More than 100 days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the anti-Moscow alliance may be confronting the limits of its unity.
French President Emmanuel Macron became the latest to draw fire for his suggestion that it would be unwise to “humiliate” Russian President Vladimir Putin with a resounding defeat, a prospect few expected to be grappling with when the Kremlin launched its war and inspired a terrifying clarity among the U.S. and its allies.
The fissures say as much about the psychological scars from a century of war on the continent as they do about the current conflict. They also speak to unanswered questions about how the war might end as the fighting grinds toward its fourth month in a back-and-forth battle for eastern Ukraine.
On one side are France, Germany and Italy, who appear to favor calling for negotiations and cease-fires rather than unconditional military support of Ukraine. They have been accused of either hesitancy over sending weapons or worrying too much about what might happen if Russia loses.
Some officials and experts say that by trying to play the role of honest brokers, those countries are giving false balance to a war with one clear aggressor — signaling to Putin that Western resolve is wavering.
On the other side are the Eastern Europeans, some of them ex-Soviet states, who along with the United Kingdom are ironclad in their at-all-costs approach to Ukrainian solidarity. Critics say that risks entrenching a forever war in Europe — and an escalation with nuclear-armed Moscow.
“So far we’ve done remarkably well, but I’m not optimistic about what happens next,” said John C. Kornblum, the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Clinton administration. “Putin has scared the West with his nuclear saber-rattling.”
The “so far” scorecard includes multiple rounds of sanctions and a European Union embargo against nearly all Russian oil, as well as Finland’s and Sweden’s appearing set to join NATO.
But for many, cracks are showing.
The E.U. oil embargo was held up and watered down by protests led by Hungarian strongman Viktor Orbán, and NATO’s big moment to showcase its Nordic expansion has been undermined by Turkish objections. But while those issues have been driven by a pair of perennial troublemakers in the West’s midst, the cracks are clearest over arming Ukraine and confronting how the war might end.
Over the weekend Macron told French newspapers that the West shouldn’t humiliate Putin but instead allow him an “exit ramp through diplomatic means.”
The anger from Ukraine was swift. To it, Macron’s comments were a capitulation, offensive musings about the wisdom of humiliating an aggressor when its people are being slaughtered.
“Calls to avoid humiliation of Russia can only humiliate France and every other country that would call for it,” Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted.
NBC News has reached out by email to Macron’s office for comment.
In Italy, the government is split over sending more weapons. One opponent is Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing League party, who once signed a cooperation deal with Putin’s party and posed wearing a Putin T-shirt in Red Square.
Germany, meanwhile, announced last week that it will supply Ukraine with state-of-the-art anti-aircraft and radar systems. But, after years of criticism for Berlin’s willingness to cultivate economic ties with Putin’s Russia, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has also been accused of slow-rolling weapons deliveries and declining to state that “Ukraine must win.”
Asked about his reluctance, Scholz has said, “I am not Kaiser Wilhelm” — a reference to the man who led Germany into World War I. Berlin has also always leaned pacifist as a reaction to its Nazi past.
Scholz is adamant that he cannot understand the criticism, telling the German broadcaster ZDF last month that he was not being too cautious — just trying to “act prudently and with a clear mind.”
History also weighs on Macron. His desire not to humiliate Russia has been interpreted as a reference to the severe penalties that were imposed on Germany after World War I, which some historians say created the conditions for the rise of the Nazis and World War II.
“Germany, France and Italy are all struggling with the shadows from the past,” said French analyst Fabrice Pothier, NATO’s former head of policy planning.
The West faces a Catch-22 over Ukraine, said Pothier, who is now a consulting senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London think tank. “To defeat Russia in a significant way will mean we have to be much more directly involved,” he said. “But we cannot let Ukraine be defeated, either.”
Most of Eastern Europe has led the way with weapons shipments to Kyiv and forthright denouncements of Putin. For those countries, it’s about survival: Putin could easily turn on them.
The U.K. and the U.S recently agreed to provide Ukraine with advanced rocket systems.
But some still have seen equivocation within the administration of President Joe Biden, particularly after he stipulated that such weapons shouldn’t be used to attack Russian territory — the first such limitation applied to any assistance the West has provided to Kyiv.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said last that there had been “many eulogies written prematurely” about Western unity, and he maintained that the alliance was holding.
For some, ensuring Russian soil isn’t attacked with U.S. arms is a wise move to prevent escalation. For others, it’s a clear sign to Putin that he has unnerved the West.
For some observers in Europe, Washington often gets an easier ride than Paris or Berlin because of the narrative that France and Germany aren’t doing enough.
Had Biden’s caveat come from those European capitals, “there would have been an outburst,” said Gustav Gressel, a former desk officer at the Austrian Defense Ministry who is now a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “If Scholz had said the same thing, it would have rung the alarm bells about appeasement.”