Book Review: 2017: War With Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command by Andrew Monaghan

2017: War With Russia. An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command. General Sir Richard Shirreff. London: Coronet, 2016. Hb. 436pp. ISBN 978-1-473-63222-6

Until 2014 the idea of a Europe “whole, free and at peace” dominated the thinking of Western politicians and officials. Indeed, the notion of state-to-state war in Europe was so unthinkable that it did not feature in the discussion, even in fiction. European armed forces were reconfigured to address different problems, and, in many cases, they were significantly reduced in size, with high performance and heavy weapons withdrawn or mothballed. The war in Ukraine has deeply shaken that sense of security. It has generated much concern about Moscow challenging the post-Cold War European architecture and potentially testing NATO’s collective defence by launching an attack on the Baltic States. 

Framed as a “future history”, Richard Shirreff’s book is intended as a “wakeup call” for Western leaders, and emphasises the need for NATO to be ready to repel looming further Russian aggression that imperils both the independence of NATO members and existence of NATO. A retired British Army general, and, as Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), NATO’s senior European officer until March 2014, the month after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Shirreff certainly reflects on these challenges with vim. 

He has written what he calls a “fact-based prediction”, blurring the lines between fiction and war game scenario modelling based on what he knows from his time in service. In so doing, he echoes General Sir John Hackett’s book, The Third World War, first published in the late 1970s. Indeed, there are other potential comparisons: Hackett published a controversial letter in The Times in 1968 criticising the British government’s apparent lack of concern over the strength of NATO forces in Europe, signing the letter not as a British officer, but as a NATO commander. Similarly, when he was Defence Secretary, Philip Hammond sought formal action against Shirreff for the latter’s criticisms of defence cuts, though this was not possible since Shirreff was formally a NATO officer rather than a British one.

The mix of fiction and fact certainly lends some advantages to the author, most particularly the ability to air a series of views across a rather wide range of subjects that might have been harder to make in a more formal set of memoires. Thus Shirreff can raise themes that will be familiar to many still in service. But it also means that the book is neither fish nor fowl, and builds in a number of problems.

The fiction fairly rattles along, though it also often clunks, whether because of repetition or because of the nature of many of the characters involved: the women are blond and sporty, the Russians are villains straight from central casting – the president bares his teeth as he smiles, thumps the table, and with ‘eyes cold and voice deadpan’, ‘grins wolfishly’ – replete with canned dialogue.

Nor is Shirreff subtle. If careful readers will detect the passing ghost of Alexander Lebed, there are numerous hints that the 2017 Russian leadership are soviet, even Stalinist: in the book, the Director of the FSB (the Russian security service), is Lavrentiy Pavlovich Merkulov, a nod to Lavrentiy Pavlovich Beria, Stalin’s infamous chief of Soviet Security. More obvious still are the frequent Hitler and the second world war analogies. On one of the numerous occasions when this analogy is raised, one of the characters even confirms this as a ‘Good analogy’. It is not. It is a cliché that has had all the meaningful informative capacity beaten out of it long ago, and now merely serves to short circuit thinking through emotional overload.

The criticisms of self-serving British and European politicians and officials are also boomed at the same forceful pitch throughout. British Defence Secretary “Everage”, who became rich in business but does not understand his current brief, comes in for particularly severe punishment for implementing the defence cuts which have left the UK and NATO in such a perilous position. But so does Number 10 for being focus group dependent and too attentive to their popularity ratings, and for seeking to include parliament in a decision to go to war. Thus there is ‘precious little proper strategic thinking’ going on in Number 10, apparently, and responses to the crisis are (at least initially) ill thought out and incomplete, with tragic consequences. Shirreff also trains his fire on the Royal Navy’s new aircraft-less aircraft carriers and some NATO ambassadors. The author’s alter ego often emerges as these points are made, and to ensure they are driven home, they are made in turn by each character group: British generals, American politicians, and even, helpfully, the Russians all pile in to the attack on the capabilities, resilience, intelligence and moral fibre of the UK and NATO.

Some – even much – of this is fair enough. But each of his targets will retort that they have been only moderately served: the senior service that it’s a typical “army view” of the aircraft carriers, and responsibility is more widely shared; politicians that in today’s world, focus groups are an unavoidable element of today’s democratic politics, and, besides, shouldn’t a decision to go to war be taken through parliament? The risk, therefore, is that the noise of axes being ground – occasionally rather vituperatively – is so loud that it may drown out the perfectly reasonable and important points that Shirreff seeks to make.

And the “fact-based prediction”? Yes, NATO certainly faces many of the challenges that Shirreff describes. And relations between Russia and the West have become competitive and adversarial to the extent that war cannot be excluded – witness Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet in late 2015, an act which the Russian prime minister suggested had given Russia the legal grounds to go to war.

These points alone make Shirreff’s message important, again underlined by the further point that the modernisation of the Russian armed forces is well under way. It is reasonable to assume that this will continue, altering the balance of power in European security. This will become increasingly significant because Moscow has repeatedly and explicitly stated its disagreements with NATO, and its dislike of the way that the current architecture stands. Shirreff’s depiction of the role of the new Russian National Defence Centre is well noted, as is the way he points to new equipment and capabilities, even if the Russian defence industry will have to hurry up to produce sufficiently significant quantities of that equipment to meet his deadline of 2017. It is perhaps a shame, though, that the reasons for Russia launching a war against NATO are so simplified.

The book’s fact-based scenario nature acts both as a narrative crutch and a prison, and means that developments are often telegraphed early and rather obviously, most notably one big tragedy which feels inevitable almost as soon as it enters the story. It also limits the scope of the book where real flights of imaginative fiction could perhaps have driven the author’s points home more effectively. This raises three points. First, the scenario Shirreff uses is a (slight) variation of the mainstream one already widely in service in the media (it is very similar to that used by the BBC in a docu-drama in which Shirreff participated about the possibility of war with Russia) and think tanks, one which extrapolates from how the war in Ukraine evolved, which is then packaged and converted into a step-by-step escalation that plays strongly to Western fears.

It is plausible, and certainly a recognisable indication of what many people are thinking about. But it entrenches a degree of intellectual rigidity in what is a dynamic and evolving situation; it emits the faint whiff of preparing to fight the last war. Indeed, it has a serious downside of perhaps anchoring thinking too strongly to events of early 2014, rather than how they might evolve in 2017. In real life, Russian Chief of the General Staff Valeriy Gerasimov is among those who note the truism that no two wars are the same.

Second, the Russians too easily play to expected form. They are also criticised by for not reading their Clausewitz (p.232). To the contrary, the Russian military leadership are good Clausewitzians, particularly in terms of taking into account the reality of war and its human dimension, perhaps better even than many in Western armed forces. If Shirreff is today’s Hackett, therefore, it is to be hoped that someone will soon also seek to be today’s Ralph Peters. An American military intelligence analyst, in 1989 Peters published Red Army: A Novel of Tomorrow’s War, a novel that explored such a situation from the Soviet side. This would be particularly useful today as a means of highlighting the large, and growing gulf between the West and Russian in terms how these matters are seen. At the very least, it is to be hoped that Shirreff may follow further in Hackett’s steps, since the latter produced a second version of his The Third World War, the “untold story”, which included more detail from the Soviet side.

Third, the model scenario has a built in weakness. Though it starts energetically and plausibly enough, the Russians quite quickly begin to run into fairly obvious problems (which begs the question – would they really do it this way?). Furthermore, though the main thrust of the argument is the lack of NATO capacity, in the end the resolution relies on what NATO has – capable thinkers, cyber security, special forces, air forces and small infantry units.

All told, therefore, 2017: War with Russia is a curate’s egg of a book. The central messages that Russia should no longer be treated as a sideshow or distraction, indeed that it is posing an increasingly obvious challenge to the European security architecture, and that warfare is evolving – and that combined, all this needs serious attention – are very important. It is to be hoped that they survive accusations of sensationalism or critiques of style or evidence. 

Dr. Andrew Monaghan is a Visiting Fellow at the Changing Character of War Programme. He is also a Senior Research Fellow in the Russia and Eurasia Programme at Chatham House, where his work is supported by the Gerda Henkel Foundation. He is the author of The New Politics of Russia: Interpreting Change, to be published by Manchester University Press in July 2016. This is a longer version of a review published by the Scotland-Russia Forum.