I noticed calls on Twitter for a US-imposed ‘Red Line’ with regards to Ukraine, to try and stop Russia from excessively meddling in Ukrainian affairs, ‘or else…’
A similar outspoken policy proved rather successful (?) with regards to forcing Assad to dismantle his arsenal of chemical weapons, and it is tempting to believe that something similar could be useful to protect Ukraine from an armed incursion by Russian troops. However, after dwelling on the idea for a while, it is easy to see why it wouldn’t work in this case.
To begin with, Russia is not Syria and Putin is not Assad. Assad knows that he controls a country that is best described as a (minor) regional power. Sure, he can meddle in Lebanese affairs, but when the big players put their foot down, it is best to at least listen to what they have to say.
Russia is one of these big players, and few things apparently annoy the Kremlin more than being reminded that they play second violin on the world stage. Having the US trying to tell them what they can or can’t do in their own backyard is not something they will accept easily.
Which brings us up to the main point: Drawing up the red line would in itself be easy enough, but in order for a threat to work, there has to be the aforementioned ‘or else…’
And that is something the West is lacking in this case.
Economic actions, going after the money of Russian leaders or imposing trade restrictions, might seem to be a possibility. However, the long-term impact on Russia would be rather small, while the possible impact on Europe could be far larger if Russia decides to cut energy sales and/or impose trade restrictions the other way, something Lithuania got to experience this summer. While the loss in energy exports might be a sting in the short term, there are probably other takers for the Russian oil, and it is hard to believe that the ‘common people’ of Europe are prepared to freeze for Ukraine due to Russian natural gas deliveries being cut. Bottom line: Europe needs Russia (at least) as much as Russia needs Europe.
With regards to diplomatic efforts, there are precious few things that Russia wants from the West. WTO membership used to be such a thing, but since 2012 Russia already is a full member. Forcing (or, most probably, trying to force) high-ranking officials before international or Ukrainian courts would be somewhat irritating, but little less. Ask Omar al-Bashir if you disagree.
Engaging Russian forces inside Ukrainian with air strikes and/or ground forces would incur losses far higher than anything seen in the NATO-led peace enforcing operations of the last decades. Also, there is scant hope for this idea to get popular support in Western Europe or the US. Most people would probably say that Ukraine is not worth even a limited conflict between the old Cold War adversaries (although diehard pessimists will probably point out that was what they said about the Sudetenland in 1938 as well).
A potential ‘middle way’ would be a Western ‘peace keeping force’ entering Ukraine to secure parts of the country if Russian troops entered Crimea in force. This would work on the assumption that Russia would not risk an all-out war, and so would settle for the areas not controlled by western units. Although this sounds good in theory, in practice, it might prove excessively difficult.
Due to legitimacy, Russia would have to make a first move, and as have been proven time after time, occupying strategic points in a country can be a very swift affair, especially if the armed forces are having an exercise going. The window of opportunity for a counter will thus be very short. Few countries, if any, have troops in a high enough state of alert and the logistics needed to get them to Ukraine in time. Poland could be one, with e.g. the 21st Podhale Rifle Brigade (mountaineers) being based in Rzeszów close to the Ukrainian border. The 21st Podhale has also taken part in the joint Polish-Ukrainian peacekeeping unit POLUKRBAT, meaning they could be suited for the ‘hearts and minds’-part of the mission as well. Chances are that even if a similar operation were to take place successfully, this would lead to a split of the country along the by now well-known Northwest-Southeast split.
This last case is the only one I could even remotely imagine to be both effective and within the realms of reality. Still, I find it hard to believe that NATO could come up with the political backing needed for a broad alliance. A bilateral Ukrainian-Polish pact might just be possible, I am not well-versed enough in Polish politics to determine if this is the case or not, but it is anyone’s guess whether the leaders of the former Warpac states will try and appease Russia or try to fight fire with fire.
To sum it up: A US or Western red line on Ukraine would, most probably, be little more than an easily seen through bluff. Putin would know this, and in the worst case it could even be seen as a provocative move by the Kremlin and become a catalyst for Russia deliberately crossing the line.