Ukraine – countering the ‘Munich Spirit’ – an imperative for France

Ukrainian flag after shelling in Kharkiv. Photo Marienko Andrii UNIAN i

These past months have been complicated for Ukraine. On the one hand, the summer counter-offensive seems to have failed. At the very least, the initial objectives of the Ukrainian strategists were not met. On the other hand, Ukraine’s allies are warning of a certain ‘fatigue.’ This fatigue is hardly justifiable since it’s the Ukrainians who are paying the price of the war, but it could lead to a tragedy. A defeat for Ukraine, which would be synonymous with an existential danger for all Europeans, Romain Le Quiniou, Co-Founder of Euro Creative writes.

Ukraine is directly impacted on the ground by the increasingly slow support of its allies. This decrease in support is linked to the limited industrial capacities within the EU, a lack of long-term vision from Western elites, and a growing frustration concerning the prospect of a long war coupled with a progressive disinterest from public opinion.

In fact, bad news has been accumulating in recent weeks. In the United States, over $60 billion in aid promised by the Biden Administration is stuck in Congress. Beyond the vital importance of this aid, it’s the long-term support for Ukraine and, more broadly, for European security that is weakened on the eve of a crucial presidential election. For its part, Germany is experiencing a significant budget crisis that affects its ability to coordinate the new European package planned for Ukraine (50 billion euros).

In contrast, EU member states have managed to temporarily circumvent the Hungarian veto regarding the opening of EU accession negotiations for Ukraine. A symbolic victory that halts the current string of bad news but cannot hide the increasingly apparent limits of the European strategic vision. Although isolated this time, Orbán continues to show that he can decide the non-European future of Ukraine while the 2024 elections could also bring some of his allies to power in the coming months.

This series of challenges appears enough to reinvigorate defeatists and pro-Russians asking for an end to hostilities and the opening of negotiations with Russia, or more precisely, the capitulation of Ukraine. While Western heads of state do not risk such a position, we cannot ignore the recent failure of the OSCE summit in Skopje where Europeans decided to grant Russia a diplomatic victory by sacrificing European unity. As a result, Ukraine’s supporters call out and warn against establishing a ‘Munich spirit,’ urging not to repeat past mistakes. Rightly so.

And what about France in all this? It has been relatively discreet in recent months, absorbed by the conflict between Israel and Hamas. However, President Macron has been proactive in influencing the Hungarian blockage at the European Council, while President Zelensky has stated that new French military aid is in preparation. France’s current position is faithful to that used since February 2022. It ensures clear support for Ukraine, with limited means, but compensated by the high added value of its equipment. It constantly supports Ukraine while deciding not to be at the forefront.

Although this position may seem almost revolutionary in Parisian political circles, given the French wait-and-see attitude from 2008 to 2022 towards Russian imperialism, it remains insufficient. In any case, it is not at the level of a power that wants to be the strategic leader of the European Union. As some Baltic leaders call on their population to prepare for a confrontation with Russia within five years, France must seize the opportunity to rally spirits against the stakes of this war by assuming political leadership at the European level. The goal is to reassure its Ukrainian, Central, and Eastern European allies in a moment of collective pessimism.

First, France must invest in the memorial and symbolic field and ‘win hearts’ in Central and Eastern Europe. The emergence of a narrative comparing the current situation with the tragedy of the Munich Agreement in 1938 is not unfounded. Central and Eastern European countries and populations have no confidence in European security guarantees (especially from France). French leaders must make their allies understand that history lessons are understood. A diplomatic defeat of Ukraine can only lead to capitulation, and the extension of the Russian offensive to EU member states later.

French leaders must reassure their allies from Helsinki to Sofia by ensuring that the capitulation of Munich or the “Mourir pour Dantzig” no longer have a place given the security guarantees of the Euro-Atlantic community. A community to which France fully participates and for which it is currently increasing its material and financial investment. This reminder can be made through one or several symbolic speeches by the President of the Republic in the region in the coming months. It would thus be a matter of repeating that the Central and Eastern Europe of 2023 is not that of the 1930s. Repeat that we are a community of allies sharing the same security interests: a victory for Ukraine, a defeat of Russia, and the construction of a lasting peace on the European continent. Repeat that our fates are linked irremediably.

Second, France must convince its allies by intensifying its material aid on the ground. This must involve new military aid to Ukraine, which remains unknown today. France will have to significantly strengthen (qualitatively because it seems unrealistic quantitatively) the military capabilities of Ukraine. But this material aid must also be associated with reinforcing the deterrent and defensive posture of the Alliance on the eastern flank of the EU. This is in addition to the French detachment through the NATO air policing mission in the Baltic countries and in Romania through the ‘Aigle mission’ deployed in the summer of 2022.

Several possibilities must be explored according to France’s capacities and the needs of our allies on the Eastern flank. This could translate to deploying gendarmes forces in Finland, Estonia, and Latvia through the Frontex mechanism to help these countries face Russia’s hybrid destabilizations. It could involve sending ships to the Baltic Sea through the ‘Joint Expeditionary Force’ surveillance mission initiated by Great Britain to protect critical infrastructures. France could also coordinate a similar initiative in the Black Sea. Finally, France could discuss the possibilities of enhanced bilateral cooperation with the new Polish government within the Euro-Atlantic community.

Third and lastly, France must take the lead in European security dialogue at the political level when the possible return of Donald Trump is increasingly worrying, even for the most fervent transatlantic partners. This strategic reflection initiative must ensure once again that it is not a question of challenging NATO, the undisputed pillar of European security. A solid French commitment whose credibility is reinforced by the increase in French capacity investment within NATO, as explained earlier.

The objective is thus to develop the European pillar of the transatlantic community both to strengthen the Alliance and to guarantee a ‘safety net’ in the event of a political dysfunction of the latter. This involves concrete advances on the unavoidable issues of European defence: questions of industrial production and those concerning interoperability (at the level of legislative frameworks and infrastructures in particular). In other words, strengthen European armies and their possibilities for rapid and coordinated action concretely and not discuss a hypothetical European army. At the same time, the preparation of the EU member states and the EU for the possibility of a wider war in the medium term must also be considered by deepening major strategic debates at the European level. This particularly concerns the details of the modalities of the mutual assistance clause of Article 42.7 of the Treaty on the European Union and the reopening of the dialogue concerning the nuclear umbrella undertaken in 2020 by President Macron. These two issues must necessarily involve an intensified dialogue between the EU and the United Kingdom.

The prevailing pessimism once again allows France to play a more important role in Central and Eastern Europe. It can do so through symbolic, material, and political investment. Since 2022, France has finally shown that it understands the stakes of Russian imperialism. The current period must allow it to show that Paris understands that 2024 will be just as decisive a turning point for Ukraine as for the whole of Europe and, therefore, for France. Therefore, countering this ‘Munich spirit’ with concrete words and actions must be France’s primary goal in the coming months.

Ukraine will enter 2024 in a few days with determination and concern. President Macron could then go to Kyiv with the German, Italian, and Polish heads of state/government. Symbolically, this would show that the EU is united alongside the Ukrainian people for the year 2024 and capable of regaining control of the strategic narrative. Concretely, European leaders could then make new announcements concerning EU material and financial aid and detail the next steps of Ukraine’s reconstruction and the EU accession process that go hand in hand with a long-term strategic vision.

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