The first female president of the United States faces her first major international conflict: Seeking to consolidate the Slavic nations of Eastern Europe, Russia has seized the three Baltic states—Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia—all members of NATO. That requires a response beyond just a caustic tweet or sharply worded press release. For the first time since the Cuban missile crisis, there is serious talk of nuclear war.
This is the basis of 2017 War with Russia, the unsettling new book by General Sir Richard Shirreff, who retired in 2014 as NATO’s deputy supreme commander of Europe, as well as its highest-ranking British officer. Although 2017 is technically a novel, this “future history” is really just a war game on the printed page, its preoccupations much closer to those of von Clausewitz and Churchill than those of Woolf or Wordsworth. Shirreff’s book is subtitled “An urgent warning from senior military command,” and he makes plain in his introduction that the novel’s primary intention is to convey the urgency of containing Russian President Vladimir Putin. He likens today’s Mother Russia to Germany in the late 1930s, when it seized the Sudetenland in brazen contravention of established borders. War-weary Europe let the matter slide, hoping that talk of a Thousand Year Reich was just bluster.
“I’m worried, very worried, that we’re sleepwalking into something absolutely catastrophic,” Shirreff tells me, speaking on a Friday evening from his home in Hampshire, in the bucolic country outside of London. A graduate of Oxford who served in the British army, with deployments in the Middle East and the Balkans, he is not a natural writer, so the judgment of the Financial Times—that this is a “literary disaster”—is not as stinging as it might otherwise be, since that same review praised Shirreff’s grim geopolitical vision as one of “profound importance.” 2017 is an unabashedly didactic work, a real-life warning with the bold-faced names changed.
The novel opens with the Russians staging an attack on a school in Donetsk, the breakaway region of the Ukraine controlled by pro-Kremlin separatists since 2014. Close to 100 children are killed, and Ukrainian forces are blamed, thus giving the Russians the perfect pretext for further aggression. Russia used a similar ploy—the bombing of several apartment buildings in Moscow in 1999—to begin the first Chechen War. But let’s not give Putin too much credit: He likely learned the tactic from Hitler, who was probably behind the Reichstag fire of 1933, which allowed the Nazis to eliminate political opponents before moving on to more grandiose aims.
When I spoke to Shirreff, he lamented the ease with which Russia invaded both Georgia (2008) and the Ukraine (2014). “That was a slick, very professionally executed operation,” he says of the conquest of Crimea, one that Putin may well try to replicate in the Baltics, given how little genuine resistance he encountered from the West two years ago. “Russia despises weakness and respects strength,” Shirreff tells me. It’s no accident that, every few months, the nation goes agog over images of Putin, stolid and shirtless, wrestling a bear or cuddling with a Siberian tiger.
When I first spoke with Shirreff, he declined to comment on Trump’s overtures to the Kremlin, but by the next morning, he’d changed his mind and sent me an email that said, in part: “What could suit Putin better than to embarrass the Democrats and so propel into the White House a candidate who has undermined NATO’s doctrine of collective defence by raising questions over America’s willingness to support an ally if attacked?” He was referring to Trump’s suggestion that the United States would not come to the aid of NATO allies who hadn’t made the requisite defense expenditures.
It is far more likely, according to most projections, that the next president will be Clinton, a longtime foe of Putin who has shown a willingness to use American force abroad. Shirreff believes that nuclear war with Russia is a possibility: Kaliningrad, a region of Russia that borders the Baltic States, now serves as a growing repository for both conventional and nuclear weapons, including Iskander missile systems that have nuclear capability and a range of 300 miles. These could be fired at the West—and will be, if Putin finds Russia’s borders with Europe threatened. Of course, if he invades the Baltics, such a counterattack would be required by the “collective defense” doctrine of the North Atlantic Treaty, known as Article 5. “If NATO goes to war with Russia,” Shirreff says, “that means nuclear war.”
Full article: War With Russia Looms, Says Former NATO General in New Book (Newsweek)