Seeking to Unsettle Russia, Macron Provokes Allies

With his jolting unexpected statement that sending Western troops to Ukraine “should not be ruled out,” President Emmanuel Macron of France has shattered a taboo, ignited debate, spread dismay among allies and forced a reckoning on Europe’s future.

For an embattled leader who loathes lazy thinking, longs for a Europe of military strength and loves the limelight, this was typical enough. It was Mr. Macron, after all, who in 2019 described NATO as suffering from “brain death” and who last year warned Europe against becoming America’s strategic “vassal.”

But bold pronouncements are one thing and patiently putting the pieces in place to attain those objectives, another. Mr. Macron has often favored provocation over preparation, even if he often has a point, as in arguing since 2017 that Europe needed to bolster its defense industry to attain greater strategic heft.

This week was no exception. By lurching forward without building consensus among allies, Mr. Macron may have done more to illustrate Western divisions and the limits of how far NATO allies are willing to go in defense of Ukraine than achieve the “strategic ambiguity” he says is needed to keep President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia guessing.

Mr. Macron’s provocation looked in part like a quest for relevance at a time when he is isolated at home and has appeared a marginal figure in the war between Israel and Hamas. France has played a central role in coordinating European Union aid to Ukraine, including a $54 billion program to support Kyiv approved this month, but its own aid contribution lags Germany, Britain and the United States.

Still, for Mr. Macron, the case for “acting differently” in Ukraine, as he put it on Monday after a meeting in Paris of leaders and officials from 27 countries, mostly European, is overwhelming.

From the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, the West has sought to contain the conflict in Ukraine and avoid a shooting war between Russia and NATO that could escalate into a nuclear standoff. Hence the hesitation of his allies.

But containment has obvious limitations that have left Ukraine struggling to hold the line against a larger Russian force. Russia has recently taken territory on the eastern front; Ukraine lacks the weapons and ammunition it needs; uncertainty surrounds American support for the war in an election year; and nobody knows where an emboldened Mr. Putin will stop. Given all this, more of the same seems unserious to France.

“The defeat of Russia is indispensable to the security and stability of Europe,” Mr. Macron said, dispensing with the cautious Russia-must-not-win formulation favored by the United States and Germany.

Behind the French president’s words lurked exasperation with the apparent strategic impunity afforded to Mr. Putin by the West.

“The positive thing is that Macron is trying to introduce a balance of power, and so dissuasion, with Russia — tell Putin that we are ready for anything, so you should be worried, we won’t give up,” said Nicole Bacharan, a social scientist and expert on the United States at Sciences Po University.

But she also pointed to a cumulative problem for Mr. Macron — the lack of credibility of a leader who has been on a tortuous wartime strategic journey.

It began with his attempt to involve Russia in a new European “architecture of security” in 2019, despite the Russian annexation of Crimea five years earlier. This was followed by his statement in 2022 that “we must not humiliate Russia,” and the long exercise in futility of repeated phone calls to Mr. Putin in the months after the Russian leader’s full-scale invasion.

Now it has culminated with the French president in the vanguard of defiance of Mr. Putin, and in effusive concert with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, his erstwhile critic. Mr. Zelensky praised Mr. Macron’s idea on Wednesday, saying such initiatives “are good for the whole world.”

No wonder some Europeans are rubbing their eyes. “He gives the impulse but people don’t feel they can trust him to be consistent,” Ms. Bacharan said. Even states that agree with Mr. Macron’s analysis may hesitate in the face of his volatility.

Certainly his openness to sending troops was unexpected. In the short term, at least, the result appears to have been more strategic bafflement than “strategic ambiguity.”

His gambit presented Russia with an image of allied division as countries from the United States to Sweden rejected the deployment of troops. It also underlined Franco-German differences on the war as Chancellor Olaf Scholz not only ruled out German forces but any “ground troops from European countries or NATO.”

“A disaster,” the influential German magazine Der Spiegel said of the differences between the two leaders.

Mr. Macron’s mocking denunciation of repeated delays and reversals in Western policy to Ukraine — “never, never tanks, never, never planes, never, never long-range missiles” — appeared particularly provocative to Germany in that France has been among those saying no before saying yes.

When France and Germany are at odds, Europe tends to stall, the very thing Mr. Macron does not want in his now almost seven-year quest for greater European “strategic autonomy” from the United States.

Mr. Macron’s vision for an independent European defense appears timelier than ever with Europeans anxious over the possible return to the White House of Donald J. Trump — and with him, per Mr. Trump’s own telling, a possible wink to Russia to do its worst. The heavy Ukrainian reliance on the United States for weapons has underscored Europe’s ongoing dependence on Washington as the 75th anniversary of NATO approaches this year.

Yet because frontline states with Russia want America’s continued presence, Mr. Macron has found it hard to sway Europe toward greater independence.

At home, where his popularity has fallen and he does not command an absolute majority in Parliament, Mr. Macron faced an outcry over an apparent policy shift decided without any national debate, a recurrent issue throughout a highly centralized, top-down presidency.

From the far left to the far right, lawmakers condemned what Olivier Faure, a Socialist, called “the folly” of a potential war with Russia. Jordan Bardella, the president of the extreme-right National Rally party, which has been close to Moscow, accused Mr. Macron of “losing his sang-froid.”

Still, nobody answered the fundamental question Mr. Macron has posed: How to stop Russia’s advance and a Ukrainian defeat that would threaten freedom and open societies across Europe.

“Macron eventually understood that dialogue with Russia will go nowhere, and increasing cyberattacks on France and other states convinced him that Putin will not stop in Ukraine,” said Nicolas Tenzer, a political scientist who has long argued for the dispatch of Western troops to Ukraine. “NATO’s credibility and Europe itself are at risk.”

In this sense, as Russia advances and a $60 billion American aid package to Ukraine is held up in Congress by Republican opposition, Mr. Macron may have forced a necessary reassessment, especially given the possibility of Mr. Trump’s re-election.

“Should we delegate our future to the American voter?” Mr. Macron asked. “My response is no, whatever this voter decides.”

Doubling down on Mr. Macron’s statement, despite the furor it has caused, a senior official close to him said on Tuesday that, “We comfort Mr. Putin in his impression that we are weak when we write checks, make statements, send artillery and produce shells, but above all do not want to take any risk ourselves.”

At the same time, said the official, who requested anonymity in keeping with French diplomatic protocol, France remains committed to avoiding “a confrontation between the Alliance and Russia.”

What exactly France has in mind is unclear, but it appears likely that any troops would be sent for purposes that “do not cross the threshold of belligerence,” as Stéphane Séjourné, the foreign minister, put it to the National Assembly.

Among these purposes demining, training and assistance in local production of weapons appear possible, all with the aim of defending against further Russian advances, but without participation in any offensive Ukrainian action.

Of course, Russia will define Western “belligerence” on its own terms. The Kremlin has already warned that Mr. Macron has introduced “a very important new element” that could lead to a direct clash of Russian forces and NATO.

If Western troops are ever on the ground in Ukraine in any numbers, a Russian rocket or missile that kills any of them could in theory trigger Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, the cornerstone of the Alliance, which says an armed attack on any member “shall be considered an attack against them all.”

It is precisely this path to escalation that President Biden and Chancellor Scholz have been intent on avoiding since the start of the war.

The result is that Ukraine has survived but it has not prevailed. For Mr. Macron that, it appears, is not enough.

“Everything is possible if it is useful to achieve our objective,” he said, adding that Europe should act because the fate of Ukraine “depends on us and it’s what we should do.”

Source link

Related Articles


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Stay Connected

- Advertisement -spot_img

Latest Articles