What are the Russian red lines? Opinions of the Ukrainian experts


In the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the Russian government and its propaganda machine frequently issue warnings to Ukraine and its allies about crossing the so-called «red lines», after which Russia would supposedly respond. For example, such statements have been made in regard to strikes on Crimea, the delivery of Leopard tanks or depleted uranium shells, and NATO expansion. However, when these lines were crossed, no significant response followed. In light of these events, «The Ukrainian Review» reached out to Ukrainian experts to discuss whether they believe Russia actually has any red lines, where these lines might be located, and what the potential consequences of crossing them could be. 


Olexiy Haran. Source: https://www.dsnews.ua/ukr/politics/oleksiy-garan-bayden-starshiy-ne-vplivatime-na-rozsliduvannya-stosovno-svogo-sina-i-burisma-adzhe-ce-pidirve-yogo-poziciji-15122020-409388

Olexiy Haran, Professor of Comparative Politics at the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, Research Director at Democratic Initiatives Foundation:

“Red lines – a journalistic term that signifies something unacceptable for a country, its leadership, and its people. These lines can be interpreted in different ways. For example, Boris Yeltsin spoke about NATO’s expansion to the Baltic countries as a red line for Russia. Later this happened, and it became clear why these countries wanted to join NATO — Russia would not dare to attack small Estonia, a member of the alliance. But Russia once called this a red line. Recently, there have also been changes in Finland’s status, although just two years ago, this seemed impossible.

Putin, at the time, formally «annexed» Crimea to Russia, enshrining it in the Constitution, to declare that there could be no concessions concerning this territory. Regarding the occupied part of Donbas, the situation was more complicated since Russia did not recognize the so-called LPR and DPR until February 2022. The difference in the status of the territories created a legal distinction. When the West previously discussed Ukraine’s de-occupation, they said that Crimea was Russian territory, and the situation there was different. However, Putin raised the stakes after the pseudo-referendum, declaring the occupied territories of the Donbas, Kherson, and Zaporizhia regions as Russian territories, enshrining this in the Constitution.

Thus, Putin raised the stakes, stating that any attempt to liberate the territories would be considered an attack on Russia, and it would have the right to use nuclear weapons. However, Ukrainians liberated Kherson, and nothing happened. The aggressor tries to establish red lines, but it depends on Ukraine and the world whether they will give in to Putin’s blackmail.

So «red lines» are a means of blackmail aimed not so much at Ukraine but at Western partners. It is worth reminding that Ukraine does not seek to attack Russia or bomb it; the goal is to liberate its territory.

Putin claims that NATO has crossed red lines in Ukraine, but this is not true. In 2014, Ukraine was officially a non-aligned country, gave up nuclear weapons, and had guarantees of territorial integrity from Russia. However, Russia attacked Ukraine, violating its guarantees. Thus, these red lines are fictitious.

Putin is trying to scare the West, saying that if they supply weapons to Ukraine, Russia will start a war. But he has already started a war. It is essential not to succumb to his blackmail. In fact, the actions of the West and Ukraine did not provoke Putin to attack; the attack on Ukraine forced the West to help Ukraine. Even Germany changed its traditional policy because of this.

Were there any reasons for Putin to bomb the civilian population of Ukraine? NATO’s assistance has nothing to do with it. Unfortunately, it is still necessary to explain these things, especially in Global South countries, where Russian propaganda is potent (for example, we wrote about the Russian propaganda in Africa, — author’s note). Often they believe that NATO’s expansion provoked Putin. Or, for example, I was impressed when people in Muslim countries did not know about the fate of Crimean Tatars. They did not know that they, not Russians, are the indigenous population of Crimea. It is necessary to emphasize such things.”


Yevhen Mahda. Photo from Facebook

Yevhen Mahda, a political scientist, historian, hybridity specialist, and director of the Institute of World Policy:

“The issue of red lines in Russian-Ukrainian relations, in my opinion, is significant primarily for Russia itself. This topic of their controlled madness is actively promoted, and Russia tries to limit the freedom of movement and action of both its counterparts and its opponents, which currently include Ukraine and the countries supporting it. Therefore, I think that practice has shown that the supply of heavy weapons, such as HIMARS, howitzers, and others, is not a case where Russia can provide an adequate response. Instead, they are more in the role of an observer of what is happening around them.

Also, when talking about red lines, we need to look at another significant and interesting point — the situation around Finland’s accession to NATO. Many words have been said about Russia being against NATO expansion and not allowing it, but we see that after Finland joined the alliance, nothing extraordinary happened. So, Russia often simply has no means to respond to such a development, and we must also realize this. We need to continue this process as assertively as possible.

Regarding the possible use of nuclear weapons by Russia, I want to refer to an article by Generals Valerii Zaluzhnyi and Mykhailo Zabrodsky, who in September 2022 emphasized that even the use of tactical nuclear weapons would not prevent Ukraine from continuing the fight to restore its territorial integrity. Therefore, I think that this issue is more of a potential deterrent for other countries, and we need to look at the situation in Poland and Lithuania after Putin’s statement about deploying tactical nuclear weapons in Belarus in the coming months, that is, hundreds of kilometers from Russian territory. In this context, we all need to seek common methods of resistance, including the activation of the Lublin Triangle — a security format established in 2020 by Poland, Lithuania, and Ukraine to stop the current orgy of Russian aggression.”


Igor Burkut. Source: https://chas.cv.ua/politics/47616-igor-burkut-pro-vidstavku-mera-boyusya-shho-misto-teper-mozhut-rozikrasty-povnistyu.html

Igor Burkut, candidate of historical sciences, political scientist and publicist:

“The so-called «red lines» of the Kremlin are a journalistic stereotype used to characterize the cowardice of some Western politicians who are most afraid of being drawn into a war with Russia. However, for Russia itself, there are no longer any limits; the country has ultimately turned into a universal evil that must be destroyed in its current form before it destroys the entire planet. The ruling neo-fascist regime in Russia has effectively declared its goal to destroy the Ukrainian state and Ukrainians as a nation, thus placing itself outside international law. Unfortunately, it possesses nuclear weapons.

It cannot be ruled out that Russia may use tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine, although militarily it would not lead to the victory of Putin’s regime. However, seeking rationality in its actions is not worth it; one should be prepared for the worst. We are dealing not with a state in the classical sense of the word, but with a mafia-like gang, and therefore, we should fight it as one would fight ordinary criminals.”


Andrii Kharuk. Source: https://armyinform.com.ua/2023/03/21/bt-5-pershyj-tank-ukrayinskogo-vyrobnycztva-yakyj-vidpravyly-na-eksport-doslidnyk-ozbroyennya-andrij-haruk/

Andrii Kharuk, professor, military historian, doctor of historical sciences, head of the department of humanitarian sciences of the Hetman Petro Sahaidachnyi National Ground Forces Academy:

“First of all, what is a red line? There is a big question here. Crossing the red line — what will Russia do after that? Obviously, most observers understand that under these statements about red lines, Russians imply some kind of threshold when they will use nuclear weapons or at least tactical nuclear weapons.

In my opinion, the likelihood of this is not zero, but extremely small, because ultimately we have seen that the Russians relatively calmly endured strikes not only in the temporarily occupied territories of Ukraine but also directly on the territory of Russia. Moreover, these strikes were inflicted by Ukraine, which I want to remind you, since the first days of the war. Recall, for example, the strike on the Millerovo air base in the Rostov region with a “Tochka” [OTR-21 Tochka, Soviet tactical ballistic missile — ed.] missile at the end of February 2022. This is not the occupied territory of Ukraine; this is the territory of Russia itself. And these red lines have long been crossed, whatever Russia might be talking about. What else should we be afraid of, what else can we expect? What worse can they do to us? Engage strategic aviation against us? Well, we see that this strategic aviation is already launching these missiles, but for more than a month, there have been no large-scale attacks with these missiles on the territory of Ukraine.

Nuclear weapons? Well, it’s too dangerous. It would mean that Russia itself has crossed the red line. And I think (this is my personal assumption), that through some unofficial channels, the Russian leadership has already been informed of what will happen to them if they dare to use nuclear weapons.

From this insider information or leaks that are currently circulating, one can hear such a thesis that, for example, Americans are very afraid that Ukrainians will dare to strike the Kremlin. In the Americans’ view, this will be such a red line. Well, striking the Kremlin is not a priority for the Ukrainian armed forces, because there are many strategically important military targets in Russia to spend our ammunition, drones, and so on.”


Alina Kuvaldina

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