Macron’s hypocritical stance on Ukraine

Published by The i paper (4th March, 2024)

Last week Emmanuel Macron, the French President, engaged in sabre-rattling that set nerves jangling from Moscow to Washington. Speaking at a press conference in the Elysée Palace in Paris after a meeting of European leaders, he shattered a taboo that has stood since the launch of Vladimir Putin’s full-scale attack on Ukraine by suggesting that sending Western troops into the embattled country was a possibility. “There is no consensus today to… endorse ground troops. But in terms of options, nothing should be ruled out,” Macron said, adding: “We will do everything needed so Russia cannot win the war.”

His bombshell statement sparked a barrage of criticism at home and abroad. It was dismissed by other leading Nato members such as the US, Britain and Germany – thus presenting to the Kremlin an image of disunity  – while denounced on both political flanks at home. Putin threatened to respond with nuclear weapons, as he has done so often over the past two years, while one of his stooges warned that any French troops fighting Russia would meet the same fate as a previous army. “Macron would do well to remember how it ended for Napoleon and his soldiers, more than 600,000 of whom were left lying in the damp earth,” said the parliamentary speaker, Vyachelsav Volodin. 

The French President later insisted that he stood by his words, claiming everything he says on Ukraine is “weighed, thought through and measured”. Officials clarified that any troops would be sent in support roles rather than to fight on the bloodstained frontline. Other leaders, confirming that there had been “heated” debate, admitted some Nato nations wanted to send troops to shore up Ukraine’s struggle for survival. Germany responded that Britain and France were already helping to guide missiles – then was hit by a purported leak over potential supply of long-range Taurus missiles.

This debate may intensify in the coming months as Russia exploits its big advantage in manpower and weaponry, having put its economy on a war footing and obtained weapons supplies from autocratic allies, while the West dithers on providing essential support for Kyiv. Most analysts saw Moscow’s capture of the town of Avdiivka – its first territorial gain for almost a year – as a sign of this growing strength. Undoubtedly last month’s loss of this symbolic stronghold was a blow for Ukraine, although the Kremlin paid a heavy price in men and military machines.

Yet this town that I visited shortly before the full-scale invasion and again after it was ringed by Putin’s forces shows the strength of Kyiv’s resistance. It sits just four miles from Donetsk, the capital of Putin’s patsy so-called people’s republic, so close that you can see the airport from its giant coking plant. Yet it took Russia’s huge armed forces the best part of a decade to capture this small town, which was only taken after it had been smashed to smithereens.

This merely underlines the hypocrisy of Macron, posing as resolute defender of democracy and Europe in the face of Putin’s atrocities. The French President is right to say that Russia’s defeat is “indispensable to security and stability in Europe”. And indeed, to stir up fresh discussion over how best to beat the dictator who is such a destabilising influence in the world.

Yet since the start of this conflict, Western support for Ukraine has been hesitant and limited, rarely matching the bold rhetoric – and few nations exemplify this failure better than France. As Germany’s vice-chancellor, Robert Habeck, responded after Macron’s intervention, it is good that Paris wants to boost support “but if I could give it a word of advice, supply more weapons”.

The truth is that Macron looks tarnished by this war, repeatedly sending the wrong signals to the Kremlin. First the posturing French leader said that Nato was suffering “brain death” in 2019. Then, as Russian troops began massing on Ukraine’s border two years later, he pressed for a new “architecture of security” to embrace the dictatorship that stole Crimea from a democratic ally.

He endorsed the Kremlin’s demand for security guarantees, arrogantly assumed his silver tongue could persuade Putin not to attack in the days before he did so, then urged the West not to “humiliate” the despot – which infuriated Ukraine as it suffered his war crimes.

Now he has hardened his public stance against Putin. But the Kiel Institute, a German think-tank that tracks support for Ukraine, reports that France has given aid amounting to less than 0.1 per cent of its gross domestic product – a dismal rate dwarfed by Britain, Germany and Poland, let alone by Estonia’s world-leading commitment that is 50 times greater.

Even after pushing up support this year, France – the second-biggest economy in the European Union and home to a powerful defence sector – on its own figures is offering less in total than Denmark, a nation with one-tenth of its population. And until last week Macron was blocking Czech efforts to use Brussels funding to procure 800,000 artillery shells for Ukraine to protect French defence interests.

Macron is far from the only world leader whose words are not matched by deeds on this front. Even the US President, Joe Biden, seems more focused on Kyiv avoiding defeat than on helping Ukraine defeat Putin and his barbaric imperial regime. And unlike Britain’s complacent leaders, the French President has driven up defence spending with the biggest increase for half a century in order to protect democracy and freedoms in this increasingly turbulent world.

But his track record on Ukraine is pitiful – particularly for a president who recognises that Europe may soon find itself standing alone in support of Kyiv given the paralysis in Washington and threat of Donald Trump’s return to the White House.

Macron was right to say last week that the case for “acting differently” in Ukraine is overwhelming and that the West has been shamefully sluggish in its response to Russian aggression. This is an epochal struggle of democracy versus dictatorship that could shape our continent for decades. Yet instead of grandstanding and stirring up divisions with allies, how much better if Macron led Europe in supporting a democracy under assault with hard cash and weapons, instead of being such a hypocritical laggard.

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