One of the most talked about things in any conflict is ‘red lines’; however, this is paradoxically the most difficult to define. Nuclear red lines were one of the pillars for the theory of deterrence and the world was witness to what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
It was finally averted by both the Soviets under Khrushchev and the Americans under Kennedy pulling out their nuclear missiles from Cuba and Turkey respectively.
Red lines and the lines in between
It is said that there are a set of unspoken rules that prevent countries from crossing one another’s red lines. However, while ‘red lines’ do exist they are not clearly defined and there always remains a degree of ambiguity. In fact, a country always has two sets of red lines one that it ‘lays down’ and the other what its adversary ‘perceives’. They are in fact invisible and unspoken rules, but the reality is that they exist.
However not all red lines are’ shrouded in mystery’; as Russia was very clear that Ukraine joining the NATO was unacceptable to them. There is no doubt that the eastward expansion of NATO has touched a raw nerve. Russia felt that NATO’s presence on its borders would only lead to instability, hence it decided to take an interventionist path. “You asked about Ukraine, where are these red lines?” President Putin stated in televised remarks during an investment conference in November 2021. “They are above all in the creation of threats to us which could come from Ukraine.”
While ‘red lines’ do exist, they are not clearly defined and there always remains a degree of ambiguity. In fact, a country always has two sets of red lines one that it ‘lays down’ and the other what its adversary ‘perceives’. They are in fact invisible and unspoken rules, but the reality is that they exist.
As far as India is concerned few recent examples both against China at Doklam and Galwan and against Pakistan in the form of surgical strikes post the Uri and Pulwama terrorist strikes were signals regarding our ‘red lines’. We were now willing to use hard power. The Balakot strikes on 26 February 2019 by the Indian Air Force conducted them in retaliation to the Pulwama attack. The strikes were “non-military” and “pre-emptive” in nature, targeting a Jaish-e-Mohammed facility within Pakistan.
Pakistan had been using the threat of use of nuclear weapons to shield itself from any retaliation to enable it to use terrorists to attack India. India had then sent a message regarding its resolve to push the envelope on the deterrence imposed by nuclear parity to defend itself against terror. Pakistan could no longer take the cover of ‘plausible deniability’.
The war in Ukraine is now entering its sixth month. For all the discussion of Russia crossing the West’s red lines with its conduct in the war and of the West crossing Russia’s red lines with its military assistance to Ukraine, the red lines have not yet been breached.
Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba while speaking at CBS’ Face the Nation’ had stated that Russia’s continued attacks in Mariupol could be a red line that ends all efforts to reach peace through negotiation. However, the real red lines in this conflict are those drawn by Russia and the West.
Countries and their equations
Analysts have said while Russia accepts NATO weapon deliveries and intelligence support for Ukraine, but it will not accept employment of NATO troops. As far as NATO is concerned remaining within the ‘red lines’ implies acceptance of Russian conventional warfare within Ukraine’s borders, and no use of weapons of mass destruction. So far, the chances of wider war though initially predicted by some seems to be fading. But what has stood out as per Liana Fix and Michael Kimmage is that there ‘no international mechanism controls the conflict. The role of the United Nations has been peripheral’.
President Biden has been explicit that US troops will not go into Ukraine or intervene directly. He and will not sanction NATO involvement in the conflict. Currently, the distinction between Ukraine’s self-defence, to which US and NATO are committed, and Ukrainian strikes on Russia itself have been drawn. Support to Ukraine is being given along these lines.
However, given the new nature of conflict with multi-dimensional engagements, the size and complexity conflicts, the number of countries involved, the hybrid nature of war and the new technologies in use, this toxic mixture makes it increasingly difficult to contain a conflict within a red line. For example, can cyber-attacks on critical infrastructure of a country constitute a grave risk?
Any conflict has the potential to spin out of control and the escalatory spiral could be triggered by an accident. A cycle of events that “demands” increased retaliation. Success in war validates decisive action and speed, but the complexity of war can also demand the opposite.
So far, these invisible rules have continued to function but there is no doubt that countries keep trying to push the envelope, ultimately these lines are not elastic and once snapped can lead to catastrophic outcomes.