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Macron’s Strategic Plan Makes Waves

Apr 19, 2024
  • Jade Wong

    Senior Fellow, Gordon & Leon Institute

On Feb. 26, at the conclusion of the Paris donor conference, French President Emmanuel Macron said that there is “no consensus” about sending ground troops to Ukraine, but that “nothing should be excluded.”

The statement came as a surprise and caused an uproar. NATO, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Spain and even Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic — which have been very active recently in aiding Ukraine — quickly stated that they would not send in their troops. Only the Baltic countries and Poland supported Macron.

It is not surprising that NATO, the United States and Europe may have privately considered various possibilities, given their long and deep involvement in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. But why was it Macron who brought up this sensitive topic at this particular time?

It is worth noting that Macron met with Russian President Vladimir Putin many times before the conflict and was reluctant to visit Kiev after the outbreak. He has been far stingier than Germany in aiding Ukraine. In other words, he is by no means a champion of Ukraine against Russia.

It was said to be an illustration of Macron’s personality. Last April, Macron remarked that Europe should not be a U.S. “vassal” with respect to Taiwan — which also shocked the West. However, unlike the “vassal” statement, which faded away, this new proposition has been repeated by the French president on multiple occasions at home and abroad from the end of February to mid-March. There was only an additional “no escalation” remark aimed to reassure people. This seems to suggest that Macron has been thoughtful and determined on this matter.

Some other people believe that Macron said it for his domestic audience. The next European Parliament elections will be held in June. Both the far left and far right in France are gaining momentum, adding pressure on Macron and his centrist alliance. However, reactions of French politicians and media outlets suggest they have no interest in sending French troops. Then why has Macron chosen such a peculiar stance?

A third explanation centers on Macron’s desire to play a leading role in addressing the Ukraine issue, as the United States is in the midst of chaotic domestic politics and Ukraine seems to be losing. But what Ukraine needs most now is ammunition, and the Czech effort to facilitate a low-key purchase seems more appropriate. After all, sending troops in would involve a major risk of escalation. As a matter of fact, three days after Macron’s first such statement, Putin threatened nuclear war. What’s more, it’s no secret that Western intelligence personnel and weapons trainers are already in Ukraine.

There must be something more important behind all this. I argue that Macron has made a deliberate show of strength in contrast with Germany (and, covertly, the United States) with a view toward gaining a position of strategic dominance over European military strategy.

While talking about sending troops into Ukraine, Macron also mentioned Germany’s unwillingness to provide Taurus missiles to Ukraine: “The people that said ‘never ever’ today were the same ones who said never ever tanks, never ever planes, never ever long-range missiles, never ever trucks. They said all that two years ago.” The remark had strong repercussions in Germany, which expressed the most discontent among European countries over Macron’s proposition. The Franco-German difference attracted a lot of attention for a while.

European integration has been the product of French strategy and German financial resources combined. However, with regard to European defense, Macron wants strategic autonomy and even called NATO “brain dead” at the end of 2019. Germany has been more “atlanticist.” Their differences have deepened since the Ukraine conflict broke out.

Usually, Germany buys American arms while France wants to sell European arms. (Note that France is the largest arms producer in Europe.) In March 2022, Germany purchased 35 American F-35 fighters. In October, it spearheaded a European Sky Shield Initiative to integrate anti-missile systems made in Germany, the United States and Israel. More important, Germany began to get its hands on Europe’s defense strategy. It did not consult with France before announcing the Sky Shield, for example, violating a French off-limits zone.

In other words, Macron wants to prevent Germany from extending its lead in EU defense strategy, and he also is keeping an eye on German money. 

The timing of his statement was also carefully selected. First, during a Donald Trump campaign rally on Feb. 10, the former American president said that he would encourage Russia to “do whatever the hell they want” to NATO members who fail to contribute enough money for Europe’s defense. This made European countries uneasy. Also, the EU will soon launch an industrial strategy for defense and hold a defense summit.

A few other moves have been taken by Macron. For example, he tried to win over Baltic and Eastern European countries that traditionally have closer ties with Germany and the United States. The French Foreign Minister visited Lithuania in early March and met with the Baltic foreign ministers; the Lithuanian president visited France a few days later. In addition, in an unusual move, Macron took part in the Czech-led plan to get ammunition for Ukraine on the international market. He also pushed the EU to issue joint defense bonds, which essentially means Germany would pay more for European defense. The proposal was made in a secret French Foreign Ministry letter that was distributed the week before the EU summit.

Macron additionally spoke in interviews of the fact that France is a nuclear-weapon state. This was not only a response to Russia’s nuclear threat but also a reminder for Germany. Shortly after the outbreak of war in Ukraine, German public opinion for the first time supported the deployment of American nuclear weapons in Germany. Some German politicians echoed the French proposal and called for the creation of Europe’s own “nuclear umbrella.”

Macron’s goal has been partially achieved. The EU announced on March 5 the first European Defense Industrial Strategy, with a view toward promoting defense procurement within Europe. French, German and Polish leaders then met in Berlin on March 15 to demonstrate European solidarity — which means that Macron finds Germany’s private statement acceptable.

The EU summit on March 21 and 22 adopted an unprecedented conclusion calling for greater support for Ukraine. But while providing a positive response to Macron’s “sending troops to Ukraine” statements, the conclusion also contains euphemistic dissatisfaction: “Military support and EU security commitments will be provided in full respect of the security and defence policy of certain Member States and taking into account the security and defence interests of all Member States.”

In addition to launching the new defense industrial strategy, the conclusion hints at considering the joint defense bond proposed by Macron. The European Council invited the EU Council and the European Commission to explore all options for mobilizing funds and to submit a report before June.

After the summit, Macron stopped talking about sending troops to Ukraine.

It is worth noting that even though France contends for dominance in Europe’s defense strategy, it does not seek to exclude the United States and NATO from Europe. On March 19, the 20th meeting of Ukrainian Defense Contact Group was held at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. At the meeting, French and German officials expressed understanding of the situation in the United States and continued to support the Ramstein model. A few days later, the EU Summit conclusion talked about European defense capabilities being “complementary to NATO” and NATO remaining the “foundation of collective defense.”

Macron has no intention of sending in French troops in a rush without first gaining the support of allies. However, his rhetoric has sounded an alarm. Various parties have begun to find discussions about escalation in Ukraine useful. This is truly very dangerous.

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