A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 10, 2024

Why Putin's Frequent Talk Of 'Red Lines' Hasn't Stopped Ukraine's Western Support

"He doth protest too much." Putin has uttered threats about red lines so frequently - but done so little once they are crossed, as they have been repeatedly - that the threat has been devalued. 

Initially there was concern in the west that he might just be crazy enough to follow through, but as more and more actions - NATO admitting Sweden and Finland, permitting weapons to be used against military targets across the border in Russia etc - without consequence that the west has begun to, if not ignore them, than to dismiss them. And the primary reason is that Russia's abject failure, repeatedly, to beat Ukrainian forces when it has had so many chances to do so has increased the west's belief in itself even as Russia's reputation as a serious threat has diminished. JL

Lawrence Freedman reports in Comment Is Freed:

Red lines fail because the target has accepted the risks. Putin often mentions red lines, without being clear what they mean and what happens if they are passed. Although his subordinates employ apocalyptical language about what might happen, these threats have not been followed through. As Sweden and Finland joined NATO, and as Western weapons moved from defensive to more offensive, none has been worth a war with NATO. Because of this, the Russians have devalued their own language. The impression is of casting about for suitable punishments without escalating the conflict to absurd lengths. Red lines only work if they cannot be easily dismissed as bluff.

On the king, after reading the dispatch, saying that he desired to consult with his friends on the situation, Popilius did a thing which was looked upon as exceedingly overbearing and insolent. Happening to have a vine stick in his hand, he drew a circle round Antiochus with it, and ordered him to give his answer to the letter before he stepped out of that circumference. The king was taken aback by this haughty proceeding. After a brief interval of embarrassed silence, he replied that he would do whatever the Romans demanded.

-       Polybius, Histories.

Popilius was a consul sent by Rome in 168 BCE to tell Syrian King Antiochus IV to abort his attack on Alexandria. After this episode, which had the effect of putting an end to the war with Ptolemy, Polybius tell us that Antiochus withdrew back to Syria, ‘in high dudgeon indeed, and groaning in spirit, but yielding to the necessities of the time.’

On 27 February 1991, in the same part of the world Iraqi forces withdrew from Kuwait.  President George H Bush observed that

‘Seven months ago, America and the world drew a line in the sand. We declared that the aggression against Kuwait would not stand; and tonight America and the world have kept their word.’

These days the metaphor of choice is not so much a ‘line in the sand’ but a ‘red line’. References to red lines are to be found in discussions of both the Russo-Ukraine War and Hamas-Israel wars. One theory about the term’s origins is that it comes from the warning line on a gauge beyond which revving-up can damage the machinery.  ‘Red’ warns of a potential hazard, whether in red flag, red light, or red line, the point of transition from safety to danger. In machinery the red line can be set with some accuracy; in politics persuading individuals or countries to act against their wishes is a different matter. Nonetheless, the term is now used regularly to assert interests that will be protected robustly.

Another theory about its entry into the lexicon comes from the moment during the 1854 Battle of Balaclava when the outnumbered Sutherland Highlanders were told by their commander that there could be no retreat – ‘You must die where you stand.’ The men waited bravely in their scarlet tunics for the Russian charge, described by the  Times Correspondent William Russell as ‘a thin red streak tipped with steel’, later turned into a ‘thin red line’. This was picked up in Kipling’s famous poem ‘Tommy.’  (‘Then it's Tommy this, an' Tommy that, an' Tommy, 'ow's yer soul?"/ But it's "Thin red line of 'eroes" when the drums begin to roll.’)

The Problems with Red Lines

A red line signals a commitment, an assertion of a readiness to follow a course of action whatever the risks and hardships that might result. To work, however, it must shape the risk calculus of the target. Red lines fail because the target has accepted the risks. We can identify some features of a successful red line/line in the sand:

1)    Vital interests are affected.

2)    There is no doubt about the location of the line.

3)    The consequences of passing it will have been specified or can be reasonably inferred.

4)    Ideally there will be a shared understanding of where the line is to be found and what crossing it would mean.

There are a number of reasons why this ideal might prove to be elusive.

First, the red line may be blurred or ambiguous so as it is passed it is not wholly clear what has happened or whether this was intended. For example, it seems self-evident that crossing an actual, sharply-drawn physical line such as an internationally-recognised border would justify a strong response. But what if this is a few soldiers who have lost their way? Or a raiding party that moves into the adversary country but then almost immediately withdraws? Or if there is no more than cross-border shelling and it is not followed up by troop movement?

Second, if the line is passed incrementally, each step might be insufficient to trigger a strong response. In a post last summer I noted the way that supposed Russian red lines had been passed in this way without triggered drastic retaliation. The metaphor I  used was that of ‘salami-slicing’: it might be hard to make a fuss about the loss of each slice but the cumulative effect was that the whole salami was lost.

Third, when the damage has been done, what is the appropriate response? The target may have accepted the risk because it detected an element of bluff. Even with a firm determination to respond, it might be difficult to work out what to do because the circumstances are not those envisaged when the line was set. What was threatened before might no longer make much sense, and may even make a bad situation worse.

Fourth, while a sensible response might prove elusive, not responding at all can raise credibility issues. If a line has been set and then ignored why should future lines be taken seriously? Once a red line has been publicly set the stakes are immediately raised. In working out how to address the harm caused, the reputational costs that might be incurred if the response is weak must also be considered. That of course is part of the point of publicly setting the line – the target should be aware how difficult it will be to back down. Should it come to the crunch, it may not seem so wise to have allowed a general reputation for resolve to be bound up with specific events that do not unfold as unexpected.

On way to avoid the problems of how to respond when the line is passed is to make it very difficult to cross it even if that is the intention. In deterrence theory this is the difference between ‘denial’ and ‘punishment.’ If deterrence is about convincing the adversary that prospective costs will exceed prospective gains, then this can work either through preventing gains (denial) or imposing costs (punishment) or a combination of the two. Denial, if it can be achieved, is the best approach. This is the ‘thin red line.’ It requires the potential aggressor to consider whether it has the power to get across the line. If the aggressor concludes that it will be blocked then deterrence has succeeded without any need to consider how to find forms of punishment that might retrieve the situation.

Putin’s Red Lines

Although I have stressed the importance of clarity in setting red lines this has not been Putin’s approach. He likes to play mind games, disorienting and unnerving his opponents and even subordinates, by keeping them confused and uncertain about his intentions. He often mentions red lines, without always being clear what they mean and what happens if they are passed.

During his state of the union address in April 2021, at a time when there was already a buildup of forces around Ukraine (the numbers were reduced again that summer before the buildup began again later in the year), Putin observed:

‘The organizers of any provocations threatening the fundamental interests of our security will regret their deeds more than they have regretted anything in a long time…. I hope no one will think of crossing so-called “red lines” against Russia, which we ourselves will define in each separate case. Russia’s response will be symmetrical, fast and tough..”

The implication of his remarks was that he was prepared to keep everyone in the dark about where his red lines had been set and what he would do if they were passed, other than the response would in some way be appropriate. Putin would be quite content for others to speculate what this really meant, satisfied that his opponents was left so anxious about his intentions and capacity to act that they wished to avoid upsetting him.

When Putin explains any new military initiative he usually claims that an important line has already been crossed, as if his enemies have gone too far in ways that are self-evidently bad. Russia must be shown to be acting only in response to some prior transgression or provocation. This was the basis on which Crimea was annexed in 2014, because of a ‘coup’ in Kyiv, and the full-scale invasion launched on 24 February 2022, because Ukraine was engaged in brutal action against Russian-speakers in the Luhansk and Donetsk enclaves, even though the evidence for this was fabricated. (‘This is the red line that I talked about multiple times .. they have crossed it.’)

Other examples are blaming the strikes against Ukraine’s critical infrastructure that began in earnest in October 2022 after Ukraine’s attack on the Kerch bridge joining the mainland to Crimea, and Putin’s explanation for the recent offensive into Kharkiv by reference to incursions by a Ukrainian-backed Russian rebel group into Belgorod.

Putin therefore seeks to blame his victims for whatever forceful actions he chooses to take while keeping everyone guessing about where his other red lines lie and what might happen if they are crossed. To a degree this has worked, in that much time has been spent in the West speculating about what might trigger nuclear use. I dealt with this phenomenon in a recent discussion of the metaphor of the escalation ladder. Here I noted that there that there was one very specific contingency which Vladimir Putin consistently highlighted, involving NATO countries fighting side by side with Ukraine. This has been respected. Other contingencies that were mentioned, should they arise, could be addressed by Russia with responses that were bad enough but fell far short of nuclear war.

And that is what has happened. Although his subordinates have often employed apocalyptical and extravagant language about what might happen in particular circumstances, these threats have not been followed through. As Sweden and Finland joined NATO, and as the Western supply of weapons has moved from largely defensive to more offensive system, from short-range to long-range, there have been bitter Russian complaints and warnings, but they have been salami-sliced. None of the individual moves has been worth a war with NATO. Because of this, even if the Russians now really want to be taken seriously they have devalued their own language.

A New Stage in the War?

As past threats were revealed as bluffs the Western risk appetite grew. But circumstances change so that does not mean that we should fully discount those that might now be issued as just more of the old bluster. We are moving into an even more tense period than before.

This perhaps explains continuing American caution. Biden’s approach to red lines has been very different from Putin’s.  He does not want the US to get so drawn into supporting Ukraine that he risks a shooting war with Russia. He has stepped up support for Ukraine after, for example, Russian attacks on residential buildings or critical infrastructure, but did not warn Moscow about what the US might do in advance. His red lines vis-à-vis Russia have been linked only to the big thresholds: warning against a full-scale invasion, by threatening economic sanctions; making it known, and privately telling Russia, that it would respond to any Russian use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine, although in a non-nuclear way; reminding Moscow that the US would be duty bound, under Article V of the NATO Treaty, to respond to a direct attack on a NATO member.

Meanwhile red lines were imposed on Ukraine in an effort to keep the conflict contained, easily enforced because of its dependence on the US. The most controversial of these has been to refuse the use of US-supplied weapons for attacks on Russia.

Until April Putin had good reason to hope that not only would the United States remain cautious in this way but also that the levels of Western support would keep going down. A bill to provide assistance to Ukraine was stuck in Congress. Ukraine’s position was rapidly deteriorating as its struggled with manpower and material shortages, including artillery shells and air defences. Putin exuded confidence, for with the Russian economy now on a war footing, his forces appeared to be in comparatively good shape.   

But then, rather abruptly, the politics moved when Mike Johnson, Speaker of the House of Representatives, perhaps realising that his legacy might be Ukraine’s defeat, changed his mind and pushed the supplemental bill through. This shift added urgency to Russian ground attacks as their window of opportunity might now close earlier than expected. Moscow sought to exploit its advantages while they lasted. Out of this came the plans for last month’s offensive across the border from Belgorod into Kharkiv. This initially caught the Ukrainians by surprise and put them under intense pressure, as villages and land, previously liberated, were lost to Russia. The city of Kharkiv was struck regularly and painfully. Soon Zelensky was complaining bitterly about not being able to hit back at the sources of these attacks.

At first the Biden Administration appeared unmoved. But pleas to reconsider soon became more insistent. The UK said that it was relaxed if its weapons were used in this way and soon most European countries were taking the same line. They were backed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Aware that US restraint was hardly being matched by Russia and that Ukraine might lose even more territory unless it was able to find ways of blunting the Russian attacks, Biden relented. He agreed that US -supplied weapons could be used to attack across the borders although there would still be restrictions. This was how Politico described the new position:

In effect, Ukraine can now use American-provided weapons, such as rockets and rocket launchers, to shoot down launched Russian missiles heading toward Kharkiv, at troops massing just over the Russian border near the city, or Russian bombers launching bombs toward Ukrainian territory. But … Ukraine cannot use those weapons to hit civilian infrastructure or launch long-range missiles, such as the Army Tactical Missile System, to hit military targets deep inside Russia.

This distinction may not be fully appreciated in Moscow, given that the Ukrainians can already attacks targets deep in Russia using their own long-range drones, and that these restrictions do not apply to Crimea as Washington does not consider that part of Russia. Even with these other restrictions still applying initial reports suggest that Ukraine is already taking advantage of the new dispensation to hit assets across the border, notably air defence systems. As the land battles remain intense, many described by the Ukrainians as ‘tight’, it is too early to say that the tide has turned but there is increasing confidence that the Kharkiv offensive has stalled.

The challenging state of the war has led to another significant shift, this time led by France. President Macron signalled this in February, emphasising that Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign state has become a vital Western interest. He reinforced the point in an interview in late April, stating that steps previously discounted must now be considered:

‘I’m not ruling anything out, because we are facing someone who is not ruling anything out. I have a clear strategic objective: Russia cannot win in Ukraine. If Russia wins in Ukraine, there will be no security in Europe. Who can pretend that Russia will stop there?’

He has talked of basing Western units inside Ukraine, in training if not (as yet) combat roles.

Taken together these moves clearly concern Putin. He warned after Macron’s February remarks,  ‘this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons, and therefore the destruction of civilization.’ In early May he ordered Russian forces to rehearse deploying non-strategic (tactical) nuclear weapons. These were in response to what Putin’s mouthpiece, Dmitri Peskov, called ‘provocative statements and threats’ which had reached “unprecedented levels.” Putin warned of ‘serious consequences’, should Ukraine use western munitions to strike Russia, drawing attention to the ‘small territory’ and ‘dense population’ of European countries.

On 3 June Gideon Rachman wrote in the Financial Times that ‘Russia’s nuclear threats are losing their power’. Whether or not in response, on 5 June Putin insisted in a press conference that the use of Russia’s nuclear arsenal was not out of the question.

‘For some reason, the West believes that Russia will never use it … We have a nuclear doctrine. Look what it says. If someone’s actions threaten our sovereignty and territorial integrity, we consider it possible for us to use all means at our disposal. This should not be taken lightly, superficially.’

This is not news as such. Putin has always relied upon Russia’s 2020 nuclear doctrine, which authorizes nuclear use if it has been attacked by weapons of mass destruction or if ‘the very existence of the state is put under threat.’ Ukrainian forces using the US-provided HIMARS system to strike military targets in Belgorod does not meet this test.

So he is now looking for other ‘asymmetrical’ responses. His latest threat is to provide equivalent capabilities to other countries who havetheir own fights with Western countries:

‘If they consider it possible to deliver such weapons to the combat zone to launch strikes on our territory and create problems for us, why don’t we have the right to supply weapons of the same type to some regions of the world where they can be used to launch strikes on sensitive facilities of the countries that do it to Russia?’

Following this up, the reliably blustery Dmitri Medvedev added:

‘Now let the USA and their allies feel the direct use of Russian weapons by third parties. These parties or regions are intentionally not named, but they can be anyone who considers the USA and its allies their enemies, regardless of their political beliefs and international recognition. Their enemy is the USA, which makes them our friends. Let the use of Russian weapons by these unnamed “regions” be as destructive as possible for their and our opponents.’

Again we have a threat which is vague on the details. If Iran and North Korea are to be the beneficiaries then this is in line with existing policy, in return for the support they have given Russia in drones and artillery shells. If there are other candidates that could be problematic because they will not only pose threats to western states, but also countries with which Russia wishes to stay on good terms. There will also be questions about what Russia can spare from its inventory when it is still using its stock against Ukraine. The recipients might wonder how far Russia will be prepared to back them up if using these weapons leads them into a serious clash with the US and it allies.

In his most recent outing Putin downgraded this threat as something he might do:

‘We are not supplying those weapons yet, but we reserve the right to do so to those states or legal entities which are under certain pressure, including military pressure, from the countries that supply weapons to Ukraine and encourage their use on Russian territory.’

The impression is of casting about for suitable punishments without escalating the conflict to absurd lengths. There are plans to send ships to take part in exercises close to Cuba and Venezuela, which can show power projection but not much more, and plenty of evidence of mischief-making in Western countries, from propaganda campaigns to stunts, with France a particular target. (At the start of June five coffins labelled ‘French soldiers of Ukraine’ were left next to the Eiffel Tower). The problem for Putin is that none of this is going to make the West think again in its support for Ukraine and they confirm the idea that the tough talk behind red lines does not lead to equivalent action.

It is worth quoting Macron’s response:

‘Propagandists do propaganda. From day one, Russia's method has been: intimidate to neutralise. To intimidate our public opinions, all of us, so that we don't help Ukraine.

If we had followed the Russian intimidations from day one, we would to this day have supplied no battle tanks, no cannons, no aircraft for those who've started to do so, no long-range missiles, and I'm not sure Ukraine would be in the situation it is today without that.

We have therefore been systematically correct not to give way to the intimidations of the propagandists. What matters to me is to be coherent in the strategy that is ours and within the framework we've given ourselves: help Ukraine to resist, because this war is existential for us, and never be the source of escalation.’

Apart from the suffering that Ukraine experiences every day for daring to resist Russian aggression, this does not mean that we can be relaxed about all this activity. Russia can supply missiles to the West’s adversaries if it chooses to do so and this could add fire to conflicts that are already burning. Some actions largely designed to annoy could go too far, leading for example to cyber attacks that did real damage, or there could be incidents at sea or aircraft crashes. And there are other risks. How would European countries react if their trainers based in Ukraine were caught in a Russian attack? (Peskov: ‘No instructor involved in training the Ukrainian military has immunity.’)

Nonetheless, as some Russian propagandists are aware, the constant dark warnings about red lines are now seen as ‘empty talk.’ The BBC’s Steve Rosenberg reports a conversation with one of the most extreme propagandists, Vladimir Solovyov.

Rosenberg: ‘In the West some will say we’ve heard this sabre-rattling before, and that it’s a bluff.’

Solovyov: ‘It’s always a bluff. Until the time when it is not. You can keep thinking that Russia is bluffing and then, one day, there is no more Great Britain to laugh at. Don’t you ever try to push the Russian bear thinking that “Oh, it’s a kitten, we can play with it.”’

Which illustrates the problem. Red lines only work if they cannot be easily dismissed as bluff. The aim is to influence Western behaviour not to gain satisfaction by demonstrating some terrible power when the bluff is called. If Solovyev’s lurid threats are not taken seriously that may be because he has been expressing the same deranged fantasies for years, as if blowing up random European cities would not have severe consequences for Russia. It is doubtful that even the Kremlin takes much notice of him any more.

Red lines work only in very particular conditions, and when used promiscuously they lose credibility and reduce the effectiveness of those that might have real credibility. Attempts to set clear boundaries on what is acceptable and unacceptable often fail because of the inherent messiness and uncertainty of war and the problem of attaching costs to specific actions and then following through when the challenge comes because the available options have their own hazards and uncertainties and are not guaranteed to make things better.

It would be unwise for Western countries to start making its own blustery public warnings about its red lines, because then they will face the same problems as Russia, with uncertainties about how the lines should be drawn, what would constitute unequivocal evidence that they had been breached, and what punishments would make sense. The best place to start is to be clear about where vital interests lie, to build up the capabilities so that there are credible options available to deal with a range of contingencies, in the event of a serious provocation decide on what to do in the light of its scale and impact, and remember that the best form of escalation control is denial. Better to prevent adversary gains than worry about how and where to impose disproportionate costs.


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