Liberty, Equality, Vanity

By Edward Lucas

France prefers headlines to results 

Who is briefing Emmanuel Macron? The formidably cerebral French president benefits from his country’s equally formidable diplomatic and intelligence services. So why does he say such stupid things? In remarks broadcast this weekend he advocated Western security guarantees to Russia as part of a future peace deal. Speaking about Europe’s future security architecture, he added that “one of the essential points we must address — as President Putin has always said — is the fear that NATO comes right up to its doors and the deployment of weapons that could threaten Russia.”

He is right on one thing. These are indeed Kremlin talking points. But here are five other things that Macron should know. 

First, proximity to NATO is nothing new. Alliance members had borders with the Soviet Union: Turkey in the south and Norway in the north. Post-1991 Russia inherited that frontier with Norway, which even now is run on relaxed and neighbourly lines. 

Second, Putin did not “always” complain about NATO. The Russian president happily accepted a generous deal from the alliance at its Rome summit in 2002, based on cooperation and information-sharing. The Western military footprint in the new eastern members was vestigial, in order to give Russia no cause for concern. 

Third, Russia’s recent problems with NATO are of its own making. They stem from meddling and mischief-making in its former empire and other parts of the neighbourhood. That made NATO, reluctantly and belatedly, refocus on territorial defence. It also fuelled new membership applications. Sweden and Finland are the clearest examples of this: these two countries are now on the verge of joining the alliance, solely as a result of Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Third, a renewed focus on arms control would be an excellent idea. But it should not deal only with “weapons that could threaten Russia”. Russia has developed weapons — including medium-range ground-launched cruise missiles, cable-cutting submarine drones and space-launched systems with wide geographical reach — that threaten Western countries. The Kremlin’s arsenal of short-range nuclear weapons has no counterpart in the West. And unlike Western countries, Kremlin decision-makers actually make unsettling bombastic statements about how their country is ready and willing to use these armaments. 

Fourth, security guarantees will indeed be an essential part of any post-war settlement. But the country that requires them is Ukraine, not Russia. Ukraine did not attack Russia. It just competed with it, by showing that an alternative model of political, economic and cultural development was possible (and was working increasingly well). Ukraine should ideally become a NATO member once the fighting stops. Russia’s best security guarantee is not to attack its western and southern neighbours. The threat from China will only worsen as long as decision-makers in Moscow maintain their infatuation with Beijing. 

With a leader who adopted a clear-eyed view of Europe’s security problems and the necessary solutions, France could be the linchpin of the continent’s security. It combines a global perspective, mostly excellent relations with the United States, membership of all relevant international structures (the EU, the G7, the United Nations Security Council) and a widely admired and highly effective military capability. Germany, which by virtue of its size and wealth should occupy that position in Europe, is crippled by its self-indulgent and shallow security culture. Britain, which historically played that role, has — for now — crippled itself with Brexit. 

But for France to step in would require an unacceptable dose of realism, accepting that on big questions, the United States is the West’s ultimate and indispensable security hegemon. Britain can swallow this. France cannot. The result is that Macron grandstands, winning headlines instead of shaping history. 

Edward Lucas is a senior fellow at CEPA, which published this article in English.