Ukraine Crisis Boosts Macron’s Call for a European Army

By James Stavridis, Dean Emeritus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

The crisis in Ukraine continues to ramp up, with the U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and Russia engaged in a disjointed diplomatic dance, exchanging position papers on European security structure.

Meanwhile, Russia’s 8th Guards Army – an historic unit with World War II ties to Ukraine that Russian President Vladimir Putin recommissioned several years ago — occupies the spearhead position for a possible invasion. Until now, most of the action has centered around the U.S. and Russia, which is just what Putin intends — he seeks to emphasize the co-equal status of Washington and Moscow.

Yet the Europeans, led by President Emmanuel Macron’s France, are pushing their way into the negotiations. What is the Europeans’ agenda, and how will it play out in this crisis and beyond?

Henry Kissinger famously said that the problem with trying to “call Europe” when the U.S. needs help from its allies is that there is no central authority to pick up the phone. Despite its large population and economic power, the continent is hobbled (in a security sense) with a diversity of cultures, history, languages and foreign-policy objectives.

NATO has 28 European nations, and the European Union has 27 members — each of them pedaling the collective bicycle with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Predictably, this is beginning to show in the Ukraine crisis.

On Friday, Macron and Putin talked on the phone, and the signs of some divergence between U.S. and Europe were evident, with French officials insisting that Putin showed a willingness to be reasonable. Macron has frequently spoken of the need for independent European foreign policy, and historically France has had better relations with Russia than many other NATO nations, stretching back to the 17th century.

The French seem to believe the U.S. is overreacting to Putin’s forces camping out on the Ukrainian border, and my friends in the French military say we are placing too much emphasis on the images of Russian tanks, troops and trucks. I don’t agree, nor does the U.S. intelligence community. (To their credit, and in contrast to the Germans, the French have offered to move some troops into Romania if things escalate.)

In addition to the U.S.-Russia and NATO-Russia diplomatic forums, there is a purely European path. France and Germany are charter members of the Normandy Format talks, alongside Russia and Ukraine — the only relatively small grouping where the latter two nations are engaged directly. In the past, the Normandy group has had some success in reducing the level of combat between pro-Russian insurgents and Ukrainian government forces in the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine.

In the conversation with Putin, Macron reportedly put on the table some new ideas to de-escalate, which may be fleshed out in future Normandy format talks, assuming no war breaks out in the coming days.

The approach is consistent with another aspect of traditional French foreign and security policy, which is to stake out independent positions that de-emphasize NATO. In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle temporarily pulled France out of the alliance’s military structure.

Macron has often mused about the need for a standing European army, which is certainly within the means of the wealthy European nations. When I was supreme allied commander at NATO, I would often see our French allies — who were strong operational contributors to every alliance mission — work hard to bring other EU military forces into counterpiracy missions and hotspots such as the Balkans and Libya.

To create a large standing European army, presumably under the direction of the EU, would require buy-in from not only France but also Germany, Italy, Poland and other major European militaries. While U.S. officials often complain (appropriately) about the failure of European NATO allies to meet the stated goal of spending 2% of their GDP on their militaries, the collective European defense budget (including the U.K.) is around $300 billion — more than triple that of Russia. A serious standing military under EU direction is well within their financial scope, and Putin’s increasing adventurism may push them in that direction.

Certainly, that is a subtext in Macron’s outreach to the Russians — demonstrating the independence of the European voice in the crisis and making a not-so-subtle point about the need for a European military.

Germany is the other key element for any such initiative, and over the past few days, the signals from the new government of Chancellor Olaf Scholz have had a slightly softer approach to Russia than the rest of NATO. This is natural, given the nations’ significant trade ties — and above all the German reliance on Russian natural gas.

As the crisis continues, Washington may increasingly struggle to maintain a strong alignment between the U.S.-U.K. hard line and the somewhat more conciliatory approach of France and Germany. The new chancellor is expected in Washington for consultations with President Joe Biden in early February.

Putin, of course, would be happy to see his threats around the periphery of Ukraine create a serious division between the U.S. and the EU — a kind of geopolitical dividend to his main objective of keeping Ukraine from moving closer to the West.  His other great hope is to marginalize NATO by fostering disagreements among the Europeans at the table in Brussels.

Thus far, the U.S. has managed to keep everyone more or less in line. The hope is that Macron’s initiative won’t give Putin new opportunities to capitalize on any differences.

This piece was re-published from Bloomberg.

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