Welcome to Wessex Scene’s live coverage of the Debating Society’s Q&A with Richard Shirreff.
Sir Richard Shirreff worked for NATO from January 2010 to March 2014. He served in the Iraq war, the Gulf war and The Northern Ireland Troubles. He recently published a boo — 2017: War with Russia: An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command which he will talk about tonight.
Sir Richard has entered the building.
Debating Society President Hadeeka Taj opens the event. Sir Richard says it is “important” to get his message out to the “future leaders” of the UK.
By his own admission, his book is “slightly past it’s sell by date”! Sir Richard says that war with North Korea is now “perhaps a matter of time” and much more likely than any conflict with Russia.
Sir Richard Shirreff claims “Daesh is in his death throws” but their people are still out there preparing terror attacks.
Sir Richard says I worked very hard to establish a “strategic partnership” with Russia, but that everyone was blindsided by a return to the politics of “iron and blood” and redrawing borders by force.
“War with Russia is not a fantastical notion”
Sir Richard says the defence of Europe has been founded on the premise that the US will defend Europe no matter which president on the other. He adds that west now faces a greater threat from a “resurgent Russia” than any time since the crises of the Cold War.
Sir Richard says that Putin believes the fall of the Soviet Union is the greatest geopolitical catastrophy, even greater than the Second World War. Russia should protect the interests of Russia. The invasion of Crimea was followed by invasion of other regions and Ukraine was split. This war continues…
Putin has “ripped up” the post WW2 peace settlement in Europe and any possibility of collaboration with Russia is “now dead”, according to Sir Richard. He adds that the Russians “continue to threaten their neighbours” and what they call “their near abroad.
In his view, it was “not clever” of NATO to promise Ukraine and Georgia membership in 2008. He calls this a military “strategic blunder”.
Sir Richard claims NATO shouldn’t give a veto to Putin even though “Europe gives to Russia the signal that invading near countries is OK”.
Putin “would like nothing more” than to see the neutralisation or destruction of NATO and would like to “decouple” the US from European defence.
He adds that under Article 5 of the NATO-Washington treaty every member will be duty bound to fight if Russia attacked the Baltic states. As Russia plans “nuclear thinking” into every policy, he states this would mean nuclear war.
For those saying Putin, “the autocrat opportunist” wouldn’t start a war, Sir Richard says that rationality shouldn’t be expected in International Affairs, the current situation is even more dangerous than the cold war.
Putin has recently increased the capability of the Russian armed forces.
For Sir Richard, Kremlin has been at war by “assymetric means”, including the alleged hacking of US Democratic Party emails.
The intention, he says, is to “undermine the target state”. In the US case, he says this was to discredit Clinton and “propel” Trump into the US White House.
Sir Richard raises hopes as for him it’s not too late. The peace of undergoing since seventy years depends on strategic deterrence that NATO needs to think through as Russia undermines the integrity of its target through propaganda.
Sir Richard attacks the news channel RT, which is funded by the Russian state, and describes it as “Kremlin propaganda”.
He says that NATO needs to develop scenario planning “from top to bottom”, including how to react to a Cyber Attack.
He adds that NATO regularly conducted scenario planning in the 1980s, and often put political leadership “on the spot”.
Sir Richard argues that battle groups from several nations is a big step for NATO. However it isn’t a credible military capability. The European members of NATO should spend 2% of annual GDP on their defence as they pledged to.
Sir Richard says that the UK’s ability to fight wars is now undergoing a “complete dismemberment”. In his view we should be spending 4-5% of UK GDP on defence, but this is likely to become increasingly difficult and “politically unacceptable” in current circumstances.
Sir Richard attacks Europe and Canada for their poor support of NATO as the United States contributes to 75% of the organisation’s financing.
“Peace is fragile and precious. It needs to be paid for”.
Sir Richard argues “Russia respects strength”, and that, as in past history, it will “probe” where it find weaknesses and will attempt to exploit them.
“Dialogue is the crucially important”, as Sir Richards talks about Russia as a great nation and we should cooperate with them. The danger of the situation is that all relationships between Russia and Europe have disintegrated, which could lead to miscalculations on both sides.
Sir Richard says the book was written as a “wake up call” and to reach out to those in the UK who believe defence is “not an interest”.
“I plead guilty to painting a very bleak picture of Putin”.
Sir Richard says that the Baltic states are “loyal members” of NATO and “absolutely deserve” support. As it stands, he says that NATO is “heading in the right direction”, but is “not fit for purpose” in terms of defence.
The Q&A started with the Debating Society panel asking if Trump has the leadership skills to guide NATO in a offensive against Russia.
Sir Richard says that Trump is not a leader but he appointed James Mathis as defence secretary who is a great soldier. He has surrounded himself with good people but he should “take his bloody iPhone away from him”. The power of a President in the US in internally change is small due to constitution but he has a huge impact on foreign policies.
Second panel question: is the continued involvement of Turkey in NATO undermining its position as a bastion of human rights?
Sir Richard says what is happening in Turkey is “really dangerous”. He condemns the attempted military coup that took place last year and that world leaders should have condemned it more harshly.
He condemns the reaction of rounding up senior Turkish officers and says that it has had an effect on NATO as many senior officers has left the country to seek asylum.
He adds that Turkey should not be expelled from NATO but we need to “bring them in”.
Third Panel Question: If Greece were to invade Cyprus, what would NATO do?
Sir Richard claims confidently that Cyprus is not part of NATO. NATO would disapprove but wouldn’t do much.
Fourth panel question: Sir Richard is asked about the mention of a “bristling” Putin speech and whether the longer the Crimea situation goes on will affect tension and a backlash against NATO.
He says that the “Spring” speech referred to perceived encroachment on Russian borders and that tension is being ratcheted up but this should not be conflated with Crimea.
He adds that Crimea is now part of the Russian Federation but it will continue to be an issue as long as Russian presence there is perceived as an illegal occupation even if it is a “lose lose” situation.
He again criticises the offer of NATO membership to Ukraine in 2008.
Fourth Panel Question: If Sotland were to become independent, would there be the same physical presence of UK defence in Scotland ?
Sir Richard argues that if Scotland had become independent, UK defence would have been affected badly, particularly the integrated defence system of the country as they have the responsibility to responses to threat everywhere.
It would have been in the interest of UK to keep defence in Scotland, but Scotland would not have allowed it if it were to become independent.
Questions are now being taken from the audience.
First audience question: what policies and decisions would you like to see the British government implement regarding NATO post Brexit?
Sir Richard says that Brexit and the wish to leave the EU sent a “shockwave” among European friends and allies.
He said it send a signal that the UK would be “withdrawing from Europe” and would by inference be less active in NATO.
He suggests the UK should send the opposite signal by taking a more active leadership and participatory role in the organisation to show it remains a cornerstone of our defence after Brexit.
Sir Richard says that British troops when based in Germany sent a strong signal about the country’s commitment to European defence, and this message would be reinforced if a brigade were to remain there.
By leaving the EU, he says, Britain will not “have a voice”, and that some “unrealistic” aspirations regarding EU defence could now take root.
Second audience question: in the EU, there are increasing demands for an EU wide army, would it be possible for it to pose a threat to Russia ?
Sir Richard replies that a single organisation army under one command will not happen. It is none sense.
However, Sir Richard claims that NATO could be called on for specific EU operations. The British always thought that building a military operation office would be pointless even though Germany and the French wanted it. If this would happen, it would weaken NATO. The EU does well in some areas but is not an army defending Europe.
Next audience question: Saudi Arabia has had good relationships with the US but the Saudi king recently visited and made a deal in Russia. How will this change relations between Russia and Middle East and US and Russia?
Sir Richard says Putin has played a “master game” in the Middle East since engaging Russia in Syria in 2015 and that Russia is now “calling the shots”.
He says the recent visit by the Saudi king to Russia is part of its engagement in the Middle East and its desire to be seen as a world power, along with its rapprochement with Turkey.
He adds that American leadership is “under question” especially after Obama stepped back from his “red line” on Chemical weapons in Syria.
Next audience question: How peace with Russia should happen if NATO operation in the Middle East are aggressive ?
Sir Richard replies that NATO was not involved in the invasion of Iraq in 2003 nor its occupation. A NATO training mission took place in Iraq and it had a great impact in enforcing the Iraqi police and contributing to stability there. NATO was not involved aggressively in that.
He adds that in Libya, NATO was asked by the UN to have a mission to protect the people of Libya. Individual nations made the decision (France, Britain) when Gaddafi was talking as when it happened Rwanda. It happened with minimum damage. Yet, the end of Gaddafi did not happen under NATO’s control. The replacement of Gaddafi’s regime was planned by NATO on a military level, but there was no politics in NATO’s militia.
NATO is not an aggressive force, it is a defensive alliance. It is the best hope for maintaining peace in Europe. However NATO should be involved in protecting nations. There is huge need to stabilise crisis of refugees and that fragile states become failure stages, including education and campaign against corruption and NATO has the ability to do it.
Next question: What is your view on Putin’s leadership?
Sir Richard says he is a “very smart leader” and strategic thinker. He says that Putin has a “clear strategy” but is very effective at taking advantage of opportunities where they appear.
He adds that the last Russian attracted a lot of Western media attention, and a lot of villages in “deepest darkest Russia” likely support him. The last wave of opposition to him was corruption related, so there is a wave of opposition, but he fulfils the basic Russian requirement for a strong leader.
“That doesn’t mean to say I approve or support him”
Next audience question: What’s the worst case scenario with Russia ? War with Russia or relative to Russian minorities ?
Sir Richard replies that war with Russia is the worst case scenario. It is not a war as against Afghanistan because a nuclear war could happen. A nuclear deescalation would lead to Russia taking what they want, if Europe comes back at Russia, they will threaten with nuclear weapons. Berlin, Warsaw, Stockholm are all in reach of those weapons.
Sir Richard says that he is certain war with Russia will go nuclear.
Next question: Do you believe that Finland is at risk of intervention from Russia?
“Yes, and it’s happened recently”.
Sir Richard adds that a border post on the Russian-Finnish border was overrun by buses of 200 refugees from the Russian side. He describes this as a warning that Russia can “destabilise” Finland and adds that the country is very vulnerable due to its history, even if Finns are “tough and resolute”, and prepared to fight and defend themselves.
“Finland is certainly in the frame.”
Next audience question: Putin changed his mind and talked about his plan that blue helmets should be put in the frontline and formalise the border that Russia want, what is your opinion and is there a peaceful solution in Ukraine ?
Sir Richards replies that Russian troops should leave Ukraine and stop giving their support to Russian minorities in Ukraine but that this is will not happen.
The war will continue with regular attacks and increasing impacts on civilians. Yet, The West should continue to support Ukraine, not NATO because it would look like Ukraine foreign legion as said in Russian propaganda. What will happen is a frozen conflict, which is the best people could hope for.
Final audience question: Do you believe if the citizens of Eastern states were to have military service and be armed would they be more effective in any potential conflict with Russia?
Sir Richard says Finland has military service and other states have effective militia systems. As an ex-soldier, Sir Richard says he believe that national service is “not effective”. He adds soldiering is a “really professional business” and the British army is as good as it is as many soldiers have been training and gaining experience for a lifetime.
Germany had a conscript army until recently to prevent the emergence of a “state within a state” and most German citizens had to take part. Sir Richard says this is how the Germans recruited their best soldiers until the system was abolished.
That ends this interesting evening ! Thank you for following the live blog.