The Observer view on Emmanuel Macron: hawkish Ukraine remarks focus minds on Europe’s future

<span>‘A history of lobbing verbal hand grenades’: Emmanuel Macron hosts the Ukraine summit in Paris last week. </span><span>Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters</span>
‘A history of lobbing verbal hand grenades’: Emmanuel Macron hosts the Ukraine summit in Paris last week. Photograph: Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

Confusion, indecision and bickering characterise current western policy towards the Ukraine war and the threat to Europe from Russia. Last week’s hastily convened summit in Paris was meant to provide new direction and momentum to allied efforts. Yet its host, the French president, Emmanuel Macron, gazumped himself by raising the controversial prospect of sending Nato troops to join the Ukraine fight. Meanwhile, a vital US aid package for Kyiv remains frozen amid partisan in-fighting in Congress.

Did Macron deliberately provoke a row? Probably. He has a history of lobbing verbal hand grenades, then placing his fingers in his ears. His 2019 assertion that Nato was “experiencing brain death” was explosive. But his warning – that Europe must seize control of its destiny because the Americans may no longer be relied on – is more relevant than ever in light of Donald Trump’s statements that, if president again, he would “encourage” a Russian attack on European Nato countries that displease him.

The Kremlin’s reaction to Macron’s musings about troop deployments was predictably bellicose. A spokesman said they would make a Russia-Nato war inevitable. Vladimir Putin implicitly threatened a nuclear attack on the west. Moscow’s nuclear sabre-rattling is a familiar tactic after two years of war. It is intended to intimidate Europeans, and to some extent it works – even though Putin is bluffing. He knows any such attack would result in his certain annihilation.

The reaction from Macron’s allies was almost universally negative. The US, UK, Germany, Poland and others lined up to say deploying troops would constitute an unwarranted escalation. Macron’s newly hawkish stance – Russia is an “enemy” that must be defeated at all costs – also faced harsh criticism at home. Opponents suspect he is trying to boost his Renaissance party’s fortunes while portraying far-right and leftist parties as soft on Russia ahead of this summer’s EU parliamentary elections.

Promised arms have not materialised. Frontline soldiers and civilians are exhausted. A tipping point may be approaching

Yet if Macron’s intervention has concentrated minds and focused attention on flailing efforts to prevent a disastrous, precedent-setting victory for Russian aggression, it will have been justified. Few will say it out loud, but Ukraine is not winning this war. Its counter-offensive has stalled. It is losing ground. Promised arms and ammunition deliveries have not materialised. Frontline soldiers and civilians are exhausted. A tipping point may be approaching.

European capitals and the EU bureaucracy are awash with plans to reinvigorate the war effort. They include a €100bn (£86bn) defence industry fund, European defence bonds, expropriating earnings from frozen Russian state assets, overseas bulk purchases of ammunition, and a mini coalition to supply longer-range missiles despite German qualms. The wider context is the ongoing, some would say never-ending discussion about achieving European strategic autonomy.

This crisis is no longer, in truth never was, entirely about Ukraine. Last week brought disturbing echoes of Donbas circa 2014 in the disputed Transnistria region of Moldova, on Ukraine’s border. An appeal by ethnic Russians there for Moscow’s “protection” sounded ominously like past pretexts for armed intervention. Then there are the three vulnerable Baltic republics, all Nato members and rightly fearful of Putin’s intentions. The Belarus-Poland-Kaliningrad corridor is another potential flashpoint.

By firing up debate, Macron sounded a timely warning about the future security of Europe as a whole. The urgent need is for fewer plans and meetings and more concrete action to help Kyiv win – or at least stave off defeat. The bigger question concerns Europe’s deepening jeopardy. In the east, Russia is advancing and Putin, fresh from murdering Alexei Navalny and primed for a phoney re-election triumph, has his tail up. In the west, the noisome Trump, more enemy than ally, is slouching rudely back into view. Time is running short to Russia-proof Europe.