Austin Bay

On April 29, The Economist magazine asked French President Emmanuel Macron a very direct question: “Do you stand by what you said about possibly sending ground troops to Ukraine?”

The Economist referred to Macron’s February 2024 statement where he mulled circumstances in which France (a NATO nation that had elected him chief executive) might commit ground forces to defend Ukraine against President Vladimir Putin’s Russian aggressors.

Radical courage statement by a senior NATO leader? Yes. Thank goodness.

Macron’s gut reply: “Absolutely. As I said, I’m not ruling anything out, because we are facing someone who is not ruling anything out.”

My strategic historical aside: Macron has — in our time — hit on one of the Free World’s greatest weaknesses. Free World elite academic, media and political Pollyannas don’t believe bad guys really mean it, even when the thugs back hard talk with paid mobs, assassination, guns and bombs. In the 1930s, the Free World feckless caved when Adolf Hitler’s legions seized the demilitarized Rhineland (March 1936). In 1938, they ratified Neville Chamberlain’s Czechoslovakia sellout.

But back to Macron, Putin and our time.

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In the past 10 days, Putin threatened Europe and North America with nuclear attack. For the record, Vlad and his regime have threatened nuclear war on NATO several times since February 2022 — the month the Russian dictator launched an invasion of Ukraine that was supposed to end in three weeks with a slam-dunk win.

Putin’s latest nuclear threat was aimed at France, Britain and even Germany.

Why? Western Europe’s most powerful nations are stepping up to back Europe’s vulnerable eastern nations. This is good news. I’ll bet former President Donald Trump is delighted. He wants NATO to share burdens.

On May 7, a Polish newspaper reported Poland’s chief intelligence officer Jaroslaw Strozyk believed Putin is preparing “for some kind of mini-operation against one of the Baltic countries, for example, to enter the famous (city of) Narva or land on one of the Swedish islands.” Don’t write this off as a fevered imagination. Narva’s population is almost 90% Russian. Strozyk envisions a Russian “hybrid” attack akin to seizing eastern Ukraine in 2014 — except Estonia is a NATO nation.

Which leads to my buried headline: Would Putin attack a NATO nation?

A very critical factor: Putin knows the “Joe Biden moment” of Western vulnerability is fading. In 10 years, if we’re lucky, we will read brow-furrowing tomes arguing President Joe Biden’s cowardly Afghanistan withdrawal encouraged Chinese meddling in Asia, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Iranian troublemaking in the Middle East and Hamas’ attack on Israel.

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However, we are in our time, Vlad is threatening nuclear attack, and the Joe Biden moment isn’t over.

Full disclosure: This isn’t a doomsday essay. However, Poland, the Baltic states, Finland and France see Summer 2024 as a moment of immense vulnerability. So does Germany. Germany has agreed to station a permanent garrison in Lithuania — though that action is a signal. The garrison won’t be in place for a couple of years.

Putin despises NATO. He paints NATO as an aggressor, which it isn’t. It’s a collective defense alliance. In a collective defense alliance, allies pledge to defend each other against external military threats.

When NATO turned 61 in 2010, the Brookings Institution concluded that 61 birthdays made it one of the six longest-lived military alliances since 1500 A.D.

NATO turned 75 in April 2024. NATO’s Article 5 collective defense guarantee exemplifies the hard Cold War diplomacy that has 21st-century value. Article 5’s nickname has a French literary connection: “the Three Musketeers clause.” “One for all and all for one,” the dashing musketeers affirmed. Article 5 says that “an armed attack against one or more of them … shall be considered an attack against them all.”

Article 5 has been invoked just once: the day after al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks on the U.S.

Putin has made degrading NATO a foreign policy goal. Why? Because NATO deters his ambitions.

But we are still in the Joe Biden moment.

Austin Bay is a syndicated columnist and author.


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