Interview with the former Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe General Sir Richard Shirreff
What were the benefits for the Baltic States – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania from the 2014 NATO summit in Wales? Is opinion, that this summit was the most important for the Baltic States. How is your opinion, how do you think what are the most important points in this case?
I think it’s right to say this was really important for Baltic States because I think what we saw out of the summit was a very strong statement of the importance of collective defence, the importance of Article 5 and in particular, a recognition of the threat posed to the Baltic States by President Putin’s actions in Ukraine and all the noise he’s made about reuniting, re-establishing Russian power under the guise of reuniting ethnic Russian speakers, so I think it was important. I think the key issue that comes out of this, of course, is the decision to establish a very high readiness joint task force, and to practise that. Now, much to follow on that – we will need to see the detail of that, we will need to see the command and control arrangements, we will need to see the readiness but I think that in the Baltic States you should feel reassured by the very strong sense of solidarity from Alliance as a whole.
So in Riga conference 2014 (http://www.rigaconference.lv/) it was discussion about can people of Riga sleep safe at night, and can we feel safe in this situation. How do you think it is from your point of view?
Well, part of me says that I don’t think any of us can sleep safe at night – whether we’re living in Riga, Tallinn, I here in... in Southern England where I live or in America because the world is a very dangerous. Not only have we got the threat, and particularly in Europe... I mean I think we have to understand and recognize the threat of war in Europe has never been higher than since 1945, except in the Western Balkans, so I don’t think any of us should sleep safe. And then on top of that, of course, I think every state in the west, in Western Europe, in Eastern Europe, in Europe as a whole land, in America faces a much greater threat arguably from Islamic state as well both in terms of external and interior security from terrorism, and the threat to the friends in the Middle East. So the key here – the only way you can sleep safe at night is to ensure... to make sure that you comprehend... that your insurance policy is as comprehensive and as effective as possible. And I think what we can say is that as the result of the NATO summit, that insurance policy is been given much greater depth and credibility that perhaps it was before.
In Riga conference was opinion, that, for example, Sweden and Finland cannot feel so safe because they are not NATO members. What’s your opinion about this thing that those countries possibly could become members or…
Well, I think it’s right to say that Sweden and Finland probably feel less safe as a result of not having the guarantee of collective defence which a full NATO member has. And, of course, Sweden and Finland are not members at all. Both countries have demonstrated over at least two decades that they are very strong NATO partners and very strong NATO friends. And they’ve contributed significantly to NATO operations. And on top of that... as far as them joining NATO and becoming NATO members, I can’t think of two countries which would be more welcome in NATO should they decide to join. But, of course, that is the decision first for the Finnish and Swedish people, their electorates and their politicians.
Another discussion at Riga conference 2014 was about Russia’s information war, and that we are actually losing this war. What is your opinion about that?
Well, I think what we’ve seen with Russian action in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine, and indeed well before that and you see that...; we’ve seen it for a number of years now, is a very sophisticated application of information operations of psychological warfare by Russia. I think it’s something we have to take... pay great attention to because it seems to me that the Russian way of warfare now, and this is something that developed really going back to Georgia... if we look back, is to undermine the integrity of a state from within. General Gerasimov who I know well from my last job describes it in a recent paper as establishing a permanent operating front on... in the interior of the country concerned. So we see a combination of information operations, psychological operations, manipulation of Russian speaking minorities, establishment of local militia by special forces – all combining to undermine the integrity of a state from within. ...but to do so, below the threshold which would then trigger the decision making of... this is an attack on a member state and therefore collective defence needs to be evoked. So as far as whether we are losing it or not, well I think we have to meat light with light, I think we have to box very clever, we have to apply just as much of a comprehensive approach because all this is as in any other field of combat now, of 21st century warfare. This is warfare which is dependent on securing the minds and the opinion of the people. And clearly we need... as NATO need to work closely with civil society to ensure that the sort of psychological operations and information operations Russia applies do not get any toehold with minorities, particularly Russian speaking minorities in NATO territory. Well, that is clearly a very important issue for Latvia with your very large... your significant Russian speaking minority, very important issue for Estonia and also for Lithuania. And then more widely, of course, it’s a very important issue for all of us, the whole Alliance. So we have to ensure that there is no possibility that these... the Russian speaking minorities within NATO territory, such as in Latvia, can feel in any way suborned or attracted to the Putin doctrine. So that means we have to win the minds, win the hearts and maintain the hearts and minds, and win the information battle.
Just before the (NATO) summit we had (U.S. President) Obama’s visit in Tallinn, and he said also many things about safety of the Baltic States, that Americans and also NATO will, of course, support it. How do you see, how important exactly was that Obama’s visit to Tallinn? What are the main points from your opinion why he came to the Baltic States before the summit?
Well, I think this is really important. I think it demonstrates unequivocally American support for NATO in Europe, and in particularly, NATO and American support for the Baltic States. And I think that the reason I say that’s important is that I think we see... we all have a sense of American drift away from Europe in recent years. There’s been talk about the shift, re-pivoting to Asia-Pacific, there’s been significant downsizing of the American presence in Europe but I think that Obama’s visit to Estonia sent a very powerful signal of American commitment. And indeed, if I go back to March... the first overt contribution of deployment as the result of the invasion of Crimea, was an immediate deployment of American F-16’s to the Baltic States, to beef up Baltic air policing. So I think this is really important. Now, what really matters now though I think is seeing the detail of the capabilities that the Alliance is putting on the table here. It’s one thing for politicians to talk about setting up reaction forces. From my perspective as an ex-military man what really matters is who is commanding and controlling them, what decision has to go.... who makes the decision on deployment, how quickly can we get there, what about the equipment – where is the equipment based, are we pre-positioning the equipment – so there’s a whole lot of detail there... but coming back to your point, Obama’s visit I think was a very strong signal and was therefore very important.
One of the last points, talking about new military bases in the Baltic States. Finally we got that we will have like boots on the ground here in the Baltic States, we will get troops who will stay here for some time. And also Americans, we have here, troops are coming, and more exercises... How do you see what more NATO can do that people here could feel safe because, of course, the discussions still are going on – are really we safe and if something happens will we get the help from NATO?
Well, I’ve said on record since the invasion of Crimea, since March that my very strong opinion is that there is a need for a continuous and permanent presence by NATO in the Baltic States... subject, of course, and this is a matter for Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania providing that is wanted by the people and the governments of Latvia and your neighbouring countries. So, of course, it must come from you. But providing you want it, my view is that the only way that NATO can genuinely and credibly deter any form of Russian adventurism is by maintaining a permanent and continuous presence of troops. And not just air policing but actually, physically troops on the ground. And I say that because I was very struck when I was last in Latvia last September... you will remember exercise Zapad, and I remember there were several incidents of significant intimidation by Russian Airborne Forces flying up to the Latvian border, wearing away, setting off radar screens and just to demonstrate, just to intimidate. Well, if Russia decided to launch an operation into Latvia, unless there are NATO troops supporting on the ground, it would be almost impossible, in my view, for NATO to respond sufficiently quickly. So the only way to deter is to maintain a continuous presence. I don’t think it necessarily means large, permanent bases, established garrisons along the lines of the garrisons we saw in Germany in the Cold War with schools and families, and all the infrastructure but I do think we can be clever by rotating, exercising troops and there are other ways of doing it to maintain that sort of presence. But I think fundamentally... providing in your case... Latvia, you want it, NATO should provide it.
How do you see what will come more or how it will be for the next half year? What will be the situation, how it will go for the future? Which will be the main points, maybe from NATO side? Everybody is talking about more sanctions against Russia, how do you thing how this situation will go forward?
How the situation goes forward depends entirely on how the decisions made at the summit are followed up by in real terms. And I go back to my point about the Devil as we say in English ‘the Devil is in the detail’ here. What would be the worst thing to happen would be for politicians to take their foot of the accelerator. They’ve made some important decisions at the summit; we now need to see those decisions followed through. We need to see some meet put on the bones of those decisions, and we need to see credible... those decisions turned into really credible measures. That’s the first point. I think the point is that we cannot in any way drop our guard. We need a clear sense of strategy and we must remain very, very vigilant and maintain our guard because although there has been a formal cease-fire declared between Ukraine and Russia, although it appears that the fighting has diminished in intensity, there is no question that the intent remains the same; that Putin will continue to maintain pressure, and that he will do all he can, in my view, to try and ensure that Eastern part of Ukraine comes increasingly under the Russian influence rather as those other frozen conflicts in Transdniestria and other parts of the former Soviet Union have come under Russian influence. So NATO must maintain the pressure. And providing NATO maintains the pressure, providing NATO puts... continues to develop those decisions and turn them into military reality that then deters, then I think we could see a reduction in tension. But it depends on NATO demonstrating strength.
I know that you spoke on BBC before the NATO summit in Wales. What are the main points British people are interested because I see that it could be quite different interests of what we are talking now, and what are the topics in England?
Well, I think you raised a very interesting question. I mean the point I certainly majored on in a number of interviews I did for the BBC, and indeed it was a question for some... various people... is to what extent our, for example, British people are prepared to see British soldiers fighting and indeed dying to protect Latvia and Estonia, and Lithuania under Article 5. My sense is this... that NATO remains the cornerstone of UK defence, absolutely, and therefore... and Britain has a very strong commitment to Article 5, to collective defence, and if required, of course, that is what will happen. But the reality is that that... how should I say... there isn’t the sort of sense in Britain today that... and I am afraid to say... that Russia is that sort of axis, poses that nature of a threat. And I feel that, you know, like a cracked record going all about it – I understand it, I now you in Riga, I now lot of friends in Latvia, and I, you know,... it’s in my sort of DNA now, and I care deeply. I will continue to push the message but I am afraid for many British people it’s not an immediate issue. Right now, I think the real issue for Britain is whether Britain survives as a country after Thursday’s vote in Scotland, to be honest. And the other major security issue for Britain is, of course, ISIS. We had one British hostage beheaded at the weekend, the other British hostage who is likely... who is in great danger as well, and the security... the main security issue now, I have to tell you, of course, is how does Britain contribute to a coalition to remove this threat from the Middle East. So there are many other issues as well on the horizon. But I will continue to thump the drum for the Baltic States, particular for you in Latvia.