Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 5 March 2024

Europe’s damaging divisions over military aid to Ukraine

Nato allies need to do more to help Kyiv — by sending weapons, not troops

Mar 6, 2024

Emmanuel Macron’s remark last week that sending western troops to Ukraine could not be ruled out was immediately slapped down by many European counterparts — notably German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Russia’s Vladimir Putin still seized on the French president’s statement to make his most explicit threat yet of nuclear conflict. Yesterday, Macron said he stood by his comment, urging European allies not to be “cowards” now that “war is back on our soil”.

The French president’s underlying message — that Nato members must be ready to do more to help Ukraine against resurgent Russian forces — is well founded. But this should be by sending more arms, not troops. His public talk of boots on the ground has wrongfooted allies and laid bare strategic divisions, particularly with Germany, over military assistance to Kyiv, just when a united front is needed.

French officials said Macron’s talk of troops was intended to introduce some ambiguity for Moscow over what Nato members might be ready to do, and he was referring to western forces carrying out non-combat functions behind the Ukrainian front lines. The French leader has a point that Ukraine’s allies have for too long allowed Putin a monopoly on threats of escalation.

The problem is that many counterparts have legitimate concerns that even limited troop deployments would put Nato on the path to direct confrontation with Moscow. Though they have stressed the need to aid Kyiv and asked voters to bear higher energy costs, many western leaders — not just Scholz — will fear that any talk of sending soldiers could turn sentiment against the war. It plays, too, into Moscow’s bogus narrative that this is a Nato-provoked conflict. It might also be misread by a conspiracy-minded Kremlin as evidence that western leaders are, indeed, plotting something broader.

With US arms deliveries held up by political blocks, and shortfalls in European production, the priority must be to ensure Ukraine receives the weaponry it needs this year. This covers everything from scarce artillery shells to cruise missiles, fighters and air defence. Mutual accusations by France and Germany that the other is not doing enough have some substance, but are a distraction.

Over the past week Macron appears, rightly, to have dropped objections to using EU funds to buy weaponry for Ukraine outside the block. His previous insistence that European cash should go only towards rebooting Europe’s defence industry has been overtaken by Ukraine’s urgent need. Yesterday, he pledged that France would contribute to a Czech plan to buy 800,000 shells on the world market — and would allow the European Peace Facility, a joint EU fund, to finance part of it.

Scholz, for his part, should lift his opposition to sending Taurus missiles, which have a longer range than cruise missiles supplied by France and the UK and which Ukraine is crying out for. His objection that German support staff would have to accompany them to Ukraine was contradicted by military officers in a conversation that was embarrassingly eavesdropped on by Moscow. And though the chancellor worries Kyiv might use them to hit targets inside Russia, Ukraine has respected limits imposed by Britain and France on how it can use their missiles.

Perhaps Macron’s most striking statement was that the “defeat” of Russia in Ukraine was “indispensable to security and stability in Europe”. From a leader who called in 2022 for the west to avoid “humiliating” Moscow — and who has gone out of his way to understand and reason with Putin — this is a salutary message. Kyiv’s allies need a strategy to achieve this goal, without leading to escalation that spirals out of control.

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