Do Americans Recognize Russia’s Red Lines?

One of the most important subjects that Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden discussed during their recent summit was where to draw the red line for interaction between Russia and the U.S. in the territory between NATO borders and the borders of the Russian Federation. Putin suggested defining such red lines in order to avoid a full-scale confrontation if one side crosses the other’s limits. Putin made it clear that he is not randomly drawing Russia’s red lines or acting on imperial fantasies, but that he is basing his policy on a rational fear about ensuring the security of the Russian Federation.

In response, Biden promised to think about Putin’s position and to assemble another summit with Putin and leaders from certain NATO countries. So that the parties have something to discuss in detail, the Kremlin has put Putin’s position together in a single statement. Yuryi Ushakov, an adviser to Putin, said that “specific proposals aimed at developing legal guarantees to ensure Russia’s security were handed over to American representatives at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation.” Maria Zakharova, the director of the Department of Information and Press of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, explained that “the proposals are formulated on the basis of statements made by the president of our country … We are ready for substantive work on key issues that concern the people of our countries and the entire international community.”

In fact, Putin’s proposals have been formalized into two documents and published in Smolensk Square. The first proposal is a Russian-American treaty, a middle-ground agreement on nonaggression and the division of influence. This proposal provides that both parties recognize the indivisible nature of security, agree not to harm the other’s security by their own actions or undermine it by using third countries, and agree not to fly planes over each other’s territory or deploy medium and short-range missiles in each other’s blast areas. Additionally, the parties would agree to return nuclear weapons held in third countries to their own territory. Furthermore, Americans would not establish military bases on post-Soviet territory, drag post-Soviet countries into NATO or develop bilateral military cooperation with them.

The second proposal is an agreement between Russia and NATO which both parties would no longer see each other as opponents and would retreat from military training on each other’s borders. Furthermore, the Russian Federation and NATO countries defined by the Russia-NATO Founding Act of 1997, NATO’s Western European and American members, would not deploy their troops to territories belonging to Eastern European countries. Finally, the alliance would renounce further expansion plans.

According to Russian officials, Deputy Foreign Minister of the Russian Federation Sergey Ryabkov is ready to fly to any country at any time to discuss Putin’s proposals. “Even tomorrow,” Ryabkov clarified. However, he also added that the proposal is not an a la carte menu, but rather a multi-course meal; a tasting menu, if you wish. The proposals only work as a whole — that is, it is all or nothing.

What’s the Need for an Ultimatum?

Many see Putin’s proposal as a real ultimatum. “The question is in goal-setting: Why was such a document proposed? It is impossible to imagine not only the West’s acceptance, but also any kind of dialogue concerning the proposal. For the U.S. and NATO, this would mean surrendering to Moscow, which is politically unacceptable, and it is not entirely clear why all of a sudden they would do such a thing. Washington and European capitals do not see an urgent reason for such revolutionary changes to the European security system established after the Cold War. Put more simply, sufficient threat does not exist. Moscow probably understands this. There may be another reason — to receive a rejection and use it as a reason later. In other words, to untie Russia’s hands, which would allow Moscow to reconsider the current system of relations and take actions the Kremlin considers as necessary,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor-in-chief of Russia In Global Affairs magazine.

It seems that Lukyanov’s logic is absolute — even before Putin’s proposal was officially published, NATO said it would not accept it. There is talk in the alliance about not giving up a number of rights. “So we will not compromise on the right of Ukraine to choose his own path. We will not compromise the right for NATO to protect and defend all NATO Allies. And we will not compromise on the fact that NATO has a partnership with Ukraine, which is important for us and for Ukraine,” declared 13th NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg. If the U.S. and the alliance will not compromise, then they do not aspire for peace. As such, Russia’s hands are free to guarantee its own interests and the security of its nationals by other means, including by absorbing at least two new regions — Donetsk and Luhansk. There may even be plans to absorb four regions — Donetsk, Luhansk, the Odessa Oblast and Trans-Dniester.

Let’s Read This Correctly

However, there is another version. The outlined proposals are not contracts. The proposals are no more than an outline of Russia’s initial position, written in direct Russian language and, according to prenegotiating tradition, slightly radicalized. Russia’s position will be debated, and, of course, will change during talks , where Russia and the U.S. may be able to find common ground. Ryabkov’s comments on the all-or-nothing style of the proposal do not indicate that Russia’s position on each topic is definitive, but rather that the proposal includes a list of subjects on which the parties must find a compromise.

No one is demanding or plans to demand that NATO compromise on protecting member countries. Moscow is not infringing on what Biden defines as the “sacred obligation” of the alliance to defend the Baltic States or Poland.

Moscow does not object and is not planning to object to NATO’s autonomous right to cooperate with a sovereign Ukraine. Moscow will only object if this cooperation threatens the sovereignty and security of Russia and the lives of its citizens (regardless of how they are living). Stoltenberg says “NATO will continue to give you practical support. Allies are training and advising your armed forces, participating in joint exercises, and providing equipment” because “NATO’s support for Ukraine is not a threat to Russia,” but this is not entirely true. The supply of certain types of weapons gives the Kyiv elite the impression that they are permitted to provoke Russia. Therefore, it is possible the proposal restricts such cooperation. Of course, no one is preventing the alliance from supplying Ukraine with weapons through third countries, although the scope and political significance is of lesser importance than direct supply.

There is also no demand to stop total expansion; it is no coincidence that Moscow’s position on this in the American agreement proposal is different than its position in the NATO agreement.

Where the proposal with NATO refers to preventing new countries from joining NATO, the American proposal only mentions countries of the former Soviet Union. Basically, the American version is actually Russia’s red line.

“Let me also highlight that NATO has proven over the last years that our ‘open door policy’ is not only something we support in words, but also in deeds, partly by inviting two new countries, Montenegro and North Macedonia, to become members. So we have enlarged the Alliance over the last few years with two new members, despite protests from Russia,” Stoltenberg said. However, despite all of Russia’s objections, these two countries were not mentioned as part of any red lines, since they are not located near Russia’s borders and are not a part of Russia’s responsibility or the so-called Russian world. Russia is concerned not so much with Montenegro, Bosnia or even Serbia joining NATO, as with Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. The Kremlin is located within 450 kilometers (approximately 280 miles) of Russia’s border with Ukraine. Deployment of NATO missiles in this region, including those with nuclear warheads, is disrupting the state of strategic stability there, calling into question the likelihood of a nuclear strike and threatening the security of the Russian Federation, as well as the whole world. Therefore, Moscow is demanding Ukraine’s removal from NATO expansion plans and is ready to compromise by not interfering with the integration of the Balkan states into the alliance.

Moscow Does Not Believe in Promises

Two questions arise. Is it necessary to make the above-mentioned demands of the West, even in compromised form? And will the West agree to such demands?

At first glance, no, it is not necessary. After all, the U.S. currently occupies a very interesting position. Officially, the U.S. does not recognize Russia’s red lines, as Biden confirmed before his summit with Putin, but in fact, some red lines are taken into account — for example, the red line with respect to NATO’s expansion to the east. It would seem that this is due to an understanding about real consequences and out of consideration of national interests. However, it is not that simple. Exaggerated reactions to aggressive anti-Russian rhetoric, coupled with the fact people are gradually forgetting about events in 2008, are prompting some comrades to go follow a familiar path. The result of such experiments could turn out to be quite dangerous, as it could lead to deploying nuclear weapons. As such, written guarantees are necessary.

These guarantees will be difficult for the Americans to provide. After all, if the U.S. commits to that, it recognizes Moscow’s right not only to determine Ukrainian policy, but to shape American policy.

In this way, Washington’s mythical omnipotence would collapse — a myth upon which America’s control over third-party countries, including post-Soviet nations, is founded.

On the other hand, Biden understands the need to negotiate. He understands that the lack of rules for post-Soviet countries can lead to nuclear war, and at a minimum, it could severely complicate U.S. policy on containing China, even as the U.S. continues to play the game with no rules, pushing Russia to form an alliance with the Chinese. Biden also understands that Moscow will not accept an oral agreement that promises NATO will not expand to the east. This happened with former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and everyone remembers. Therefore, the parties will most likely work on drafting potential American guarantees, which will satisfy Moscow and not lead to any significant losses for Washington. It is possible that at the next Putin-Biden summit, which may take place even before the new year, the parties will share their thoughts on this matter.

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