NEW YORK – Donald Trump has expressed some radical thoughts about foreign policy — including that the United States, as a member of NATO, can choose whether or not to come to the aid of an ally under attack. To better understand how alarmingly wrong such thinking is, it’s worth reading a new novel by a former high-ranking NATO official.
The book — called “War With Russia, 2017” — describes a terrifying series of events. NATO members become embroiled in squabbles over funding and how to deal with Russia, leaving inadequate forces in the Baltic region. Emboldened by the perceived weakness, Russian President Vladimir Putin launches a surprise attack, taking Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in a matter of days.
By the time Western leaders find the resolve to fight back, they face entrenched Russian troops protected by sophisticated air defenses — and by Putin’s pledge to respond to any attack with tactical nukes. Outright nuclear war becomes a distinct possibility.
This is no crackpot’s fantasy. The author, British Gen. Sir Richard Shirreff, considers the scenario all too plausible. Having served as NATO’s deputy supreme allied commander for Europe from 2011 to 2014, he has deep knowledge of Russian, European and U.S. military capabilities. He says he wrote the book as an “urgent warning” about the increasing risk of military conflict with Russia — and the folly of allowing Putin to believe that a Baltic invasion could succeed with relative ease.
“There is no such thing as Fortress America,” Shirreff said in an interview. “Any European conflict is potentially a global conflict. The defense of America begins on the forest frontiers of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.”
Shirreff thinks the situation has deteriorated since he finished the book in December. Terrorism, a refugee crisis, persistent economic malaise and Britain’s Brexit vote have all deepened discord among European nations.
Although NATO has been performing training exercises and beefing up its conventional defense forces, the military imbalance in the Baltics keeps shifting in Russia’s favor. Three new Russian motor rifle divisions, each of around 15,000 to 20,000 personnel, have moved near the border in the last few months, and war game simulations have concluded that NATO troops in the region are not sufficient to stop an advance.
Meanwhile, the Baltics look increasingly attractive to Putin. He boosted his domestic popularity by using Russia’s modernized military to achieve objectives in Georgia and Ukraine, including the annexation of Crimea. The Baltics are home to more than 1 million ethnic Russians, whom Putin has pledged to protect. Further military victories could help distract attention from the country’s economic woes.
Hence, Shirreff believes that the principal factor deterring Russian aggression may well be the clearly stated U.S. resolve to defend NATO countries. “The security of Europe,” he said, “is absolutely dependent on the total certainty that the U.S. will come to the aid of any NATO nation being attacked.”
Perhaps, as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell claimed, Trump’s statement about NATO was just a “rookie mistake.” More frightening is the possibility that his determination to “make America great again” means turning away decisively from the things that have made America great in the past, including steady and unwavering support for its allies.
Mark Buchanan is a physicist and writer.
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