Russian Approach Risks Confusion, Escalation, Experts Warn at Nunn School Event

Posted March 31, 2023

Russia’s ambiguous red lines and coercive tactics in its conflict with Ukraine could potentially lead to misperceptions resulting in dangerous escalations of the conflict, experts warned at a panel discussion sponsored by the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and the Center for International Strategy, Technology, and Policy. 

“Russia's discourse on red lines is marked by ambiguity and uncertainty, leading to a lack of clarity on both threats and consequences," Adam N. Stulberg, Sam Nunn Professor and Chair in the Nunn School, said during the “Deciphering Putin’s Red Lines” panel discussion held March 28. 

“This ambiguity aligns with Russia's broader understanding of coercion, focusing on intimidation and manipulation of uncertainty instead of credibility and commitment,” Stulberg said. 

Gen. Philip Breedlove, distinguished professor of the practice in the Nunn School and former NATO commander, said he worries about the effects such confusion may have on Western leaders. 

"My fear is we're beginning to even see in the political elite in Washington, a sort of callousness beginning to form about the multiple levels and the constant levels of this coercive threatening for deterrence," he said. 

Stulberg pointed out that Russia's actions do not stem from an irrational or anxious leader but are part of a cold, calculated strategy. 

"Russia is engaging in a long-term competition across multiple different domains that is focused on blurring distinctions between peace and war and between what is acceptable versus unacceptable as part of a posture of opportunistic probing and manipulation," he explained. This approach, Stulberg said, aims to confuse adversaries and lead them to “fumble on their own divisiveness, ultimately becoming self-deterred.” 

Putin is succeeding when it comes to issues such as creating a sanctuary space protected by Western militaries in Ukraine and the kinds of weapons the West is willing to provide Ukraine’s military, Breedlove said. However, he warned that the constant coercive threats could lead to more radical actions in response.  

"It’s not time for radical solutions. It's time for measured solutions," he said. 

The panel also featured Dan Altman, an assistant professor of political science at Georgia State University, who offered a survey of what red lines are and how they can be interpreted, and Mikhail Troitskiy, professor of practice in Russian Studies at the University of Wisconsin, who noted Russia uses red lines for more than just deterrence. 

"Russia has been trying to convince China to provide more significant support for Russia's war effort by leveraging the red line of Russia's failure or possible failure in Ukraine,” he said. 

Jenna Jordan, associate professor and associate chair of the Nunn School, moderated. 

The Nunn School is a unit of the Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts. 

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<p>Gen. Phillip Breedlove, right, distinguished professor of the practice in the Sam Nunn School of International Affairs and former NATO commander, speaks while Adam N. Stulberg,&nbsp;Sam Nunn Professor and Chair in the Nunn School, listens during a panel discussion on Russia's use of "red lines" in the conflict with Ukraine. The discussion was held on March 28, 2023, in the Exhibition Hall on the Georgia Tech campus.</p>

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Michael Pearson
Ivan Allen College of Liberal Arts