Content note: This interview contains mentions of war and violence

Just one night after we arranged this interview, Russia began the strategic invasion of Ukraine, with airstrikes reaching all the way to the capital city of Kyiv. The faces on the Zoom call were tense and disappointed, enraged and defiant after a day of receiving nothing but shocking news. Saleyha will be beginning the Magdalene Connects series of talks with a discussion with Hamish. Before Friday’s talk, Varsity speaks with Saleyha and Hamish about chemical warfare, cybersecurity, sanctions, and solutions to the ongoing crisis.

Hamish, can you see chemical weapons being used in this conflict?

H: I’ll start off with a statement. If you have no morals or scruples you would use chemical or biological weapons all the time, because they’re morbidly brilliant. And of course, Russia has seen the use of chemical weapons in Syria, which in my opinion has kept the Assad regime in power… If Russia gets bogged down in Ukraine, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they used chemical weapons.

We had the Obama ‘red line’ in Syria in 2013 and that disappeared. That was really an open ticket to every dictator and despot that you can use chemical weapons without massive punishment. That’s something that I would hope that all the governments who are currently facing off with the Russians make very clear: that any use of chemical weapons would provoke some sort of retaliatory action.

I leave the readers to judge whether Putin has any morals or scruples. I certainly think he has absolutely no worry about causing collateral damage, whether or not he goes this far. If the Russians are prepared to use chemical weapons in the UK, in England, why worry about using them in Ukraine?

Russia has already increased the frequency of cyber attacks against Ukrainian business, news, and government websites. Is cyber warfare a likely threat to Ukraine’s security?

H: The Russians will throw everything at this: cyber, they will attack infrastructure, and added to that, they’ve got thousands and thousands of armoured vehicles, tanks and artillery. It’s the German word ‘blitzkrieg’, which is just swamping with mass, to overpower them in any way. I think that nothing is off the table, and a lot of the reason for that is because Putin thinks that he can pretty much do what he likes and the rest of the international community are not going to do anything except upset his bank balance.

“I think financial sanctions are a complete waste of time”

S: I found it really chilling and symbolic that yesterday was ‘Defender of the Fatherland Day’ in Russia, and all that that stands for is remembrance, hailing back to a former time of imperialism for Russia. Watching Putin taking his big wreath to mark fallen soldiers, it just felt so charged for me, that this guy has prepared.

Do you see the threats of immediate sanctions from the West as an effective course of action?

H: Absolutely no effect at all. I think the financial sanctions that were announced earlier this week – Putin has absolutely no interest in them. The fact that some of his oligarch mates might have lost a bit of money, he couldn’t care. I think financial sanctions are a complete waste of time, certainly in the short term.

The only thing that can be done is to isolate Russia. Closing airspace to Russian aircrafts. Shutting down Russia Today in London so that their propaganda can stop being sent. Impounding Russian ships at ports. We are going to give Ukrainians weapons, but it’s a bit late in the day. We’re certainly not going to roll tanks over the border, but I think financial sanctions are a complete waste of time, I mean, because he already invaded last night.

S: The sanctions that came from London… Really, really mild. Infuriatingly mild. You need strong messages. Like, UEFA, where are you? Say right now that the football league is not happening. Strong message. Football clubs – pull out. Say you’re not going. UEFA – lead [the way]. Maybe the rest will follow. (Since our interview, UEFA have indeed changed the location of the Champions League.) 

You’ve both worked with NATO. What is the significance of Ukraine not being a NATO member in this situation?

H: The only thing I would say is, and this may sound completely counterintuitive, thank God Ukraine is not a member of NATO. If it was, we would have been in World War III right now. Article 5 in NATO means that an attack on a member state is an attack on the whole of NATO. In a way, this is our only saving grace…

“I want to be very pre-emptive with the dialogue, right now, that international humanitarian law needs to be upheld”

Having said that, Ukraine is a democratic country. When Putin runs an autocratic regime and wants them to be a part of it, as citizens of the world, we should protect them in all the ways we can. We must do what we can for the people of Ukraine, but I expect decisions are being made to ensure that this doesn’t escalate beyond the borders of Ukraine.

S: I was listening to Ukrainians speaking in London today and they were saying, “We have been warning you about this for 8 years. We have known that this moment would come, we have been telling you.” And they were right. What’s really disturbed me is the amount of weaponry. There just seems to be so much on the ground, I’m worried, has Putin got enough mass there to keep rolling forward?

H: The key point is that if one Russian boot or tank goes west of Ukraine, you’re in a NATO country, so that is a concern. The point about whether he has the mass: I don’t think he does.

S: As Hamish says, a toe in Poland or Hungary and that is it.

Saleyha, from your experience as a medical professional in warzones, what is the Ukrainian healthcare system anticipating right now? How will COVID impact this?

S: You couldn’t write this, could you? We’re still in a global pandemic, who knows what the next strain is going to be like, and the term ‘World War Three’ is being bandied about. It’s just horrific. I want to be very pre-emptive with the dialogue, right now, that international humanitarian law needs to be upheld. A hospital must not be touched. I was in Syria in 2013, 2014, staring at the sky, wondering if the next thing to fly overhead was going to be a Russian jet dropping a bomb. I did experience the immediate aftermath of a soviet-made thermal bomb that dropped on a school. I am very aware that the pilots that were flying overhead in Syria may well be the very same pilots that will fly over Ukraine, and for me, that’s a worry. That should be a worry for everybody.

What is also really disturbing, and it is going to come back to bite us, is the fact that we were so slow in our condemnation of attacks against healthcare. And not just slow, but weak. We have let these attacks against healthcare, even up until now during COVID, continue. We know that even to this day, military exercises in Russia have been taking place where they have been misusing the red cross, pretending to be in a Red Cross ambulance and then jumping out and doing an ambush. It’s unthinkable.

H: Assume the Russians will attack hospitals. Assume they will do anything to get a marginal advantage. Both Saleyha and I have been involved in Syria for almost 10 years. That’s what the Russians did there.


Mountain View

Students rally in support of Ukraine

Could you tell us about the first instalment of your new series of talks, and the series more generally? What can people expect?

S: The series is called the ‘Magdelene Connects’ series. Tomorrow is basically how we are going to frame the rest of the series: discussing topical, pressing issues of our time with the leading experts in that area. In tomorrow’s pre-series event Hamish will be talking with us about the situation in Ukraine, and we will be examining lessons we have learnt from Syria. I can’t think of a better authority on the subject we have today that would be able to speak to what we are all concerned about other than Hamish. The Master of Magdalene College, Sir Christopher Greenwood, who has been a judge at the International Court of Justice, is opening the talk.

I’m getting a sense that there are a lot of people who are worried, concerned, interested, politically interested, interested from an academic perspective… Being able to offer them a chance to come together at this particular time, when each day we are uncertain about what we are going from and lurching to – I’m hoping that something more evolves from tomorrow for some people, from the connections they will make.

The pre-launch talk with Hamish and Saleyha will be held on Friday (26/02). Hamish de Bretton Gordon is the author of ‘Chemical Warrior: Syria, Salisbury and Saving Lives at War’.