President Putin’s Red Line of Warning to The Western Powers

Russia is seeking longer-term security guarantees from the Alliance that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State and that NATO military infrastructure will not be deployed in the country.

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U.S. President Joe Biden and Russia's President Vladimir Putin shake hands as they arrive for the U.S.-Russia summit at Villa La Grange in Geneva, Switzerland, June 16, 2021. [File Photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

President Putin seldom appeared in public since the pandemic began. Russian President Vladimir Putin warned the West not to cross a “red line” with Russia, saying such a move would trigger an “asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh” response. The warning came in his annual state of the nation address, amid heightened tension with the West over Ukraine and jailed Putin critic Alexei Navalny. President Putin said Western powers were constantly trying to “pick on” Russia. Police have detained nearly 100 Navalny supporters rallying in several cities.

Hundreds staged pro-Navalny protests on Wednesday in eastern cities including Vladivostok, Irkutsk, and Krasnoyarsk. The authorities have declared them illegal. The anti-corruption campaigner is being treated at a prison hospital in Vladimir, about 180 km (112 miles) east of Moscow. He is on hunger strike, and his allies say his life is in danger. In central Moscow, police cordoned off the area around Manezh exhibition hall, where Putin addressed both houses of parliament. Navalny supporters planned to rally in the area. “No to war, repression, and torture”: A pro-Navalny march in Vladivostok. Two close aides to Navalny were among those detained.

BELARUS ‘COUP PLOT’

Putin focused most of his speech on Russia’s battle against Covid-19 and its plans to improve welfare and economic development. But he accused the West of threatening stability in Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbors Belarus and Ukraine. “The use of unjust sanctions is growing into something more dangerous: a coup attempt in Belarus,” he said. He backs Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, who faces huge opposition since claiming re-election last year, in a vote widely condemned as rigged. The two Presidents held talks in Moscow. Later Belarusian authorities announced that they had foiled a US-backed plot to assassinate President Lukashenko. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had detained two Belarusians allegedly involved in the plot. The coup claim was dismissed by the exiled Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya as a “provocation”. Since last August’s disputed election, massive demonstrations in support of her have taken place, with thousands of protesters beaten up by police and detained.

WARNING TO WEST

President Putin said some Western countries were like jackals trying to please the US, just as a jackal behaves with the tiger Shere Khan in Kipling’s tale The Jungle Book. “We don’t want to burn bridges, but if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid, and harsh,” he said. “We’ll decide for ourselves in each case where the red line is.” Media caption, Gauging the Russian mood: BBC Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg traveled to the city of Krasnoyarsk in Siberia to report tensions building over Ukraine. Russia backs the separatists holding a swathe of eastern Ukraine, and its maneuvers have fueled fears of a new Russian military intervention.

In his speech, President Putin said that “the West didn’t think about Belarus or Ukraine when the Maidan events were going on there”. Mass protests in Kyiv’s Maidan Square led to Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing to Russia in February 2014. “The organizers of any provocations against Russia will regret their actions in a way they never have before,” Vladimir Putin warned. His spokesman later described the “red lines” as “our external security interests, our internal security interests in preventing any outside interference, whether in our elections or other domestic political processes”. Last week the US government accused the Kremlin of “malign activity” and expelled 10 Russian diplomats. Russia responded tit-for-tat. Similar hostile exchanges of diplomats took place between Russia and both the Czech Republic and Poland.

HOUSE OF COMMONS LIBRARY RUSSIA’S RED LINE

In early November 2021, Russia began building up its military forces along the borders of Ukraine, for the second time in a year. Over 100,000 Russian military personnel and assets have been deployed in Crimea and in the Voronezh, Kursk, and Bryansk regions of Western Russia. Russian naval assets from the Baltic and Northern fleets have deployed to the Black Sea, and 30,000 Russian troops are currently on exercise in Belarus, close to the Ukrainian border. Tensions have escalated following a US intelligence assessment in December 2021, which suggested that Russia could be planning an invasion of Ukraine in early 2022. Russia’s “red lines” Russia has denied suggestions that it is planning to invade and has linked its actions to what it regards as provocative actions by NATO.

Russia is seeking longer-term security guarantees from the Alliance that Ukraine will not be admitted as a Member State and that NATO military infrastructure will not be deployed in the country. The Kremlin has said these are “red lines” for Russia’s national security. International response Western nations have made clear their support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and its right to choose its security partnerships. They have warned Russia that any military escalation will have significant economic consequences.

Among the measures being discussed are sanctions against Russia’s financial institutions, energy sector, and individuals close to the Kremlin. Russia’s controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline to Europe could be halted as part of any sanctions package. Military assistance from the UK, US, NATO, and the EU is also being provided to Ukraine. Diplomatic talks Diplomatic efforts to de-escalate the situation are underway. A series of meetings between the US, NATO, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and Russia were held in mid-January. Those Commons Library Research Briefing, 18 February 2022 4 Ukraine: Russia’s “red line” meetings discussed Ukraine, but also European security more broadly, including Russian proposals for legally binding security guarantees between the US, NATO, and Russia. Talks aimed at achieving a political solution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine also resumed between the countries of the Normandy Format: Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. No breakthroughs were achieved, and Russia did not commit to de-escalate and withdraw forces from the Ukrainian border. What happens next?

Russia has since been accused by the West of planning a series of aggressive moves against Ukraine as a pretext for military action, allegations which it denies. Russia stands by its statement that it has no plans to invade Ukraine and President Putin has accused the US of trying to draw Russia into a war. In mid-February the Russian Ministry of Defense said that several units had begun to withdraw from the region back to their permanent locations, having completed their exercises. NATO said it had not seen any signs of de-escalation on the ground, thus far. In the meantime, shelling between pro-Russian separatist forces and Ukrainian government forces in eastern Ukraine has increased.

Diplomacy continues with several world leaders having visited Moscow for talks in recent weeks. At the time of writing, it is unclear whether the Kremlin will agree to NATO’s proposal for more substantive security talks in the longer term. A Russian response to the US’s counter-proposals on legally binding security guarantees was received by the US administration on 17 February and is currently being considered. On 14 February 2022, however, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said “I think our opportunities are far from exhausted. Of course, they should not be endless, but I think we should still continue to pursue and build on them at this point”. Deterrence as well as diplomacy In the meantime, NATO allies have moved to shore up the defense of Eastern Europe with the deployment of additional ships and fighter aircraft to the region. Further consideration is being given to the deployment of additional battlegroups in central, eastern and south-eastern Europe.

NATO forces will not be deployed on the ground, however, as Ukraine is a partner country of the alliance and not party to NATO’s Article V mutual defense clause. Commons Library Research Briefing, 18 February 2022. Jailed Russian opposition figure and outspoken Kremlin critic Alexey Navalny died at the age of only 47. According to the Russian Prison Service, Navalny felt unwell after a walk and almost immediately lost consciousness. A long thorn in the side of Putin, he returned to Russia in 2021 after being poisoned by a Soviet-era nerve agent. Alexei Navalny, Russia’s top opposition leader and President Vladimir Putin’s fiercest foe, was buried in a Moscow suburb in a funeral that drew thousands of mourners amid a heavy police presence. Navalny, who was serving a 19-year sentence on charges of extremism, died Feb. 16, according to Russia’s prison service. He was moved in December from his former prison in central Russia to a “special regime” penal colony — the highest security level — above the Arctic Circle. In the span of a decade, he went from being the Kremlin’s biggest foe to Russia’s most prominent political prisoner.

IS BIDEN ADMINISTRATION LETTING THE RUSSIANS ADVANTAGE OF MARITIME CONTROL IN THE BLACK SEA BY DELAYING MILITARY AID TO UKRAINE

Max Boot, in a recent article in The Washington Post, reported on criticism from Retired Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges, a former commander of U.S. Army Europe, criticizing the shortage of political will in the administration’s unwillingness to more forcefully challenge Russia’s blockade of the Black Sea coast after the collapse of a grain export deal. Since then, Russia has been targeting Ukrainian grain facilities. Putin wants to bring Ukraine to its knees and doesn’t care about inflicting hunger on millions of people around the world who need Ukrainian grain to survive. Yet the Biden administration is not doing enough to contest Putin’s reprehensible power play. Retired Adm. James Stavridis, a former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, said in an interview that he thought of a dangerous potential precedent in not more aggressively contesting Russia’s de facto maritime control of a large swath of international waters in the Black Sea. He argued that NATO ships should start escorting merchant vessels carrying food and fuel, keep NATO combat aircraft on constant patrol over the Black Sea, and provide anti-ship missiles and drones to Ukraine to keep the Russian fleet at bay.

According to him, there is no indication that the Biden administration is seriously pursuing any of those options. However, the Biden administration deserves praise for committing a huge amount of money as military aid to Ukraine. But it continues to drag its feet on providing other critical assistance that Ukraine desperately needs at a time when its counteroffensive is not advancing as rapidly as hoped. Breedlove doesn’t mince words in explaining why the administration isn’t more aggressive: In his opinion, the Biden administration does not want to see Ukraine succeed, as in his words, “because we are deterred, we are intimidated, and we don’t want Putin to widen or deepen the war.” Biden’s fears, once understandable, now seem excessive. The Ukrainian drone strikes inside Russia should relieve exaggerated fears about the consequences of crossing Putin’s supposed red lines. Providing more aid to Ukraine won’t significantly raise the risk of a wider war — but it could shorten the existing conflict

Kazi Anwarul Masud

Kazi Anwarul Masud is a retired Bangladeshi diplomat. During his tenure, he worked in several countries as the ambassador of Bangladesh including Thailand, Vietnam, South Korea and Germany

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