NATO Pushes Back Against Russian President Putin’s ‘Red Lines’ Over Ukraine

Jens Stoltenberg, the Secretary-General of NATO, has categorically rejected Russia’s right to dictate how Ukraine does or doesn’t interact with the alliance. This comes a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that an expansion of NATO’s presence in Ukraine, especially the deployment of any long-range missiles capable of striking Moscow, would be a “red line” issue for the Kremlin. All of this follows major Russian troop movements that have prompted concerns that a new, larger-scale invasion of Ukraine, which is not a NATO member, may come in a matter of weeks.  

Stoltenberg made his remarks to reporters earlier today in Riga, Latvia, where the top diplomats from all of NATO’s 30 members have been meeting to discuss the situation surrounding Ukraine, as well as the current Belarusian border crisis and arms control issues, among other matters. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attended this gathering, has raised concerns in the past, as have others, that what is happening along Belarus’ western borders with NATO member states, which you can read more about here, appears to be a deliberate distraction from Russian moves around Ukraine. 

“It’s only Ukraine and 30 NATO allies that decides when Ukraine is ready to join NATO. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbors,” Stoltenberg said. “They try to re-establish some kind of acceptance that Russia has a right to control what neighbors do or not do.”

“I myself come from a small country bordering Russia, and I’m very glad that our NATO allies have never respected that Russia has the kind of right to establish a sphere of influence in the north, trying to decide what Norway as a small independent country can do or not do,” the Secretary-General, who is Norwegian, continued. “And that’s exactly the same for Ukraine.”

“So this idea that NATO support to a sovereign nation is a provocation is just wrong,” he added. “It’s to respect the sovereignty of the will of the Ukrainian people. So I think that tells more about Russia than about NATO.”

This is not the first time Stoltenberg has spoken out against countries establishing spheres of influence over smaller nations, nor is this the first time Russia has criticized NATO’s involvement in Ukraine and the Ukrainian government’s interest in joining the alliance. However, his comments today follow remarks from Russian President Putin yesterday during an online investment forum in which he declared that any new deployments of NATO forces and materiel to Ukraine would be crossing a “red line” for his country. He specifically highlighted concerns about the potential arrival of long-range hypersonic missiles with the ability to hit Moscow in “five minutes.”

“The emergence of such threats represents a ‘red line’ for us,” Putin said. “I hope that it will not get to that and common sense and responsibility for their own countries and the global community will eventually prevail.”

He also reiterated criticisms about NATO exercises and other movements near Russia’s borders. For weeks now, Putin and other Russian officials have rejected concerns about Russia’s military movements near Ukraine and have sought to frame the alliance’s actions as being the real source of provocations in the region. This is a common rhetorical tack that the Kremlin has taken on many issues in the past to deflect from its own malign activities.

Various NATO members, including the United States and Canada, do have established security assistance missions in Ukraine that include rotating troop deployments. Exercises involving Ukraine and NATO nations are not uncommon, either. Though ties between the Ukrainian military and the alliance go back decades, this cooperation grew in the aftermath of Russia’s seizure of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Since then, the Kremlin has also been actively supporting ostensibly local “separatist” groups, which have strong ties to Russian intelligence agencies, in their fight against Ukrainian government forces in that country’s eastern Donbass region. 

A U.S. Army paratrooper, at left, together with a Ukrainian soldier assigned to a combined Ukrainian-Lithuanian-Polish unit during Exercise Rapid Trident 21 in Ukraine in September 2021., U.S. Army

There have certainly been calls for NATO to send forces to Ukraine to help deter Russia from taking any new military action, but, despite reported deliberations, there have been no indications yet that any member states are actually preparing to do so. There have also been reported discussions among NATO members, including the United States, about increasing deliveries of weapons and other equipment to the Ukrainian military.

However, there does not appear to be any discussion about a NATO deployment to Ukraine of ground-based surface-to-surface missiles able to strike Moscow. The American-made Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) is the only ground-based weapon anywhere in service within the alliance that would even have the capability to hit the Russian capital from Ukrainian territory, and, even then, the launches would have to occur very close to Ukraine’s northern border with Russia for that to work. ATACMS’ maximum range is around 310 miles, while the shortest distance between Moscow and the Ukrainian border is around 280 miles.

For its part, Ukraine has threatened to use its own short-range ballistic missiles against targets in Russia in the event of a full-scale open conflict between the two countries.

With all this in mind, Putin’s comments about this notional missile deployment are extremely curious, and there is the distinct possibility that he might have been making references to other current or future NATO capabilities. The Russian president might be trying to leverage the situation to secure commitments from NATO to limit the deployment anywhere in Europe of ground-based hypersonic missiles or other long-range missiles that the United States now has in development. 

He has already threatened in the past to adopt a standing posture targeting the United States with hypersonic weapons if the U.S. military deploys missiles that had been prohibited under the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, or INF, in Europe. The U.S. Army expects to field a variety of new missiles, including hypersonic types, that would have previously been banned under the INF in the coming years and just recently re-activated an artillery command in Europe to, among other things, manage the future deployment of such weapons to the region.

U.S. Army soldiers uncase the colors of the 56th Artillery Command during a ceremony in Germany marking the re-activation of the unit in November 2021., U.S. Army

Putin could be trying to similarly force NATO’s hand in some way on the matter of new air and missile defenses in or around Ukraine. A new U.S. military Aegis Ashore missile defense site is slated to become operational next year, joining another Aegis Ashore facility already in Romania. The Russian government has long alleged that Aegis Ashore could be used to launch surface-to-surface missiles, as well as anti-missile interceptors, something the U.S. government has categorically denied. Last year, Putin put forward an offer to limit his country’s deployment of 9M729 ground-launched cruise missiles, which violated the terms of the INF and led to the collapse of that treaty, in exchange for the ability to inspect Aegis Ashore sites in Europe.  

Regardless, there has been no talk of establishing an Aegis Ashore site in Ukraine. There have been calls, including from members of Congress in the United States, to bolster the Ukrainian military’s own air and missile defense capabilities.

Separately, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko said yesterday, seemingly unprompted, that he might ask Putin to deploy nuclear weapons to his country if similar systems appeared in neighboring Poland. There had been talk last year about the possibility of relocating U.S. B61 nuclear bombs from Germany to Poland if the German government decided to drop out of a NATO nuclear sharing agreement.

Of course, Putin’s red lines could simply be designed to muddy the waters around his intentions regarding Ukraine. As The War Zone

has explored in the past, the Kremlin certainly has reasons why it might be considering a new military intervention, chiefly a need to secure a ready source of fresh water for Crimea.

At the same time, Ukrainian and American officials have stressed that, despite the Russian troop buildup near Ukraine’s borders, an actual invasion is not necessarily inevitable. 

“We don’t know whether President Putin has made the decision to invade,” Secretary Blinken said in his own remarks at the NATO meeting in Latvia. “We do know that he’s putting in place the capacity to do so on short order, should he so decide. So despite uncertainty about intention, and timing, we must prepare for all contingencies while working to see to it that Russia reverses course.”

“We’ve made it clear to the Kremlin that we will respond resolutely, including with a range of high impact economic measures that we’ve refrained from using in the past,” he added. NATO is “prepared to impose severe costs for further Russian aggression in Ukraine” and “prepared to reinforce its defenses on the eastern flank.”

The Kremlin might be content to try to bring down Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government, including by leveraging internal discontent. Zelensky just recently accused Russia of attempting to launch a coup against him but has provided limited evidence of this so far. 

Questions have been raised about whether or not these allegations might be, at least in part, an effort to neuter Zelensky’s domestic political opponents, including oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Zelensky has said that Akhmetov’s name came up in relation to the apparent plot, but he has said he doesn’t believe that Ukraine’s richest man was involved directly. There was a protest in Kyiv today, the organizers of which accused Zelensky of making up the coup claims, but also saw speakers call out Russia’s aggression against the country.

Whatever the case, the Security Service of Ukraine, the country’s top domestic intelligence agency, also known by its Ukrainian acronym SBU, announced this week that it was investigating the alleged coup. This came after it emerged that Zelensky had fired Oleksandr Rusnak, the head of the SBU’s counterintelligence department, which officials in Ukraine insist is unrelated.

Another possibility is that Putin’s red line comments might just be an appeal to the nationalist sentiments of domestic audiences. In an example of the often highly provocative rhetoric being pushed internally in Russia, Dmitry Kiselyov, a prominent host on the state-run Russia-1 television network, declared last week that the country could destroy the GPS satellite navigation constellation with anti-satellite weapons if NATO refused to respect the Kremlin’s previous red lines regarding Ukraine. This followed a widely condemned Russian test of a ground-launched anti-satellite interceptor on Nov. 15, which destroyed a defunct Soviet-era electronic intelligence satellite and created a dangerous cloud of debris.

There is no indication whatsoever that this reflects actual Russian policy at present, and Kiselyov is well known for making these kinds of inflammatory, but unsubstantiated, pronouncements. He was previously responsible for an equally provocative segment back in 2019 in which he outlined various bases that Russian submarines could strike in the United States with Zircon hypersonic cruise missiles in a future conflict. U.S. military facilities that had been closed for years at that point were bizarrely listed among the potential targets.

All told, it remains to be seen how Putin’s newly declared “red lines” and the reaction from NATO will actually impact the still-evolving crisis in and around Ukraine.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.