March 26, Puyloubier, France
THE WAR FEELS CLOSER HERE. It’s partly knowing that I could drive to Ukraine. Roughly 20 hours. Like driving from Boston to Des Moines. And all of it without having to cross a closed border and or change currency–all of it in the EU. Refugees are arriving in nearby towns. Worries about the possible use of chemical or nuclear weapons fill the evening news. And in the deep background, memories of World War II and tanks crashing through the countryside.
All of this makes it easier to see why many people here feel that Putin’s disturbing ambitions have as much to do with Europe–with the EU, with NATO, with the West–as with Ukraine. For Putin, Ukraine has specific, historic importance. But he’s also aiming to get into the heads of European leaders, challenge NATO and the EU, and demonstrate clearly that Russia is another place, not part of Europe and the West, but every bit as important. Hence the anxiety here about when and where it all might stop.
It’s also easier to see from here, and now, why Putin worked so hard to get Donald Trump elected. He knew that Trump would call NATO into question. He knew that Trump would withdraw from engagement with Europe. He knew that Trump admired his way of exercising power. It’s clear now that Putin had been thinking about this war for a long time. The Trump presidency was part of his calculation.
The war has unsettled the French presidential landscape, too. The election is now just two weeks away. Before the invasion, almost half the field of the 12 candidates for president had declared ambivalence or outright hostility toward France’s European alliances and obligations, riding the same nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiments that led to Brexit. Now that NATO seems, for the moment at least, useful, most of those candidates are tempering their positions, and not always persuasively. Some voters have noticed. President Emmanual Macron has been consistent in his support for the EU and less critical of NATO. His polling numbers have improved since the Russian invasion, while most of the others have fallen. The important exception is Marine Le Pen, whose numbers have also improved. Her decision to moderate her positions on Europe and other things seems now to have been astute. But Macron seems even more attuned to the moment. It is likely that the French people will reward him with another five-year term.
Meanwhile, the war rages on. Images of the devastation in Mariupol flood the French news media. One can only imagine the damage in other major cities where Russian forces lay siege. The legacy of Putin’s obsession with Russian greatness will now include the thousands of military and civilian war dead and wounded, and the many thousands more, Russian and Ukrainian, who will suffer post-traumatic stress and moral injury for decades to come. A vast tragedy that never had to happen.