A title to chill any sane person to the bone. Forget talk of a second Cold War. In less than 6 months time the West could be at war with the most heavily armed nuclear state on the planet.
At least that is the prediction of General Sir Richard Shirreff, NATO’s former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe in his new book, 2017: War with Russia.
Set in late spring 2017 Vladimir Putin, buoyed by the perceived weakness and lack of resolve within NATO, takes the decision to strike while the odds seem heavily in his favour and launches a military incursion into eastern Ukraine to open a land corridor between Crimea and Russia.
At the same time, Russian special forces are working at stirring up ethnic and political tensions in Latvia as a pretext for an invasion of the Baltics. As Shirreff highlights in the prologue to his book, Putin declared in a speech in March 2014 after the “annexation” of Crimea that he would protect the rights of Russians abroad. An attack on the Baltics, therefore, is not entirely beyond the realms of possibility.
This statement, along with developments in eastern Ukraine over the last few years, has caused alarm not only within NATO. The Baltic states with large ethnic-Russian populations, despite being NATO members, fear being next on Putin’s hit list.
Within a few weeks, after Putin’s decision is made in this fictional account, US army helping train Ukrainian forces are kidnapped and killed by Russian special forces; US fighter jets and pilots are shot out of the skies by their Russian adversaries; Russian military activity increases on the borders of the Baltic states and Latvia’s entire infrastructure is brought to a grinding halt by a cyber attack disrupting power supplies and banking transactions and rendering the country temporarily defenceless.
While all of this is going on NATO ambassadors are at loggerheads about how to respond. The Baltic states want to see Article 5 invoked. As far as they are concerned this is an outright attack on Latvia and NATO must act. The Greeks and Hungarians are having none of it. Frustrated by the lack of will among its European counterparts to take action the United States, under a new President, is left having to heap pressure on the Germans to change their course despite the latter’s fear of provoking the Russians into a bigger conflagration.
As far-fetched as it seems, Shirreff thinks quite differently. During a talk to promote his book at the Edinburgh International Book Festival Shirreff, responding to a question from the moderator, stated that he thought there was a nine out of ten chance that the West would find itself at war with Russia if it failed to begin sending a clear message to Moscow that it was serious about defending its members and standing up for its principles.
The West has shown an increasing lack of resolve and weak leadership at a time when Russia is hell-bent on re-establishing itself as a world power. Although some think it’s a good thing that NATO has been more cautious in recent years, Shirreff argues that this makes the situation more dangerous.
Whereas a strong conventional response may deter Russia, a refusal by NATO to act in the face of Russian aggression puts it in a precarious position and may spur the Russians to take a shot into an open goal. If Russia did take the Baltic states, how would the West respond? And how would Russia protect its newly gained spoils? Shirreff’s answer to that, unfortunately, is that it would most likely involve nuclear weapons. The way to prevent this, argues Shirreff, is with a strong, conventional response before it is too late.
Despite his insistence on the importance of a good grounding in history, some questions posed to Shirreff by the audience attempted to expose an ignorance of Russian history, particularly in respect to Ukraine, given Russia’s long and emotional attachment to the area. Shirreff was even accused at one point of “literary cowardice” by producing an imaginative work of fiction rather than writing a book backed up by facts and evidence.
Shirreff’s answer to that is that he felt a work of fiction would have a better chance of provoking discussion among people who would never normally pay much attention to things published by think tanks and in academic circles. Asked what would keep him awake at night if he were, for example, the Defense Secretary of the United States, Shirreff was emphatic: Russian bullishness, combined with the West’s lack of resolve, would have him lying awake in a cold sweat.
Russia, he says, has the potential to change our way of life entirely whereas other threats, such as Daesh, do not.
The book certainly provokes some chilling thoughts. Everybody, and none more so than Shirreff himself, hopes that all of this stays among the pages of fiction. Time, and not very much of it perhaps, will tell.