Putin Repeats “Red Line” Rhetoric, Opposes NATO Expansion In Ukraine

On 27 September, Russia warned against NATO military infrastructure expansion in Ukraine, citing it as a “red line” for President Vladimir Putin that Moscow would swiftly counteract. Reuters reported that this follows recent joint military exercises with U.S. and other NATO member troops in Ukraine as well as “large-scale drills” hosted by Russia and Belarus.

In a move demonstrating sensitivity to growing NATO activity in the region, Belarusian President (and Putin ally) Aleksandr G. Lukashenko voiced support for action.“It’s clear we need to react to this…[We] agreed that we need to take some kind of measured response,” he said, according to RIA Novosti news agency. Statements from the Kremlin reaffirmed this impulse for securitization, which Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba rejected along with the idea of a “red line” outside of Russian borders. “[P]utin’s ‘red lines’ are limited to Russia’s borders,” Kuleba tweeted on 27 September. “[O]n our side of the Ukrainian-Russian border we can figure out ourselves what to do in the interests of the Ukrainian people, as well as Ukraine’s and Europe’s security.”

Vladimir Putin has long relied on rhetorics of fear and Russia’s huge security apparatus to voice dissent to domestic and international incidents. This most recent allusion to so-called “red-lines” is no different, but its implications might be. After two decades of paltry political freedoms, devastation spurred by the coronavirus pandemic and the prison treatment of opposition leader Aleksei A. Navalny, support for Putin among the Russian public is waning. Where Putin once could fan the flames of nationalism to battle Russia’s perceived enemies, he may soon not find a spark, especially in matters relating to Ukraine.

He seems to sense this exacerbated insecurity. Perhaps it is why he ordered such a substantial military presence to the Ukrainian-Russian border earlier this year, the largest, in fact, since 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and Kyiv’s war with Russian-backed separatists began. Since Putin has long presented Russia and its allies as victims of a Western scheme of containment, it is difficult to gauge the true threat level in his repeated warnings. Likely, it is his intention to keep the West perched at the edge of precarity, wondering whether to dive in or retreat.

What is clear, however, is Russia’s emphatic opposition to Ukraine’s potential NATO membership. As long as the United States and other NATO members extend their support, U.S.-Russia bilateral relations will chafe, friction building to some unknown extent. Who will act and when remains to be seen.