Though it has attracted little attention, a book by a retired British general, Sir Alexander Richard Shirreff, is predicting Russia is going to attack NATO next year.
General Shirreff, who was NATO’s Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe from 2011 to 2014, has even said in which month next year the attack will take place. According to him it will be in May 2017. That month Russia will apparently conquer eastern Ukraine and Latvia whilst threatening NATO with nuclear war.
Lest anyone think these are the isolated ravings of a madman, the book was launched at the London offices of Britain’s Royal United Services Institute and contains a foreword by none other than US Admiral James Stavridis, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who writes portentously that:
“Under President Putin, Russia has charted a dangerous course that, if it is allowed to continue, may lead inexorably to a clash with Nato. And that will mean a war that could so easily go nuclear.”
Similarly wild – though rather less precise – warnings of coming war have been made by other NATO generals including US Air Force General Breedlove – Stavridis’s successor – and by Breedlove’s successor, US Army General Scaparrotti.
Before anyone starts worrying that we have fallen into the world of Doctor Strangelove, I should say that General Shirreff is talking nonsense. World War III is not going to happen next year and Russia is not planning to attack Latvia next May.
General Shirreff’s comments about Russia show that he is profoundly ignorant of the country and its people and has no understanding at all of the thinking of its leaders. If he did he would know that he was talking nonsense.
Do General Shirreff and NATO’s other military leaders however actually believe any of the nonsense they are saying?
In General Shirreff’s case it is impossible to avoid the feeling that his book is intended to make him money so that he can provide financially for his retirement. Predicting war is it seems a good sell.
That however cannot be the whole story. It does not explain why someone like Stavridis would want to endorse General Shirreff’s book.
There is of course a strong element behind these warnings of the military lobbying aggressively for more money.
In Shirreff’s case it is known that he frequently clashed with Britain’s political leaders over what he felt was their financial neglect of the military. Playing up the threat of war is the classic way to panic politicians and the public into opening their purse strings.
There is no doubt much of the hysteria is about that, especially at a time when the US is lobbying furiously to get European members of NATO to increase their defence budgets.
Nonetheless I suspect that there is a core of genuine alarm buried deep inside these warnings.
Given that NATO spends so much more than Russia on defence the idea that Russia might attack NATO – the world’s most powerful military alliance – must appear absurd to most people. However that does not take into account how the world might seem to NATO’s senior military.
Until very recently these people inhabited a mental world where since the end of the Cold War their overwhelming military superiority over Russia was something they took for granted.
Unsurprisingly this complacent assumption of overwhelming superiority in the end influenced their behaviour.
With the USSR gone NATO military leaders felt free to do what they wanted without fear of Soviet intervention. Given the USSR’s previous role of balancing NATO power in any armed conflict that might arise, that appeared to remove for NATO the risk of defeat. Not surprisingly – especially given the West’s exceptionalist and universalist ideology – that meant that the temptation for the Western powers to throw their weight around became irresistible.
The result was a series of wars launched almost casually with minimal public discussion against Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.
What has now hit the NATO leaders hard is the shocking realisation that their assumption of overwhelming superiority over Russia is wrong.
In a string of military campaigns – in Chechnya in 1999, against Georgia in 2008, in Crimea in 2014 and, most spectacularly, in Syria in 2015 and since – the Russian military has gone from victory to victory, proving that it is not merely a force to be reckoned with but that in terms of sheer proficiency and technological competence it is a match for the best in NATO.
The Syrian operation has been the most alarming of all. In that theatre both Russia and the US are militarily involved. It is therefore possible to make direct comparisons between the militaries of the two countries. The fact the Russian military in Syria appears in some respects to have actually outperformed the US military must for US and NATO leaders – brought up to believe in the myth of their own invincibility – be particularly alarming.
It does not help that over the same period that the Russian military has gone from victory to victory the US and NATO have experienced one setback after another.
The NATO military that feels the most alarmed and humiliated is the British.
Until about a decade ago the British military believed themselves to be the best in NATO and the strongest in NATO after the US. As a British citizen I have had to listen to any number of lectures from proud British patriots telling me how much better their army is compared to that of the US.
In the event, over the last decade, the British military has experienced one defeat after another.
It had to be rescued by the US military in Basra. It was badly defeated in Helmand. During the air campaign against Libya it found it could not sustain the bombing campaign against Gaddafi’s troops without US help. In Syria – a theatre where both the US and the Russians are present – it has proved completely ineffective.
General Shirreff is a British general and it would not be surprising if he felt the British military’s humiliation especially keenly.
Given the profound shock NATO commanders have experienced as their core assumption of effortless superiority over the Russians collapses all around them, it is not surprising if they are now furiously lobbying for more troops and more bases in Europe so that they can return to the position of unchallengeable superiority they had grown accustomed to.
That in my opinion is what is driving their warnings and their increasingly shrill demands for more money and more troops.
Though it is doubtful that anyone takes General Shirreff and his warnings very seriously, it would be unwise to be complacent about all this.
General Shirreff admits in his book that the Russians are becoming increasingly worried at the spread of NATO bases around their territory. That is what he says is driving them towards war.
General Shirreff’s “solution” to this problem – shared with him by all the other top commanders of NATO – is however to deploy even more NATO troops and even more NATO bases even closer to Russia.
The logical fallacy is obvious. What General Shirreff proposes cannot make the situation better. It can only make it worse.
If General Shirreff had the courage to accept his own logic he would see that the way to reduce tension in Europe and end forever the risk of war is to reduce the number of NATO troops close to Russia, not increase them.
As for seeking to gain the sort of military superiority over Russia that NATO once believed it had, a realistic assessment of the situation in Europe would recognise that that is impossible. Russia unlike every other European country is a continental sized Great Power. By definition that makes it militarily more powerful than any other European country or combination of countries is or can ever be. Amongst the NATO powers only the US can match it.
That does not make Russia aggressive or expansionist. It does however make it dangerous to threaten.
The way to secure peace in Europe is not through confrontation with Russia but through a rapprochement with it. That however would mean accepting that Russia is a Great Power and is entitled to be treated as one.
Instead by treating Russia as a mortal enemy General Sherriff and his NATO comrades risk making it one.