Putin’s penchant for drawing and crossing ‘red lines’.

The summit in Geneva between Presidents Joseph Biden of the United States and Vladimir Putin of Russia was supposed to stabilize bilateral relations by demarcating areas and issues each side deemed so important that any hostile incursion would encounter a strong response. In the present-day situation of intense confrontation—which differs from the old Cold War pattern because of its fast mutation and fluidity—this pragmatic recognition of “red lines” appears to make perfect sense. Yet growing evidence suggests the presumably achieved mutual understanding left many gaps in and overlaps between the roughly outlined spheres of acute concerns. As a result, the total volume of uncertainty inherent to the evolving confrontation has actually increased. Russia keeps probing Western resolve for upholding established rules because Putin believes playing by these “unfair” rules means a defeat for his maturing autocratic regime.

One area where a significant step forward was supposed to be made in Geneva is cybersecurity, and Moscow registered the US consent to its longstanding proposal for opening a channel of consultations in this unregulated domain as a tangible success (Russiancouncil.ru, June 22). Biden had delivered a list of 16 crucial structures and sectors that should be off-limits for cyberattacks, which, according to the policy newly approved by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), would be treated as acts of warfare (Forbes.ru, June 16). Nonetheless, a new ransomware attack by the REvil gang of hackers, allegedly based in Russia, hit hundreds of US and European businesses over Independence Day (US) weekend (RBC, July 3). On the domestic front, Russian special services, while covering up for the hackers, stepped up persecutions of independent internet-media outlets, particularly targeting groups of investigative journalists, such as Proekt-Media ( Meduza , June 29).

Putin may have only vague ideas about offensive versus defensive capabilities in the cyberwarfare arena, but he has developed a penchant for the game of “red lines,” threatening, in his 2021 address to the Federal Assembly (parliament), severe consequences against anyone daring to cross the boundaries Moscow might choose to draw ( Kommersant , April 22). The Kremlin then clarified that one particular “red line” relates to “offensive statements” regarding Russia’s leadership (RIA Novosti, April 21). Biden found it opportune to change the tone, and Putin confirmed that he was “satisfied” with the White House’s explanation regarding the earlier “killer” comment characterizing Russia’s leader, which had been furiously condemned by Russian propaganda (TASS, June 16). Moscow sought to capitalize on that symbolic success and resume dialogue as usual with the always keen French President Emmanuel Macron and usually reserved German Chancellor Angela Merkel ( Nezavisimaya Gazeta , July 1). At the recent European Union summit, however, eastern members refused to embrace the hastily advanced Macron-Merkel initiative for a top-level EU-Russian meeting involving Putin. Still, Moscow gained another opportunity to exploit intra-Western disagreements that Biden’s European trip was supposed to reduce (Russiancouncil.ru, June 28).

Read more: The Kremlin’s cyber contractors. Their motives and risks

Diplomatic dances will keep circling such exaggerated sensitivities, but far more dangerous are Russia’s attempts to push forward “red lines” in the military-security sphere. The much trumpeted—even if, in real terms, failed—demonstration of intent to expel the United Kingdom’s destroyer HMS Defender , performing an innocent passage near occupied Sevastopol, constituted a serious escalation of these efforts (see EDM, June 24, 28). And Russian experts continue to discuss its consequences (Carnegie.ru, June 28). Russia’s top brass seek to “convince” NATO to accept de facto , if not de jure , the illegal annexation of Crimea, showing (while quite possibly faking) a readiness to play with far higher risks than the strictly professional “enemies” ( Nezavisimaya Gazeta , June 27). Putin has stretched this calculus still further by speculating that Russia can opt to sink a hostile ship without risking a “third world war,” because its enemies know that a victory is impossible (see EDM, July 1).

This irresponsible conjecture confirms Russia is not interested in any confidence-building talks on preventing dangerous incidents at sea, assuming as Moscow does that it has an edge in executing intercepts and chancing near collisions—even if its naval capabilities are significantly inferior to the US and its allies (The Insider, June 30). NATO has to prepare for crude interferences in the ongoing exercise Sea Breeze 2021 in the Black Sea, which Russian officials condemned as “provocative” ( Izvestia , July 3). Moscow knows its “fortress Crimea” is not threatened, but it is delegitimized by these exercises. Hence, Russia seeks to make a larger point via its “counter-measures”: to establish that granting Ukraine the long-promised NATO Membership Action Plan would constitute a breach of perhaps Moscow’s most emphatically carved “red line” ( Rosbalt , July 2).

Read more: Deconstructing Putin: it is time the West learned to be bold

Every reference Putin makes to unity between Russians and Ukrainians provides Kyiv with fresh impetus for strengthening Ukrainian statehood and ties with the West; but the situation is exactly the opposite in Belarus. The latter’s embattled autocratic regime has withstood mass resentment over the past year in large part thanks to expanding support from Russia ( Kommersant , July 3). The feverish anti-Western rhetoric of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka compels Putin to verify the Belarusian leader’s accusations of terrorist conspiracies—even if the Russian president is not prepared to go as far as emulating his Belarusian counterpart’s current policy of opening the borders for the outflow of illegal migrants into the EU (Novaya Gazeta, July 3). The Kremlin tries to make clear that the preservation of Lukashenka’s regime constitutes another firm “red line,” while the progressive tightening of EU sanctions against Belarus amounts to altering the boundaries of acceptable interference ( Nezavisimaya Gazeta , June 29). The Russian government sought to fix its positions and perceptions in the new National Security Strategy, approved by Putin on July 2; but in fact, this document merely declares Russia’s resolve to resist hostile Western pressure ( Rossiiskaya Gazeta , July 3).

The Strategy’s proclamation of success in withstanding sanctions and upholding traditional values betrays elite foreboding that in the economic dimension of the irreducible confrontation with the West, Russia is a designated loser because its modernization is hopelessly stuck. Sanctions, even if presently focused on Belarus, amount to a sequence of hits on the most vulnerable sector in Russia’s “defenses” and cannot be countered symmetrically, because the shifts in the global energy markets increasingly deny Moscow the opportunity to “weaponize” its export of oil and natural gas. Russia can only respond to this irreparable breach of its “economic sovereignty” by striking back at Western weak points, disregarding the “red lines” intended to protect them. A demonstrated readiness to resort to military means is supposed to make Russia’s own “red lines” unassailable, but they are compromised more by the apparent degeneration of a corrupt autocracy than by any external challenges.

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