A Case for French Leadership on Ukraine

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Editor’s note: Don’t miss our comprehensive guide to Russia’s war against Ukraine


French President Emmanuel Macron has emerged as the European Union’s number-one crisis manager, though this is probably not what he had planned for the first half of 2022. Russia’s war on Ukraine fundamentally changed his agenda of focusing on implementing France’s priorities during the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, and formally entering the presidential race on the domestic scene. While a French-German response worked well to tackle the crisis in Ukraine in 2014, a rapid bilateral initiative was not possible this time due to the absence of a clear German position towards Russia and different messages sent from the foreign ministry and the chancellery in Berlin. France has thus taken the lead among the Europeans with countless phone calls to Kyiv and Moscow since early January, and Macron remains, for now, Europe’s last channel of communication with Putin. He is also convening another summit on European security and defense on Thursday and Friday, during which E.U. leaders are supposed to develop proposals for enhancing European energy independence and strengthening European defense, and push the European Union further to become a geopolitical actor.

The war remains a vital concern to all of Europe, and its outcome is far from clear. Nor is the risk of further escalation mitigated today. Whatever its outcome, it has already proven to be a watershed moment, forcing Europeans to rethink the European security order. The way Europeans have handled it so far, from the roles of Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to the European Union’s response, gives a glimpse of the future of security cooperation in Europe. Even if many actions are the result of the pressing need for a solution rather than a long-term strategy, they could still serve as blueprints for European crisis management in the future. Furthermore, it shows that France, often criticized for hijacking the European Union for its own foreign policy agenda, deserves appreciation for its management of the current crisis.



Bridging Security Gaps Between E.U. Member States

The French leadership in the current Ukraine crisis came, to some extent, by surprise. Macron’s presidency over the last five years has certainly been characterized by diplomatic activism, but primarily focused on the Middle East, Africa, and the Indo-Pacific, and with oft-mixed results: Macron’s diplomatic initiatives in Lebanon after the 2020 explosion in Beirut’s harbor did not end the myriad crises in the country, and some have described France’s fight against terrorism in Mali as “France’s fiasco in the Sahel.” Indeed, managing relations with Russia and Eastern European security, from a broader perspective, are not traditional French foreign policy priorities compared to, for example, security along the southern edges of the European Union. Yet, the irruption of this severe crisis forced Macron, who had been reiterating the need for a stronger Europe in international security for years — first labeled European strategic autonomy, then renamed European sovereignty — to demonstrate what it can look like in practice. As Putin generally prefers bilateral relations with heads of state or government over talking to E.U. officials directly, stepping in as the European Union’s temporary chief diplomat made eminent strategic sense for the always hyperactive Macron.

France’s pivotal role in the Ukraine-Russia crisis first manifested when France committed in late January to deploy troops to NATO’s Eastern flank in Romania. In December, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg suggested expanding NATO’s presence through the “enhanced forward presence mission” (NATO’s defense and deterrence missions in Central and Eastern Europe) by deploying troops to Romania and Bulgaria to strengthen NATO’s defense posture at the eastern border. However, by mid-January these plans still had not been fleshed out. France’s clear commitment to deploy troops was hence an important signal for the European Union in two regards. From a bilateral perspective, it underlined that France, after important support from Estonia and Sweden for its military engagement in the Sahel, takes the security concerns of its partners seriously and is willing to make an equal commitment. At the same time, the French commitment to send troops to Europe’s east is important from an E.U. perspective. It bridges longstanding gaps in the threat perceptions and security priorities of southern and eastern-facing member states of the European Union: France traditionally looks to the EU’s southern border, while Eastern European states look anxiously to the east. This more comprehensive approach to potential threats is hence a hopeful signal that the E.U. member states’ efforts on the first-ever common threat analysis for the strategic compassan E.U. document akin to a national white paper on security and defense that is supposed to be adopted in late March — are already bearing fruit.

European and Trans-Atlantic: Not Mutually Exclusive

Likewise, the implications of Macron’s tackling this challenge for European security go beyond the European Union and impact European security from a larger perspective. Sending several hundred” troops to Romania, as announced by French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly, implies that France is almost doubling its current troop commitment of 400 military personnel to the enhanced forward presence missions. This aligns with the strengthened French commitment to NATO over the last several years, as France contributes more than 4,000 military personnel to different NATO missions, and this year took on the leadership of NATO’s Very High Readiness Force, which was created in 2014 in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, it was undeniable that geostrategic factors constituted important drivers of the French decision to deploy troops to Romania. Particularly since the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Black Sea has become a military stronghold for Russia, which considers the region vital for securing its influence in Ukraine and, to a lesser extent, Georgia. Over the last few years, NATO has also stepped up its military presence in the region, including land, air, and naval capabilities, and conducted the multinational exercise Sea Shield in Romania in March 2021. Considering the longstanding bilateral relations between France and Romania, the increasing French commitment to NATO over the last few years, and the French effort to rebalance the relationship between the United States and European allies within NATO, French leadership on this issue appears to be a logical step. Yet, given that NATO is seen as much less important for national security in France than in other countries, and that the country has a traditionally strong commitment to strengthening the European Union as a security actor, this step is remarkable. It shows that traditional roles in European security are shifting and that mutual solidarity among Europeans is becoming increasingly important — and that France is willing to take a leading role in it.

This engagement comes at a time when Germany, undoubtedly the preferred interlocutor of the Biden administration among E.U. member states, had until very recently proven not to be the best trans-Atlantic partner. The country had considerably harmed its credibility as an honest broker in the crisis due to its unclear position on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, stemming both from concerns about interrupting the supply of Russian natural gas on which Germany is highly dependent, and major divisions within the ruling coalition. While Germany hesitated, France positioned itself as an interlocutor to Washington, Kyiv, and Moscow, striving to show that it is taking both the interests of the European Union and NATO into account. As France has acted more like the European voice thanks to increasing coordination with other Europeans, Macron has significantly increased the visibility of the European Union’s action in the crisis. In the past, France has often — and often rightly — been criticized for using the European Union or other international institutions to promote French security interests first and foremost. Nevertheless, the fact that Macron is stepping in at a time when direct dialogue between NATO and Russia appears impossible underlines that the accusations Paris often faces from Washington and some Central European countries do not hold this time. In the particular case of Russia, many Central and Eastern European countries have perceived France as an “ally but non-aligned,” questioning whether France shares their assessment of the threat from the East. These claims do not hold in the case of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, however, with Macron the only European head of state to visibly take leadership in the crisis.

Despite an erosion of trust between France and the United States over the last few years, with the two hitting their most recent low in September with the AUKUS pact, France’s course of action in the Ukraine crisis has strengthened its standing as the most willing and capable partner among E.U. member states in the trans-Atlantic relationship — even if Washington has long tended to ignore this and put all its odds on Germany. Even before the war in Ukraine, France’s position as a key strategic partner and leading E.U. member state on strategic questions was manifested in its active role in the Indo-Pacific, a region of key strategic interest for the United States, as France was the first to adopt an Indo-Pacific strategy and extensively lobbied for a coherent European approach. This is a key lesson for the future of European security and defense cooperation that policymakers, particularly in Washington, should be aware of as they rethink the European security order after the invasion of Ukraine: A clear commitment to a stronger European Union and European sovereignty is not an obstacle to a functioning trans-Atlantic relationship. Quite in contrast, European allies with a clear vision for the role of the European Union and Europe in a larger sense on the geopolitical chessboard, as well as the willingness to take the lead there, are the best allies the United States can find.

Bet on Parallel Paris-London Diplomacy

Besides its engagement in the European Union and NATO, France has also shown an ability to lead outside these institutions, and to exercise parallel leadership with the United Kingdom, which has been a key partner for Paris in security and defense. In this regard, the Russian war in Ukraine showcases the potential of French-British cooperation and the need to rethink security cooperation in post-Brexit Europe. Macron has clearly been the European Union’s frontrunner and the number-one defender of trans-Atlantic unity among member states, but he was not the only one to take concrete and fast action. Even before Macron, Johnson had travelled to Ukraine and made active commitments to deepen cooperation with Poland and Ukraine. Similar positions and approaches allowed London and Paris to complement each other, and their simultaneous diplomatic initiatives showed an effective division of labor in addressing European security concerns. Beside these two frontrunners in European crisis-management diplomacy, the German chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared much later, and much less actively on the international scene. As neither the European Union nor NATO could play a meaningful role in the crisis, at least early on, the “parallel European frontrunner diplomacy” of France and the United Kingdom has emerged as at least a short-term solution. The unprecedented revision of the German security and defense posture in the last week could also add Germany to the club of European countries willing to lead on issues affecting the security of the continent. While France, Germany, and the United Kingdom have not yet joined forces and formed a so-called E3 negotiation task force as they did for the negotiation of the Iran nuclear deal, the parallel diplomatic efforts of Paris and London have pushed Berlin to step up its action. However, there is a chance for the E3 format to be revitalized in the current crisis with the addition of the United States, creating a so-called “Euro Quad,” a format used by U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his counterparts in mid-February.

It is still too early to judge the effectiveness of these efforts in the medium or long term, as the coming days and weeks will show whether the trio can come up with a more sustainable solution. However, this approach has shown that, even under the politics of Brexit, leaders in France, Germany, and the United Kingdom should bet on trilateral cooperation for tackling future crises more effectively. Likewise, it confirms that France’s diplomatic frontrunning — the regular criticism it sparks notwithstanding — remains crucial, particularly when a French-German initiative is not possible, and when it can complement British efforts.

Before the Russian buildup began, security cooperation had stalled on both sides of the English Channel. The United Kingdom’s integrated review, published in March 2021, underlined a “tilt” to the Indo-Pacific, and the United Kingdom’s participation in the AUKUS deal had not gone down well in France (you might recall Johnson’s “Donnez-moi un break.”) But the United Kingdom’s actions during the current crisis speak louder than these words: They have shown that the United Kingdom is still a key player in European security, and hence a crucial partner for France. Instead of competing with Britain, France has seized the opportunity to leave diplomatic space for co-leadership, which is a promising step for future cooperation. From a European security perspective, it is maybe the only bright light right now: the convergence of British and French approaches to addressing security crises, and the fact that this coordination can be achieved outside existing institutions. When leaders discuss new formats for European security cooperation in the next days and weeks, they should keep in mind that formalized institutions, like the much-debated idea of a European security council, do not always fit the requirements of short-term crisis management. Instead, individual states coordinating their diplomatic sprints can get the European team across the finish line.




Gesine Weber is a program coordinator at the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a Ph.D. candidate at the Defence Studies Department of Kings College London. Her research focuses on European security and defense cooperation, including E.U.-U.K. relations after Brexit and E3 (France, Germany, UK) cooperation, as well as the E.U.s role in geopolitics.

Image: President of Ukraine