NATO Has Already Crossed Vladimir Putin's 'Red Line'

Russian President Vladimir Putin has repeatedly warned NATO about interfering in the Ukraine war, even going so far as to bring up retaliation if Ukraine becomes a threat to Russia because of Western help. According to some experts, NATO has already crossed the line that Putin has said would justify an attack from Russian forces.

Last week, the Russian leader said during an address to lawmakers that any countries that "create a strategic threat to Russia" in Ukraine can expect "retaliatory strikes" that would be "lightning fast." Even before Russia began its attacks on Ukraine on February 24, Putin made public warnings. Last November, he said his country would respond if NATO crossed "red lines" by providing Ukraine with certain missile strike systems.

Other prominent Russian officials have recently made similar warnings. On April 13, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told government news agency Tass that Russia will consider U.S. and NATO vehicles transporting weapons on Ukrainian territory as "legitimate military targets." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov also brought up the international alliance during an April 25 interview. "NATO is essentially going to war with Russia through a proxy and arming that proxy. War means war," he said.

"When he announced the beginning of the 'special military operation' on February 24, Putin indicated that any 'interference' in the campaign by outside powers would be a red line," Yuri Zhukov, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, told Newsweek.

"This line has been crossed every day, and not only as regards weapons supplies," he continued. "Intelligence sharing, tactical training, foreign volunteers, humanitarian aid, sanctions, even publishing news stories about civilian casualties could all be, and have been, interpreted as interference by Moscow."

Zhukov added, "What's puzzling is that they have not yet responded more forcefully, since the political groundwork for such an escalation had been laid long ago."

Vladimir Putin
NATO has already crossed a red line that Russian President Vladimir Putin has said would justify a retaliation for interference in the Ukraine war, according to experts. Above, Putin during an address to the nation on February 21. Getty Images

Zhukov said that Russia's response thus far to Western aid going to Ukraine has been economic moves, such as cutting off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria. However, he noted that since the impression among NATO members is that Russia's threats "are hollow," Putin "may feel the need to conduct a 'limited' strike, perhaps against training or logistical centers in Poland or elsewhere. Such a move would obviously be extremely risky, in terms of setting off an escalation spiral."

Michael Kimmage, a history professor at Catholic University and former member of the secretary's policy planning staff at the State Department, said he feels Russia likely won't directly attack a NATO member at this time. But it's possible Russia might start bombing the flow of weapons into Ukrainian territory because "these weapons may turn the tide of the war," he added. "My guess is they're trying to establish a red line here without quite knowing how to do it."

For William Reno, a professor of political science at Northwestern University, "Putin's problem is the Biden administration and most NATO partners called the bluff. If Putin delivered on his threat to attack a NATO member, the provisions of Article 5 require NATO members consider this an attack on all and that they deliberate on how to respond."

He added, "We are playing a game of nuclear chicken. Either side may miscalculate, with catastrophic results. But we're not playing the game about nothing."

Reno noted that the "stakes include the principle that conquest is unacceptable, a foundation of the world order since 1945. If conquest is rewarded, what is the fate of weaker countries in Africa vis-à-vis stronger neighbors? Would China impose itself upon Taiwan? We don't want that, so we step on the gas and keep driving down the centerline."

Last Thursday, President Joe Biden addressed the threats of retaliation coming from Russian officials, calling the rhetoric a sign of "desperation that Russia is feeling about their abject failure." However, John Kirby, the Defense Department's press secretary, said the next day that these threats are taken seriously and that Putin should refrain from nuclear "saber-rattling."

Laurence Reardon, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, posed another scenario involving Russia and NATO.

"The question remains whether a 'mistaken' attack, such as a stray missile, could trigger a NATO response," Reardon said. "Even more ominous is the NATO response to Russia's use of chemical or tactical nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

"Theoretically, NATO would be keeping communications open with the Russian military to prevent such mishaps," Reardon added. "However, under the current circumstances, it remains unclear whether these lines of communications are open."

Newsweek reached out to the Russian Foreign Ministry for comment.