France Saves Europe.

Again. In a manner of speaking.

We are now in the degenerate phase of the Ukrainian crisis, and more especially in the sorry and pathetic story of the West’s collective attempts to manage it. Western political leaders are in zombie mode, staggering forward in various states of disrepair, blundering on because they have no real idea what to do, completely overmatched by events that they did not see coming, and cannot now understand. Declarations by national leaders and politicians become more and more bizarre and surreal, and most of them are not worth parsing, because they have almost no actual content. They are really cries of rage and despair from the depths of misery. Only President Macron and some other French government figures, have been saying anything remotely consistent, although hardly anyone in the media seems to have the command of the background and language to understand properly what they’ve said.

The subject of this essay is one I’ve lived with, and in some cases worked on, since the end of the Cold War. So I thought it might be useful to offer a (hopefully) reasonably informed view on three points. I’ll explain where we are politically and militarily, and how western leaders are actually fumbling towards an exit strategy. In addition, with a short diversion into history, I’ll explain where I think the French are coming from, and then I’ll set out very briefly some thoughts about where this may all lead.

The idea that this crisis has its origins in culpable ignorance and stupidity by western leaderships is pretty widely accepted now. But what hasn’t had enough publicity, I think, is that this ignorance was actually willed and deliberate. That is to say, certain things were simply assumed to be true, and no attempt was actually made to verify their accuracy, because it was not thought necessary. The belief in a weak Russia that could be pushed around, the idea that even if the Russians didn’t like what was happening in Ukraine there wasn’t much they could do about it, and the conviction that any attempted Russian intervention would collapse into chaos after a few days leading to a change of government in Moscow, were not judgements arrived at after proper analysis, they were articles of ideological faith, for which no evidential support was necessary or looked for.

And this isn’t the first time either. The grisly list of western political disasters of the last twenty years, from Iraq to the 2008 financial crisis to Libya, to Syria, to Brexit, to Covid to the rise of so-called “populism,” is distinguished less than by malevolence or stupidity (though both were present) than by an arrogant belief in the rightness of the opinions of the Professional and Managerial Caste (PMC) and by their ignorant but strongly-held views about the world, which the world itself had a responsibility to adhere to. Why bother with the labour of finding out the facts when are sure you know them already?

It’s one thing for governments to accept that they were wrong about some issue of fact, even if it’s not easy: it’s quite another to accept that they were deluded and that their brains were out to lunch. When your public estimate of Russia, and your comments at the beginning of the war, are not based on any actual knowledge or any professional estimates, but just on ideological assumptions, then you lose the ability to respond and adapt as circumstances demonstrate the falsity of your assumptions. It is this incapacity that is causing an incipient nervous breakdown among western leaders, who resemble increasingly patients at a nursing home for the mentally afflicted, with their antisocial and sociopathic behaviour. So here is Gabriel Attal, the teenage French Prime Minister, taking the opportunity of a lunch for the Armenian community in Paris in the presence of various Ambassadors to launch an unprovoked verbal attack on one of his guests: the Russian Ambassador walked out, and I’m only surprised he didn’t slap Attal round the face and tell him to grow up. This is the kind of behaviour you associate with disturbed children or senile adults, not with alleged national leaders.

It’s also behaviour that you associate with people who are so wedded to certain views of the world, that they cannot change those views without feeling psychically threatened. I suppose I could be accused of bias, but I spent my professional existence in two areas—government and academia—where in principle, if you didn’t know what were talking about, people didn’t listen to you. But of course the capacity to address issues is necessarily always limited, and the quality of both government and academia has declined sharply in recent years, so perhaps it’s not surprising that western governments found themselves completely ignorant of what was happening at the start of the crisis, because they simply didn’t think it was worth devoting any resources to informing themselves. It was enough to “know” that Russia was a weak and declining nation, that Putin was a ruthless dictator, that the Russian Army was incompetent, and so forth. (You could hardly ask for a better example, by the way, of how “knowledge” is constructed by power: Foucault must be laughing somewhere.)

In fact it wasn’t very difficult. You could read a book, OK an article, on Russian military strategy. You could read an article, even a short article, on Russian politics since 1990. You could read Clausewitz, OK, an article on Clausewitz, or for God’s sake even Wikipedia, and after that you would be better informed than the vast majority of politicians and pundits about the why and how of what is going on. The sheer unwillingness of those involved in this controversy—on all sides—to just inform themselves about the basics of strategy, military organisation and deployments, how NATO and international organisations really work, and how wars are fought, continues to amaze me. It’s not as if it’s difficult to learn about some of the basics, but people seem to prefer to remain coddled in their ideological cocoons, rather than learning anything.

So we can take it for granted that the western political class and their pundit parasites will never admit that they fundamentally misunderstood what was going on because they couldn’t be bothered to find out. It’s as if something as basic and menial as discovering what’s happening is too difficult, and anyway beneath them. There’s an entire, vicious, pointless controversy being fought out in a virtual space by people completely separated from reality. In the past, this hasn’t really mattered because the consequences of our ignorance have never come back to haunt us. This time they will.

It’s unsurprising, therefore that pundits, and so far as one can gather many politicians too, are incapable of seeing an end to the crisis except in one of two unlikely ways. The first is effectively Business as Usual, which is to say that the West “puts pressure” on Zelensky to “negotiate,” and “agrees” to “talk” to the Russians, setting out western demands which amount to something like a smaller version of the Ukraine of 2022. After all, we “mustn’t let Russia profit from aggression” or “determine Ukraine’s future” must we? It’s hard to see how much more detached from reality you can get, but this is the collective fantasy people are living in, out of the willed ignorance I’ve been talking about. After all, we are “stronger” aren’t we? Soon, Ukraine will have a new Army, half a million strong, and a West which has a much larger GDP and population than Russia, will be able to arm and equip them, so negotiations will take place from a position of strength. Won’t they? I don’t think it’s possible to argue with people who think such things, because changing their mind requires the acquisition of knowledge, which is inherently ruled out. As it is, there is now a total confusion between What We Want to be True and What is Actually True, in the minds of western elites. The idea that Russia will effectively dictate the outcome of any “negotiations” over Ukraine is so far outside their frame of reference that it must be wrong, and finding out the very basic facts that explain why that is so is too much trouble, and anyway beneath them. Liberal societies, after all, work by inductive reasoning from arbitrary postulates.

The alternative view is that we are now helplessly rolling towards World War III, which will begin with “NATO escalation,” and move through all-out conventional war generally in the direction of a nuclear holocaust. Comparisons with 1914 seem to be everywhere at the moment.

This neglects the underlying realities. In order to escalate, you have to have something to escalate with, and somewhere to escalate to: NATO has neither. The idea that NATO has huge uncommitted forces waiting to be engaged is a fantasy, based on vague memories of the Cold War and on the undoubted, but irrelevant, fact that the population of Western Europe alone is twice that of Russia. It’s the same argument as saying that China will inevitably beat the Netherlands at football tomorrow, because its population is so much larger. The fact is, that the massive conscript armies that would have been mobilised in the Cold War simply don’t exist any more. European armies are pale shadows of what they used to be: undermanned, under-equipped underfunded and structured for the kind of expeditionary war that was lost in Afghanistan, but which was assumed to be the norm for the future. And it’s not just me making that last point, by the way, it’s General Schill, the Chief of the French Army, and we’ll come back to him in a minute.

The operational parts of western militaries, weak and undermanned as they are, are not designed for the kind of war that is being fought in Ukraine, and they would quickly be obliterated, even if by some logistic miracle they could be organised, and transported to the battle-front. But what about the US, you ask? Don’t they still have a hundred thousand troops in Europe? Well, yes, but the vast majority of them are in air units (which won’t play much of a role), training, logistics, military bands and other rear-area activities. There are “plans” to send units from the US to Poland at some point, but for the moment, all the US could really contribute would be some light mechanised forces and airmobile troops and helicopters: not that good when your opponent has tank divisions. (The situation is complicated by temporary deployments, exercises, rotation of units and announced “plans,” but even under ideal circumstances the forces the US could bring to a fight are not much more than a nuisance as far as the Russians are concerned.)

So “escalation” by the West in this sense is meaningless. There is a phenomenon called “escalation dominance,” which is simple enough to explain, and goes like this. You have a knife, I have a larger knife. You have a large knife, I have a gun. You have a gun, I have an automatic weapon. You have an automatic weapon, I have a tank. In other words, once an enemy can match any move you make and make a stronger one, you might as well give up. The Russians have escalation dominance over the West, and anyone who takes the trouble to research the relative military potential of the two sides will immediately understand that. Moreover, the West can’t actually even send units into contact with the Russians without enormous difficulty and heavy losses, whereas the Russians can strike NATO more or less as they please.

It’s for this reason, perhaps, that only a few hotheads have seriously imagined combat between NATO forces and Russia. Fantasies now seem to focus on positioning some NATO forces in certain parts of Ukraine to stop the Russians advancing there. But we’re back to escalation dominance again. The idea seems to be that if a platoon of NATO soldiers were blocking the road to Odessa, the Russians would stop at that point because they would be afraid of NATO reactions if they drove over them. And these reactions would be … what, exactly? It’s fairly clear that the Russians are trying to avoid a formal state of war with the West, because it would complicate things a lot. But it’s also very clear that they would target NATO troops directly if they felt they had to, and that there wouldn’t be a lot that NATO could do about it, if they did. There seems to be a dangerous belief—willed ignorance once more—that the Russians are in principle frightened of NATO “escalation,” and this could affect their behaviour. But there’s no reason to think that’s actually true.

So there won’t be World War III, because one side has little if anything to fight with. Nor are we in some kind of 1914bis situation here. The popular image of the First World War starting by accident after an obscure assassination doesn’t actually survive the reading of a short book on the subject—willed ignorance again. Europe in 1914 was a massive armed camp where the major powers all had reasons for anticipating war, objectives already formulated and plans already made. Germany was contemplating a pre-emptive strike out of fear of rapidly increasing French and Russian military power. France was prepared to go to war to recover the territories of Alsace and Lorraine. Austria-Hungary was determined to teach Serbia a military lesson. Russia was not prepared to let that happen. Centrifugal tendencies were threatening to tear the Hapsburg Empire apart. Balkan states that had won their independence from the Ottomans were now fighting each other. Even Britain, though hoping to stay out of things, was prepared to get involved to stop the Germans taking control of ports on the English Channel. Needless to say, the situation is completely different today: there is nothing serious for the West and Russia to fight about now, and there is nothing much for the West to fight with, anyway.

There is a persistent belief in some quarters that wars “happen” or “break out” independent of human volition. This is not true. Yes, World War 1 “broke out” one sleepy August when national leaders were on holiday, and to some extent, once massive mobilisation schemes involving millions of men had begun, it was difficult to stop them. But even if the rush to war could have been stopped, the underlying problems would not have gone away. Germany felt surrounded by France and Russia. The former was increasing the size of its Army, the latter was rapidly industrialising. With every year the German strategic situation was getting worse, and the Germans could not fight all-out wars against both opponents simultaneously. France would mobilise quicker and had to be dealt with first. If the political crisis of the summer of 1914 could have been resolved, these problems would have remained the same, and from the German perspective they would be getting worse. If not now, when?

Clearly, the current situation is totally different. And I don’t think we are about to slither down some slope into World War 3. I can’t prove that of course, any more than I can’t prove that if I go out of my front door in the next few minutes I won’t be run over by a drunken idiot on an electric scooter chanting football slogans. But some things are sufficient unlikely that for practical purposes they can be disregarded, and this is one of them. And no, tactical nuclear weapons are not relevant here. There are only handfuls of them in Europe, all gravity bombs requiring an aircraft to fly physically over or very near the target. Ukrainian or NATO preparations for moving and loading nuclear weapons would be obvious from satellite imagery and it’s doubtful if the Russians would wait any longer than necessary. Aircraft would have to be based close to the front line, and any aircraft that did survive to take off would be quickly destroyed. Mad Generals, nuclear forces on hair-trigger alerts and accidental nuclear explosions are all good Hollywood fun, but in practice governments exercise fanatical political control over everything to do with nuclear weapons.

So if neither Business as Usual nor World War 3 are likely outcomes, what will the end of this crisis be? Well, here it’s instructive to look at a similar debacle from the last century: the Germans managing to overrun effectively all of Western Europe in a few months. This was felt especially cruelly in France, and the blood on the dead was hardly dry before the war of the memoirs began. One of the chief participants was Paul Reynaud, a figure only known to specialists today, and dimly glimpsed perhaps in biographies of De Gaulle, whose patron and supporter he was. Reynaud, actually a fairly sympathetic and patriotic individual, was Prime Minister during the catastrophic period when the French Army seemed ready to fall to pieces, and its Generals demanded an armistice out of fear of a Communist rising. Reynaud (who also had to cope with his mistress Hélène de Portes, a rabid Germanophile who invited herself to Cabinet meetings and who was alleged to have more power than him over government decisions) resigned rather than ask for an armistice, and was imprisoned for part of the War. But after the Liberation, and like any good politician, he got his retaliation in first in the form of his memoirs, with the, well, challenging, title France Saved Europe. I won’t bother you with the argument, which is complicated and highly suspect, but the book is an excellent example of one way of dealing with a catastrophic political defeat: It Wasn’t My Fault. Indeed, in the first few pages of the book, after setting out a charge-list of mistakes and errors leading up to the defeat, Reynaud asks the politician’s favourite question: Who is responsible?

Now whilst it’s fair to say that Reynaud bears less responsibility for the defeat than many (though his advocacy of De Gaulle’s proposals for a much smaller, professional Army at a time when mass conscript armies were needed is at least curious.) But he, and the “guilty men” he identified (he was loyal to Mme de Portes to the end), were all part of the game of competitive mud-slinging that characterises the aftermath of every defeat. Others produced their own self-exculpatory memoirs in turn, after which historians joined in the mud-slinging with gusto, and still do. So the first stage of post-Ukraine will be like that: It Wasn’t My Fault. I had the Right Answers. If Only They Had Listened to Me.

The difference, though, is that 1939-40 was a series of disasters that could not be hidden. The Germans had overrun Europe, and it was impossible to pretend that they hadn’t, or that the result was anything less than a disaster. But there is another type of crisis and disaster which is more equivocal, where it is possible to argue, with a straight face, that It Could Have Been Worse. This is, of course, a professional reflex of all politicians, often combined with the denigration of others (“OK there were problems, but other governments have done much worse with inflation/Covid/crime or whatever.”). A good example is the 1956 Suez Crisis. Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister at the time, maintained until the end of his life that the operation had been a partial success: it had prevented Nasser, and the Soviet Union behind him, from overrunning the whole of North Africa in the name of his revolutionary ideology. Many of Eden’s colleagues and contemporaries agreed with him.

Now of course the Suez Operation was not launched just with that end in mind, it was launched primarily to retake possession of the Suez Canal, and in the French case to stop the support given by the Egyptian government to the FLN in Algeria. But nonetheless, the argument is a good example of how to rescue something from the wreckage, and I think that’s what we are going to see for Ukraine as well.

Success and failure, in war as much as in politics, go primarily to those who control the understanding of what success and failure are. From the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, it was clear that the only acceptable outcome for the West was victory, which meant that victory has had to be defined and redefined as circumstances have changed. For the most part, the emphasis has been less on western victory, than on Russian defeat, so if you look back at the media, you see an unending string of Russian defeats, leading to the present situation where the Russians are on the verge of destroying the Ukrainian Army completely. The point, of course is that, just as Could Have Been Worse is a victory for Us, so Could Have Been Better is a defeat for Them. So we were told that the Russians wanted to capture Kiev—a ridiculous idea anyway—and didn’t, so that was a defeat. Then we were told they expected to overrun Ukraine in a few weeks—which they manifestly never intended—and their failure to do that was a defeat. Then we were told that their failure to take large parts of Ukraine—again, they never intended to do so—was another defeat. And so on. And in each case, Russian “defeat” was also western “victory,”because we were supplying the brave Ukrainians with the tools they needed.

The result is that we can, I think, now see the outline of the western political class’s defence of its behaviour and its mismanagement of the War. If I were writing a speech for a western leader to be delivered in 2025, it would probably consist of the following.

After the end of the Cold War the West looked forward to peaceful and constructive relationships with the new Russia, and for some time this seemed possible .

However with the arrival of Putin in power it became clear that recovery of the old Soviet territories and further expansion was back on the menu.

Nonetheless the West persisted in trying to maintain peaceful coexistence in spite of Putin’s aggressive and threatening remarks at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, and his attempt to undermine the traditional convention that states can join and leave international organisations as they wish.

By 2014 it had become clear that our trust and optimism had been misplaced. The seizure of Crimea, followed by the attempted seizure of parts of the Donbas, changed the situation completely. It was now obvious that the plan to dominate and seize control of much of western Europe was under way.

The leaders of France and Germany managed to stabilise the situation briefly through the Minsk agreements which forced a temporary halt to Russian expansion . But it was evident that this was only a temporary reprieve and that the Ukrainians could not resist another serious Russian offensive.

NATO therefore began a crash programme to strengthen Ukrainian forces to deter or if necessary defeat further Russian aggression.

The ultimata presented to Western governments at the end of 2021 made it clear that Moscow had decided on all-out war. No democratic government could have accepted such terms and no parliament would have ratified them.

The war which the West tried so hard to avoid  began in February 2022, and has turned into a military disaster for the Russians, because of the heroic resistance of the Ukrainian forces and the unstinting and generous support given by democracies around the world. Russia has managed to capture only a quarter of the country at a terrible cost.

However Russia remains a dangerous and unpredictable adversary and the West must now take steps to strengthen its own defences to deter or protect against further Russian aggression.

Now, whatever you or I may think, I would estimate that between a half and two thirds of western decision-makers would accept such an account without question. Almost all the rest would accept the majority of it without serious reservations. But the real fun will start after the crisis is over, under the slogan If Only. If only we had done this, or not done that. If only we had supplied the UA with better weapons and training. If only we had deployed NATO troops in small numbers at an early stage, if only we had supplied this weapon or that weapon, or deployed these sensors or those sensors. There may even be a few brave souls who point out that if we had acted differently the crisis may have been averted, although they will no doubt be attacked for “appeasement.” And individual political leaders and the countries they represent will compete to have had the best overlooked ideas, to have argued most strongly for the solutions that were “effective” and to distance themselves as far as possible from failure.

This is the context in which to understand the recent remarks of President Macron. Now Macron is largely uninterested in, and consequently largely ignorant of, military affairs. He is the first French President from the generation that did not do national service. But he does have some realistic military advice, and if you read between the lines of his often confusing statements, it’s fairly clear that he is not advocating sending French troops to Ukraine in a combat role, and certainly not without the support of many other countries. Likewise the reference to being able to put together 20,000 men as part of an international force in the article signed by General Schill last week was in a context where the words “Ukraine” and “Russia” were not mentioned, and this was certainly not an oversight. (For what it’s worth, the figure of 20,000 has raised eyebrows, and in any case such a force could only be kept in the field for a few months.)

What we are seeing here is the first shots fired in the battle to take control of European defence and security issues after the end of the present crisis. On the one hand, the French want to come out from this as defenders of Europe, with the right ideas at the right time, always urging nations to do the right thing, making sacrifices etc. etc. Whether a platoon or a company of troops is deployed in Odessa or not hardly matters in practice. If they are, then they will have stopped the Russian advance thanks to French leadership. If they aren’t well, this was a good idea by France which no other country had the courage to follow. In either case they win. Since there is no possibility of combat deployments, all this can be done with minimal political risk.

But why are the French doing this, and why is a President famously ignorant of military affairs leading? Well, first of all we have to unlearn a bit of deliberate ignorance. The Anglo-Saxon attitude to France has always been an uneasy mixture of desperate envy and supercilious contempt, and few people can actually be bothered to take the trouble to look at the historical and cultural background. So let’s have a quick go.

France entered the postwar period with a solid political consensus that it was necessary to re-establish the “glory” and “rank” of France in the world. The War was an unfortunate accident, which needed to be undone. This was to be accomplished in two ways: one by the retention of the Empire, which was supported by all the main political parties including the Communists. The other was by rebuilding France militarily, which soon came to include the development of nuclear weapons, begun in secrecy in the early 1950s, and given greater urgency by Suez. The French, driven as always by cold calculations of national interest, welcomed the deployment of US troops in Europe, both as a disposable barrier (“why get French boys killed when you can get Americans to die for you”, as more than one French officer said to me) and as a guarantee that the US would actually come to Europe’s aid immediately this time if there was a war, and also not provoke a crisis with the Soviet Union lightly. This concept of the US presence—half sacrificial lambs, half hostages—was particularly powerful in France, but in reality most European countries felt the same way. However, for reasons of “rank” the French also pursued for over a decade the idea of an inner “triumvirate” in NATO, consisting of themselves, the British and the US, but without success. De Gaulle’s progressive disillusionment with the Integrated Military Structure of NATO was largely a continuation of his predecessors’ attitudes, but, freed from the Algerian War and now with nuclear weapons, he was able to carve out a much more independent national role. But national interest also dictated cooperation with the US, which was always close if little publicised, often stormy and acrimonious, but ultimately of value to both sides.

There’s decades worth of interesting stuff to skip over, but let’s just mention three things. From Rwanda in 1995, and particularly after the shambles of the Côte d’Ivoire, successive French governments were looking for an honourable way out of unilateral military engagements in Africa, to refocus on Europe and NATO operations. (Anyone who thinks that politico-military crises between France and West African states are somehow new or different has been living under a rock for the last thirty years.) There was a serious attempt to do this under President Sarkozy (2007-12) but it fell victim to all sorts of lobbies, not least African leaders themselves. In the end, some forces were withdrawn but not all of them. The second was the progressive growth in power of the so-called “neoconservative” tendency in French politics and government, which saw the US as the only “hyper-power” and not only shared the views of the neoconservatives in Washington, but also believed France should be a loyal subordinate. The third was the parallel growth of the “European” lobby (read “EU”) in French politics and government, and even the renaming of the new Ministry of European and Foreign Affairs. The French had always favoured intergovernmental policies (one of the few areas where they agreed with the British) but found themselves more and more dominated by the Commission and supranational organs like the ECHR.

The French had always favoured building a capacity for independent military action by Europe, in which they would play a major role. This was a political argument as much as anything else: a continent with a Political Union which could not control and deploy its own forces was not truly sovereign. But French attempts to construct such forces —“separable but not separate” as the phrase had it—were effectively sabotaged by the British over several decades.

My impression is that things may be changing once more. More than most European nations, the French seem to be giving up on the US as partners. US military capability has been revealed as feeble where it matters, but by contrast the political system in Washington—should it survive into 2025—seems dangerously unstable, and capable of provoking unmanageable crises. It’s clear that the US will never again be a major player in European military issues. With great expense and difficulty, it might be possible to exhume and repair stored tanks and armoured vehicles, find commanders and NCOs, and slowly construct and deploy perhaps a single armoured Division in Europe, over the course of the next five years or so, if the political will and the money was there, and if the practical problems could be solved. But that isn’t going to do much affect the balance of power. And it may be that the US defence industry has declined to the point where it will never again be able to produce effective weapons. In that case, France’s role as the de facto leader in European defence and security issues will be assured, not least as the only nuclear power in the EU. The German military is a joke, and the British are heading that way. The Poles have ambitions but would not be acceptable in a leadership role. And the EU is rapidly becoming toxic as a player in the security area, where it has no business being anyway.

This has, to repeat, little to do with the war in Ukraine, and much more to do with the shape of Europe afterwards. It could be that, in a way no-one could have imagined thirty-five years ago, we are finally moving in the direction the French were pushing for all that time. And we have the Russians to thank for it. How funny is that?

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