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March 1, 2024   6 mins

On Monday, Europe crossed yet another red line in its ever-escalating, no-longer-so-proxy war against Russia. In a hastily arranged meeting of European leaders in Paris — a response to significant Russian breakthroughs on the Ukrainian frontline over the past few weeks — Emmanuel Macron shattered one of the few taboos left in Western circles by saying that sending Nato troops to Ukraine should not be ruled out. “We must do everything necessary to prevent Russia from winning the war,” he declared, adding that France could even take such action without the consent of other EU members because “each country is sovereign and its armed forces are sovereign”.

Unsurprisingly, this didn’t go down well with Nato allies, whom the French president hadn’t even bothered to warn beforehand. This was probably designed to maximise the statement’s impact: Macron is prone to attention-grabbing pronouncements that are never actually acted upon, often as a way of deflecting attention away from domestic problems.

This time, though, Macron overplayed his hand. His statement was so obviously unhinged that it fuelled a sizeable backlash in France, where half of the population opposes providing more aid to Ukraine. Marine Le Pen accused Macron of playing with the lives of French children, while radical leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon called it “madness”. Outside of France, meanwhile, practically all Nato members rebutted Macron’s suggestion and ruled out sending ground troops to Ukraine, while Putin himself yesterday warned such a move could spark a major escalation.

But how long will Nato leaders maintain this stance? After all, Macron is right about one thing: Nato countries have crossed virtually all the red lines they had given themselves at the start of the conflict. “Many people who say ‘Never, never’ today were the same people who said ‘Never tanks, never planes, never long-range missiles’ two years ago,” he said. In this sense, the whole troops-on-the-ground debate is little more than a distraction from the fact that we are, of course, already engaged in a de facto war against Russia — troops on the ground or not. Besides, it’s an open secret that Western special forces are already present in Ukraine — including British troops.

Indeed, there is hardly any disagreement among European leaders about the fact that their countries should continue to wage this so-called proxy war; the question is whether the aim should be that of supporting Ukraine’s official strategy of retaking every inch of Russian-controlled territory — a proposition that is now increasingly recognised as impossible even in Western quarters — or if it should rather be that of bolstering Ukraine’s defences with the goal of arresting the Russian advance. European countries seem to be increasingly leaning towards the latter, with Germany currently leading the way.

Even though Germany has emerged as Ukraine’s biggest supporter in the West (as the US Congress continues to block a new aid package), Scholz has hitherto resisted pressure from the opposition, as well as from members of his own coalition, to send German-made Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine. His argument is twofold: first, that the missiles have a range of 500 kilometres and could be used to strike Moscow; second, that their delivery would require specially trained German troops to be on the ground in Ukraine. This would effectively draw Germany into a direct war with Russia.

But even Scholz’s apparent caution seems troublingly naïve in the face of Nato chief Jens Stoltenberg’s recent announcement that the bloc has given Ukraine the green light to use Western-supplied F-16s to strike targets in Russia — yet another dangerous escalation that brings Nato closer and closer to a direct confrontation with Russia. Ultimately, however, the disagreements within Nato are over tactics, not strategy: virtually all countries agree that Ukraine should be supported “for as long as it takes”.

To this end, several European countries, including the UK, have just signed bilateral long-term security agreements with Kyiv, committing to “provide Ukraine with swift and sustained security assistance, modern military equipment across all domains as necessary”. Yet no one really knows what supporting Ukraine “for as long as it takes” really means. There’s no clearly defined and agreed war goal — aside from “not letting Russia win”, and a vague hope of wearing Russia down economically and militarily.

“There’s no clearly defined and agreed war goal.”

But even that appears to be little more than wishful thinking. Not only has the Russian economy weathered the Western sanctions (and may have even benefited from them); more crucially, as The Economist recently acknowledged, “Russia is winning in Ukraine” — and there’s little realistic hope of this being reversed soon. As Anatol Lieven wrote in Time: “The implication of Ukraine standing indefinitely on the defensive — even if it does so successfully — is that the territories currently occupied by Russia are lost. Russia will never agree at the negotiating table to surrender land that it has managed to hold on the battlefield… Even if [Western] aid continues, there is no realistic chance of total Ukrainian victory next year, or the year after that.”

So, what’s the point of supporting a long and bloody war of attrition, one that could potentially last for years? As Lieven argues, “however painful a peace agreement would be today, it will be infinitely more so if the war continues and Ukraine is defeated”. Yet, in recent months, the US and Ukraine have reportedly continued to reject Russia’s suggestions of a ceasefire.

So why does peace continue to be a taboo in the West? For starters, there is good reason to believe that Western support for Ukraine was never really about helping Ukrainians, but about using them to pursue the West’s own economic and strategic aims. From this perspective, the war has been a success — for some at least. In the US’s case, this is rather self-evident: it has been able to reassert its military hegemony over Europe, while driving a wedge between Europe (and Germany in particular) and Russia, a longstanding American geopolitical imperative. Especially now that the US has succeeded in “Europeanising” the war, by having the EU carry the burden for supporting Ukraine, Biden has no obvious incentive to end the war before the elections, especially on terms favourable to Russia.

For Europe, it’s a very different story: aside from the continent’s military-industrial complex, which has benefited enormously, the war has been an economic and geopolitical disaster. Moreover, Europe has obviously much more to lose from the increasingly alarming prospect of nuclear war between the West and Russia. Indeed, one may argue that Europeans have an existential interest in bringing the conflict to an end.

Yet not only are European governments not doing anything to work towards a peaceful resolution — they seem to be actively exacerbating tensions. In recent months, we have witnessed a sustained propaganda campaign aimed at convincing European citizens that Russia is bent on invading Europe at some point in the more-or-less-near future — and that, therefore, we have to prepare for war by heavily boosting Europe’s “defence” capabilities. According to the Danish defence minister, Russia could attack Nato in as little as three years. “We have to realise it’s not a given that we are in peace. And that’s why we are preparing for a conflict with Russia,” said Dutch admiral Rob Bauer, the Nato military committee chief. In several other European countries, there is talk of reintroducing mandatory military conscription. And this isn’t just talk: along its north-eastern flank, Nato has recently begun its largest military exercise in Europe since the Cold War, involving 90,000 troops, 50 ships and more than 80 fighter jets.

But is there any evidence that Russia intends to march across Europe? For John Mearsheimer, this is a “ludicrous” proposition. “Putin has made it clear that he does not intend to conquer all of Ukraine,” he said, “and he has never indicated that he was interested in conquering any other country in Eastern Europe, much less Western Europe. He also doesn’t have the military capability to conquer eastern Europe — the Russian army is not the second coming of the Wehrmacht.”

If this is true, how can we explain the relentless peddling of this narrative? I see three options, all equally alarming.

The first is that European leaders have started to believe their own propaganda and are truly convinced Russia is bent on attacking Europe. If this is the case, it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy: Putin would view an increase in defence spending as a sign of a growing threat. The second explanation is that Europe’s leaders know that Russia is unlikely to invade, but are raising this phantom threat to justify the continuation of the proxy war in Ukraine, as part of a wider strategy aimed at containing the Russo-Chinese challenge to the US-centric system. The third possibility is that the continent’s leaders have simply gone bonkers and are deliberately trying to precipitate a war with Russia, for reasons unfathomable to sane-minded people.

Amid such unclarity, the good news is that citizens, at least in Western Europe, don’t seem to be buying it. Despite the relentless fear-mongering, Russia ranks only 11th, 7th and 6th among the concerns of Italians, Germans and the French respectively, below crime, inequality and immigration, according to the latest Munich Security Conference report. But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that our elites would rather drag us into war than address our societies’ actual problems. They created them — and they benefit from them. And as long as they do, it seems unlikely that peace will arrive soon.

Thomas Fazi is an UnHerd columnist and translator. His latest book is The Covid Consensus, co-authored with Toby Green.