Macron's game: is Paris really trying to challenge Moscow?

Macron's game: is Paris really trying to challenge Moscow?

The recent statement of the French President Emmanuel Macron where he didn’t exclude the possibility of deploying NATO troops in Ukraine, has stirred a significant political turmoil. Indeed, despite the significant military aid provided to Ukraine, most Western states have been very careful in their attempts to avoid any direct clash with Russia. After Macron’s statement, senior politicians from a number of Western countries, including US, Germany, United Kingdom and Poland, excluded this opportunity. In France itself, the leaders of most political parties, including both the far-right Marine Le Pen who accused Macron of  “toying with “the lives of [France’s] children,” and the Communist Jean-Luc Melenchon, decried it as irresponsible and dangerous. On its side, Moscow was quick to emphasize that such a move made by France, or any NATO country, would mean the crossing of fundamental red lines and justify strikes against European targets. In his February 29 address to the Federal Assembly, President Putin reminded that Russian strategic nuclear forces are “fully prepared for guaranteed usage”, sending a clear message about what could happen should foreign troops appear on the Ukraine battlefield.

However, this row about Ukraine has not been the only recent instance when Macron openly challenged Moscow on a very sensitive issue. Recently, he has welcomed Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan in Paris where the parties agreed on further arms purchases and other modes of defense cooperation. After this visit, Yerevan raised the degree of criticism towards Moscow. It was announced that Russian border guards would soon stop to be placed at Yerevan’s Zvartnots airport, while Pashinyan claimed that Armenia “is freezing” its participation in the CSTO, though later he clarified that he had meant it in a political, and not in a strictly legal, sense. Moreover, according to some sources, during this visit an agreement was reached between the French intelligence service DSGE and the newly formed Armenian intelligence agency on the exchange of data on four countries — Azerbaijan, Iran, Russia, and Türkiye on an agreed list of issues, although later this information was refuted in Yerevan. Intriguingly enough, Macron insisted on Pashinyan’s meeting with Mourad Papazian, the prominent French-Armenian political activist close to the ultra-nationalist and anti-Russian Dashnaktsutyun party, who had been banned from Armenia in 2022, allegedly for his harsh criticism of the ruling government, particularly its peace initiatives towards Azerbaijan. The French president specifically hailed Yerevan’s acceptance of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC), the move that had infuriated Moscow. 

So, a question remains hanging in the air: what is the motivation behind Macron’s deliberate steps, more symbolic than practical, bound to raise the degree of tensions with Moscow and trigger even more escalatory rhetoric from the Kremlin?

First of all, this behaviour reflects Macron’s claim for a political and moral leadership in the EU, which he has been making ever since his election in 2017 and particularly after the start of the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the French president has on a number of occasions already demonstrated his ambitious vision of the European politics, playing a champion of Europe’s strategic autonomy and hence supporting, among others, the idea of the EU armed forces which would decrease the strong level of security dependence on the US. This positioning is becoming all the more appealing in the Old Continent as the trend for isolationism is gaining ground in the USA and the growing polarization within the Congress and in the society at large has questioned the continuity of American support to Ukraine- which in the worst case may result in a decisive Russian breakthrough on the frontline and occupation of significant territories, thus dramatically raising the level of strategic threat faced by Central and Eastern European countries and making Europe face a dilemma whether to conduct accelerated militarization or accept Putin’s rules of the game.    

This claim represents a tacit challenge to the notion of the German-French tandem which for many years has been considered the political locomotive of the Union. Since 2022, Berlin has been struggling to preserve its previous role in the EU as its economic growth is significantly affected by the loss of the Russian market, while German military-industrial complex exposed its inadequacy to the challenges put by the Russian domination. This is why Berlin, compared to Paris, has been taking a much more careful position (at least verbally) when it comes to dealing with Moscow. The German government has reportedly been one of the biggest supporters of resuming ceasefire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine and pushing Kyiv to step back from its maximalist expectations as providing military and humanitarian aid from Europe on the same scale is more and more being viewed as unsustainable. Just on February 28, German Chancellor Scholz in his statement de facto excluded the possibility of providing Ukraine with powerful Taurus cruise missiles, since it would require presence of its troops on the ground and also raises the risks of hitting Russian territory. Fabian Hoffman from the Oslo Nuclear Project believes that the Chancellor’s refusal to deliver Taurus is his fundamental mistrust of Ukrainians who could “use those missiles in a way that [does] not go against what he perceives as Germany’s interests”.

Moreover, reportedly the rift between Berlin and Paris on the issue of Ukraine support has been deepening. According to the Kiel Institute’s numbers, Paris has pledged only about 3 percent of the €17.1 billion in arms promised by Berlin. German government allegedly believes that Macron’s bold rhetoric is aimed at disguising the French inability- or unwillingness- to provide significant aid; German newspaper Handelsblatt has even called his behaviour “hypocritical” since France can’t even supply Ukraine with weapons on the scale it pledged to. While Paris indicates to the fact that it has provided Kyiv with a number of ground-breaking weapons and in general doesn’t disclose full amounts of its military spending. So, it may be assumed that since the prolongation and intensification of the Ukraine war hits German economy significantly more than the French one, Paris may have an instrumental interest in it as a means of boosting its hegemony within the EU. 

Still, Macron’s dramatic U-turn on Russia fails to persuade many experts in his sincerity. Indeed, on the eve of the Russian invasion and during its initial months the French leader had most frequent contacts with President Putin, among the heads of major Western states; he was even being mocked for his calls to the Kremlin. At the same time, Paris’s openings to Armenia also receive certain questions; sales of various kinds of weapons to the country which, despite all its rows with Moscow, remains a CSTO member and has a large Russian military base on its territory, trigger concerns about possible technology leakage. From the strategic point of view, the promise of alliance to Armenia, as long as it has not made peace with Azerbaijan and Turkiye and heavily depends on Iran, the arch-rival of the West, can cost Yerevan very dearly, since Paris is not capable of maintaining Armenian security on the ground. In the final analysis, latest French moves on Ukraine and Armenia primarily serve to trigger Russian insecurities and hence prompt the Kremlin to behave more aggressively. For example, if ceasefire negotiations continue, Moscow may refer to the talks of placing NATO troops to Ukraine to substantiate putting up heavier demands, for example guarantees for the limitation of Western help to Kyiv after a ceasefire or on the possible cooperation between Ukraine and NATO in general. This scenario would make successful negotiations even more unlikely, paving the way for a longer standoff. In Armenia, Russia could try to interfere into domestic politics and topple the government if its defense cooperation with France intensifies together with alienation from the CSTO. That’s why real intentions of Paris as regards Russia should be carefully examined. In its current form, French overtures towards the post-Soviet space can easily backfire against the countries they are claiming to protect.