Macron is sabotaging his own case for European security
Ukraine needs the wholehearted support of the west, not offers of mediation.
Emmanuel Macron has something to say about the future of Europe’s security. The mystery is why the French president has been doing his best to sabotage his own case.
Unsurprisingly, Macron’s warning against any attempt by the west to “humiliate” Russia and his offer of French mediation to broker an eventual settlement in Ukraine have provoked dismay in Kyiv and concern in several other European capitals.
Ukrainian casualties, civilian and military, have been rising as Russian forces flatten all before them in an effort to seize more territory in the country’s Donbas region. This scarcely seems an apposite moment to worry about Moscow’s feelings. As Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky told the FT: “I don’t really understand . . . humiliating Russia? For eight years they have been killing us. What are we talking about here?”
The concern runs wider. For Russia’s near neighbours, Macron’s frequent overtures to Vladimir Putin have measured at best French indifference towards Ukraine and, at worst, calculated appeasement. For the Baltic states, the Russian threat is existential. These nations worry still more when German chancellor Olaf Scholz picks up Macron’s script.
Let’s start, though, with where the French president has a point. Macron could be said to be leavening some of the, wholly justified, anger and emotion provoked by the Russian invasion with unavoidable pragmatism. For all Vladimir Putin’s wanton aggression, we cannot wish away a nuclear-armed Russia. At some point European governments will have to find a way to co-exist with Moscow. You don’t have to be a cynic in the Kissingerian mould to acknowledge that wars end in negotiation.
Macron thus provides a sober counterpoint to those in Washington and London whose rhetoric has taken flight in response to Russia’s brutality. The talk, sometimes reflected in Joe Biden’s asides, has been about defeating Putin once and for all and securing regime change in Moscow. Liz Truss, Britain’s unpractised foreign secretary, has been particularly strident.
Putin’s departure would be cause for great celebration. It might - though this is far from certain - create an opening for a reset of relations between Russia and the west. But, for as long as they refuse to put Nato troops into the field, it is not for western politicians to redefine the fighting in Ukraine as a war against Putin’s regime. Nor for Truss to set Ukraine’s war aims.
Macron’s other longstanding ambition is to achieve a measure of “strategic sovereignty” for Europe. In plain English, EU nations should contribute more to the continent’s defence and, along the way, learn to make some of their own strategic choices. This raises suspicions among other European governments, including as it happens Germany, that France has not let go of its Gaullist ambitions to break free of the Atlantic alliance.
For now, Putin’s aggression has breathed life into Nato - an institution Macron not so long ago described as “brain-dead”. The alliance stands to gain two new members in Sweden and Finland and has deployed 40,000 troops across its eastern flank. Serious thinkers in Washington are beginning to accept that the US would be foolish to abandon Europe in pursuit of its contest with China. Given the Sino-Russian alliance, European and Indo-Pacific security are indivisible.
That’s not to say, however, that the next occupant of the White House will share Joe Biden’s instinctive Atlanticism. Donald Trump has been far from alone in demanding Europeans pay their way in Nato. Macron is right that it is well past time for Europe to contribute more to its own security.
So far, so logical. Macron’s first problem, though, is timing. Putin’s forces have been advancing. The Russian leader seems set on seizing at least the greater part of the Donbas. This is not the moment to be talking about how to handle postwar diplomacy. The focus should be giving Kyiv all the military equipment it needs to turn the tide on the battlefield. To do otherwise is to invite the Kremlin to pocket its territorial gains at the negotiating table.
Ukraine must decide if and when talks take place. Zelensky has suggested he will be ready to negotiate with Putin when Russian troops have been pushed back to the lines of February 24. Macron says he is not gainsaying the Ukrainian president. But his offer of mediation suggests a keenness to push for an early ceasefire. Mediation is anyway the wrong word. It implies a disinterest and neutrality that Macron would surely disavow.
Tone also matters. Before the Iraq war in 2003 then president Jacques Chirac told the formerly communist states of eastern and central Europe that they had “missed a good opportunity to keep quiet”. France too often sounds as if it still views these states as unwelcome interlopers. This in turn hardens their attachment to Washington as the only credible source of security and heightens suspicions about France’s motives in pressing for greater European autonomy.
Timing and tone can be adjusted. Macron is reported to be preparing to take a step in the right direction by visiting Kyiv for long overdue talks with Zelensky. He should should be unequivocal about preventing Putin from profiting from the war.
More broadly, he needs also to demonstrate a measure of, for want of a better word, what you could call realism. It is one thing to say that a stable European security architecture is impossible without some accommodation with Moscow. Quite another to imagine that any such arrangement is possible while Russia is ruled by an unapologetic revanchist such as Putin. And what does a European defence capability look like without Poland or the Baltic states?
Europe’s over-riding interest now rests in the defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine and in sustaining a sufficiently robust stance, economically and militarily, to forestall further aggression. For as long as Putin holds power, containment is the only option open to the west. If France really wants to persuade its partners that the European Union should take responsibility for its security it must first persuade them it shares the same strategic goals.