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How to Solve Ukraine’s, Moldova’s and Georgia’s Security Dilemma? The Idea of a Post-Soviet Intermarium Coalition

Co-written with Kostiantyn Fedorenko

After the break-up of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, a geopolitical gray zone emerged between Western organizations on the one side, and the Russia-dominated space on the other. This model was always fragile, did not help to solve the Transnistria problem in eastern Moldova or the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in south-western Azerbaijan, and was shaken by the Russian-Georgian war of 2008. It finally broke down with Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Against the background of these shocks, a partial solution to the security challenges of the current gray zone for all of the countries of Eastern Europe — whether in- or outside NATO and the EU — could be to revive the old concept of the Intermarium (land between seas). By cooperating and allying with each other, the states between the Baltic and Black Seas could bolster their security and in particular improve the balance of power against Russia, without immediate further Eastern enlargement of NATO and the EU.

Why would that be necessary? NATO’s 2008 Bucharest declaration promised Ukraine and Georgia a future inclusion into the Alliance, yet did not provide them with a Membership Action Plan. In 2013 and 2014, the European Union signed a “new generation” of especially comprehensive association agreements with Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine, yet without an accession perspective attached. The European Union’s Eastern Partnership — established with six post-Soviet East European and South Caucasian states in 2009 — touches a wide array of political, economic, and cultural themes, yet fails to provide military security. Only Azerbaijan, among the Eastern Partnership countries, partly resolved its security issue by concluding a separate mutual aid treaty with Turkey in 2010, obtaining the promise of military help from a NATO member and relatively powerful country.

Remaining outside comprehensive military-help schemes, it is no wonder that Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine (as well as Azerbaijan before it had concluded its treaty with Turkey) became partially failed states that do not fully control their territories. Russia and its allies took advantage of the lacking international embeddedness of these four countries. Moscow supports separatism directly in TransnistriaSouth Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Donets Basin (and indirectly, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh). Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was simply annexed to the Russian Federation in March 2014.

Neither the EU nor NATO will any time soon be able to fill the conspicuous security vacuum they have left with their hesitant and inconsistent enlargement policies in post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus. Both organization have, in the past, amply demonstrated their inadequacy as strategically thinking and geopolitically resolute actors. Against this background, an increasing amount of post-Soviet politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals are starting to discuss alternative options to at least partially increase their countries’ security. The most prominent among these concepts is the Intermarium.

The Historical Roots of a Union of the Lands Between the Seas

The idea of an association or coalition that would encompass the lands of Central, Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, from Baltic to the Yugoslav nations, appeared first in the 19th century. Such an alliance would have been directed against the threats of Tsarist Russia in the east, as well as of, initially, Prussia and, later, the German Reich in the west. After World War I, the idea gained momentum in Poland, which strived to survive and strengthen itself within the ongoing European turmoil. Its first inter-war leader Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935) re-introduced the 19th-century concept of a Slavic union called Międzymorze (Land between the Seas). The term became subsequently known under its Latinized form “Intermarium,” and referred to some sort of alliance of the Central-East and South-East European states located between the Baltic, Black, Adriatic, and/or Aegean seas.

Initially, Piłsudski sought to achieve such an East European union or even federation that would have included Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. The 1920 Warsaw Treaty, a military-economic coalition with the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, could have become a first step toward such a coalition. Yet, the alliance did not prevent Ukraine’s and Belarus’s capture by the victorious Bolsheviks during the 1920 Polish-Soviet War. It became clear that those East European lands which had fallen under control of the Soviet Union, founded in 1922, were no longer available for an Intermarium. Subsequently, Piłsudski sought to forge a confederation between about a dozen European states, including the Scandinavian countries, Italy, and Greece, that would have strengthened its members against both Soviet and German threats. However, the broad geographical scale of this project and differences in the interests of the possible member states prevented its realization, and thus could not prevent the Nazi-Soviet assault of September 1939.

In and after the World War II, Eastern and Central Europe suffered the very fate that Piłsudski’s Intermarium had been supposed to prevent. The small nations between the great powers became mere objects of contemporary European history. The years under fascist, Soviet, pro-Soviet, or other communist rule (as in Yugoslavia) added shared experiences to the lands of the Intermarium that had been already before tied to each other by various historic, linguistic, religious, and personal links. Now, some or all of these countries also experienced a short occupation by the Third Reich and its allies, and long-lasting Moscow-backed and/or Soviet-like governments, economic collectivization, totalitarian rule, international isolation, political indoctrination, etc.

Yet another common experience for the countries of East-Central Europe in the 20th century was Western discriminatory discourse on them, which “sliced” the history of these nations away from Europe’s past and memory, an imagination of the European continent sharply criticized by, among others, Norman Davies and Tony Judt.[1] In this discourse, what was thought of as “real” Europe was its western or, at most, central part. For many Westerners, the nations controlled by the (pro-)Soviet regimes seemed to be too foreign and strange to be considered properly Western. This view remained prevalent throughout the 1990s, and, to some degree, even after most formerly communist states had become full members of NATO and the EU.

The Intermarium’s Relevance Today

The creation of a full-scale Central and Eastern European union or federation, as once envisaged by Piłsudski, is not any longer feasible or necessary today. That is because the majority of countries in this region have either already acceded to the EU, are expecting to do so soon, or have concluded far-reaching association agreements that will gradually make them parts of the Union’s economic and legal sphere. The Intermarium’s nations are thereby already closely connected and integrating with each other.

This is also why some initiatives within the EU — like the Visegrad group, Three Seas Initiative, and Via Carpatia transport corridor — are so far of only marginal relevance to Eastern Europe’s security. To be sure, these initiatives have also political dimensions and thus remind of the inter-war Intermarium idea. Yet they are mere additions to the regular integration process within the EU and its Eastern Partnership. They thus lack larger geopolitical clout and remain essentially intra-Union lobbying projects. The Adriatic Charter association, created by the United States, Albania, Croatia, and Republic of Macedonia in 2003, and joined by Montenegro as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina in 2008, is a step towards solving the security dilemma in Europe’s post-Cold War south-east. Yet there is no such project for the “grey zone” states between the EU and Russia, which today are in a somewhat similar situation to interwar East-Central Europe.

In fact, immediately after the break-up of the Soviet bloc and Union, the Intermarium briefly reappeared in its original form in Poland, under the label “NATO-bis” which would have been a separate security organization of Europe’s post-communist countries. That project was driven by fears of Russian neo-imperialism, similar to those of Piłsudski 70 years before. The idea of such a regional security coalition was also championed by non-Polish political leaders in East-Central Europe ranging from Algirdas Brazauskas (1932-2010) in Lithuania to Zianon Pazniak (b. 1944) in Belarus, as well as regional political experts. Yet, most of the states of the presumed pos-Cold War Intermarium alliance soon received membership invitations from the EU and NATO. As a result, for Eastern Europe’s new EU and NATO candidate and later member states, the added value of creating a new regional security organization declined rapidly.

Still, in view of continuing threats and risks in Eastern Europe, the Intermarium concept has, since 1991, constantly remained in the air throughout the region. It has also become a vehicle for promoting the interests of Eastern EU members within the union. The term has thus experienced a double revival, as both an enhanced regional cooperation project and as a transregional security concept. When the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party won the 2015 elections, it announced a more active stance by Warsaw in Central-East European political affairs in both of these regards. Initially, PiS wanted not only closer cooperation within the Visegrad Group members, but also stronger attention toward Ukraine as well as the other Eastern Partnership countries.

Poland’s new focus on the V4, Intermarium, and, briefly, Ukraine had, however, an ambivalent intention. It went along with the new PiS government’s increasing criticism toward Germany and France, who, in the eyes of the Polish conservative party’s speakers, are allegedly using the EU to exploit weaker states and further the liberal anti-traditionalist agenda of their mainstream parties. Manipulating anti-Russian and anti-German sentiments among PiS supporters, the new Polish president Andzej Duda (b. 1972) has re-utilized the concept of Intermarium as an East European cooperation scheme not only directed against Russia, but also presenting it as an alternative to the dominant Western countries within the EU. Somewhat similar motives may have been behind the activities of the new Croatian president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic (b. 1968), to intensify regional political, economic, and security cooperation of the EU member states between the Baltic and the Adriatic Seas.

In contrast, for Ukrainians, the idea of Intermarium is primarily related to their national security concerns, as Ukraine struggles to survive in its ongoing hybrid war with Russia. In Kyiv, the Intermarium is seen as complementary, rather than antagonistic, to other integration schemes. Kyiv already has — within the logic of an Intermarium — developed special ties with other Central-East European states, albeit in the loose forms of the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development (known under its acronym GUAM – Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova) and the Community of Democratic Choice. Later on, Ukraine started certain military cooperation with Lithuania and Poland, and established a common military brigade with them. Lithuania and Poland have for many years been those countries that Ukrainians, according to polls, favor strongly. These and similar developments are an expression of the sense of common interests, perceptions, threats, and, partially, even identity among Moscow’s former colonies in East-Central Europe. Yet, none of the Intermarium-related projects have yet led to the creation of potent security alliance in Eastern Europe.

Worse, the Intermarium as a security concept is becoming increasingly corrupted by narrow interests of Warsaw’s new traditionalistic leadership. What Poland seemingly today wants is to create an alternative center of influence inside the EU to improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis Western states. Suspiciousness toward Germany’s ardent Europeanism, desire to regain some of their sovereignty and to protect “traditional values” are now leading to a counter-reaction by Central-East European nations. This has manifested itself in strong opposition against the EU’s refugee distribution quotas by the governments of the V4 countries and Slovenia. (In Kyiv, there has emerged an even more radically anti-Western interpretation of the Intermarium idea by a minor far right party National Corps that has recently grown out of the notorious Azov Regiment, a volunteer National Guard unit, founded in 2014 by a small group of Ukrainian racist ultra-nationalists.)

Yet another cooperation reminiscent of the Intermarium, the already mentioned Three Seas (Adriatic — Baltic — Black Sea) or Trimarium Initiative (TSI), has infrastructure development as its main focal point. It fosters energy cooperation to reduce East-Central Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. While not being a member of the TSI, non-EU countries such as Ukraine may, in the future, benefit from these plans too. US President Trump attended a TSI summit in July 2017.

So far, however, none of the various above projects revives the original Intermarium’s intentions to join forces of smaller Central-East European nations against a geopolitically and militarily more powerful enemy. Today, an Intermarium could stretch from Narva in the north to Batumi in the south. Significant parts of the populations and the majority of foreign affairs experts of the countries between the Baltic and Black seas view Putin’s Russia as their biggest threat. Inside NATO, the political mainstreams of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania regard Russia as a major security problem. The same can be said of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova outside NATO. These states could thus form the core of an East-Central European and South Caucasian defense coalition. Further European countries within, or close to, the “land between the seas” — from the Scandinavian to the Western Balkan nations — might be willing to support, join, or associate themselves with such an alliance.

With regard to its legal set-up, the mentioned 2010 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support between Turkey and Azerbaijan could function as a model treaty for a security arrangement between certain eastern NATO states on the one side, and some post-Soviet non-NATO countries on the other. As in Article 2 of the ratified Turkish-Azeri alliance, the exact modus of action, in case of an aggression, could be left open to each treaty party. The pact could simply state an obligation that, if confronted with an attack, the parties would “mutually assist each other”, while the exact contents of the support would be agreed upon once a military infringement has happened. It should thus not conflict with Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, but would still constitute a warning to the Kremlin that new Russian military adventures will be costlier than Moscow’s low-risk interventions in Moldova, Georgia, and Ukraine. While such a coalition of non-nuclear-weapons states cannot be a comprehensive solution to the post-Soviet security dilemma, it would constitute an enormous improvement for Zwischeneuropa (in-between-Europe).

However, paralleling the course of events after 1918 in East-Central Europe, since 1991 the Intermarium idea so far remains within the realm of speculation. The resulting non-inclusion of the gray zone countries continues to leave the perceived costs of further Russian aggression in the region low. Even after 2014, coalition-building in Eastern Europe has not gotten off the ground. The three associated Eastern Partnership countries now receive more political, economic, and also military support from NATO and the EU. Yet, they are still left on their own, by the West and their Central-East European neighbors, in their military confrontations with the Kremlin. The obvious lesson from both the inter-war and early post-Soviet periods is that this is not a sustainable state of affairs for the international relations of Eastern Europe.

Risks and Gains of an Intermarium Today

Our first publication of this assessment in 2017[2] triggered a swift response from MEP Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, Poland’s first Minister for European Integration.[3] He acknowledged that regional strategic cooperation is beneficial for all parties involved and for Europe as a whole – but he rejected the idea of a military alliance. Saryusz-Wolski argued that such an alliance would provoke Russia to test the Intermarium’s seriousness. If no “serious action” from members of both the Intermarium and NATO to a Russian challenged followed, the new alliance would be exposed “as a paper tiger.” Conversely, if the Intermarium’s NATO members were to engage actively in confronting Russia, this could undermine the protection provided by the Washington Treaty’s Article 5. Saryusz-Wolski concludes that a “military Intermarium” would erode “the deterrent effect of the [Atlantic] alliance.”

It is true that Russia likes to test reactions of its foes, as, for example, Moscow’s testing of Ukraine’s defenses in Mar’inka in summer 2015 showed. Yet, while Russia wants to portray itself as an unpredictable power capable of an all-out attack, in reality it has preferred hybrid methods and avoided open military confrontation. Even in the turmoil of early 2014, Russia used “little green men” without insignia to occupy Crimea – a scenario also considered by Estonia, but not tried by Moscow.

Russia still does not admit its military presence in Donbas and continues to claim that its soldiers spotted there are mere “volunteers.” The Kremlin behaves in this way as the West would likely view an open military attack as a “red line” making “business as usual” with Russia impossible. Against this background, the primary goal of an Intermarium would be, for the member countries, to deal jointly with hybrid threats. The limited nature of such threats would make it for NATO’s hypothetical Intermarium member states relatively easy to respond. Such engagement is unlikely to mean participation in a conventional war, and a subsequent erosion of the deterrent effect of NATO. In any way, a loosely formulated alliance treaty can leave it up to each party to decide which exact means – military or non-military – it chooses for fulfilling its alignment obligations. The formulation “military Intermarium” is Saryusz-Wolski’s, and not ours.

Saryusz-Wolski also claims that EU member states skeptical of the Eastern Neighborhood Policy will deny “association or membership benefits to Eastern European states, citing their Intermarium membership as sufficient enough.” We cannot follow such the reasoning behind such a speculation. Saryusz-Wolski’s estimates that “however suboptimal the current situation may be, it is still preferable to the institutionalization of parallel security structures.” He advises using “economic means to achieve the political goal of peace and stability.” Such conclusions let us suspect that he does not see or does not want to fully acknowledge the direct security challenges that will remain for the “gray zone” states in Eastern Europe and Southern Caucasus, as well as the indirect risks for their Western neighbors who made it into NATO and the EU.

Kostiantyn Fedorenko is a Junior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and frequent commentator on current Ukrainian affairs for various European media outlets.

Dr. Andreas Umland is Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, and editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press at Stuttgart and distributed by Columbia University Press at New York.


NOTES

[1] E.g.: Tony Judt. Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945. Penguin Books, 2006.

[2] Kostiantyn Fedorenko and Andreas Umland, “How to Solve Ukraine’s Security Dilemma? The Idea of an Intermarium Coalition in East-Central Europe,” War on the Rocks, August 30, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[3] Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, “In Between Security Arrangements: The Trojan Horse of Military Intermarium,” War on the Rocks, October 13, 2017, https://warontherocks.com/2017/10/in-between-security-arrangements-the-trojan-horse-of-military-intermarium/.

 

Author

Andreas Umland
Andreas Umland

Andreas Umland, Dr.Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph.D. (Cambridge), has been a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation at Kyiv, since 2014. He has held fellow- or lectureships at Stanford, Harvard, Oxford, Urals State University, Shevchenko University of Kyiv, Catholic University of Eichstaett, and Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is also General Editor of the book series "Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society" (ibidem-verlag.de/spps) and on the Boards of Directors of the International Association for Comparative Fascist Studies (comfas.org) as well as German-Ukrainian NGO "Kyiv Dialogue" (kyiv-dialogue.org).

Personal web site: ieac.academia.edu/AndreasUmland

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