But applying the special case of negotiation — with few parameters and a narrow range of outcomes — to a complex, fluid, and much broader geopolitical rivalry is a category mistake. While the danger of a Russian nuclear escalation may increase and should be studied carefully, there is no special, distinct category of actions the West or Ukraine might take that would automatically trigger it. Russia has no red lines: it only has, at any moment, a range of options and perceptions of their relative risks and benefits. The West should continually aim, through its diplomacy, to shape these perceptions so that Russia chooses the options that the West prefers.
America has done it before. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the most dangerous nuclear confrontation to date, the Soviet Union’s position shifted within days, finally accepting an outcome favorable to the West. If the thought of “red lines” had been fashionable, America might well have accepted an inferior compromise that would weaken its security and credibility.
While Russia is more invested in subordinating Ukraine than it was in deploying missiles to Cuba, the logic is the same. In 1962, America persuaded the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, that removing nuclear weapons from Cuba was, even unpleasantly, a better choice than deploying them. Likewise, the West should now aim to persuade Mr. Putin that withdrawing his forces from Ukraine is less perilous than fighting. He will likely do so if he realizes that a long war threatens his regime – the preservation of which seems to be the only thing he values more than a subordinate Ukraine – by fatally weakening national cohesion or worsening uncontrollably.
America should focus on three things. First, it should no longer declare that there are measures it will refrain from taking and weapon systems it will not provide to support Ukraine. To show unilateral restraint is to make an unforced concession. Worse still, it encourages Russia to probe and try to impose new limits on American action – making war more, not less, risky.
Second, America, together with its partners, must make it clear that time is against Russia – not in its favour, as Mr. Putin still believes. The West must demonstrate that it is ready to mobilize, and quickly, its enormous economic superiority to allow Ukraine to defeat Russia and impose new severe sanctions. The military and economic costs to Russia will deplete its much more limited resources and put greater pressure on the regime.
Third, the West should make it clear to a wide range of Russian audiences that it is safe to end the war by leaving Ukraine. An orderly withdrawal is unlikely to lead to regime change, let alone the breakup of Russia. Neither outcome is an official goal of Western policy, and talking about them is pointless and even counterproductive. Some in the West will resist the idea of such insurance. But if the Russian elites conclude that it is as dangerous for Russia to leave Ukraine as to stay, they have no reason to press for an end to the war. Reassurance does not mean compromise.
Conducted with firmness and determination, these diplomatic “shaping operations” in support of Ukraine’s military campaign can ensure that Russia’s least bad option aligns with what the West wants, much more powerful. Such a strategy is the opposite of accepting red lines. Tellingly, the “red lines” are a mirror image of an earlier metaphor used at the start of the war. When Russia looked strong, many offered to give Mr Putin an “exit ramp” to persuade him to stop fighting. Now that Russia is weaker, they call for Western restraint to persuade it not to fight more recklessly.