France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, suggested on Monday that sending Western troops to Ukraine can “no longer be ruled out.” The idea is dangerous and impractical.

French president Emmanuel Macron reviews troops during a “Prise d’armes” military ceremony in the courtyard of the Hotel National des Invalides in Paris, on February 19, 2024. (Ludovic Marin / AFP via Getty Images)

If you scrolled through the news on Monday evening, your eyebrows may have felt a slight curl if they came across reports of France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, claiming that the deployment of Western troops to Ukraine “could no longer be ruled out” as a response to Russia’s ongoing invasion. It’s the type of brash sally that has become a hallmark of Macron’s diplomacy in recent years — cheap audacity making up for the absence of real strategy and political options.

The statement came at the conclusion of a meeting of European heads of government in the French capital on February 26. With Russian forces again on the offensive just as Washington’s commitment to the war is looking increasingly tenuous, Ukraine’s European backers are scrambling to find ways to shore up support for Kiev.

The European Union approved a new round of financial assistance to the Ukrainian state on February 1, but a larger US military package — part of an omnibus foreign aid bill for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan — is currently stalled in Congress. The twenty-seven-state European bloc is confronting the fragility of its stretched defense industry and the depleted military stockpiles of member states after two years of war, just as it faces the long-term prospect of becoming Ukraine’s only committed sponsor.

Unsurprisingly, few in Europe have lined up behind Macron. Germany responded that under no circumstances would its soldiers be sent to Ukraine — a position reiterated by other EU states from Italy and Spain to Poland and the Czech Republic. German chancellor Olaf Scholz said on Tuesday that “there will be no ground troops, no soldiers in Ukraine sent there by European countries or NATO states.” In an implicit prod at the French president, Scholz’s vice chancellor, Robert Habeck, said, “I’m glad if France is considering how to support Ukraine more strongly, but if I can make a suggestion, then send more weapons.”

A subject of growing friction between the bloc’s two key powerbrokers, France has lagged behind Germany in the quantity of military and financial support sent to Kiev. Germany and France have the two largest and comparably sized defense budgets among EU nations. But according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy’s running tracker, France ranks far behind most European members in terms of bilateral weapons transfers and financial aid to Ukraine, at under €2 billion.

French officials, however, have slammed that report, saying that the French state has not disclosed the full quantity of aid that’s been provided and that contrary to other EU states, the French aid has been actually been delivered.

Washington was also quick to brush aside Macron’s suggestion. “We’re not sending boots on the ground in Ukraine. The [US] president has been very clear,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Officials at the French foreign office have likewise tried to backpedal on Macron’s statement, suggesting that the president was alluding to noncombatant roles like mine-clearance, internal security, and logistics. But this is not the first time that Macron has embarrassed his own diplomatic corps through brazen statements made seemingly without consultation of the people formally in charge of foreign affairs. In late October, for example, they had to walk back Macron’s suggestions during a visit to Israel that the international coalition drawn up to fight ISIS in Syria and Iraq should be refitted as an alliance against Hamas.

Frustration with Macron has extended to foreign diplomats on post in Paris, who’ve complained of the erratic functioning of the French president and a foreign policy communication overly centralized around the presidential palace’s diplomatic cell. As one ambassador from a G20 nation told Politico in 2020, foreign diplomats in Paris are “100 percent tired of the Elysée [president’s office] and its rudeness and they won’t be doing any favors in their capitals for Macron.”

Stretched Capabilities

But there’s more than meets the eye in Macron’s gesticulations — and not just in the risk of a major escalation of the conflict with Russia that they point toward. Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov replied that the deployment of Western troops would mean the “inevitability” of a direct war between NATO powers and Russia, which is of course a given. “We too have weapons that can hit targets on their territory,” President Vladimir Putin said in his February 29 State of the Nation speech. “This really threatens a conflict with nuclear weapons, and thus the destruction of civilization.”

Rather, Macron’s declaration is symptomatic of the EU’s wandering on all things pertaining to its own international policy, as the bloc’s goals — total victory over Moscow — hits up against the reality of its stretched capabilities. With American support for European security increasingly in doubt in Washington, the EU is counting the wounds of its decades-long dependence on the NATO alliance and the Pentagon’s security umbrella. Having rightfully made Ukrainian survival in the face of Russia’s invasion into a matter of European collective interest, the bloc is nonetheless confronting the limits of its own power and its paralysis to combine resources and planning.

Russia’s full-fledged invasion of Ukraine has exposed the top-heaviness of European militaries, which are already draining themselves of hardware and ammunition stocks in the rush to support Ukrainian self-defense. While the bloc has been forthcoming in extending financial support to Ukraine, it’s struggling to increase the rate of military transfers. This undercuts the lofty rhetoric about Europe acting as an autonomous geopolitical force — long Macron’s stated ambition — that could provide for its own security and act independently of the United States in global politics.

Beefing up the EU’s own military industrial base is the core of an alleged European “autonomy.” But recent figures of military production, and the European Union’s own place in the accelerating global arms race, shows the EU lagging behind its own goals. In 2023, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ latest Military Balance report, military spending in the European Union increased by 4.5 percent, rising to an average of a 1.6 percent of GDP across the bloc.

That’s behind the acceleration in spending seen elsewhere in the world and still well below the 2 percent of GDP threshold under which Donald Trump boasted that he would encourage a Russian invasion of a NATO member state. According to the Guardian, Russia’s own annual artillery shell production is expected to soar to between 2.5 and 5 million shells. In contrast, European planners now estimate that they will only be able to provide about half of the one million shells promised to Ukraine by March 2024.

These figures are cause for vertigo. But Macron’s posturing aside, they get to the more revealing development that emerged from this week’s meeting: France’s acceptance of a Czech plan for a collective purchase of artillery ammunition for Ukraine, from non-European stocks or suppliers. This marks a retreat from prior French policy, which has long sought to encourage the exclusive joint procurement of military hardware from European businesses. Macron may like to saber-rattle, but it’s no replacement for a credible road map for weaning Europe off NATO or living up to actual commitments to support Ukraine.

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