Ex-MI6 chief Sir Alex Younger says 'it's 'impossible to see how Putin can back down now’

Intelligence expert accuses Russian leader of playing a game with the West

Russian President Vladimir Putin has made tough demands on the West, calling for Nato's presence from countries that joined the alliance after 1997 to be scaled back. AFP

A British intelligence expert has said it is impossible to see how Russia’s President Putin will back away from an invasion of Ukraine given his maximalist demands which are impossible for the West to meet.

Sir Alex Younger, a former soldier who led the UK’s secret intelligence service MI6 from 2014 to 2020, spoke of the increasing likelihood of an all-out war between Russian troops and Ukrainians in the former Soviet nation.

He said Mr Putin has effectively dug himself into a trench which makes de-escalating impossible to imagine and said Western leaders “mustn’t underestimate how serious he is”.

“Given the maximal nature of his demands, given that he’s rejected the only reasonable compromise, it’s hard for me to see how he can avoid having to follow through to some extent,” Mr Younger told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Ukrainian soldiers patrol the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Katerinivka, in the Donetsk region of Ukraine. AP

“And at that point you unleash the law of unintended consequences, so it does worry me.

“I, at the moment, cannot see a scenario where he can back down in a way that satisfies the expectations that he has created.”

However, Mr Younger stressed this was not “automatic” and said Mr Putin “may not yet have decided what he’s going to do”.

He said Russia's president was playing a brutal game of making demands on the West that he knows it cannot deliver.

As fears of a Russian invasion increase, the Kremlin has given Nato a list of demands it says are necessary to tone down the crisis.

Mr Putin begrudges what he sees as the military alliance’s expansion eastward and has demanded Nato’s presence be reduced in countries that joined the transatlantic treaty post-1997. These include Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

He also wants a guarantee that Ukraine will never be allowed to join the alliance.

Mr Younger said the situation was “clearly getting more dangerous” and it has become difficult to see how Russia can back down.

Britain and its allies would be faced with a critical decision if Russia sends its troops over the boundary.

Mr Younger said from his time leading MI6 he had learnt that “if you want to beat the Russians you shouldn’t be the Russians”.

He said the UK needed to double down on measures that “make us strong”, namely strengthening its alliances and spreading the truth about Russia’s actions.

He said there is an information war that needs to be fought, which involves “various covert organs of the Russian state” who have been pushing false narratives aimed at painting Ukraine as an aggressor or an illegitimate nation.

Last week talks between Washington and Moscow on Ukraine failed to achieve a breakthrough.

The talks in Geneva were held after Russia moved troops into Belarus for joint drills.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday joined US President Joe Biden and other world leaders for a virtual meeting to discuss the escalating tension between Russia and Ukraine.

The leaders of Nato, the EU, Italy, Poland, France and Germany attended the summit as they hoped to avert what Mr Johnson said would be a bloody and protracted conflict for Moscow.

The prime minister said an invasion of Ukrainian territory by Russian soldiers could lead to the region becoming the “new Chechnya”.

He warned Mr Putin, who in 2014 led a Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, that a fresh invasion would be a disaster.

“The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine, the plan for a lightning war that could take out Kiev is one that everybody can see,” Mr Johnson said.

“We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step.”

The prime minister said the people of Ukraine would resist any invasion and “from a Russian perspective [it] is going to be a painful, violent and bloody business”, he said.

“I think it’s very important that people in Russia understand that this could be a new Chechnya.”

Earlier on Monday, Mr Johnson said in an interview that “gloomy” intelligence suggested Russia was planning a lightning raid on Kiev, as British staff and their families began leaving the Ukrainian capital.

The Pentagon has placed 8,500 US troops on heightened alert, preparing them for a potential deployment to reassure Nato allies amid rising tensions.

Britain's Foreign Secretary Liz Truss last week urged the UK's allies to reduce their economic dependence on Russia.

Updated: January 25, 2022, 9:32 AM