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The West could find itself in a nuclear war with Russia by next year in a conflict triggered by a Russian land grab in the Baltic States, a former top NATO commander has warned.
Richard Shirreff, who served as NATO’s deputy supreme from 2011 to 2014, said it was imperative the alliance beefed up its military defences.
“I have this awful vision of the Baltic States being seized, NATO unable to respond, Putin then blackmails using nuclear weapons what is called chillingly ‘nuclear de-escalation’ and NATO is unable to do anything about it,” the retired general told reporters.
“The alliance collapses and at a stroke, Putin has destroyed … the organisation perhaps he fears the most, NATO. America is decoupled from Europe and the world is changed irrevocably.”
General Shirreff made the dire predictions while promoting his new book, "2017 War With Russia", a fictional account which envisages Russia opening up a land corridor to Crimea and seizing Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
The former British tank commander told the BBC the scenario was “entirely plausible”. “The chilling fact is that because Russia hardwires nuclear thinking and capability to every aspect of their defence capability, this would be nuclear war.”
“We need to judge President Putin by his deeds not his words.
“He has invaded Georgia, he has invaded the Crimea, he has invaded Ukraine. He has used force and got away with it.
“In a period of tension, an attack on the Baltic states… is entirely plausible.”
Spooked by Russian action in Ukraine, eastern NATO members including the former Soviet-ruled Baltic states and Poland have lobbied the alliance to increase its presence in the region to guarantee security.
The United States and Russia this month accused each other of mounting an aggressive military presence in northern Europe, with Moscow vowing to "end threats" posed by a US missile shield near its border in Romania and soon in Poland.
Relations between NATO and Moscow have sharply deteriorated since Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March 2014, sparking fears among other eastern European countries that they too could be targets of Russian aggression.
An endorsement of the book from James Stavridis, NATO's former supreme allied commander for Europe from 2009 to 2013, said General Shirreff had been correct about the consequences of Russian action in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
"I fear that he has again correctly called the Russians' next moves in this book," Stavridis said.
In the foreword Stavridis said that Russia was on "a dangerous course that, if it is allowed to continue may lead inexorably to a clash with NATO".