When I first heard of this book last year, I was immediately thrilled. A senior officer with recent insight into NATO’s inner workings writing a modern-day techno thriller of all-out war in the Baltic states, this was bound to be a great read! Right?
The preface promised great things as well. The author reflects upon the Russian invasion of Ukraine and how this transformed the European security order. At the time, he was Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe (DSACEUR), in short NATO’s number two military officer in Europe, offering a unique insight into how this monumental moment was viewed from inside the organisation.
As my fellow commander and I watched, we all knew who those vehicles belonged to and who was operating them. But proving it was another thing […] and we couldn’t even consider doing anything to counter it as Ukraine was not a member of NATO.
Unfortunately, the preface is probably the strongest part of the book in my opinion. My understanding is that this is sir Shirreff’s first book, and unfortunately the storytelling of the novel is not up there amongst the classics of the genre. The general outline is interesting, but when it comes to execution many of the characters and attempts to flesh out the story feels like cliches we’ve all seen before.
But while the hero might be predictable, all women beatiful, and all British politicians scheming and uninterested in national security, the book retains one undisputable quality which kept me hooked to the end: this is likely the best non-academic look into the inner workings of NATO available at the moment. While reading the book, I constantly reflected upon what the retired general is trying to tell his audience, and how much of the thoughts expressed by the characters at the strategic level reflect those found at Number 10, in the White House, and Casteau. Perhaps even more interesting is the picture painted of Putin’s personality, presumably mirroring rather closely how his personality is seen amongst the higher echelons of NATO. Certainly sir Shirreff is leaving some things out to maintain OPSEC and putting his own personal spin on others, but at the same time the purpose of his writing does shine through and is nicely summed up in the subtitle: “An urgent warning from senior military command”. I appreciate that by putting this warning in the form of a novel, he achieves two things he would otherwise not have done: reaching new audiences, and being able to “go for it” in a way he would not have been able to if he had written a non-fiction text.
In the end, I don’t regret spending a few euros to get the Kindle-edition of the novel, and I did highlight quite a few passages when reading. If you belong to the (arguably not huge) group of people interested in national security and related questions, you might very well find it an interesting read. But as a novel, I would unfortunately not recommend it. However, if you are still interested in what general sir Shirreff has to say (and I highly recommend that you do), head over to Youtube where a number of interesting interviews and speeches are found, such as this one by the Brookings Institute.