There is a moment in every James Bond movie when the villain laboriously explains his master plan, typically revealing both his wickedness and the seed of his downfall. The evil gloating trope is much in evidence in General Sir Richard Shirreff’s 2017: War With Russia, which is at once a literary disaster, a pacy techno-thriller and a clarion call to the west.
Shirreff, who until retiring two years ago was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the most senior European officer in Nato, has a simple message: “the political and military decisions we are currently making, and have already made, are now propelling us into a future war with Russia”. This is his fictionalised account of what that war might look like. Following the template of the 1940 anti-appeasement tract Guilty Men, the book reserves its greatest venom not for Moscow but for “semi-pacifist” politicians in London and Berlin who, in Shirreff’s view, are moral pygmies in the face of impending doom.
The characters are but flimsy vessels to drive this point home in a thousand ways. “My strategy of increasing the flow of refugees into Turkey by bombing civilian targets in Syria and so putting ever greater pressure on the EU has worked better than I ever thought possible,” cackles a Blofeld-like Vladimir Putin character. “We’re lucky Nato hadn’t stationed any well-armed, permanent forces there [in the Baltics]’, declares a Russian general with all the subtlety of a Scooby-Doo villain. “That could have changed things completely.”
Shirreff’s German leaders are craven apologists for Moscow. “In Germany we can count on the willing fools who believe what they read about Russia in Spiegel,” boasts the Russian foreign minister. Berlin’s ambassador to Nato symbolically gorges on chocolate just before vetoing urgent defensive measures. Greece’s ambassador, a not-even-disguised leather-jacketed Varoufakis figure, is obsessed with Athens’s “fraternal Orthodox brotherhood to Russia”.
But this pales in comparison with the savaging meted out to the Cameron government. Shirreff’s British prime minister squirms out of alliance commitments even as Latvia is conquered. “We don’t need to worry about Russia and any reductions in our conventional forces”, he says as he deploys an aircraft carrier shorn of its aircraft, “because we’re well covered with our Trident independent nuclear deterrent.” You can guess how that ends. Real politicians do not talk like this, of course, but these are characters in a geopolitical morality play.
And then there are the women. The US president, we are told, has “highlighted blonde hair” and likes to “emphasise her femininity by wearing skirts”. The British ambassador to Nato has a “flawless complexion”. A Latvian spook is “stunning”, with “ash-blonde hair” (in case we forget she is blonde, we are later reminded four times in the space of 20 pages). Best of all is the GCHQ officer who boasts the “sporty good looks you’d expect from a former head girl of Cheltenham Ladies’ College”. Only the hockey stick is missing.
But for all the clumsy writing, it is of profound importance when a former Nato deputy commander is screaming at us that the alliance’s high readiness task force is a sham and that it takes a fortnight to move ammunition from Germany to Poland. All of this while Russia reverts to Soviet type, issuing nuclear threats of a kind rarely heard outside North Korea.
Shirreff is not a maverick outlier. A recent series of war-games by the think-tank RAND produced the conclusion that, “as presently postured, Nato cannot successfully defend the territory of its most exposed members”. Nor, if we accept the premise of a war in the Baltics, is Shirreff’s basic scenario outlandish. Although Putin would certainly be far more cautious in challenging a Nato member than he was towards Ukraine, experts have devoted considerable thought to the possibility of a limited Russian land-grab, followed by threats of nuclear strikes to deter a Nato response.
Virtually every likeable British character in the book spends their time expressing some variant of the sentiment, “if it wasn’t for those pesky defence cuts . . . ” — usually as Russian bullets fly past. But I expect that Shirreff’s former colleagues will be most pleased with the shaven-headed General Jock Kydd, who is pulled out of retirement to replace a sycophantic predecessor as chief of defence staff. In a triumphal scene, Kydd launches a profanity-laced tirade at the defence secretary, explaining the consequences of his “constant and ill-thought-through cost cutting”. The author’s pleasure is palpable. Perhaps those cathartic passages alone will persuade other retiring generals to ditch the memoirs for fiction.
Shashank Joshi is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
2017: War With Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command, by Richard Shirreff, Coronet, RRP£20, 448 pages