The West Calls Putin's Bluff

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Kremlin officials have warned multiple times over the 11 months since the invasion of Ukraine started that Western inference could result in an escalation. However, the United States and other Western allies of Ukraine have repeatedly crossed Putin's supposed red lines.

"If the territorial integrity of our country is threatened, we will without doubt use all available means to protect Russia and our people. This is not a bluff," Putin said in September address while the U.S. continued providing Ukraine with more armaments to fight on territory illegitimately annexed by Putin.

More recently, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov provided such a warning about arming Ukraine in December. He said, "Weapon supplies continue, the assortment of supplied weapons is expanding. All this, of course, leads to an aggravation of the conflict and, in fact, does not bode well for Ukraine."

If anything, the weapons coming to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky from the West escalated after Peskov's remarks. This week alone, President Joe Biden took the large step of saying the U.S. will provide Ukraine with 31 M1 Abrams tanks. His announcement came on the same day that Germany confirmed it would give Ukrainian forces 13 Leopard 2 tanks.

Vladimir Putin with inset Joe Biden photo
U.S. President Joe Biden (inset) and other Western allies of Ukraine keep ignoring Russian President Vladimir Putin's (right) threats of war escalation if they provide Ukraine with additional weapons. Photos by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Kremlin officials and Russian state-controlled media outlets responded to the news of the tanks with outrage. But George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government professor Mark N. Katz told Newsweek that the message from the West was clear: Putin's rhetoric wasn't going to cause them to back down.

"Putin's redlines are designed to deter Western states from crossing them, but Putin has not been able to prevent the West from crossing several of them," Katz said.

Lawrence C. Reardon, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told Newsweek, "There is a growing global perception that Russian leaders resemble the boy that cried wolf."

He added, "When Russian forces are under pressure, Putin indirectly talks about the use of tactical nuclear weapons to defend Russia, especially to defend the newly annexed areas of southeast Ukraine such as the Crimea."

Reardon said that while Western leaders haven't taken Putin's words as fact, they nevertheless likely don't take Russia's nuclear capabilities—or the chance of an angry Putin using them in Ukraine—for granted.

"Thus, the recent hesitance by Berlin and Washington to provide sophisticated tanks is not just related to the difficulty of Ukraine absorbing these tanks into their fighting forces, but also a fear of escalating the conflict," he said. "But western leaders are not crying wolf and no doubt have warned Putin that NATO will rapidly escalate involvement should Putin resort to tactical nuclear weapons."

Katz noted that "Putin and his cronies have already declared that Russia is at war with NATO or the 'Collective West,' not just Ukraine."

"The U.S. and NATO do seem to take seriously the possibility that there are some things Ukraine might do which could result in Putin escalating the conflict," he said.

Another reason why Ukraine's Western allies may feel emboldened in their support of Ukraine is that Russia for the most part has stumbled in its war efforts, according to Katz.

"If Putin's forces are not doing so well against Ukraine, it is hard to see how they can do better by escalating the conflict by attacking any NATO member," he said.