01.11.23 Review

Dancing on the 'Red Lines': The US has not yet found a strategic response to the Kremlin's nuclear blackmail, raising the likelihood of future threats

Experts continue to debate how best to respond to the Kremlin's nuclear threats. Some argue that the West might unwittingly cross Russia's 'red lines', leading to an unexpected escalation in response to their cumulative actions. The second perspective suggests that Russia's military leadership has a clear understanding of the need to avoid direct confrontation with NATO and the United States, and the repeated use of nuclear threats has eroded trust and reduced their effectiveness. The third point of view links 'red lines' to a 'strategic defeat' for Russia, which experts believe Vladimir Putin may see as a threat to his personal power. However, a strategic response to the manipulation of nuclear threats has not yet been found, transforming it from a deterrent into an instrument for aggressive warfare and increasing the likelihood of such episodes recurring in the future.

The long-dormant issue of nuclear blackmail has resurfaced in global current affairs. Russia, with the largest nuclear arsenal, maintains parity with the US in this regard, aspiring to superpower status, even as it falls short on other fronts, such as the quality of its conventional armed forces, technological capabilities, and the country’s economic potential. This has become particularly evident following the failure of the Ukrainian blitzkrieg, which has compelled the Kremlin to frequently play its nuclear trump card. But how seriously should the world take these threats? To take them at face value every time is to give in to blackmail, and to ignore them could provoke the Kremlin into further escalation, which could at some point spiral out of control.

Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the nuclear issue has become a constant trump card for Russian propagandists and official experts. President Putin himself, albeit less frequently, wields it forcefully. On the first day of the full-scale invasion, he warned NATO countries against any direct involvement in the conflict, and a few days later he ordered Russian nuclear forces to be placed on special alert.

The US response to this has been ambivalent: Washington long refrained not only from any military intervention, but also from supplying Ukraine with heavy weapons. However, it did not raise the readiness of its nuclear forces. Since the beginning of the conflict,the US repeatedly stated that it saw no signs of Russia changing the readiness of its nuclear forces. Meanwhile, the significant pause it took for the US to decide to supply modern weapons to Ukraine allowed the Russian military machine to regroup after a period of setbacks and to build reliable defense lines in the occupied territories of Ukraine.

Over time, it became clear that some of the 'red lines' drawn by the Kremlin were not as 'red' as had been initially thought. Neither the increase in weapons deliveries to Ukraine nor the loss of some occupied territories led to new escalation, according to Polina Sinovets, head of the Odesa Centre for the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons at Odesa I.I. Mechnikov University. Do these 'red lines' truly exist, and if so, where are they located? Based on expert interviews and a number of studies, Sinovets identifies the three most common views on this question.

Supporters of the first position argue that the West could inadvertently breach these 'red lines', triggering an unexpected escalation. Russia seeks to instill a sense of danger and uncertainty among Ukraine’s Western allies. However, proponents of this view insist that ignoring the Kremlin's threats could be the 'straw that breaks the camel's back', resulting in an unexpected escalation in response to their cumulative actions.

Proponents of the second viewpoint believe that Russia's persistent use of nuclear threats has undermined their credibility and dulled their coercive effect. In addition, they note that reciprocal warnings have also had an impact. In October 2022, in response to Putin's statement about 'using all available means' to maintain control over the occupied territories, the Biden administration sent clear signals to the Russian leadership that the use of nuclear weapons against Ukraine would be met with severe consequences from the US and its allies, which could be catastrophic for Russia. Since then, the intensity of nuclear rhetoric from Russian officials has significantly decreased. Experts within this group believe that Russia's military leadership has a clear understanding of the need to avoid a direct confrontation with NATO and the US.

The third viewpoint assumes that Russia's real 'red lines' have not yet been crossed. The Kremlin's primary fear, which carries with it the potential for escalation, is a 'strategic defeat' for Russia. Although the concept of 'strategic defeat,' widely circulated within Russia's near-Kremlin elite, has never been precisely defined, Putin likely interprets this as a threat to his personal power, i.e. a regime change which he presents as ‘ Russia’s collapse’. This is supposedly a major goal of the US and the 'collective West'. Other experts incorporate the notion of 'strategic defeat' as the loss of territories that are particularly significant for the Kremlin, first and foremost Crimea.

In one way or another, experts acknowledge that the United States currently has no strategic response to nuclear blackmail. In the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine, the nuclear threat has transformed from a deterrent into a tool for conducting aggressive conventional warfare. Blackmail allows Russia to compensate for its weaknesses and to curb Western assistance to Ukraine. The lack of a strategic response renders it an effective instrument, thereby encouraging its continued use in pursuit of military and political objectives. As a result, the US is struggling to fulfill its commitments to Ukraine, having once persuaded it to relinquish its Soviet nuclear weapons.