Review: 2017 War With Russia (General Sir Richard Shirreff)

Evidently, General Shirreff has been reading The Fall of Night <evil grin>.

Not unlike Ghost Fleet, which I reviewed earlier, 2017 War With Russia has been billed as the successor to Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising.  And, also not unlike Ghost Fleet, 2017 War With Russia does not live up to the claim.  But, once again unlike Ghost Fleet, the importance of 2017 War With Russia lies in its attempts to outline the potential consequences of constantly slashing one’s military forces to the bone while an aggressive power lies on the border.

This power, as you will probably have guessed, is Russia.

2017 War With Russia is not a literary success.  The characters are either hackneyed stereotypes (the President of Russia could pass for a bad James Bond villain) or instantly forgettable.  But that isn't the point.  The true success of the book lies in its expose of Russian strength (and will) contrasted with NATO weakness (and irresolution).  NATO, pledged to defend the Baltic States, is largely unable to do so, if the Russians aren't kind enough to give us several months worth of warning.  The Russians can invade the Baltic States pretty much whenever they want - using mistreatment of ethnic Russian populations as their excuse - and then ... well, what then?  This is the question to which the characters in the book struggle, pretty much in vain, to find an answer.

The book is largely concentrated on Britain, which isn't too surprising.  Cuts in the UK’s defences - and the insane reliance on reservists to fill holes in the army when the UK goes to war - plays a major role in the disasters that sweep over Britain.  The book is scathingly critical - with good reason - of politicians who play games with Russia, unaware or uncaring that the Russians are prepared to play for keeps.  Losing an aircraft carrier because there was only one escort ship available to protect her from enemy submarines is the sort of mistake that would have Churchill, Nelson and Percival rolling in their graves.  And yet it seems frighteningly plausible. 

Our nuclear deterrent can and does keep an enemy from landing on our shores.  But are we prepared to use it - and accept the destruction of our country - to save the Baltic States?  It needs to be paired with a strong conventional fighting force if we are to have any influence at all on global politics.

The major point made by the book is just how quickly matters can run out of control.   Even the Russians, holding the whip hand for most of the book, discover to their chagrin that events can change the situation in an eyeblink.  But the Russians have the strong advantage of a united command and control, something largely denied to NATO (now, in Afghanistan, and later in the book).  Wars cannot be run, certainly not in real time, by committee. 

Indeed, the sole true disappointment in the book lies in the ending.  Having set the stage for a geopolitical disaster, General Shirreff allows NATO a neat trick that permits it to turn the tables on the Russians.  One may argue that he cheats (particularly as the ending comes with a suddenness that leaves the reader unsatisfied).  It would be better, I feel, if the war was played out to a NATO defeat, which is - of course - the ending of The Fall of Night.  It would certainly have a stronger impact.

The book does have its flaws, apart from that.  There is a strong over-reliance on acronyms that can be intimidating to the uninformed reader.  There are hints of romance that - thankfully - never really go anywhere.  But it does serve as a warning, a warning we would do well to heed.

The thing is, we in Britain like to claim that we have been punching above our weight.  But the blunt truth is that our weight is much less than we care to believe.  And there is no point in trying to bluff someone who is perfectly capable of calculating the odds - and concluding that they are in his favour.

The Russians may not seek to invade and occupy Europe, as I postulated in The Fall of Night.  But they don’t have to do anything of the sort to render NATO a dead letter and ensure unrivalled control over their claimed sphere of influence.

Read this book.  And then start fearing for the future.