On April 3, the Polish government confirmed that it had delivered MiG-29 fighters to Ukraine, just 11 days after the first Slovak MiG-29s arrived in the besieged country. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov criticized the provision of the planes and suggested destroying them, but he did not speak about the threat of escalation. Similarly, the arrival of the first German Leopard and British Challenger tanks in Ukraine in late March was met with a relatively mild response from the Kremlin.
The Kremlin’s red lines, never clearly articulated, appear less strict than some in the West apparently believe. There is room for an expansion of US and Western military aid to Kiev that does not cross the lines that appear to have emerged over the past year.
Since the start of Russia’s massive invasion of Ukraine 13 months ago, Biden administration officials have voiced two main goals of US policy on the war. and second, to avoid direct military conflict between NATO and Russia. These are the right goals. However, in balancing the two, the administration has taken an unduly cautious approach.
President Joe Biden reaffirmed his support for Ukraine in a Feb. 21 speech in Warsaw, the day after a quick visit to Kiev. US and Western support has increased as the Ukrainian military has demonstrated its ability to stand up to the Russian army. In another speech on March 11, he also clearly emphasized his second goal. “We will not go to war against Russia in Ukraine. A direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War III, which we must strive to prevent.”
The trick for Washington and other NATO members providing military aid to Ukraine is to calculate how far they can go without crossing a red line that would lead to a direct NATO-Russia conflict. One of the factors complicating that calculation. The Kremlin did not specify exactly what is unacceptable. In the first weeks of the war, tacit rules appeared to have developed between the West and Russia regarding military aid to Ukraine.
In an interview given in February 2023, Russian foreign and security policy expert Alexei Arbatov addressed the issue of Moscow’s red lines, which he also described as silent. He characterized the first as “NATO countries are not directly involved in the conflict, although they supply weapons, and Russia does not attack NATO countries.”
Biden, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and other NATO leaders have repeatedly said they will not send US or NATO forces to defend Ukraine. This explains why the idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine met with such resistance a year ago. It would require NATO pilots to be ready to shoot down Russian aircraft and attack Russian surface-to-air missile sites, perhaps in Russia itself.
There is no sign that the West’s position on the matter has changed, even as the war drags on and the list of Russian war crimes grows. Indeed, Ukraine did not ask for Western troops, just weapons. US and NATO policies are quite far from the first red line described by Arbatov.
His second red line was that “NATO countries do not supply long-range missiles to strike deep into the territory of the Russian Federation.” This question also does not arise. As Ukrainian Defense Minister Alexey Reznikov said on February 5, “We always emphasize to our Western partners that we will not use Western weapons. [to launch strikes] in the territory of the Russian Federation”.
It is an absurd war in which the Russian military can strike targets, military or civilian, all over Ukraine in an attempt to somehow prevent Ukraine from hitting Russian targets. However, Kiev has indicated that it will play by those rules, at least when using weapons provided by the West. The Ukrainians want to acquire a 200-mile-range Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, which would allow them to strike Russian targets anywhere in occupied Ukraine.
Ukraine’s military has had high-mobility artillery rocket systems, known as HIMARS, since last June and has resisted the temptation to launch missiles with a range of 50 miles at Russian targets. The missiles have reportedly been modified so they cannot target targets inside Russia. Was it necessary? Ukraine’s leaders are too smart to do something that would jeopardize the continued supply of much-needed weapons to the United States.
Arbatov’s red lines ring true and seem consistent with the Kremlin’s reactions today. The lack of a tougher response to the West’s arms supply suggests that his assessment is spot on.
Thus, the United States and other partners of Ukraine can provide more weapons without crossing these red lines; additional tanks and infantry fighting vehicles for counter-attack to push back the Russian occupation army. ATACMS missile restricted for use against targets in occupied Ukraine; and even fighter jets that Ukraine could use for air defense and close air support to its counteroffensive operations without flying against Russian targets. Enabling Ukraine to move out of a war of attrition and engage in a war of maneuver will allow Kiev to dominate the battlefield. It offers the best way to shorten the war.
Moscow will certainly not like this. But if the Kremlin has hard red lines, they appear to focus on effects, such as whether they lead to strikes on Russian territory. As for the weapon itself, Russian officials grumble, but do not make extravagant threats. In any case, to the extent that the Russians will have a military reaction, that reaction will be focused on Ukraine, as in the previous year.
Ukrainians have made it clear many times that they will accept this risk. they want weapons. The West should provide them.