Macron criticized that he had explained his position on the use of nuclear weapons

French President Emmanuel Macron has been criticized by members of the NATO alliance for declaring that France would not respond with nuclear weapons if Russia used its own nuclear arsenal against Ukraine, or “the region”, in line with the usual policy of “strategic ambiguity” broke.

In an interview with France 2 on Wednesday night, Macron said the country’s nuclear doctrine rests on the “fundamental interests of the nation” which “would not be directly affected if, for example, there were a nuclear ballistic attack on Ukraine or in the region”.

Due to the decades-old theory of deterrence by strategic ambiguity, it is rare for leaders of nuclear-armed states to say explicitly when such weapons would be used, rather than providing adversaries with a potential playbook for possible attacks.

“Part of our deterrence is also not speculating publicly about what kind of response they would receive, in what situation,” Dutch Defense Minister Kasja Ollongren said when asked about Macron’s comments.

“The French President speaks for France and for himself. I think our choice is. . . to condemn [Putin’s nuclear rhetoric], keep our calm and be prepared,” she added. “I wouldn’t comment on different options and say ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”

NATO officials declined to comment on Macron’s comments. But privately, they said that while a conventional weapons response to a Russian nuclear attack on Ukraine is the most likely response, it is Alliance policy not to say exactly under what exact circumstances nuclear weapons might or might not be used.

France is one of three nuclear-armed NATO members and a crucial part of the Western deterrent against Russia. Macron’s words were reinforced as he addressed a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Brussels, which was partly devoted to discussions of the alliance’s nuclear planning.

After these talks, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Thursday that the alliance would not comment on how its members would react to the use of a nuclear weapon.

“We’re not going to go into detail about how exactly we’re going to respond,” Stoltenberg told reporters. “There will be serious consequences if Russia uses any type of nuclear weapon against Ukraine.”

France is not participating in NATO’s formal nuclear weapons mechanisms and will not participate in the alliance’s annual nuclear exercises next week.

The eight-month war in Ukraine is entering a delicate phase, with Russian President Vladimir Putin threatening to use nuclear weapons if Russian territory is attacked.

Russia has suffered a series of military setbacks in the wake of Ukraine’s counter-offensives, which has increased pressure on Putin and prompted his senior officials to warn that “all available means” would be used, including nuclear weapons.

Defense experts in France were also stunned by Macron’s remarks, which differed from previous French presidents who had frequently dodged questions about nuclear doctrine. Some pointed out that the region around Ukraine includes several NATO members with whom France has a mutual defense obligation.

Macron had previously set out his views on the nuclear doctrine in a Speech 2020 which highlighted the role of France’s nuclear deterrent in underpinning European security.

“Our nuclear forces are in themselves a deterrent, especially in Europe,” Macron said. “They strengthen the security of Europe by their mere existence and in that sense have a truly European dimension.”

When asked if the president’s statements in the televised interview constituted a change in policy, an Elysée official said they did not and that they did not question France’s defense obligations to NATO countries. “Nuclear deterrence is the prerogative of the head of state and his appreciation of what is necessary to safeguard our vital interests,” the person said.

Bruno Tertrais, a military expert who co-authored a book on French presidents and the bomb, said Macron, as supreme commander, has the right to speak out on nuclear doctrine but doubts the wisdom to do so.

“I suppose he wanted to reassure the French public, which is understandably concerned,” he told Le Figaro newspaper. “Deterrence is a subtle art that must combine clarity with subtlety. The President has pushed the cursor very far – too far, in my opinion – towards clarity.” Macron criticized that he had explained his position on the use of nuclear weapons

Adam Bradshaw

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