YORK Central MP Hugh Bayley has told an international conference that NATO must toughen up its response to Vladimir Putin and stop pretending Russia is a strategic partner.

He claimed yesterday that NATO must strengthen its rapid reaction capabilities and deploy more ‘defensive assets’ to central Europe, and that member countries must stop cutting defence spending.

The Labour MP was speaking in his capacity as president of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly at a conference of Parliamentarians at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London.

He will make an abridged version of the speech to Heads of Government at the NATO Summit in Newport on Friday.

Mr Bayley said that for the past 25 years, NATO had given Russia the benefit of the doubt and clung to efforts to build an enduring partnership.

"With Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of Eastern Ukraine, President Putin has now torn that vision to pieces and trampled on the principles at the core of our partnership and of the post-Cold War order," he said.

"These actions must mark a turning point, both for our relations with Russia and for NATO itself. The battles taking place on Ukraine’s soil are not just about Ukraine, but also about the prospects for peace and security on our continent. NATO’s response, following this Summit, will shape our security environment for the years to come."

He said NATO members must must recognise that their relationship with Russia had changed fundamentally. "We can no longer pretend that Russia, under President Putin’s leadership, is a strategic partner," he said.

"Until and unless Russia returns to legality, we must continue to oppose its actions in Ukraine, strengthen NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities, deploy more defensive assets to central Europe, with contributions from all Allies, reinforce economic sanctions and reduce our energy dependence on Russia."

He claimed that by cutting defence spending as a result of the economic crisis and decreasing operational commitments, NATO had sent the wrong signal both to Russia and to Islamist extremists in the Middle East and the NATO Summit must send a clear message that Allies were now stopping such cuts.