French President Emmanuel Macron said at a security conference in the Slovakian capital on Wednesday that his Russian counterpart President Vladimir Putin had jolted NATO awake by invading Ukraine last year. Macron also called on the West to offer Ukraine "tangible and credible" security guarantees as it battles the Russian invasion.
"I had a harsh word for NATO in December 2019," Macron said at the GLOBSEC Bratislava Global Security Forum, recalling how he had called the Western defence alliance "brain dead" at the time. "I can say that today Vladimir Putin jolted it awake with the worst of electric shocks," he added.
Stressing that Ukraine "is today protecting Europe", Macron said it is in the West's interest that Kyiv have security assurances from NATO.
"That is why I'm in favour, and this will be the subject of collective talks in the following weeks [...] to offer tangible and credible security guarantees to Ukraine," he added.
He said various NATO members could provide these guarantees for the time being as Ukraine waits to join the alliance.
"We have to build something between the security provided to Israel and full-fledged membership," Macron put it.
Macron also said there should be no division between "Old Europe" and "New Europe", referring to enduring divergences between western and eastern European Union members over matters such as Russia.
"Some said you had missed an opportunity to stay quiet. I think we also lost an opportunity to listen to you. This time is over," Macron said to applause in the audience.
He was alluding to a remark in 2003 by then-French president Jacques Chirac, who said eastern European nations who sided with the US and the UK in their decision to invade Iraq that year - opposed by France and Germany - had missed a "good opportunity to stay quiet".
That remark shocked east European countries and contributed to an enduring mistrust among the EU's newest members that has re-emerged since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
In the aftermath of the invasion, eastern EU countries such as Poland criticised Macron for keeping communication channels open with Putin, after the French president visited the Kremlin weeks before the invasion to try to dissuade Putin from attacking Ukraine.
Eastern European governments were also critical of Macron's declaration in June 2022 that it was important not to "humiliate" Russia - although Macron was talking about a future peace settlement following a Ukrainian victory, warning against a repeat of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles which imposed brutal terms on Germany at the end of World War I.
France has been more cautious than the UK when it comes to pushing the envelope on the kind of weapons sent to Ukraine. However, France is Ukraine's fourth-biggest aid donor - including financial backing and humanitarian assistance as well as weapons donations - behind the US, Germany and the UK.
Macron's speech in Bratislava marked a "sharp rhetoric shift" from his stance at the outset of the Ukraine war, said FRANCE 24 international affairs commentator Douglas Herbert. "Macron was [talking to] a very sceptical audience; an audience that had doubts really about his commitment to their defence," Herbert continued. "And he came out all trumpets blearing; very much hardline against Russia."
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and Reuters)