Book Review: War with Russia

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.

warwithrussia

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.

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27 thoughts on “Book Review: War with Russia”

  1. Reblogged this on Russia Reviewed and commented:
    I saw General Sir Richard Shireff’s absurd little “thriller” on Amazon recently and was trying to accommodate the book in my review lineup, knowing very well that its pro-NATO and anti-Russian overtones would trigger me. Thankfully, Professor Paul Robinson has beaten me to it. His review is well worth a look.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very fair review, Paul – had I been the one to tackle 2017, I wouldn’t have done it with such composure and tact. This book bears some striking similarities with Winter is Coming/Garry Kasparov’s – or is it the neoconservatives’? – view of Western-Russian relations. Do you consider this to be another potentially “dangerous” book like Winter is Coming?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “are to be deported to the gulags”

    “gulags”? “gulags”?!

    […]

    Yeah, sure! That’s how we Russians talk to each other! After all, we are as moronic as Westerners, who don’t know what GULag stands for and we routinely refer to our prisons as “gulags”. Yep. 100500% true!

    Also I can’t recall this dreadful “Putin’s ‘self proclaimed intention in March 2014 of reuniting ethnic Russian speakers under the banner of Mother Russia’.” But I’m vatnik, colorado-beetle and Kremlin-bot! Surely you, citizens of the Free World remeber how Putin said that, did “Sieg-heil” salute and than began laughing maniacally.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Of course I do! I also remember how he came up with the whole idea of the Russki Reich Mir over his bowl of breakfast kasha one morning. I know this of course, because I was there – as we all know, Putin’s breakfast is served to him by political prisoners and sorry Americans who dare to step into his realm. If only you, o Russian, assumed greater responsibility for your own life and cast off the shackles of state propaganda, you’d agree with Shireff and take up arms against the Immoral Regime!
      [one minute of angry silence]
      This has to be the third fiction book I’ve encountered this year that paints Putin as either a crazy psychopath with imperial ambitions or a shadowy tyrannical mastermind with imperial ambitions. I really hope this isn’t going to become a trend.
      In my opinion, if one really wants to portray a still-living world leader as himself in one’s novel, it’s imperative that s/he do the research and portray him accurately.
      But it’s about Russia, so who the heck cares?

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      1. “I really hope this isn’t going to become a trend.”

        Too late, J.T.

        I present you the most recent chedeuvr by “New Tom Clancy” – Dale Brown – “Iron Wolf” . Here, glorious Americans and Ukrainians PREVAIL over endless hordes of armoured mountanier-scuba diving hordes of spetznas GRU from Chechnya, Buryatia and Chukotka power-mad Rrrrrrrrrrussians!

        Annotation reads:

        ” In the spring of 2017, the U.S. economy is rebounding under President Stacy Anne Barbeau, the country’s first female president. But her leadership is about to be severely tested: Russian president Gennadiy Gryzlov has sent Special Troops, disguised as pro-Russian activists, into Ukraine and Moldova. Though NATO is outraged, its response is tepid. Refusing to let Russian aggression go unpunished, former U.S. president Kevin Martindale approaches Polish president Peter Wilk with a radical solution: a counterattack using a covert force of Cybernetic Infantry Device (CID): manned robots.

        Underwritten by the wealthy Wilk, Operation Iron Wolf is launched-without the knowledge of the Americans or its NATO partners. The CID’s initial strikes are successful, infuriating Gryzlov and propelling President Barbeau to pledge western help to investigate the attack. With international tensions at the boiling point, Martindale’s secret alliance, supported by the best military technology, is determined to outmaneuver the Russians.

        In this battle that will determine the fate of Eastern Europe, just which side will win?”

        Liked by 2 people

    2. You can’t recall ‘Putin’s self-proclaimed intention in March 2014 of reuniting ethnic Russian speakers’ for the simple reason that he never proclaimed anything of the sort. This isn’t the only factual error Shirreff makes. On a couple of occasions, for instance, he accuses ‘the President’ (as he calls Putin) of invading Georgia, but, as any fule kno, it was Medvedev who was president at the time.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. “Don’t confuse me with facts; my mind is made up!”

        Come to think of it, that seems to be the slogan of every dysfunctional Western government these days. It’s exactly the attitude Bush and Blair took to their intelligence services, and continues to be Obama’s attitude.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. “…for the simple reason that he never proclaimed anything of the sort”

        Careful, professor! People might start thinking that you are a Kremlin stooge! How can’t it be true if such handshakable worthies are dead certain that tyrant Vlad Putin said this?! Didn’t Madam (Former Secretary) Clinton compare Putin to Hitler? A woman like her won’t lie and say ridiculous things, right?

        “…he accuses ‘the President’ (as he calls Putin) of invading Georgia, but, as any fule kno, it was Medvedev who was president at the time.”

        Yes! Because if the Enlightened Wetern Public believes in something, this must be true. Everybody Knows ™ that Russia invaded peaceful Gruzia without provocation, after secret black-op, when South Ossetians shelled their own capital of Tskhinval and Russian peace keepers committed a suicide to frame stronK (but kind-hearted!) Defenders of Georgia.

        This is as true, as Mishiko Saakashivili military genius, thanks to which Russian army had been first stopped and then completely annihilated, sending the few remaining invaders running back to Russia

        All of this is 100% true, according to very large (and noisy) segment of the people both in the West and in their client states in the former Soviet Union.

        [nods]

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  4. Hi Paul,

    Thanks for this wonderful review. Despite being a student of Russia, I was not aware of this gem until today.

    Anyway, on tangentially related point, given that the book speaks of snipers and false flag operations, would you perhaps care to comment on your views on the Maidan sniper question and the work of your colleague Ivan Katchanovski on the subject? I can’t imagine he is very popular among the diaspora.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. On the whole, I am always sceptical of claims of ‘false flag operations’. Katchanovski, though, has assembled a lot of evidence and has had his paper published by a respectable academic publisher, so his thesis is worth examining. Canadian academic David Marples, who is generally ‘pro-Ukrainian’, while making some critical comments on the study, still concluded that, ‘Not all of Dr. Katchanovski’s findings should be dismissed. He has raised some new evidence that suggests new investigations into the sniper massacres are much needed. The official version of events is indeed deeply troublesome and his gathering of new material is commendable. His paper does provide evidence that there were several separate groups of snipers, including anti-government ones.’ https://ukraineanalysis.wordpress.com/2014/10/23/the-snipers-massacre-in-kyiv/

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      1. I am also inclined towards scepticism with respect to false flag operations. However, the fact remains that false flag operations do exist and that no successful false flag operation could obviously be one. In any case, it remains very hard to see what possible purpose the shooting could have served for Yanukovich at the time and why, given the superiority of the government in fire power, it did not continue until such time as the protesters ‘dispersed’.

        Given this and the fact that there is obviously enough credible evidence to at least support Katchanovski’s thesis in scholarly terms, I am wondering how come the supporters of the official version of events have not yet attempted to provide a rebuttal based on equally credible sources.

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      2. Maidan was very similar to the Taksim square shootings. Obvious where the author got his false flag idea from.

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  5. It reads like it was written by someone looking for a well remunerated position in the UK’s MIC. The alternative – that the scenarios presented acurrately represent the level and capabilities of top-level NATO military thinking – is far more scary.

    The sub-tile for this book should be ‘Operation Unthinkable – made thinkable’

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    1. My thoughts exactly. This uninformed jackass is trying to sell a book – and from what I can gather – a very bad one.

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  6. Paul,

    I think General Shirreff may not realise that the control he and his like have over what spin-doctors call ‘the narrative’ in Britain is not what it was.

    When he produced an article based on his book in the ‘Mail’ back in May, the ‘Best rated’ comments – which are a useful ‘bellwether’ of opinion in ‘Middle Britain’ – were in general contemptuous.

    (See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3601918/Why-war-Russia-year-apocalyptic-vision-British-General-Nato-chief-threatened-sack-blasting-Tory-defence-cuts.html .)

    The notion that post-Soviet Russia presents ‘an existential threat to the West’ and ‘is a far greater danger than ISIS’ is not regarded as very plausible by most ‘Mail’ commenters.

    Although it has happily recycled this and similar BS, meanwhile, there are indications that the ‘Mail’ may be beginning to adjust to the perceptions of its readers.

    A headline three days ago read:

    ‘Shocking video captures the moment two pilots are killed when ISIS shoot down a Russian attack helicopter over Syrian city of Palmyra with “US missile”’

    (See http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3682404/Two-pilots-confirmed-dead-ISIS-shoots-Russian-attack-helicopter-Syrian-city-Palmyra.html .)

    That has the germs of a ‘narrative’, does it not? And if you look again at the ‘Best rated’ comments, one can see such a narrative beginning to take shape.

    It is not one which is likely to be very kind to the likes of General Shirreff, or indeed the sentiments expressed in the communiqué following the NATO Warsaw Summit. It may be one of the – many – strands that went into the ‘Brexit’ vote.

    But then, it is not only the ‘narrative’ in Britain which is at issue.

    When PBS put out their programme ‘Race for the Superbomb’ in January 1999, one of their interviewees was General-Mayor Valentin Larionov.

    Decades before, Larionov had compiled and co-authored the classic statement of the strategy of seeking victory in a nuclear war by pre-emption, the original 1962 edition of the study ‘Military Strategy’ published under the name of Marshal Sokolovskii.

    In the 1980s, he would become an important figure in the so-called ‘new thinking’ introduced following the accession to power of Mikhail Gorbachev, and specifically in the resurrection of the emphasis on the defensive by one of the greatest of the former Tsarist General Staff officers who taught the Red Army how to fight – also a notable interpreter of Clausewitz – Aleksandr Svechin.

    (See http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/bomb/filmmore/reference/interview/larionov03.html .)

    In the interview, Larionov recalled how as a 17-year-old he had participated in one of the meetings with American forces in the heart of Germany at the end of the war:

    ‘I remember. Those were embraces without any ulterior motives, truly friendly embraces …Certainly, no one thought then about any aggravations of the situation; everyone thought that the peace had come, the peaceful times arrived, and that it would stay for a long time. It is only there in the higher circles of the state apparatus that they were already thinking about something in the future, and Stalin declared that the future war would be a war with the U.S. But on our level, on the level of an average commander, soldier, and sergeant, everything looked bright. All that was sincere.’

    As I noted in an comment on an earlier thread, the Soviet shift towards a Svechin-style defensive strategy was anticipated in July 1987 by Commander Michael MccGwire, the former head of the Soviet naval section of our Defence Intelligence Staff who became perhaps the most significant Western critics of Cold War orthodoxies. Actually, he and Larionov were close to being contemporaries, both having gone to war as teenagers in 1942.

    (Earlier, in 1983 and 1984, the shift to a defensive strategy had been anticipated in articles by Stephen Shenfield, then a researcher with the Centre for Soviet and East European Studies in Birmingham, based on interviews with Colonel Viktor Girshfeld, a former Red Army officer then working at the Institute for World Economics and International Relations.

    An account of his work at the time has just been put up as an – inexpensive – Kindle book on Shenfield’s website. See http://stephenshenfield.net/places/russia/171-stories-of-a-soviet-studier .)

    My own view was and is that MccGwire’s account was largely pervasive – that the posturing of Warsaw Pact forces for a ‘blitzkrieg’ into Western Europe was essentially to be explained in terms of contingency planning for a war which it was assumed that, in some way, the ‘imperialists’ might unleash. It was not, as widely assumed in the West, a ‘political’ strategy aimed at intimidation and ‘escalation dominance’.

    But, of course, this brings one to an important, and neglected, aspect of the adoption of the ‘common security’ agenda of the Palme Commission by the Soviet ‘new thinkers’.

    While one may think that the Western powers misinterpreted Stalin’s strategy in the immediate post-war period, it was in my view hardly in itself surprising that a combination of fear and hatred of communism, the incorporation of Eastern Europe in the Soviet Empire, and the offensive posture that the Red Army was adopting after 1948 generated alarmist perceptions of threat. One does not make friends and influence people by pointing armies at them.

    And that is the obvious sense of General-Mayor Larionov’s recollections. What is expressed is a belief, not uncommon I think among disillusioned communists at the time, that the Cold War had been a massive ‘own goal’ on the part of the Soviets and in particular Stalin.

    So the ‘common security’ logic suggested that, if Russia abandoned communism, retreated within its own borders, and adopted a Svechin-style ‘defensive’ posture, it could expect some greater regard for its own interests, concerns and fears.

    All I can say about this is that it seemed a good idea at the time. At turns out that despite Russia doing all these things, the antagonism of Western governments is actually as great, if not indeed greater, than it was in the late Cold War period.

    What I have some difficulty in understanding is the apparently perverse determination of General Shirreff, and so many others, to persuade Russians that Western professions that the Cold War antagonist was communism, and not the Russian people, were bogus.

    And likewise, I have difficulty in grasping their apparent inability to grasp that they are actually going a considerable way to vindicate a ‘Stalinist’ narrative of twentieth-century Russian history.

    How making an enemy out of a post-Communist Russia contributes in any way to British national security escapes me.

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    1. David, I wish that I could be as optimistic as you about the changing narrative. I don’t see it myself. There are occasional moments when something less than the normal belligerent nonsense sneaks through and gets published, but then everything gets back to business as normal.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. “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”.

    A magnificent example of psychological projection. While no one in the least conversant with Russia would find this plausible, it describes exactly the motive for many of the USA’s hideously murderous and destructive wars. Almost every war, indeed, can apparently be traced back to the exigencies of some election or other and the need to “look strong”.

    Ironically, while American leaders never tire of denouncing foreign leaders as “Hitler” and their policies as fascist, they themselves have gradually become exactly what they denounce.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. “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’.”

    Hi Paul, thanks for this excellent review. This is Peter over at The Elicitor. I have wondered for awhile why Western officials express concern over how protecting Russian speakers would be a pretext for Russia’s invasion of the Baltics, then obsess over the need for more conventional deterrence instead of integration/development efforts to take away substance and shift the narrative behind the ‘discrimination’ claim as a justification by Putin to win popular support for intervention. Did some research for Carnegie that looked into this and wrote about it here (https://elicitor.org/2016/07/08/deterrence-through-integration-why-the-west-should-form-a-baltic-russian-working-group/).

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  9. Concerning integrating the Russians in the Baltics:

    1: In some ways, the Baltic states did became “less shitty” towards their minorities then they used to be in the 90s. However, they have quite a way to go. As it stands right now, a non ethnic Russian has pretty good chances of rising to the highest ranks in Russia, while a Russian in Latvia doesnt go higher then local major. Some Russian acquaintances I have in Latvia actually speak fluent Latvian, have a bit of a hobby when it comes to instructing ethnic Latvian of how to correctly use Latvian modal verbs, but well, they are still pro Russian and to be frank have no reason to change this.
    Nothing can make saluting the Waffen SS a good and reasonable choice for an ethnic Russian.

    2: If they want to integrate the Russians, well, the language tests are one thing. The Waffen SS stuff and the “history exams” are something completely else. The current “attempts” seem to go into a PR effort for selling the product of “civic baltic identity”. What they miss is that the product of “civic baltic identity” has a couple of flaws that even the best PR is unlikely to fix.
    What they instead should aim for is a Modus vivendi.

    On balance however, several factors make a repeat of the Ukrainian scenario unlikely:

    A) The Baltics have multiple pressure valves. Especially emigration towards both the EU and Russia.
    B) A key fact that explains the severity of Russias reaction to Maidan is that Russia perceived that she won Ukrainian accession to the Eurasion Union fair and square by offering a better trade deal, and by having a non-hostile actor win fairly on the ballot box. People fight a lot harder to defend something they perceive as rightly theirs, then they do to take something they do not perceive as theirs.
    C) There is also the “wounded bear factor”. From a hard pragmatist Russian perspective, the US and her allies inflicted serious, even grevious, damage on Russia by essentially burning (as opposed to stealing them. A thief acts in his own economic self interest, and can be reasoned with. An arsonist has to be taken out.) Russias massive investments in Ukraine, and by ensuring the creation of a Pakistan 2.0 at Russias border since they are not replacing these burned investments with something else.
    While this is a serious wound, it is not a fatal one. Russia is still in a position to provide the west with some serious vengeance, at a time, a place and with means of her choosing. To preempt Russia from taking vengeance, the west basically has to “kill the bear” because merely wounding it is a guarantee to get bitten.
    The Baltic states and their mistreatment of Russians are just some pricks. They are not existential. Ukraine, because there will be vengeance and this near certainity creates existential dynamics, is.

    Liked by 3 people

  10. Britain should be jolly well grateful that it has stout chaps like General Jimmy waiting it out to defend the Homeland when the balloon goes up.

    There are sight too many bally Bolshy types wandering up and down Oxford Street these days, spouting their Maoist doctrine and imperilling our youth.

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