France’s Policy Shift on Ukraine’s NATO Membership

2023-02-08-bk-paris-selensky

Faced with the question of Ukrainian membership at Vilnius, NATO allies agreed to decide that they will decide when they agree. In a carefully worded and fiercely negotiated summit communiqué, they pledged to extend an invitation to Ukraine when there is a consensus within the Alliance and when conditions for membership are met. This outcome is not surprising — accession is not possible as long as war is raging, and allies’ positions on this were known beforehand. More surprising, though, at least for those of us who follow European politics, was France’s position on the matter. In 2008, France, together with Germany, resisted the U.S. push to enlarge NATO to Ukraine. This time around, the script was flipped, as France’s supportive attitude stood in contrast to greater U.S. skepticism. 

France’s policy shift is recent but concrete: according to Le Monde, it was sanctified by an official decision taken by French President Emmanuel Macron on June 12 at the Elysée’s Conseil de Défense. Macron’s new stance caught NATO partners, as well as French analysts and maybe even some French diplomats and military officials, off guard. Their surprise is understandable, as this shift breaks with the country’s years-long position as well as some of Macron’s own diplomatic initiatives from recent years. 

 

 

It appears driven by a number of strategic and tactical calculations. There is a growing view that NATO’s Article 5 would ensure Ukraine’s security, deter future Russian attacks, and embed Ukraine’s new military might in Western multilateral structures more affordably and effectively than relying only on the set of security guarantees currently contemplated by the Group of Seven. This new attitude toward Ukraine also reflects a more profound recalibration of the traditional French push for European strategic autonomy, which now goes through rapprochement with and support for NATO’s eastern flank, as well as a new geopolitical offer to the countries situated between the EU and Russia.  

Bucharest Inverted

In 2008, the George W. Bush administration had set its mind on enlarging NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia. While the idea was supported by Poland and the Baltic states, France and Germany (as well as Spain, Italy, and the Netherlands) firmly opposed it. For Paris, bringing these two countries into NATO was adding little to the alliance’s collective defense posture while crossing one of Moscow’s brightest redlines. This was an assessment shared by several Russia experts in Washington, such as the ambassador to Moscow, William Burns, and National Intelligence Council Russia director Fiona Hill.

More generally, France still hoped for Europe’s security architecture to be built with, rather than against, Russia. The divergences with the Bush administration’s more confrontational approach had surfaced even before the Bucharest summit. French President Jacques Chirac’s diplomatic advisor recalls in his memoirs that in 2006, when France floated the idea of guaranteeing Ukraine’s security and neutrality through the NATO-Russia Council, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice replied vehemently: “There you go again! You [the French] have already tried to block the first wave of enlargement, you will not block the second!” The inchoate French proposal died there since, as Chirac’s advisor remarked again, no NATO ally would have supported a project that could be perceived as hostile to Washington. 

In the end, the Bucharest summit gave birth to fateful compromise: membership was promised but not granted — enough to trigger a reaction from Russia but not enough to protect these countries from that reaction. Subsequently, France’s policies toward the region were characterized by a simultaneous refusal to be drawn into a geopolitical competition with Russia over the post-Soviet space and a refusal to accept Russia’s actions in that region that violate international law.  

New Thinking

The full-scale invasion launched by Russia against in Ukraine in February 2022 has changed many things, including France’s policy toward the region. Macron has abandoned the diplomatic outreach to Russia he launched in 2019. France is also delivering heavy weapons to Ukraine and offered crucial support to its European Union membership bid in June 2022. But accession to NATO was, until recently, a bridge too far. In December 2022, Macron was still depicting it as more of a problem than a solution. 

What changed? Four overlapping factors seem most significant.

First, Russia’s conduct of the war may well have brought French defense and foreign policy makers to the conclusion that NATO membership is the best way to ensure Ukraine’s security in the long term and prevent future aggression from destabilizing Europe. While Moscow has launched a brazen invasion on which it continues to double down, it has been cautious to avoid potential military encounters with NATO. As the French president emphasized at the Vilnius summit, only the alliance’s Article 5 seems to be keeping Russia in check. For French officials, the efficiency of NATO’s deterrence has in fact been reaffirmed over the past 18 months — and it should be extended to Ukraine at some point. French policy makers also seem to hope that providing Ukraine a clear path to membership would show the West’s determination and discourage Moscow from thinking that time is on its side. 

Another goal, as Macron recently hinted, is to embed Ukraine’s new military might in Western multilateral structures. Ukraine is a very different country than it was in 2008. Back then, the Ukrainian military was poorly trained, badly equipped, and infiltrated by many Russian operatives. Only 20 percent of the Ukrainian population wanted to join NATO in 2008, while now the figure is above 80 percent. Thanks to the weapons and training provided by the West and the combat experience gained in defending itself, Ukraine is likely to emerge as a major military power in Europe. As such, it could become an asset and a net security provider for NATO according to the French foreign minister. 

But postwar Ukraine will also have to go through a painful process of reconstruction, at a time when weapons and combat experience would be widespread and internal political conflicts likely to reemerge. The military is likely to retain significant influence, particularly if the risk of new hostilities remains high. In that context, embedding Ukraine into NATO structures might be regarded as a safety valve against instability or radicalization and a way to shape its strategic and military course.

The third factor in French thinking is that NATO membership might ultimately be less costly — economically, politically, and strategically — for France and Europe than the other options. In the absence of NATO membership, the West would be forced to finance the Ukrainian military for years in order to ensure that it can defend itself against potential future Russian aggressions. This so-called Israeli model would heavily weigh on the French and European economies and industries, especially with Ukraine’s accession to the European Union on the horizon. Berlin’s pledge to give over 12 billion euros ($13.1 billion) by 2032 gives a sense of the task ahead. This effort, added to the cost of Ukraine’s reconstruction and the stress test that this accession will represent for the organization, may simply be too high for European states. 

By contrast, a combined NATO membership appears a more cost-effective solution for European allies. For the United States, on the other hand, Ukraine’s NATO membership would imply a higher political and military involvement, as the credibility of Article 5 would eventually rely on the U.S. commitment to defend Ukraine. The Joseph R. Biden administration has made clear that it does not want to be entangled in a direct military confrontation with Russia, and any future Republican administration is likely to share the same redline. Thus, while Paris would prefer seeing Ukraine joining NATO before the European Union, the opposite is true for Washington.

The question of NATO membership also needs to be read in conjunction with the more immediate security commitments that the Group of Seven countries are currently formalizing with Ukraine. These guarantees are meant to lock in Western support through bilateral agreements, thereby preempting the effects of war fatigue or domestic political shifts and countering the Kremlin’s calculation that time is on its side. Paris regards such immediate and concrete security commitments as what Kyiv needs now to sustain its counteroffensive and war effort, as well as what will make the Ukrainian leadership able to approach negotiations from a position of strength when it chooses to enter them. Open support for NATO membership might be a way for Paris to make these guarantees more convincing to Ukraine by demonstrating that they are not a consolation prize or an alternative to a deeper partnership later on. 

Macron, like  Biden, remains convinced that only a negotiated settlement can ultimately end the war in a lasting manner. But disagreements linger over how promising membership now would play out in facilitating such a settlement. The United States and Germany believe that making any commitment at this stage, before a military resolution, would be counterproductive in securing effective negotiation. France, by contrast, sees a membership invitation as a card that Kyiv could use to strengthen its hand in any eventual negotiations. More generally, French policy makers also seem to hope that a clear membership perspective might prompt Moscow to reconsider its maximalist aims in Ukraine. But the opposite could also be true: it may well lead Russia to adopt an all-or-nothing perspective and dig in its heels even further.

 

 

Fourth, Macron seems to be keen to reap the diplomatic benefits from establishing France as a leader on Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration. Paris has notably been attempting to reach out to — and repair its image in — Central and Eastern Europe, which has been a long-term supporter of this integration. Foreign policy elites in the region have traditionally been suspicious of France’s geopolitical agenda in Europe, as they see it as contradicting their own Atlanticist preferences. This suspicion was fed by France’s initial reservations in the 1990s about their countries’ accession to the European Union and NATO. Paris hopes to avoid repeating this mistake today when it comes to Ukraine and to find grounds of convergence with Central and Eastern Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that France’s newfound support for Ukraine was initially articulated in the region: by Macron at the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava and by his former special envoy on Russia at the Lennart Meri Conference in Tallinn. If Paris considers that Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic integration is a given, getting ahead of the curve wins support and helps consolidate France’s role in the European order to come. 

At a time when the Biden administration and the German government are seen as the main obstacles to Ukraine’s NATO membership, Paris’s support can be interpreted as short-term, tactical opportunism. Freed from having to actually follow through on Article 5 commitments any time soon, the French leadership is probably relieved to dodge the controversy generated by its often-caricatured diplomatic outreach to Moscow. Yet there remains a more serious long-term goal as well. 

France’s broader geopolitical agenda remains focused on affirming Europe as an independent geopolitical actor and reinforcing France’s leadership. But these goals appear to require different methods in the post-Ukraine invasion world. Until recently, France was reluctant to engage in a geopolitical struggle over the post-Soviet space. But with this struggle very much here, French officials believe that Europe can no longer accept any grey zones between the European Union and Russia. This was reflected in Macron’s proposal to set up the European Political Community last year. The war has also prompted both increased European demands for U.S. strategic protection and a strategic awakening across the continent. In this regard, building a European pillar within NATO appears indispensable in the short term to strengthen European capabilities and leadership. 

The evolution of the French position on Ukraine also aligns with a longer process of French engagement within NATO. Since its return to the Integrated Military Command in 2009, and especially since the first Russian invasion of Ukraine, Paris has aimed to change its image within the alliance. From the contributions to the European Forward Presence in the Baltic states and air policing over Poland to the rapid deployment of 500 combat-ready troops in Romania as part of the NATO Response Force effort, France wants to highlight its role as an active and reliable ally on the Eastern flank. According to Macron, Vladimir Putin has awoken the trans-Atlantic alliance with “the worst of electroshocks,” making NATO more essential than ever to all allies in the region. In this context, France must take a leading role in one of the most defining debates for the future of NATO and European security. 

Consequences for European Geopolitics and Trans-Atlantic Policies

France’s policy shift on Ukraine in NATO is part of a broader structural shift in its foreign policy that will affect the equilibrium on European debates over security and enlargement. After being one of the staunchest opponents to “geopoliticizing” the way the European Union and NATO approached their eastern and southeastern peripheries, France is now openly embracing and promoting it. In addition to supporting Kyiv’s NATO bid, Paris has lifted its veto on opening European Union membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia, and is being supportive toward Ukraine and Moldova as well. This marks a radical departure from France’s decades-long position on European Union enlargement. The desire to make a geopolitical offer to these countries and see the whole European continent consolidate as a bloc is maybe even more salient in Macron’s push to establish the European Political Community, a new interstate diplomatic structure that conspicuously excludes Russia and Belarus. 

The motives behind France’s shift may also foreshadow future trans-Atlantic and European tensions. The cost of Ukraine’s integration into the European Union and its reconstruction will force European leaders to make difficult political trade-offs, which will heighten frustrations over burden-sharing with the United States. The Franco-German relationship, which recently experienced a low point, has now found another point of disagreement. The French shift on Ukraine has already led to some irritation in Berlin, where it is in fact perceived as tactical and opportunistic. 

Finally, France has now joined the chorus of states voicing lofty slogans in support of Ukraine, which risk becoming increasingly divorced from the reality of Western policies. Stating that Ukraine is now defending the whole of Europe might be useful or necessary in justifying the financial and military costs to domestic audiences. But, it is not necessarily true, and gives Ukraine a false impression of how far the West is willing to go on its behalf. Managing Kyiv’s expectations and frustrations will likely become one of the most challenging political issues for Western countries — France now very much included.  

 

 

Dr. David Cadier is assistant professor of international relations at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and visiting professor at the College of Europe in Bruges. His research mainly deals with West-Russia relations, European Union member states’ foreign policies, Central Europe, and populism in international affairs. 

Martin Quencez is the director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and head of its geopolitical risk and strategy program. His work focuses on trans-Atlantic security and defense cooperation, as well as French foreign policy.
Image: Federal Republic of Germany

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