Putin's ‘Red Lines’: Moscow Is Raising Its Bet While Playing “Chicken” With Washington


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | January, 2022

Peonies of the U.S., Russia and China
Photo: The White House


In recent weeks, Russia has been engaging in an aggressive policy vis-à-vis the United States in several simultaneous arenas and domains, reflecting the complex perception of Russian foreign policy in the Putin era. While Russia views itself as a great power and is willing to challenge American dominance, it is also displaying defensive aggression, in light of its concern over U.S. intentions, and those of its allies, to expand toward its borders.



Concentrated forces vis-à-vis the Ukraine – Preparing for a military maneuver or merely exerting pressure?


The developments seen in the Ukraine in recent weeks serve as practical demonstrations of Russia's aggressive and complex conduct. The latter has positioned large forces on the border between the two countries, reportedly amounting to one hundred thousand troops. The American media has also issued assessments of U.S. intelligence officials whereby Russia is planning to embark on a military maneuver in early 2022 involving 175 thousand troops.


These developments have generated poignant responses from western parties, accusing Russia of preparing for yet another invasion to Ukraine, and warning it against the severe economic implications of such a move, including the possibility of being disengaged from the global economic system. At the same time, American and European officials have stated that NATO would not be providing military assistance to the Ukraine in the event of an act of Russian aggression.


Russia, however, has argued that it was repositioning forces on its own soil, and that it was merely a domestic issue, accusing the United States and NATO of fueling the fire. President Putin expressed harsh criticism of the West, holding it accountable for the escalation because it continues to promote the plans to have the Ukraine join NATO, provides Kiev with weapons, and holds provocative military maneuvers in the Black Sea and other areas alongside Russian borders while utterly disregarding Moscow's "red lines". The Kremlin therefore maintains that it was forced to create its own long-term guarantees to ensure its safety.



The Russian demands – Forming new security architecture in Europe


The growing tension between Moscow and Washington has led to a series of diplomatic steps between the two countries culminating in the Zoom session between President Putin and President Biden (7 December), as well as the exchange of two documents during the visit of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Karen Donfried to Moscow (15 December). The documents Treaty between The Unites States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees; and Agreement on measures to ensure the security of the Russian Federation and member States of NATOspecify the Russian demands, at the heart of which are the following commitments that: NATO would not expand eastwards and that no other country that was formerly part of the USSR, including the Ukraine, would join it; the United States would not set up military bases in former USSR countries that are not NATO members, nor promote military collaborations with them; the two countries would refrain from positioning forces and weapons, individually or in the framework of an international organization, military alliance or coalition, in places perceived by the other party as a threat to its national security; the two countries would refrain from deploying nuclear missiles outside their national borders, and promote the return of such weapons already deployed to their national territories; Russia and all those countries that were member states of NATO as of 27 May 1997 [the date of the signing of the NATO-Russia cooperation agreement] would refrain from deploying military forces and weaponry on the territory of any of the other states in Europe in addition to the forces stationed on that territory as of the said date (and would, in effect, return to the state they were in that year, prior to the expansion of the alliance to 14 more countries in the past two decades, when in 1999 Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary joined NATO, and the three Baltic states in 2004).


In addition to the Ukrainian crisis, several other points of calamity have developed in recent weeks, demonstrating the tension and explosiveness in the relations between the great powers. Among them: the immigrant crisis on the Polish-Belarussian border; delays in the obtainment of final approvals from Germany for the operation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline; and the experiment conducted by Russia, during which it had launched a missile at an old satellite in space.



The Russian-Chino axis as a counterweight for the United States


Against the backdrop of the soaring tension with the West, Russia has been underscoring its ties with the great Asian powers – China and India – this past month. Thus, President Putin has visited India (6 December, an unusual visit outside Russian territory since the pandemic broke out). It was further reported recently that Russia has begun to supply advanced S-400 air defense systems as part of a large transaction signed by the two countries whereby 5 systems would be supplied for 5.5 billion U.S. Dollars, despite the fact that India has been exposed to U.S. sanctions under the 2017 law designed to deter countries from purchasing Russian weapons.


Putin later spoke (15 December) with President Xi and, following their conversation, the Kremlin had issued a statement whereby the Chinese president had offered to help Russia obtain security guarantees from the West. Putin had further announced his intention to meet with his Chinese counterpart in person during the Winter Olympic games in China in February 2022 (unlike the United States' announcement that its diplomats would be boycotting the Olympic Games due to China's human rights violations). Back in late November 2021, the Russian and Chinese ambassadors to the United Stated had published a joint article against the virtual Summit for Democracy that was initiated by President Biden, held on 9–10 December, and attended by over 100 countries worldwide (Russia and China were not invited to participate). It would seem that the underscoring of Russian-Chino relations at this particular time, against the backdrop of tension between the United States and China due to the issue of Taiwan, is no coincidence, and is designed to increase the pressure exerted on Washington by showcasing a potential alliance against it forged by its two key rivals in the international arena (and, under an extreme scenario, the possibility of a coordinated escalation on two fronts simultaneously).



What is Russia hoping to achieve?


Russia seems to have identified a golden opportunity for improving its geostrategic situation while informing a new security reality in Europe. First and foremost, it is seeking to deter the West from promoting its plans to expand NATO – a possibility that Russia views as a tangible threat to its national security; second, it has no desire to see the West engaging in security-military collaborations with other countries in its "back yard". From a narrower perspective, Putin may be viewing the current state of affairs as an opportunity to take over other territories in eastern Ukraine or, at the very least, ensure the status of pro-Russian Ukrainian districts.


At the core of this approach stands a Russian perception whereby President Biden is deeply deterred by conflicts, alongside an attempt to take advantage of the political changes in Europe (the power transition in Germany, and upcoming elections in France) and the European inconsistency with regard to the position that should be adopted against Russia – the great powers' moderate approach versus the more aggressive approach preferred by Russia's neighbors.


The high horse that Russia has mounted, as manifest in the demands it has made, and its warnings lest the rejection of its suggestions lead to escalation, as well as the unusual step it had taken of publishing the "settlement" drafts exchanged, all seem to indicate that Russia is determined to "go all the way" in the present crisis, and it is looking to blame the West (the blame game). However, it is not clear whether Russia believes that the pressure on the West and deterrence from conflict would help it reach unprecedented accomplishments, or whether it realizes that its suggestions do not serve as basis for negotiations, but as an essential phase in the psychological warfare that precedes the use of military force. Putin's statement that the Ukrainian activity in the Donbas region "looks like genocide" may have been designed to garner domestic support for an aggressive move in Eastern Ukraine with the aim of protecting the Russian population in the region, despite the hefty financial price and the many casualties Russia would pay.


The exacerbating tension between Russia and the United States could potentially impact Israel directly on several levels. Israel may be required to stand by the United States and publicly show its support for it in a way that could prove detrimental to its bilateral relations with Russia. As for the Middle East, naturally the exacerbated tension between the powers would also impact their willingness to collaborate on issues pertaining to Israeli interests. Under an extreme scenario, Russia could even adopt a stricter approach to Israeli actions in the region as means of conveying an indirect message to the United States about the price it would pay for losing. Furthermore, should the countries in the region begin to feel that the United States is disinclined to use force against Russian aggression and is, in effect, abandoning its allies in the international arena (the Ukraine and, earlier, Afghanistan), some of them, particularly Iran, could feel comfortable taking more defiant steps against American interests in the region, while others could even try to look for ways of diversifying their local strategic sources of support.




Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



If you wish to receive the weekly brief regularly, please follow the link to register.




Back to the newsletter >>