Last night, the Oxford Union welcomed Sir Robert John Sawers, former chief of MI6. Having served as an intelligence officer, diplomat, and civil servant, Sir John was Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service from November 2009 to November 2014. During his tenure, he was a key opponent of the UK government’s decision not to intervene to a greater degree in Syria.
This was Sir John’s first opportunity to speak at the Union. He expressed gratitude for such a large audience despite the “dark and difficult time” the world is currently facing.
When asked how he was recruited to MI6, he revealed that he was given the “infamous tap on the shoulder” by a senior academic at Nottingham. Years later, sitting in the United Nations, he “got a second tap on the shoulder” offering the to be the chief of MI6.
His most intriguing years were his time in South Africa. Here, he learnt that “you can bring about change in world through a combination of pressure, persuasion, association, and leverage without violence”. He holds Nelson Mandela up as the greatest leader of the 20th century.
Reflecting on his time serving under different British Prime Ministers, Sir John was quick to reference their distinctly different personalities. “John Major was at times painstakingly slow at coming to a decision but always got it right. David Cameron was painstakingly quick but often got it wrong. Tony Blair’s position was frantically pro-Israeli at times and didn’t take into consideration wider politics. Gordon Brown did a fantastic job in the biggest financial crisis faced since the 1930s, but found it difficult to keep up with the pace [of being] prime minister.”
When asked if he felt his time as MI6-chief was successful, Sir John answered: “It’s for others to judge, but we certainly made a lot of progress.”
Reflecting on the times in his career he had felt most fearful, he said: “I was most frightened for my own safety in a helicopter in Bosnia, when we were fired at by grenades … I also remember standing in front of the mirror [in Baghdad] doing up my tie and there was this huge explosion, and the mirror shattered in front of me.”
However, in terms of national security, he admits that during his time in public service, “the world was becoming a better place… [the UK] joined the EU and became a dynamic economy, the cold war came to an end, apartheid came to an end… we established a degree of respect in the world.”
Nonetheless, Sir John acknowledged that the world has become a lot more dangerous since he stepped down from his position in MI6, joking that, “It must have something to do with that!”
He refers to three key moments when his heart “dropped” in the last few years: the result of the Brexit referendum, Trump’s election to presidency, and Putin’s march into Ukraine.
Sir John admits that the Russian invasion was not something he had envisaged becoming a reality. “It is a terrible series of events that we’re witnessing… I didn’t think it was in Putin’s interests.”
President Putin, Sir John reflects, is a “cold, calculating man… the harsh reality is that he had this in mind all along. This is Putin’s war”.
Describing Putin’s likely future tactics in Ukraine, he referenced the Vietnam-war era adage, “we had to destroy the village in order to save it”. He hinted that there is a real risk of Kiev being destroyed as the invasion intensifies. He further implied that Putin’s recent fiddling with nuclear levels is a warning to the West, firmly stating that “we must not step across the line and engage with Russia directly”.
Indeed, he warned of the dangers of backing Putin into a corner, saying: “We need to be incredibly careful. We must leave Putin a way out of this”.
Sir John went on to praise the sanctions that the West rapidly imposed on Russia. However, he acknowledged that, “in South Africa, it wasn’t for 12 years until economic pressures resulted in political change… sanctions can be an important weapon but they’re blunt and they’re slow in effect”.
Nonetheless, Sir John Sawer did leave the Union attendees with a positive note: “if there’s one silver lining to the cloud of what’s happening in Ukraine, those who worry about a Chinese attack on Taiwan should see this as less likely now… the Chinese will follow this situation very carefully and be a bit embarrassed by what Russia is doing”.
Image Credit: Laurie Nevay / CC BY-SA 2.0