The world faces cold-war-era threat levels, Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6, has said, due to the west vacating the stage in Syria and failing to recognise that the growth of Russian military power over the past 15 years required the development of a new strategic relationship with Moscow.
“We are moving into an era that is as dangerous, if not more dangerous, as the cold war because we do not have that focus on a strategic relationship between Moscow and Washington,” Sawers told the BBC on Wednesday.
He said the west needed to recognise that the balance of power had changed in the world because of an increase in Russian military power, and its willingness to use that power.
He also chided the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, for calling for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in London, saying it was necessary to be mindful of the welfare of diplomatic staff in Britain’s Moscow embassy.
“We all recall what happened to our embassy in Tehran,” Sawers said. A similarly violent attack on the UK embassy in Moscow was unlikely, he added, but “we need to be careful about the consequences of things we call for”.
Johnson had called for demonstrations outside the Russian embassy in a Commons debate on Tuesday, partly as a rhetorical device to criticise leftwing groups such as Stop the War Coalition for failing to denounce the Russian bombing of Aleppo, the second city of Syria. He also reiterated allegations of Russian involvement in an attack on aid convoy last month, prompting an accusation of “Russophobic hysteria” by the Russian defence ministry.
On the ground in besieged eastern Aleppo, residents said air raids using powerful bunker-buster bombs resumed on Tuesday and continued into the early hours of Wednesday morning. Doctors said they had documented 34 dead and 216 injured on Tuesday alone, adding that the total number was likely to be higher as some families retrieved their dead from bombarded sites without taking them to local hospitals.
In his BBC interview Sawers rejected calls for a no-fly zone to prevent Syrian helicopters or Russian planes from bombing Aleppo, saying this might have been an option three or four years ago but was not realistic today.
“You cannot have Nato forces or American forces operating in the same theatre as Russian forces without risking a very direct clash between the two.”
He added that a partial no-fly zone was unrealistic since it also carried the risk of direct confrontation with Russia. Sawers doubted that Russia would let its allies in the Syrian government be attacked.
The former MI6 chief said the decision by the Commons not to intervene in the wake of Syrian use of chemical weapons in 2013, and the US decision to hold off on strikes that followed, had left the west with fewer options.
He said: “We vacated the theatre and the Russians moved in. It was certainly a mistake. Chemical weapons were being used against civilians in Damascus by their own regime. We had upheld a taboo against the use of chemical weapons and we have failed to uphold it on this occasion.”
More broadly, he argued, the west had not caught up with the consequences of a change in the balance of power in the past 15 years, including a Russian and Chinese decision to invest in full spectrum military power.
“We are not treating Russia and China as major powers that can cause us a great deal of damage,” he said. “What we really need to avoid is moving down a road that leads to a direct confrontation.”
He said the west no longer had a clear strategic framework with Russia, as had existed in the cold war, to ensure stability, singling out a lack of rules between Russia, China and the west about the legitimate use of cyberwarfare.
The absence of strategic communication and engagement led to the Ukraine crisis, he argued, saying Vladimir Putin had misread the signals from Washington and moved in believing he was foiling a western-backed uprising.