March 4, 2024

Words Matter, but Deeds Matter Even More: When French Strategic Thought Inspires and Then Falls Flat

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. February 26, 2024.
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron. February 26, 2024.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s musings about boots on the ground in Ukraine make perfect theoretical sense in terms of deterrence. They create uncertainty in the minds of Russia’s decision-makers and could prompt its planners to hold back and preserve some of its forces for the potential direct confrontation with the West. This would alleviate some pressure on the Ukrainian defenders along the frontline, increasing their chances of success in the difficult campaign of ‘strategic defence’.

President Macron’s thoughts echo the long-standing tradition in French strategic culture to maintain deliberate ambiguity about the circumstances when France could resort to nuclear weapons. This ambiguity is designed to paralyse the adversary, who would struggle to play out all possible scenarios and chart a favourable course of action that avoids the risk of a devastating response from Paris. President Macron simply extended this sound logic, if not the nuclear means behind it, to the conventional war in Ukraine – and seems to have triggered alarm bells in Moscow, given that Putin felt it necessary to counter with his own nuclear saber rattling.

Until now, the West has been too timid and predictable about the ‘red lines’ it is not willing to cross, sometimes to the point of seeking to reassure Moscow more than enable Ukraine’s success. Anyone diverging from this line of self-restraint is targeted as a ‘warmonger’ by the Russian propaganda and Western appeasement crowd alike. In this regard, President Macron’s thought is a breath of fresh air in the stale atmosphere of escalation avoidance, where Russia successfully diminishes Ukraine’s chances by controlling the reflexes of the West. It is high time to start posing most difficult dilemmas to Moscow instead of letting it manipulate our fears into denying Ukraine what it needs to prevail in the war.

But was it an unequivocal success in coercive signaling towards Moscow? Certainly not. President Macron’s suggestion that all options should be on the table predictably prompted a pushback from those who are constantly afraid of provoking Putin, but whose understanding of Russian strategic logic is deeply flawed and entirely inadequate to the situation and the stakes at hand. Its cheerleader, of course, is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who is now the very embodiment of the profound and continuing failure to understand how Russia operates and what makes it retreat and abandon its aggressive goals.

In turn, the failure of President Macron to anticipate this reaction only undermines Western credibility, as the whole episode underscores to Moscow that the West is divided and can coalesce only around the lowest common denominator. President Macron might well be ahead of the curve of the rest, as some of Western nations might eventually feel compelled to act on their oft-repeated words that Russia should not be allowed to win and could intervene directly if the situation becomes gravely critical. However, for now, the words from Paris only produced the cacophony of discordant voices. It also provided another unfortunate opportunity for the opponents of this support to vent their defeatist views.

Fortunately, the lowest common denominator that everyone agrees about is not that low at all: almost every NATO and EU member is fully convinced that military support to Ukraine must be significantly enhanced. Their ability to deliver – as a result of political dysfunction, military weakness or defence industrial anemia – is another matter. But Paris would have done a far greater service by showing an example of taking the gloves off when it comes to the scale of support (if not its nature, where its provision of certain types of weapon systems is far more forward-leaning than Germany’s, for example). President Macron’s musings only distracted from what really matters most and delivers greatest effect at this point.

If France is looking for an opportunity to lead with a muscular interventionist posture, there is a far better vector for that. Moldova is in a very dangerous spot now. If Moscow succeeds in stirring up the pro-Russian elements and destabilises the country, while using the instigated chaos as an excuse to annex the breakaway province of Transnistria or even more (e.g. Găgăuzia), the West will have suffered another severe blow to the efforts of containing Russia’s neoimperial aggression.

Paris could, at long last, start putting some real substance into its European Intervention Initiative and, contingent on the request of the Moldovan government and together with those participants who are willing to support and contribute, begin planning a military response to such shenanigans. A show of strength to Putin and a credible promise that he will encounter an effective response from the French-led coalition if he tries to expand his criminal ’land collection enterprise’ into Moldova is a far better use of French spirit for the defence of Europe than theoretically sound but, at least so far, practically ineffectual talking points.

Filed under: Commentary