Question Emmanuel Macron’s choice of words, his taste for the pensée complexe or his ability to read the room, say those striving to explain the French president’s plea to avoid “humiliating” Moscow — but don’t question his support for Ukraine in its war with Russia.
Some have interpreted Macron’s call — first issued in a speech to European parliament and repeated in a recent interview with French media — as implying that Ukraine should be pushed into a ceasefire and territorial concessions. But if Russia risks being humiliated, the opposite conclusion could be drawn. “Implicit in the formulation is that Russia will be somehow defeated,” says Michel Duclos, adviser to the Paris-based Institut Montaigne.
A sympathetic construal of Macron’s remarks is that he is planning for the “day after”, says Marie Dumoulin, director of the Wider Europe programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations. In Strasbourg he suggested he had the post-conflict resolution in mind when he said that “humiliation” and “revenge” had “wreaked havoc on the roads to peace”, a reference to Europe’s war-torn history and the controversial Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
He has also reminded Nato allies that while they are backing Ukraine, they have ruled out direct military confrontation with its nuclear-armed aggressor and will have to find a way to coexist with Moscow when the conflict is over. On Friday, the Elysée insisted France wanted Ukraine to emerge “victorious”.
“The idea is: Moscow should not win, but in the long term, after the war has ended, a revanchist Russia is not in Europe’s interest,” Dumoulin says.
Until then Macron wants to preserve a line of communication with the Kremlin — which he insists is a Kyiv request — if only to help prevent escalation. “You can’t rule out an accident. Not many can talk to Putin and Macron is trying to minimise the nuclear threat,” says Alexandra Martin, of the Brastislava-based Globsec Policy Institute.
Critics who accuse Macron of working against Ukraine’s interests also arguably overlook Paris’ involvement in western efforts to help Kyiv. It is sending heavy artillery systems, has dispatched officers to help investigate war crimes and also sent troops to Romania as part of Nato’s eastern flank reinforcement. In Brussels, it has pushed for an EU-wide oil embargo and has backed each of the six EU economic sanction packages against Moscow. Newly appointed foreign minister Catherine Colonna travelled to Kyiv last month.
However, the ambiguity of Macron’s pronouncements on Russia has obscured all this, leading to consternation not just in Kyiv, but also in Warsaw and the Baltic states, just at the time that Ukrainian forces are fending off the Russian onslaught in the eastern Donbas region. “Imagine if someone had told France ‘Let’s not humiliate the Kaiser’ in the middle of the battle of Verdun,” Duclos says.
Talk of humiliation is “unfortunate”, Dumoulin notes, because it echoes the story the Kremlin tells of the way Russia was treated by the west after the collapse of the Soviet Union. And these missteps are compounded, she adds, by a “pre-existing . . . suspicion” of the old Gaullist tradition of collaboration with Russia, which Macron has revived with his attempts to establish a rapport with Putin.
This is now hurting Macron’s leadership in Europe, says Duclos. The French president is deluding himself, he argues, if he thinks a long-lasting peace settlement is possible while Putin is in power. “This position makes his security and integration agenda more difficult to achieve,” he says.
Martin says that the “immense” reputational cost Macron is bearing comes as the war is undermining his plans for a more autonomous European defence policy. “Europe’s dependence on the US will increase [and] Nato will remain the main framework of European security for a while.”
A foreign policy reset is needed, Duclos says, starting with Macron making a clear commitment to Nato and outlining a path to Ukraine’s EU membership.
Why not travel to Odesa, he suggests? The blockaded Black Sea port is at the centre of UN-led talks to allow Ukrainian grain to be shipped out of the country. The French president, who travelled to Kyiv before the war, has been criticised for not returning to Ukraine since. “He needs to deliver a few gestures to regain a central position in Europe,” says Duclos.