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Macron hints at troops in Ukraine, but EU has bigger issues

Ella Joyner in Brussels
March 8, 2024

The French president riled allies and foes alike by suggesting Europeans could one day send troops to Ukraine. But Kyiv's backers have far more pressing questions to answer first, experts warn.

Emmanuel Macron
Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP/Getty Images

Emmanuel Macron has set the cat among the pigeons once again. Known for proclivity to provoke debate among EU and NATO allies, the centrist French president raised eyebrows by taking aim at a long-standing taboo in the war in Ukraine: the prospect of deploying Western troops.

"There is no consensus today to send ground troops… [but] nothing should be ruled out," Macron said at a gathering of Ukraine's allies in Paris last week, convened amid worrying signs and reported ammunition shortages from the front line of fighting with Russia.

Germany, Spain, Italy, the UK, Poland, NATO and the European Commission all underlined that they had no plans to send ground troops to Ukraine – a long-standing red line, as German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pointed out, because of the risk of dangerous escalation and direct confrontation with Russia.

French President Emmanuel Macron (C) delivers a speech to open a conference
Last month's Paris meeting was billed as a chance to "reaffirm their unity as well as their determination"Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP/Getty Images

French officials later stressed that troops could for example be sent to support demining operations, news agency AFP reported, rather than actually fighting Russian forces. But the cat was already out the bag. Last week in Moscow, President Vladimir Putin warned sending troops would risk provoking nuclear conflict.

Uncowed by criticism (also from his domestic political opponents to the left and right), Macron stayed on the offensive. "We are surely approaching a moment for Europe in which it will be necessary not to be cowards," he said at a press conference in Prague on Tuesday.

Berlin and Paris take swipes

The Frenchman's comments were again poorly received in Germany, with tensions on display among the two countries considered the European Union's axis of leadership. "We don't need really... talk about boots on the ground or having more courage or less courage," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said in Sweden on Tuesday. "This is something which does not really help solve the issues we have when it comes to helping Ukraine."

The boots-on-the-ground spat underlines a difficult moment of soul-searching in Europe. Ukraine's allies know that they are at a difficult juncture. After two years and billions of euros in arms and other aid for Kyiv, many observers in Europe seem pessimistic about the current direction of the war.

Soldier with a gun
Kyiv has grown increasingly frustrated about ammo shortages on the front lineImage: Max Zander/DW

And with the prospect of firebrand isolationist Donald Trump being re-elected as US president in November, the EU is getting increasingly skittish that Washington will cease to be a reliable backer of Kyiv in the not-too distant future. Traditional trans-Atlanticist incumbent President Joe Biden has struggled for months to get a colossal military aid package for Kyiv through Congress.

Less talk, more action

As Mike Martin of King's College London explained to DW, apprehension about the boots-on-the-ground comment was to be expected. "All of the sides have been trying very hard to make sure that there's no direct confrontation between Russian troops and troops of countries that belong to NATO for very good reasons, because that would bring us into a much wider conflict," he said.

Marta Mucznik, an analyst from conflict resolution organization Crisis Group told DW that the problem was not just the risk of escalation, but the timing. EU leaders feel like they are "still struggling to get our act together to send the right ammunition and find those to send the right artillery to Ukraine," she said. "Why are we even discussing sending troops?"

After failing to deliver on an earlier commitment to deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine by March, the EU is currently considering a Czech plan to buy 800,000 rounds, including much from third countries.

France previously opposed it because it wanted all rounds to be made in the EU, but appears to have dropped this requirement, as the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank noted last week.

Ukraine's President Zelenskyy and Greece's Prime Minister Mitsotakis in front of a damaged residential building
EU leaders — like Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakisvow — are regular guests in Ukraine to show they're backing ZelenskyyImage: UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL PRESS SERVICE/AFP

France and Germany have also been at odds in negotiations over arrangements for long-term military aid for Ukraine from an EU pot of money known as the European Peace Facility. Having mobilized €6 billion so far, according to official EU figures, member states are now grappling over the rules for the next billions.

Adding to feelings of franticness, Berlin has been embarrassed by the  leak of a high-security conversation among German military officials published by Russian state media last week.

EU 'bickering' while pressing questions remain

As the EU searches for answers, Macron appears to be trying to lead debate. On Thursday, the French government convened a videoconference of defense and foreign ministers from 28 countries, including Ukraine, plus EU and NATO representatives. The meeting was "part of a series of initiatives... to mobilize support for Ukraine" building on last week's Paris meeting, the Foreign Ministry announced ahead of time.

So what exactly is the French leader playing at? "Emmanuel Macron is quite erratic when it comes to foreign affairs," Mike Martin of King's College London said. "This was the president who felt that he could go to Moscow and, you know, cut a deal with Putin in the early stage."

German Defense Minister warns it's all 'Putin's game' referring leaked military conversations

According to analyst Mucznik of Crisis Group, it is likely to do with what Macron himself refers to as "strategic ambiguity."

"It's a way of him sending a bit mixed messages and sending off also a strong signal to Moscow, that we cannot rule out the possibility of sending Western troops," the analyst told DW.

But for her, the EU is spending too much time "bickering" over details. It is certainly not clear from opinion polls that the general public would support sending troops. "These are the questions that we should be asking ourselves, to what extent are we ready to support Ukraine?"

Edited by: Andreas Illmer