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13 March 2024

The West is revealing its hand to Putin

Emmanuel Macron’s threats to send ground troops to Ukraine only exposes Europe’s deepening divisions over the war.

By Wolfgang Münchau

During the Cold War, there was a consensus among Western leaders never to speculate about the circumstances in which they would deploy nuclear weapons. In that situation, strategic ambiguity worked.

Today’s debate in Europe about the circumstances in which ground troops would be sent to Ukraine could not be more different. Emmanuel Macron has raised the issue on a couple of recent occasions, when he has refused to rule out Western combat troops being dispatched and talked of there being “no limits” to Nato’s support for Ukraine. In a swipe directed at the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, the French president said you must never signal your red lines to an opponent who has made a habit of crossing them.

I agree with Macron, but his version of strategic ambiguity is not working because it exposes Europe’s divisions. Franco-German unity is a necessary condition (though not a sufficient one) for Europe to exert power, and Scholz has spoken out against ground troops. So has Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister; in contrast his foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, appears to side with Macron. The reality is that the EU is all over the place on this question. And that’s the message we are sending to Vladimir Putin.

The Western alliance on Ukraine is hampered by a combination of US reluctance, German red lines and French grandstanding. Up until very recently, the US was Ukraine’s biggest supporter by far, but now the House of Representatives is withholding the funds for Ukrainian aid and there is no end in sight to the congressional blockade. I cannot see the House Republicans releasing the funds now that Donald Trump is all but assured of their party’s nomination for president.

French support for Ukraine comes mostly in the form of rhetoric as opposed to direct financial and military assistance. Measured in terms of share of GDP, France ranks 28th among Ukraine’s supporters.

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Germany is a much bigger supporter of Ukraine, both financially and militarily. And yet Scholz has managed to look like the bad guy. Ground troops are indeed a red line for the German chancellor. He also opposes the dispatch of Taurus cruise missiles, fearing Ukraine might use them to hit targets in Russia. Current polls would suggest that he will not get a second term, but in opposing the delivery of offensive weapons Scholz is tapping in to a sense of unease in Germany about the war.

Friedrich Merz, the German opposition leader, is much more forthright in his support for Ukraine, especially on the issue of Taurus missiles. But the big unanswered question for Merz, and other European leaders, is what they would do if a Trump-led US were to withhold fully its support. Would Merz really take on the role of the Western alliance’s leader? Would Macron offer France’s nuclear arsenal to the EU? Of course not. Most likely, Germany would revert to its old practice of carving out deals with Eurasian dictators for the sake of German industry – the worse the economy performs, the greater that temptation will be. And Macron will continue to excel at grand speeches. There might be some progress in Europe, on defence procurement for example. But it would be too late to influence the outcome of the war.

Where I can see a narrow leadership role for Macron is in the protection of Moldova. His remarks about Western troops were made in the context of speculation over a Russian advance on Odesa. The Black Sea port city is only a few kilometres away from Ukraine’s border with Moldova – and a Russian invasion of Moldova would indeed pose a dramatic threat to the security interests of the EU and Nato.

On 7 March, Macron and Maia Sandu, the Moldovan president, agreed a defence pact in which France guaranteed Moldova’s security. It would be a strategic disaster for the West if Putin controlled the entire Black Sea, and the task of defending a small country like Moldova is a far more realistic prospect than liberating the 160,000 square kilometres of Ukrainian territory currently occupied by Russia. It is not credible for the West to fight a hot war with Russia in the Donbas. But it can protect Moldova.

The West could also help Ukraine defend itself against further Russian advances. But even this modest – and some would say disappointing – war goal would require a lot more money and military support than Europe is currently providing. While it may be hard for Macron to co-opt Scholz into such a project, I believe it is at least possible for Germany under a different leadership to align with a strategy that is militarily achievable.

Macron’s latest intervention goes right to the core of why the Western response to Russia’s invasion has been so flawed. It is not about whether it is right or wrong to help Ukraine: of course it is right to do so. Rather, it’s about persistent misjudgements, hypocrisy and amateurism. The West has misjudged the economic impact of sanctions and, in some cases, its own voters. Western leaders have been hypocritical in voicing their public support for war goals that bear no relationship to the levels of aid being offered to Kyiv.

A professional poker player would not discuss their bluffing strategies in the middle of a game. Amateurs, by contrast, always boast about their skills. Sikorski’s comment that strategic ambiguity would make Putin afraid has the quality of an amateur’s bluff. It might be a good idea in principle, but without unity strategic ambiguity is meaningless. The reality is that nobody is afraid of us, least of all Putin.

[See also: Europe’s consensus on climate is crumbling]

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This article appears in the 13 Mar 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Keir Starmer’s soul