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13th Apr 2024

Analysis

Macron on Western boots in Ukraine: What he really meant

  • Russian president Vladimir Putin (l) with French president Emmanuel Macron in Moscow in February 2022, shortly before Putin invaded Ukraine (Photo: Kremlin.ru)
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French president Emmanuel Macron's taboo-shattering words on Western troops in Ukraine likely meant more special forces on the ground, but were also a new alarm-call on Russia's growing threat.

Macron said in Paris after a mini-summit late on Monday (26 February) "nothing should be excluded" when asked by the press if Western troops might go to Ukraine to help fight Russia.

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"We will do everything so that Russia cannot win this war," Macron said.

By Tuesday evening, his remarks had seen the Kremlin warn of a world war and Germany, the UK, the US, Poland, Spain, Sweden, Italy, and the Czech Republic pour cold water on Macron's declaration.

"There will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil sent there by European countries or Nato states," said German chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday, for one. "Boots on the ground is not an option for ... Germany," German defence minister Boris Pistorius said.

Lithuania was an outlier in welcoming Macron's statement, but most reactions indicated he had misjudged the room.

Macron had shown France and Germany "could not be further apart" on Russia, said Jana Puglierin, head of the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) think-tank.

"This is no way to promote European unity," she said.

French far-right and far-left politicians also jumped at the opportunity to whip up public fear, saying Macron had risked "the lives of our children" and was guilty of "madness ... belligerent verbal escalation".

And Edward Lucas, a British writer on European affairs, said: "Macron has a record of unpredictability. He likes thinking out loud".

"This would be a charming eccentricity if he was a university professor, but it's unsettling if he's commander-in-chief of one of the world's nuclear-armed powers," Lucas said.

"I'm not sure how seriously to take him," Lucas added.

But despite the blowback, French prime minister Gabriel Attal repeated Macron's line on Tuesday morning.

French liberal MEP and former Macron-cabinet minister Nathalie Loiseau also defended Macron's comments, saying he had meant only that Western military experts would become more active in Ukraine, not that foreign soldiers would go to fight en masse in the trench-and-artillery battlefields in the country's southeast.

"The idea isn't to go to the frontline," she told EUobserver on Tuesday.

"There is a situation which is evolving: The level of the Russian threat is higher and we [Western states] have to adapt. If we want to increase our support in different areas (de-mining, training, advising), we shouldn't exclude the presence of military on the ground," she said.

Special forces

For Lucas, that just meant more of the same, because Western special forces were already in Ukraine.

"It's a secretive world, for understandable reasons, but I've heard plausible rumours we had the SAS [Special Air Service] in Kyiv at the time of Russia's full-scale invasion [in February 2022] protecting [Ukrainian president Volodomyr] Zelensky," Lucas said.

"The SBS [Special Boat Service] was also involved in the Ukrainian operation to cross the Dniepr River [in summer 2023]," Lucas said, referring to two British special-forces units.

"You could easily imagine British, American, Polish, and Baltic special forces already operating in Ukraine and even in Russia-occupied parts of Ukraine," he added, referring to tasks such as long-range reconnaissance, rather than "killing Russians".

Jamie Shea, a former senior Nato official, also said: "Without doubt, there have been Western special forces in Ukraine since the beginning of the war and these can provide training for Ukrainian special forces and help to plan sabotage and commando operations".

"These are the kind of support services that Macron has in mind," added Shea, who now teaches war studies at Exeter University in the UK.

More of the same still entailed higher risk of Western casualties, warned Matthew Savill from the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.

"The Russians already believe Western forces are heavily involved in Ukraine, so this would probably be seen as less of an escalation than as 'confirmation' of their existing suspicions. However, they would also see them as viable targets, and any country contributing such forces would have to be prepared to take casualties," Savill said.

More of the same also meant more Western arms for Ukraine, with Macron saying on Monday the EU should buy 155mm artillery shells for Ukraine from non-European suppliers, such as Japan or South Korea, if need be.

But even if Macron's "nothing should be excluded" was less than a declaration of war against Russia, he had still crossed the rubicon in political terms, Lucas said.

Brave new words

"This is the first time a Western leader has ever publicly floated the idea of putting Western boots on the ground in Ukraine," the British writer said.

Macron had previously been one of the most Putin-friendly Western big fish, with visits to Moscow in the run-up to the Ukraine invasion in 2022 and regular Putin-Macron phone calls even afterwards.

But the French leader was now "opening a [new] conversation" on Ukraine, said Camille Grand, from the ECFR think-tank's Paris office.

The French leader wanted to "send a signal to Russia and Ukraine on Western resolve," an EU diplomat in Brussels also said.

"Maybe I underestimated him," the diplomat said.

And even if Macron has been dovish on Putin in the past, French diplomats have been more clear-eyed.

"The irreversibility of Russian strategic choices make it necessary to anticipate a [future] confrontation with Moscow," the French Secretariat-General for National Defence and Security, an offshoot of the French foreign ministry, said in a Strategic Review in November 2022.

Nicolas Tenzer, an influential French writer on foreign policy, has also pushed for bolder Ukraine intervention in Paris.

"I've been advocating since a long time publicly and privately that the EU or Nato should send troops to secure Ukrainian liberated territories," Tenzer told EUobserver on Tuesday.

"I made no distinction between CEE [Central and Eastern European] countries and others," he added, in terms of whether French or Polish troops should do the job.

But for Lucas and other experts, greater supplies of Western weapons would be more effective than extra special forces or bolder rhetoric from the Élysée.

It's the shells, stupid

"Artillery shells is the overwhelming question", Lucas said.

"Ukraine also needs more Himars, more Storm Shadows, and we need Taurus," he added, referring to long-range Western missiles capable of striking targets in Russia.

"The best way to put Putin on the back foot is to give Ukraine unlimited supplies of Western arms", also said Shea, the ex-Nato official.

And Robert Baer, a former US intelligence officer who until recently advised Kyiv on Western arms procurement, agreed.

Macron's comment showed "France has no confidence Ukraine can hold on much longer, and like many, it believes Putin will keep going. Who's next? The Baltics? Moldova?", Baer told EUobserver on Tuesday.

But the French sabre-rattling was "empty ... Putin knows it's a bluff," Baer added.

"Nato doesn't have the weapons or soldiers to fight a war with Russia, not if Putin continues à la Stalin in WWII. He's intent on restoring the Russian empire and destroying Western civilisation. He's in it for the long game," Baer said.

"The question you need to think about is — how many 155mm [artillery] shells does Nato have in its stocks?", Baer said.

"Nato's tanks have proven a bust in Ukraine, as have the [US air-defence missiles] Patriots," he said, debunking a myth of Western technological superiority.

Shea, the ex-Nato official, also said: "Russia is now on a permanent war footing. It has converted large parts of its industry to war production. It is importing large quantities of Iranian and North Korean weapons. It is mobilising hundreds of thousands of its young men".

"Putin is using propaganda and political coercion to condition Russian society to accept war as inevitable and necessary. Even Russian school children now undergo military training. You cannot live next door to this kind of country and not lose sleep at night," he said.

But pessimism aside, for Lucas it was still possible to end Putin's aggression in Ukraine, if the West gave effective support.

"A Ukrainian victory begins with hitting Russian supply lines to Crimea to the point that a Russian presence in Crimea becomes unsustainable. We're a short way off from cutting the road and rail bridge to Crimea and then Crimea changes from becoming a Russian threat to becoming Ukraine's hostage", Lucas said.

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