The view from Paris

Karam Said, Thursday 14 Mar 2024

The French president continues to notch up his rhetoric to galvanise support for Kyiv in its battle against Russian forces.

The view from Paris


On 5 March, French President Emmanuel Macron urged Ukraine’s Western backers not to be “cowardly” in helping Ukraine fight the Russians.

“We are surely approaching a moment for Europe in which it will be necessary not to be cowardly,” he said on the sidelines of a meeting with the French expatriate community in Prague, adding that France and the Czech Republic were “well aware that the war is back on our soil (in Europe).. and that we have to live up to history and the courage it requires.”

He stressed that he stood by earlier remarks in which he suggested the possibility of NATO members sending troops into Ukraine, which was met by shock and vehement denials across Western capitals.

Russian forces have been steadily advancing along the entire front in eastern Ukraine, scoring significant breakthroughs in Ukrainian defence lines. Of particular importance is the capture of Avdiivka. A heavily fortified city on the outskirts of Donetsk, it has served as a forward Ukrainian military and logistic hub since the outbreak of the Civil War between western Ukraine and the predominantly Russian-speaking Donbas region in 2014.

Ukrainian forces have used it to bombard Donetsk city and the surrounding towns and villages for nearly a decade. After the fall of Avdiivka, Russian forces moved swiftly to drive Ukrainian forces from several villages further to the west. Ukrainian forces are short on troops, having suffered severe attrition in their ranks, and they are short on ammunition and heavily outgunned because their Western backers have failed to rearm it quickly enough.

Macron echoes Kyiv’s growing anxieties as expressed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky ahead of his meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Davos in mid-January.

In an attempt to raise the alarm among his Western allies, Zelensky warned that if Ukraine did not receive the necessary military and financial assistance to drive back Russian forces, Moscow would be able to pursue its expansionist goals beyond Ukraine’s borders.

Kyiv’s obvious frustration with its Western partners and the course of the war may explain Zelensky’s remarks in a press conference on 25 February in which he said that his country hoped that world leaders would meet in Switzerland in the coming months to discuss Kyiv’s vision for peace.  In the framework of that summit, a plan would be elaborated, and a joint document would be prepared and then presented to Russia.

However, Zelensky stressed, “We do not want any negotiation formats or peace formulas to be imposed on us by countries that are not here today, not at war. The initiative needs to come only from Ukraine.”

The director of the Ukrainian president’s office added that his country and its Western partners might then invite Moscow to attend a peace summit at some point in the future to discuss an end to the more than two-year-old war on Kyiv’s terms.

Macron’s rhetorical stridency in support of Kyiv may in large part be a reaction to flagging support for Ukraine among other Western capitals. The day before Macron’s remarks from Prague, German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz reiterated Berlin’s refusal to provide Ukraine with Taurus missiles.

“You cannot supply a weapon system that has a very long range and then not think about how this weapon system will be controlled. And if you want to have control and if this is only possible with the involvement of German military personnel, then for me, this is not a subject of discussion.”

Support from Kyiv’s strongest backer, the US, has declined significantly in recent months. Among the main reasons for this is the ongoing standoff in Congress over the Biden administration’s request for Congressional approval of a $95 billion aid bill, $60 billion of which would go to support Kyiv. The bill also included $14.1 billion to support Israel in its war on Gaza, which has yet to make a breakthrough towards the achievement of its stated aim as the war enters its sixth month. Indeed, because of the Biden administration’s current preoccupation with the latter war, large quantities of ammunition that had been earmarked for Ukraine were diverted to Israel.

While Macron’s statements from Prague reflect mounting Western anxiety over the trajectory of the war in Ukraine, it is unlikely that the West will send in troops. First, this is not the first time Macron has said that the West should not rule out the option of boots on the ground in Ukraine. In February, when he brought up the idea, he stressed that there was no European consensus on recourse to that option. Second, most European nations are concerned that the longer the war in Ukraine continues, the worse its repercussions will be for them.

Moreover, despite Finland and Sweden’s recent accession to NATO, many appear aware of the dangers of escalatory moves because of Russia’s formidable weapons capacities. Russian President Vladimir Putin drove this home during his annual address to the Russian Federal Assembly on 29 February, in which he spoke of his country’s efforts to upgrade and modernise its strategic military capacities.

He went on to list some of these, including the recently added several long-range hypersonic missile systems capable of delivering nuclear warheads. Third, the current administration in Washington prioritises the Israeli war on Gaza and the forthcoming presidential elections in November. Generally, a significant part of US strategic plans is put on hold during campaign seasons.

Paris’ escalatory rhetoric will further aggravate tensions between it and Moscow and contribute to prolonging the war, which would drive more Ukrainian refugees into Europe. Immigration is already a sensitive issue across the West.

The influx of more immigrants from Ukraine would exact a higher toll on European economies which, according to international indicators, are contracting. The current wave of angry protests by French farmers is a concrete sign of the severity of the French economic crisis.

While Paris is a major European actor and staunch supporter of Kyiv, Macron so far remains alone in putting the option of troops in Ukraine on the table. In addition, France has not invested as much in Ukraine as other Western countries, and it is more remote from the war theatre.

Also, Paris would probably not want to risk further deterioration in its relations with Moscow given the links between the two countries in energy and other important fields. Ultimately, therefore, Macron’s rhetoric may be primarily pitched for domestic consumption to calm seething tensions in France where no sooner did the “yellow vests” protests abate than the farmers’ protests erupted.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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