On Tuesday, Feb. 27, standing before 20 European heads of state and other officials at the Ukraine Summit in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters: “Should we give over our future to the American electorate? My answer is no. Let’s not wait for the outcome.”

The consensus answer, however, caught Macron off guard. It was essentially one of “Yes, let’s wait.”

Among those present at the Summit were German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish President Andrzej Duda, the UK’s Foreign Secretary David Cameron, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas – and only Kallas was fully on-board, affirming that “everything is on the table to help Ukraine beat Putin.”

Macron’s open willingness to consider fielding European troops in Ukraine proved to be a bridge too far for his NATO partners – and allies of Russian President Vladimir Putin quickly pounced on the opening Macron presented them. Vyacheslav Volodin, the head of the State Duma, warned Macron that “any French troops you send to Ukraine will suffer the fate of Napoleon’s army.”

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Élysée Palace suddenly became Waterloo, but instead of the Duke of Wellington standing victorious over Macron, it was Putin winning the day. Timing is everything, and like Napoleon at Waterloo, Macron simply struck too soon leaving him vulnerable to being flanked by his own NATO allies.

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Macron’s cause, however, was a worthy one. He has made the most of the opportunities presented to him by President Joe Biden and the United States Congress by attempting to step up to fill the leadership void in their absence.

Leaning hard into the US, NATO and European Union to get Ukraine what they need to defend themselves and win is the right play. However, Macron’s timing was wrong – and before he had secured the support of his NATO partners.

It has been a long time since a European leader leaned this hard into the fight against Putin. Former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s surprise trip in June 2022 to Kyiv to bolster Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was the first instance. Later, in January 2023, it was Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki calling upon Germany to agree to let Poland export their Leopard 2 main battle tanks to Ukraine.

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Brussels can enable Ukraine to defeat Russia now or fight Putin themselves later.

In May 2023, during a pivotal moment in the war ahead of Ukraine’s southern counteroffensive, it was British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing the shipment of Storm Shadow cruise missiles. Marcon’s instinct to do the same was spot on but the manner in which he went about it was self-defeating.

Instead of rallying NATO members, he alienated them – and antagonized German Chancellor Olaf Scholz by creating, in effect, a costly French-German “feud over arms for Ukraine.” Instead of securing Germany’s vaunted Taurus precision deep-strike missiles for Kyiv, Scholz petulantly double-downed on refusing to approve their transfer.

We have seen the French President attempt to secure the leadership mantle before. In February 2022, Macron was unsuccessful in leveraging his personal relationship with Putin to facilitate negotiations between Russia and Ukraine in order to de-escalate tensions between the two countries prior to Moscow’s invasion.

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Macron tried reaching out to Putin again in October 2022, then again in December only to come up empty. He stated that he “would still consider talking with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin if it helps create a sustainable peace between Ukraine and Russia.” Putin on the other hand responded: “There will be no peace until Russia achieves its goals.”

France’s position is evolving and under Macron it has been somewhat of a stick and carrot approach. In the past, he has suggested “the West may at some stage have to negotiate with Vladimir Putin or the existing Russian leadership.” Yet, at the same time he argued for a pathway for Ukrainian NATO membership while the West began to “pursue a war crimes trial against Putin’s government.”

Nonetheless, it is increasingly becoming likely that Macron recognizes that the only way to stop Putin from dominating Europe is to ensure his defeat in Ukraine. That line of thinking was likely behind Macron’s July 2023 decision to equip Kyiv with “SCALP missiles, capable of striking the Russian army at long range – finally joining the United Kingdom in providing Ukraine precision deep strike capability.

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Europe is tired of waiting for America to sort it all out in Washington. Nonetheless, Brussels remains divided on their own support. The war is on their front doorstep, and Ukraine is listing.

Decisions made now will likely determine whether the war in Ukraine is won or lost. If it is lost, then the war for Europe will have only just begun.

Macron’s announcement at the Élysée presidential palace was not unanimous – and apparently not well coordinated prior to the press conference.

Tactical progress was made. The French-led coalition of 23 European countries agreed to provide artillery and ammunition to Ukraine and are backing Macron’s effort to buy ammunition outside of Europe.

Strategically, however, it quickly became clear many member-states at the Ukraine Summit do not support sending Western troops to Ukraine – and that difference of opinion should have remained behind closed doors. At issue was Macron’s comment that “sending Western troops to Ukraine could not be ruled out.”

The Kremlin’s response was immediate and predictable, warning that “conflict between Russia and the US-led NATO military alliance would be inevitable if European members of NATO sent troops to fight in Ukraine.” During Putin’s state-of-the-nation address on Thursday he warned that “Western military intervention against their invasion of Ukraine could result in nuclear escalation.”

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Another red line drawn by Putin and obligingly respected by the West. The US, Britain, Finland, Germany, Spain, Poland, Italy, Czech Republic and Sweden could not get to the podium fast to distance themselves from Macron’s comments – proclaiming they had no plans to send ground troops to Ukraine.

NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg issued a similar statement. White House spokesman John Kirby added, “President Biden has been crystal clear since the beginning of this conflict: There would be no US troops on the ground in a combat role there.”

Yet in the rush to distance themselves from Macron’s comments, they played into Putin’s playbook – divide NATO. Their response was not lost on CNBC, which reported that “Russia appears to be relishing the gaffe French President Emmanuel Macron made this week in suggesting that NATO countries discussed the possibility of Western ground troops being deployed in Ukraine, saying such an eventuality could not be “ruled out.”

Macron never said there were plans to send Western soldiers to Ukraine, only that there was a discussion on the subject and that it should not be ruled out. The US, NATO, and EU all acknowledge that a Russian victory in Ukraine will likely lead to a war with NATO, but somehow that threat does create a sense of urgency.

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NATO inaction enables Russian action – the Kremlin has a plan.

The key takeaways from Macron’s Élysée Palace blunder are: (1) the ground rules are ceded to Putin; (2) winning is not the consensus end state; and (3) NATO is not united.

Zelensky’s valiant warriors are killing Russians by the tens of thousands in Ukraine with weapons and ammunition provided by the US, NATO and the EU. Letting Ukraine fail cannot be an option – neither is allowing the war to enter NATO territory. Brussels can enable Ukraine to defeat Russia now or fight Putin themselves later. NATO inaction enables Russian action – the Kremlin has a plan.

The message sent by Macron was simple; it was a very strong message of deterrence that has been absent for the past 24 months: NATO will not let Ukraine fail. His delivery was off though. The message should have come from NATO Chief Jens Stoltenberg. The message was strong, until the backpedaling began.

The actions of a few have left Zelensky, his army, and the citizens of Ukraine wondering: Will the West be there at our darkest moment? What should Moldova and Georgia think? Will NATO’s Article V protect the Baltic States, Poland, Finland and Sweden?

Meanwhile, chalk up another propaganda victory for Putin. Right now, courtesy of Macron’s Élysée Palace blunder, he is the one singing ABBA’s “Waterloo.”

Copyright 2023. Jonathan E. Sweet and Mark C. Toth. All rights reserved.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post. 

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Comments (4)

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Henry
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One could be forgiven for thinking that Russia is the only country that has nuclear weapons. Does the West not have any? Is putin the only one permitted to rattle his sabre on this?

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American Chris
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NATO is a paper tiger that has enabled Putin's European conquests. I applaud France's leadership to fight the bully Putin. France's history of occupation by NAZIs gives it a morally clear cause. Thank God UK led the fight in 1939 against NAZI invasion of Poland while US politics stopped US involvement to after the devastating loss two years later at Pearl Harbor. History repeats 1939 to 2024 as Eastern European cities burn with thousands of civilians deaths. Thank God today France has the courage to confront another vile dictator. NATO should be discarded as was the inept League of Nations. Hopefully soon French and other East European soldiers will take the fight to Russia before they are again occupied while the West bickers and sleeps.

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David Steel
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The worst outcome for NATO countries is if our enemies don't believe we are united about what triggers article 5 and what does not. Some are chomping at the bit to defend Ukraine, others would rather talk about it endlessly.

The authors are correct that a united cohesive position should be laid out by the leader of NATO on behalf of all members.

Macron should now regret joining Joe Biden in blocking the appointment of Ben Wallace (UK) as the head of NATO instead of keeping Stoltenberg for another term.

Strong leadership for NATO was on the table but both Biden and Macron hate Britain and blocked the appointment.

Biden and Macron caused this disunity by their own predjudice and it isn't they who lose but the Ukrainians.

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John
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France has done okay, but like many of Ukraine's supporting allied nations it could do better. Given its weapons manufacturing capacity France is lagging in sending military support to Ukraine ($600 million) compared particularly to Germany ($17.7 billion) who's GDP is only 1.2x bigger.

Still in this situation Macron serves a useful purpose albeit it would have been nice to have full NATO consensus. However with putin aligned Hungary and Turkey holding veto rights in NATO we probably will never see such consensus.

The thing to remember though, is that any nation can directly support Ukraine's defense if it wishes. Even a NATO member does not need NATO consent to directly participate in Ukraine war. A UN member does not need UN Security Council permission. For example the USA's attack on IRAQ was never a NATO approved war. Yet NATO members UK, Australia and Poland supported the USA in that war.

It is clearly more legally and morally justified to directly support Ukraine's defence than it ever was to support the USA in IRAQ. Until they commit to this, NATO members should be embarrassed daily for their moral and strategic failure to help fight russia as requested in Ukraines legal territory.

Yeah I know....putins' WWIII threats. The same threats Putin made when allies sanctioned russia, sent javelins, send himars, sent cluster munitions, sent patriots, scalps, tanks, F16s....blah...blah ...blah.

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