In his State of the Union speech on Wednesday (21 April), Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West that if it crosses “the red line” with Russia, it should expect an “asymmetrical, swift and harsh” response.
But he didn’t say what the red line was.
There are many areas of tension with Russia these days. The hottest one is Ukraine, where Russia has been amassing troops on the border, possibly awaiting a provocation to invade. Warships have been brought to the Black Sea from the Caspian Sea, although the two bodies of water do not connect.
Experts warn of a next conflict where Russia may seize more Ukrainian territory to ensure water supply for Crimea. A second area of high tension is the possibility of fresh Western sanctions, should dissident Alexei Navalny die in prison as a result of the torture-like treatment he has suffered.
A third is the expulsion of Russian diplomats, or shall we say spies, from embassies across Europe, over alleged covert action, including sabotage, bombing, and Novichok poisoning. That’s not to mention US sanctions over Russia’s alleged cyber-attacks and election meddling.
According to Putin’s narrative, there is an ongoing competition in the West over who can shout the most loudly at Russia without any reason whatsoever, while the US and their allies perpetrate coup d’états, first in Ukraine and then in Belarus.
It’s an outlandish but simple narrative. It doesn’t matter if it can’t convince many. It’s enough if it convinces Putin’s fans in Russia and abroad. And it does.
We have seen the same tactics by a US president, Donald Trump. The only difference is that the US is a democracy. These days, Trump has much more time to play golf.
So what are Russia’s red lines? A Russia-US summit should at least try to identify them, although Moscow says it’s too early. In the meantime, the world is less secure, because political and military leaders will have to guess, sometimes with military aircraft or battleships standing by.
With or without Putin, Russia will always see Ukraine and Belarus as its buffers. Ukraine’s membership in NATO is certainly a red line, but also bringing more Western weaponry into the former Soviet republic, even if the country doesn’t officially have such a status.
Among Kyiv’s requests are Patriot missiles, and answering such a request would be a game-changer, also because the US-made Patriot surface-to-air systems have anti-ballistic missile functions. Poland has bought two Patriot batteries with a price tag of $4.75 billion and awaits their delivery in 2022.
Sabre-rattling is usually dangerous. At the end of the day, Russia’s leadership may decide to invade sooner rather than later. On the other hand, Russia may think twice before invading if it knows that the Ukrainian response would be too painful.
It’s about who blinks first. This is where we stand today. And we haven’t even tried to imagine the asymmetrical responses. Maybe next time.
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