The Hill


French President Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic blunder on the steps of the Élysée Palace put him ahead of his NATO allies last week. But his error is unexpectedly becoming a brilliant move, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken notice.

After meeting with 20 European heads of state and other officials at the Ukraine Summit in Paris on Feb. 27, Macron openly contemplated in a press conference the possibility of sending European troops to Ukraine to help Kyiv win the war against Russia.

No such formal decision had been made during the summit, so this was a rather controversial statement. Yet what Macron had done was deliver a message to the Kremlin regarding NATO troops, that “nothing should be ruled out,” and that “We will do anything we can to prevent Russia from winning this war.”

Macron’s messaging actually had two intended recipients: Washington and Moscow. His patience with Capitol Hill over Ukraine funding had run out. “Should we give over our future to the American electorate?” he asked. “My answer is no. Let’s not wait for the outcome.”

Macron’s message to Putin was that he will not allow Ukraine to lose, and that it is therefore futile to continue the war.

Both messages were strong. But Macon, ever the geopolitical opportunist, had failed first to receive a buy-in from NATO or from the other European nations attending the summit. By getting out in front of his messages before achieving consensus from other European leaders, Macron committed a tactical error.

The Kremlin responded immediately, warning that “conflict between Russia and the U.S.-led NATO military alliance would be inevitable if European members of NATO sent troops to fight in Ukraine.” Subsequently, during his State of the Nation address, Putin warned that Western military intervention in Ukraine “could result in nuclear escalation.”

In response to Putin, Germany, Poland, Finland and Sweden quickly distanced themselves from the French president and issued rejoinders. NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg announced that “the alliance has no plans to send troops to Ukraine.” White House National security spokesman John Kirby bluntly declared, “President Biden has been crystal clear since the beginning of this conflict: There would be no U.S. troops on the ground in a combat role there.”

Once again, the familiar threat of nuclear escalation emanating from the Kremlin rattled Europe, leaving Macron standing alone as an army of one.

Or so it seemed, at first.

But as America abandons its NATO leadership role in Europe, Macron’s blunder actually has some merit as a broader part of the strategic argument. Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas led the way in standing beside Macron with her statement that “everything is on the table to help Ukraine beat Putin.”

Her sentiment was then echoed by Czech President Petr Pavel, who stated, “There should be no limit regarding possibilities in the support for Ukraine. I’m in favor of looking for new ways, including continuing the discussion about a possible presence in Ukraine. Let’s not limit ourselves where we shouldn’t.”

Even Canada now expresses openness to sending troops to Ukraine, according to Defense Minister Bill Blair, albeit in a non-combatant role, “far from the front lines.”

Macron has clearly started something, and he is not backing off. He doubled down on his message in Prague on March 5, stating that “Europe has been cut in two by cowardice, by the desire of one part of Europe not to see the difficulties of the other, to abandon its destiny to totalitarianism.”

Macron’s blistering statement was undoubtedly a shot at German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who continues to resist deployment of Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine despite German lawmakers’ support.

Scholz provided multiple excuses. Ukraine, he said, needs “ammunition at all possible distances, but not decisively this thing [Taurus] from Germany.” He then said he cannot give Ukraine “a weapon with a range of 500 km, which, in case of incorrect usage, could hit a certain target somewhere in Moscow. It is unacceptable to supply a weapon system capable of reaching great distances without considering how to control it. If you want control, it only works with the participation of German soldiers, so for me, this is out of the question.”

Russia is clearly rattled by Macron’s posturing. Putin’s threats were amplified recently by deputy head of Russia’s Security Council Dmitry Medvedev. Standing before a map of Europe that depicted a tiny Ukraine the size of the state of Maine, centered around Kyiv, he stated that the very idea of Ukrainian independence “must disappear forever.”

Medvedev’s additional comment that “Russia’s borders do not end anywhere” sends a clear message to the U.S. and NATO that they must take seriously. Russia has a strategic plan that does not stop with Ukraine. Putin is intent on reuniting the entire former Soviet Union. He writes it, he says it, and his regime’s lackeys repeat it and act like it.

Last week, Moldova found itself again in Putin’s crosshairs when the Transnistria Congress of Deputies formally asked the Kremlin for help.

Putin will not stop there either. Belarus and Russia continue to exhibit bad intentions toward Poland, trying to bait it into an armed conflict.

Macron is pushing buttons and making Western leaders increasingly uncomfortable. They need to be pushed in order to create a sense of urgency. The dirty little secret is now public that “boots on the ground” may be necessary if Russia is able to threaten Kyiv.

Ukraine’s withdrawal from Avdiivka, its severe shortage of artillery ammunition, the steady flow of Russian soldiers and equipment into Ukraine, and the Western public’s Ukraine fatigue are making this worst-possible scenario increasingly likely.

Ukraine is the last line of the West’s defense. NATO’s newest partners get that. Those countries once subjugated by Russian rule are not going to stand around and wait for Russia to absorb them yet again. That’s why “just enough” is no longer enough in Ukraine. It is time to reinstate the Powell Doctrine and take care of business.

Half measures will not win the war. The West needs a plan and a message to send to Russia — that Ukraine will not fail, and that all options are on the table.

Macron’s blunder brilliantly brought that to the forefront.


Col. (Ret.) Jonathan Sweet served 30 years as a military intelligence officer. Mark Toth writes on national security and foreign policy.