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France and Germany on the rocks as Ukraine crisis deepens

France and Germany on the rocks as Ukraine crisis deepens

Taurus drama and Macron’s ‘boots on the ground’ comment are splitting the two nations underpinning European integration

Analysis | Europe

Relations among the European backers of Ukraine have been roiled by recent battlefield developments indicating momentum may have passed to Russia amid stalled American funding for military support to Ukraine.

The Franco-German “tandem,” which has underpinned European integration for decades, has been disturbed by obvious disagreements between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The recent friction comes from the continued refusal by Scholz to consider providing long-range Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine and from Macron’s highly contested declaration on February 26 that the deployment of NATO forces in Ukraine should not be excluded. The next day, Scholz categorically ruled out any deployment of German or NATO forces in Ukraine.

Over the past two years of war, Germany has surprised critics by rising to second place behind the U.S. as a supplier of weapons for Ukraine. In recent weeks, however, Germany has returned to whipping-boy status, as Scholz has refused to grant Ukraine’s long-standing request for Taurus missiles. This seems to be a replay of the 2022 debate over supplying German Leopard tanks, but the then-hopeful prospects for eventual Ukrainian victory have faded considerably.

Scholz’s objection to providing the Taurus missile is contested within his governing coalition (which includes the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats, as well as his own Social Democrats). He has stated, most recently on March 4, that his main reservation is that the Taurus missile could not be used by Ukraine except with the help and presence on Ukrainian soil of some German military personnel.

A public opinion poll published on February 27 showed that 56% of Germans opposed sending the Taurus missile to Ukraine. A plurality of SPD supporters opposed the deployment (46% versus 41%), while a plurality of FDP supported it (48% to 46%). Among the governing parties, the Greens were the only party supporters who favored sending the missiles by a majority (52% to 34%). Surprisingly, more respondents who identified with the main center-right opposition Christian Democrats opposed the deployment than supported it (48% versus 45%), despite the support of their parliamentary delegation for providing the missiles.

Finally, a huge majority (87%) who identified with the populist far-right AfD opposed the proposed deployment.

Russian leak of air force officers on Taurus deployment

A conversation of Luftwaffe chief General Ingo Gerwartz and three other senior German air force officers on February 19 was intercepted and published online on March 1. The conversation dealt extensively with how Taurus missiles could be deployed without having German military personnel on-site. The officers were preparing a briefing for Defense Minister Boris Pistorius addressing the feasibility, timing, and practicalities of the deployment, but not clearly endorsing or opposing it.

The officers discussed how Taurus missiles could be used to destroy the Kerch Bridge, but did not themselves advocate the selection of this target. Their discussion reached no conclusion about how Germany could deploy the missiles effectively without breaching the political red line about a German military presence in Ukraine.

Moreover, Gerwartz indicated that the destruction of the Kerch Bridge, while technically achievable, was unlikely to change the course of the war. The transcript of this conversation was published by the Russian state broadcaster RT and is presumed to have been intercepted by Russian intelligence. The Russian official press has falsely characterized the officers’ conversation as amounting to a plot being hatched to ensure the missiles are deployed, and to force the hand of the chancellor.

Pistorius has called the release of the transcript a case of Russian information warfare intended to sow discord among the Western supporters of Ukraine. The German domestic debate on this scandal has mainly focused on assigning responsibility for the egregious failure of communications security. Advocates of deploying the Taurus have used the incident to redouble their efforts to force Scholz to change his mind.

Since the release of the conversation, Scholz has reiterated that the problem of providing Taurus missiles boils down to the insuperable problem of how to ensure effective use of the Taurus missiles without itself becoming a party to the conflict. The leaked conversation alluded to the alleged presence and involvement of UK and French military personnel in the operation of the Storm Shadow and Scalp cruise missiles provided to Ukraine by Britain and France, respectively. Both countries have expressed outrage at the lax security that permitted the conversation’s interception.

Macron rises to the occasion?

With Germany locked in its characteristic caution, French President Macron launched an effort to mobilize a united European drive to re-vitalize support for Ukraine by convening a hastily organized meeting of European leaders on the defense of Ukraine in Paris on February 26.

This followed on the heels of the fairly downbeat mood about the prospects of reviving Ukraine’s military fortunes that prevailed at the annual Munich Security Conference the previous week. At the closing press conference of the Paris meeting, Macron made his surprising assertion that the deployment of NATO troops should not be ruled out, though he acknowledged that “no consensus” had yet formed around this idea. Macron seems to have in mind the deployment of French or NATO troops in non-combatant roles, such as de-mining. This idea has nevertheless come under fire from much of the political opposition in France.

The leaders at the conference decided to pursue a Czech proposal to increase European bilateral funding to buy 800,000 artillery shells for Ukraine from non-EU countries to make up for the inadequate supplies of shells in Europe. Macron traveled to Prague on March 5 to explore this idea further and insisted that eventual deployment of NATO forces should not be ruled out, and that allies should not be “cowardly.” Germany’s Pistorius quickly called this language unhelpful.

It is galling to Germans that France, which has given far less military support to Ukraine than Germany, should chide others for being timid. The Ukraine Support Tracker at the Kiel Institute in Germany (last updated on January 15) puts German military aid commitments at $17.7 billion and the U.S. at $42.2 billion, with France well down the list at $0.6 billion. Paris has challenged Kiel’s methodology.

Why it matters

The New York Times’ Roger Cohen recently noted that, without any obvious attempt to build advance support for his initiative, Macron sought to reinject confidence among European supporters of Ukraine and produce “strategic ambiguity” to shake Russian confidence. Instead, he laid bare the divisions among allies about how far they are willing to go in defense of Ukraine and provoked an open breach with Germany. Macron’s own twisted path toward his latest hawkish incarnation limits his credibility to mobilize Europe behind him.

German resistance to providing Taurus missiles is directly related to its alarm at what it sees as Macron’s reckless stance on eventual NATO deployments in Ukraine. Germany apparently remains determined not to cross the line between assisting Ukraine in its self-defense and becoming a party to the conflict. The opposition to deploying the Taurus from the German public across the political spectrum (with the Greens as the noteworthy exception) bolsters Scholz’s stance.

Even if Macron’s initiative seems to have divided rather than mobilized a united European front to defend Ukraine, his activism demonstrates the dawning awareness that Europe will have more responsibility for arming Ukraine due to the stalled American aid package and the approaching U.S. elections.

The unfortunate upshot of these recent developments is to hobble the Franco-German tandem that has been crucial to the effective functioning of the EU for decades. This open rift is unwelcome when the EU as a whole is groping toward a more unified, coordinated, and generously funded rearmament, in which Berlin and Paris must be leading players.

French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky and German Chancelor Olaf Scholz at the Elysée Palace in Paris on Feb. 8, 2023. (Frederic Legrand - COMEO/ Shutterstock)

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