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After the restrictions on the use of Western weapons for attacks on Russian territory were lifted, the intensity of the Russian shelling of Kharkiv decreased, Kharkiv Mayor Hennadiy Terekhov told Reuters on May 11. At the time of his comment, the second month of the new Russian invasion of the Kharkiv region was underway. According to DeepState Map, as of May 19, Russians had occupied about 173 square kilometers, 133 of which were taken in the first five days. The maximum depth of Russian penetration into Ukraine’s border zone is about eight and a half kilometers.

“Ukraine Cannot Fight With One Hand Tied Behind Its Back”

According to Liga.net, as of June 7, 2024, 15 countries had allowed the use of their provided weapons to attack Russian territory. These include the United Kingdom, Denmark, Estonia, Canada, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Finland, the Czech Republic, and Sweden. France, Germany, and the United States imposed some restrictions.

French President Emmanuel Macron stated that Ukraine should be allowed to use French weapons under international law to “neutralize military bases from which missiles are launched.”

The German government also decided on the limited use of the provided weapons but did not provide details. German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius explained that “in the interests of military tactics and strategy, we should not publicly discuss what is possible, what is allowed, and what we would like to see, and what we would not.”

Information about the US permission for the use of their provided weapons for attacks on Russian territory initially appeared in comments from sources in influential publications like Politico. Later, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed at a briefing that the US had agreed to Ukraine’s request to attack Russian forces. Blinken said strikes were allowed against troops “that are massing on the Russian side of the border and then attacking.” The Institute for the Study of War clarified that the US “still prohibits Ukraine from striking Russian military targets that are not actively attacking or preparing to attack Ukraine.”

The shift in the position of Ukraine’s allied governments, in addition to the new Russian invasion of the Kharkiv region, was preceded by weeks of discussions and speeches by experts from think tanks, journalists, and leaders of international organizations. Their main argument was that Ukraine cannot fight “with one hand tied behind its back” while NATO leaders heed Russia’s threats. These threats have persisted with little change since at least 2008, with the roots of nuclear blackmail found in Soviet “strategic communications.”

“Allies supply Ukraine with many types of weapons. I’ve seen the discussions surrounding their use. Some allies have imposed certain restrictions on the use of these weapons, others have no such restrictions. This is, without a doubt, a national decision... But I am convinced that the time has come to weigh the appropriateness of some of these restrictions to give Ukrainians the ability to defend themselves,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said during a visit to the Czech Republic on May 31.

After some of Ukraine’s partners allowed attacks on Russia, Atlantic Council commentator Peter Dickinson noted that the Russians softened their nuclear threats even in response to attacks on the Black Sea Fleet.

“Far from being set in stone, Russia’s territorial ambitions in Ukraine are largely opportunist and will expand or contract based on the military situation. Meanwhile, the multiple retreats from ‘historically Russian land’ conducted by Putin’s invading army since 2022 suggest the chances of a nuclear apocalypse have been wildly exaggerated. This should help Kyiv’s Western partners overcome their self-defeating fear of escalation, and encourage them to finally provide Ukraine with the tools, along with the free hand, to finish the job of defeating Russia,” Peter Dickinson wrote.

“The Russian ‘Red Lines’ Were Unaffected By the Attack”

The growing boldness of Ukraine’s allies has once again changed the public rhetoric of Russian leaders. For example, Russia’s main “dove of peace and hawk of nuclear apocalypse,” Vladimir Putin, stated during a press meeting on June 7 that Russian tactical nuclear weapons are three times more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. However, according to Putin, Russia surpasses its opponents even without nuclear weapons, so “there is no need to think” about using them.

“Putin’s June 7 statement is a significant rhetorical reversal given that Putin and other Kremlin officials have previously threatened Russian nuclear weapon use should Western states allow Ukraine to strike into Russian territory with Western-provided weapons. Western and Ukrainian policies and actions have crossed Russia’s supposed ‘red lines’ several times throughout the war without drawing a significant Russian reaction,” write analysts at the Institute for the Study of War. They also explain that Russian intimidation over violating their “red lines” is an information operation aimed at reducing support for Ukraine, not a declaration of Russia’s action plan.

The permission for Ukraine to attack Russian territory and the change in Putin’s official rhetoric does not mean that threats of nuclear weapons have ceased. These threats are still propagated by Dmitry Medvedev, Deputy Chairman of the Russian Security Council, Russian propagandists, and representatives of Belarus.

The fluctuations in nuclear blackmail by Russian leadership provoke reactions among propagandists, who, with equal fervor, spread threats of turning the world into “nuclear ashes” and quote Putin’s words about the non-use of nuclear weapons. From June 1, 2023, to May 31, 2024, there were 338,706 publications containing the phrase “red lines” in Russian and Ukrainian in 21,136 Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels. This data was provided by TeleZip / Mantis Analytics.

Weekly dynamics of Telegram publications with the keyword “red lines” and derivatives in Ukrainian and Russian according to Telezip / Mantis Analytics from June 1, 2023, to May 31, 2024

From this, we formed a sample of 3,000 publications. The theoretical margin of error for its representativeness is less than two percent. In the analyzed sample, publications on Telegram mentioning “red lines” with threats of punishment for crossing them occurred in an average of 23.96% of cases each month. Meanwhile, the average monthly share of publications mentioning “red lines” with jokes and sarcasm about the excessive use of this phrase was 11.62%.

In other cases, “red lines” are mentioned as a means of enriching language. Russian “patriots” mock the excessive use of the phrase by the Russian authorities and accuse them of not adhering to their own “red lines.”

Examples of the jokes:

·         “Railway traffic in the Dzhankoy district has been restored, which was previously suspended for safety reasons... During the attack on Crimea, the red lines were not affected,” reads a post on a pro-Russian Telegram channel with half a thousand subscribers.

·         “The playbook says to mention red lines on Saturday, express concern on Sunday, and talk about tactical nuclear weapons on holidays.” This message was posted in September 2023 on a Russian Telegram channel with 720 thousand subscribers.

·         “A red line is a mythologized line that constantly moves and changes its width, upon crossing which we must definitely start a thermonuclear war,” reads a post on a Russian Telegram channel with 1.7 thousand subscribers, created on October 6, 2023.

·         From a January 2024 post in a Telegram channel with 2 thousand subscribers, “By the way, I haven't heard officials use the term 'red lines' for a long time. Maybe they ran out?”

·         “Where are these damn red lines, thought the Americans, shooting their missiles at us,” reads a post in a local Russian Telegram channel with 1.3 thousand subscribers, created on May 28, 2024.

Jokes about “red lines” are more often found in smaller Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels. Among popular Telegram channels, they were most frequently joked about in channels associated with the terrorist Yevgeny Prigozhin. Throughout 2022 and until his death in August 2023, he played the role of a “truth-teller” in the Russian media space, condemning corrupt Russian military leadership and demanding more aggressive violations of international law and war crimes in Ukraine. Prigozhin is credited with two aphorisms about “red lines”: “There are no red lines left, only brown ones on the underwear” and “no red lines left, only skid marks.” However, jokes about “red lines” outlived Prigozhin. Pro-Russian Telegram users continue to express dissatisfaction with the futile intimidation of opponents by Russian authorities.

Monthly shares of mentions of “red lines” as intimidation and jokes

Under the current system of power in Russia, people are a resource for the ambitions of those in power. The maximum influence on the state that they have is to occasionally confirm the right of their authoritarian leaders to remain in power during the ritual of “elections without choice.” 

Those who express dissatisfaction in the analyzed publications generally do not call for holding their authorities accountable for violations of international law and committing war crimes. Instead, they demand their government to be more ruthless towards those whom Russian propaganda calls “enemies.” In Russian propaganda, and consequently in poll results, these “enemies” are Ukraine, the USA, and other members of the EU and NATO. These entities receive the most threats for crossing “red lines” after complaints about Russian authorities’ futile intimidations. However, accusations against Russia or its representatives rarely contain threats of accountability, while threats to other countries often involve calls for the use of nuclear weapons or threats of military conflict, etc.

Who intimidates whom for crossing “red lines” in Russian and pro-Russian Telegram channels

In the analyzed sample of publications, threats for crossing “red lines” are most often presented as propaganda interpretations of Russia’s needs as a state. Less frequently, propagandists attribute threats to its representatives. Among Russian politicians and officials, Dmitry Medvedev is the most frequent threat issuer. In the analyzed sample, he was most frequently mentioned from March to May 2024 due to Emmanuel Macron’s announced intentions to send French troops to Ukraine. Putin issues threats less frequently than Medvedev. The threats from him in the analyzed sample included nuclear weapon intimidations and threats to continue the war in Ukraine because Ukraine resists and has international support.

Besides Russia, representatives of “enemy” states also attract attention from post authors on Telegram channels in the analyzed sample. Their statements, resonating with propaganda, are cited to enhance the impression of propaganda’s “truthfulness.” They serve as evidence that influential people and experts in Western states do not support Ukraine or fear Russia. For example, during discussions about the idea of French troops in Ukraine, positions of French, Italian, Slovak, and American military personnel, experts, and officials were spread. The main argument voiced by these speakers was that “the presence of NATO troops in Ukraine will anger Russia and provoke a global conflict or World War III.”

The spectrum of intimidation for crossing “red lines,” those who voice them, and the “guilty”

Another method of spreading intimidation about the consequences of crossing “red lines” is through international news dissemination. For example, since October 2023, the analyzed sample of publications included threats from Muslim terrorist organizations, Iran, and Jordan towards Israel, the USA, and NATO over the military campaign in Palestine. This campaign began after members of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas attacked Israel and took hostages on October 7, 2023. There were also threats of escalation or armed conflict with the USA from China over support for Taiwan’s sovereignty. Propagandists use such themes to demonstrate that those considered “enemies” in Russia are also seen as such in other states. Therefore, Russia is “doing everything right.”

Structure of threats by Russians and propagandists for crossing Russia’s “red lines”

Complaints about crossing “red lines” from Russian spokespersons make up almost 63% of all analyzed cases. Among them, threats of nuclear weapon use were present in nearly every fourth case. In 14% of the messages, violations of Russia’s “red lines” were presented as justification or threats of Russian invasion of other nations. In 12% of the cases, discrepancies in the course of military operations in Ukraine compared to Russia’s vision served as reasons for threats of escalating combat operations and missile strikes.

“Red Lines” of the West that Remain

Ukraine’s allies and Russians have different approaches to the use of the term “red lines.” Russians use this phrase to signify the ultimate limit of force application, up to and including nuclear threats. Then they move these “red lines” to avoid playing their last card, after which, as Putin said, “we will go to heaven as martyrs, and they will just die.”

In contrast, democratic states set “red lines” that mark the limits of their current support for Ukraine. However, these, too, are changing. The Baltic states and some Central European countries, such as the Czech Republic, advocate for maximum support for Ukraine. Meanwhile, representatives from the USA, Germany, and France appear more moderate and are gradually overcoming their fear of crossing Russia’s “red lines.”

The shifting “red lines” of Russian propaganda are just one factor contributing to Ukraine’s allies and experts reassessing their own support limitations for Ukraine. The threats posed by a Russian victory are also significant. On February 18, 2022, two experts from the American German Marshall Fund published an article in Foreign Affairs stating that a Russian victory in Ukraine would undermine international law in favor of the law of the strongest. It would also increase the risks of new armed conflicts, and NATO states would have to spread their resources thin to contain further Russian advances in Europe in addition to protecting Taiwan and their own borders.

The Institute for the Study of War also expressed this position in mid-December 2023. On June 11, 2024, Peter Dickinson of the Atlantic Council added that a Russian victory in Ukraine would only strengthen Russia’s war machine, particularly through control of Ukraine’s defense industry and human resources. Additionally, a victory against Ukraine would increase Russia’s dominance in the Black Sea and Middle Eastern regions, according to Middle East policy expert Galip Dalay.

Despite considering the consequences of Russian successes, Ukraine’s allies still have several restrictions that play into Russian propaganda and military hands. Among them, as international observer Serhiy Kravchenko of Dzerkalo Tyzhnia writes, are inviting Ukraine to join NATO and sending NATO military instructors to Ukraine. Allies have also not agreed to use NATO air defense forces to shoot down Russian missiles targeting Ukraine, which would alleviate pressure on Ukrainian air defenses. This view is supported by Michael DiCianna, a research fellow at the Yorktown Institute.

The most frequently discussed ways to end the war in Ukraine and deter future attacks on other countries include strengthening sanctions against Russia and those who help it circumvent them. On June 11, Daniel Fried of the Atlantic Council outlined seven points to make sanctions against Russia more effective. These include tightening control over Russia’s evasion of sanctions on oil sales or financing energy infrastructure development, imposing sanctions on other states and financial institutions that enable Russia to circumvent sanctions, and redirecting frozen Russian assets to aid Ukraine. These steps largely lie beyond the “red lines” that some of Ukraine’s partners are not ready to cross. However, their implementation is partially happening asymmetrically due to the flexibility of Ukraine’s partners’ approaches, where the firmness of some motivates others.

The team members who also worked with data: Arseniy Subarion, Vitaliy Mykhailiv, Kateryna Antonenko, Kostiantyn Zadyraka, Oleksandr Siedin, Oleksiy Bannikov, Orest Slyvenko.

Main page illustration and infographic by Nataliya Lobach

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