Olivier Dupuis: President Macron’s Ukrainian arithmetic

2024-04-08 | Expert publications, Geopolitical analysis

What is behind President Macron’s refusal to rule out sending Western troops to Ukraine? Is it a case of late conversion? After all, France’s president long cultivated dialogue with Vladimir Putin, arguing that Russia should not be humiliated, and only recently he was insisting that France was not at war with Russia. Sincerity is possible, but it seems likely that something else is at play.

The timing is no accident. The European elections are approaching and the polls do not look good. The French president’s party is polling at 18 or 19%, four points lower than in 2019, while Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National is expected to gain 5 or 6 points, reaching 28, 29 or even 30%. If the election were to reflect these predictions, the consequences in France would be relatively limited, given the French political system and with three years to go to the next presidential election. But the same would not be true at European level, where Macron’s position would be significantly weakened.

Against this background, Macron’s resolute new stance – at least apparently – is designed to divide the electorate and to present himself as the champion of all French voters who support Ukraine. Apart from a few leading members of the Socialist Party – including former President François Hollande and MEP Raphaël Glucksman – he has little competition in this lane. The Greens are inaudible; La France Insoumise, Les Républicains and Reconquête are all supporters – more or less vocally but real – of Putin. As for the Rassemblement National, time will tell whether Marine Le Pen’s recent declaration 1 in favour of Ukraine signals a real U-turn.

From an electoral point of view, President Macron’s new stance is perfectly intelligible. Diplomatically, it is not elegant at all. It comes as President Biden grapples with obscene obstruction from a group of Republican congressmen over military aid to Ukraine, and as he embarks on a difficult and crucial election campaign. It runs counter to US and Nato strategy, which explicitly excludes sending troops to Ukraine, as the US president reminded Congress on 7 March.

John Kirby, the White House National Security Advisor, made the same point more diplomatically but just as explicitly: “The United States has no objection to other countries deploying their troops to Ukraine, because that is a sovereign decision of each country, but the United States has no intention of deploying its troops there” 2. In other words, go ahead but without us and without Nato. There is nothing surprising about the American position. It simply confirms a point of doctrine that has been in force for 70 years, namely that any situation likely to lead to a direct confrontation between the US armed forces and the Soviet or Russian armed forces should be avoided.

Militarily, it does not address Ukraine’s needs, as President Zelensky pointed out: “Ukraine does not need foreign troops on its territory, but Kyiv would welcome ‘trainers’ and ‘technical personnel’ from Nato member countries.” 3

Technically, it overlooks France’s real capabilities. The contingent that the French army could send does not exceed 20,000 soldiers 4, and France’s production of 155mm shells is only 3000 units per month. Not exactly a game changer. As for the quality of French intelligence, the scenario recently put forward by the French president – the capture of Odessa by the Russian army – suggests that this remains as modest as it was at the time of the Russian invasion, which the same intelligence services did not see coming.

From a strategic point of view, President Macron’s stance is based on a fundamentally erroneous reading of the role that can be played by the various players and, in particular, by France. This is all the more surprising given that the war in Ukraine has merely confirmed the obvious: only the United States and the British have truly operational intelligence services, and only the United States is in a position to control the risks of nuclear escalation because it is the only country capable of responding with a devastating conventional response (horizontal escalation). The United Kingdom and France, which have nuclear weapons, do not have America’s conventional capabilities, nor do they have its global projection capability. With their characteristic pragmatism, the British have clearly understood this.

The French and British deterrent forces allow, at most, the sanctuarisation of their respective territories or, more precisely, their territories in Europe. France’s deterrent would be ineffective if French territories in the Indian Ocean or the Pacific were attacked by a hostile power. The same goes for the British. Only the United States has the power of global deterrence that ultimately guarantees the security of these French and British overseas territories.

Moreover, it is hard to see how, without the United States, the two sanctuary states could reconquer the rest of Europe if it were occupied by a hostile power. During their intervention in Libya, France and the UK were quickly forced to call on the United States and Nato for help to deal with a shortage of munitions and poor intelligence.

And if we take into account the full influence of France’s pro-Kremlin party, then General de Gaulle’s famous dictum that “states have no friends, only interests” 5 might well impose a policy of accommodation with the new neighbour.

On the basis of this observation, we can reasonably deduce that the mere possession of nuclear weapons confers no special role on the country that possesses them, no prerogative that sets it apart from the other members of the Atlantic Alliance. Similarly, we can also surmise that the status of permanent member of the United Nations Security Council does not confer any special role on its members, sentimentality notwithstanding.

It is true, as the war in Ukraine has shown, that the European Union has a certain degree of strategic autonomy through the economic, legal and financial resources it can provide, including arms supplies. But the EU and its member states can only deploy them because most EU countries are ultimately defended by Nato and because the United States has devised a general strategy to support Ukraine via Nato.

President Macron’s political objective was not just electioneering. It was also an attempt to recover the credit lost with many Central and Northern European countries over two years of prevarication. More than his caricaturing of Chancellor Scholz or German military aid, his new positioning seems to have aroused genuine interest.

This can be seen in the statements of such actors as Lithuania’s President Gitanas Nauséda, Latvia’s President Edgar Rinkevich, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Finland’s Foreign Minister Elina Valtonen, and Estonia’s Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. 6

Admittedly, Germany can and must do more. Certainly, without waiting for Congress, the United States could lift the restrictions on the use of Western weapons, particularly for military targets such as Russian strategic bombers that drop glide-bombs from Russian territory. Nonetheless, the fact remains that everyone in Riga, Warsaw, Vilnius, Tallinn and Helsinki knows that the bilateral military aid provided by Germany 7 to Ukraine over the last two years amounts to more than €17 billion 8. It is not just sleeping bags and helmets, which have also been supplied by France.

Germany has supplied a large proportion of the anti-missile systems 9, more than 50 Gepard self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, and a significant proportion of the ammunition. For its part, France’s bilateral military aid is, to say the least, more modest: around €2 billion. 10 Eight times less than Germany in absolute terms, and six times less in relative terms.

So the selective reading is particularly surprising in the case of Kaja Kallas, who was behind the European initiative to supply Ukraine with shells. She must be aware that it was France’s demand that the initiative be limited to European producers that blocked the EU’s decision for four or five months in the spring of 2023. And she cannot have missed the fact that France vetoed the purchase of shells from outside the EU just as it was becoming clear that the EU would not be able to meet its commitment to supply Ukraine with a million of them. If it is true that, as military commentator Macette Escortert writes, “military history will remember that the Ukrainian ammunition crisis underway since December 2023 resulted in the conquest of the Avdiivka salient” 11, it will also remember the crushing responsibility of France in this ammunition crisis. If, as we hope, this crisis is brought under control in the coming weeks, we will owe it in particular to the “coalition of the willing” led by the Czech Republic and its President Petr Pavel 12 with the specific aim of purchasing shells outside the institutional framework of the EU. President Macron’s announcement at the Paris Conference that the French veto would be lifted should be seen in the light of the Prague initiative. The veto had simply become irrelevant.

Of course, we can criticise President Biden’s strategy in its general logic of managing the risk of nuclear escalation – the famous red lines. We can also criticise the implementation of this strategy: the gradation in the type of weapons supplied to Ukraine and the restrictions on their use. It is regrettable that Ukraine has still not received any long-range ATACMS missiles (300 km) or Taurus missiles (500 km).

This strategy, which could be interpreted as a wish to give Russia time to come to terms with its defeat, may well be too cautious and could run the risk of Russia scoring further successes. However, the enormous difficulties encountered by the Ukrainian army in recent months are clearly not due to the non-delivery of long-range missiles but rather, for the most part, to the crisis in supply of artillery ammunition (155mm shells in particular). The firing ratio is fluctuating between 10 to 1 and 14 to 1 in favour of the Russian army.

The decision taken by Ukraine’s General Zaluzhny in July 2023 to build a line of defence and fortifications along the front line, which General Syrsky has taken up and strengthened, as well as the intensification of Ukraine’s campaign to destroy of Russia’s critical infrastructure (arms factories, airports, ports, refineries, etc.) using drones, both seem to indicate real convergence between Nato’s strategic thinking and that of Ukraine.

It is on this basis that Western military aid should be structured. A distinction should be made between the very short term – the year 2024 – and the medium term of 2025 and no doubt 2026. Very short-term aid should concentrate on quickly supplying shells, cannons, anti-drone systems, defensive equipment – all of high quality and in appropriate quantity – as well as reinforcing anti-aircraft defences. Germany seems to have understood this. 13

At the same time, there is a pressing need to plan and deliver the weapons that will enable Ukraine to regain all its occupied territories. This includes the production and supply of hundreds of aircraft, helicopters, missiles, etc. Given the time required to produce the aircraft and to train pilots, engineers, technicians and operators, as well as to prepare the infrastructure, these decisions need to be taken very quickly. The weapons in question – aircraft, helicopters, Storm Shadow and Scalp missiles, for example – do not “overstep” existing red lines. They have all already been supplied by one or other of the member countries of the Ramstein coalition, or are in the process of being so (F-16s).

But it would be simplistic to see President Macron’s new stance solely in terms of the European elections or the attempt to regain credibility with certain Central European countries. For it also reflects an old French dream, that of a Defence Europe built around French leadership.

As we have seen, this ambition is militarily impracticable. Furthermore, while no one disputes its quality, the French army does not have a monopoly on excellence. For example, the Finnish army is heir to the force which, in 1940 – forty years before Commander Massoud – single-handedly inflicted crushing defeats on the Red Army, and it can clearly be classed as excellent. The fact is that the French army and the Finnish army are not comparable: the budget of the former is eight times that of the latter. 14 Similarly, the French and US armies are not comparable: the budget of the former is barely 1/14th the size of that of the latter. 15

From a political standpoint, France’s ambitions are little more convincing. This Defence Europe is based on the premise that, in the final analysis, one member state would decide for all the others. Such an approach is hardly compatible, to say the least, with the principles and rules governing the European Union.

Are old habits of deference still at work? Whatever the reason, other EU governments do not seem bothered that France’s ambitions are incompatible with the European project. Witness, for example, the absence of any reaction to the proposal by European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to create a post of European Defence Commissioner. Once again, that is a case of putting the cart before the horse. Discussion of the three essential preliminary questions – the objectives of this common defence policy; its institutional framework; and its implementation instruments (a common army, common intelligence services, etc.) – are nowhere to be seen.

The same kind of rashness is evident in Thierry Breton, the self-proclaimed European Commissioner for Defence. 16 Not satisfied with his role in Europe’s lamentable fiasco over the supply of a million shells to Ukraine 17, he is proposing a new action plan aimed at getting EU countries to buy a certain percentage of their armaments on the European market 18. In this way, through the magic of a new decree, armaments produced by European manufacturers would automatically become the most suitable ones. At the same time, such a measure would call into question the implicit contribution 19 made by Nato member states’ procurement of American weaponry to the US defence effort in Europe.

The idea that the war in Ukraine should serve to reopen the question of European responsibility for its own security and defence is only relevant today within Nato. France’s obstruction on the issue of ammunition supplies 20 and Hungary’s systematic obstruction of all aid plans for Ukraine only serve to confirm that, as things stand, the institutions of the EU and its member states are not in a position to provide an answer to this question within a reasonable timeframe.

More fundamentally, these two years of war have shown that two radically different political interpretations continue to coexist within the European Union: those who want Ukraine to win this war and those who are concerned that “Russia does not win this war” 21, as the French president put it. This statement, similar to the one to the effect that “Russia must not be humiliated”, is no accident. France remains Russia’s leading foreign investor. France is at the forefront of calls for greater restrictions on agricultural imports from Ukraine. Conversely, France will not support an embargo on imports of agricultural products from Russia, as proposed by Poland. Although France is the world’s second largest arms exporter, it only ranks 15th or 16th in bilateral military aid to Ukraine.

The French president’s statement that he would not rule out sending troops to Ukraine is therefore harmful in two ways: firstly, because it diverts attention from what must be the absolute priority of all the members of the Ramstein coalition – the rapid and massive supply of weapons – and secondly, because it seems part of an implied compromise that would be at the expense of the Ukrainians and international law. To say, as President Macron did, that “Ukraine’s territorial integrity will be a fundamental value” is in fact to imply that it could be the subject of negotiation.

As can also be seen from Moscow’s relatively muted reaction to it, President Macron’s statement does not represent a break with the policy that Paris has pursued to date. That policy remains an impossible trade-off between the preservation of French economic interests in Russia; the ambition of French leadership within the European Union; instrumentalisation for internal consumption; a desire to weaken American leadership; the hope of (again) becoming a privileged economic partner of Russia once the war is over; and ambitions of being the peacemaker that can impose a deal between Russia and Ukraine. The modesty of French bilateral military aid to Ukraine is part of this alchemy: France provides just enough to maintain a degree of credibility in the eyes of Kyiv and the Western coalition partners, but not too much so as not to sever the link with Moscow. The announcement with great fanfare that 78 Caesars will be sent over the next year is part of this strategy: €300 million is less than the last tranche of military aid (the 15th at least) from Denmark. 22

Only one thing might dispel this ambiguity: the provision by France of large-scale and high-quality military aid. 50 Rafales, for example. As Eric Trappier, CEO of Dassault Aviation, has said, the industrial capacity exists.

But this is unlikely to happen until there is a genuine awakening to the nature of the Russian regime, and until there is a clear statement that the objective is Ukrainian victory and Russian defeat. In the meantime, in order to supply hundreds of aircraft (F-16 or Gripen), helicopters and missiles, we will probably have to draw inspiration from the Czech model and create a new « coalition of the willing”.

Originally published on the Lithuania Tribune (also available in German, Ukrainian, Italian, French).