Vladimir Putin has used the analogy of lakhsman rekha should the Western powers cross the limit of what he calls the “red line”, saying such a move would trigger an “asymmetrical, rapid and harsh” response from the Kremlin.
Though he has not spelt out the details, there is little doubt that tension with the West, including the United States across the Atlantic, has escalated over Moscow’s expansionist designs in Ukraine and the imprisonment of the dissident, Alexei Navalny.
While the first issue has been festering since 2014, the second is a relatively new red herring across the diplomatic trail. It is considerably significant too that the warning has been announced in course of the Russian President’s annual state of the nation address.
Mr Putin said Western powers were constantly trying to “pick on” Russia. Police have detained nearly 100 Navalny supporters rallying in several cities. Wednesday’s pro-Navalny protests in the eastern cities of Russia have been declared as illegal. The anti-corruption campaigner is being treated at a prison hospital in Vladimir, to the east of Moscow.
He is on hunger-strike and his allies say his life is in danger. In central Moscow, police cordoned off the area around Manezh exhibition hall, where Mr Putin addressed both Houses of Parliament. Mr Putin focused most of his speech on Russia’s battle against Covid-19 and its plans to improve welfare and economic development.
Mr Putin’s presentation had a wide reach and he was obviously playing to the gallery of his countrymen. He accused the West of diplomatic transgressions that threatened stability in Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbours, Belarus and Ukraine.
“The use of unjust sanctions is growing into something more dangerous: a coup attempt in Belarus,” he said. On 17 April, the Belarusian authorities announced that they had foiled a US-backed plot to assassinate President Lukashenko. Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) said it had detained two Belarusians allegedly involved in the plot.
The coup claim was dismissed by the exiled Belarusian opposition leader, Svetlana Tikhanovskaya, as a “provocation”. But the Russian President did convey the impression that the West has fingers in the Ukranian and Belarusian pies. Since last August’s disputed election, massive demonstrations in support of Svetlana have taken place, with thousands of protesters beaten up by police and detained.
President Putin said some Western countries were like “jackals trying to please the US, just as a jackal behaves with the tiger Shere Khan” in Kipling’s tale The Jungle Book. “We don’t want to burn bridges, but if somebody interprets our good intentions as weakness, our reaction will be asymmetrical, rapid and harsh,” he said. “We’ll decide for ourselves in each case where the red line is.”
A large part of Russia’s force is in Crimea, the peninsula which it annexed from Ukraine in March 2014. Last week, the force size was estimated to be 103,200. Russia backs the separatists holding a swathe of eastern Ukraine, and its manoeuvres have fuelled fears of a new military intervention.