For French Military, War in Ukraine Prompts a Shift in Focus

TAPA, Estonia — For the past five years, French troops have been training at a NATO military base here, nestled among pine forests, for a conflict that seemed improbable. But Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has suddenly given a new raison d’être to the 200 or so French infantrymen posted in Tapa, a town about 60 miles from the Russian border.

By bringing the threat of large-scale combat closer to home, the conflict in Ukraine has spurred France’s efforts to gear up for what Gen. Thierry Burkhard, France’s military chief of staff, calls “high-intensity war.” He said those efforts included improving his country’s ability to swiftly deploy troops and defend against cyber and information warfare.

“The interest of European countries is to weaken Russia,” General Burkhard said in an interview with The New York Times and the news service Agence France-Presse, during a trip to Estonia last week.

His words seemed to echo those of Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who last month said America’s goal was to see Russia so “weakened” that it would no longer have the power to invade a neighboring state.

But in keeping with efforts by President Emmanuel Macron of France to maintain an open diplomatic line with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, General Burkhard added that weakening Russia would not mean wiping it out, and that the West may need to work with Russia to build a future global “security architecture.”

General Burkhard said that two months after the start of the war, there were already lessons to be learned for the French Army, one of the world’s strongest but whose recent combat experience has been limited to facing guerrilla warfare and terrorism in the Middle East and Africa.

In Tapa, General Burkhard met with the French 7th Battalion of Chasseurs Alpins, or Alpine hunters, an elite mountain infantry unit that was rushed to the NATO base in mid-March as part of the alliance’s rapid military buildup on its eastern flank. At the base, French troops train alongside British tank regiments, on terrain that is often snowy or marshy — a new reality for a battalion which until then had been deployed mostly to the arid lands of former French colonies, including twice to the West African nation of Mali.

“Let’s not fool ourselves,” General Burkhard said, “it’s not because we fight in Mali, and we succeed there, that we know how to wage high-intensity war — it’s not the same thing.”

The French military commander said that by denying Mr. Putin the swift victory that many analysts originally anticipated, Ukraine’s strong defense had “forced a pause in Russia’s long-term strategy” to destabilize the West and reimpose a Soviet-style sphere of influence in Eastern Europe.

“We have to take advantage of this pause,” General Burkhard said, adding that European nations needed to untangle the “spider’s web” Mr. Putin had woven around them, hooking some on Russian gas and oil, while making military threats and waging effective information warfare.

But General Burkhard said that, whatever the outcome of the war, “Russia is not going to disappear” and will need to be considered in future talks on European security.

In an interview, Lt. Gen. Martin Herem, the commander of the Estonian Defense Forces, struck a more hostile tone toward Russia, saying it must be driven from Ukrainian territory because any success it achieves “will cause huge damage in our region’s stability.”

But in a sign that the war in Ukraine may have helped Western allies overcome at least some differences, General Burkhard said he supported a stronger European presence in NATO, something Estonia has long requested. The general played down fears that Mr. Macron’s calls to strengthen Europe’s own defenses meant that he wanted to create a competitor to NATO’s presence on the continent.

General Burkhard said one lesson from the war in Ukraine was “the importance of strong morale,” comparing the low spirits of Russian troops, which led some to surrender or sabotage vehicles, to the stubborn resistance of the Ukrainian military. “Strong morale must be a constant concern for us,” he wrote in a letter to the army released last month.

General Burkhard also said Russian troops “were more stretched than the Ukrainian defense,” resulting in logistical problems and a lack of soldiers to control captured territory that hampered their advance.

In Estonia, French soldiers operate in a British-led NATO battlegroup, alongside Estonian troops, and have participated in various training exercises with names like “Bold Dragon” and “Winter Camp.”

Captain Guillaume, who leads the French unit in Tapa and could be identified only by his first name in keeping with French military rules, said the exercises were useful in understanding how “in a symmetrical fight, two armies with two different cultures can confront each other.”

But Michel Goya, a former French colonel and a military historian, said such exercises did not mask France’s main challenge today: being able to swiftly deploy troops.

“The Russians carry out large-scale operations and they don’t know how to do it anymore — but neither do we,” he said, adding that the French army could only quickly deploy six combat regiments today, compared with 120 in 1990.

“We’ve forgotten what it’s like to fight, what it’s like to be hit by artillery fire, what it’s like to have a lot of casualties all at once,” said Mr. Goya, who was deployed with U.N. troops inside Sarajevo in 1993, when the city was besieged by the Bosnian Serb army. “We put ourselves in the shoes of the Ukrainians and see everything that we lack.”

Unlike other European countries, France has refrained from sending large amounts of weapons to Ukraine, an indication of its desire not to escalate tensions, but also of its limited weapons stocks and production capabilities, Mr. Goya said.

France said last week that it had sent military equipment worth 100 million euros, or about $105 million, so far. That is less than Estonia and Germany, which have offered weapons worth $220 million and $140 million respectively, according to a database compiled by the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, a German think tank.

Whatever the outcome of the war, General Burkhard said Europe should make the most of Russia’s stumble in Ukraine to “reorganize itself and build its long-term strategy” against Mr. Putin.

But countering Russia will not mean ceasing to engage with it, the general said. France has made sure to keep talking with Mr. Putin despite the war. “The long-term strategy cannot be ‘I make Russia disappear,’” General Burkhard said. “It will not disappear.”

Source link