In recent weeks, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a leading role in European diplomatic efforts to get the Russia-Ukraine conflict back from the brink of a major war. He deserves credit for his efforts to de-escalate tensions and strengthen Europe’s role in discussions over European security. However, his activity has met with a considerable degree of suspicion especially in Central and Eastern European countries, at least partly for legitimate reasons. This analysis examines three sets of explanations for this suspicion.
First, Macron’s latest activity has to be seen in the broader context of his previous efforts to negotiate on a new European security order with Russia and pursue European strategic autonomy, which have created confusion and some mistrust among France’s Eastern European allies and partners. Second, there are well known, deep-seated differences among European countries regarding Russia and Ukraine, which were exposed during Macron’s latest visits to Moscow and Kyiv. Thirdly and most fundamentally, Macron’s urge to rethink post-Cold War security arrangements in Europe and reach a grand solution to the crisis in European-Russian relations tends to be seen as ungrounded in reality and thus dangerous in countries that are more directly exposed to the Russian threat than France itself.
To conclude, we argue that a more realistic approach that could strengthen much-needed European unity should abandon the unrealistic aim of reaching an agreement on the European security order with Vladimir Putin and set clear limits to the diplomatic agenda; also, it should strengthen defence and deterrence as vital means to reduce the threat of further escalation; finally, it should unequivocally support Ukraine’s sovereignty – which means inter alia not pressuring Ukraine to accept the Russian interpretation of the Minsk agreements.
Suspicion About the Broader French Agenda
In his speech to the European Parliament on 19 January, President Macron urged Europeans to “collectively set down our own demands” for a new security order, then consult with NATO and present them to Russia for negotiations. The proposal reflected two major priorities of France over the past years, both of which have been followed with scepticism in Central and Eastern Europe. First, there is confusion about the meaning of “European strategic autonomy”, a concept that has had a central place in the EU’s security policy since 2016 and has been vocally promoted by France. Second, there is lack of clarity about the substance behind Macron’s efforts to negotiate with Russia over a new European security order, pursued actively in 2019 and now raised again. Neither effort has been particularly successful.
Even though NATO’s European allies increased their military expenditure after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Jeremy Shapiro has pointed out that in the past 12 years the US has become even more powerful relative to its European allies, as its GDP has outgrown that of the EU and UK, and the US military expenditure is currently more than twice the amount that the EU27 and the UK spend. For Macron, this dependency is dangerous, as American involvement in Europe cannot be taken for granted. In his view, strategic autonomy is required for Europe to be a relevant player in a world of great power rivalry between the US and China. Thus, the argument goes, a stronger Europe does not undermine the transatlantic partnership; rather, the strengthening of European military credibility is needed to sustain the partnership in times when the US no longer wants to play the world’s policeman. It would also secure Europe against the possibility of a neo-isolationist American president.
Calls for Europe to build a more autonomous position vis à vis the US have long roots in French foreign policy. In the early 1960s, De Gaulle tried to persuade West Germany to distance itself from the US, claiming that the Americans could not be relied upon to resist Soviet pressure on Berlin.1 As noted by Tony Judt, however, “no West German leader dared break with Washington for the sake of an illusory French alternative”.2 Of course, there are crucial differences between the policies of De Gaulle and Macron, such as the strong contribution of France in NATO today, further enhanced by the fresh decision to increase its presence in Romania. Paris also deserves praise for close coordination of its recent diplomatic activities with Washington and other allies (including the Baltic states).
Yet the efforts to build confidence have been undermined by messages that alert East Europeans. A French government official who wished to remain anonymous recently told the New York Times that the necessity of a new security order is driven by the doubt within the French government “about the quality of Article 5”, caused by various American decisions. It is unknown, though, if Macron subscribes to this position. He memorably called NATO “braindead” in November 2019 but has not openly questioned NATO’s readiness to defend all members, fully knowing that this is a shortcut to a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Macron’s desire to pursue a European agenda that is distinct from the US has been counterproductive to his goal to strengthen Europe’s agency and capability, especially when it comes to Eastern European security. It’s not that France’s Eastern allies would not wish Europe to become stronger or cannot see the risk of the US reducing its contribution to their security in future. However, their views on Russia tend to be closer to those of Washington than to Paris and Berlin. They are also acutely aware that the role of the US in defending Europe vis à vis Russia will remain indispensable for years to come, while European autonomy is an aspiration, not a reality.
How Thin is European Consensus?
Fresh research by Ukrainian scholars (conducted before the current escalation) sheds light on different narratives of the Russo-Ukrainian conflict in Western countries based on disagreements of who is to be blamed and what is to be done.3 In Poland, and we can add that the same applies in the Baltic states, the dominant view is that Russia is solely responsible for the conflict and is violating international law by engaging in it. Russia’s actions can and should be deterred by countering the aggression by imposing sanctions against it, providing aid to Ukraine in its struggle, and supporting democratic reforms in Ukraine.
The views in other countries are more mixed. In the US, the debate is mostly between so-called security hawks and accommodationists, many of whom are so-called ‘realists’ who believe that the US should be firmly focused on the threats posed by China. President Joe Biden’s administration is more closely aligned with the hawkish view, calling for sanctions and deterrence because losing Ukraine would mean a crumbling of the international order. In contrast, the accommodationists call for dialogue with Russia to avoid direct conflict, as in their eyes Ukraine does not constitute an important national interest for the US and the latter should limit the resources it will expend in trying to resolve the conflict.
In the UK, the majority of think-tank experts and most of the British political establishment also support the first narrative, but it is not as universal as in Poland. In comparison, the dominant view in France and Germany is that Russia is indeed responsible for starting and escalating the conflict, but its actions call for understanding and dialogue. According to this narrative, Russia’s use of force against Ukraine and other post-Soviet countries stems from deep and partially justified grievances that arose after the end of the Cold War. According to this view, it seeks respect, restoration of its great power status and a new great power ‘concert’ , rather than the destruction of the existing system. Macron’s shuttle diplomacy represents this view of trying to reach a compromise with Russia.
According to a recent pan-European poll the views of European citizens have substantially converged. Majorities in countries covered by the poll4 believe that Russia is likely to mount a fresh invasion of Ukraine this year. Importantly, Russia’s aggression is seen as a problem for Europe as a whole, not only for Ukraine. Furthermore, majorities in all countries want NATO and the EU to come to Ukraine’s defence. Therefore, the authors of the study suggest that ” for most Europeans defending Ukraine means defending the post-cold war European security order rather than simply taking a side in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.”
There are, however, differences between how willing the respondents are to bear the costs of defending Ukraine. There is also imprecision in the survey about what form ‘defence of Ukraine’ should take. Only in Poland do most people believe that in addition to NATO and the EU their country should also defend Ukraine. French and (to a lesser degree) German citizens are the least willing to bear any burden, only supporting a European response that would not hurt them. This is in line with the hesitation of Berlin and Paris to express clear support to hard sanctions, despite assurances that Russia’s further aggression would carry a high cost.
Macron’s Puzzling Messages on European Security Order
There is an unsettling imprecision in Macron’s public pronouncements on European security, as well as the place of Russia in Europe. In the last weeks, Macron has called for a new balance capable of preserving European states’ sovereignty and peace5, and a European framework for a new security and stability order. These ambitions might easily become a double-edged sword, as his statements have sent contradictory messages and sowed confusion among partners.
It is unclear what would be new in this new security order. The principles and rules Macron has emphasised as the foundation of the new order are the same agreements that Europe and Russia reached after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He has underlined that Ukrainian and European sovereignty and security cannot be subjected to compromises. At the same time, he has hinted at concessions – without explaining what kind of concessions would enable Europeans to soothe Russian fears without harming Eastern Europeans’ security. Russia may feel that the post-Cold War order was imposed on it, but this does not mean Europeans should help Russia to impose its very different vision of security on others.
Ahead of his visit to Moscow Macron said that it is legitimate for Russia to pose the question of its own security and its contemporary traumas should be understood. He also spoke of Russia’s ‘legitimate security interests’ without specifying which of its interests are legitimate and which are not. Perhaps Macron was only paying lip service to Putin’s views to provide an opportunity for Putin to stand down in Ukraine without losing face. Perhaps he thinks that a compromise in Ukraine can be reached without making compromises over Ukrainian sovereignty. Perhaps he hopes to buy time until late spring, when elections in France have passed.
While the suspicions of Central and East Europeans partly stem from confusing signals and scant knowledge about what really was discussed between Macron and Putin, the deeper problem with the French positions is that the very aim to reach an agreement with Vladimir Putin on a new European security order appears misjudged and even dangerous. The Russian demands made public on 17 December 2021 expressed its agenda more bluntly than ever.6 The press conference following Macron’s meeting with Putin confirmed yet again that the latter has no intention of respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty or abandoning his aim of regaining control over Ukraine. There are profound disagreements between Russia and the West over some of the key principles of European security, such as the right of each country to decide on its security policy.
Russia is asking for concessions that the West cannot and must not offer. It is interested in an agreement only if its core demands are met, but it is not in a desperate need to reach a settlement. The Kremlin can live with the current tensions and may even benefit from them. It remains to be seen if Russia is interested in negotiating over the issues that the US and NATO have proposed for negotiations, notably arms control and transparency measures. It is clear that this Western agenda is not about negotiating a new security order but refining the current one.
Ukraine should not be pushed by Western countries to accept a settlement on Russia’s terms, using the Minsk agreements to impose on Ukraine a model of federalization that would grant the Kremlin a permanent tool to interfere in Ukraine’s sovereignty. The recent reactivation of the Normandy format has opened up this debate again, whereas no new avenues have emerged for turning the Minsk agreements into a viable basis for a settlement. Russia’s neighbours are nervously following the process, being acutely aware that any success the Kremlin may reach in imposing its vision of order on Ukraine would weaken their security. Macron’s studied imprecision on these points is reinforcing nervousness instead of confidence.
During the past months, Western unity vis à vis Russia has been stronger than expected – yet under the surface of unity disagreements remain. As described above, there has been a considerable degree of ambiguity in European messages regarding readiness to push back Russia’s demands and the scope of possible negotiations with Moscow. Such ambiguity may encourage President Putin to believe that his forceful approach is working.
While France wishes to raise its profile in European foreign policy, including relations with Russia, alienating Central and Eastern Europeans is not a sustainable way to do it. A lot of work remains to be done among Europeans to strengthen their shared strategic vision.
In current circumstances, rather than speaking in vague terms about the need to create a new order and new balance, it might be wiser for Europe together with the US to accept that we have to live with a broken European security order for some time to come. In other words, we need to reconcile ourselves to a security order in which the Western countries defend their principles and interests, push back against Russia’s aggression, strengthen defence and deterrence and use diplomacy to keep tensions under control. In this order, Russia and the West will continue to disagree about Ukraine’s rights and status – but it should still be possible for Ukraine with Western support to maintain its sovereignty and develop as a free country.
Views expressed in ICDS publications are those of the author(s).
1 Gaddis, John Lewis. The Cold War: A New History. The Penguin Press, 2005, p. 140.
2 Judt, Tony. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. The Penguin Press, 2005, p. 273.
3 Koval, Nadiia, Volodymyr Kulyk, Mykola Riabchuk, Kateryna Zarembo and Marianna Fakhurdinova. 2022. “Morphological Analysis of Narratives of the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict in Western Academia and Think-Tank Community”. Problems of Post-Communism. DOI: 10.1080/10758216.2021.2009348. Referenced in Musgrave, Paul, “Answering the Ukraine Question,” Systematic Hatreds, 24 January 2022. musgrave.substack.com/p/ukraine-and-the-think-tank…
4 Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Sweden.
5 Clemenceau, François. “EXCLUSIF. Crise en Ukraine : ce que Macron va dire à Poutine”, 5 February 2022. www.lejdd.fr/International/exclusif-crise-en-ukrai…. Quoted in Kayali, Laura, “Macron vows ‘de-escalation,’ but hints at concessions to Putin,” 6 February 2022. www.politico.eu/article/emmanuel-macron-vows-for-d…
6 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation, 17 December 2021, Treaty between The United States of America and the Russian Federation on security guarantees – Министерство иностранных дел Российской Федерации (mid.ru); Agreement on measures to ensure the security of The Russian Federation and member States of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – Министерство иностранных дел Российской Федерации (mid.ru).