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French president raised the prospect of Western troops in Ukraine. What was he thinking?

By SYLVIE CORBET, Associated Press
Published: March 1, 2024, 8:36am

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron appeared isolated on the European stage this week after saying the possibility of Western troops being sent to Ukraine could not be ruled out, a comment that prompted an outcry from other leaders.

French officials later sought to clarify Macron’s remarks and tamp down the backlash, while insisting on the need to send a clear signal to Russia that it cannot win in Ukraine.

The Kremlin warned that if NATO sends combat troops, a direct conflict between the alliance and Russia would be inevitable. Russian President Vladimir Putin said such a move would risk a global nuclear conflict.

Here’s a look into Macron’s comments, his strategy and what’s at stake.

MACRON’S REMARKS, ALLIES’ REACTION

Macron floated the possibility of Western troops helping in Ukraine while speaking at a news conference after 20 European heads of state, and other Western officials, met in Paris.

There was no consensus to send troops in an official, endorsed manner on the ground, Macron said, “but in terms of dynamics, nothing can be ruled out.”

The exact signal Macron was trying to send remains unclear, but “it wasn’t said by accident,” said Phillips O’Brien, professor of strategic studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.

“It could be a bit of a warning” to Russia or “it could be that this might happen, so people need to prepare for it,” O’Brien said.

Macron was clearer when speaking about European leaders’ evolving attitudes since Russia launched its full-scale invasion in February 2022. “I remind you that two years ago, many people around this table were saying: we’re going to offer sleeping bags and helmets. Today they’re saying: we need to work faster and harder to get missiles and tanks.”

Soon after, officials from Germany, Poland and other countries that participated in the Paris meeting sought to distance themselves from Macron’s comments, saying they would not send troops to Ukraine. The head of NATO, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, told The Associated Press there are “no plans for NATO combat troops” on the ground.

FRENCH CLARIFICATION

French Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu said the discussion about possibly sending Western troops into Ukraine centered on using them for de-mining and military training operations, away from the front lines — “not sending troops to wage war against Russia.” He said no consensus emerged from the discussion.

The foreign minister, Stéphane Séjourné, said this type of military presence wouldn’t be “crossing the belligerence threshold.”

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A French diplomat with knowledge of the Paris talks said the goal was also “to send a signal to President Putin that this is now an option and that he cannot simply count on the fact that none of Ukraine’s partner countries will ever be deployed” there.

The diplomat insisted on anonymity to discuss such a sensitive issue. Macron “didn’t rule out any options for one simple reason: as we’ve seen, there are all sorts of things that were ruled out two years ago but no longer are today,” he said.

Paris said talks with allied countries will continue at meetings of European foreign and defense ministers to be set at a later date.

MACRON’S EVOLVING VIEWS ON RUSSIA

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Macron initially kept open a line of communication with Putin.

He said in June 2022 that the Russian president made a “historic error” but that world powers shouldn’t “humiliate Russia, so that when the fighting stops, we can build a way out together via diplomatic paths.” The remark drew strong criticism from Ukraine and many of France’s allies.

Macron last spoke with Putin in September 2022; he’s taken a tougher stance publicly ever since.

His comments on Monday were clearly intended to “sound the alarm bell,” said François Heisbourg, a defense analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in London.

“Yet some knock-on effects of the news conference were probably not expected,” Heisbourg said. “It gives the impression that (the French) ventured out as mavericks, with the risk of being misunderstood.”

RUSSIA SEEN AS AN AGGRESSIVE FOE

In presenting his case, Macron raised concerns over Russia “getting tougher in recent months.”

He cited the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the repression of Russia’s political opposition and the ferocity of combat along the front line in Ukraine.

The French government recently revealed that Russian forces threatened to shoot down a French surveillance aircraft patrolling in international airspace over the Black Sea. And earlier this month it accused Russia of spreading disinformation across Europe.

The hand-wringing over Russia in Europe comes amid worries that the U.S. will dial back support for Ukraine. European officials are also concerned that former President Donald Trump could be reelected later this year and potentially change the course of U.S. policy on the continent.

“Our security as Europeans is at stake,” Macron said. “Should we delegate our future to American voters? My answer is no, whatever the vote is.”

Whatever Macron’s message was, some analysts say he may have fumbled the delivery.

“Macron wants to send a signal of strength to Russia. But for deterrence to work, it must be credible,” said Jana Puglierin, head of Berlin’s European Council on Foreign Relations, an international think tank. “He has unnecessarily introduced a potential for division into NATO.”

“This is no way to promote European unity and strength,” Puglierin said in a written statement.

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