The Interpreter

A special project of Institute of Modern Russia
Russian armour in South Ossetia, August 2008. Photo: Yana Amelina

Putin Draws His Own ‘Red Lines’ across Post-Soviet Space

Staunton, March 27 – The Western powers have long talked about “red lines” in Syria and elsewhere: actions or events that they say have suggested underscore their concern and indicate where they will act. Now, Russian President Vladimir Putin has done the same, and his “red lines” underscore that his moves in Ukraine are part of a much larger Kremlin program.

In an article in Vzglyad, symbolically titled, “Not Just Ukraine,” Moscow journalist Yevgeny Krutikov points out that Putin has now said that “the West has crossed a line,” yet another indication that he has drawn such lines and that the West must take those into consideration.

Krutikov devotes his article to where these lines are. According to him, they include any further expansion of NATO eastward, especially involving Georgia and Ukraine, designed to encircle Russia. Instead, Putin’s first “red line” is that Ukraine, Georgia, Sweden and Finland must retain their “neutral status as ‘buffer countries.’”

A second Putin “red line” concerns Georgia in particular. Moscow isn’t interested in restoring normal ties with Georgia, Krutikov says, because it will insist “on the preservation of the independent status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as part of the general structures of international politics,” something that will block NATO and Western expansion there.

A third Putin “red line” is in the Baltic countries. Krutikov insists that Russia has no plans to “destabilize” the situation “in the Baltic direction.” The economies of Latvia and Estonia, he says, are “a virtual joke” and imposition of sanctions on Russia will hit them hard.

“For the Russian Federation,” the Vzglad journalist says, “’a red line’ could arise only if there were an effort to strengthen the NATO grouping in the region with offensive forces of high precision and greater radius of action,” something Moscow believes “would be a violation of international agreements.”

In addition, he writes, Moscow would consider “absolutely unacceptable” any “unfriendly actions” by Lithuania and Poland toward Kaliningrad or toward Russian shipping and other commerce in the Baltic region.

A fourth Putin “red line” would be any manipulation of oil and gas prices designed to punish Russia as a major exporter. That line is unlikely to be crossed, Krutikov says, because any moves in that direction would hurt those who initiated such an action as well.

A fifth such line, he continues, would be an American or Western threat to or action against any of Russia’s allies around the world such as Syria. “Attacking the weak is a tactic as ancient as the world,” but if the West does this in the current crisis, Putin will view it as yet another “red line” violated.

A sixth “red line” for Putin is any terrorist action on the territory of the Russian Federation that Moscow could find “a trace” of American influence and thus hold the US responsible.

A seventh is the further militarization of the Arctic intended to reduce Russia’s pre-eminence there.

An eighth is the American push for further nuclear draw-downs at both the strategic and tactical level, an effort that Krutikov says the Kremlin views as part of a general effort to weaken Russian power.

And a ninth is American support for “a ‘fifth column’” of opposition figures in the Russian Federation and especially any encouragement for demonstrations against the Putin regime.

Obviously, this is a Putin wish list, and equally obviously the “red lines” declared by some leaders are imposed only to be violated or ignored by others. But this list is sufficient to demonstrate to anyone who is still not convinced that the Kremlin leader has a far larger agenda than “only Ukraine,” one that completely undermines the 1991 settlement and even that of 1945.