Jan C. BehrendsProfessor of history at Viadrina University
German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s initial Zeitenwende announcement was both bold and overdue. After decades of failed appeasement toward Russia, he steered Germany back into the Western camp. Today, however, the picture is more ambivalent. Part of the Zeitenwende seems to fall victim to such typical German problems as indecisiveness, timidity, and bureaucracy. This holds especially true for the defense ministry headed by a weak minister and mentally still in peacetime. At this point it seems that only a new, competent minister or decisive steps by the chancellor himself could save the situation.
France has clearly regained diplomatic influence under Emmanuel Macron. When it comes to Russia, however, the president seems to be torn between the Gaullist—and older—French tradition of maintaining special ties with Moscow and his own Western instincts. As long as Paris continues to support Ukraine, this may, however, also be to the West’s advantage. With Angela Merkel gone, Macron may serve as a much-needed channel of communication with the Kremlin. When he calls, Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to pick up the phone. Such a diplomatic channel may prove useful in the future.
Krzysztof BledowskiCouncil director and senior economist at the Manufacturers Alliance for Productivity and Innovation
Neither country may be wavering now, but both have been equivocating for decades.
Every French president and German chancellor since the late fifties has pursued policy variations of “no stability in Europe without Russia” or “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade). Whether swayed by past cultural links to Russia, cheap energy supplies, or influence of leftist politics, such rose-tinted backdrop has informed the two countries’ politics for years.
So, a snap pronouncement of a Zeitenwende or changement de cap (change of course) is unlikely to instantaneously align the duo with the likes of the UK, Finland, or Poland. All three have viewed Russia with cold realism for a solid generation now. If 100 percent of Finns profess willingness to defend their country but fewer than half of Germans do, Zeitenwende is but a slogan.
It gets worse. Russia has been denying for years that the EU is a viable entity. Add to that Europe’s loss of mojo in a world of alpha males and you have EU global policies that are predicated on its weakness. If the conflict in Ukraine is a proxy war against the West, then Europe is its weak link.
Cognizant of this, U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has tried hard to keep the transatlantic unity in place. Yet, the American public will be ready to defend the Europeans only if they are willing to defend themselves. The Ukraine war is thus a test that Europe must pass.
Ian BondDirector of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform
It would be wrong to say that France and Germany are wavering on Russia; the problem is that while they condemn Russian aggression and offer support to Ukraine, they struggle to see Putin’s regime as it really is.
Because the Elysée and the Kanzleramt are consistently wrong about the Kremlin’s mindset and motivations, they draw the wrong conclusions about dealing with it. Thus, Olaf Scholz at the Berlin Security Conference said: “We can come back to a peace order that worked and make it safe again if there is a willingness in Russia to go back to this peace order.”
But after Russia has invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 and again in 2022, how can anyone be sure that the post–Cold War arrangements in Europe would restrain Moscow in future? Emmanuel Macron rightly draws a parallel between France’s post–1871 determination to recover Alsace and Lorraine and Ukraine’s determination to recover Crimea; but then argues that the West will have to guarantee that NATO will not expand toward Russia’s borders. That is an error based on thinking that Putin’s motives are defensive, when what he says and writes shows his determination to rebuild Russian power by dominating Moscow’s former imperial possessions, and above all Ukraine.
Caroline de GruyterEuropean affairs correspondent for NRC Handelsblad
No, they are not. We love to take a magnifying lens and try to see cracks. Of course, both France and Germany are complex democratic societies, and consensus is never a solid-color painting. But the story is not there.
In Europe, unity against the Russian aggressor remains strong. France and Germany have different political cultures and geographies. France likes to see itself as different—a vision inherited from General de Gaulle, who had to battle with his Anglo-Saxon allies to create the place France would have after the war. As a result, France will try to keep in touch with all big powers, including Russia.
Germany, on the other hand, wants to see itself as not different—a first violin rather than a soloist. This positioning has made Germany a strong anchor in post-war Europe and has served its economic interests well.
Now, because of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s barbaric behavior, they play together. It has become a moral issue, more than a political one. France and Germany, which were as unprepared as most other European countries for the Russian atrocities in Ukraine and for Putin’s economic warfare against Europe, will not waver. Let’s hope the same will hold for all member states, including Austria and Hungary.
François HeisbourgSenior advisor for Europe at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS)
As it is unclear that French and German recent policy statements on the war have been closely coordinated, this answer will focus on France’s position. Macron has been stiffening, not wavering, on arms deliveries: delivering more since September (notably Crotale air defense, Unitary MLRS and more APCs), communicating more about ongoing help, and promising more weapons transfers. He’s been using harsher words with regard to Russia, stating that its missile attacks are war crimes that cannot go unpunished. He was the first head of state to embrace the EU proposal to create a special high-level tribunal.
Conversely, he’s been using confusing language again on prospective mediation: at the Bali G20 summit he suggested a role to Chinese President Xi Jinping “alongside” France. After his state visit to the United States, he spoke of offering “guarantees” to Russia, without specifying why there should be a specific dispensation to Russia, what their content should be, and against who or what they would be directed—Ukraine, the West, China?
By the standards of the war’s first months during which Macron repeatedly spoke of a French mediating role and the need not to “humiliate” Russia this sounds like an unfortunate reversion to his previous norm rather than a substantial innovation.
Linas KojalaDirector of the Eastern Europe Studies Centre, Vilnius
Macron’s focus on Russia’s security concerns related to NATO when the Kremlin’s blatant aggression continues is problematic.
First, it somewhat plays into Russia’s narrative that “NATO is to blame”—and neglects its openly stated goal of wiping Ukraine off the map. The Ukrainian suffering—killings, destruction, forced deportations—is enormous. Russia-NATO relations are a non-factor in this.
Second, the war must be a turning point in dramatically strengthening NATO’s defensive capabilities. France played an important role in reinforcing NATO’s east. Yet statements like these from Paris, Berlin, or elsewhere seed doubt about whether the change is only temporary before going back to business as usual.
Third, it is hard to even imagine a consensus with Russia unless the political landscape there changes dramatically. The West sought dialogue with Putin for years to no avail.
Finally, the attention should be on Ukraine’s long-term security rather than Kremlin’s “inconveniences.” The upcoming Vilnius NATO Summit is going to be essential in that regard.
All this should not overshadow the scope of change that is happening. Germany designated a brigade to Lithuania; France is helping to gather evidence of war crimes; both countries send heavy weaponry to Ukraine. But politics is also about sending out the right message.
Agnieszka LeguckaSenior research fellow at the Polish Institute of International Affairs
Almost one year ago, in December 2021, Russia demanded security guarantees from the West. In a statement from the Russian Foreign Ministry on the “conditions for future dialogue between the Russian Federation and the US and other Western states”, which we now know was an ultimatum of war, the Kremlin wanted the West to accept an international legal agreement not only excluding further NATO enlargement but also demanded the withdrawal of the Alliance's infrastructure from Central Europe.
So when, after nearly ten months of a bloody war in Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron talks about guarantees for Russia at the negotiating table, this cannot be well received either in Ukraine or in Central Europe.
President Vladimir Putin is interested in changing the existing order in favor of authoritarian Russia and China. It is Putin who wants to isolate Russia from Europe because the democratic model is indeed an existential threat to the country’s power elite. Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s announcements that “Germans are intent on becoming the guarantor of European security” and “bridge builder within the European Union and an advocate for multilateral solutions to global problems” sound ambiguous in the face of the war in Ukraine, when Germany retreated to the backseat in matters of European security.
John O’BrennanJean Monnet Professor of European Integration at Maynooth University
In different ways and for different reasons, France and Germany have failed to take a lead in responding to the Russian war against Ukraine.
The sheer scale of the violent assault on Ukraine, however, along with ongoing revelations of Russian war crimes, helped to bring Macron in particular around to a much more robust position on Ukrainian self-determination and sovereignty. He has restated these views in no uncertain terms in recent weeks.
However, there remains a suspicion that his worldview is still one to some significant extent informed by great power politics frameworks of international relations. His view that somehow Russia will have to be brought back into the European security order, with Moscow offered “security guarantees” of some kind, sits very uneasily with any commitment to Ukraine’s security going forward. It is also unnerving to the Central and East European member states of the EU and NATO who think in terms of maximum containment of Russia.
Olaf Scholz and the Social Democratic Party seem determined to continue leading from behind on Ukraine. If the fear remains one about provoking Russia, then they have failed to learn the necessary lessons of the last 300 days. The EU and NATO approach should be guided exclusively by a determination to resolutely defend the interests of its members and allies in Eastern Europe rather than appeasing Moscow.
Kristi RaikDirector of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute
Europe has shown a remarkable degree of unity in its response to Russia’s war against Ukraine, but recent statements by French and German leaders confirm that differences among European countries regarding Russia and European security have not disappeared.
France and Germany are keen to seek agreement with Russia on the European security order and get back to a “normal” relationship as soon as the war ends. The French president even suggested that he is ready to accommodate the Kremlin’s positions on the threat supposedly posed by NATO to Russia’s security. This is quite simply unacceptable for Central and Eastern European countries, including Ukraine. NATO does not threaten Russia and has made every effort to avoid escalation of the ongoing conflict to a NATO-Russia war, for example by insisting that arms provided to Ukraine must not be used on Russian territory, which unjustly limits Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against brutal aggression.
There cannot be a common European security order with Russia for as long as Russia does not profoundly transform through giving up its imperialist approach to neighbors, bearing responsibility for the war crimes committed in Ukraine and paying reparations for the war damage. This will be a long process.
Lucia RybnikárováJunior research fellow at the Centre for Global Europe, GLOBSEC
The war will not be over until Russian troops leave the entire territory of Ukraine, including Crimea. Ukraine will negotiate only once its territorial integrity is restored and Russian actions return to the framework of international law.
Even if France and Germany were wavering on Russia, it would be up to Ukraine to decide on the terms for ending the war. French ideas about security guarantees to Russia are not being taken seriously Eastern and Central Europe.
Let’s not underestimate how the center of gravity is being moving from Western Europe to Central and Eastern Europe. Here, there is no possibility to assume and recover prewar status quo where Russia played its economic and political role.
The Franco-German engine has been put to a test with the Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Their nuanced differences of visions are closely followed by the rest of Europe. Both countries need to overcome the reputational damage brought by their early responses to the war. Yet, Germany is pursuing an ambitious program on defense spending and a long-term strategy reflecting strong support to deter Russia. If Berlin is truly committed to its new role as a security provider in Europe, Paris should consider this ambition as an opportunity and stop pursuing the “diplomacy of balance.”
Ulrich SpeckIndependent German foreign policy analyst
No—as long as Washington is not wavering on Ukraine, France and Germany will continue to support Ukraine with weapons, sanctions, and in other ways. Both are operating in a space that is defined by team Biden which calls the shots. It is the White House that is formulating the strategy and leading on its execution, while the European allies plug in, choosing their level of support according to their priorities. This has been the approach from the beginning and it’s not changing.
Macron’s state visit has confirmed this state of affairs once more. The one player on the European side who has the ambition to play a leading role, namely in potential future peace negotiations, came to Washington probably with the idea to get an endorsement for such a role. Yet while the United States and France confirmed the key elements of the Western strategy on Russia and Ukraine in their communiqué, Biden made clear during the press conference that he would lead in negotiations, and only consult with allies.
The current problem is not that Western backers of Ukraine are wavering. It is that they just stay the course, while Russia is escalating by destroying the energy infrastructure of Ukraine. The West must escalate as well, providing more weapons and imposing more sanctions.
Stephen F. SzaboSenior fellow at the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies
France yes, Germany no. Macron undercut his successful state visit to Washington with his comments about offering Russia security guarantees despite what he called war crimes and his promises that no agreement would be made over the head of Ukraine.
Macron’s comments reflect his Gaullist desire to replace NATO with strategic autonomy but the reaction in the eastern and new northern NATO member states demonstrates the futility of his policy. While Germany shares many of Macron and Biden’s concerns about the long-term dangers of the Russian war on Ukraine, Scholz has stated the need for a new strategic culture and has moved in a typically slow but thorough way with his own Energiewende (energy transition) to end dependence on Russian energy to undergird the Zeitenwende, in defense policy.
While both leaders must contend with elements of accommodation to Russia in their publics, Macron faces a more significant challenge than does Scholz, who has a broad public consensus and geopolitically Eastern Europe matters more to Germany. Macron came to Washington last week as the presumptive leader of Europe but returned diminished.
Paul TaylorContributing editor at Politico Europe
France and Germany have always said that Russia must not win in Ukraine and that Europe and the United States must support Kyiv with the weapons and money to repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion and force him to withdraw. They have always contended the war will eventually end by a negotiation, not a 1945-style unconditional surrender.
So their latest statements and phone calls with Putin, while insensitive as Ukraine struggles heroically against Putin’s merciless brutality, are consistent and not wavering.
Given its size, resources, and historic weight, Russia cannot be simply ignored or excluded, so a postwar European security order will need to include the country, provided it fulfills the requirements of the peace settlement. Indefinite isolation would not be a recipe for stability.
However, by talking of postwar “security guarantees” for Russia, Emmanuel Macron put the cart before the horse. It is Russia that must first give security guarantees to Ukraine and its neighbors, notably Moldova and Georgia. The charitable explanation is that Macron and Joe Biden, after discussing how the war might end, want to show Moscow an eventual off-ramp. The more cynical is that Macron and Scholz, while holding firm in practice, are appeasing Russia sympathizers in their own countries.
Either way, as Jacques Chirac famously said, Macron missed a good opportunity to shut up.
Andreas UmlandAnalyst with the Stockholm Centre for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs (UI)
What exactly Macron’s and other similar Western signals to Moscow mean is difficult to say: do they indicate a softening of the Western position on core principles, or are they merely a communication strategy to start a negotiation process in which these principles will be upheld?
The proposal of security guarantees for Moscow is either a particularly naive or an especially smart move. Some commentators have already quipped that Russia could be offered to hand over all of its nuclear weapons to Ukraine and get in exchange a Budapest Memorandum signed by the presidents of the United States and Ukraine as well as the prime minister of the UK. For those too young to remember: this would be a repetition of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty (NPT)-related deal that Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, as former nuclear- and now non-nuclear-weapon states, got in Hungary’s capital in December 1994.
And indeed an imaginable security guarantee for Russia could mean a trilateral treaty in which NATO and Ukraine assure the Russian Federation of their respect for Russia’s internationally recognized borders, as long as Moscow does not violate the political sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and member countries of NATO.
That would imply not only an end to Russia’s war against Ukraine but also a full withdrawal of Russian troops and a return of all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea, to Ukraine. This agreement would, of course, be somewhat ridiculous as nobody has been planning to question Russia’s legal borders in the first place. Yet, if the discussion, negotiation, and eventual conclusion of such a deal can help to resolve the conflict—so be it.