(CN) — In a bold but nuanced speech on European security, French President Emmanuel Macron on Wednesday made his strongest remarks yet on supporting Ukraine and building up Europe's defenses against Russia.
Speaking at a security forum in Bratislava, Slovakia, Macron sought to align France – the European Union's most powerful military force but one historically wary of NATO – with the more hawkish views inside the Western military alliance.
His speech was closely watched because Macron's influence in EU affairs has grown considerably since the retirement of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long Europe's most powerful politician. Still, Macron is a weakened figure on the European stage due to domestic troubles back in France, where he is a deeply unpopular leader.
EU foreign policy has been upended by the war in Ukraine and the bloc is rearming itself and talking about the need to stand up militarily to Russia or face even more conflict and war. Still, the 27-member bloc is deeply divided over what to do about Russia and the fallout from the Ukraine war is severely straining EU politics.
Macron's speech came ahead of tense talks among NATO allies in July at a summit in Vilnius about how to provide Ukraine with NATO protection and gird the EU and NATO against the threat of Russia and its allies.
In traveling to Slovakia on Wednesday and onto Moldova on Thursday, Macron is seeking to dispel misgivings in Central and Eastern Europe that France sees Russia as a potential friend.
Those views were based on Macron's attempts to broker peace negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin, by his sparking controversy last year in saying both Russia and Ukraine needed “security guarantees” and calling NATO “brain dead” in an interview with The Economist magazine during the presidency of Donald Trump.
Macron's positions in the past were in keeping with a long tradition in France to talk about the need for a Paris-led defense strategy in Europe because of the alleged damage caused by relying too much on the United States.
On Wednesday, though, Macron placed France much more in line with those advocating an adversarial approach to Russia, a view mostly expressed by voices found in American, British and Central and Eastern European policy circles.
Macron's speech came as the Russia-Ukraine war grows fiercer and threatens to rapidly expand after 15 months of fighting.
In recent weeks, drone attacks have hit Moscow and the Kremlin; Russia has moved nuclear weapons to Belarus; the West has decided to ship F-16 fighter jets to Kyiv; and on Wednesday, Britain's top diplomat said Ukraine has a right to hit targets in Russia and the Kremlin shot back that British politicians are now “legitimate targets.”
In his speech, Macron said there must be security guarantees for Ukraine – no mention of Russia – and he said the war must end on terms acceptable to Kyiv.
He likened Russia's efforts in Europe to those of the Soviet Union and he said France would never allow a new Iron Curtain to divide the continent.
“Europe will not be kidnapped a second time,” Macron said, an apparent reference to an essay written by Czech writer Milan Kundera warning about Russia's aims in Europe.
He accused Moscow of seeking to “shake up European unity” and “reshape Europe on its own terms.”
He cited a speech Putin gave in 2007 warning against NATO expansion into Ukraine and Georgia, former Soviet republics. The following year, NATO declared its intention to draw in those two nations and Putin later invaded both countries, Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014.
Macron said “peace in Europe” will only be achieved with a victory by Ukraine and no loss of territory.
“We cannot sacrifice any territories against international law,” he said. “From the long-term view, this would make us all weaker. There's only one peace and that is one that respects international law.”
But his speech was sprinkled with nuance as he reminded the hall of European leaders and policymakers that they need to take into consideration uncomfortable facts, such as how many developing nations are not going along with the West's sanctions against Moscow and that Russia's economy has largely withstood the economic blockade by the West.
He warned that developing nations could turn to Russia and China if the West punishes them for their position on the war. He said that would create a “new global order” that is not to the West's advantage.
He said Europe needs to be a “pillar” in the NATO alliance, but he said it must also not become dependent on the whims of the American electorate, a clear reference to the possible reelection of Trump.
“Our stability and security shouldn't be delegated to the discretion of U.S. voters,” he said.
He added that Russia isn't going away because it is located next to the EU and therefore the bloc must build up its security through an aggressive plan to increase European strengths in energy, military and industry.
“We should be able to defend ourselves and our neighbors,” he said. “We should not only be able to face wars today, we need to be prepared for the future.”
He also supported quickly enlarging the EU into the Western Balkans and bring Moldova into the union. He said enlargement is beneficial to the EU's strategic needs and failing to do so would weaken the bloc.
But he said enlargement must also mean ensuring new members abide by EU laws and values. There are lots of concerns in the EU that enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe has added new problems, such as the democratic backsliding found in Hungary and Poland.
“This was the wake-up call for Europe and we have woken up,” he said. “I think you know why I am here: You can count on France.”
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.Follow @https://twitter.com/cainburdeau
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