Would Putin dare attack the West? The question is alarmist, but it needs to be asked, especially as the Kremlin turns increasingly desperate in Ukraine and the rhetoric of Russian policymakers and propagandists turns increasingly harsh.
Two possible scenarios need to be considered. First, it’s possible that the West might cross some Russian red line and thereby provoke a severe Russian response. Second, frustrated by his inability to win a war against a significantly weaker foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide that the only way to save his regime from collapse would be a military diversion against some Western weak spot.
Russian policymakers have generally stated that their response would be harsh only if the West attacked Russia or if some combination of events were to endanger the Russian state’s existence. It’s in that light that they’ve claimed that Russia would be threatened existentially if Ukraine were to join NATO and/or Western missiles were to be deployed on Ukrainian territory. What a harsh response would entail has always remained unclear, and the Russian use of the modifier “military-technical” has done little to reduce the confusion. Of course, lack of clarity is the point, as it enables Moscow to consider a large array of potential moves and leaves its neighbors and rivals flat-footed and guessing.
Russia’s television personalities, propagandists, and dime-novelists are a different matter. They imagine nuclear Armageddon with glee, fantasize about the destruction of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states, and spin tales of endless struggle against godless Western liberalism. To what degree their unhinged imaginings reflect the views of policymakers is unclear. Certainly, they have their imprimatur, perhaps to prepare the population for possible end-of-the-world scenarios, perhaps to test the waters, perhaps to terrify the West. In any case, official statements tend to be far more grounded in reality than propagandist fantasies. (Or so one hopes.)
Except when they aren’t. For months official Moscow insisted that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was imminent and that the threat of missile emplacements in Ukraine was real. In fact, Moscow knew what the West and Ukraine knew—that Ukraine’s chances of joining the Alliance in the next two decades were nil and, hence, that missiles would not be emplaced there as well. Given this proneness to exaggeration and mendacity, Moscow cannot be trusted to mean anything it says. It could be lying; it could be telling the truth. That said, the Kremlin’s claim that a threat to the Russian state’s existence would be a red line can surely be taken at face value. Just what would constitute a threat is of course a different question.
Can the West or Ukraine seriously threaten the Russian state’s existence? Is there a red line that they dare not cross lest the transgression provokes World War III?
Short of invading Russia proper and advancing in Blitzkrieg-like fashion or firing missiles on Moscow, there is none. Providing Ukraine with all manner of weapons has not crossed any red line thus far. Providing Ukraine with U.S. high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) and British multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) may turn the tide of battle and help the Ukrainians drive the Russian troops from Ukraine, but as long as Ukraine stops at its border and the missiles fall short of Russia, there is no plausible case to be made for Russia’s statehood being existentially threatened. Indeed, it’s not even clear that a Western military presence in Ukraine would constitute crossing a red line as long as the Western military stays within Ukraine.
Unless the Russians just happen to decide that a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive or a Western military presence constitutes transgressions of some serendipitously generated red lines (although even then they’re far more likely to respond with a renewed attack on Ukraine’s civilians than with an attack on the West). What the Russian penchant for unpredictability ultimately means is, as I already hinted at above, that Russian notions of impassable red lines are so vague as to be arbitrary.
To make matters worse, a desperate Russian elite could decide that firing a missile at Warsaw or invading northeast Estonia might be a convenient way of acting tough at home and abroad, testing NATO’s resolve to follow through on Article 5, and thereby enhancing the Kremlin’s deteriorating legitimacy. The West need not cross any objectively recognizable red line for such a dire scenario to happen. Dictators are by nature unpredictable, and irrational sociopaths with unlimited power are especially unpredictable.
That being the case, Western policymakers have to build uncertainty and unpredictability into their assessments of Russian behavior. They have to realize that the Russians could just as easily declare that insulting Putin is a red line as that pushing their troops out of the Donbas is not.
Given such high levels of uncertainty, the West can best defend itself from some sudden onset of aggressive Russian madness by clarifying its own position and making it crystal clear to Moscow. The West needs to be fully committed to hastening Ukraine’s victory in Ukraine, conveying to Moscow in no uncertain terms that its support of Ukrainian sovereignty is unconditional and permanent, and to reminding Moscow that the West also has red lines that, if crossed, would immediately provoke measures that just might lead to the Russian state’s collapse.
As to what those harsh measures would be, it’s best to keep the Russians flat-footed and guessing.