LONDON: The military might of Britain has been rendered "feeble" in the face of threats from around the world, some of the country's most senior military commanders say today.
Four former leaders of the Armed Forces issued a passionate warning about the decline of British influence as they are deeply concerned by the UK's failure to act as crises grow in Iraq and Syria.
The four men - Admiral Sir Nigel Essenhigh, Admiral Lord Boyce, Field Marshal Lord Walker and Air Chief Marshal Sir Peter Squire - liken Britain's inaction in the face of aggression from Russia to the "appeasement" of Nazi Germany before the Second World War.
Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, Sir Nigel, a former First Sea Lord, says there are "disquieting parallels" between Britain's unwillingness to arm itself now and 90 years ago when it failed to prepare to combat the growing threat from Nazi Germany until it was "nearly too late".
The legacy of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan mean there is no public appetite for further conflict and this has led to "feeble" responses to security threats in the Middle East, including in Libya, Syria and the "exponential" threat posed by the terrorists of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Isil).
The former commanders warn that cuts to the Forces in the past five years have already "seriously undermined" Britain's military alliance with America.
Britain is now facing the real risk of being drawn into a conflict with an increasingly aggressive Russia in Eastern Europe - but there are serious questions over whether the UK would be able to respond, the former commanders warn.
Sir Nigel's warning, which is backed by former chiefs from all three services, comes as the Ministry of Defence faces another round of savage budget cuts when Whitehall spending is scrutinised once more in the autumn.
The Government has begun a new defence review which it says will examine the threats the country faces so that it can provide the Armed Forces needed to defend against them. But there is widespread fear among defence chiefs that it will be a repeat of the 2010 review, which forced sweeping austerity cuts on the Armed Forces and saw the Army cut from 102,000 to 82,000.
George Osborne, the Chancellor, has already announced that the Ministry of Defence would have to find another pounds 500?million of cuts this year. Unlike the international aid budget and the NHS, the MoD has not been ring-fenced and further cuts are widely expected.
Experts at the Royal United Services Institute said it is "touch and go" whether Britain will this year hit the agreed Nato target to spend 2 per cent of GDP on the military.
In his article, Sir Nigel warns there are "disquieting parallels between the situation that confronted our country some 90 years ago and that which now prevails".
Britain in the 1920s and 1930s was still too horrified by the First World War "and all but bankrupt as a result of it" to face up to the "growing menace that Nazism presented to European stability", he says.
"Today, although in very different circumstances, there are some uncomfortable similarities," Sir Nigel says.
"For example, in the wake of unfinished business in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is currently little public appetite for further, significant military intervention abroad.
"Thus there is cover for our recent, feeble responses to events in the Middle East such as in Libya, Syria and once again in Iraq, as well as in the face of the exponential threat posed by the Islamic State [Isil].
"Meanwhile, we watch as a resurgent Russia rattles an ever-larger sabre and, sanctions notwithstanding, acts with impunity in Crimea and Ukraine.
"This is the cause of a dark cloud of genuine apprehension in such countries as the Baltic States, where Nato and thus Britain has very real commitments," he says.
"If the outcome of the (spending) review is a further reduction in military expenditure and not a commitment to a sustained increase, then the Government will be neglecting its prime and overriding duty, the defence of the nation, by failing to halt the progressive decline of British military capability into penny packet numbers.
"We therefore call on the Government to acknowledge this parlous state of affairs and exhort it to ensure that the Defence and Security Review does not degenerate into yet another cuts exercise."
Sir Nigel's colleagues said ministers must face head-on the threat to the West from the increasingly aggressive Russian President.
Sir Peter said: "Russia must now be the number one and major threat. What is going on in Eastern Europe, in Ukraine and so forth, could spill over into a major conflict. We ought to be very conscious of that. Of course, there are other threats around the world, such as Islamic State [Isil], which we have got to come to terms with. But at the end of the day, the one that could destroy this country is Russia."
Sir Peter and Lord Boyce said the trigger for a war between the West and President Putin could be a Russian invasion of a Nato ally such as Latvia. "Russia has the military strength, technology and comprehensive military forces to fight a very serious war," Sir Peter said. "We have got some very good equipment but we haven't got that much of it and there are significant holes in our capability."
Lord Boyce added: "Putin is behaving in a very aggressive and expansionist way and the government does not seem to take it seriously because it is inconvenient to have to do something about it.
"When facing the threat from Hitler in the 1930s, we woke up to it too late and so we were on the back foot from the start."
An MoD spokesman said Britain had the second-largest defence budget in Nato and the largest in the EU. "The Government is committed to spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence this financial year," the spokesman said. "Over the next decade we are committed to spending pounds 163?billion on equipment and equipment-support to keep Britain safe and right now we are deployed around the world on more than 20 operations."