John R. Deni is a research professor at the U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute and a non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He’s the author of “Coalition of the unWilling and unAble.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent decision to partially mobilize Russian reservists represents a significant escalation in his war against Ukraine.
Over the coming weeks and months, this could inject as many as 300,000 additional Russian troops into the Kremlin’s war effort — and just as Ukraine has achieved some battlefield success. Increased Western assistance is now vital for Kyiv to leverage and expand its gains and build up defensive positions, before additional Russian forces enter the fight. But not all Western powers have been pulling their weight in this regard — especially Paris and Berlin.
The Franco-German engine has powered the European Union for over 70 years. Today, however, that engine has stalled in the face of the greatest challenge confronting European security since the end of World War II. The Continent’s most powerful economy and its most powerful military are failing to meet the moment. And, unfortunately, odds that either will change course within the timeframe necessary to help Kyiv achieve its objectives are low.
In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, top political leaders in both France and Germany appeared to recognize the scale of the crisis. French President Emmanuel Macron immediately highlighted the damage Russia had done to European peace and stability, noting that in its response, the West would “be without weakness” in the military, economic, and energy domains. Meanwhile, new German Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared Putin had destroyed the European security architecture, arguing that the Russian invasion had marked a turning point, and it was now time to support Ukraine to “the best of our ability.”
Since those early days, though, the actions of Europe’s political dynamic duo have failed to match their own rhetoric. Germany has been dragging its feet on sending the kinds of military equipment other allies have been providing Ukraine for months. After promising to deliver multiple launch rocket systems, self-propelled howitzers and air defense systems, the glacial pace of delivery has cast doubt on Berlin’s commitment. Moreover, Germany’s sheer unwillingness to send heavy armored forces — like tanks and infantry fighting vehicles — has prompted criticism from Ukrainian leaders, who accuse Berlin of backtracking.
Meanwhile, France has been willfully curtailing its assistance in hopes of playing the role of neutral arbiter when the shooting stops. Macron irreparably damaged his claim to European leadership when he called on Ukraine to avoid humiliating Putin, and from an operational perspective, while the country has provided offensive weapons to Ukraine, it has reportedly sent less than even Germany, and trained an extraordinarily small number of Ukrainian troops compared to others like the United Kingdom.
Clearly, these leading European countries have both failed to rise to the occasion — but for two very different reasons.
For over a half century, Germany has pursued a cooperative change-through-trade approach to Russia. Now, having finally woken up to Moscow’s zero-sum approach — and its corresponding disdain for cooperation with the West — Berlin is attempting to reverse its long-standing strategy. But change is never easy, especially in Germany, so the effort to overcome entrenched, conventional national security wisdom goes two steps forward, one step back.
For France, however, the dynamic in question isn’t change but the opposite — status quo.
Residual illusions of French grandeur lie at the heart of Macron’s efforts to walk an elusive middle ground between the West and Russia. Across much of the Continent, France’s leading role in pursing European “strategic autonomy” in recent years has been seen as a thinly veiled attempt to resuscitate French greatness and promote the country’s own interests. However, in trying to position France as a practically minded, neutral arbiter between Ukraine and Russia, Macron has instead undermined Paris’s reputation as a defender of Western values and interests.
Unfortunately, as this French pursuit of greatness continues to endure and 50 years of German foreign policy won’t be changed overnight, neither of these European powers is likely to play a leading role in helping Ukraine in the short run. This is particularly problematic at the moment, as Kyiv is eager to keep up the momentum after the serious battlefield success realized by its forces.
Although the news from the Kharkiv region of northeastern Ukraine has been remarkably positive for Kyiv in recent days, there are still many reasons to think Russia is far from being knocked out of the conflict.
For one thing, Ukraine’s progress in the south — where it had begun shifting resources from Kharkiv — remains slow and arduous. Additionally, Moscow retains the ability to conduct precision long-range strikes against Ukrainian infrastructure. Most importantly, though, Russia still holds both qualitative and quantitative military advantages over Ukraine in terms of both manpower and equipment.
For all these reasons — especially given Putin’s partial mobilization — the war will most likely continue to unfold over the coming months, if not years. Ukraine is unlikely to remain in the fight without significant long-term Western aid, precision weaponry in particular, which they have already been using to good effect, targeting Russian supply lines and logistics. But they will need more — particularly if outmatched in troop numbers later this year.
The United States, the U.K., Poland, and other allies are all currently providing substantial training, equipment, expertise and intelligence. And in response to Putin’s mobilization, both France and Germany have an opportunity to do so as well — but whether and when they will fulfill their potential remains to be seen.