Preparing For War: Nato forces in the former Soviet republic of Latvia as part of the 2014 "Silver Arrow" military exercises in the Baltic states. Such naked demonstrations of Nato's extended reach - right up to the borders of the Russian Federation - risk plunging the world into a full-scale nuclear war. Which poses the question: Is Western Civilisation really prepared to incinerate itself for ... Latvia?
A WEEK AGO, in London, the United Kingdom moved a step closer to war with the Russian Federation. Launching his book, 2017: War With Russia, General Sir Richard Shirreff (Retd) exhorted the Nato powers to dramatically increase their military presence along Russia’s borders – or risk its opportunistic invasion of the tiny Baltic state of Latvia. Shirreff’s dire predictions, informed by his time as Nato’s deputy-commander, are intended to be taken seriously.
We would be wise to do so: not for the reasons Shirreff is putting forward, but because the appearance of literature such as 2017: War With Russia has a very worrying precedent. In the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, the British people were assailed by a deluge of newspaper and magazine articles identifying Germany as Great Britain’s imminent assailant. The virulently anti-German publisher, Alfred Harmsworth, even went so far as to commission anti-German novels. The title of the most popular example, The Invasion of 1910, even bears an unhealthily close resemblance to Shirreff’s novel.
The motivation behind this sort of war propaganda – past and present – arises out of concerns in elite circles that military spending has fallen to levels inconsistent with the maintenance of national security. Published in 1906, The Invasion of 1910 was credited by the authors of the 2001 study, Dressing Up For War, with “inducing an atmosphere of paranoia, mass hysteria and Germanophobia that would climax in the Naval Scare of 1908–09”. This latter event, also whipped-up by the British press, precipitated a full-scale (and extremely profitable) arms race with the German Empire.
As Deputy-Commander of Nato, Shirreff aroused the ire of the British Secretary of Defence, Phillip Hammond, by publicly declaring the Cameron Government’s cutbacks in military spending to be a “dangerous gamble”. The retired General was not alone. His fear, that inadequate funding will lead to an anaemic Nato, is shared by many other military leaders across Europe.
Their greatest fear, however, is irrelevance. That Nato may no longer possess a legitimate purpose has haunted its commanders ever since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. US Presidential hopeful, Donald Trump’s, publicly voiced scepticism about Nato’s continued relevance will not have allayed their fear. (It is, surely, no accident that the US President who rides to Europe’s rescue in Shirreff’s novel is a woman!)
Of course, the disbanding of Nato would not be a nightmare for its generals only. It would also be a disaster for British, European and American arms manufacturers. In both cases, the prospect of a demilitarised central and eastern Europe could only have been extremely alarming. And yet, this was precisely the undertaking which the last Soviet President, Mikhail Gorbachev, believed he had extracted from US President George H. W. Bush, in return for terminating the Warsaw Pact and allowing a reunified Germany to remain a Nato member.
That the Nato alliance has, since 1991, been extended all the way to the borders of the Russian Federation, even incorporating the EU puppet-states of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania (tiny “countries” which spring into existence during periods of Russian weakness, only to be reabsorbed into the territory of their giant neighbour the moment that weakness passes) is, therefore, strategically highly significant. Indeed, it is difficult to conceive of a more chilling demonstration of the enduring power of what US President Dwight Eisenhower called “the military-industrial complex” – and its European subsidiaries.
That Russia remains deeply aggrieved by what it regards (with some justification) as Nato’s anti-Russian expansionism is entirely unsurprising. Neither have its grievances with the West been in any way diminished by what it sees as the Nato powers’ donkey-deep involvement in the so-called “colour revolutions” which overthrew the Russia-friendly regimes of Georgia and Ukraine. In the latter case, Russia’s President, Vladimir Putin, felt sufficiently threatened by the prospect of an openly fascist EU and Nato member on his country’s doorstep, that he first annexed the strategically vital Crimean peninsula, and then extended his nation’s military protection to the Russian-speakers of Ukraine’s breakaway eastern provinces.
Clearly Shirreff and his fellow Nato generals felt unmanned by their Russian counterparts’ resolute military action. In provoking Russia’s robust response, however, they did achieve Nato’s over-riding political objective: the reinstatement of Russia as Europe’s (and the World’s?) bogeyman.
With the successful precedent of the build-up to the First World War before them, the Nato “war party” is now attempting to leverage public anxiety about Putin’s intentions into the stationing of beefed-up and battle-ready Nato forces on Russia’s borders, provisioned by an EU-wide increase in military spending.
After Shirreff’s book, therefore, the question which the peoples of the United States and Europe need to ask themselves is existentially clear: “Are we willing to see ourselves, and the rest of the world, undergo nuclear incineration – for the sake of Latvia?”
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 24 May 2016.