General Sir Nick Carter: ‘Ukraine is a wake-up call’

It is no surprise that lunch with General Sir Nick Carter, recently retired head of the UK’s armed forces, begins with a history lesson. When I ask where he wants to eat, Carter, a keen amateur historian, invites me to join him for a German-themed meal at the National Army Museum. This is specially cooked by the museum’s chef and served, at the general’s request, inside the exhibition on Britain’s deployment to postwar Germany. Given the news in Ukraine, it is all too relevant a setting.

“I think that there’s a bit of ‘back to the future’ about what’s unfolding [in Ukraine],” Carter explains. “What this exhibition reflects is a time when we had a balance of power in Europe and lots of mutual understanding between [the Soviet forces and the west] . . . and there’s an interesting question about how one gets back to a position where there’s mutual trust, and stability, and people are reassured.”

He zips around the dimly lit rooms of the Foe to Friend exhibition, showing me battle sketches, maps, and making sure to emphasise the UK-Soviet “Brixmis” mission, established at the end of the cold war as a legitimate communication channel between Soviet and British forces. The subtext — that Vladimir Putin’s regime would never agree to any such co-operation with Nato allies — is clear.

The general, 63, is the longest-serving military chief since Lord Mountbatten, having spent nearly eight years in senior leadership: the first four as head of the army, followed by another three and a half in the top job, Chief of the Defence Staff (CDS). It is in this role that he has helped pioneer a shift in UK military priorities towards new projects in space, cyber and information warfare. The updated defence strategy, published last year to great fanfare, made much of Britain’s ambitions to boost its defence presence in the Indo-Pacific, anticipating a rising threat from China. Now, however, the risks seem much closer to home.

The exhibition tour over, we sit down to eat at a table for two between a plaque bearing the insignia of Britain’s military government in Germany and a 4ft-long slab of the Berlin Wall. Two videos from the exhibition are blaring out in the background: one loudly punctuated by bombing raids, the other a victors’ propaganda film. Anna, the museum’s head of catering, pours us each a glass of Pinot Grigio and agrees to turn down the sound effects.

We are meeting two days before Russia’s invasion. He points out that modern warfare is played out far more in the open than traditional conflict used to be. “I think that some of the imagery that we’ve seen of Russian deployments around Ukraine’s borders, 10 years ago, that would have been very highly classified information. Now it’s available to everybody via Google satellites and Google Maps.”

Anna arrives with our starters — rosettes of smoked salmon sprinkled with caviar and dill, served with asparagus and an avocado purée. Once Carter has explained the menu (“this is meant to be a German meal, and the Germans love their Spargel”), we turn back to Ukraine.

The general himself has been unusually hawkish on Russia, having warned in a speech four years ago that Moscow represented “a clear and present danger” on Europe’s doorstep and “could initiate hostilities sooner than we expect”. He advised that Britain should reduce its vulnerabilities to Russian malign influence and disinformation and upgrade its armoured infantry capabilities. The recent defence strategy repeatedly cited Russia as the “most acute” security threat to the UK, but ministers did not act consistently to curb the risks. Downing Street sat on a report by parliament’s intelligence watchdog that criticised Moscow’s influence at the top of British society and the City of London’s role in laundering Russian finance. Ministers cut back on armoured vehicles and reduced the army by nearly 10,000 personnel to its smallest size in over three centuries. Were they ignoring Carter’s advice?

“I think it’s only when you aggregate up everything that’s happened in the last 15 years . . . [that] you get a genuine appreciation of how Putin and his regime have essentially been fighting with us,” he suggests. “And unless you really focus in on it, I think, given the pace of modern life and the dynamic nature of the media environment, there’s only so much bandwidth. And actually, you’ve got to be quite geeky to genuinely know everything that’s happened in relation to Russia.”

But how about the national security experts in Whitehall, I ask. Isn’t this their job? “I think that if you go to the heart of the national security system, people could see what was happening,” he says. “But like everything in life, it’s about risk management. And there’s only so much money to go around . . . and the brutal truth of it is that you have to take a risk management view.”

Given that the risk has very much asserted itself, I ask Carter how Nato allies can regain the initiative over Putin. The most important point, he says, is an information manoeuvre — “reaching out” to the Russian people. “What ultimately led to the end of the cold war was the populations of eastern Europe recognised that our values and standards and our system was something that they wanted to be a part of,” he explains.

Isn’t this going to be difficult when Putin controls the media? “The BBC World Service has always managed to reach people the world over,” he says, adding that it’s “very encouraging” that the UK Foreign Office had re-established its cold war counterpropaganda unit earlier this month to “marshal the narrative in an effective way”. History, as he told me earlier, “doesn’t repeat itself, but it has a rhythm”.

Carter may be the embodiment of a traditional British general but he never expected to join the armed forces. Born in Kenya in 1959, where his father was serving in the King’s African Rifles, he later attended Winchester College and planned to study English at Oxford or Cambridge. However, after failing his entrance exams he was pushed to enrol at Sandhurst. “My father was always very clear that he wasn’t going to underwrite — as he put it in his Victorian way — an education at a red-brick university, and that he thought it’d be more constructive to go in the army briefly and then earn a professional qualification after that,” Carter explains.

But instead of leaving the army to join a family friend’s accountancy firm as envisaged, he was lured to stay, by enticing postings, and then the first Gulf war. “I was given very stimulating jobs and I found that it was very rewarding. It was exciting, I thoroughly enjoyed the people that I worked with, and it was a good quality of life,” he recalls.

His leadership skills attracted the attention of senior politicians during his years fighting Blair’s wars, first in Iraq and Kosovo and latterly Afghanistan, where he was deployed on several tours in the first decade of operations. There, he acquired the reputation of a dynamic commander, sleeves rolled up and ready to engage. However, the months ahead of his retirement as CDS were almost entirely overshadowed by the Allied withdrawal from Afghanistan: a decision made by US president Joe Biden which, Carter has made clear, he did not agree with.

As the chaos of the troops’ departure unfolded, the general was criticised for his unrealistic estimations of the Afghan security forces, which Britain had helped to train. He wrote an opinion piece for The Times eight days before Kabul fell to the Taliban, claiming there were “increasing signs that moderate Afghans in support of the government and its security forces are beginning to show the sort of defiance that’s needed to win”. Only last autumn, he suggested it was too early to write off the withdrawal as a defeat. Now, I ask, with millions of Afghans on the brink of famine, the country in economic collapse and the Taliban reportedly carrying out targeted killings, does he accept that the Allied mission was a failure?

“As of today, it is,” he admits. “But if in a year or two’s time, one sees Afghanistan becoming more inclusive and it gets beyond this, then part of the reason that that would happen is because we invested for 20 years in trying to bring on a generation of Afghans who perhaps will see a different future for their country,” he argues. He doesn’t believe the current state of repression and crisis can last for ever. “I think it will evolve,” he says. “I think it has to evolve”.

This strikes me as overwhelmingly optimistic. He counters that “it’s important to be positive”, and says he wrote the Times piece “to try and make sure that we were positive enough to give the Afghan government confidence to be able to carry on”. Does he believe his words of encouragement filtered through to Afghan fighters and civilians? “Definitely,” he assures me. Even if the message prompted ridicule at home, he suggests, it landed successfully abroad. “I think it is very difficult being a public person in the modern media environment,” he says, slightly sharply.

Our main courses arrive — sirloin steak with pickled cabbage and a neat tower of thick-cut chips. We are offered a glass of red wine. I say I’d rather stick to white and the general immediately agrees. His wine, I notice, has barely been touched. I pick up on a throwaway remark about how he nearly signed off from the armed forces aged 27, because he thought this was “not necessarily the best career to pursue for somebody who is married”. Did this turn out to be the case?

“I’m very envious of the relationship that my wife has with the children,” he admits (his three sons and daughter are now aged between 22 and 34). He says he was not as present as he would have liked to be. “And even when you’re there with them . . . you’re either remembering what you’ve been up to or looking forward to what you’re about to go and do,” he says “You become emotionally detached, and how you then come home and try and reconnect is really difficult.”

Searcys at the National Army Museum
Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 4HT

Loch Duart smoked salmon, Lake District sirloin steak and Black Forest gateau for two £168.75
Still and sparkling water £10.13
Vinuva Pinot Grigio, Terre Siciliane 2018 £30
Private chef £120
Total £328.88

The challenges persist for modern servicemen and women. “It is a fact of military life that your commitment to service is unlimited,” he says. This seems like a good moment to broach the subject of army culture, which has been the topic of much debate following a parliamentary report that found almost two-thirds of women in the armed forces had experienced bullying, sexual harassment and discrimination during their career and that some even considered the mess and military accommodation as “places of danger” for female recruits. Carter, who says some of these cases are historical, does not rise to the bait. “Ultimately I’m not surprised by those sorts of challenges because I think that in an institution like the armed forces, how you manage the problem of bullying, harassment, discrimination and a laddish or sexist culture is a perennial problem,” he says.

The difficulty, he suggests, is unique to the armed forces: achieving the right balance between “managing the aggression and the team-building that is necessary to prevail on a battlefield” and being true to the values expected outside that environment. Currently, only about 11 per cent of UK military personnel are female, which the general admits is not enough. “We have to make sure that the career structure is a bit more user-friendly for those who might wish to stand down for a while and raise a family or whatever they might want to do.”

I suggest the problem may also be a lack of prominent women in senior military roles. “There are a number of very able women who’ve risen to two- or one-star rank in all three services . . . they probably do need to become more visible to the public. I think that’s perfectly fair,” he acknowledges. “I think that would change over time. I think we do need to be patient.”

We are interrupted by the arrival of two gigantic slabs of Black Forest gateau, thickly filled with cream and syrupy black cherries. On the side is a melting scoop of vanilla ice cream. Carter looks at it warily: “That’ll keep you quiet,” he suggests optimistically. We both order Americanos, and I ask whether in retrospect there’s anything he would have done differently during his years as chief. He says he wishes he’d moved faster with some of his reforms, but that “I don’t think I’d have changed the general direction of travel at all”.

I ask about the failed £5.5bn Ajax armoured vehicle programme, which is now in jeopardy after causing vibration injuries and hearing loss in soldiers. “Yes, I think one was quizzical about Ajax all the way through, but it was locked down well before I took over,” he says. Trying again, I probe on whether, given events in Ukraine, Britain’s pivot towards the Indo-Pacific looks overambitious. “Well, genuinely, how much resources are we going to be putting into the Indo-Pacific?” he asks, suggesting the premise was more a PR gesture than a genuine manoeuvre. “I can’t think of major things that we got wrong, given the circumstances,” he says decisively.

Two days after our lunch, Putin launches a full-scale invasion of Ukraine; within a week, he has put Russia’s nuclear deterrent on high alert.

I phone Carter to discuss the latest developments. “I think this is a wake-up call for all those who thought that the land instrument might no longer be as essential to deterrence as events are proving it is,” the general comments very formally. I interpret this as a veiled jibe at Boris Johnson, who confidently told MPs last November that “the old concepts of fighting big tank battles on European land mass are over and there are other better things we should be investing in”.

Carter believes Putin is likely to succeed in taking Kyiv and installing his own regime, “because I don’t think any of us can really believe that the Ukrainians will continue to be able to resist as doughtily as they have done”. It’s “not entirely inconceivable” that the economic damage to Russia will be so severe that Putin is ousted, he says. “The worst of all scenarios is that we have uncontrolled escalation, and the war is no longer limited to Ukraine and it becomes more European,” the general suggests bleakly. “That, of course, is a very unpleasant prospect.”

Now that the threat he planned for has finally come to a head, I ask, does he regret not being at the helm?

“You have mixed feelings. There’s something very stimulating about being at the heart of matters.” Another long pause follows. “But then on the other hand, I’ve contributed a significant amount over the last eight years as chief of staff. And actually it’s probably time for someone else to get on and have the stress that goes with it.”

He sounds unconvinced. As war returns to Europe, I suspect Britain’s former defence chief may be wishing he was rather closer to the action.

Helen Warrell is the FT’s former defence and security editor

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