The Irish Times view on the war in Ukraine: trading threats

Rhetoric has been stepped up as Macron talks of western troops being deployed, while Putin engages in nuclear sabre rattling

Nuclear sabre rattling by Vladimir Putin is not new, but last week’s statement that any increase in western support for Ukraine “really risks a conflict using nuclear weapons, which means the destruction of all of civilisation” will nevertheless have caused a sharp frisson among Ukraine’s allies. He made clear he was warning both about discussions on the supply of more advanced weapons and the hint a few days earlier by France’s Emmanuel Macron that Nato troops could yet be deployed on the ground in Ukraine.

“Now the consequences for possible interveners will be much more tragic,” Putin threatened. “We also have weapons that can strike targets on their territory.”

Putin’s warning comes as the bloody conflict, now a war of attrition, enters its third year. There have been signs of marginal Russian gains on the eastern front, concerns expressed by Ukraine about manpower and munition shortages, and fears voiced by Baltic states and Nato commanders that Russia is developing the capability for an attack on Nato soil within a few years.

Macron’s surprise suggestion that troops on the ground “should not be ruled out,” was one element of his case for “acting differently”, a push to raise allies’ response to the war to a new level. It is a time, he said, of a significantly more aggressive “change in Russia’s posture… not only in Ukraine but against us all in general.” He spoke of the “need to shift even further towards a war economy” particularly in munitions production

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Using an effective but ambiguous formula made famous by Mario Draghi in defence of the euro, Macron promised that allies would “do everything it takes” to make sure Russia cannot win this war. That includes the “under-discussion” possibility of sending troops in on the ground – qualified a couple of days later by his defence minister to the effect that the president was talking not about combat troops, but trainers, deminers, medical staff and so on.

Macron is most unlikely to find support among allies for his proposition – it has been an article of faith for Nato members since the war began that any use inside Ukraine of their combat forces would be dangerously provocative and hence ruled out.

But Macron, anxious to project a dynamic French European leadership at a time when there are increasing doubts about US support for the war effort, is engaged also in a game of what he admitted was “strategic ambiguity”. The message to Russia is that even if European ground forces are unlikely, the possibility cannot be ruled out in strategic calculation. No doubt Putin had the same goal in mind with his reply - sowing uncertainty.

Strategic ambiguity on both sides, however, is set only to amplify war rhetoric and stoke fears.