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‘Russia’s Red Line Warnings Were Bluffs so Rules Restricting how Ukraine can Defend Itself Must Be Scrapped – Putin Can’t do Anything About it’

Restrictions on how Ukraine uses weapons supplied by the West should be ditched so it can “achieve a faster victory”

Residential buildings and housing were destroyed in a Russian missile attack in the centre of Kharkiv in January. Photo: CTK / Alamy
The aftermath of a Russian missile attack on residential buildings and housing in the centre of Kharkiv in January. Photo: CTK / Alamy

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There are red lines when it comes to wars. There are things that are excluded from the list of what is acceptable conduct in the prosecution of a war.

Some of those red lines can be applied by a party of a war against itself, there are red lines that can be imposed by allies even of a party to a war. There are explicit warnings over what may happen as a result of overstepping those red lines. And then there are fake red lines. It is wise to understand which is which and what effect they are having on the war between Russia and Ukraine.

When it comes to the kind of red lines that describe unacceptable conduct during armed hostilities, these are rules that have been devised over the years by the international community at large. Collectively, those rules of law are described as the Geneva Conventions. These conventions are a collection of treaties, ratified by the international community in the aftermath of the Second World War, that address matters such as the rights of prisoners of war, and they provide protections for civilians in and around war zones. Russia is in breach of all of this.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, seen applauding at a ceremony during the Day of Russia celebrations at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday, has made a lot of threats against the West but never followed through.  Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

Photos of Ukrainian POWs released in the most recent prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia show that the Ukrainians were emaciated from malnourishment. Many had lost significant amounts of their body mass. Some of the men were little more than skin and bones. Contrary to this, filmmakers and international organisations are granted access to the camps in Ukraine where Russian POWs are held and found that they are well-fed, housed in sanitary conditions, and not ill-treated. Ninety percent of former detainees returned to Ukraine report that they were tortured.

At the present time, precisely because this is directly relevant to how this war is unfolding in real time and because of the effect that they have on charting the further course of the war, the red lines to focus on today are those being imposed on Ukraine by some allies, and the red lines being repeatedly implied by Vladimir Putin and the record of what happens when taboos are broken and those supposed red lines are crossed. We will come back to the question of the war crimes previously described later, The Hague is the appropriate format to hear the evidence for them and decide on the appropriate punishments for the perpetrators.

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Red Lines are Changing and Bluffs are being Exposed

The most significant recent episode of the war, Russia’s escalation by attempting to again invade and occupy parts of Ukraine’s Kharkiv region, has caused some of Ukraine’s allies to modify red lines that they had previously set limitations on how their weapons may and may not be used by Ukraine. For example, the Americans had previously declared that their weapons should not be deployed against targets inside of Russia itself. That limitation, imposed because of fears of an escalation leading to a direct conflict between the US and Russia, has recently been lifted, with Ukraine now being permitted to hit targets inside Russia “near Kharkiv”. This new policy is both welcome and also folly.

The policy changed is welcomed because it was a bad strategy to have to allow Russian forces to enter Ukraine before they could then be engaged by Ukrainian infantry troops. Russia’s troop advances are always preceded by artillery shelling to reduce resistance to their attacks and to destroy anything of value worth defending. With the artillery units carrying out those shaping attacks located inside of Russia, they were effectively but far from literally beyond the range of an appropriate response by Ukraine.

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In essence, the Russians could shell at will, and then send amassed forces across the border from a safe haven where they had gathered – for the purpose of invading – and those advantages were given to them by Ukraine’s allies. Now that policy has changed, Ukraine is allowed to hit those firing positions and troop gathering, but only “near Kharkiv.” Why?

Let’s look at the logic of the new policy. It is the right thing to do. It reduces the dangers to Ukrainian troops and civilians alike by stopping Russia’s attempts to open a new front. While the “near Kharkiv” use of US-supplied weapons is of practical benefit in saving lives and blunting Russian ambitions, it also begs the question. What’s the difference between hitting targets in Russia “near Kharkiv” and hitting any other targets in Russia? There is none. Not from a legal standpoint, not least because according to Article 51 of the UN Charter, Ukraine has the inherent right to self-defence, but also because there is absolutely no legal difference between a strike (being carried out by Ukraine) 32 Km in Russia and one carried out in Russia at a range of 132 KM. They are no different. 

So if the in Russia taboo has been broken, and it has, there is no reason not to allow Ukraine to go after other legitimate enemy military targets deeper inside Russia. The precedent has been set, with a single attack in Russia, but so to has another Rubicon been crossed and another Russian bluff exposed. Putin is fond of rattling his Sabre and threatening consequences (always menacing but never defined) for one act or another in response to his war. Now it is evident that his warning that any attack in Russia would be a red line has been shown to be nothing more than the latest in his long line of bluffs.

The truth is that Putin has not retaliated, despite his threats, because he can’t. For anyone with a memory that goes back to 24 February 2022 his threats then included an (unspecified but menacing) warning of a response “unlike anything they had ever seen” on any party that in any way stood between Russia and the goals of the “Special Military Operation”. It didn’t matter. The West sent weapons anyway. There was no response from Putin, other than more hot air.


Artificial Red Line With Real Consequences – for Ukraine

The series of Russian “red lines” that followed are also well documented. After any help to Ukraine at all, the next item that should definitely not be sent to Ukraine lest a response “unlike anything that had ever been seen” befall Ukraine’s benefactors was modern battle tanks. It took a coalition of countries to provide the collective safety for the decision, but modern battle tanks entered the service of the Ukrainian armed forces. 

We have seen this time and time again. HIMARS should not be sent to Ukraine, lest etc etc etc. Patriot missile systems should not be sent to Ukraine, otherwise etc etc etc. Modern fighter jets should not be provided to Ukraine, they’re a definite red line, etc etc etc. And we have also seen that in each and every case Putin’s declared red lines have led to no consequences whatsoever to whoever has crossed them.

The artificial red lines imposed by members of the Biden Administration have had consequences, the town of Vovchansk is now almost in ruins. It lies just 3km from the Russian border and is now almost lifeless and it was destroyed by Russian artillery from across the border. The Russian advance against this small population centre has been stopped in its tracks by Ukraine’s land forces. Had the Russian military gathering to attack been stopped before they advanced across the border, lives would not have been placed in danger, lives would not have been lost. Those artificial red lines can now be lifted further and “near Kharkiv” can be considered to be just a successful experiment.

The remains of a Russian Army armoured column in Bucha, Ukraine on 01 March 2022 after they were attacked by Ukrainian forces. Photo: Geopix / Alamy

Russia’s projected red lines can be dismissed as a series of hoaxes. For two and a half years the Kremlin has tried to scare the West into failing Ukraine.  In the case of Jake Sullivan it is widely reported that he fell for it and is personally responsible for tying one hand behind Ukraine’s back. In the case of Olaf Scholz, he still wants to keep Taurus weapons in storage rather than allow Ukraine to shorten this war and save lives with them.

There are two golden rules. Self-imposed red lines on how Ukraine can fight this war (other than with regard to the Geneva Conventions) can be scrapped and should be if we want to achieve a faster victory for Ukraine. Russia’s “red lines” are a track record of bluster never resulting in follow up. Besides, after the mauling that Ukraine has dished out to them, Russia is in no state to expand its military activities. Certainly not against a NATO country. 


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