I was consumed with concern after having read two books published in 2016, one of which was only recently translated into Estonian: firstly, Sir Richard Shirreff’s War with Russia, and immediately after that Leo Kunnas’s diptychon Sõda 2023 Taavet and Sõda 2023 Koljat.
Both authors are former professional servicemen who have held various leading positions in their own states and the HQs of NATO forces, including in actual combat situations. Shirreff, a four-star general, achieved the position of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR)3, the most senior European officer in NATO, the highest position a British general can have; Kunnas left the Estonian Defence Forces (probably not of his own accord) in 2007 as a Lieutenant Colonel and the head of the operational department of the Defence Forces HQ. In their documentary novels, both authors, with the help of their experience, describe guaranteeing the security of the Baltic region with bold and critical brushstrokes, the inner monologue of many characters and their alter egos—high-ranking officers who are the main heroes of both books—military-political discussions, side notes and analyses.
To be honest, I think that choosing the artistic format of a novel was just a ploy to make the authors’ concern about our security here in the Baltic Sea region and elsewhere known to wider audiences. While General Shirreff tries to adopt a narrative style, Colonel Kunnas also provides personal analysis on how and why certain situations arose and gives systematic recommendations on how to avoid negative developments in guaranteeing our security in both parts of his two-volume novel to complement the inner monologues of his main characters and even diary entries that underline the documentary nature of the events that occur, and illustrations from the same source and short overviews of events on all battlefields. Both authors consider it completely obvious and logical that Russian aggression is a possibility in the Baltic region. Although Shirreff identifies the personal traits and ambitions of the clearly recognisable leader of our neighbour state as the main factor behind the aggression, Kunnas brings out clear and rational, even startlingly logical inner causes, in which the developments that occur within Russia and which practically force the almighty leader to attack due to the processes he himself initiated unfortunately have a major role alongside the aforementioned leader’s ambitions. The head of state is also identified by name, not indirectly. This applies both in the case of Kunnas’s positive and negative scenarios.
However, both books are actually manifestos in a way. They are a cry of warning from the depths of the souls of high-ranking officers, and a cry for help from soldiers who know that they were not allowed to do their best to protect our freedom and independence from an existential threat, even though its emergence has been so clear and systematic. This is confirmed by James Stavridis, a retired US Navy Admiral and former SACEUR, who emphasises in his foreword that “[o]f all the challenges America faces on the geopolitical scene in the second decade of the twenty-first century, the most dangerous is the resurgence of Russia under President Putin.” (p. ix) The Admiral thinks that “these […] sort[s] of scenarios that many senior civilians, and especially politicians, throughout history have consistently failed to understand or have wished away,” can be stopped because “[a]bove all, the message is that it is not too late to prevent catastrophe.” (p. x)
I think that many analyses in both books, especially those presented by the alter egos who have a leading position, are clearly reflections of the authors’ personal views and experiences. Although the views are rationally substantiated and have been explained, at times in too much detail, one can say that they leave a bitter aftertaste. Professional servicemen dislike political spirit and the primitive ignoring of facts on behalf of ephemeral political interests and the status quo. This can be said both about the Baltic and leading NATO states. Indecisiveness, irresponsibility and the unwillingness to get out of the political safety zone lead to very grievous consequences in both Shirreff’s and Kunnas’s books: a huge number of casualties, the (near) eradication of entire states (in this case, the Baltic states) and economic destruction.
One thing that the books have in common is the understanding that wars can be prevented but when they have already started, they have their own extremely cruel dynamic. This is why the authors’ recommendations (which are, at times, too detailed for the common reader) on what must be done or should have been done to prevent the worst gain special importance.
The two main messages that both authors agree on are: we need to be prepared for a large-scale conventional war and, most importantly, the nuclear threat from Russia. Neither author doubts that it will come sooner or later. The General thinks it will emerge when Russia has achieved its objectives and it will try and secure what it has usurped through deterrence. Let’s be honest: we already know that Russia was contemplating the use of a nuclear threat when it annexed the Crimea, and Russian forces have practiced such a scenario during various military exercises. Both authors think Russia will rely on the West and its leaders being unprepared for nuclear deterrence. The Colonel thinks the Russian president will use the threat when NATO forces are gaining the upper hand in conventional warfare.
Another thing the authors have in common is the conviction that the Baltic nations no longer want a “silent surrender” and will fight the aggressor to the end in any case – including in a massive guerrilla war. By the way, Shirreff thinks the Baltic states will not succeed in organising resistance with their regular forces, the West will not be able to send help, which is also the case in Kunnas’s Koljat, where Estonians are the only Baltic nation that manages to organise the defence of Tallinn, which stands until an armistice is declared owing to a huge effort and the loss of many lives. He also minutely describes the organisation of military defence and civilian life in Tallinn, which is under constant attack and where a huge number of fatalities occur—“our Stalingrad”, as it is called by Colonel Peeter Tergens, Kunnas’s alter ego, and the voluntary leader of the city’s heroic defence forces. Only in Kunnas’s Taavet can the Estonians organise resistance on the Narva and Emajõgi River line thanks to proper and thorough preparation both on a local scale and in NATO, which is especially remarkable.
At the same time, it seems that according to both authors, the entire series of events will start under the cover of another large Russian military exercise called Zapad, which is intended for the unrelenting and regular practicing of a large-scale attack in the Baltic Sea region, and which will be launched right after provocations in the style of hybrid warfare organised in Latvia and later in other Baltic states. Latvia is deemed to be the most susceptible to harm and the least capable of resistance. The difference is that General Shirreff has chosen Latvia as the main arena for descriptions of mainland warfare, while Kunnas prefers Estonia. An analogous scenario was played out in BBC’s fictional documentary World War Three: Inside the War Room, which caused a lot of fuss in the world of television, and in which veterans who had held real-life strategic positions in top Western structures discussed how to handle a war initiated by Russia. For some reason the scenarios are similar…
General Shirreff’s descriptions of the activities and decision-making in the Russian high command (at times also of the Western political leaders’ actions) were, however, worded in an exaggeratedly simplified way in my opinion. Since I have been interested in Russia all my life, I do understand why it was necessary to clarify everything for the less informed reader. Moreover, Shirreff’s book has a weakness that I consider frightening: it has an unbelievably happy ending. The war, which has been essentially already lost, is won owing to the large-scale resistance of a huge number of Baltic residents (exactly residents, not only citizens) in a guerrilla war, a series of happy coincidences the main heroes encounter, many successful military manoeuvres and an advantage that was won in cyber warfare thanks to a secret trick from the Brits, which helps to conclusively overturn the opponent and end the war. As a result, Russia is forced to HAND OVER (my emphasis) the Baltic States in shame.
The authors also seem to be united by the conviction that neither Finland nor Sweden’s clear neutrality means nothing to Russia. In both cases the aggressor attacks the demilitarised (sic!) Åland Islands and Gotland and conquers the territories with ease since it needs them to control the Baltic Sea in a better manner. Both neutral states try to maintain “their neutrality” even after that, prohibiting NATO to use their air space and infrastructure. That makes it impossible to prevent Russia from gaining control over the entire Baltic Sea region. In Kunnas’s Taavet the Swedes and feisty Finns support NATO’s activity, bring their military forces to a heightened state of readiness and take back the islands they lost. In addition, they semi-officially help Estonia. I would really like to believe this scenario…
I am also haunted by a different emotion. While Colonel Kunnas is optimistic about NATO’s decision mechanisms and considers military and technical issues hindered by political decisions/indecisiveness to be the West’s main problems, General Shirreff is critical of the Alliance’s entire decision-making mechanism, and he probably draws from personal experience in this. He is especially critical in his descriptions about the NAC4 and the varying interests of the member states, even stating that reports on discussions held in the NAC are available in the Kremlin in two hours…. Yet, we have to keep in mind that only a consensual decision of the NAC can invoke Article 5.
As a simple reader, I would like to believe that the preparatory work outlined in Taavet will be actually undertaken and we will achieve the necessary level of deterrence that would prevent anyone from launching aggression with any kinds of manoeuvres. I do not want to comment on the rather professional technical analysis of the necessary steps both authors discuss in their books; it suffices to say that according to them we need a significant U-turn in planning NATO’s actions, deployments and level of equipment. Concerning this matter, the General only writes that “As any politician will tell you, there’s no votes these days in spending money on defence.” (p. 432)
Colonel Kunnas also emphasises that “differently from the second scenario in this book, Koljat is based on the decisions made by Russia, Estonia, other Baltic states, NATO as a whole and plans THAT ARE VALID NOW (Autumn 2016, my emphasis), therefore it can be considered realistic, whereas the scenario in Taavet is the stuff of fiction at least for now. DECISIONS that could lead to realising Taavet HAVE NOT BEEN MADE AS OF YET (my emphasis) in Estonia, the Baltic States or NATO as a whole.” (p. 227)
The main message of both books is that there are no winners in a war, but one must fight nonetheless, be the scenario what it may. We should never forget the saying: Si vis pacem, para bellum5!
1 Sõda Venemaaga (War with Russia) Kriitiline eelhoiatus kõrgemalt sõjaväeliselt juhtkonnalt. General Sir Richard Shirreff, retired Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR) Tänapäev, 2017
2 Sõda 2023. Koljat: kõigile, kes võitlevad oma koletistega; Sõda 2023. Taavet: kõigile, kes ekslevad oma labürintides: [dokumentaalromaan veel sündimata sündmustest]. (War 2023 Goliath: to all who fight their monsters; War 2023 David: to all those who are wandering in their labyrinths : [a documentary novel about events that have not happened yet] Leo Kunnas OÜ Küppar & Ko, 2017.
3 DSACEUR – Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe
4 North Atlantic Council
5 If you want peace, prepare for war. (Latin)
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.