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Nuclear deterrence: did Macron show his cards to Putin on France 2?

It is a statement that Moscow will have noted with great interest and whose every word will have been scrupulously reported to Vladimir Putin, like everything relating to questions of deterrence. Asked about the reaction that France would have if the Kremlin resorted to a tactical nuclear strike in Ukraine, Emmanuel Macron explained, on France 2, Wednesday, October 12, that this would not call for a nuclear response from Paris. “It is obvious and it is not our doctrine today,” replied the president.

This exit is all the more surprising since never, until now, has France taken such a clear position on the subject. Until now, Paris has had a reputation for being a bit more ambiguous than its American and British allies. But it is ultimately the opposite that occurs, with regard to Ukraine. Although Washington has let it be known in the press that there will be a conventional response to a nuclear strike on Ukraine, the White House, in public, has simply referred to “catastrophic consequences”, without ever being categorical on the fact that they would be conventional or nuclear.

Asked about the exit of his successor, François Hollande, was critical. “On the deterrent force, the credibility, it is not to say anything about what we will have to do”, declared this Thursday, October 13 on Franceinfo, the former president.

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“Our doctrine is based on the fundamental interests of the nation, and they are defined very clearly”, also said Emmanuel Macron, in the same television sequence. However, precisely, the doctrine skilfully maintains the vagueness on what, precisely, these interests are.

An ambiguous exit

As the American Rose Gottemoeller, one of the most eminent experts in deterrence, recently reminded L’Express, “creating ambiguity in the mind of the potential aggressor is important to dissuade him from attacking ” and “if your red lines are too clear, he may be tempted to challenge them”. In fact, knowingly or not, Emmanuel Macron has made France’s position clearer – while explaining, in a contradictory way, that in terms of deterrence, “the less we talk about it” and “the more credible we are”.

The President of the Republic also specified that, concerning the said “fundamental interests”, “this is not at all what would be in question if there was, for example, a nuclear ballistic attack in Ukraine or in the region”.

This “in the region” turns out to be very ambiguous. Did Emmanuel Macron distinguish a nuclear strike on the land part of Ukraine from another, of a more preventive nature, potentially, from Moscow, in the Black Sea? The countries of the Ukraine “region”, some of which are members of both NATO – and therefore likely to benefit from American nuclear solidarity – and of the European Union (Poland, Hungary, Slovakia), could see a lack of solidarity from France.

They could also interpret this as a turnaround. Because, during his speech on deterrence in 2020, Emmanuel Macron had offered his European partners “a strategic dialogue” on “the role of French nuclear deterrence” in the collective security of Europe. He also added that “the vital interests of France now have a European dimension”. Did Russia’s invasion of Ukraine change that? The comments he made on France 2 risk casting doubt.


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