It was a simple off-the-cuff remark, but it has arguably defined the course of recent history. In August 2012, at a domestic news conference, Barack Obama was asked what it would take for him to intervene in Syria’s brutal civil war.
“A red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilised,” the hitherto reluctant US president replied. “That would change my calculus. That would change my equation.”
A year later, when Syria’s ruling despot Bashar al Assad killed hundreds with sarin gas, Obama famously didn’t follow through.
This failure to enforce a red line – disdainfully described by John McCain as “apparently written in disappearing ink” – has significance for Russia’s invasion in Ukraine nine years later, and the threats made by Vladimir Putin. That’s the trouble with red lines – easy to set out, hard to enforce, potentially disastrous if you don’t.
There has been no strictly articulated red line for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There was no direct Western military response when Putin sent troops across the border, although the international community applied sanctions, and supplied arms and military training. But it’s not clear what the West might or can do next, to prevent Putin crossing that red line beyond which lies the use of nuclear weapons.
This lack of clarity is deeply worrying. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the House of Commons defence committee, told Parliament. “We need to have proportionate responses if nuclear weapons are used, or indeed chemical weapons,” he said. “We need robust protocols in place in case a tactical low yield nuclear weapon is used. When I visited Nato I asked this very question, and there wasn’t an answer. We need to be very, very clear if Putin steps over this threshold what the west will do.”
Obama’s failure to act when Syria’s crossed his red line is a much examined moment – the recent BBC radio drama, “Red Lines”, examined the story from the British government’s point of view. It should be required listening for anyone trying to work out how to deal now with Putin, a man Russia experts have said is provoked not by aggression, but by weakness.
In 2008, Russia had annexed parts of Georgia in 2008 with little consequence. After the failure to respond to the Syrian gas attack, not only did the Kremlin see that the US wasn’t prepared to intervene militarily to defend its principles, but also found itself implausibly put in charge of dismantling its Syrian ally’s chemical weapons. Putin went on to invade Crimea in 2014, brushing off the limited Western sanctions that followed. He then sent his military in for a murderous campaign in Syria in 2015.
“All of those continuously fed into Putin’s perception of what he could get away with,” Anna Borshchevskaya, senior fellow at the Washington Institute, told me.
One key turning point, she said, had been a 2014 visit to the US Congress by Ukraine’s then president Petro Poroshenko. He was pleading for arms, telling the Americans, “We cannot win a war with blankets.” But, at the time, fears of escalating the conflict and weapons falling into the wrong hands prevented military aid.
“Had we been less risk averse at that moment in providing Ukraine with weaponry, we would have been more efficient and would have given Russia a little bit more pause for thought,” Borshchevskaya said. In that sense, the lessons of the past have been learned and Ukraine has been receiving weapons. But has international equivocation emboldened Putin in other ways, even as he suffers military setbacks in the field? To him, does a western “red line” now seem a faint shade of pink?
The lives of thousands might hang on whether a tyrant believes a particular red line might be enforced. In politics, leaders trying to look tough while wielding red lines can find that the inflexibility alters their country’s future and ends careers. Theresa May’s early Brexit red lines wiped out a range of viable options for leaving the European Union. For Italian premier Matteo Renzi, in 2016, the red line was constitutional reform, and he resigned when he lost a referendum on it, leaving Italy to grapple with populism. This summer his successor, Mario Draghi, did the same, staking his leadership on government unity, which his right-wing, populist alliance partners exploited in order to engineer a general election they are likely to win.
“I’ve never been a fan of red lines,” said Sir Peter Westmacott, the former British Ambassador to Washington. “They easily become blurred, and once you draw one you are under pressure to act once it’s been crossed, whether or not the circumstances have changed.”
Any close inspection shows that, in practice, there’s little value in drawing red lines and daring others to cross them. One analyst wryly told me the last time one was implemented properly was “September 1939”. And even then, Hitler had already annexed Austria and swallowed Czechoslovakia, and must have thought invading Poland could be equally low risk. Yet red lines still keep appearing, not all of them necessary or useful.
“There are more red lines now than at any time through history – and most of them don’t work,” said David A Andelman, author of Red Lines in the Sand. This correlates with the fact that there are currently more wars and conflicts, involving multiple, often irregular actors, meaning that red lines are being established by tetchy, unpredictable militias, easily triggered into conflict.
“A lot of the red lines are around terrorist enclaves in Africa or situations like that – that’s my concern,” Andelman told me, likening this to a spider’s web. “Niger and Mali are the ones that really come to mind, particularly Mali where the terrorist groups set up entire areas that are as large as countries and are basically ruling them now.”
These lines threaten existing borders, just as Islamic State attempted to draw a frontier within Iraq and Syria, and it’s difficult to work out who can or will successfully prevent attempts to remake them. Vicious pushback from jihadist groups has forced France to leave Mali and large parts of the Sahel after ten years of fighting. It’s unlikely any other Western power will step in.
France has a history of drawing red lines in Africa. One of Andelman’s most vivid examples involves a red line set down in Chad, where desert met jungle, by former French President Francois Mitterrand in the early 1980s. This was to prevent Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi from pushing south across the Sahara. It was ostentatiously supported by the leaders and military of Chad and former Zaire, and enforced by the French foreign legion. Gaddafi’s forces did not come. Margaret Thatcher’s defence of the Falklands after Argentina crossed the line and invaded, may be controversial, but it cemented her Iron Lady status and garnered international respect, even in Russia – where she went on to “do business” with Mikhail Gorbachev and help end the Cold War.
The problem with Obama’s red line was that it hadn’t been planned or fully thought out. As outlined in the memoirs of his former senior aide, Samantha Power, who was desperately trying to ensure he stayed resolute, Obama “absolutely thought he was going to succeed.” But there was no public or military appetite for air strikes, and he lost a key ally when the British parliament denied David Cameron support for joining military action – the first time a prime minister lost a Commons vote on war. Obama then lost his own vote in Congress. French president François Hollande, who had been ready to help punish Assad, was left out on his own.
What followed was horrifying. Hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians were killed. Emboldened by his Ukraine invasion, Putin sent troops in, alongside Iran, to prop up Assad and help put down the rebel insurgency. The Islamic State “caliphate” grew among the ruins, and the ensuing refugee crisis condemned millions of Syrians to exile, overwhelmed neighbouring countries and sparked the European refugee crisis and its racist backlash.
Fears about the possible repercussions of US inaction spread across the world. Even the Japanese worried – did this set a precedent for China? A similar question is being asked today. China will be closely watching what happens, to gauge whether it could get away with annexing Taiwan at a future date.
For years, Russia got away with outrages, from the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in 2014, to the poisoning of the former spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018. Twelve years earlier, Kremlin hit-men had murdered Alexander Litvinenko in London. In response, countries expelled diplomats, but this hardly had Putin begging for mercy.
“The only thing Russia understands is strength and force,” said Keir Giles, a senior consulting fellow on Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House and author of Moscow Rules: What drives Russia to Confront the West. Like the famous Lenin maxim “Probe with bayonets. If you encounter mush, proceed; if you encounter steel, withdraw,” Russia sees weakness as a provocation and is unfazed by military losses, he explained. Russia has no qualms about pulling back if it looks like a red line will be defended strongly.
“There’s no avoiding the fact that Russia needs to be defeated for this to end, in a way that Putin can’t explain away to his people,” he said. “Ukraine needs to win this with outside support.”
To give its red line on Russia’s invasion the greatest chance, Giles believes the West should have acted much earlier, declaring a no-fly zone over Ukraine three weeks before the invasion on the assumption that Putin would not have dared to invade and declare war on Nato members policing the skies. He says more weapons should have been sent to Ukraine earlier to signify intent, instead of scrambling only once the invasion had taken place and the Ukrainians unexpectedly and fiercely fought back. I asked him whether a no-fly zone should have been imposed after the invasion – no, he says, since instead of a deterrent, such a move would have effectively meant Nato declaring war, a much more dangerous prospect. Timing is all.
Still, while the Western response to the imminent Ukraine invasion was insipid, once it happened Europe and the US imposed a barrage of ever increasing sanctions with surprising speed and unity. There has still been criticism that this is not enough to stop Russia – notably from MEP Guy Verhofstadt – but in the long term these sanctions are expected to bite hard.
“I actually see this as a red line being enforced,” argued Luigi Scazzieri, European foreign and security policy expert at the Centre for European Reform. “Russia’s under crippling sanctions and really didn’t expect that. Yes they could be a bit tougher but people are choosing to see the glass half empty rather than mostly full.”
The question now is whether the EU can sustain unity once energy sanctions rebound on European countries. With Italy’s general election expected to return a right-wing coalition including the pro-Putin Matteo Salvini and Silvio Berlusconi, a big hit in the winter from high energy prices could push the consensus on sanctions to breaking point.
And, underneath today’s unity, serious fault lines remain. Poland, leading the charge to punish Russia, is under financial sanctions over its failure to uphold the rule of law and the EU constitution. Hungary, under the recently reelected, pro-Putin Viktor Orbán, is also at loggerheads with Brussels over its own illiberal practices. Both face fines and the possible withdrawal of funds, but even harsher new financial penalties may not be enough to bring the offenders to heel in a bloc structurally unable to enforce its own internal red lines.
“This is about the broader issue of red lines being essentially about two things. One, your perceived credibility – are you actually going to enforce them? And two, your ability to enforce them – your capability,” said Scazzieri. The EU lacks the tools to force compliance when both Hungary and Poland are vetoing action on each other. This lack of capability harms its credibility.
More widely, credibility is also damaged by the failure of the US, EU and UK to uphold their own red lines on the rule of law and democratic norms. When Donald Trump encouraged his followers to attack the Capitol and when Boris Johnson threatened to break international agreements the UK has signed, the world wondered why anyone should take lectures on how to behave from these countries. It’s a situation that Russia has exploited.
Even sporting bodies set a standard. FIFA’s corruption scandals, World Cups in Russia and now in Qatar, the International Olympic Committee’s decision to allow Russians into the games despite systematic drug cheating, the many examples of sportswashing, where despots get a free pass when they buy glittering sports teams or pay for expensive events – everything counts.
The erosion of rules and norms signals to Russia and other autocracies that “the West lacks moral fibre and is willing to put comfort over principle,” Borshchevskaya said. You can see this in the disdainful swagger of Putin at international gatherings such as the G20: “It seeps into the Kremlin’s perception of the world as very cynical, that the West is no better than them, that we talk about democracy, human rights and freedom only as a pretext for doing what we want to do – they don’t believe it. When you endorse these oligarchs you’re demonstrating that.”
The US and UK broke their own red line in 2003 by invading Iraq without UN backing in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction that didn’t exist. The “Red Lines” drama, co-written by Cameron’s then chief of staff, depicts Putin taunting Cameron about the false claims about WMD and unacceptable behavior of the West at that time: “What about torture in Iraq… Abu Ghraib?” The devastating legacy of this and the Afghanistan invasion – including Biden’s shambolic withdrawal – damaged Western credibility further.
Yet the UN has been unable to enforce anything, as the Security Council (UNSC) membership is now increasingly deadlocked. Russia can block UN decisions on its own wars. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, showing a graphic video of Russian atrocities in his country, demanded the UN expel Russia from the UNSC: “If there is no alternative and no option, then the next option would be: dissolve yourself altogether.”
The Catch-22 for the UNSC – and the EU – is that the requirement for unanimity for major decisions needs to be changed unanimously, meaning neither is properly equipped to enforce its own red lines, even if the consequence is war.
While struggling to enforce red lines for cantankerous members, the EU had more success with its red lines for British governments on the road to Brexit – including on the need for a hard border and customs checks on goods passing between Britain and the EU. But Britain also sabotaged itself with unnecessary red lines that put ideology before reason. Cameron’s dogged pursuit of unachievable net migration targets and unrealistic demands for his ill-advised EU renegotiation paved the way to a referendum he didn’t want and Britain didn’t need. May was eventually brought down because she imposed red lines ruling out single market and customs union membership, which led to a deal she couldn’t get through and the continuing impasse around Northern Ireland. This is set to get even worse as hardline Brexiteers have been put in charge of Northern Ireland by prime minister Liz Truss, who herself is not averse to setting down red lines in the hope of a pointless scrap.
ERG members forced further red lines, watering down lifesaving Covid rules and new law on climate change. The latter has security implications, since anything that makes it more difficult to give up oil and gas ensures Europe remains more reliant on Russia. Today’s polarised politics and society are awash with red lines, defining acts and ideas that people will absolutely not accept.
Self-imposed red lines are almost always asking for trouble, including Joe Biden’s declaration that the US would not directly help Ukraine. The US has been leading the campaign to help Ukraine, but the President’s public reluctance sent a message to Putin that he’d have more room to manoeuvre than he’d expected.
“Other things being equal – which they often aren’t – I think it wiser not to rule out certain courses of action in advance, because it’s best to keep the bad guys guessing,” said Sir Peter.
But here, he added, Biden’s statement deprived Russia of the opportunity to justify its aggression on the grounds that the West wants to destroy his country. It also pacified a domestic audience reluctant to join foreign adventures.
Sticking to your guns is more difficult for democracies, which have to care about public opinion, proportionality, unity and not killing people. Does this mean only maniacal regimes, with nukes and leaders prepared to sacrifice their own, and risk isolation and starvation, can properly enforce their red lines?
It’s an uncomfortable question. Also uncomfortable is the fact that both Ukraine and Libya gave up their nuclear weapons and got invaded. Failure to prevent that made future nuclear disarmament much harder. The US also made disarmament less likely when, under Trump, it pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal. This diminished western oversight of Iran’s nuclear plans and led regional states such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates to consider their own nuclear programmes, to offset Iran’s growing capability.
But is the West finding another way? The sanctions on Russia have been unexpectedly harsh and, while they might not yet be deterring Putin, they might – along with western shipments of arms – be giving Xi Jinping pause for thought. Beijing has been increasingly belligerent, especially in the South China seas, where it is trying to expand its borders by building on disputed islands and drawing territorial red lines around each of them. But despite having designs on Taiwan, Xi isn’t risking all to annex it. Tied into the world economic system, China doesn’t want to risk the economic shock that war might bring.
With all its flaws, the post-invasion unity of the West could be a turning point if this means an overhaul of its systems, organisations and attitudes. It needs less airy talk of red lines and more focus on what works.
“I would like to think that, after having got it so wrong so many times and seeing the desperately awful consequences of getting it wrong, Western powers will put some effort into getting it right,” said Giles. “But it’s such a repetitive pattern that only an optimist thinks that.”