The Brief — Red red line

By Georgi Gotev (*) –

At the start of the Russian aggression almost a year ago, Western countries were very shy about providing aid to Ukraine. Many stuck to the policy of providing only “non-lethal weapons” or symbolic supplies such as helmets or blankets.

After the last Ramstein meeting, the red line of not providing heavy tanks was crossed, the next obviously being fighter jets and long-range missiles.

What happened? Was the West initially ignorant or terrified, or is it becoming too reckless one year into the war? Let’s try to make sense of it.

After Russia invaded Ukraine, the West, including the US, despite its excellent intelligence, thought it was a matter of days before Kyiv would collapse.

On 25 February, one day after the start of the invasion, an EU summit took place which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy adressed via video link.

As one of the participants, the then-Bulgarian prime minister Kiril Petkov told a small group of journalists, EU leaders had the impression that Zelenskyy would not be alive “in the next 48 hours”, and he reportedly said that the days until the fall of Ukraine “counted”.

At the time, no one could imagine that the Ukrainian army had, in fact, been preparing for the Russian attack over the past eight years, or that the spirits of the Ukrainians were so high and the preparation and motivation of the invading forces so low.

Western aid started arriving, although, in the beginning, it was mostly small arms and anti-tank weapons. Red lines proved to be imaginary or self-imposed taboos.

Then the world gradually learned about Russian war crimes in Ukraine, such as the massacre in Bucha, the bombing of a theatre full of civilians in Mariupol, and cluster bombing in various locations, to name just a few.

This impact on public opinion in the West led to some of the taboos falling and the delivery of more significant aid – cannons, howitzers, air-defence systems, and armoured personnel carriers.

Then came a phase when the war became entrenched, reminiscent of World War I. The lines on the front moved very little, and both sides paid for any small movement in heavy casualties, like in Soledar.

In the meantime, Russia mobilised 300,000 men and started preparing for a new spring offensive, seen as an improved version of the 24 February 2022 invasion.

In this context, Western powers and their military experts started fearing that Russia could manage to keep the momentum and possibly win the war, although it is difficult to say what Russia would consider a victory and how its appetite might grow.

This is how, in a matter of days, various countries committed to sending more than 300 tanks to Ukraine, matching the number Zelenskyy had mentioned back in December. The problem now is how to bring them faster and train the personnel in record time.

The next types of weapons the West will likely send are fighter jets and long-range missiles, which Ukraine says it needs to destroy Russia’s weapons and munition depots.

Zelenskyy says Ukraine needed the US-made ATACMS missile, which has a range of 300 km, but which Washington has so far declined to provide.

The next red lines may fall as soon as the allies meet for another Ramstein-type meeting.

So far, Russia has not reacted to the West crossing successive red lines. The reason is that this development helps Moscow’s rhetoric that the collective West is waging war against Russia, a narrative that helps its public accept even defeats on the battlefield, such as Kherson returning under Ukraine’s control, or the many victims.

NATO doesn’t harbour ambitions to bring Russia, a major nuclear power, to its knees, nor does it plan to cross the one very important red line of not sending “boots on the ground”.

It is worth bearing in mind that what European politicians say is ‘Russia must not win this war’, which is not exactly the same as ‘Ukraine must win the war’.

As the US chief military commander Mark Milley recently said, it would be “very, very difficult” to eject the many thousands of Russian forces from Ukraine this year. Certainly much more difficult without ‘boots on the ground’.

Ukraine, however, is determined to win the war and punish Russia for its crimes.

At the current stage, it is the turn of Ukraine to give guarantees to its Western allies that it will not cross red lines by using fighter jets or long-range missiles to strike targets deep into Russia, as the Russian leadership fears. Reportedly, the Russian leadership has recently installed anti-missile systems even next to Putin’s dacha.

For now, Moscow maintains that its ‘special operation’ is going ‘according to plan’, arguing that Russians are usually slow in the beginning but then nothing can stop them.

The war of 2023 will be more destructive than the one of 2022 and the world certainly would be a safer place if the red lines were clearer.

We can only hope that Washington and the Kremlin speak to each other.

* Brussels-based journalist covering EU affairs with, publisher of

The Brief is EURACTIV’s evening newsletter

All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.