With calls for Russia to be pushed out of "the whole of Ukraine," for Russia to be "weakened" and defeated and even calls for regime change in Moscow, what might Russia’s and China’s red lines be, and how does the US measure when it’s in danger of crossing them?
Russia may already have decided that the war is no longer a war with the limited goal of defending Ukraine. They may already see the war at least as a proxy war against Russia. Already by the end of April, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had said that "NATO, in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia through a proxy and is arming that proxy. War means war.” On May 7, the speaker of the Russian Duma drew a similar conclusion. "The US is taking part in the military operations in Ukraine. Today, Washington is basically coordinating and engineering military operations, thus directly participating in the military actions against our country."
So, when might Russia view US participation as having crossed the red line? Richard Sakwa, Professor of Russian and European Politics at Kent, who has written extensively on Russia, Ukraine and the new cold war, emphasized that answering that question can only be speculative. He told me that he believes that "Russia will be cautious in escalating the conflict beyond what already exists, understanding that some of the Western escalation is intended precisely to goad Russia into an unsustainable response."
How much would the US have to escalate before being seen as crossing the red line? Russia might perceive the red line as being crossed "if Russia feels that NATO pressure is becoming so intense that its defeat is possible; or if the ability to hold on to achieved gains becomes more difficult,” Sakwa said.
The perceived threat of the destruction of the Russian state, defeat and loss of acquired land or a coup against Putin could all be perceived as a defeat of the state that would qualify as crossing the red line.
China’s red line may be somewhat further on the horizon, since the very close relationship between Russia and China allows each to pursue its own national interest. For that reason, Sakwa speculates, "China will probably remain restrained in its response however many red lines are crossed by NATO powers." However, "Beijing will act in what it perceives to be its national interests." And, in the pull between the US sought unipolar world and the Chinese sought multipolar world, the loss of Russia would leave China very vulnerable. So, though China’s red line may be more distant that Russia’s, it may not be so different. The destruction of the Russian state – though perhaps not the loss of acquired land – would not be in China’s national interest and may cross a red line.
But several states, especially the US and UK, have already clearly called for the weakening or defeat of Russia. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin clearly stated that the US wants to see "Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine." US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith more recently said that the US seeks "a strategic defeat of Russia." British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said even more bluntly that "Putin must lose in Ukraine."
These remarks are all the more remarkable since Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines recently testified before Senate that the US intelligence believes that Putin won’t escalate or use nuclear weapons "unless there is effectively an existential threat to his regime and to Russia from his perspective." She added for clarification that "We do think that that could be the case in the event he perceives that he is losing the war in Ukraine." Ray McGovern has pointed out the surreal danger of crossing this red line with this intelligence assessment.
But this is only the most obvious way that Russia could interpret US escalation as crossing the red line. The destruction of the Russian state does not necessitate the defeat of Russia.
Truss said on April 28 that Russian forces must be pushed out of "the whole of Ukraine." As the BBC pointed out, that means not just pushing back the Russian invasion – the originally stated purpose of supporting Ukraine – but perhaps even pushing Russia out of Crimea. The huge majority of Russians and Crimeans see Crimea as Russian territory. Alexander Lukin, who is Head of Department of International Relations at National Research University Higher School of Economics in Moscow reminds that Russia annexed Crimea "in response to the aspirations of a majority of its residents.” When put to a referendum, Sakwa says, "It is clear that the majority of the Crimean population favored unification with Russia.”
From a Russian perspective, then, being pushed out of Crimea would be an attack on Russia and what Putin would consider the destruction of the Russian state. That, then, could cross the red line. And that is precisely what Russia’s nuclear weapons are meant to prevent.
Crimea and Russia could be threatened in yet another way. On May 19, Reuters reported that "The White House is working to put advanced anti-ship missiles in the hands of Ukrainian fighters to help defeat Russia’s naval blockade." Though the US denies it, the Ukrainian ministry of internal affairs claims that the anti-ship missiles are part of a US plan "to destroy the Black Sea Fleet."
On May 28, the US announced that Denmark will send Harpoon anti-ship missiles to Ukraine. The perception that there is a risk of the West sinking its Black Sea fleet could potentially cross a Russian red line in two ways. The first is that the sinking of its fleet would make Russia vulnerable in a near future war. The second is that the sinking of the Black Sea fleet that has created a naval blockade of Ukraine would leave Crimea open to attack. And that, again, could be perceived, not only as loss of acquired land, but, more importantly, the destruction of the Russian state.
Finally, Biden has recently called for a coup in Russia. He has been joined in his call by the UK, Canada and Lithuania. Regime change could be seen as the destruction of the state and the crossing of the red line. In her Senate testimony, Haines said that Putin is unlikely to use nuclear weapons "unless there is effectively an existential threat to his regime and to Russia from his perspective."
In addition to destruction of the Russian state, regime change that forced the removal of its most valuable strategic partner could also be seen by China as crossing the red line, since they would likely view a coup as the destruction of the Russian state.
With the growing escalation of Western participation in the war in Ukraine and the growing escalation of calls for Russia to be defeated, weakened and pushed out of Crimea and for regime change in Moscow, the West might be wise to factor Russia’s and China’s red lines more fully into the calculus of what risks a larger war.
Ted Snider has a graduate degree in philosophy and writes on analyzing patterns in US foreign policy and history.