Jeremy Corbyn has hit back at a Tory “smear” that Russian President Vladimir Putin would welcome a Labour general election victory.
Labour sources told HuffPost UK that the attack by Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon was proof that the Conservatives wanted to fight a dirty campaign ahead of the June 8 poll.
On a visit to Estonia, Fallon declared that Corbyn had shown “gutlessness in response to Russian aggression” and argued the Kremlin would be eager to see the party in government.
Visiting the Baltic state to meet 800 British troops deployed to improve Nato defences against Moscow, he seized on remarks by the Labour leader in November that he wanted to “demilitarise” the border.
“Russia will be watching Labour’s feebleness that Jeremy Corbyn has not supported this deployment. He has questioned it,” he told reporters.
Asked if Mr Putin would welcome a win for Mr Corbyn, he added: “Putin would certainly welcome feebler British defence.
“Any undermining of our deterrent or our commitment to 2% defence spending or any gutlessness in response to Russian aggression would certainly be welcome in Moscow.”
“He has not made clear how they would finance our 2% commitment to Nato and at every point he has voted against a stronger defence, including the renewal of Trident last July.
“Russia will be watching that, will have noted that feebleness and will be watching it throughout this campaign.”
Fallon’s broadside echoes his attack on Ed Miliband during the 2015 general election, when he famously said the Labour leader would “stab the UK in the back” just as he had “stabbed his own brother in the back to become leader”.
But Labour sources hit back, telling HuffPost UK: “This is straight out of the Crosby playbook”, a reference to the Conservatives’ campaigns guru in the 2015 election, who has been reportedly re-hired for the current election.
In his own speech on Thursday morning, Corbyn had warned that the Tories “will use all of the divide-and-rule tricks of the Lynton Crosby trade to keep their rigged system intact”.
Labour insists that its official policy, following a review of policy last year, is to stick to the 2% defence spending target adopted by the Government.
It is understood that the Conservative Campaigns HQ has compiled a detailed “attack dossier” on Corbyn’s previous links to Sinn Fein, as well as his views on nuclear defence and power as well as claims that he failed to sing the national anthem.
Earlier this year, Corbyn called for the UK to “ratchet down” its war of words with Moscow over issues such as Nato tensions and Syria.
The UK has deployed hundreds of troops, as well as aircraft, drones and tanks to eastern Europe as part of the biggest build-up of Nato forces in the region since the fall of the Communism.
RAF Typhoon aircraft were sent to Romania, while 800 tank personnel were sent to Estonia, alongside French and Danish forces.
But speaking after one Prime Minister’s Question time in January, a Labour spokesman said that Corbyn wanted a different approach to relations between the West and Russia.
Asked to comment on Boris Johnson’s claim of ‘dirty tricks’ by the Russians, he said: “What we don’t want to see is a ratcheting up of tensions between Russia and the West. We want to see engagement with Russia on a political basis, on a serious basis.
“Jeremy has repeatedly raised human rights issues in Russia as well as issues surrounding its intervention in the Middle East and elsewhere, but it’s crucial from Jeremy’s point of view that’s not used to ratchet up tensions, especially military tensions in Eastern Europe.”