A Conservative defence minister has launched an extraordinary attack on Jeremy Corbyn, accusing the Labour leader of collaborating with Russian aggression.
Mike Penning, the armed forces minister, took issue with Corbyn’s comments that it was “unfortunate that troops have gone up to the border on both sides” – referring to Nato and Russian forces on either side of the Estonian border.
“I don’t want to see any more troops deployed on the borders between Nato and Russia,” Corbyn told BBC Wales Today. “I want to see a de-escalation, ultimately a de-militarisation and better relationships between both sides of it … there cannot be a return to a cold war mentality.”
It comes after Nia Griffith, the shadow defence secretary, was reportedly “livid” to hear a spokesman for Corbyn say the Labour leader had “expressed concerns about that [the deployment] being one of the escalations of tensions that have taken place”.
Griffith has visited some of the British troops who are part of a Nato taskforce in Estonia, where 800 are set to join the operation in the spring and 200 more will be stationed in Poland.
Penning issued a statement in response to Corbyn’s interview saying the comments about Nato in Estonia proved that Labour would not defend the UK’s Nato allies and “cannot be trusted with Britain’s national security”.
He said: “Britain has Nato’s second biggest defence budget and plays a leading role in the alliance. It is unprecedented for a leader of the opposition to attack the defensive deployment of British troops in Nato territory.
“These comments suggest that the Labour leader would rather collaborate with Russian aggression than mutually support Britain’s Nato allies. As with Trident, everything Labour says and does shows that they cannot be trusted with Britain’s national security.”
Corbyn met Griffith on Thursday evening to discuss Estonia but the issue appears unresolved. A source close to the shadow defence secretary would only say that talks were ongoing.
However, another Labour source played down the differences between Corbyn and Griffith, saying it had been based on a misunderstanding and there was no real argument.
A spokeswoman for Corbyn said: “Jeremy had a friendly and constructive meeting with Nia today.”