The case for defence: How Russia’s war on Ukraine has proved France right

Old stereotypes about France’s position on Russia were not wholly unjustified. But in 2022, Paris’s actions and words merit greater attention from other EU capitals long suspicious of French motives

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech at the French Navy base of Toulon, southern France, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022. Emmanuel Macron unveils the country’s military strategy through the end of the decade for his nuclear-armed country, in the midst of Russia’s war in Ukraine. (Eric Gaillard, Pool via AP)
French President Emmanuel Macron delivers his speech at the French Navy base of Toulon, southern France, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2022.
Image by picture alliance / ASSOCIATED PRESS | Eric Gaillard
©

The war in Ukraine has confirmed the validity of some European countries’ approach to Russia and their own defence. Poland can now feel vindicated in its longstanding distrust of Russia, as well as its insistence on the crucial role of the United States for European security. Meanwhile, Germany’s pre-2022 hope to convert Russia into a reliable partner through economic interdependence has turned out to be a pipe dream – pushing Chancellor Olaf Scholz to announce a German U-turn that includes a major rise in military spending and diversification of energy imports. For other member states, however, things are not as clear cut.  

France is an especially striking and important example. The war just outside the European Union’s borders demonstrates the need to beef up the continent’s military capabilities – something which President Emmanuel Macron has advocated since 2017. Indeed, nuclear-capable France – with the most powerful military in the EU, a thriving defence industry, a security partnership with the United Kingdom, and a seat at the UN Security Council – has the best credentials to lead such a project. On other major questions of European security, one may note that France imported little gas from Russia, having taken the decision to expand generation of nuclear energy following the ‘oil shock’ of the 1970s. So, the war has likely helped Paris feel doubly justified: in its calls for Europe’s strategic autonomy over the years and in the value it has long placed on energy security .

The problem is that – looking in from Warsaw, Tallin, or Stockholm – France has in fact been proved doubly wrong. Firstly, Paris underestimated Washington’s commitment to, and indispensability for, European security, with the United States’ outsize role in providing support for Ukraine this year casting doubt on the idea that Europe could ever become strategically autonomous of the US. Secondly, France has long seemed too eager to engage with Russia – after the latter’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and even since its all-out invasion of Ukraine this year. The memory of Macron’s musings in 2019 about the “brain death” of NATO, and his Brégançon meeting with Vladimir Putin the same year deepen this underlying distrust of France for many policymakers in eastern and northern Europe; their current suspicions of France’s appeasement temptations come as no surprise.

However, just as too much dissonant self-congratulation in Paris could be ill-advised, those sticking to a stereotype of France risk overlooking a significant change in the country’s approach – not just on Russia, but also on NATO and on national and European defence.

France’s turn

Criticisms of France are becoming increasingly unfair, even if the stereotype was once largely justified. Paris had already begun to revisit its approach to Russia before 24 February 2022. This was prompted mostly by rivalry from Moscow in the Sahel, where Russia supplanted French-led EU forces as Mali’s main military partner. This year’s invasion of Ukraine then accelerated the rethink – and there are signs of a major turn.

In 2022, France has significantly boosted its military presence on NATO’s eastern flank – in Romania (where it is now the alliance’s “framework nation”), as well as in Lithuania and Estonia. And, although France’s military support for Ukraine is limited when compared to the US or even Britain, its efforts have proved particularly useful on the battlefield. For example, French-made Caesar self-propelled howitzer guns played a key role in the Ukrainian counteroffensive in the Donbas region. French weapons are also likely arriving in Ukraine in larger quantities than the official data show, and France has committed to train 2,000 Ukrainian troops.

In terms of engagement with Russia, Macron has received much criticism for his conversations with Putin. But footage from 24 February shows Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky requesting that Macron contact Putin, while the transcript of the subsequent call between the French and Russian leaders paints the former in a favourable light. Furthermore, Macron may often insist on the need for peace negotiations, but he has also been clear that Ukraine should decide when the time is right for these. On at least one occasion, he has acknowledged that Ukraine’s goal in this war is to regain its 1991 borders, which means taking back Crimea. This goes further than other western European leaders, such as Scholz – though the president remains ambiguous on whether his country officially shares Ukraine’s aim.

The French government’s recent national strategic review tasks France with becoming a driving force for cooperation between the EU and NATO

The French government’s recent national strategic review codifies several of these changes. It tasks France with becoming a driving force for cooperation between the EU and NATO. This places the case for Europe’s strategic autonomy firmly within the alliance (rather than in opposition to it), which should help reduce the suspicions of eastern and northern EU member states. The review also makes clear that strategic autonomy within NATO should largely focus on increasing defence-industrial cooperation (rather than, for example, building a European army).

The review – and Macron’s accompanying speech in Toulon – also gave Paris the opportunity to restate its policy on nuclear deterrence, held since at least 2018, which is to recognise the European dimension of France’s “vital interests”. It confirms that this policy can apply to attacks outside French territory, correcting Macron’s recent gaffe that a nuclear strike in Ukraine would not put France’s vital interests at risk and thus would not call for a nuclear response from France.

References to a “war economy” also feature heavily in the review, mostly concerning how the French defence industry should prepare to ensure and, if necessary, scale up its production in response to the requirements of the ongoing war. Macron has been among the few European leaders to talk openly about this subject in recent months. Finally, the new document states that France will prepare its armed forces for a “high intensity conflict”, such as the current war in Ukraine. This would be major transformation for the French military.

Turning the others

France new positioning is unlikely to convince everyone. Indeed, for one group of French experts, only a more radical turn in the country’s foreign policy can overcome the stereotypes. In their view, France needs to significantly increase its military support to Ukraine to become one of its main donors – instead of lagging behind the UK, Poland, and even Estonia. It could also become the first country to supply Western tanks and fighter jets. France would also need to give up on its pretence of serving as a “balancing power” vis-à-vis Russia and communicate its solidarity with Ukraine in an unambiguous way.

Such demands represent nothing less than a call for a French Zeitenwende. Many of these ideas will prove to be out of reach, but they usefully point to the need for France not to rest on its laurels – as well as providing guidance on how to proceed. Macron’s call for European strategic autonomy would be stronger if France stepped up its military, humanitarian, and financial support for Ukraine. Macron could also clarify that he shares Zelensky’s goal of restoring Ukraine’s 1991 borders. Beyond that, the country will need to demonstrate and sustain its new posture in the long term (including in NATO) to rebuild its credentials with eastern and northern EU member states.

However, the external context increases the urgency for Europe to become more self-reliant in its security. And France cannot shoulder all the responsibility for progress towards this by itself. Whichever party governs in Washington, the hard reality of a growing rivalry between the US and China will not allow Americans to get as involved in European security as many in Europe would hope. It is therefore also up to other EU member states to draw the right conclusions from this context – and to respond to Paris’s new stance.

The most immediate need is for Europeans to better coordinate their rearmament and arms supplies to Ukraine, which calls for joint defence procurement. And, according to the recent EU defence review, key risks in the medium to long term include disconnected spending decisions among member states and a reliance on non-EU suppliers. Germany and Poland, for instance, are putting much of their increased military budgets into off-the-shelf American and South Korean products. If they and others continue down this path, European forces are in danger of becoming increasingly fragmented. The EU may also lose a unique opportunity: together, member states’ defence budgets could deliver not just more coherent but also more capable and self-reliant militaries through economies of scale and developing the European industrial and technological base. Indeed, the EU review concludes that member states should coordinate their goals for long-term military capabilities and improve collaboration on defence investment.

This echoes the French argument that: “European strategic autonomy depends on robust European defence industrial capabilities that meet its own needs.” Becoming more sympathetic to the idea of European strategic autonomy is in the interest of all EU member states, whether they yet fully trust France on this or not. Adopting this direction for the future of European defence will also present a new challenge for the transatlanticist Poles. It will not be enough for them to point out they were right on Russia. Just as Berlin is giving its Zeitenwende a true European dimension, Warsaw should learn to work with Paris to strengthen European security.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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