Une autre grande idée, monsieur le président? European history may be facing a hinge moment – and Macron’s proposal could just turn it in the West’s favour

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Judging by the bellows of discontent from his allies, French President Macron blundered badly with his suggestion that NATO countries may need to deploy combat troops in Ukraine. Speaking after a Paris conference on aid for Ukraine, Macron asserted “we will do everything needed so Russia cannot win the war … Nothing should be ruled out … This is a European war. It’s our soil and our continent.” 

Macron’s chief frenemy German Chancellor Scholz was quick to offer a strong rebuke “…  there will be no soldiers on Ukrainian soil sent there by European states or NATO states.” His deputy Robert Habeck suggested France concentrate on upping its feeble arms shipments to Kiev instead. US spokesman John Kirby stated flatly “There will be no US troops on the ground in a combat role in Ukraine.”   

Media reaction was equally dismissive, typically defaulting to their preferred caricature of Macron as the bright school boy offering up his latest pensée. Various commentators ascribed his proposal as foreign policy foray typical of a leader facing failure at home. Measured against de Gaulle, or even Mitterrand, Macron knows his legacy is falling short. 

Besieged by angry farmers and a disaffected electorate squeezed between inflation and stagnant incomes, he faces the very real possibility that he will go down as an inconsequential President, absent a great success on the world stage. And so many European leaders may conclude his latest grande idée is less about rescuing Ukraine than it is about rescuing Macron. 

The more substantive rejection of Macron’s proposal is grounded in a broadly agreed determination among European allies not to escalate the current conflict into a Europe-wide war between Russia and NATO. The prospect of direct military hostilities involving several nuclear powers in Europe is certainly nightmarish, and the Kremlin has made a near weekly habit of invoking the potentially catastrophic consequences of Western escalation.

Moscow’s media campaign bears a striking resemblance to its military strategy, but instead of launching human wave attacks, it wears down the opposition with relentless, hyperbolic rhetoric. Western publics which two years ago were solidly supportive of assistance for Ukraine are now divided and even fearful, with only a minority in key countries in favour of the “whatever it takes for however long it takes” policy popular after the initial invasion. Negotiated peace, meaning imposing concessions on Kyiv appears to be the ascendent view in Western Europe. 

But before we dismiss Macron’s as a proponent of reckless escalation in defiance of agreed alliance policy, we should first consider the dangers of non-escalation. Western failures to respond effectively to Putin’s serial transgressions since he came to power have arguably brought us to this sorry, violent pass. When Putin first emerged as Boris Yeltsin’s prime minister in 1999, the West considered him a technocratic leader more sober than Yeltsin, and more competent than Gorbachev.

After the chaos under Yeltsin, Putin reasserted the authority of the Kremlin and quickly put an end to the oligarch wars and mafia shootouts that marked the 1990’s. Yet when Putin revealed his malign Chekist instincts and imperial ambitions, the West declined to oppose him. Western leaders quickly learnt that the apartment bombings Putin used to justify the second Chechen war were the work of Putin’s own security services, as were the assassinations of investigative journalists and political opponents.

Western companies, including such giants as British Petroleum were forcibly deprived of assets in order to enrich Putin’s cronies, with little effective counter from Western capitals. The bold, neo-imperial occupations of former Soviet territory in Georgia in 2008, the Transnistria region of Moldova, and finally eastern Ukraine and Crimea in 2014 marked moments when Putin’s true revanchist agenda was revealed.

Prompt Western escalation may have deterred Putin then by imposing serious political and economic costs on his adventurism. Instead, the West signaled at best unconcern and at worst weakness.  The White House offered him a “reset” after his invasion of Georgia; Germany completed the second Nordstream pipeline while Russian forces murdered Ukrainian civilians; France agreed to sell Russia two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships in 2010.

While no one wished for a nuclear standoff with Russia, neither did anyone wish for an 800 kilometre line of grinding trench warfare in Europe. Yet now we have one. Abandoning Ukraine would be the ultimate deescalation of the conflict and certainly avoid direct war with Russia. It would also reward Putin’s aggression and encourage more to come, despite what his sympathisers and appeasers in the West might believe.

The current policy of providing Ukraine with just enough support to keep Kyiv in the fight only plays to Putin’s strengths. He is in command of a much larger country, a docile population and an industrial sector that has mobilized for war far faster than European industry has.  Ukraine is doomed without the West, and the West is losing its resolve. Avoidance of escalation has yet to work with Putin; Macron may simply be warning the West that it must examine all its alternatives instead.

These options generally lie outside the policy consensus to avoid escalation above all. This policy pertains if in fact the war has become static and limited. To wit, that Ukraine cannot win, but Russia cannot lose. The best outcome in this scenario is stalemate and mutual exhaustion, after which Europe could broker a peace agreement, distributing aid and parsing territory to seal the deal. In this view, introducing Western troops into Ukraine would inject an unstable dynamic into a violent but essentially static conflict that can be managed by careful doses of Western support.  

Yet this policy consensus may now be obsolete, if not dangerously wrong. The conflict is no longer static; it now possesses a momentum toward Russian victory that will constitute a hinge moment in European history. At one turn of the hinge lies a victorious Putin, reinvigorated Russian aggression toward its former Soviet possessions, and potentially, the end of the post-1945 liberal world order. Warlordism and military power may usurp peaceful prosperity as the coin of the new European realm.

Certain members of the EU and NATO may choose to strike a separate peace with Moscow. Russian victory in Ukraine could prompt America to wash its hands of European wars and wander off like some moo cow to its North American pastures, as it did in 1919 and would have done again in 1945, had national sentiment at the time prevailed.

A second Trump administration would gleefully rouse America’s latent isolationist tendencies. An America First Redux may prefer to sit behind new tariff barriers and at best treat NATO as a sort of protection racket: pay up or face Russia alone. The long postwar partnership between Europe and America cannot survive on a purely transactional basis. 

Macron’s comments suggest he sees an approaching hinge moment for the West, and seeks to jolt our era’s sleepwalkers out of their trance. On the opposite side of the globe, President Xi certainly does believe in an approaching hinge moment for the West, and one he intends to win. 

While a unified Europe capable of defeating Russia is also a West capable of wrecking the Chinese economy should he invade Taiwan, a feckless West defeated in Ukraine lowers the risks of an invasion. Xi likely believes his legacy requires the conquest of Taiwan. Facing economic and demographic decline, President Xi may decide the moment of Kiev’s submission, when the West is demoralised, may constitute his best near-term opportunity.

The loss of an independent Taiwan will gut America’s status as the security guarantor in the Pacific.  Japan and Korea may well prefer radical self-reliance and even nuclear weapons to an alliance with an America that could not to protect Taiwan. The hinge could turn badly against the West in both Europe and Asia.

At the opposite turn of the hinge lies a defeated Russia or ideally one so chastened by its military failures that a canny siloviki or useful oligarch renounces Putin’s imperial fantasies, keeps the country from collapsing into civil war, and gets back to the important business of making money from the West. The liberal order will survive, even if Russia never becomes a liberal state. 

If we are to turn this hinge toward the survival of the liberal order, we should acknowledge that Macron’s proposal recognises that this conflict is no longer static, no longer manageable, and may soon erupt into a major defeat for the West. Ukraine is approaching the limits of its mobilisable manpower and the munitions needed to stave off Russian advances. Critical aid from the US remains tied up in a Congressional brawl over immigration. 

Even should the aid package pass, the White House, like Europe, seems determined to dole out just enough aid and advanced gear to keep Ukraine alive, but well short of victory, in the vain hope of bleeding Russia into slow submission. Both Napoleon and Hitler could confirm that this is a fool’s game. 

If the current stalemate succumbs to a renewed Russian offensive, victory for Ukraine will come only by inflicting a territorial loss so catastrophic to Russia’s revanchist worldview that Putin and his immediate circle lose their popular legitimacy as stewards of Great Russia. This catastrophic territorial loss is called Crimea. Even liberal-minded Russians (including the late Alexei Navalny) regard Crimea as Russian, claimed by Catherine the Great, ethnically cleansed of most Tatars by Stalin, and Ukrainian only thanks to Nikita Khruschev’s odd gift of the place to Kiev in 1954.

Losing Crimea would expose Putin to his people as militarily incompetent, and a loser in the contest with the West, one not seen so starkly in the Kremlin since Nicholas II.  Peace talks with his successor would offer wealthy Muscovites and well-connected siloviki the chance to become reacquainted with their fortunes and mansions in the West. The average Russian would likely focus his rage on the fallen Putin rather than the lost territories of Tsar.

If Macron has correctly foreseen a looming hinge moment in European history, we still don’t need NATO troops engaging Russian forces in active combat to defeat Putin. Note John Kelly’s careful statement that the US has “no troops … in a combat role” in Ukraine. According to a variety of reports (most recently in the New York Times), a large number of NATO military trainers and US paramilitary operators have been busy in the country for a long while. Russia knows it, and has declined to target them.

NATO can help Ukraine through prudent escalation: providing the combat support that makes up the majority of the manpower in a modern army, meaning soldiers who train, supply, repair, manage logistics, but don’t pull triggers or fly combat aircraft. Opening the West’s high tech arsenals, specifically of longer-range artillery and missiles, would permit Ukraine to hold all Russian forces in Crimea at risk, and sever the Kerch bridge and other vital supply routes. 

More capable Western munitions would allow Ukraine to inflict even greater damage on the Russian intel and surveillance needed to defend the peninsula. Once Crimea is militarily isolated, Ukrainian forces using NATO equipment might be able to mount an air and sea assault on the peninsula and drive battered Russian forces to evacuate or surrender. Macron’s proposal does not mean dropping the French Foreign Legion into Mariupol, but it could mean providing the military manpower needed to free up more of the Ukrainian Army for effective combat operations.

The great goal should be Crimea, which can be isolated from Russia in a way that the occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine cannot. Losing the coalfields of Donetsk to Ukraine does not carry the political resonance the loss of Crimea would, nor would it have the same capacity to render the Kremlin hapless in the eyes of the Russian people.  

Spare a thought for the beleaguered French President. Although he’s scrambling for a legacy, and would much rather be playing geopolitics than fending off tractor convoys from the provinces, he may be correct about the stakes of the present moment. We failed to escalate when strong responses to Putin’s previous provocations might have deterred him. Macron is asking us to calculate the cost of failing to escalate now, when the hinge may be swinging from a world of stable prosperity to one dominated by emboldened authoritarians.