Rising Tensions Between France and Russia in the Context of the Russia-Ukraine War



The relationship between France and Russia is facing new challenges since President Macron supported the option of keeping open the possibility of sending troops to Ukraine. Nevertheless, France’s Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu denied the remarks made by the chief of Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service and said that it was a policy of disinformation after he suggested Paris was preparing to send 2,000 troops to Ukraine. According to Sébastien Lecornu, “The maneuver orchestrated by Sergei Naryshkin, Director of Russian Foreign Intelligence, once again illustrates Russia’s systematic use of disinformation.” He also considered “this type of provocation irresponsible.”

Franco-Russian relations have deteriorated further in recent weeks in the context of the war in Ukraine. The pro-Ukrainian turn of French policy included the signing of a bilateral long-term security accord and the commitment to send more long-range cruise missiles. This new French policy towards the Russia-Ukraine conflict is based on the idea of contradicting Russia’s assessment that European countries are not ready to fight for Ukraine. The new French rhetoric stating that “all options are on the table” aimed at reinforcing the European bargaining position toward Russia. The Chief of Staff of France’s Armed Forces General Thierry Burkhard further explained that Europe has to be prepared to take risks. According to his view, “The war in Ukraine affects us because we are impacted by its consequences. Europeans must therefore be capable of taking risks to ensure the security of Europe in the decade to come.”

On the European scene, this new French strategy is not provoking a rally around the flag effect. Indeed, while Germany and central European countries explained that they would not send forces to Ukraine, France has found an ally in Sweden. The French idea of preparing for a military confrontation with Russia is supported by Stockholm. Sweden’s military strategy has been to prepare for a military escalation with Moscow since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. The country reintroduced limited conscription in 2017 and dropped two centuries of military non-alignment to join NATO on March 7, 2024.

According to President Macron, the possibility of sending European troops to support Ukraine’s war effort is part of a strategy of ambiguity and is not an imminent possibility. “We’re not in that situation today,” even if “all these options are possible,” Macron said.

In France, the possibility of sending troops had created a debate with an opposition from the left as well as the far right. Despite the internal criticism, both the National Assembly and the Senate approved in symbolic votes the 10-year bilateral security agreement signed in February 2023 between Macron and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Two factors are explaining this new French rhetoric: firstly, the risk of a Russian military victory in Ukraine if there is a lack of Western military support in the coming months; secondly, the possibility of the return of former President Trump to the US presidency. Different scenarios can be mentioned regarding the possibility of an increase French military support to Ukraine. Firstly, France could establish arms factories, both for production and for maintenance in operational condition, in Ukraine. Beyond the production and the factories, Paris could also send military advisers and training teams to operate a range of French military equipment in the military field. The idea could be to reinforce French military presence without any co-belligerence. According to French media, there is also the possibility of sending troops to protect the port of Odessa where there is an essential export of grains for the world economy to be maintained. Less likely scenarios would involve the direct participation of French soldiers in the war efforts against Russian troops that would imply Paris co-belligerence.

The possibility of creating factories to produce military equipment on Ukrainian territory remains the most likely scenario because there is an agreement between Paris and Berlin on this issue. France and Germany agreed on March 22, 2024 to co-produce military equipment in Ukraine. During a meeting in Berlin between  Lecornu, and the German Minister of Defense Boris Pistorius, the two European capitals reached an agreement, which paves the way for the first factory Franco-German armament on Ukrainian soil.There is a link between the presence of a European weapons factory on Ukrainian soil and the debate regarding the possibility of sending European troops to Ukraine.

Consequently, beyond the debate regarding the new rhetoric of the French President, there is a real risk of military escalation between Russia and European countries beyond the deterioration of bilateral relations between Paris and Moscow. This new military context creates an incentive for European states to agree on the substance of their military support to Ukraine even if some divergences arise regarding the rhetoric to provide the most efficient collecting support regarding the perceived Russian military challenges to European security.

Editorial Team