One possible reason behind the sudden urge to send troops to Ukraine?

3 min read

When French President Emanuel Macron said that Europe shouldn’t rule out sending ground troops to Ukraine to prevent Russia from winning the war, this started something new in Europe.

Only in the wrong way. 

Well, have no misconceptions, the topic must had been debated several times behind closed doors. But this was the first time that the problem left those secret rooms, rendering plausible deniability impossible. 

Even more worryingly, the first statements issued in the wake of the plan showed the confusion of European leaders about the topic, some of whom made references on NATO military personnel already being present in Ukraine. The Taurus Leak just added insult to the injury.

In his defence, President Macron has not explicitly advocated for sending European fighting troops to Ukraine, and his comments have been nuanced and cautious. Still, he created shockwaves all through the political arena. 

Yet (or luckily), despite the strategic importance of the question raised, the issue has been taken off the agenda with great speed, maybe because of the unpopularity of this option.

Latest French opinion polls prove that more than two-thirds of French voters believed Macron was ‘wrong’, while 68 percent disapproved of his comments, with a mere 31 percent agreeing. Politicians from all ends of the spectrum (yes, Socialists finally agreed on something with Marine Le Pen) denounced the president’s ideas as “putting the existence of 70 million French at risk”.

Opposition far from home was even stronger. Most of France’s NATO and EU allies have quickly and clearly refused the idea (in some cases literally moments after it was announced). 

Even Poland, probably the most steadfast supporter of Ukraine, has said that it would not send troops. Warsaw has drawn a red line on the second strategic front, in addition to supporting its agricultural sector. (On a side note: a few days later, Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski made a slightly different statement, claiming that the presence of NATO forces was “not unthinkable” and that he appreciated the French president’s stance for not ruling out the idea. We’ll see whether this was said only for domestic political considerations or Warsaw has truly changed its mind.)

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz might have been on a different event because he declared that the participants had agreed “that there will be no ground troops, no soldiers on Ukrainian soil who are sent there by European states or NATO states.” Scholz said that there was also consensus “that soldiers operating in our countries are not participating actively in the war themselves.”

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby gave yet another straightforward response, “well, that’s a sovereign decision that every NATO ally would have to make for themselves. You heard [NATO] Secretary-General Stoltenberg say himself he had no plans or intentions of — certainly under NATO auspices — of putting troops on the ground. And President Biden has been crystal clear since the beginning of this conflict. There’ll be no U.S. troops on the ground in a combat role there. In Ukraine.”

Thus, the upside is that even if President Macron let the genie out of the bottle, peace-loving Europeans can continue to sleep … in peace.

In the short term, at least.

Unfortunately, President Macron’s unprepared statement has caused serious damage to NATO and could almost be seen as a stress test commissioned by Moscow. Alas, “dropping a bomb like this” in an unprepared and unprofessional way, indicating the possibility of a scenario that carries great risks, creates only more problems than solutions.

The announcement was not simply a stress-test that Moscow was glad to see. It was just as much a present delivered on a silver platter to Putin, because it played exactly to the Russian narrative of NATO expansion to the East, and proved that “this was a NATO war against Russia”. Intra-NATO fragmentation and arguments are always extra bonuses to the Kremlin. 

We might never know, what prompted President Macron’s speech.

There have been several explanations and theories, most seem just as likely as the other.

Like that France was only reacting to previous criticisms that it was not providing enough support. 

Or maybe the aim was just to stir up the Ukraine debate in NATO and the EU, especially in advance of the US elections and/or the possibility of diminishing American support.

Or it was just the starting point, a test to see how European opinions on Ukraine changed. The outlooks for Ukraine might be bleaker than admitted and there might be some preliminary thinking about the next step. In this scenario, Macron’s statement was done as the first steppingstone in “sensitizing European societies”: only a few months ago, power groups were fighting about their share of future reconstruction deals in Ukraine, now the escalation of the conflict is on the agenda.

Yet, one of the likeliest scenarios has not much to do with Ukraine and more with French domestic issues and international ambitions.

Again, Macron could from now on argue for European defense autonomy, the main player of which (in the absence of the UK and with the German coalition mostly paralyzed) could be, drumrolls, France.

Macron’s commitment may be financially motivated, as well. 

France has adopted its largest defense budget (413 billion EUR) to date, in a moment when defense giants outperform the industrial average. According to French stock market statistics, French stocks rose 5.25 percent on average in 2023, from that, industrial companies’ shares grew 12.54 percent. In the meanwhile, companies in the defense and aerospace sector gained a whopping 24.31 percent. Probably not surprisingly, apart from German Rheinmetall and Italian Leonardo, all main European defense companies have their headquarters in France. Manus manum lavat, as the Romans said.

Alas, even if it was only the result of the French defense sector’s successful lobbying efforts, the mere mentioning of the possibility of escalation might turn political processes in the wrong direction in an already tense moment.

And when people and politicians will be talking about going or not going to war, the really important issues (think: housing crisis, the livelihoods of millions of Europeans in risk) can be more easily sidestepped. The only losers will be European people. 

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