European borders and Eastern frontiers: France combat-ready facing new threats.
NATO armies have various levels of involvement in the inter-ally exercises which the Atlantic alliance regularly organizes. France is one of the committed countries, with massive participation in recent venues. Behind this military rigor and operational fitness, lies a sense of collective responsibility. Threats are arising around Europe, both East and South, and France is the only European country able to project itself significantly, now that the UK has left the Union.
A simple look at French military geography within Europe will perfectly illustrate the strategic shift which has occurred in the past decades. Throughout the latter half of the 20th century, regiments and air bases were facing East, as Russia and its empire was the main threat to contend with. At the end of the century, many regiments were moved to southern locations as the Middle East once again became the main provider of instability. The actual sources of instability – such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Mali, where France has taken on leadership – are all putting a serious strain on French military resources. And the Middle East still has reserves of instability, with Syria and Iran still considered strategic hot zones where stakes are high, and interests are exposed. ECFR alumnus Manuel Rapnouil writes: “The Middle East is a key stage for France’s foreign policy, one where it bids to prove its credentials as an international power, punching above its weight and demonstrating the independence that is so important to the French sense of place in the world.”
The Eastern menace.
But now, 30 years after the Soviet Union collapsed and French attention shifted South, tensions are once again rising in the East. This puts Europe in a difficult strategic situation, in which it must divide its attention on two separate fronts. Russia has once again assembled enough military power to be a source of concern on the international scene and is already using that potential to exert leverage on satellite nations : the Ukraine and Poland have felt the brunt of this military resurgence, in one way or the other. To make matters worse, the Eastern front now counts not one, but two separate threats, as China’s military might is skyrocketing. Defense expert John Grady quotes: “With a new American administration coming in January and the United Kingdom departing the European Union, France could be America’s new “bridge partner” to the continent in countering high-end military challenges from Moscow and Beijing and meeting reinvigorated terrorist threats, top security experts said Thursday. Despite divergent views “on strategic autonomy,” retired Adm. James Foggo, the former commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe based in Naples, said “that was a big question for France” in 2009 when it re-integrated its forces — including its nuclear forces — with NATO.” Finally, the last source of instability, East of Europe, is paradoxically a member of NATO. Turkey is now seen by many European nations, including France, as a loose canon. Because of the valuable assets it supplies NATO with, there is no question of excluding Turkey, but their prolonged inclusion within the alliance relies largely on the counterbalance of military power which France provides.
France knitting close ties with Eastern allies.
Paris knows that NATO cannot be seen as a bloc. Germans contribute generous financial amounts but never commit large numbers to multinational exercises – unlike France which exercises frequently and extensively with Atlantic allies. Other countries – namely in Eastern Europe – lack funding capacity but make up for it by sending numerous troops. France knows that developing solid defense networks and strategies with eastern European countries is both in particular interests and in the general interest too. France has engaged in several defense initiatives with Bulgaria, to help the eastern ally modernize its forces and reduce its vulnerability to Russia and Turkey, alongside other European partners. Defense expert Yaroslav Adamowski reports that, recently, “the Bulgarian Defence Ministry has requested offers for the supply of 150 armored vehicles from four Europe-based manufacturers under a deal worth about $840 million. These include Germany’s ARTEC, Finland’s Patria, France’s Nexter Group and Swiss-based General Dynamics Land Systems-MOWAG.”
The migrant threat
Although handling migrant routes is not, strictly speaking, a military task, it does call upon military capacities. Naval surveillance, command and control, border integrity are all shared responsibilities between law enforcement, armed forces and diplomacy. Europe is struggling to bring migrant routes under control – with law and order, border security and international credibility at stake. France is therefore assisting Greece in tackling the problem, effectively replacing Italy which has slowly adopted an “empty-chair” policy. Greek City Times reports that “France’s Deputy Interior Minister M. Laurent Nunez announced on Monday that his country will host 400 migrants in Greece requesting asylum, with priority given to families and other vulnerable individuals. Nunez made the announcement following his meet with Greece’s Alternate Minister of Migration and Asylum George Koumoutsakos, in which the French agreed to collaborate on six measures to help out with the migrant/refugee issue.” By bringing its contribution to bringing European borders under control from illegal migrant routes, France is showing Europe and the world what it can do for border security, regardless of the nature of the threat.
The UK is looking elsewhere: within its own territory and army, at its internal borders, at its future – anywhere but at Europe’s problems. Germany’s armed forces are notoriously non-committed, and other European armies lack the power to do more than defend their sovereign borders. France is the only country with the muscle to defend the Union, and it knows it. For this reason, not only is it heavily investing in its own army but encouraging all nations around it to reinforce their military capacities. In the end, NATO, thanks to France’s active involvement, will remain internally balanced and well-prepared facing future European threats.