There was an amicable mood between Volodymyr Zelensky and Emmanuel Macron as the two leaders met in Paris on Sunday – a far cry from the diplomatic storm created by Macron’s warning against “humiliating” Russia this time last year. Analysts say France is still much more cautious than the US and the UK when it comes to arming Ukraine – although it would be unfair to characterise Macron’s position as soft.
Warm diplomatic language characterised Zelensky’s latest encounter with Macron. On Twitter, the Ukrainian president described his French counterpart as “my friend”, while Macron underlined that France will “continue to provide political, financial, humanitarian and military support to the Ukrainians as long as it takes”.
This meeting marked a huge shift from the diplomatic mood last year, after Macron declared in June 2022 that it was important to “never give in to the temptation to humiliate [Russia]”.
This comment sparked fierce rhetoric from Kyiv: Zelensky said the French president was trying to give Moscow a “way out”, while Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the effect of Macron’s words was to “humiliate France”.
‘Not to Macron’s advantage’
The context of Macron’s statement was forgotten outside of France. Talking about a future peace settlement following a Ukrainian victory, he was warning against a repeat of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which imposed brutal terms on Germany at the end of World War I, hobbling German redevelopment and thereby acting as a long-term cause of World War II. At the same time, he expressed clear support for Ukraine.
But this came after Macron showed distinctive keenness to engage Russia in dialogue, an approach critics say the invasion of Ukraine exposed as naïve. Macron went to Moscow for talks with President Vladimir Putin just weeks before Russia’s invasion in February 2022. While mostly maintaining the same position as his NATO allies as he tried to persuade Putin to back down, Macron also made the ambiguous statement that “there is no security for Europeans if there is no security for Russia”.
Many Ukrainians were also displeased by Macron’s warning in May 2022 that Kyiv’s accession to the EU will take “decades” – even if he proposed at the same time the creation of the European Political Community, a structure designed to bring non-EU members like Ukraine into the fold, and which got up and running months later.
None of Macron’s statements on Ukraine have gone anywhere near as far as his comments on Taiwan during his trip to China in April, when he told journalists on the French presidential plane that the “great risk” is that Europe “gets caught up in crises that are not ours” – prompting exasperation in Washington and dismay in Taipei.
Nevertheless, Macron’s language on Ukraine has at times been unduly open to misinterpretation, muddying what should be a clear French diplomatic position, said Richard Whitman, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Kent.
“There is no doubt that France sees Russia’s actions for what they are and has responded with an appropriate level of support for Ukraine. But the problem for French diplomacy is that Macron says things that aren’t to his advantage or that of France’s reputation,” Whitman put it.
‘Cautious’ on weapons supplies
Zelensky’s relations with Macron had improved significantly by the time he visited the Élysée Palace in February. The Ukrainian president telling Le Figaro that Macron had “changed” since his comments last May – although the French leader reiterated his “en même temps” (“but at the same time”) position less than a fortnight after that meeting with Zelensky, saying Russia should be “defeated” but not “crushed”.
Significantly, Zelensky’s late-night dinner with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz in February was squeezed into his schedule at the last minute, after Zelensky chose London for his second foreign trip after December’s visit to Washington. The Élysée Palace quickly dispatched invitations as Zelensky experienced the red-carpet treatment at Downing Street, Westminster Hall and Buckingham Palace.
While the US is by far Ukraine’s biggest patron and most important ally, as far as Europe is concerned Kyiv has something of a special relationship with the UK, its second-largest arms donor. That explains Ukraine choosing Britain as its partner for a project to manufacture for itself Western-designed arms.
By contrast, France comes after several smaller countries including Finland and Denmark in the list of top arms donors to Ukraine compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.
London has a track record of stepping out in front when it comes to the type of weaponry given to Ukraine. British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace announced on Thursday that the UK had sent Storm Shadow long-range missiles. Jointly developed by Britain and France, these missiles have a range of over 250km, compared to 80km for the vaunted HIMARs supplied by the US.
After months of unheeded Ukrainian requests for Western tanks, it was Britain that changed the dynamic by announcing in January it would send Challengers to Ukraine – prompting Germany and the US to follow suit with Leopards and Abrams respectively.
As well as the AMX-10s already delivered, the extra light tanks and armoured vehicles Paris pledged on Sunday will be welcomed in Ukraine, but light tanks are “not really tanks” in the same way as heavy tanks, said Huseyn Aliyev, a specialist in the Russo-Ukrainian War at Glasgow University.
“The French position on weapons for Ukraine has been cautious; it’s been a good, solid, useful supporter of Ukraine – but it is not in the vanguard, unlike the UK, the US and Poland,” Whitman summarised it.
Waiting for the counter-offensive?
However, support for Ukraine is not just a matter of arms deliveries. “In other ways France is also delivering within NATO and the EU,” noted Paul Smith, a professor of French politics at Nottingham University.
Indeed, when it comes to the total amount of aid – including financial backing and humanitarian assistance as well as weapons donations, much of which is transferred via the EU – France is in fourth place, behind the US, Germany and the UK.
“France has ended up in an odd place, not getting as much credit as it should for the significant support it is providing,” Whitman noted.
In large part, he said, this is a product of France’s distinct focus on the war’s endgame: “France would like to be one of the first order states in bringing about a diplomatic settlement to end the war, at the same time as being obviously on Ukraine’s side in the war. And Macron is trying to square that circle, while sometimes speaking in a way that doesn’t assist France’s diplomatic profile.”
But while Paris’s position has sometimes been lost in translation, many in Ukraine anticipate that France will intensify its arms deliveries, Aliyev said.
“The Ukrainian attitude towards France has fluctuated; to start with, it was quite restrained because of what Ukraine saw as reluctant to send arms, but now there is a more positive attitude towards France and Macron,” he said. “But this is also a state of expectation that France is ready to take the next step and provide more support.”
In this context, Aliyev concluded, Paris may well boost its arms supplies to Kyiv if Ukraine’s expected spring counter-offensive suggests it will be worthwhile.
“France has certainly has the capacity to send more military aid – particularly in important areas like artillery and battles tanks – and there is a certain willingness to increase the amount of aid it sends, if not necessary to catch up with the volumes some of its allies have send. But it looks like France is waiting for the conflict to develop further – waiting for the outcome of the counter-offensive – before deciding.”
This story originally appeared on France24