'On the edge of a precipice'

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 5 Mar 2024

French President Emmanuel Macron’s threat to deploy French troops in Ukraine risks placing the world on the brink of nuclear annihilation, writes Hussein Haridy


The headline above is borrowed from the cover story that appeared in the UK Economist magazine on 9 November 2019.

It was publishing an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron, in which he emphasised that “Europe is on the edge of a precipice. If we don’t wake up there is a considerable risk that in the long run we will disappear geopolitically, or at least we will no longer be in control of our destiny.”

 In the interview Macron called for a more “sovereign” and “strategic” Europe.

Last Monday, Macron hosted more than 20 heads of state and government, mainly European, at a summit meeting in Paris intended to remobilise the European countries behind Ukraine and to discuss all possible means to support it.

The French hosts wanted the summit to express a united European position.

However, the meeting will be remembered not for its show of support for Ukraine but rather for the spectre it raised, if unintentionally, of a direct military confrontation between Russia and Europe and NATO. Such a confrontation would probably witness the first use of tactical nuclear weapons in its early stages.

Macron, who had earlier given the impression that he could play a certain role in mediating an honourable way out for the two protagonists in the Ukraine war, Russia and Ukraine, startled the Paris summit by not ruling out the deployment of ground forces in Ukraine.

French officials later clarified this by claiming that Macron was speaking of non-combatants. However, he still stressed that Russia’s “defeat” in Ukraine was indispensable to security and stability in Europe.

Most countries, whether members of NATO or the European Union, reacted swiftly by saying that they did not support any such idea, and this was a reaction shared by the secretary-general of NATO.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said that “it is clear there will be no ground troops from European countries and NATO” involved in the war. In Washington, Deputy Spokesman of the National Security Council Adrienne Watson said that US “President Biden has been clear regarding the [fact]that the United States won’t send troops to fight in Ukraine.”

On 27 February, the Kremlin reacted by saying that the deployment of Western troops in Ukraine would make a full-scale war against NATO inevitable. Russian President Vladimir Putin himself in his State of the Nation speech the following Thursday let it be known that European capital cities are within reach of Russian missiles, including Paris.

Military experts and analysts in Western think tanks believe that Russia will not hesitate to use tactical nuclear weapons if NATO deploys ground forces in Ukraine.

Within France itself the statement by Macron caused consternation in the political class. In order to clarify what his true intentions are, he is expected to receive representatives of most of the country’s political parties on 7 March. This will be an occasion for him to explain what he meant by maintaining what he called France’s “strategic ambiguity” at the summit meeting.

Macron admitted before the summit that there has been no consensus on the deployment of Western troops in Ukraine, but he said that nothing should be excluded in the “dynamic context” of the Ukraine war. He further said that “we” would do what must be done in order that Russia does not “win this war.”

This is a position that contradicts the French foreign policy of maintaining good relations with Moscow, something that was the case even at the height of the Cold War and in the post-Cold War era.

Macron himself travelled to Moscow in early February 2022 and met Putin in an attempt to talk him out of sending Russian forces into Ukraine. In hindsight, the fact that Russia went ahead with its “special military operation” in Ukraine anyway testifies to the fact that Putin knew that decisions in NATO are made in Washington and not in Paris or any other European capital.

Some observers of French politics have explained Macron’s position by saying that confronting Russia will be his main message in the upcoming elections for the European Parliament in June and is intended to put the far-right in France, in other words the Rassemblement National led by Marine Le Pen, in a defensive position. This is perceived as being pro-Putin, something which Le Pen has always denied.

Was Macron trying to position himself and France as the leader of what he had previously called the “strategic autonomy” of Europe in his comments at the Paris summit? Was he trying to score domestic political points before the elections for the European Parliament? Or was he just trying to refurbish his international image and reposition his country as a leading voice within the trans-Atlantic community?

Five years ago in his interview with the Economist, Macron broached the idea of a “united Europe.” However, his call for putting boots on the ground in Ukraine has not proved to be a rallying cry for the Europeans even during the indirect military confrontation that has been taking place with Russia over the last two years.

Macron talked about depriving Russia of a military victory in Ukraine even as Russian troops have been advancing in eastern Ukraine and scoring tactical victories against Ukrainian forces.

Was the French President showing statesmanship or exercising brinkmanship at the Paris summit? I guess the latter is an apt description of his position.

Deploying European or NATO troops in Ukraine would put the whole world on the “precipice” of nuclear annihilation. Is it worth it? I don’t think so.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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