March 14, 2024


Europeans finally realize they must “hang” together and help Ukraine, or they will hang separately. This reality prompted France’s President Emmanuel Macron to boldly suggest on February 26 that Europe may have to consider sending troops to Ukraine. The suggestion of such an escalation horrified Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz, a former pacifist heading a demilitarized country. A testy exchange followed, then Macron doubled-down by saying that Europe faced an existential moment “where we must not be cowards”. The leaders of Poland and the Baltics agreed and Czech President Petr Pavel suggested a workaround involving “a coalition of the willing” be mobilized to bolster Ukrainian efforts. Then on February 29, Russian President Vladimir Putin waded in and threatened Armageddon if the West deployed troops to Ukraine. “They must realise that we also have weapons that can hit targets on their territory. All this really threatens a conflict with the use of nuclear weapons and the destruction of civilization. Don’t they get that?”

Macron responded that France had “no limits” in terms of its support for Ukraine and emphasized that “the defeat of Russia is indispensable to the security and stability of Europe.” He also signed a bilateral security agreement with Moldova, a frontline nation that is next on Putin’s invasion list. Macron’s boldness marks a major pivot in European power politics and is consistent with his crusade that Europe must build its own armed force – a view validated now by Russia’s war, the waning commitment by America to protect Europe, and the possibility of a Trump Presidency that would nix NATO.

But Macron now directly takes on Germany and fills the military “power” vacuum that has existed in Europe after bellicose Britain bolted out of the EU. Germany, an economic powerhouse, has had Chancellors who did not militarize the country, but opted instead to collaborate with Russia, become dependent on its energy, and completely rely on America for its defense. France, by contrast, is the only nuclear power in the European Union and the only EU country with permanent membership on the United Nation’s Security Council. And Macron leverages this and hopes to convince Europe’s frightened flock of demilitarized countries to join forces, beyond NATO, and to also create a continental military-industrial complex to secure their future.

On March 5, Macron unequivocably stated at a press conference in Prague, alongside Czech President Petr Pavel, that Russia must be defeated militarily. This marked a departure from his previous stance that Russia must not win, and at the same time must not be defeated. At the outset of the war, Macron even warned that Putin “must not be humiliated”, a regrettable cave-in that demoralized and angered members of NATO. But in Prague, Pavel fully agreed with Macron and said: “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.” The Slovak Prime Minister said a “number of NATO and EU member states are considering that they will send their troops to Ukraine on a bilateral basis.” And Poland said it won’t rule out troops in Ukraine. Its foreign minister Radoslaw

Sikorski added: “I appreciate French President Emmanuel Macron’s initiative because it is about Putin being afraid, not us being afraid of Putin.”

The controversy underscores the underlying strategic differences between France and Germany, according to Claudia Major with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “For Scholz, the war confirmed that Germany could not do without the United States when it comes to defense. For Macron, on the contrary, it has made it even more urgent to strengthen Europe’s strategic sovereignty. In this respect, the war has tended to consolidate Germany and France in their already long-standing positions.”

There’s also a political subtext. Germany, despite 30 years of military underfunding, intends to control defense policy in Brussels which will also determine where military industrialization will take place in coming years. “Germany is gaining in power in strategic matters, without having the culture or the tools to do so,” commented a senior French civil servant and specialist in continental issues. Another civil servant wryly noted that “Scholz, who has invested heavily in his relationship with Joe Biden, seems to be beginning to understand that Europeans have an interest in taking charge if Trump returns to the White House.”

Germany’s Economy Minister Robert Habeck sarcastically replied: “I’m pleased that France is thinking about how to increase its support for Ukraine, but if I could give it a word of advice − supply more weapons.” In response, Paris said it has always delivered the equipment agreed upon with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on time and implied that this has not always been the case with the UK and Germany.

Domestic politics are also involved. Scholz faces re-election in 2025 and heads a party steeped in pacifism. “He doesn’t want to risk appearing to be a Kriegstreiber, a warmonger, because he knows that would kill him politically,” wrote Joseph de Weck in Internationale Politik Quarterly. By contrast, Macron cannot run again (the next Presidential election is not until 2027) and this controversy damages his main opponent, France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whose party is linked and has received loans from Putin. Of her scathing criticism about Macron’s stance that European troops may be needed in Ukraine, Macron’s new Prime Minister Gabriel Attal retorted “you have to wonder whether Vladimir Putin’s troops aren’t already in our country. I’m talking about you and your troops, Ms. Le Pen.”

Unfortunately, this month, a Russian leak damaged the reputation of Germany’s armed forces. On the day of Navalny’s funeral, Russia released a tape recording of high-ranking German military officers discussing how Ukrainians could use Germany’s Taurus missiles to blow up the Kerch Bridge, linking Russia to Crimea, without detection. This embarrassing security breach contradicted Scholz’s statements about German involvement, and was followed by another leak out of Germany that British and French personnel were already in Ukraine helping Kyiv direct attacks by their cruise missiles. Such breaches, said a former British defense minister, illustrate that Berlin “was neither secure nor reliable”.

Fortunately, Macron is being heeded. He is calling Putin’s nuclear bluff, as no other country can do, and he is suggesting more incrementalism, not a full-blown invasion of Ukraine by European troops. “There’s no consensus today to send in an official, endorsed manner of troops on the ground. But in terms of dynamics, nothing can be ruled out. Many of the people who say `never, never’ today were the same people who said `never, never tanks; never, never planes; never, never long-range missiles.’ I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: `We will offer sleeping bags and helmets.’”

Macron has publicly reframed Putin’s war, and Europeans, including Germans, are finally listening. Russia is fully engaged in all-out war against Ukraine, Europe, and former vassal states. Macron’s decision to say that “silent” part out loud will goad the continent into more quickly arming itself. And at his side is Europe’s “moral leader”, Poland, whose President recently delivered a stern message on its 25th anniversary of joining NATO. President Andrzej Duda said all NATO member states should jointly agree to increase the 2 percent of GDP on military spending commitment to 3 percent. Poland is already at 4.2 percent, moving toward 5 percent.

“The Russian Federation has switched its economy to war mode. It is allocating close to 30 percent of its annual budget to arm itself,” Duda wrote in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “This figure and other data coming out of Russia are alarming. Vladimir Putin’s regime poses the biggest threat to global peace since the end of the Cold War.”