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«2017: War with Russia», Richard Shirreff
To my friends in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Men and women who understand the price of freedom.
Admiral James Stavridis, US Navy (Retired), former Supreme Allied Commander Europe
AT HIS CONFIRMATION hearing in the summer of 2015, General Mark Milley, the new Chief of US Army Staff, was asked by the Senate Armed Services Committee what was the greatest threat to the American — and Western — democratic way of life. He answered, «I would put Russia right now as the number one threat… Russia is the only country on earth that retains a nuclear capability to destroy the United States. That is an existential threat.» General Joe Dunford, the new Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, expressed the same view to the same committee during his confirmation hearings.
I fully agree with that assessment. It is also an assessment shared by a select group of top military leaders; people whose experience puts them in the best position to know the facts of the case. In particular, I applaud my former comrade-in-arms and Deputy Supreme Allied Commander at NATO, General Sir Richard Shirreff, for laying out the risks America and the West currently face in this brave, timely and important book.
As the Strategic Commander of NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, I saw Russian aggression firsthand. Of all the challenges America faces on the geopolitical scene in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the most dangerous is the resurgence of Russia under President Putin. Yes, Islamic jihadists pose a massive threat to our security but, until the jihadists can defeat us on the battlefield, they cannot destroy our nation. The Russians are different — and this is the truly terrifying bit — as they appear to be prepared to use nuclear weapons, based on recent, very public comments by Vladimir Putin.
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. As the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz once said, «War has its own grammar but not its own logic.» I would add that it has its own dynamic. If American and NATO soldiers find themselves in direct combat with Russian troops, that conflict will escalate. And that means the ultimate option will be on the table: the use of nuclear weapons. This book describes brilliantly how this horrific scenario could develop «on the ground.» These are the sort of scenarios that many senior civilians, and especially politicians, throughout history have consistently failed to understand or have wished away.
But this dynamic can be stopped and war averted if NATO, under the leadership of America, shows the necessary resolve and determination. It is a war that can be prevented, but only if the Russians believe we are serious about being prepared to fight to defend our freedoms and those of our allies.
War With Russia tells the story of a war that could result from a failure to stand strong in the face of Russian aggression. It tells the story of how, thanks to a series of misjudgments and policy blunders, NATO and the West stumble into a catastrophic war with Russia; scenarios that I can attest are all too possible and which make for chilling reading. But it also tells the story of how the tide of history can be turned when good men and women stand up to be counted. Above all, the message is that it is not too late to prevent catastrophe.
This is no ordinary «future history,» for it is told by a brave and seasoned warfighter, a former senior NATO commander, who served the NATO Alliance brilliantly as my deputy, and whose judgment I learned to trust; a man whom I, as an admiral, would have leaned on for his judgment on how the land battle should be fought. Moreover, a man who really does understand the geopolitical realities and risks and who has proved that he is not scared to tell it as it is. It is very rare that such a senior and experienced general is prepared to put his reputation on the line, but Richard Shirreff is that man. He correctly called the consequences of the Russians’ invasion of Crimea and annexation of parts of Ukraine back in 2014. I fear that he has again correctly called the Russians’ next moves in War With Russia.
Some will say that the warnings of our most senior American admirals, generals and the author of this book are a predictable response from men with an interest to protect and they are no more than crying «Wolf!» I would remind the naysayers of this: in 2017, it will be a hundred years since the United States committed four million young Americans to the slaughterhouse of Europe, of whom 110,000 gave their lives. Twenty-five years later, America had to do it again — and the cost was much greater in the Second World War. Had it not been for NATO and the determination and sacrifice of a new generation of Americans, the subsequent Cold War could have had a very different outcome.
At a recent top-level convention of senior political, diplomatic and military figures in Europe, an attendee asked, with reference to Russia’s military adventurism and muscle flexing in Europe, was the present situation with Russia more like the slide to world war in 1914, or the failure to stand firm against Hitler that led to the next conflagration of the Second World War. The chilling answer was: «No, this is Europe 2015. With nuclear weapons.»
War With Russia lays out a plausible and startling case of the potential peril ahead — it deserves a serious reading indeed.
THE WAR WITH Russia began in the Ukraine in March 2014.
At that time I was a four-star British General and the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), deputy to NATO’s American Strategic Commander (SACEUR), himself double-hatted as commander of America’s European Command. We followed in illustrious footseps: General Dwight D. Eisenhower was the first SACEUR with Field Marshal Montgomery the first DSACEUR. Based at NATO’s strategic headquarters (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe or SHAPE in the NATO vernacular) situated just north of Mons in Belgium, I was an experienced NATO man having previously commanded NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps.
I had been in post as DSACEUR for three years and I confess that, along with my senior military colleagues, I accepted the received wisdom that, despite the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008, NATO should aim to foster a strategic partnership with Russia. I visited Moscow on several occasions to build relationships with the senior Russian military leadership and happily welcomed General Valeri Gerasimov, now Chief of the Russian General Staff and Commander of Russian Armed Forces, into my home.
However, the invasion of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, its invasion of that country, and Putin’s self-proclaimed intention in March 2014 of reuniting ethnic Russian speakers under the banner of Mother Russia, has changed my view of Russia’s intentions fundamentally. Russia is now our strategic adversary and has set itself on a collision course with the West. It has built up, and is enhancing, its military capability. It has thrown away the rulebook on which the post — Cold War security settlement of Europe was based. The Russian president has started a dynamic that can only be halted if the West wakes up to the real possibility of war and takes urgent action.
This book is that wake-up call — before it is too late.
Back in March 2014, there was a sense of incredulity among us western military leaders when it became increasingly clear that the «annexation» of Crimea was no less than a Russian invasion. Put bluntly and in context, this was the first attempt to change the boundaries of Europe by force since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Not only were we witnessing a brutal return to the power politics of «iron and blood» in Europe, but we were also seeing a new form of state-on-state warfare. Rather than merely applying brute force, Russia instead undermined the integrity of Crimea from within and without the need for a conventional attack. I watched the clips on CNN and BBC News 24 on the widescreen TV in my office in SHAPE. It showed soldiers in green uniforms, with no identifying unit insignia, faces obscured with balaclava helmets, driving similarly unidentified vehicles. As my fellow commanders and I watched, we all knew who those vehicles belonged to and who was operating them — but proving it was another thing. It was highly professional and expertly implemented and we couldn’t even consider doing anything to counter it as Ukraine was not a member of NATO.
In the days that followed we received regular updates from NATO’s Intelligence Fusion Centre, as they listed the Russian tank armies and airborne divisions now preparing to invade the rest of Ukraine. At the same time, we witnessed an unprecedented buildup of Russian forces on the borders of the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Now this was very much our concern, as «the Baltics» — as NATO refers to them — had been NATO members since 2004.
Then President Putin spoke in the Kremlin on 18 March 2014 and formally admitted Crimea into the Russian Federation.
The next morning I sat with my direct boss General Phil Breedlove, US Air Force and NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander Europe, the SACEUR, for the daily operational update in the Comprehensive Crisis Operations Management Centre at the heart of SHAPE, which is NATO’s strategic military headquarters. This newly refurbished, state-of-the-art command center was built to replace an old-style Cold War bunker. It is NATO’s strategic nerve center and it is specifically designed for the challenges of twenty-first century conflict. Manned by its mixed military and civilian staff from the twenty-eight nations of the Alliance, it is also able to integrate its planning with the multitude of different international organizations and other agencies with whom NATO does its essential business. With its banks of computers, multiple media feeds from different 24-hour news channels and social media, and its real time satellite and drone surveillance imagery, it allows SHAPE’s Command Group to think, plan, and act strategically.
The glass walls and open-plan architecture of the brightly lit conference room made the atmosphere more like the trading floor of a New York investment bank than a traditional military headquarters, as successive «briefers» outlined the developing situation on the ground to the Command Group and its supporting staff.
Despite the shock of the Russian invasion, the tone was measured and matter of fact. There was a sense of purpose, a recognition that this could be, if the opportunity was taken, NATO’s moment to show how relevant it still was. After all, this was the very sort of scenario that the Alliance had been formed to confront sixty-five years earlier. Conversely, fail to match the moment and there was a real risk that this might be the point that NATO’s inherent weakness — the requirement for all twenty-eight member states to agree on a course of action — was laid bare for all to see.
Which was it to be?
I remember well the air of unreality as the detailed contents of Putin’s Kremlin speech were analyzed for us by the Operations Chief, a US airborne forces major general, a veteran of America’s wars of the past decade and a man not given to hyperbole. He quoted the sometimes bizarre, always hyper-nationalistic, words of the President: «We have all the reasons to believe that the policy of containment of Russia which was happening in the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries is still going on.» Followed by Putin’s chilling warning to the West: «If you press the spring, it will release at some point; something you should remember.» It ended with the unequivocal statement that Russia and the Ukraine were «one nation» and «Kiev is the mother of Russian cities.»
As I listened, the implications were clear. The annexation of Crimea, and the President’s vow to reunite «Russian speakers» in the former republics of the Soviet Union under the banner of Mother Russia, was little different from Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938. Would future historians judge this as our generation’s Rhineland and Sudetenland moment? And to continue the analogy to its logical conclusion, would an implicit Russian attempt to reincorporate the Baltic States — with their significant Russian-speaking minorities — into a new Russian empire in a couple of years’ time be our Poland? My answer was an emphatic «yes.» — if NATO, under US leadership, failed to step up to the mark.
In the following days we watched the continued Russian build-up of troops on both the borders of Ukraine and the Baltic States. This was not in the modern NATO script or the way «the West» — meaning broadly the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand — viewed the world either.
Eminent western military thinkers were even now proclaiming the end of state-on-state industrial war. But if my passionate study of history has taught me anything, it is to take no apparent certainty for granted, together with our inability to learn the lessons of the past. I felt as if I were back at the British Army Staff College in the Cold War days of the late 1980s. We were once again talking of Russian tank armies and airborne divisions and calculating where and when they might attack across the border into Ukraine.
My first concern was for the Baltic States and what this display of Russian aggression would mean for them. I recalled, with some discomfort, my interview in September 2013 on Latvian TV, in which I had said so confidently, in response to some sharp questions from my interviewer, that I saw no threat to the Baltic States from this Russian government. How wrong I had been. All the Chiefs of Defense of these freedom-loving, western European — oriented countries were my friends. All had family members who had been deported to Siberia or liquidated in the purges of the Soviet era. The previous Estonian Chief of Defense had himself been deported to the Russian Gulags with his entire family as a child, aged nine. All had experienced the brutality of conscription into the Soviet military and, as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1992, all had put their lives on the line and answered their country’s call to break away from the Soviet empire. They understood the horror of what might be coming around the corner in a way that I as a Brit, or SACEUR as an American, could not even begin to do. These were men who really understood the meaning of the word «freedom.»
I phoned them all in turn: Riho Terras, Raimonds Graube, and Arvydas Pocius. They were calm, but utterly realistic. They reported unprecedented levels of Russian military activity in their airspace, seaspace, and along their land borders with Russia. These, they reported, were clearly designed to intimidate them. This was the way the old Soviet Union did business and they were under no illusions as to what they were witnessing now.
It turned out that the Americans had been there before me, a sign of America’s historical commitment to the Baltic States which had never wavered, even during the years of Soviet occupation. General Marty Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, had conference-called them earlier that day. In the face of their concern he had ordered the immediate deployment of a squadron of F-16 fighter-bombers to the Baltics. With that one gesture, I knew that America was continuing to underpin and guarantee the freedom of Europe; if Russia attacked, however far-fetched that might seem, it would mean engaging those aircraft. And that would mean America was also being attacked. Nevertheless, my friends expressed disappointment, some bitterness, but no surprise, that none of the major European NATO powers — Britain, France or Germany — had shown any solidarity with them. They could have said to me, «I told you so.» But none did. They didn’t need to.
Back at SHAPE, our daily lives quickly became dominated by the crisis in Ukraine and how NATO should respond. At the end of one briefing, SACEUR, NATO’s strategic commander, a genial, Harley Davidson — riding, US Air Force fighter pilot from the Deep South, asked me for my thoughts as a land commander. «Phil,» I replied, «the NATO nations won’t like it, but now is the time to deploy a brigade to the Baltic States to show the Russians that we’re serious about defending them.»
Sadly, and in the course of this book you will see why, this was a political bridge too far for the North Atlantic Council. But militarily and, I would argue, politically, it was the right thing to do. An all-arms brigade of 5,000 men with tanks, armored infantry, attack helicopters, and artillery would have sent a powerful message to the President: «Thus far perhaps, but no further.» It would also have irrevocably bound all NATO nations into the defense of the Baltic States.
I quickly made two more phone calls, to Air Chief Marshal Stu Peach, the UK’s Vice Chief of Defense Staff, in the Ministry of Defense in London, and to Mariot Leslie, the UK’s Ambassador to NATO in Brussels. I suggested that now was the time for Britain to show solidarity with the Baltic States and particularly with Estonia, whose lion-hearted soldiers had fought and died alongside American and British soldiers in faraway Afghanistan. That America’s battle-hardened troops would be there, ready and willing to defend the values of individual freedom, democracy, and the rule of law which had made the USA such a beacon of hope for the world, I had little doubt. The wheels of government turned and, shortly afterwards, to his credit, the British prime minister authorized the deployment of four RAF Typhoons to Estonia. But the question remained: would the effort be sustained?
And then, at the end of March, my thirty-seven-year military career was over and I left SHAPE to start a new civilian life. I was, however, interested to note that, in May 2015, just over a year after I had first suggested it, the Estonian Chief of Defense called for NATO to deploy a brigade to the Baltic States to show its solidarity with those small and vulnerable countries, as its massive and ever more aggressive neighbor continued to ramp up its military activity on their borders. Sadly that request fell on deaf ears until, under American leadership, the NATO alliance agreed to forward base four battalions in the Baltic States and eastern Poland.
How had it come to this? How was it that Russia, whom NATO considered its most important strategic partner as late as 2014, was ripping up the post — Cold War settlement of Europe in our collective and shocked faces? And how had we been taken so much by surprise?