnson, however, sought to downplay the chances of a military conflict between the U.K. and Russia.

“I don’t think it will come to that, and clearly we are working very hard to make sure that we confine this to Ukraine,” he said.

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