As Putin threatens the West at a commemoration of the decisive World War Two battle, Paul Niland says the Russian President’s red lines are drawn in the sand
History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.
Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke today at the commemoration for the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Stalingrad, in the city now renamed Volgograd. “The ideology of Nazism again creates direct threats to the security of our country,” he said in his televised address “we are again threatened by German Leopard tanks.” But rather than just invoke the history of what Russian’s call the ‘Great Patriotic War’, he also threatened more dire consequences over Western supplies of arms to Ukraine: “we have something to respond with, and it won’t be just about using armoured vehicles”.
Once again, Putin appears to be suggesting a potential nuclear escalation, and the collective west seems to be hindered in their response to Putin’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine by paying too much attention to the supposed “red lines” announced by the Kremlin. Why? Based on the evidence of the past 11 months, every time Russia has suffered a setback in their attempt to occupy all of or large parts of the country, the only actual response has been a shift in propagandistic rhetoric.
Let’s get the facts straight here, Ukraine is a sovereign nation, Russia’s unprovoked invasion of this country is the wrong that must be righted. That’s the starting point from which all subsequent decisions should flow.
The invasion of Ukraine began almost nine years ago when Russia used their military force to isolate Ukrainian forces based on the country’s southern peninsula of Crimea. Attempting to then post-factum create a justification for having done so Russia pretended to carry out a “referendum” there to present their land grab as the legitimate will of the people there, an act of self-determination. Some months later, as now confirmed by a ruling in an important case in the European Court of Human Rights, Russia then created the war in the Donbas.
Eight years later Vladimir Putin decided to attempt to take over all of Ukraine by launching an assault against the capital, Kyiv, while lining up replacements for the office of the Presidency following the assassination of the man who occupies that post according to the will of the voters of Ukraine.
When Russia failed in that endeavour (something which the people of Ukraine would never have accepted anyway) and subsequently withdrew from the Kyiv region and the northern parts of Ukraine which they had occupied, it was not called a military failure, the Russians called it a “good will gesture” instead.
By winning the battle for Kyiv, the biggest battle of all as this is the nation’s capital, did Ukraine invoke talks of red lines being crossed? The answer is no.
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From Kyiv, to Kharkiv and Kherson
Kyiv wasn’t the only decisive defeat for the Russian military, though the eastern city of Kharkiv continues to be battered by Russian missiles, the occupation forces that had been positioned on the ground there were thoroughly routed by the Ukrainian army in a stunning offensive in the latter part of the summer of 2022. The Russian response? Another so-called “goodwill gesture”.
When Vladimir Putin held a spectacular ceremony in the Kremlin to “’formally” announce that Russia had added the regions of Zaparizhzhia and Kherson (along with Donetsk and Luhansk) to their “federation”, Ukraine did not take this as a red line, though that was certainly Putin’s intention. Ukraine was already at that time working strategically to isolate the Russian military located in the city of Kherson. 40 days after Putin loudly proclaimed the city and its residents to be “forever Russian” the Ukrainian army returned and regained control of it. The Russian excuse was to say that they were straightening their front lines.
Putin’s declaration, and the follow-up Red Square concert which was attended by municipal workers threatened with the sack or paid participants, had two chief purposes. According to the Russian constitution, Russia cannot send conscripted soldiers into theatres of war overseas, so the solution to enable Putin to get the troop surge he needed in the occupied areas was to say that this land is now Russia.
The second purpose is another technical fix, according to the Russian military doctrine nuclear weapons may only be used if there is a direct threat to the territory of Russia itself. Implicit in the “addition” of these 4four oblasts to Russia was the threat that if Ukraine continued to fight to eject the Russian occupying forces, using a nuclear weapon was on the table.
Did that make a difference? No. Ukraine crossed another red line by defiantly reasserting control over the city of Kherson, ignoring entirely the pieces of paper Putin thought would be a game changer when he affixed his signature to them. The threats from the Kremlin proved to be hollow. Again.
Western Weapons and Escalation
The other red lines that have been declared and then passed without a response, nuclear or otherwise, from Putin have surrounded the provision of heavy weaponry to Ukraine by Ukraine’s allies. The most that Russia has done in response to the provision of HIMARS and other precision artillery to Ukraine has been to state that these are now legitimate targets (hardly a threat, of course, Russia would like to destroy them!) and to lie about having already targeted such systems.
Subsequent supposed red lines have been over the provision of main battle tanks to Ukraine. The Kremlin’s propaganda organs have repeatedly called for there to be strikes against any nation that sent them. In response, an international coalition of roughly 15 countries has publicly declared that jointly they will equip Ukraine with a number of tanks. The propagandists continue their open talk of hitting Washington, Berlin, Paris, and London. No military retribution has been forthcoming, and none will be. Another of Putin’s “red lines” has been crossed.
While the war continues with brutal intensity in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region resulting in the destruction of towns and villages there, and while Russia continues to occupy the land on the Azov Sea coast, Ukraine’s military is going to continue to inflict more losses on the enemy.
However (according to the Institute for the Study of War) Ukraine has been hampered in its ability to capitalise on previous military successes by the slow delivery of the necessary military equipment needed to take the fight to the Russians and to permanently eject them from the country. Why? Because of Putin’s “red lines”? Why is anyone listening to them anymore?
Are we moving too slowly on the provision of weapons because of a fear that Moscow would see certain kinds of weapons as escalatory?
Let’s go back to the beginning of this phase of the war on 24 February 2022. Putin’s intention was the replacement of the elected head of state and the capture of the entire country. How does one get any more “escalatory” than that?
In order to shore up the ranks of the Russian army, due to troop losses now approaching 130,000 dead, Putin called for the mobilisation of 300,000 men to send them to fight, and die, in Ukraine. How does one get more escalatory than that?
What Ukraine needs, and needs as a matter of urgency, is hardware. Tanks are needed in the hundreds, not dozens. Aircraft are needed also. We cannot allow the provision of either to be retarded by some fear of Putin’s supposed red lines or fears of an escalation from Moscow. In fact, the threat of an escalation from Russia is already upon us with reports of a major Spring offensive being planned to capture more Ukrainian territory. The time to provide Ukraine with everything needed to face down that threat is now. Lives depend on it. The collapse of the Russian army is conditional on it.
As the Russian army does collapse, a certainty that only has timeframe as the single variable, Ukraine will retake every inch of the internationally recognised territory of the country. Including Crimea. No, that’s not a “red line” either. That is a matter of returning to a rules-based international order where countries no longer feel free to annex lands from their neighbours.
Paul Niland is an Irish journalist based in Ukraine. He is the founder of the country’s national suicide prevention hotline, Lifeline Ukraine
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