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placing the red line on the border of NATO countries “risks suggesting to Russia that it can do what it wants” elsewhere

The invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the airstrikes targeting civilians, the agony of martyred cities, such as Mariupol, the fear, now, of the use of chemical weapons in Ukraine…despite the recent announcement of Moscow’s desire to concentrate its military efforts on the Donbass, the military and verbal escalation in the Ukrainian conflict, which has lasted for more than a month, will not have ceased to place the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) faced with the thorny issue of their involvement, or even their intervention.

American and European leaders have repeatedly threatened Russia with “severe” consequences if it came, for example, to use weapons prohibited by international treaties, while maintaining the vagueness of the nature of their reaction. “I will be very careful about this subject”French President Emmanuel Macron said at a press conference after an extraordinary NATO summit, because, “every time I had to define red lines, I wanted to be perfectly sure that they had a dissuasive effect and that crossing them would be followed by effects”.

Read also: War in Ukraine: chronology of the first month of the Russian invasion, from the entry of the first armored vehicles to the massive civilian losses

For Bruno Tertrais, Deputy Director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, “the only real red line established by NATO is that of an attack against one of the countries of the Organization”. With the risk, according to him, “to suggest to Russia that she can do whatever she wants as long as the border is not crossed”.

The expression “red lines” is often used to designate what would be likely to provoke NATO intervention in this conflict. Have the Western allies clearly defined “thresholds of the unacceptable”?

The “red line” is not a perfectly marked out and limited concept, it is rather an expression which designates one of the modes of exercising deterrence. It is a question of establishing prohibitions, of defining limits not to be exceeded and the consequences that this going beyond would have. They are everywhere, all the time, and not only in the military domain… The fact that the expression is not used does not mean that there are none.

The continued invasion of Ukraine was a form of red line, for example. And it was crossed. The fact of having promised Russia, as early as October, consequences “massive” was not enough to dissuade her from launching her attack. Deterrence having failed, efforts must be made to “restore” it, for example, with the threat of new sanctions.

Read also: Ukraine: red lines and ambiguity

With regard to NATO intervention, the only truly established red line is that which derives from Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, according to which an attack against the territory of one of the members of the Alliance is seen as an attack on everyone. US President Joe Biden has warned Russia not to “advance one centimeter into NATO territory”, making the physical border of the territories of the Organization a line not to be crossed. And so far, Vladimir Putin has made a good distinction between territory covered by Article 5 and territory that is not.

What action by Moscow could be interpreted as an “advance into NATO territory”?

This warning takes up a vocabulary used at the time of the cold war, and is only partially applicable today. The warnings that should be issued to Russia go beyond the framework of traditional territorial aggression. “The Armed Attack” can take new forms: they can be attacks committed by militias not wearing uniforms (what we called, a few years ago, the “little green men”), cyber attacks, or even, why not, terrorist acts sponsored by Moscow within a NATO country… We can also imagine that Russia cuts submarine cables, for example, in waters international… In the 21stand century, there are different ways to attack the security of States, and multiple ways to test the red lines of the adversary. This makes the exercise of deterrence more complex.

NATO has been thinking about these topics for the past ten years and has officially declared that Article 5 can be triggered by a cyber or even space attack. But Joe Biden’s warning, which only refers to the traditional territorial attack, might not be enough to dissuade Russia from going after NATO countries in other ways.

Joe Biden and NATO raised the possible use of chemical weapons by Russia in Ukraine, and Vladimir Putin even brandished the nuclear threat at the start of the conflict. Do we know how Westerners would react then?

As soon as it is a question of means prohibited by international conventions and which would represent the crossing of a threshold in horror and in illegality, as for chemical weapons, there is often the will to establish lines red to deter use. Joe Biden promised answers “severe” in the event of a chemical attack in Ukraine, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg spoke of the consequences “massive”without specifying which ones.

Read also: Article reserved for our subscribers “Russia’s use of chemical weapons would have massive consequences”, says Jens Stoltenberg, NATO Secretary General

For the use of nuclear weapons, in the Warsaw Declaration [en 2016]NATO, a few years ago, specified that the use of this type of weapon against the Atlantic Alliance “would fundamentally alter the nature of a conflict” and “NATO has the capabilities and the determination to impose costs on an adversary that would be unacceptable and far outweigh the gains he could hope to obtain”. A fairly classic red line shape, although there are still areas of blur. For example, would a shot aimed at harnessing High Altitude Electromagnetic Pulse (IEM-HA), which can destroy many electronic devices, be considered a “nuclear attack in the same way as a massive strike on the territory” ? And you’ll note that NATO also didn’t say exactly how it would retaliate.

The art of the red line lies in both drawing the threshold and defining the consequences. It is necessary to find a subtle balance which consists in preventing the adversary from being able to act in confidence as long as he does not reach the threshold, and being able to calculate exactly the type of reprisals to which he would be exposed if he crossed it. We are therefore sometimes obliged, in an attempt to discourage an action, to issue more vague warnings.

Did Barack Obama’s repeated labeling of the use of chemical weapons in Syria as a red line, and his ultimate refusal to intervene in 2013 when these weapons were actually used, affect the credibility of the United States? to set limits and to fight back if they are not respected?

Maybe, but we have to widen the focal length. It was the perception of a West seen, mistakenly, as weak and divided and of a North America seen as eager to focus on Asia that was important in Vladimir Putin’s calculations, rather than what did Barack Obama nine years ago.

Read also The day Barack Obama erased his “red line” on Syria

The question is whether this had any impact on the way Russia acted in the Donbass in 2014, and it is very difficult to have a firm answer on that. All attempts at deterrence have consequences for the reputation of a protective country, not just this episode of 2013.

By placing as the only explicit limit the violation of a border of a NATO country, is there not a risk that Russia will consider that it has a free hand in Ukraine as long as it does not not cross that line?

From the moment we sanctify the border of the NATO countries, we take the risk of suggesting to Russia that she can do what she wants as long as the border is not crossed. By meaning for months that we would not send combat forces to Ukraine, we may have contributed to the Russian calculation in a way that is not in accordance with our interests.

In my opinion, the big mistake of the West is not having found, since 2014 or before, the means to tell Russia that invading a country not covered by the guarantee of article 5 of the Atlantic Treaty Nord could have severe consequences, and therefore dissuade him.

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