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French president Emmanuel Macron is not exactly known for his subtlety.

Two weeks ago, Macron sent shockwaves throughout the halls of European bureaucracy when he suggested that Europe must not rule out the possibility of European boots on the ground in Ukraine. On a prime-time television interview on Thursday, Macron yet again refused to walk back his assertion, in spite of the fact that it was met with extremely hasty statements from uneasy NATO allies who explicitly shot down any suggestion of an open conflict between NATO and Russia.

On Friday, the French president slightly toned down his rhetoric during a joint press conference held with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and Polish prime minister Donald Tusk. The seemingly inconceivable notion that NATO soldiers could step in to assist Ukraine’s ailing war effort has now dominated the headlines for weeks thanks to Macron’s insistence on bringing it up, much to the chagrin of his allies.

The Russian invasion, which has entered its third year and does not seem to be relenting anytime soon, has also led to increased domestic oppression within Russia’s borders, culminating in the Kremlin’s imprisonment and subsequent assassination of prominent Putin critic and anti-corruption blogger Alexei Navalny. The VICE Special Report you can see in the video link below is a heart wrenching documentary which accurately captures the mood of the Russian population, which has had to find increasingly creative ways to dissent against Putin’s brutal crackdown on anti-war sentiment.

It must be said that Macron’s insistence needs to be considered within the context of his tendency to showboat on the international stage when domestic trouble shows up on the Élysée’s doorstep. One must also point out that, although France has been vocal in its advocacy for further strategic commitment in the fight against Russia’s invasion, it has failed to convincingly put its money where its mouth is when it comes to actual spending on military aid for Ukraine.

However, it is nonetheless a fact that the implications of France’s policy shift are nothing short of monumental. When reframed within the context of the wider effort to increase the defence spending of Western countries and the fact that there are two major ongoing acts of aggression in Ukraine and Palestine, both of which have repeatedly threatened to spill over into the borders of nearby countries, the prospects are chilling to even consider.

When Macron first brought up the notion of European boots on the ground, I reached out to a source with a military background and relevant insight into the politics of war to discuss the implications of France’s policy shift. Given the significance of this change and the fact that it remains topical, I decided to publish this analysis to contribute to an informed discussion about an extremely important moment in European history.

One of the first things my source pointed out was that the conflict in Ukraine effectively amounts to what is known as a proxy war, which is a conflict with a ‘decoy’ country that is initiated by a significant global power like Russia that indirectly amounts to a conflict with what is perceived as that country’s ‘real’ enemy – in this case, the West.

“It allows enough plausible deniability to avoid direct confrontation. And the war in Ukraine is exactly that – the West can say that they’re not fighting Russia directly and Putin can sell the narrative of standing up against the West without having to face the possibility of direct conflict, which conjures up the spectre of nuclear war,” the source explained.

The real question, however, is whether European member states in particular, who are known to be lagging behind in military spending when compared to behemoths like the US, Russia, and China, even have the capacity to provide more direct military involvement to begin with. Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy has had to resort to extraordinary measures to goad stingy Western allies into providing the necessary firepower for his war-weary army to repel Russia’s assault, but has not yet made a request for direct military involvement.

Which begs yet another question – if Ukraine hasn’t asked such a favour of its allies, then why should those allies do so?

When I suggested that one plausible justification for the deployment of Western troops on Ukrainian soil could be that it would shore up Ukraine’s faltering manpower and morale, my source yet again questioned whether “shrunken European militaries” could even make a dent when considering Russia’s vast human reserves. As of three months ago, Russia’s armed forces amounted to a total of 1.3 million active personnel, with an estimated 2 million in reserve.

“If they are going to bait the Bear, they are going to need to keep reserves. So not sure what difference they can make unless they all start conscription again,” the source added.

I also wanted to understand whether Ukraine’s position as the defending army would mean that even a comparatively small number of NATO soldiers could be able to make an outsized difference in Ukraine’s attempt at repelling Russia’s invasion.

“The point is that committing land forces – or air forces for that matter – to Ukraine is crossing the Rubicon. Europe would be in a direct war with Russia. That would elicit a massive reaction on the part of the Russians fueled by a wave of propaganda with images of German tanks rolling towards Moscow. So if there is going to be any commitment, then a small piecemeal, symbolic gesture brings with it all the danger but delivers none of the punch,” the source argued.

While they did concede that Ukraine would, in Macron’s hypothetical scenario, have a strategic advantage since it is fighting on its own soil, the source maintained that unless Western military forces are willing to directly clash with Russia on the battlefield if and when the latter’s forces withdraw, such a move would be “a waste of blood and treasure”.

“If (Western allies) do exploit this withdrawal, then the Russians make the case that they are being attacked by the West and possibly go nuclear,” the source emphasised. Russia’s reaction to the mere suggestion of Western soldiers setting foot on Ukrainian battlefields was predictably furious, with Putin himself pointedly reminding the entire world that his country is nuclear-capable and that US troops in Ukraine would be considered a significant escalation of the conflict.

This nightmare scenario is further compounded by fears of a Trump re-election in the US, which would likely bring an end to US military support for Ukraine and spell almost certain doom for any hope that Europe would be able to keep up the war effort on its own.

“I am still firmly of the opinion that it would be far more useful for the US and Europe to throw everything they have in terms of logistical support at the issue by training Ukranian troops and only engaging directly if there is a direct threat. If Europe does engage, it must go big immediately,” the source concluded.

The only other alternative is to abandon the war effort entirely and leave Ukraine to its fate, an outcome which would severely escalate the risk of further regional conflict on Europe’s borders. While Ukraine does not seem to be even remotely close to contemplating surrender as long as military aid keeps flowing into its depleted coffers, it is a potential scenario that must be weighed out regardless.

When asked about the Russian propaganda line – that Kyiv should have surrendered if it wanted to spare its own people from the onslaught – the source argued that ultimately, it was Russian aggression in Crimea that started the war and it would have been strategically incorrect to allow an aggressor country to get away with the initial act of aggression.

“So Ukraine is between a rock and a hard place, either hold the line now at immense cost or lose everything step by step. It is really easy to criticise Zelenskyy or any other leader in time of war. In the second world war, many criticised Churchill for continuing to resist Germany. In hindsight, the story is often different. Ukraine has demonstrated that, with the right tools and under the right circumstances, they can win,” the source added.

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