As NATO wraps up its summit meeting in Warsaw, it will no doubt be patting itself on the back for displaying ‘unity’ and ‘resolve’ in the face of ‘Russian aggression’, in particular by agreeing to station a semi-permanent garrison of four battalions in Poland and the Baltic States. If we are to believe NATO’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, General Sir Richard Shirreff, such displays of strength are exactly what are needed to ‘deter’ Russia and prevent war. That is the message of a novel he has just published, entitled 2017. War with Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command.
Shirreff’s book tells the story of a war between Russia and NATO in 2017. It comes with a foreword by former Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, who states that, ‘Of all the challenges America faces … the most dangerous is the resurgence of Russia under President Putin.’ In his own preface, Shirreff states that ‘Russia is now our strategic adversary’, due to Putin’s ‘self proclaimed intention in March 2014 of reuniting ethnic Russian speakers under the banner of Mother Russia’. ‘The president’s vow to reunite “Russian speakers” … was little different from Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938’, says Shirreff, who denounces the West’s ‘failure to understand the realities of dealing with bullies.’ His book advertises itself as a warning of what could happen if Western countries fail to increase their defence spending.
War with Russia begins with Russian special forces abducting some American soldiers in Kharkov, where the Americans have been training Ukrainian forces. They then take the Americans back to Russia, where they are displayed on TV and accused of having crossed Russia’s border. Russian fighters then shoot down an American plane over Ukraine, again falsely claiming that it had crossed the frontier. The purpose is to provide an excuse to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. A false-flag operation in which the Russian Army fires artillery on a school in rebel-controlled Donbass, killing 80 children, and blames it on the Ukrainians, provides the final pretext for the invasion. Within a few days, Russian forces have swept the Ukrainian Army aside and established a land-bridge to Crimea.
Shirreff never refers to the Russian president by name, but some of the Russians in the book call him ‘Vladimir Vladimirovich’, so he is obviously meant to be Putin. One might wonder why Putin would launch an unprovoked war. According to Shirreff’s scenario, the answer is that his poll ratings are falling and he thinks that a short, successful war will restore his popularity. Shirreff also believes that Putin has long been yearning to reunite Eastern Ukraine and the Baltic States with Russia, and all that has been stopping him is fear of the consequences. Believing that NATO lacks the will to react, in Shirreff’s book Putin decides to seize the opportunity. Before his war in Ukraine is even over, he starts a second war, invading the Baltic States.
As a pretext for this invasion, Russian special forces carry out another false flag operation, using a sniper to kill some Russian speaking Latvians marching in a demonstration in Riga. Soon afterwards, Russian forces assault Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in order to ‘protect Russian speakers’. In the process they attack an airbase manned by American servicemen, and bomb British and German ships docked in Latvia. Annoyed by the British, the Russian president then orders his troops to take action against the United Kingdom. As a result, a Russian submarine sinks the aircraft carrier Queen Elizabeth, killing 900 people. All-out war between Russia and NATO erupts.
If we are take this scenario seriously, Russia’s leaders are idiotic, reckless and, quite frankly, psychopathic. Shirreff’s Putin is a cold-hearted villain, devoid of all humanity. After conquering the Baltics, for instance, he tells his staff:
Russian speakers must, of course, stay and are to be the basis of their new security forces. Any – and that includes Russian speakers – not prepared to swear the oath of allegiance to me as President are to be deported to the gulags.
The Russian president, says one of Shirreff’s characters, is ‘a ruthless predatory bastard’. ‘It’s long been obvious that he’s a self-obsessed nutter’, says another. Russians as a whole aren’t much better. ‘All knew that when the Russians exacted revenge, they did so with total ferocity’, we read. The commander of the Russian forces in Kaliningrad is described as having been famous for the ‘scorched earth approach he had taken to root out the Mujahidin in the Panjshir valley, regardless of the casualties to the civilian population … [he used] equally brutal tactics in the Chechen wars … which left thousands of men, women, and children dead. … [He] was now doing much the same in the Baltics.’ In general, as one of the Latvians in the book says,
You’ll never have a better friend than a Russian. And I have a number. They’ll give you their last kopek if you need it. They’ll laugh with you, cry with you, and drink with you to the end of time. But as a nation … as a neighbour … they’re horrible.
In short, Russia is just looking for the chance to invade its neighbours. Any sign of weakness on NATO’s behalf is potentially fatal. Shirreff’s characters give regular, and rather repetitive, lectures about the harm done by defence cuts and about how the war he describes is a direct result. The lesson of the book is clear: everything he describes could really happen unless we buck up and start spending more on defence right now.
Shirreff’s novel claims to present a genuine near-term possibility. In truth, it is a fantasy, as there is no evidence that Putin really is a reckless psychopath, and beggars belief that he would launch a full-scale invasion of the Baltic states out of the blue in the manner Shirreff describes. In any case, Shirreff’s belief that weakness invites invasion and that only powerful displays of strength can prevent it is based on a highly selective view of history in which we are always confronting Adolph Hitler in 1938. In 1914, war did not begin because the Austrians lacked resolve in the face of Serbian provocation, or because the Russians failed to show strength after Austria declared war on Serbia, or because Germany chose the path of weakness following Russia’s decision to mobilize its army. Quite the contrary – it was the obsessive belief that only strength could preserve peace that led to war.
Despite all this, Shirreff’s book does serve a useful purpose. As an analysis of the probable future or as a description of how the Russians think and behave, it is woefully wide of the mark. But as a depiction of the warped worldview of some of the Western world’s most senior military officers it is quite enlightening. It justifies its subtitle ‘An urgent warning’; just not quite in the way that its author imagines.