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From dove to hawk: Explaining Macron’s Russia-Ukraine journey

​Zelensky, Putin, Macron

Zelensky, Putin, Macron

Jess Frampton

French President Emmanuel Macron has been on quite the journey over the past two years.

In the days leading up to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s fateful decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022, Macron took on the role of chief peacemaker in a bid to avert conflict. Once the war began, he cautioned against Russia’s humiliation, offered Putin countless off-ramps, and pressed Ukraine to engage in peace talks. Fast forward to today, though, and Macron has become arguably the transatlantic alliance’s leading Russia hawk, even going as far as openly discussing the prospect of deploying French troops to Ukraine’s front lines.

What caused such a remarkable transformation? French officials close to the president claim that as the facts on the ground changed, so did Macron's strategic thinking. But as my Eurasia Group colleague Mujtaba Rahman teased last week, that explanation doesn’t fully hold up. Let’s see why.

Macron's shuttle diplomacy began with the widely publicized “long-table talks” in Moscow on Feb. 7, 2022, when Putin agreed to refrain from invading Ukraine in exchange for “security guarantees.” Then, on Feb. 20, the two leaders spoke on the phone, and Macron went to sleep believing he had convinced Putin to consider peace talks with US President Joe Biden. The rest is history: Putin reneged on both promises, and on Feb. 24, Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Macron’s critics dismiss those early talks as futile, arguing the president was never in a position to deter a Putin hellbent on achieving his imperial dreams (fact check: true).

Macron’s thinking, however, was – and still is – that engagement was justified despite having little chance of success. Otherwise, the Kremlin could have claimed that the West was uninterested in diplomacy and had left it with no choice but war. Trying was valuable insofar as it allowed the West to retain the moral and narrative high ground … whatever that turned out to be worth.

A few months later, in May, Macron gave a speech at the European Parliament where he called on the West not to “humiliate” Russia. This was no slip of the tongue; he reiterated the position a month later in an interview with the French media when he said that helping Putin save face was necessary “so that the day when the fighting stops we can build an exit ramp through diplomatic means.”

The statements drew ire from Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States, outraged by calls to give in to an invader that was mercilessly shelling civilians amid then-fresh revelations of war crimes in Bucha and elsewhere.

What was Macron thinking then? At the time, the French leader believed that Russia was going to lose the war – even if at that particular moment it was winning the battle. He was under the impression that Putin knew this and was accordingly open to diplomacy. The hope was that by keeping him onside, Macron could eventually broker a peace deal that would both preserve Kyiv’s interests and pave the way for a new, more “strategic” European security architecture – one where Europe would finally take its future into its own hands and be less dependent militarily on the United States.

But that illusion would not last long.

In the weeks that followed, a series of phone calls with Putin led Macron to the realization that the Russian president had been making a fool out of him all along, hardening the president’s attitude toward Moscow. It was a rude awakening, but the facts didn’t change on him – Macron just caught up to them.

As this reality dawned, Macron’s strategic focus shifted to Eastern European countries, whose support he realized was key to keeping his dream of a “strategic Europe” alive. The problem was that France had historically had tepid relations with this part of the world, starting with Paris’ reluctance to embrace eastern enlargement after the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Macron’s direct diplomacy with Putin in 2022 had only made things worse. Ties needed mending, and these countries needed convincing that the European Union could replace the United States as the guarantor of European security – especially in light of Germany’s increasingly apparent geopolitical timidity and the growing odds of a Trump 2.0 pullback from NATO scenario.

So Macron went to work. At the GLOBSEC security conference in Bratislava in June 2023, the French president called for Russia's outright “defeat” for the first time, after previously speaking only of “preventing a Russian victory.” He also apologized to Eastern European countries for “missing an opportunity” to heed their concerns about Russia’s imperial ambitions, pleaded for a European defense pillar within NATO in the face of Washington’s wavering commitment to the transatlantic alliance, and – crucially – opened the door to possible Ukrainian NATO membership.

The Bratislava remarks were made at a time when the West was cautiously optimistic that Ukraine could reprise the success of its 2022 counteroffensive. The military and political outlook has since darkened for Kyiv. And Macron has grown anxious that – far from bolstering European security, unity, and democracy – the war may end in a Russian victory, which would discredit the European Union and destroy its economy. This concern is what prompted the president to publicly weigh the possibility of deploying French and other NATO troops to Ukraine for the first time in late February, when he replied to a journalist’s question about potential Western troop deployments by saying that “nothing should be ruled out” because “Russia cannot [be allowed] to win this war.”

While French ministers have claimed that he was referring only to support troops and not frontline fighters, Macron has refused to accept that distinction. Indeed, despite earning strong rebukes from the US, Germany, and the United Kingdom, he doubled down recently when he said he would not “initiate” such an escalation but it might become necessary.

So what is Macron trying to achieve now? The first-order reasoning is that he wants to create “strategic ambiguity” – in other words, keep Putin guessing about his intentions to deter further aggression and persuade him to back off Ukraine. But the president also wants to prepare French and Western public opinion for the difficult decisions that may lie ahead in the event that such deterrence fails.

Beyond strategic considerations, there is the question of what role Macron’s ambitions have played in his rhetorical escalation. The French president is often accused of wanting to seize the “leadership” of the European Union, but with just three years remaining in office, he is probably thinking more about legacy than leadership now. And Macron's legacy stakes are certainly high. In 2017, he promised to leave France and the EU stronger than he found them. Seven years later, he faces the rising tides of far-right nationalism and the possibility that a Russian victory in Ukraine could destroy the credibility of the union.

Macron realizes that his ambition of a more “strategic Europe” is a long-term project requiring strong backing from the United Kingdom and Germany. But he is also aware that Berlin is unwilling to face up to this new geostrategic landscape in which cheap Russian gas and unconditional US protection are no longer guaranteed. He is therefore hoping that his “boots on the ground” rhetoric can force Europe to confront existential questions about the continent’s security destiny that leaders like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz would prefer to avoid.

Whether his new position ultimately helps or hurts Ukraine remains to be seen. It’s also unclear whether the French leader will finally put his money where his mouth is. After all, France has been a laggard when it comes to arming Ukraine. But one thing is for sure – the Russia dove of 2022 is now one of the West’s most implacable hawks. Putin no longer has an open line to Emmanuel Macron.


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