French Strategy on Ukraine War

Strategic Council Online – Interview: A European studies expert said that France will continue its policy of boosting European integration and security in the long term, and if America's share declines, it will probably play a more decisive role in leading this trend.

Mohsen Jalali, in an interview with the website of the Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, underscored the intricate strategic policy of France towards Ukraine. This policy, which involves continuing financial and political support to Ukraine, is a delicate balance between two crucial goals: ‘strengthening the strategic autonomy of Europe’ and ‘achieving a political solution to the crisis in Ukraine.’

As outlined in the French national security documents, Paris, in light of the diverse threats and differences with Washington, has consistently emphasized the need to bolster Europe’s defense capabilities. This commitment, aimed at playing an effective role at the international level, is a testament to France’s dedication to realizing some degree of autonomy and reducing security dependence on the United States, a fact that should reassure our readers about Europe’s security.

He added: Using this opportunity, France has emphasized the need to increase the European Union’s defense budget and deepen cooperation in military projects. The report of the European Defense Agency indicates that the EU defense budget will be 240 billion euros in 2022, which shows continuous growth over the past seven years. The average growth of the European defense budget is about 6%, and in some countries like Sweden, 30%, Spain, 19%, and Belgium, 14%. At the same time, despite France’s efforts to strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy, the expansion of the conflict in Ukraine has also highlighted the importance of American security guarantees in Eastern Europe, and this issue has become a point of contention among the EU members.

This expert of European studies stated that before the start of military operations in Ukraine in February 2022, France followed the strategy of maintaining dialogue channels with Russia to build trust and prevent the spread of tensions, with measures including the formation of the Normandy Contact Group. The group has become the most important supporter of Zelensky and a staunch critic of Russia’s policies. By imposing severe sanctions against Moscow within the framework of the European Union and providing military and economic aid to Ukraine, it adopted a harsh position against Russia while giving political support to Ukraine using the lever of international law. The entire defense of Ukraine’s membership in the European Union has always been on France’s agenda; therefore, it should be noted that an essential part of France’s actions focused on European integration, especially in imposing sanctions against Russia.

Referring to the French President’s emphasis on the importance of peace talks with Putin to find a political solution as of December 2023, Jalali said: Of course, the effectiveness of this approach is debatable, and this line of French policy has been severely criticized by some members of the Union, especially Eastern European countries. Some critics of Russia have pointed out that maintaining the dialogue channel with Moscow will simultaneously weaken Europe’s deterrence.

He said that Paris’s unexpected initiatives and the attempt to negotiate with Russia have damaged France’s reputation among Putin’s opponents. Some consider these actions more in line with Moscow’s policy of changing the position of European actors and weakening the front of Ukraine’s defenders.

Jalali said about the cost of the war in Ukraine for the French economy: The start of the war led to an increase in inflation, especially in the price of energy and food carriers, and a drop in the purchasing power of French households.

Also, the combined effect of rising prices, disrupting the supply process, and reducing export opportunities caused a loss in economic growth. Also, the risk of recession, especially if the war continues, can threaten French economic operators. Of course, the government has put measures on the agenda to support households, provide financial incentive packages for industries, and strengthen investment, especially in the field of clean energy. The recent report of the Swiss National Bank in September 2023 points out that despite the increase in the price of energy carriers and the crisis in the financial markets, the consequences of the war in Ukraine for the European economies have been less than expected. If it wasn’t for the war in Ukraine, France’s economic growth could probably be 0.1% higher, and the country’s inflation could be 0.3% lower. However, all analyses point out that the financial consequences of the war will be more significant in the medium term.

He said about the internal environment of France and the European Union to support Ukraine: Polls show that in the early months of the war, more than 67% of French public opinion supported the policy of confrontation with Russia. Before the war, this figure was 72 percent. Concerns about the economic consequences of the war and the possibility of the spread of conflicts have always cast a shadow on this issue.

This European studies expert said about the possibility of changing the French policy in the event of Donald Trump’s possible victory: If Donald Trump wins the 2024 elections, several scenarios can be examined, especially about the possibility of changes in transatlantic cooperation; Trump’s coming to power and the possibility of resuming unilateralist policy by the United States can provide the basis for reducing the financial and military obligations of the United States towards Ukraine.

This issue may lead to increased French investment in this area or Paris relying more on other actors. At the same time, the history of Trump’s actions in establishing personal relations with Putin could lead to the resumption of diplomatic channels in the Washington-Moscow axis. In such a situation, France will also try to use diplomatic levers to ensure the interests of Ukraine’s supporters during the negotiations.

Jalali added: The resumption of the Trump administration’s approach in weakening NATO and emphasizing the provision of security guarantees against financial participation can fuel the gaps in NATO. This issue is not consistent with France’s policy of supporting multilateralism. Also, there is a possibility of disagreement regarding military aid to Ukraine and Russia’s economic sanctions.

He noted that in the case of Trump’s victory, the focus on domestic issues or unexpected initiatives in the Trump administration’s foreign policy is very likely. All in all, if the bilateral and international obligations of the United States are weakened, there will be a possibility that the role of France as the leader of the European trend in confrontation with Moscow will be highlighted. This issue can increase cooperation with Eastern European countries and strengthen Europe’s strategic autonomy policy.

Jalali further explained the future developments in the internal politics of France: Regardless of the possible changes of power in America, the internal developments of France will also play an essential role in this country’s foreign policy. The support of public opinion and parliament will be practical in the continuation or change of the current foreign policy of France in support of Zelensky. The ECFR survey shows that if Trump wins and America’s support for Ukraine declines on average, only 20% of European public opinion would agree to bolster their country’s support for Ukraine.

This expert on French issues said: The Ukraine crisis may lead to the strengthening of Europe’s defense capabilities, the formation of a new security structure in Europe, strained relations with Russia, and a decrease in public opinion’s support for this process if economic challenges continue in the medium term.

He emphasized that despite different scenarios, France will probably remain a key player in shaping European policies in the future in the face of security challenges caused by the Ukraine crisis. However, whether Joe Biden or Trump is elected, transatlantic relations are crucial in shaping French foreign policy. Trump’s coming to power will bring changes in French foreign policy, but it is doubtful that there will be a fundamental change in France’s commitment to Ukraine.

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