France’s Macron tries to jolt Europe into taking tougher approach with Putin

France’s Macron Tries to Jolt Europe Into Taking Tougher Approach With Putin
France’s Macron Tries to Jolt Europe Into Taking Tougher Approach With Putin

Summary

French president once advocated dialogue with Russia but now wants NATO countries to consider all options in Ukraine, unsettling alliance.

President Emmanuel Macron of France held confidential calls with President Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February to lay the groundwork for a Paris summit that he hoped would shake up the West’s strategy in the Ukraine war.

Western allies—Macron told each leader, according to officials—should adopt a position of strategic ambiguity toward Russia that would leave all military options on the table.

The idea represented a radical break from the stance the Biden administration had maintained since the start of the war. Washington’s approach was calibrated to avoid actions that might provoke Moscow and escalate the conflict. Macron, in contrast, wanted to stop broadcasting the limits of Western engagement—what are called the West’s “red lines"—and instead keep the Kremlin guessing.

Biden questioned the need for a change in strategy, the officials said, amid concerns it could lead to an escalation. Scholz also opposed the idea, saying it risked dividing allies and making NATO countries a party to the conflict.

When the February summit took place, the French leader fielded further objections from Scholz and others—the U.S. sent James O’Brien, the Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs—on his push for a new approach.

Yet at the close of the event, Macron stunned allies by telling a news conference that no military options should be ruled out, even the deployment of troops from NATO countries.

Macron’s defiance cemented his metamorphosis from one of the war’s early doves to its leading hawk. The French president had been an advocate of dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the outset of the conflict, warning that allies “must not humiliate Russia."

Over the past year, however, Macron has begun to push the boundaries of how far the West is willing to go in confronting Moscow. He was an early advocate for Ukraine joining NATO as well as the European Union. He has also been at the center of a flurry of diplomacy aimed at shoring up military aid for Ukraine, joining the U.K. in sending powerful cruise missiles to Kyiv.

Behind the scenes, French officials have stressed that Macron isn’t seeking to send troops to Ukraine for combat. Rather, French officials have suggested NATO countries consider deploying personnel there to train troops and clear minefields.

Biden and other U.S. officials have repeatedly ruled out sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, including in the president’s State of the Union address on March 7.

For Macron, the Ukraine war has become an acid test of Europe’s ability to survive in a world where U.S. security guarantees are no longer airtight.

The French leader has long worried that European countries risk turning into mere vassals of superpowers like the U.S. and China if the continent doesn’t build out its military capabilities. Allies often derided that stance as Macron’s misguided attempt to channel Charles de Gaulle, the post-World War II leader with a legendary independent streak.

Now, Macron is calling attention to what many European officials fret over in private: that decades of trans-Atlantic security ties are at risk of unraveling. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Paris Tuesday for talks with Macron and will go to Brussels to meet with other NATO allies, marking the 75th anniversary of the alliance.

With Donald Trump set to secure the Republican nomination ahead of November’s presidential election, European officials fear the U.S. is drifting toward isolationism. The continent has grown accustomed to the post-Cold War peace dividend and the generous social models it engendered. Governments have done little to brace their citizenry for the sacrifices of a wartime economy.

In recent weeks, Macron has begun using dark rhetoric to prepare the French public for the possibility of a more direct confrontation with Moscow, warning that if Ukraine falls then a host of Central and Eastern European countries would be next. In mid-March, his official photographer published black-and-white photos of the head of state in boxing gloves, pounding a punching bag with his biceps bulging.

“What’s at play in Ukraine? A war that’s existential for Europe and for France," Macron said during a primetime TV interview from the Élysée Palace. “Because if Russia were to win, the lives of the French would change. We will no longer have security in Europe."

Dividing allies

Macron’s push for a strategic shift, however, risks dividing the very allies he is seeking to lead. Washington, Berlin and many other capitals across Western Europe promptly declared they were unwilling to send troops to Ukraine following Macron’s remarks in February. The red lines Macron sought to shroud in ambiguity were now fully exposed.

“Strategic ambiguity is desirable, but we now ended up with strategic unambiguity," said a senior European official.

The Kremlin is seizing on the divisions. An internal Kremlin memo viewed by The Wall Street Journal describes plans for Moscow to launch a diplomatic outreach and influence campaign to amplify the rift over Macron’s stance and weaken public support for Ukraine. The memo says the campaign should be designed to portray Macron as an adventurist who could trigger a military confrontation between the West and Russia.

After absorbing an initial wave of criticism, Macron has begun to see support for his ideas bubble up in European countries that border Ukraine and Russia. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski in early March said the idea of placing NATO forces in Ukraine is “not unthinkable."

Kęstutis Budrys, senior national security adviser to the president of Lithuania, said in an interview that he supported Macron’s push to keep military options on the table. By publicly declaring red lines, Budrys said, allies have been signaling vital strategic information to Moscow. The Kremlin can get ahead of any escalation, he said, because it knows how allies see the conflict and “what countries are willing to do or not."

Kalev Stoicescu, who chairs the defense committee of Estonia’s parliament, said the West was encouraging Russia by discussing its red lines in public, adding: “It’s a psychological war."

At the start of the war, Macron initially alienated his counterparts in Eastern Europe by pushing for dialogue with Putin. Weeks before Russia’s invasion, Polish President Andrzej Duda warned Macron he was “making the same mistake Chamberlain made" before World War II in trying to negotiate with the Russian leader.

Macron shuttled between Kyiv and Moscow in an attempt to prevent the conflict, and once Russia invaded, he was regularly on the phone to Putin trying to coax him to the negotiating table. Macron allowed a film crew to document several of his phone calls with leaders, including one in which Putin brushes off the French leader so he can go play ice hockey.

“Every time you try and negotiate with him, he does something more aggressive," then-British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Macron in one of the calls, held after Putin recognized the independence of two breakaway regions of Ukraine in a prelude to Russia’s full scale invasion.

“I think we were right to negotiate," Macron replied in English to Johnson. The alternative, Macron suggested, was boots on the ground. “Let’s be clear all together: None of us was ready and is still ready to go to Ukraine and send troops to Ukraine," he said.

Macron’s diplomatic approach, however, began to fade as the conflict deepened. Russia deployed a brutal bombing and ground campaign. France was hit by Russian cyberattacks, including one on a French hospital. Macron and Putin stopped speaking by phone and began directing barbs at each other in public.

In May 2023, Macron traveled to Bratislava, Slovakia, where he called on the West to provide security guarantees to Ukraine. Macron, who had notoriously pronounced NATO “brain-dead" in 2019, now declared that “Putin has jolted [the alliance] back with the worst electroshock."

In the spring of 2023, Ukraine launched its counteroffensive, but Western allies dithered over whether to send Ukraine more powerful weapons to press their advantage. The delays gave Russians time to build sturdier defenses that ultimately thwarted the counteroffensive.

France lagged behind the U.S. and Germany in supplying weapons to Ukraine. France committed €635 million, or about $687 million, in military aid in the first two years of the war, according to the Kiel Institute, a German think tank. That compared to €17.7 billion from Germany and €42.2 billion from the U.S. French officials said the calculations don’t account for the effectiveness of the weapons France is supplying.

By this February, Russian forces had fended off a Ukrainian counteroffensive and was back on the attack, making advances. France followed the U.K. and Germany in signing a decadelong bilateral security pact with Kyiv, with France pledging up to €3 billion in additional military aid. The package, however, appeared to be too little, too late.

Days later, Avdiivka fell. It was the first time in months that Russian forces had captured a Ukrainian city.

A plan that backfired

Alarm bells were ringing inside the Élysée Palace. For Macron, the West’s focus on avoiding escalation—by publicly setting red lines for its engagement in the war—had backfired. The strategy had left France and its allies politically hemmed in, Macron would later tell lawmakers, while Putin was operating without limits, touting Russia’s nuclear arsenal and raining artillery shells on Ukraine.

Macron called Biden and Scholz to tell them he wanted to use the coming summit in Paris to send a message to Putin. Western capitals should stop ruling out military options, Macron said, telling the leaders he wanted to go public with the new approach after the summit.

Scholz responded that if Macron went public the chancellor and other leaders would be compelled to reject it. He strongly advised Macron against the move, saying it could generate a sense of disunity among allies, officials said.

Macron had been sounding out Scholz and other leaders about the need for a strategic shift for months. France’s top military officer, Thierry Burkhard, sent a letter to his NATO counterparts describing how the allies could support Ukraine with troops inside the country. Those ideas included training Ukrainian troops there, operating defensive systems and helping with cyberwarfare, a French official said.

But the prospect of Western personnel in Ukraine—whether civilian or military—raised the prickly question of how allies should respond if any died in a Russian strike.

The Biden administration was worried that Russia could target any French troops that might be sent to Ukraine, according to a U.S. official. That would risk drawing France and potentially other Western nations into the conflict, the official said.

Macron, however, told allies there would be no need to involve NATO or the U.S. if Russia targeted French troops, according to an official. France has had casualties in military campaigns in Africa, for example, without turning to allies for help.

Before the February summit was due to begin, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico told a televised briefing that preparatory materials he had received for the summit sent shivers down his spine. The documents, he said, suggested that a number of NATO and EU countries were considering sending troops to Ukraine. Fico added: “I cannot say for what purpose and what they should be doing there."

Tension was running high by the time Fico, Scholz, O’Brien and other leaders arrived at the Élysée Palace on Feb. 26. The group sat at a long table under the palace’s gilded ceiling. Macron shared his thoughts on the need for strategic ambiguity.

The Frenchman then asked Scholz, who was seated next to him, to respond. Scholz vehemently opposed the idea, officials said. One by one, leaders including those of the Netherlands, Poland and Greece took the floor and politely rejected the idea. Estonia’s prime minister echoed Macron, saying leaders needed to stop saying what they won’t do in the conflict and concentrate on what they will.

O’Brien urged participants to express strong support for the initiatives on which they all agreed—including the need to expedite the flow of munitions to Ukraine and accelerate the training schedule of Ukrainian troops—instead of focusing on their differences, a senior Biden administration official said.

After dining together, the leaders headed back to their respective hotels. Macron, meanwhile, took the podium before a room full of reporters, announcing that allies were boosting efforts to source artillery munitions and long-range missiles for Kyiv and also working toward setting up arms production inside Ukraine.

Asked whether leaders at the summit had discussed the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine, Macron said there was no consensus on the matter but that nothing should be ruled out.

“Many people who say today: ‘never, never’ were the same people who said two years ago: ‘Never, never tanks, never planes, never long-range missiles,’" Macron said. “I remind you that two years ago, many around this table said: ‘We are going to offer sleeping bags and helmets.’"

Back in his hotel room, Scholz was incredulous, officials said. Macron was publicly airing ideas that he and other leaders had privately rejected earlier that day. The German chancellor was also stung by Macron’s reference to helmets. Berlin had endured widespread ridicule for offering to send 5,000 helmets to Ukrainian forces in early 2022 when Russia was preparing its invasion. German officials said they were simply responding to a Ukrainian wish list with items that were easiest to send without parliamentary and other approval procedures.

The next day, Scholz fired off a social-media post, writing “there will be no ground troops from European countries or NATO."

Macron was unfazed. He traveled to Prague—where Czech authorities were in the middle of rounding up crucial munitions for Ukraine—and delivered a speech recalling how Europe was cut in two during the Cold War. Cowardice, Macron said, led to half of Europe abandoning the other to Soviet rule.

“We are certainly approaching a moment, in our Europe, when we should not be cowardly," Macron said. “War has returned to our soil."

Michael R. Gordon, Drew Hinshaw and Noemie Bisserbe contributed to this article.

Write to Stacy Meichtry at Stacy.Meichtry@wsj.com and Bojan Pancevski at bojan.pancevski@wsj.com

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