Adapting EU defence system: the French nuclear option [LONG READ]

By Francesco Foti (Defence Industry Europe)


In February 2024, French President Emanuel Macron stated that to support Ukraine, the question of sending “land troops” cannot be ruled out[1]. Such remarks drew criticism from some NATO allies and strong rebukes from Moscow[2] despite the well-known presence of mercenaries[3] since the beginning of the all-out invasion and war in 2022 and past aborted diplomatic attempts by France itself[4].

To rationalise Macron’s statements, we will frame the change in tone through the concept of flexible response and strategic ambiguity that differently imbues the French doctrine and the Russian counterpart.

Then, we will argue in favour of a change in the European Defence system to support Ukraine and defend itself from possible spillover from the Russian aggression.



 The Russian political, military, and nuclear doctrines are all linked. They change according to the past and ongoing aggression in Ukraine[5], seen as a “civilisational” war against the collective West[6]. The 2014 document[7] states NATO build-up in the Eastern flank, after the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas, was a reason to change in the previous balance and put Russia on the offensive footing.

Russia’s increasing turn to hostility is proved by the US’ decision in 2019 to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF Treaty) due to failure to comply on the part of Moscow[8].  On the 8th of June 2020, a new military doctrine[9] was officially disseminated. It marked an improvement in language and set the stage for the use of the “escalate-to-de escalate” strategy according to the political objectives of the regime in Ukraine. This, arguably, includes the use of battlefield nuclear weapons, Non-Strategic Nuclear Weapons, of which Russia is first[10].

Thus, from the 24 February 2022 speech[11], the deliberate use of non-specified threats of retaliation against any kind of external involvement elicited disconcert among Western capitals. Clearly, it was a ruse to dissuade a counter-reaction, or escalation (self-defence) by the resistant, force Ukraine to terminate the war as soon as possible, and according to the Kremlin’s desiderata, dissuade more support from Western powers[12], and dissuade them from starting an all-out military response from and to Moscow.

The ambiguous threat was, and is, equally directed to the Western public but also, albeit differently, a possible internal opposition[13]. In the case of the former, democratic societies where governments are accountable to their people in a free, open society with fair elections. In the case of Moscow though, the autocratic regime is not bound to any form of accountability, thus making the ever-changing use of the nuclear threat easier to digest within war propaganda[14] despite the dilemma about the amenability to further conscriptions[15].

In a controversial leaked document[16], within a mock war scenario with none other than China, it’s been understood that the Russian tactical nuclear weapons threshold, transportable by land, sea or air, is significantly lower than expected. This, also, makes any threshold theory, in the case of the use of tactical and long-range nuclear weapons,  difficult to establish.

It should be borne in mind that the Moscovite military, political, and media[17] establishment, along with their boots on the ground in Ukraine[18] are culturally prone[19] to the threat of nuclear, tactical and non-tactical, strikes, along with the scorched earth policy[20] rather than opting for strategic strikes[21]. Subsequent rantings by Deputy Chairman of the Security Council Medvedev[22] and officials[23], in case Ukraine succeeds in defending itself and recapturing illegally occupied territories recognised by the International Community as part of Ukraine[24], show the adaptive, ambiguous, use of threats[25] less preoccupied with a rational doctrine and done to dissuade any help given to Ukraine.

The psychological factor[26] should not be downplayed when assessing the Kremlin war strategy and approach to the West[27]. Given the threshold ambiguity espoused by Russia, Macron’s statement in support of Ukraine should not draw criticism[28] but contextualised[29] within the numbers of foreign mercenaries[30] and the nuclear component within NATO[31] and the EU Defence System.

Despite the unilateral suspension[32], the reiterated violations observed[33], and recurrent threats to go nuclear in case the war ends badly[34], Russia declares it wants to abide by the NewStart dispositions[35] due to expire in 2026.

According to extant studies[36], the total number of nuclear warheads is roughly 5,580. However, another study[37] stresses that Moscow is preoccupied with modernising old-Soviet-era systems, matching US missile systems and limiting the effects of sanctions, supply chain disruptions caused by the latter and technological gaps. Moreover, doubts have been sown about the overarching effectiveness of Russian tactical nuclear weapons.



 France, the only nuclear EU Member State, is increasingly representing a source for possible future development in the European Defence System as firmly within NATO[38]. Due to the Russian threat to Europe and the strategic ambiguity of the nuclear threat by the Kremlin, the French nuclear doctrine[39] gained momentum in order to understand the European Defense dimension and bolster the EU’s security.

As Jean Louis Lozier argues, the French doctrine is not just purely defensive[40] but marked by ambiguity in terms of “vital interests” to protect the territories under its sovereignty, and the nation, and have a marked European scope[41]. It is detailed enough to discourage any dangerous ambiguity about its use[42], as is the Russian one.  It consists of oceanic and airborne capabilities.

French doctrine stresses, though, the concept of limited warning[43], meaning the idea of strategic targets. The said measured doctrine cannot be applied in the case of violation of the sovereign rights of another country as is the case of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, where the threat to use the nuclear weapons is related to the retention of the territories taken and the conquest of new ones.

French size is small but effective[44] in capabilities. According to a sector column[45], France possesses 290 warheads and missile tests have been positive[46]. Despite the high-precision nature, to really challenge Moscow there would be a need for progress and more production within a firm enrichment programme that does not seem in the offing.

Given Russia’s dismissal of the unlikely power-changing factor represented by the presence of unofficial Western war-trained personnel[47] matching the mercenaries deployed on its side, the threat recently addressed to France should be treated, again, as part of the escalating rhetoric and, thus, the strategic ambiguity utilised since the 2022 aggression. The Western partner, specifically Western Europe, should discover its usefulness and adapt the language to show the Kremlin that it’s not cowed and deterred from supporting Ukraine[48] with NATO weapons[49]. Moscow should be reminded that any nuclear spillover effect into NATO territory could, and should, be covered under NATO Art 5[50] as this move will alter the nature of the conflict.



Following Russia’s violations and aggression in Ukraine in 2014, NATO decided to augment its alertness in Eastern Europe. In 2019, Ukraine announced that since Russia’s violations brought an end to the INF treaty and due to the Russian aggression in 2014, it retained the right to develop intermediate-range missiles to counter Moscow’s aggression[51]. It must be born that Ukraine gave up its nuclear arsenal in 1990 in exchange for recognition of its sovereignty by the Soviet Union[52]. Within the context of the Russian aggression in Ukraine, Moscow decided to use Belarus[53] as a base for nuclear tactical weapons[54]. The system is directly controlled by Moscow, adding to the pressure from the Kaliningrad exclave[55]. This was also justified by the extant NATO nuclear sharing system, a deterrent tool allowing non-nuclear members to be empowered to deliver NATO nuclear weapons by their respective armed forces. The system is also controlled by the US. The role of Belarus in directly attacking Ukraine from the north played a significant pressure on the armed forces of the country at the beginning of the war. The danger of another invasion from the Belarusan territory and a possible escalation, given Russia’s adaptive use of the nuclear threat, cannot be excluded.

In all the cases considered since the start of the war, the threats have been vented not just to Ukraine, to persuade it not to defend itself by any means, but to NATO members indiscriminately. Against it, the NATO members have been acting cautiously and in a deterrent mode, for example, after the beginning of the invasion of Ukraine, France deployed all its ballistic nuclear submarines, the biggest deployment since the Cold War. This unprecedented move should persuade the EU to adopt a nuclear posture against Russia in order to exercise deterrence, however, on a moderate scale and in the spirit of armed diplomacy and not to create a precedent[56].

Caution has been the watchword according to the NATO-Russia Founding Act[57], in practice and in the case of violation of Polish and Romanian airspace and the decision to store ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons in Belarus.

In view of Russia’s aggression, the spillover effects caused by radiation from the possible use of tactical nuclear weapons, the use of Belarus for attacks on Ukraine and the possible use of its territory for attacks on Poland, the latter itself should be included in the NATO sharing system as a deterrent. Russian violations, the de facto push/pressure on and towards NATO territory, and the threat to use nuclear should persuade the non-nuclear NATO members to change their status and adopt the British and French systems as part of the NATO deterrence system[58] and Planning Group[59]. What has been effectively termed as the “Europeanisation of nuclear weapons[60] should be part of the broad European defence sharing system, thus calling on France and the UK to share their arsenals[61] with other European countries and bidding goodbye[62] to the free-rider attitude[63] certain EU countries adopted and still adopt[64] despite the Russian threat. This hypothetical system should involve the Baltics, Poland, Romania, and Bulgaria. However, to be really effective in terms of deterrence, Germany and other European countries[65] should finally adopt a full nuclear programme to help strengthen the EU and NATO defence systems. Along with a common nuclear sharing system, the German proposal for a European Nuclear Shield should be considered by all Member States and adapted to suit particular systems[66] as it involves the US and Israel.

NATO needs to modernise its arsenal and boost its preparedness to match the Russian one with its ambiguous inclusion of direct attack[67]. A direct supply mechanism should be envisaged in order to fast-track the delivery of weapons.  Logistical and strategic support is important in the war effort and should be based on interoperability, innovation and competitiveness on an EU base, to be paired with the US’ role as supplier and security provider, within the NATO system[68].

As it has been explained by the EU Commission President[69], a process of upgrade should consist of strategic planning, more simple rules, dual-use technology development, and public and private funding schemes. Moreover, to speed up production, the EU needs to consider France’s proposal[70] to requisition and prioritise military production over other sectors, as any war economy to upgrade its defence and support Ukraine[71]. As it has been argued, however, even the ambitious EU Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS) programme[72] has been estimated as insufficient in terms of funds allocated[73]. Support for Ukraine should be adaptive[74], meaning long-range weapons[75] to limit Russian resilience despite shortcomings[76] and ad hoc support[77] to go hand in hand with the one already in place[78]. The support includes bilateral partnerships[79]. The three cannot be separated in order to counter Russia. Finally, following Russia’s lack of compliance and withdrawal from the treaty on conventional forces in 2023[80], the Eastern flank should be strengthened as a deterrent policy[81].



In the post war phase, the security guarantees for Ukraine should comprehend EU membership and NATO clout. The nuclear sharing system should not just include Poland but Ukraine as a permanent deterrence system. As is the case of Germany’s reluctance to cross the threshold by providing Ukraine with Taurus, the Western European countries need to cashier the hope for Russia’s democratisation in the foreseeable future and without the collapse of the regime in the Kremlin. Therefore, the following years will demand the EU to revolutionise not just its defence system but to develop a proper military doctrine that should consist of a nuclear sharing system, in the absence of a return to a full nuclear programme, strengthening the eastern flank, and before Ukraine becomes an EU-NATO member, providing it with long-range weapons and ad hoc assistance through training of personnel, mercenaries and advisers.



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[2] Bloomberg, “Putin Tells State TV Russia Is Ready to Use Nuclear Weapons If Threatened”, 13 March 2024, Available at


[3] Alarabiya, Tuqa K., “Russia will eliminate any foreign fighters and Western generals in Ukraine”, 2 July 2023,


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[5] NATO Review, De Dreuzy P., Gilli A., “Russia’s nuclear coercion in Ukraine”, 29 November 2022, Available at


[6] BBC News, “Medvedev gave a new explanation for the war: the fight against Satan. What’s happening to him?”, , 4 November 2022, Available at come in different forms … We have the ability to send all our enemies to fiery hell, but that is not our task


[7]The military doctrine of the Russian Federation”, 25 December 2014, Available at

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[9] Point 4. “State policy on Nuclear Deterrence is defensive by nature, it is aimed at maintaining the nuclear forces potential at the level sufficient for nuclear deterrence, and guarantees protection of national sovereignty and territorial integrity of the State, and deterrence of a potential adversary from aggression against the Russian Federation and/or its allies. In the event of a military conflict, this Policy provides for the prevention of an escalation of military actions and their termination on conditions that are acceptable for the Russian Federation and/or its allies”;  Point 17. “The Russian Federation reserves the right to use nuclear weapons in response to the use of nuclear and other types of weapons of mass destruction against it and/or its allies, as well as in the event of aggression against the Russian Federation with the use of conventional weapons when the very existence of the state is in jeopardy”, Available at


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[11] Al Jazeera, “‘No other option”: Excerpts of Putin declaring war”, 24 February 2022, Available at . The following excerpt can be interpreted according to each doctrine considered “…Now a few important, very important words for those who may be tempted to intervene in the ongoing events. Whoever tries to hinder us, or threaten our country or our people, should know that Russia’s response will be immediate and will lead you to consequences that you have never faced in your history. We are ready for any turn of events. All necessary decisions in this regard have been made. I hope that I will be heard…”.


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[13] CSIS, Newlin C., “Patterns of Dissent in Russia’s Regions”, 17 July 2020, Available at


[14] Anadolu Agency, Teslova E., “Russian patriarch gives doomsday warning to Moscow’s rivals”, 19 January 2021, Available at


[15] Newsweek, “Mass Protests Against Putin’s Mobilization Planned in Russia”, 15 November 2023, Available at


[16] FT, “Leaked Russian Military Files reveal criteria for nuclear strike”, 28 February 2022, Available at


[17] Newsweek, “Russian State TV Guest Calls for Nuclear Strike on U.K.: ‘Raise the Stakes’”, 8 November 2022, Available at


[18] CNN, “Russian commander appears to call for use of nuclear weapons”, 13 December 2023, Available at


[19] The Sun, Stewart W. Buchanan E., “PUTIN’S DEATH WISH Russian state TV swamped by talk of nuclear war and Armageddon after calls for Ukraine to be nuked”, 2 October 2022, Available at



Euractiv, Brzozowski A., “The Brief — Russia’s new scorched-earth policy”, 8 June 2023, Available at


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[23] Business Insider, Loch M.“Russian TV commentator suggests nuking Elon Musk’s Starlink satellites: ‘To space, and goodbye Elon Musk’s group’”, 27 October 2023, Available at


[24] Address by the President of the Russian Federation”,  Available at


[25] House of Commons Library, Mills C., “Russia’s use of nuclear threats during the Ukraine conflict”, 28 June 2023, Available at


[26] Russia in Global Affairs, “A Difficult but Necessary Decision”, 13 June 2023, Available at

It is necessary to arouse the instinct of self-preservation that the West has lost and convince it that its attempts to wear Russia out by arming Ukrainians are counterproductive for the West itself. We will have to make nuclear deterrence a convincing argument again by lowering the threshold for the use of nuclear weapons”.


[27] CNN, Sciutto J., “Exclusive: US prepared for potential Russian nuclear strike in Ukraine in late 2022, officials say”, 9 March 2024, Available at


[28] Le Monde, “Italian deputy PM Salvini says Macron ‘represents a danger’ for Europe”, 23 March 2024, Available at


[29] Anadolou Agency, Teslova E. “Russia says Poland ‘undisputed leader’ in number of mercenaries fighting for Ukraine”, 15 March 2023, Available at


[30] Al Maydeen, “Canada, UK, France, Germany, US have mercenaries fighting in Ukraine”, 21 March 2024, Available at–uk–france–germany–us-have-mercenaries-fighting-in


[31]NATO’s nuclear deterrence policy and forces”, 30 November 2023, Available at


[32] VOA, “Russian Duma Passes Bill to Revoke Ratification of Nuclear Test Ban Treaty“, 18 October 2023, Available at


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[35]New START Treaty: Article-by-Article Analysis of the Treaty Text” Available at,part%20of%20the%20Treaty%20and


[36]FAS, “Nuclear Notebook: Russian Nuclear Forces, 2024”, 3 July 2024, Available at


[37]FAS, “Details of the Russia’s nuclear modernization are inconsistent with warnings of vast Nuclear expansion”, 3 November 2024, Available at


[38]France’s role in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)”, Available at,France%3A%20a%20reliable%2C%20responsible%20and%20supportive%20ally,in%20the%201950s%20and%2060s.


[39] ICDS, “French Nuclear Policy”, Lozier J.L., “French Nuclear Policy”, January 2023, Available at


[40]Charter of the United Nations, Art 51, Available at in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security


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[42]NPT – Ministerial statement of France, the United Kingdom and the United States of America (01 Aug. 2022) Available at


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[44] Today in Energy, “Nuclear power plants generated 68% of France’s electricity in 2021”, 23 January 2023, Available at,U.S.%20electricity%20generation%20in%202021.


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[49] Politico, Pierre Emmanuel Ngendakumana, “Finland: Ukraine is free to bomb Russia with our weapons”, 29 February 2024, Available at


[50] Euractiv, “Nuclear cloud will trigger NATO’s Article 5, US warns Russia”, 23 June 2023, Available at


[51] “”Ukraine and its U.S. partners condemn the development and tests of Russia’s RS-26 Rubezh ballistic missile, which has an effective range of nearly 2,200 kilometres, as well as the upgrading of the combat capabilities of the Iskander-M operational-tactical missile complex, particularly through the modernization of the system’s cruise missiles,” the statement continued. “The Iskander-M was spotted during military exercises in Ukraine’s Russian occupied territory of Crimea””. Available at


[52] Wilson Center, Budjerin M., “The Breach: Ukraine’s Territorial Integrity and the Budapest Memorandum”, Available at  “–The%20Breach–Final4.pdf


[53] Reuters, “Belarus referendum approves proposal to renounce non-nuclear status”, 28 February 2022, Available at


[54]Missile Threat, “9K720 Iskander (SS-26)”, 2 August 2021, Available at


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[56]The Hill, Mitchell H., “How the Ukraine war ramped up Russia’s reliance on nuclear weapons”, 1 January 2024, Available at


[57]Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between NATO and the Russian Federation signed in Paris, France”, Available at


[58]NATO strategic concept 2022”, Available at

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[59] Nuclear Planning Group (NPG), 9 May 2022, Available at


[60] The Guardian, Wintour P., “UK could contribute to nuclear shield if Trump wins, suggests German minister”, 15 February 2024, Available at


[61] Euronews, “German minister calls for British and French nuclear weapons to protect Europe”, 15 February 2024, Available at


[62]Policy statement by Olaf Scholz, Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany and Member of the German Bundestag”, 27 February 2022, Available at


[63] Defence One, “What Tanks in Ukraine Tell Us About America in the Pacific”, 7 February 2023, Available at


[64] Euractiv, Pascale F., Dahm J., “Germany, Italy highlight growing European nuclear divide”, 4 September 2023, Available at


[65] Decode 39, Lanzavecchia O., “ Why Europe needs the Italian nuclear industry”, 8 December 2023, Available at


[66] Defence News, Sprenger S., “Scholz revives vision for German-led air defence network in Europe”, 30 August 2022, Available at


[67] Reuters, “NATO to hold biggest drills since Cold War with 90,000 troops”, 19 January 2024, Available at


[68] NATO Chiefs of Defence discuss deterrence and defence priorities”, 19 January 2024, Available at


[69] President von der Leyen makes call for powering up European defence”, 1 December 2023, Available at


[70] Euractiv, Babef-Beur C., “France ‘would not rule out’ requisitions to speed up arms production, defence minister says“, 26 March 2024, Available at


[71] Militarnyi, “Bombs, missiles, and ammunition: France announces plans to produce weapons”, 26 March 2024, Available at


[72] Defence Industry Space, Available at

REGULATION OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL establishing the European Defence Industry Programme and a framework of measures to ensure the timely availability and supply of defence products (‘EDIP’)”, 5 March 2024, Available at


[73] Euractiv, Pugnet A., “The EU Commission tables ambitious defence single market programme, but with modest funds”, 5 March 2024, Available at


[74] With an ace up its sleeve – the US Army designs a deck of cards to help tell friends from foes”, 28 November 2023, Available at


[75] Defence News, Ruitenberg R., “France to give Ukraine more cruise missiles, plans security pact“, 17 January 2024, Available at


[76] Business Insider, Epstein J., “Ukraine is in a race to stop Russia’s mounting glide-bomb attacks”, 27 March 2024, Available at


[77] Al Mayadeen, “London posts jobs ad for mercenaries for Ukraine’s counteroffensive”, 24 March 2023, Available at


[78] International Legion for the defence of Ukraine, Available at


[79] Bloomberg, Ponthus J., “ French Defense Groups to Partner With Ukraine, Minister Says”, 8 March 2024, Available at


[80] Conference of the States Parties of the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe: Withdrawal of the Russian Federation from the Treaty, 29 June 2023, Available at cit “Russia walked away from its 1999 Istanbul Summit commitments to withdraw its forces from Georgia and Moldova, which was an agreed element of CFE adaptation.  Russian forces remain on the territory of its neighbours without their consent even today”.


[81] Euronews, “What is NATO’s ‘tripwire’ strategy and is it still relevant today?”, 7 July 2023, Available at



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