A former NATO general imagines a frightening scenario.
In 2014, shortly after Russia forcefully intervened in Ukraine and admitted Crimea into the Russian Federation, Richard Shirreff stepped down as NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander Europe, one of the highest-ranking positions in the military alliance. The British general proceeded to do something highly unusual. He criticized the government he once served, arguing that Britain’s cuts to defense spending were “one hell of a risk” at a time of renewed Russian aggression. Next, he wrote a startling account of what might follow from the failure of the United Kingdom and many of its NATO allies to, in his view, sufficiently invest in countering the Kremlin militarily. He describes the account as a “work of fiction,” but also a “realistic” and “urgent” warning.
Shirreff’s new novel, 2017: War With Russia, imagines a situation in which, roughly this time next year, Russia consolidates its control over eastern Ukraine and stages a Ukraine-style military incursion into neighboring Latvia, thereby destabilizing the entire Baltic region, raising the specter of nuclear war, and threatening the 70-year-old NATO alliance itself.
It’s a scenario that came to mind when Donald Trump suggested to The New York Times last week that he might not provide military assistance to the Baltic countries—Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—if they were invaded by Russia, even though they are part of NATO and the alliance’s treaty declares that an attack on one member is an attack on all members. The Republican presidential candidate indicated that his support would hinge on whether those under attack had fulfilled their financial obligations to the alliance, including a pledge by each country to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024. Presently, only five of 28 NATO members—among them the U.S., the U.K., and Estonia—are hitting that target.
I thought of Shirreff’s scenario again on Wednesday, when Trump expressed a degree of tolerance for Russian land grabs by suggesting in a press conference that he might, as president, recognize Crimea as Russian territory.
I was curious how Shirreff envisioned his plot unfolding with President Trump leading the United States rather than the fictional President Lynn Turner Dillon, a “tough businesswoman” with “highlighted blonde hair” who Shirreff insists is not modeled on Hillary Clinton (or a Clinton-Trump hybrid, for that matter). On the one hand, Trump, like Shirreff, is trying to pressure European NATO members to spend more money on defense and rely less on America’s military might. On the other hand, Trump is expressing the very reluctance to defend fellow NATO members that so frightens Shirreff. I was also curious whether Shirreff felt Trump’s position on NATO was as radical and reckless as Trump’s critics claim.
“NATO depends totally on American leadership and American willingness to come to the aid of allies unconditionally,” he told me. “Therefore, to have a president in the White House who is not necessarily prepared to do that weakens the alliance immeasurably and may well lead to [the] decoupling of America from European defense.” Such an outcome, he argued, is bad not only for Europe, but also for America. As NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg put it following the publication of Trump’s comments, “Two world wars have shown that peace in Europe is also important for the security of the United States.”
But are NATO members really obligated to help each other unconditionally? I pointed out that Article 5 of the NATO treaty stipulates that if an “armed attack” occurs against a NATO nation, each member will assist the assaulted party by taking “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The Times asked Trump whether he would immediately offer military aid, and he declined to specify exactly what he would do if the country in question hadn’t paid its bills. Doesn’t the NATO treaty grant him some latitude on how to respond?
Shirreff urged me to focus on the clause about restoring North Atlantic security, not the line about taking whatever action is needed. If Russia were to occupy the territory of a NATO member, “then, clearly, armed intervention [by NATO] may become necessary,” he said. He added that unconditional support is the bedrock of NATO: It’s “the blank check that says, ‘If you get attacked, whatever happens, we’re going to come to your aid.’ … As soon as you get into a sort of transactional approach, that completely undermines the strength of collective defense.”
Donald Trump, however, thinks transactionally—more so than any U.S. presidential aspirant in recent memory. And when you think that way, it’s hard to justify many features of the international system that the U.S. helped design after World War II. Those features are easier to justify when you consider America’s long-term economic and security interests. “We want allies to keep the peace, fight alongside us in times of war and defend our common values,” Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, recently explained in The Washington Post. “[F]ueling uncertainty about our security commitment to NATO in order to get the Latvians or Slovenians to increase their military budgets by a percentage point is not strategic.”“As soon as you get into a transactional approach, that completely undermines the strength of collective defense.”
I asked Shirreff if he had ever doubted the U.S. president’s commitment to NATO during his years with the alliance. “No,” he answered.
I asked if he thought Trump’s approach to NATO could increase the likelihood of Russian aggression in the Baltics, given Trump’s skepticism about the alliance and apparent fondness for President Vladimir Putin and Putin’s worldview. Potentially, he said.
“In terms of the risk equation for whoever’s sitting in the Kremlin, if he or she decides to have a go at the Baltic states, he may just decide, ‘Yeah I think the chances are I’ll get away with it,’” Shirreff told me. “And that, of course, makes the world more dangerous.”
How, precisely, does it make the world more dangerous? In Shirreff’s book, the Russian president, emboldened by weak European defenses and a desire to distract from economic woes at home, embarks on a military adventure in the Baltic states, ostensibly to protect Russian-speaking minorities in those countries. As in Ukraine in 2014, the campaign begins with a massing of conventional Russian forces, along with the use within Latvia of special forces, cyber operations, and propaganda and psychological operations designed to manipulate minority populations and inflame divisions inside the country, Shirreff explained.
“The essence of this Russian approach … is that you undermine the integrity of your target state below the threshold at which NATO’s Article 5 might be called,” he said. “So, in a sense, the prize falls into your lap like a ripe plum.”
Shirreff argued that his plot was plausible, noting that “we have seen recently, regularly, Russian so-called snap exercises of 30-40,000 troops in which the exercise scenario is the occupation of the Baltic states.” Indeed, NATO and other organizations have been war-gaming such scenarios for years; after a series of war games in 2014 and 2015, for instance, the Rand Corporation concluded that NATO currently hasn’t mobilized enough resources to defend the Baltic states from a Russian invasion. It’s an assessment Shirreff agrees with, despite NATO’s newly announced plans to rotate four battalions (around 4,000 troops) through Poland and the Baltic states.
The ensuing conflict, according to Shirreff, could escalate in harrowing ways. Russia, he said, “integrates nuclear thinking into every aspect of their military thinking and doctrine,” which includes the concept of “nuclear de-escalation.” Putin, for example, could attack and occupy the Baltic states and then, before NATO has a chance to retaliate, threaten to drop a tactical nuclear weapon on a NATO target.
Putin is intent on restoring Russia as a great power, and sees NATO and the European Union—which have ventured into Russia’s traditional sphere of influence in admitting countries such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania—as adversaries, according to Shirreff: “I think he would love nothing more than to see NATO destroyed. What better way of destroying NATO than to snatch the Baltic states, threaten NATO with nuclear weapons? NATO backs off, NATO collapses as an alliance. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched.”
If Trump were the American president, Putin might not even have to make such threats in order for the alliance to capitulate and collapse.“What better way of destroying NATO than to snatch the Baltic states, threaten NATO with nuclear weapons, NATO backs off.”
I told Shirreff that I could envision Russia using limited force to probe NATO’s commitment to the Baltic states, or some clash or mistake at the border having unintended and dangerous consequences. But an outright Russian military occupation of Latvia? Vows to use nuclear weapons against a nuclear-armed alliance? Russia intervened in Ukraine in 2014 and in Georgia in 2008, but neither of those countries enjoyed the protection of the world’s strongest military bloc. Would Russia really act more aggressively against NATO members?
“My scenario is speculation,” Shirreff conceded. “I paint potentially a worst-case scenario. But let’s look at the way Russia does business when it comes to war. Russia doesn’t do half-measures. Russia concentrates force, and is ruthless in the application of force.”
I asked if NATO had, in a way, brought this moment of perilous uncertainty on itself. In his book, Shirreff writes that “Ukraine is just too far away to defend if attacked by Russia,” and therefore shouldn’t be a candidate for NATO membership. Couldn’t something similar be said of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, which were admitted to NATO in 2004? They are the only former Soviet republics in the alliance. They not only border Russia, but also cut Russia off from its exclave of Kaliningrad, home to Russian weapons systems and the country’s Baltic Fleet. There’s even debate about whether NATO would be violating a 1997 pact with Russia by permanently stationing forces in the Baltics. These countries literally test NATO’s limits. By absorbing the Baltic nations during a period of relatively good relations between Russia and the West—during the heady years immediately after the Cold War—did NATO exceed its mandate, make promises it couldn’t keep, and needlessly antagonize Russia?
As Jeffrey Tayler warned in The Atlantic in 2002, “If NATO expands to include the Baltic states, it risks acquiring a flash point for tension with Russia that could compromise, if not destroy, the alliance.”
The Baltic nations are democratic, Western-oriented, and “defendable,” Shirreff responded. They “more than met the criteria for NATO membership.” Western countries should help Ukraine defend itself against Russian provocations, he noted, but “from a purely military perspective, look at the size of Ukraine, look at the exterior lines that Russia has got around it, and look at the real challenges of defending it adequately.” A NATO guarantee to protect Ukraine from Russia would have been nothing more than “words,” he said.
The pressing question for NATO’s easternmost members is whether, under a President Trump, they would even have America’s word.