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Would Russia Attack the West?

Ukraine Russia
Russian T-80 tank. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Would Putin dare attack the West?  The question is alarmist, but it needs to be asked, especially as the Kremlin turns increasingly desperate in Ukraine and the rhetoric of Russian policymakers and propagandists turns increasingly harsh.

Two possible scenarios need to be considered. First, it’s possible that the West might cross some Russian red line and thereby provoke a severe Russian response. Second, frustrated by his inability to win a war against a significantly weaker foe, Russian President Vladimir Putin might decide that the only way to save his regime from collapse would be a military diversion against some Western weak spot.

Russian policymakers have generally stated that their response would be harsh only if the West attacked Russia or if some combination of events were to endanger the Russian state’s existence. It’s in that light that they’ve claimed that Russia would be threatened existentially if Ukraine were to join NATO and/or Western missiles were to be deployed on Ukrainian territory. What a harsh response would entail has always remained unclear, and the Russian use of the modifier “military-technical” has done little to reduce the confusion. Of course, lack of clarity is the point, as it enables Moscow to consider a large array of potential moves and leaves its neighbors and rivals flat-footed and guessing.

Russia’s television personalities, propagandists, and dime-novelists are a different matter. They imagine nuclear Armageddon with glee, fantasize about the destruction of Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic states, and spin tales of endless struggle against godless Western liberalism. To what degree their unhinged imaginings reflect the views of policymakers is unclear. Certainly, they have their imprimatur, perhaps to prepare the population for possible end-of-the-world scenarios, perhaps to test the waters, perhaps to terrify the West. In any case, official statements tend to be far more grounded in reality than propagandist fantasies. (Or so one hopes.)

Except when they aren’t. For months official Moscow insisted that Ukraine’s membership in NATO was imminent and that the threat of missile emplacements in Ukraine was real. In fact, Moscow knew what the West and Ukraine knew—that Ukraine’s chances of joining the Alliance in the next two decades were nil and, hence, that missiles would not be emplaced there as well. Given this proneness to exaggeration and mendacity, Moscow cannot be trusted to mean anything it says. It could be lying; it could be telling the truth. That said, the Kremlin’s claim that a threat to the Russian state’s existence would be a red line can surely be taken at face value. Just what would constitute a threat is of course a different question.

Can the West or Ukraine seriously threaten the Russian state’s existence? Is there a red line that they dare not cross lest the transgression provokes World War III?

Short of invading Russia proper and advancing in Blitzkrieg-like fashion or firing missiles on Moscow, there is none. Providing Ukraine with all manner of weapons has not crossed any red line thus far. Providing Ukraine with U.S. high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS) and British multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS) may turn the tide of battle and help the Ukrainians drive the Russian troops from Ukraine, but as long as Ukraine stops at its border and the missiles fall short of Russia, there is no plausible case to be made for Russia’s statehood being existentially threatened. Indeed, it’s not even clear that a Western military presence in Ukraine would constitute crossing a red line as long as the Western military stays within Ukraine.

Unless the Russians just happen to decide that a successful Ukrainian counter-offensive or a Western military presence constitutes transgressions of some serendipitously generated red lines (although even then they’re far more likely to respond with a renewed attack on Ukraine’s civilians than with an attack on the West). What the Russian penchant for unpredictability ultimately means is, as I already hinted at above, that Russian notions of impassable red lines are so vague as to be arbitrary.

To make matters worse, a desperate Russian elite could decide that firing a missile at Warsaw or invading northeast Estonia might be a convenient way of acting tough at home and abroad, testing NATO’s resolve to follow through on Article 5, and thereby enhancing the Kremlin’s deteriorating legitimacy. The West need not cross any objectively recognizable red line for such a dire scenario to happen. Dictators are by nature unpredictable, and irrational sociopaths with unlimited power are especially unpredictable.

That being the case, Western policymakers have to build uncertainty and unpredictability into their assessments of Russian behavior. They have to realize that the Russians could just as easily declare that insulting Putin is a red line as that pushing their troops out of the Donbas is not.

Given such high levels of uncertainty, the West can best defend itself from some sudden onset of aggressive Russian madness by clarifying its own position and making it crystal clear to Moscow. The West needs to be fully committed to hastening Ukraine’s victory in Ukraine, conveying to Moscow in no uncertain terms that its support of Ukrainian sovereignty is unconditional and permanent, and to reminding Moscow that the West also has red lines that, if crossed, would immediately provoke measures that just might lead to the Russian state’s collapse.

As to what those harsh measures would be, it’s best to keep the Russians flat-footed and guessing.

Dr. Alexander Motyl, now a 1945 Contributing Editor, is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

Written By

Dr. Alexander Motyl is a professor of political science at Rutgers-Newark. A specialist on Ukraine, Russia, and the USSR, and on nationalism, revolutions, empires, and theory, he is the author of 10 books of nonfiction, including Pidsumky imperii (2009); Puti imperii (2004); Imperial Ends: The Decay, Collapse, and Revival of Empires (2001); Revolutions, Nations, Empires: Conceptual Limits and Theoretical Possibilities (1999); Dilemmas of Independence: Ukraine after Totalitarianism (1993); and The Turn to the Right: The Ideological Origins and Development of Ukrainian Nationalism, 1919–1929 (1980); the editor of 15 volumes, including The Encyclopedia of Nationalism (2000) and The Holodomor Reader (2012); and a contributor of dozens of articles to academic and policy journals, newspaper op-ed pages, and magazines. He also has a weekly blog, “Ukraine’s Orange Blues.”

24 Comments

24 Comments

  1. Frank Pike

    June 11, 2022 at 9:35 am

    Russia says one thing & does the opposite. It is low on missiles and eating its atillery in Ukraine. At some point a weakened Russia soldered, pantsed, and isolated is good for the world. A Russia erased and absorbed into the west probsbly a safer world scenario. A freed people just may jettison their own beaurocracy. I wish the west and NATO had some larger balls because right now is an advantageous time to impact. If both autocracies and given time to rearm and muster full resources it’s probably the west that will lose its world order

  2. irene jarosewich

    June 11, 2022 at 10:09 am

    Or some kind of military excercise gone bad/oopsy-daisy, sorry! attack from Belarus into Lithuania – what’s the West going to do? go after Minsk? I vote yes for provocative diversionary tactics this coming winter.

    • Jim Higgins

      June 11, 2022 at 1:06 pm

      Russia is not going to trade Moscow for Kiev.

  3. Eric-ji

    June 11, 2022 at 11:38 am

    Clarity on the West’s redlines but no clarity on the consequences of crossing those lines? Not going believed by Russia. They’ll look at them as just talk, as it likely is.

    Essay is fluff.

    • Casey

      June 16, 2022 at 3:26 am

      Couldn’t agree more. The article really doesn’t say Anything.

  4. Stefan Stackhouse

    June 11, 2022 at 11:53 am

    Russian saber-rattling can and should be dismissed with a smirk and a roll of the eyes. If they actually take the saber out, though, and begin to strike, then the strike must be parried if possible. I would suggest a long and deliberate pause, though, before doing any tit-for-tat retaliation. That might be necessary, but sowing down the pace of events rather than speeding them up is in our interest.

  5. TBVet

    June 11, 2022 at 2:15 pm

    A modern combined Western force could successfully destroy the third world Russian logistics capability inside of fifteen minutes and would leave the third world Russian front line forces to whither on the vine. If this strike was coordinated to hit the artillery positions, then the striking power of the red army goes to zero. The only military deterrence Russia has are nukes.

  6. David Chang

    June 11, 2022 at 2:58 pm

    You are wrong.

    People in Ukraine, Russia, and E.U. should obey Ten Commandments, pray to God, and stop war.

    Dereliction of Duty: Johnson, McNamara, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Lies That Led to Vietnam Paperback – May 8, 1998

  7. Error402

    June 11, 2022 at 8:03 pm

    America, full of lies, deceit and warmongering.

    But America WON’T protect Europe if Russia ever unleashes its nuclear missiles at cities like Warsaw, Prague or Oslo.

    Why ? America is full of lies and deceit.Europe is just dispensable Cannon fodder for US warmongering.

    • mcswell

      June 11, 2022 at 9:30 pm

      Wait a minute. You’re saying that if Russia launched nuclear missiles at Europe, that would constitute US warmongering? Where is the logic in that? You make no sense.

      • Eric

        June 13, 2022 at 10:41 am

        The troll goal is to confound, not to make logical sense.

    • L'amateur d'aéroplanes

      June 14, 2022 at 1:39 am

      Error402. Do not write in an advanced state of alcohol. This troll forgets that France and the United Kingdom also have a nuclear strike force. The cities they cite are under triple protection. If Putin in a burst of suicidal madness uses nuclear weapons against Europe, Russia will also disappear.

  8. GhostTomahawk

    June 11, 2022 at 11:13 pm

    Think on this for a moment. As the west dumps billions in aid and massive stores in war materiel… what does the west do when China makes its move?

    Stop backing the Soros funded dictator in Ukraine. We’re playing right into their hands.

    • Eric

      June 13, 2022 at 10:49 am

      As if the USA and it’s allies don’t spend a trillion dollars a year on military capabilities.
      “Soros funded”? Makes me think this is another right-wing attack on the Jewish president of Ukraine.

  9. Rich

    June 12, 2022 at 8:18 am

    Russia, at this point, doesn’t have the military capacity to launch a conventional thrust against the west. Russia couldn’t even sustain a campaign in northern Ukraine while fighting in the Donbas. It had to consolidate its forces to even have a chance at winning in the east. Right now NATO would “mop the floor” with any Russian incursion into Western territory. The only wild card Russia could play is nuclear, and that move would ensure retaliation in kind. There is no scenario where a military action against the west would be to Russia’s advantage.

  10. Russ

    June 12, 2022 at 10:17 am

    Ruzzia will not use nukes on any western city…unless they want to bid adieu to moscow and st. peterburg. This psychopath putin will try to survive at all cost…that is the nature of psychopaths. ruzzian land forces are weak and badly led. putin is worried. Ukraine will be the downfall of the corrupt and weak ruzzian federation… and that will be a national holiday!

  11. Matt

    June 12, 2022 at 11:15 am

    On Dec. 17, 2021 Russia put forth an ultimatum: NATO out of Eastern Europe and US reduced to regional power, or else a military-technical response. Shortly thereafter Russia invaded Ukraine. Ukraine is merely a starting point for much bigger things.

    Try googling this: Russian ultimatum 2021

    Given the outrageous Russian demands, there can be no doubt that nuclear war is coming.

  12. Dave Nelson

    June 12, 2022 at 1:39 pm

    Thinking broadly, what should NATO do when Russia coerces Belarus to invade Ukraine?

    IMO NATO needs to make a public policy statement now that asserts their intention to attack any Belarus forces that are inside Ukraine. Note limiter.

    If such events were to happen the question then becomes what will Russia do in response? I tend to agree with other comments posted here that the Russian military is already over extended and that while Putin may think the use of nukes is in HIS best interest their use are not in the best interests of Russia.

    Net result: Belarus does not invade, NATO has no need for action, and Putin talks tough again.

  13. Spunky

    June 13, 2022 at 9:37 am

    Putin attacks West Russia will be crushed simple as that Russia has wankers for soldiers they tug their cocks all day in the tanks wank them selves silly to get an excuse of I am a wanker to get out of army,they have Cumming contests see who can hit the other one in the mouth first with his spunk.the winner gets his cock sucked.

  14. spander

    June 13, 2022 at 10:13 am

    are you blind? until now you did realise that russia is weak country compare to us or nato military !!!!russia made many threats and many red lines .with what you see is those thareats are empty . russia knows well that he cannot fight US or NATO. it will loose if it was the case. their country will be occupied if it triggers a war with NATO

  15. George

    June 14, 2022 at 7:55 am

    No. But he is aiming to give the West an economic comeuppance. Can you say BRICS?

  16. David Chang

    June 15, 2022 at 11:22 am

    When you explain Russian policy with socialism, you will know that Russia are going to attack other countries. It is socialism war.

  17. Bill in Houston

    June 15, 2022 at 2:35 pm

    The commies have always been a paper tiger compared to the US. Pathetic and weak.

  18. Casey

    June 16, 2022 at 3:11 am

    This article….has problems. Russia’s vague red lines make conflict more likely so therefore we should also have red lines that are vague? Perhaps the article is in fact in favor of conflict, else why would the author seem to advocate that we also should adopt a position that makes conflict likely. Or does he mean to suggest that of there is uncertainty then Russia also will hesitate. We’ve established long ago that an attack on a NATO member is a ‘red-line’ (is it REALLY though?). So what could we possibly throw out there that Putin would worry Might be a redline? Given the west and in particular European aversion to warfare I can’t see much out there that we could posture as a redline which would make Russia hesitate. The west is doing pretty much the only sensible course and arm Ukraine with incrementally stronger and more lethal arms, see what sort of response Russia has and then repeat. Incrementally and with increasing pressure.until we provoke a limited response or -preferably- a definitive statement of limits Russia will tolerate. Uncertainty is how wars get started. BE CERTAIN

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