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Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu attend a wreath-laying ceremony, which marks the anniversary of the beginning of the Great Patriotic War against Nazi Germany in 1941, at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier by the Kremlin wall in Moscow, Russia June 22, 2022. 

Mikhail Metzel | Sputnik | Reuters

Russia appears to be relishing the gaffe French President Emmanuel Macron made this week in suggesting that NATO countries discussed the possibility of Western ground troops being deployed in Ukraine, saying such an eventuality could not be “ruled out.”

Macron’s suggestion was widely and very publicly rejected by NATO member countries yesterday. The United States, Germany, the U.K., Spain, Poland and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg were among those denying that sending ground troops into Ukraine was an option.

The Kremlin was quick to seize upon the comments Tuesday, warning that any move to put Western boots on the ground in Ukraine would lead to an “inevitable” conflict between NATO and Russia. Since then, state-run Russian media has been dominated by Russian officials relishing the obvious division in NATO, and Macron’s apparent misreading of the NATO mood music.

Dmitry Medvedev, former Russian president and prime minister, said Macron had suffered a bout of verbal “incontinence” while Russian State Duma Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin said Macron’s “loud statements” “horrified the residents of his country and the leaders of a number of European states.”

“To maintain personal power, Macron came up with nothing better than to spark a third world war. His initiatives are becoming dangerous for French citizens,” Volodin said on Telegram, comparing the French president to French leader and military commander Napoleon Bonaparte, whose invasion of Russia in 1812 is widely recognized as a military disaster for France that led to a massive number of casualties.

“Before making such statements, Macron would do well to remember how it ended for Napoleon and his soldiers, more than 600,000 of whom were left lying in the damp earth,” Volodin said, referring to the muddy conditions that hampered France’s invasion. 

Russia’s Foreign Ministry claimed Wednesday that Ukraine is facing a “catastrophic” situation at the front Russia is currently enjoying a spate of small territorial gains in eastern Ukraine and that Macron’s statement had not helped the country.

“The situation at the front for the Kyiv regime is monstrous, catastrophic,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova told the Sputnik radio station, Tass news agency reported.

She claimed NATO countries’ denials that they planned to send their ground troops into Ukraine showed the West had “betrayed Ukraine and will continue to use and betray it,” repeating Moscow’s baseless claims that Western countries are using Ukraine to destroy Russia.

France humiliated

Macron’s controversial comments came Monday evening, after he had hosted European heads of state and representatives from the U.K., U.S. and Canada for talks in Paris on how best to help Ukraine.

After the conference, Macron said discussions had also covered the possibility of deploying ground troops, although he said there was no agreement on the issue.

“There is no consensus today to officially, openly, and with endorsement, send troops on the ground. But in terms of dynamics, nothing should be ruled out,” Macron said at a news conference Monday evening, adding that allies “will do everything necessary to ensure that Russia cannot win this war.”

French President Emmanuel Macron waits for guest arrivals for a conference in support of Ukraine with European leaders and government representatives on February 26, 2024 in Paris, France. 

Chesnot | Getty Images News | Getty Images

French opposition lawmakers rounded on Macron for making the comments, with the leader of the hard-right National Rally party Marine Le Pen stating on X that by “affirming that sending ground troops was not excluded, Emmanuel Macron took a further step towards co-belligerence.”

French Foreign Minister Stephane Sejourne attempted to ease tensions in France’s parliament on Tuesday without rowing back on Macron’s comments, saying French troops could take on non-combat roles rather than actively battle in Ukraine.

“We must consider new actions to support Ukraine. These must respond to very specific needs, I am thinking in particular of mine clearance, cyberdefence, the production of weapons on site, on Ukrainian territory,” he told lawmakers, Reuters reported.

“Some of its actions could require a presence on Ukrainian territory, without crossing the threshold of fighting. Nothing should be ruled out. This was and still is the position today of the president of the Republic,” he said.

France was left looking increasingly isolated throughout the day Tuesday, with the White House also distancing itself from Macron’s comments.

U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby told reporters yesterday that any decision to deploy ground troops was a “sovereign decision,” but that it was not one the U.S. would be taking in Ukraine.

When asked about Macron’s comments, Kirby said “well, that’s a sovereign decision that every NATO ally would have to make for themselves. You heard [NATO] Secretary General Stoltenberg say himself he had no plans or intentions of — certainly under NATO auspices — of putting troops on the ground. And President Biden has been crystal clear since the beginning of this conflict. There’ll be no U.S. troops on the ground in a combat role there. In Ukraine.”

A gift for the Kremlin

Russia analysts have said Macron’s comments were a gift to the Kremlin, and would be fully exploited by Russia’s propaganda machine at home — and abroad.

The Elysee Palace sought to clarify and defend France’s position on the matter further Tuesday, with a spokesperson stating that “we want to avoid escalation. Let me remind you that we’re not at war with the Russian people, but we can’t let Russia win in Ukraine.”

Timothy Ash, emerging markets strategist at BlueBay Asset Management, was among those questioning “French foreign policy sense on anything to do with Russia/Ukraine.”

“Literally idiotic comments from Macron,” Ash said in emailed comments Tuesday. “Ukraine does not need Western boots on the ground — it needs Western military kit to do the job themselves of defeating Russia.”

Ukraine needs weapons urgently, rather than Western ground troops, Petro Poroshenko says

Ash said that “talk of Western boots on the ground is so damaging” as “it plays to the Putin narrative of NATO expansion East, and that this is a NATO war with Russia” and “plays up to similar narratives being plied in the Global South,” referring to countries often described as “developing” economies with whom Russia would like to develop ties.

He noted the comments would also likely be “seized on by Putin’s allies in the GOP [the Republican Party] to stall in agreeing military support/financing for Ukraine.”

“What the U.S. public do not want is U.S. boots on the ground in another foreign conflict. But the beauty of Western support for Ukraine thus far is that it has not required Western boots on the ground, but through a modest financial outlay has had a devastating impact on Russian military capability,” Ash said.

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