Are Biden, Macron in Secret Unison on Restraints on Ukraine Aid?

‘We have to build something between security provided to Israel and full NATO membership,’ the French president says.

AP/Susan Walsh
The National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, during the daily briefing at the White House, May 31, 2023. AP/Susan Walsh

Of the $38.3 billion in military aid that Washington has committed to Ukraine since President Biden took office, nearly all of it was allocated since Russia’s invasion last February — but the latest package, valued at $300 million, has some invisible strings attached. 

The National Security Council spokesman, John Kirby, told reporters, “We have been very clear with the Ukrainians privately — we’ve certainly been clear publicly — that we do not support attacks inside Russia. We do not enable and we do not encourage attacks inside Russia.”

But the Pentagon said in a statement that America “will continue to work with its allies and partners to provide Ukraine with capabilities to meet its immediate battlefield needs and longer-term security assistance requirements.”

That is clearly the case, as demonstrated by the inventory of materiel dispatched to Ukraine so far that the Pentagon released yesterday. It is unambiguous and it is extensive: more than 1,700 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 10,000 Javelin anti-armor systems, 38 HIMARS, 160 Howitzers, 345,000 mortar rounds, precision-guided rockets, HAWK air defense systems and munitions — the list goes on. It leaves no doubt that America is leading the NATO effort to bolster Ukraine’s defenses as the countdown to its anticipated counteroffensive is well under way. 

Mr. Kirby’s remarks follow a barrage of drone strikes on Moscow on Tuesday, which while causing more psychological than actual damage upped the ante in war by bringing it to the Russian capital’s doorstep. The strikes involved eight drones and marked the first time that Moscow was so extensively targeted in a single drone operation. Although Ukraine denied carrying out the strikes, it is not clear who else could have authorized or coordinated them.

Kyiv, of course, has come under regular bombardment by Russian forces for more than a year now. On Thursday, the assaults continued. The AP reported that at least three people, including a 9-year-old child and her mother, were killed in a pre-dawn Russian missile attack on the capital. While Ukrainian air defenses shot down 10 cruise and ballistic missiles, it was falling debris that caused damage and casualties on the ground.

In light of Thursday’s cowardly attack and after so many others, there is no reason why Ukraine would not want to strike back at Russians wherever they happen to be. It is, after all, a war, regardless of whatever Vladimir Putin chooses to call it. It would almost seem strange if they did not want to take the fight to the squares and onion domes of the Russian capital and political command center. 

Yet Mr. Kirby’s proviso echoes a growing chorus of concerns about escalation. It would be one thing if Ukraine’s belligerent neighbor were, say, Honduras or Canada. But it’s Russia, and even without the issue of nuclear weapons, and despite the billions of dollars in Western security assistance, there is still more fire in the Kremlin’s cannons than Kyiv’s. 

Publicly at least, the British have been less vocal about voicing concerns over escalation — to the contrary even. On a trip to America last month, a former prime minister, Boris Johnson, over dinner with President Trump, impressed upon the latter “the vital importance of Ukrainian victory,” according to Mr. Johnson’s representative. 

Enter President Macron, who is where Mr. Johnson may wish he still was — that is to say, in a position of considerable power. France has backed Ukraine but with less money and muscle than Britain. French companies were some of the last to leave Russia, and France’s nuclear industry still relies on Russian partners to ensure that some of its complex operations run smoothly. 

As if to underscore his general commitment to Ukraine, Mr. Macron said at Bratislava yesterday: “I had a harsh word for NATO in December 2019, but today I could say that Putin has woken it up with the worst kind of electroshock.”

More interestingly, he said that “if we want a credible, lasting peace, if we want to have any weight against Russia … we have to give Ukraine guarantees to prevent any further aggression and include Ukraine in a credible security architecture.” 

That framework does not necessarily include Ukraine’s membership in NATO, something that originally Kyiv said it did not seek. Now it does, and there is growing support for that prospect — obviously not in Russia, but less obviously, not in France either. 

“We have to build something between security provided to Israel and full NATO membership,” Mr. Macron said, adding, “It is not sure there will be consensus on full membership.”

For Britain and the likes of Mr. Johnson, antagonizing Russia just comes with the territory, and the damaged relationship is something to be either ditched altogether or managed. Mr. Macron is adamant about keeping the lines to President Putin open, even at a time when he is increasingly seen as a pariah or worse on the international stage. His ideas of security guarantees could look quite different from those in the Pentagon’s headlights. 

At the same time, without France, NATO would not be “brain dead,” as per Mr. Macron’s “harsh word” a few years back, but it would be severely diminished. Washington needs Paris more than Paris needs Moscow. But Mr. Macron still sees Russia as a European partner gone bad, not as a pariah. As President Biden quietly calibrates his message on Ukraine’s presumptive cross-border reach, he may be trying to dial back Kremlin tensions just a bit. 

In doing so he risks flirting with the prevailing French view of how to handle a continent on the edge of the abyss. Theoretically that is intriguing, but on a practical level, an unintended Franco-American unison on conflict resolution presents new perils of its own.

The New York Sun

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