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The Russian Red Line Washington Won’t Cross—Yet

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Two months before invading Ukraine, Russia massed more than 100,000 troops on its neighbor’s border and sent NATO a bill of demands. Moscow’s list—structured as a treaty—required that the alliance close itself off to new members. It declared that NATO states “shall not conduct any military activity on the territory of Ukraine as well as other States” in Eastern Europe. It insisted that NATO remove all its forces from the 14 countries that joined after the Soviet Union collapsed. And it asserted that the alliance “shall not deploy land-based” missiles in areas “allowing them to reach the territory” of Russia.

Moscow suggested that the treaty was a pathway for lowering tensions with the West. Yet according to U.S. intelligence officials, Russian President Vladimir Putin had decided to invade Ukraine months earlier. In reality, the treaty was just a diplomatic pretext for the war: a laundry list of things that Putin hated about NATO, wanted changed, and would kill Ukrainians to protest.

But if Putin thought that invading Russia’s neighbor would get the West to accede to his demands, he was wildly mistaken. Rather than pulling troops from its east, NATO responded to Russia’s aggression by deploying more soldiers in Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. The alliance did not close its doors; instead, it expanded, adding Finland this April, with Sweden possibly close behind. Ukraine is not part of NATO, but the invasion has pushed the United States and Europe to send remarkable amounts of military assistance to Kyiv, including rockets, tanks, and Soviet-era fighter jets. Most recently, Washington signaled that it will let Europe provide Ukraine with U.S.-made F-16s. The West has effectively flouted all of the draft treaty’s demands.

And yet there’s one line Washington hasn’t crossed. Despite repeated pleas, the United States has not given Kyiv land-based missiles capable of hitting Russia.

“We’re not going to send to Ukraine rocket systems that strike into Russia,” U.S. President Joe Biden told reporters in September. He hasn’t budged since.

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To many analysts, Biden’s decision—and implicit reasoning—is perceptive. Sustained Ukrainian attacks inside Russia’s territory could violate Putin’s red lines in a way that previous strikes haven’t. So could repeatedly hitting Crimea, the peninsula that the Kremlin illegally annexed from Ukraine in 2014. “It’s Crimea and Russian territory,” Austin Carson, a political-science professor at the University of Chicago who studies escalation, told me. “I would worry about crossing one of those bedrock limits.”

But to Ukrainians, these concerns are detached from reality. Kyiv has made isolated attacks on Crimea and Russia before, none of which has widened the conflict. In fact, none of Moscow’s wartime escalations has touched NATO land. And the United Kingdom has already given Kyiv some missiles, fired from planes, that can reach into Russia. France may do so as well. Britain’s provision did not prompt the Kremlin to go berserk.

“People are quite confused,” the former Ukrainian Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk told me when I asked what Ukrainians thought about Washington’s reticence. “They just don’t understand.”

They are also tremendously frustrated, because Kyiv may need long-range U.S. missiles to win the conflict. “It’s just impossible to be on the battlefield and continuing to fight with the weapons that Ukraine already has,” Polina Beliakova, a Ukrainian political scientist at Dartmouth College who studies civil-military relations, told me. Ukrainian soldiers, she said, are performing admirably. But without superior weapons, even the most motivated military will struggle to defeat a much larger enemy. To liberate more provinces, Ukrainians could have to strike hard, far, and again and again. Washington will have to decide just how much it is prepared to help them.

The United States Army Tactical Missile System is a formidable weapon. Developed in the late Cold War and first used in Operation Desert Storm, ATACMS are launched straight out of the back of vehicles that Washington has already given to Kyiv. (Washington, afraid of escalation, modified the vehicles it sent so that Ukraine couldn’t use them to fire long-range missiles.) Once airborne, the missiles can reach more than three times the speed of sound, making them very difficult to intercept. They can travel up to 186 miles.

These specifications give ATACMS—pronounced “attack-ems”—certain advantages over Britain’s missiles. The latter weapons, although very powerful in their own right, do not move as fast or go quite the same distance as ATACMS. They must be fired out of fighter jets, and Ukraine’s fleet is overtaxed. The radars on Ukrainian jets are also not as powerful as the ones on many Western aircraft, making it tricky for the crew to accurately target each missile. Britain’s provision will become more useful if Kyiv receives F-16s, but Ukrainians won’t be able to fly the U.S. jets for at least several months. And by then, Kyiv may not have many of the missiles left.

“There is no analogue for ATACMS,” Zagorodnyuk told me. “There is no alternative.”

Zagorodnyuk said that, if received, ATACMS could give Ukraine major advantages. For starters, the missiles would make it much easier for Kyiv to hit most of Russia’s command posts and wartime weapons depots, which typically lie beyond the front lines but within 186 miles. ATACMS would also help the Ukrainian military sever the so-called land bridge to Crimea: the thin strip of occupied territory that connects Russia with the peninsula’s isthmus. Similarly, the missiles could hit the bridge that directly links Crimea with Russia. Together, these attacks would substantially weaken Moscow’s forces in southern Ukraine, helping with Kyiv’s counteroffensive. They could even pave the way for Ukraine to take back the peninsula, which is widely considered Kyiv’s hardest military target.

For Ukrainians, taking Crimea may be essential to ending the war and protecting their country, especially given that the peninsula is now a giant staging ground for Russia’s forces. But for Washington, a campaign to take Crimea would be deeply unsettling. Putin views Crimea as perhaps his most prized asset. After Russia seized it in 2014, his approval ratings soared to record highs. The Biden administration has publicly said that Ukraine has the right to liberate all of its occupied territory, Crimea included, yet senior U.S. officials have repeatedly insinuated that going after the peninsula would be too dangerous. In February, for example, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told experts that an operation for Crimea would be a “red line” for the Kremlin.

In theory, the United States could provide ATACMS on the condition that Ukraine not use them to hit the peninsula. But Kyiv is unlikely to accept such an arrangement. “That would set a massive precedent of treating Crimea as a special case, and that’s exactly what the Russians want,” Zagorodnyuk told me. Ukraine could even be tempted to use the missiles to strike Russia proper. According to The Washington Post, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky privately proposed attacking Russian villages in order to gain leverage over the Kremlin. And on Monday, pro-Ukrainian militias launched an assault across Russia’s border. They appear to have used U.S.-made vehicles in their incursion.

Publicly, Kyiv has assured Washington that it will not hit Russia with U.S. rockets. But no matter the conditions, guaranteeing that the missiles would not cross one of Moscow’s trip wires is impossible.

“The risk is that you think you’re okay and then you hit that red line and then things escalate really fast out of control,” Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told me. In the worst-case scenario, that spiral could lead to Russia using nuclear weapons. But Kavanagh pointed out that Moscow could escalate in many ways without going nuclear. It could, for instance, carpet-bomb Ukrainian cities. It could also launch cyberattacks on NATO states.

From the June 2023 issue: The counteroffensive

The odds of Russia attacking NATO, digitally or otherwise, might seem long. But they are not outlandish, especially considering Moscow’s perspective. “Russia doesn’t see itself fighting Ukraine,” Margarita Konaev, the deputy director of analysis at Georgetown University’s Center for Security and Emerging Technology, told me. “It sees itself fighting NATO.”

The Kremlin’s reasoning, she explained, makes some sense. Moscow is battling against NATO weapons systems. Its troops are being hit with NATO members’ ammunition. Ukraine is operating based off U.S. intelligence. “The only thing they’re not fighting are NATO troops on the ground,” Konaev said. If Ukraine begins regularly shelling Crimea or Russian territory with U.S.-made weapons, Russia could respond as if NATO was attacking the homeland.

Almost no one knows exactly how many soldiers Ukraine has lost fighting against Russia. But the number is large. According to the classified documents leaked on Discord last month, the U.S. government estimates that Ukraine has suffered somewhere from 124,500 to 131,000 casualties. The figure is lower than Russia’s estimated 189,500 to 223,000 casualties, but Ukraine’s population is about a third the size of its adversary’s. If the war turns into a pure battle of attrition, Kyiv will struggle to hold out.

It’s not surprising, then, that Ukrainians have little patience for Washington’s escalation concerns.

“Not providing better weapons would basically throw Ukraine under the bus in slow motion,” said Beliakova. She described the frustration of sitting through meetings where Western policy makers theorized about what a long war would look like, and how they can help sustain Kyiv. “They go, ‘Oh, well the West can easily supplement this, supplement that, provide this, provide that,’” Beliakova said. “I’m like, ‘Ukraine will run out of people!’” The country, she told me, needs more long-range weapons if it is going to overcome Russia’s enormous demographic advantage.

Some analysts went even further, wondering if Washington’s reluctance was designed to stop Ukraine from winning. “If you’ve noticed, the [Department of Defense], the White House, they never talk about victory,” Zagorodnyuk told me. “They’re still talking about an unknown ending to this story. And so the political goal of the Western coalition is unclear.”

Giving long-range missiles to Kyiv, he said, would help eliminate the ambiguity. Doing so would be a boost to Ukrainian morale—one that might be needed if the forthcoming counteroffensive does not succeed. Providing ATACMS would also signal to the rest of the Western alliance that the United States supports going to the max to help Kyiv, possibly easing hesitations in European capitals about supplying other Ukrainian needs.

Ukrainians do not think that Russia would escalate if the United States sent long-range missiles. “I don’t believe the escalation story,” Zagorodnyuk told me. “There have been tons of other weapons supplied for tens of billions of dollars. ATACMS is not going to make a big difference.” Even if it did prompt Russian anger, Ukrainians are unsure as to why NATO should care. Moscow has escalated in the past: it responded to Kyiv’s astonishingly successful counteroffensive in Kharkiv by mobilizing 300,000 new troops, and it began indiscriminately bombing Ukrainian cities after an explosion damaged the Crimean-Russian bridge. But these steps hurt Ukrainians, not NATO members. Unless Russia uses a nuclear weapon, breaking a nearly 78-year taboo and endangering the entire planet, the West is unlikely to directly enter the conflict because of Russia’s atrocities. And so long as they believe they can win, Ukrainians appear prepared to endure a whole lot.

The country’s hawks have grown pessimistic about getting the missiles. Yes, they said, Washington and its allies have changed their mind in the past. But with tanks and F-16s, Western claims were as much about technical concerns as they were about the security risks. These weapons, policy makers argued, would take too much time and energy for Ukrainians to receive and learn how to use. There are technical risks with ATACMS too: Many American experts worry about depleting the United States’ limited supply, or that Russia could capture a missile, copy its design, and send China a mock-up.

Still, such hurdles can be overcome. Ukraine’s battlefield performance, and its success in Western training programs, helped convince NATO states that the country could handle more sophisticated weapons. If Ukrainians use Britain’s long-range missiles successfully, and in ways the U.S. approves of, Kyiv could convince Washington that it should get ATACMS as well.

But not if Washington is too afraid of how Russia will respond.

“With ATACMS, I don’t see these coming,” Zagorodnyuk said. Then he paused. “Yet.”