June 18, 2021

The Russian “red line”


On June 16, U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin held their first summit in Geneva. It came five months into Mr. Biden’s term and 21 years after Mr. Putin was first elected president. Most reports from the summit saw only modest outcomes, as the two presidents discussed nuclear arms and diplomatic relations between the two historic adversaries.

Following the summit, James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank, said that, “Not much was agreed upon; not much was done. And that was probably appropriate, proportionate to the state of the relations between the two.”

While the two presidents did discuss Ukraine with little of note, Mr. Biden did say both before and after the summit that the U.S. would not use Ukraine as a concession in negotiations with Mr. Putin. As best we can tell, it seems Mr. Biden did not sell Ukraine out at this summit. In fact, there is some indication that Mr. Biden held firm on Ukraine. One day after the two presidents met, the Kremlin said that Ukraine becoming a NATO member would be a “red line” for Russia.

Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman, said on June 17 that any talk of a Ukraine being granted a Membership Action Plan, which is a first step toward full NATO membership, was concerning for Russia.

“This is something we are watching very closely and this really is a red line for us – as regards the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO,” Mr. Putin’s spokesman said. “Of course, this [the question of a membership plan for Ukraine] raises our concerns.”

Such comments are the epitome of hypocrisy, as Russia regularly deflects criticism of human rights abuses, the jailing of Kremlin critics and the murder of prominent opposition figures, among other crimes committed against its citizens, by saying that these are matters internal to Russia. Yet Mr. Putin and his cadre of sycophantic cronies have no issue prying into Ukraine’s internal matters by saying that Kyiv’s decision to push for NATO membership is a red line for Russia.

On this particular issue, it is high time that Europe and the United States adopt Mr. Putin’s technique: take hold of an opportunity, act decisively and call their adversary’s bluff. In this case, they could do so by beginning the process of granting Ukraine a Membership Action Plan (MAP). There are two key questions at the heart of the matter: Would Mr. Putin invade Ukraine if Kyiv was granted a MAP? But even more importantly, would Europe and the United States translate their words of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity into concrete action by standing with Ukraine if such an invasion occurred?

Ultimately, we know that most people in the United States and Europe don’t want a war with Russia. But history has repeatedly shown that appeasing dictators leads to disaster. Western leaders must tackle this dictator head on. They can begin by taking the position that interfering in Ukraine’s aspiration to become a NATO member is a red line that Russia must not cross. The safety and security of all of Europe is at stake.