How to Solve Ukraine’s Security Dilemma? The Idea of an Intermarium Coalition in East-Central Europe
After the break-up of the Soviet bloc and Union in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it seemed as if Europe was moving toward unification. Yet neither the Eastern enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and European Union or their new neighborhood policies managed to integrate Russia. The “common European home,” as it had once been envisaged by Mikhail Gorbachev, thus did not come into being. Worse, in Eastern Europe and the Southern Caucasus, a geopolitical gray zone emerged between Western organizations on the one side, and the Russia-dominated space on the other. The security of these non-integrated in-between states — namely of Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan — came to depend to large extent on the success of their cooperation with either side. 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 gray zone issue for all of the countries of Eastern Europe — whether in- or outside NATO and the European Union — is to revive the old concept of the Intermarium (land between seas). By cooperating, the states between the Baltic and Black Seas can bolster their security, improve the balance of power against Russia in particular, and do so even without further Eastern enlargement of NATO and the European Union.
The Institutions that Fell Short
There were several institutional changes aimed at preventing the recently escalating new division of Europe, but these all fell short. The early 1990s saw the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe transformed into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and the G7 group expanded to the G8. Both were attempts to include Russia in a pan-European framework of cooperation with the West. The Council of Europe soon included most of the former Soviet bloc states and Union republics. Russia and the West established several ad hoc coordination schemes from the NATO-Russia Council (that replaced the previously existing Permanent Joint Council between these parties) to yearly E.U.-Russia summits.
However, while these and some other structures had provided useful fora for permanent consultation and important steps towards mutual rapprochement, they were not able prevent the fallout of 2014 over Ukraine. NATO-Russia Council’s goal of “consensus-building, cooperation, joint decision and joint action” is difficult to achieve when relations between Kremlin and the West are as cold as today. The 2008 Russian-Georgian War, the 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Kremlin’s instigation and support of a rebellion in Eastern Ukraine, and diplomatic clashes with the United States over the ongoing Syrian conflict illustrate how the various international organizations that unite the West with Russia are not enough.
The organizations that could protect the countries of Eastern Europe’s gray zone are equally unfit to solve the issue at hand. 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 included in or attached to them. 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 excludes the issue of military security. As a result of these and other inconsistencies, the West has not only created, but continues to preserve a structurally instable middle ground in the borderlands of the former Tsarist and Soviet empires.
Two Eastern Partnership countries, Belarus and Armenia, to be sure, are simultaneously also part of the various Moscow-dominated structures, among them the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union. For better or worse, they are now under the Kremlin’s special “protection.” In contrast, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia were not ready to sacrifice their sovereignty and pro-Western orientation for the specific kind of pseudo-security that Moscow continues to offer to them. Azerbaijan, in turn, occupies a special position among the Eastern Partnership countries as it concluded a separate mutual aid treaty with Ankara in 2010. In Article 2 of this ratified agreement, Baku was given the promise of military help from NATO member Turkey — an assurance of a relatively powerful country providing, at least formally, a partial solution to Azeri security concerns.
Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine have concluded extensive association agreements with the European Union. Yet, as these agreements are equivocal with regard to security matters, they remain, and may — for the time being — continue to remain outside any comprehensive military-help schemes. To date, these states are left in a security-political no man’s land, between the two new blocs facing each other, in Eastern Europe. No wonder that they (as well as Azerbaijan before it 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 Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and the Donets Basin (and indirectly, in the case of Nagorno-Karabakh). Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula was simply included into the Russian Federation in March 2014.
Neither the European Union 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 confederation that would encompass the lands of Central and Eastern Europe, from the Baltic republics in Europe’s northeast stretching to the Yugoslav nations in the Western Balkans, 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. However, it remained a concept of geopolitical philosophy, not being adopted for the purposes of actual foreign policy.
During the early 20th century, the idea gained momentum in Poland. Having achieved independence toward the end of World War I, the newly constituted Polish state sought ways to survive and strengthen itself within the ongoing European turmoil of rapidly collapsing empires, newly emerging borders, and changing international alliances. Its first inter-war leader Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935) re-introduced and re-formulated the 19th-century concept of a Slavic union as a 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.
Immediately after World War I, Piłsudski was seeking to achieve such an East European union, or even a federal state, that would have included Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine — thereby partially re-creating the medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The 1920 Warsaw Treaty — and less so the 1955 Warsaw Pact, as suggest in this publication before — became the paradigmatic model for, continuing reference to, and first step toward, such a coalition. Also called the Petliura-Piłsudski Alliance, this agreement established a military-economic coalition between the Second Polish Republic and the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR), represented by then-chairman of the UPR’s Directorate, Symon Petliura (1879-1926). Yet, the alliance could 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 the Intermarium scheme. They would have to be first liberated from Moscow’s rule, within the larger Polish anti-imperial project of “Prometheism” that sought to promote anti-colonial nationalism among the Russia-dominated smaller nations of Eurasia.
After the collapse of his alliance with Petliura’s and the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Piłsudski sought to forge a different and looser interstate confederation between about a dozen European countries — a scheme that now excluded communist Ukraine and Belarus. Piłsudski’s second scheme instead encompassed the nations of Central and Eastern Europe joined by the Scandinavian countries, Italy, and Greece. The purpose of such a wide coalition would have been to strengthen its members in the face of the Russian empire re-appearing as the Soviet Union in the east, and the post-imperial, yet increasingly irredentist, new German nation state and soon-to-be fascist Reich in the west. However, the rather broad geographical scale of Piłsudski’s project, the large diversity of countries that were to be involved, as well as the weighty differences in their domestic regimes and foreign policies — coupled with distrust of the smaller Slavic nations towards such Polish ambition — eventually prevented its realization.
In September 1939, late Piłsudski’s fears materialized when Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from the west and east. After World War II, many of the states that should have constituted Piłsudski’s Intermarium ended up in Moscow’s inner and outer empires. As a result of the February 1945 deal between the Soviet Union, the United States, and the United Kingdom at Yalta, 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 post-war European history. The following decades under 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 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 the Western discriminatory discourse on them. A majority of commentators in the West tended to either implicitly, or even explicitly, “slice” the history of the nations between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas away from European history. Such imagination of the European continent and civilization was reviewed and criticized by such historians as Tony Judt and Norman Davies. 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 Soviet, pro-Soviet, and Soviet-like regimes seemed to be too foreign and strange to be considered properly European. This view remained prevalent throughout the 1990s, and, to some degree, even after most formerly communist states had become full members of, or official candidates for membership in, NATO and the European Union.
The Intermarium’s Relevance Today
The creation of a full-scale Central and Eastern European union or federation, as once envisaged by Piłsudski, is no longer either feasible or necessary today. In particular, the idea of economic integration in the lands between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas, separate from general European integration, has become obsolete. That is because the majority of countries in this region have either already acceded to the European Union, or, in the case of the remaining Balkan non-E.U.-member countries, are expecting to do so in the future. Recently, Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia have concluded and are now implementing especially large and far-reaching association agreements with the European Union that will make them de facto parts of its economic and legal spheres — thereby also connecting them closely with the other states of a potential Intermarium.
This is also why some initiatives within the European Union — like the Visegrad group, the Adriatic-Baltic-Black Sea (or Three Seas) Initiative, and the Via Carpatia transport corridor — are so far of only marginal relevance to Eastern Europe’s security. To be sure, these groupings have various political or economic dimensions and are thus somewhat reminiscent of the inter-war Intermarium idea. Yet, they are undertaken against the background of the so far involved countries’ already deep integration and advanced Europeanization within the European Union, and their membership in NATO (except for Austria). Therefore, these international coalitions have no larger geopolitical dimension, do not significantly increase overall East European stability, and remain essentially intra-European Union lobbying projects.
More consequential than the various new political-economic cooperation schemes of NATO’s East European member states is the current revival of the Intermarium idea as a way to solve the security dilemma in Europe’s post-Cold War gray zone. They include, for instance, 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. What will, however, happen to the newly independent states between the European Union and NATO, on the one side, as well as Russia and its semi-dependent allies within the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Eurasian Economic Union, on the other? These countries are today in a somewhat similar situation as much of East-Central Europe was between the two world wars. In fact, immediately after the break-up of the Soviet bloc and Union, the Intermarium briefly reappeared in its original form, if under a different label.
In the early 1990’s, when it was not yet clear whether, when, and which of the Central and East European states would become NATO and E.U. members, Polish President Lech Wałęsa (b. 1943) proposed to create a so-called “NATO-bis”, i.e. a separate security organization of Europe’s post-communist countries, and thus a coalition of the lands between the seas. That project was driven by similar fears as those of Piłsudski 70 years before. It would have de facto been a Central-East European anti-Moscow alliance aimed at protection against Russian irredentism and neo-imperialism, somewhat reminiscent of the 1920 Petliura-Piłsudski alliance. The idea of such a regional security coalition was also championed by other political leaders in East-Central Europe ranging from Algirdas Brazauskas (1932-2010) in Lithuania to Zianon Pazniak (b. 1944) in Belarus. A number of political experts in the countries of the region also advocated such cooperation.
Yet, most of the states of the presumed Intermarium alliance soon received membership invitations from the European Union and NATO. The countries included in the two principal Western organizations’ accession-tracks thus lost their interest in an alternative East European alliance. They were now about to achieve an international embedment that would be far more potent than the Intermarium. For Eastern Europe’s new E.U. and NATO candidate and later member states, the added value of creating a new regional security organization, not to mention an inter-state union between themselves, declined rapidly. Joining the Western alliance rather than allying with other post-communist countries became now their prevalent discourse, strategy, and policy.
Still, in view of continuing threats and risks in Eastern Europe and the unclear security situation of the Eastern Partnership countries, 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 E.U. 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. At least initially, PiS wanted not only closer cooperation within the E.U.’s 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 Ukraine had, however, always 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 E.U. as a tool 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, for the last years, more and more re-utilized the concept of Intermarium as an East European cooperation scheme not only (or even not so much) directed against Russia, but also as an alternative to the dominant Western countries within the E.U. 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 E.U. member states between the Baltic and the Adriatic Seas.
In contrast, Ukrainian commentators’, politicians’, and diplomats’ reactivation of the Intermarium project is driven by other motives. It is above all 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 and cooperation schemes, and motivated by plain desperation rather than the pursuit of intra-European political games. Kyiv already has — within the logic of an Intermarium — developed special ties with other post-Soviet republics, within the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development created in 2001 and known under its acronym GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Moldova). In the aftermath of the Orange Revolution, an equally loose organization of nine East European countries by the name of Community of Democratic Choice was founded in 2005. Later on, Ukraine started some 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 East 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 above all is to create an alternative center of influence inside the European Union to improve its bargaining position vis-à-vis Western states, and to counter-act Germany’s increasing salience in E.U. affairs in particular and the Western community of states in general. Suspiciousness toward Berlin’s growing role and Germany’s ardent Europeanism is now leading to a counter-reaction among some East European nations who feel they need to regain some of the sovereignty they had once voluntarily given to Brussels. Among significant parts of the East-Central European conservative elites, there is new a desire to protect “traditional values” against the liberalization and pluralization drive implicit in their deepening European integration. This has manifested itself, for instance, in strong opposition against the European Union’s refugee distribution quotas, from the governments of the V4 countries and Slovenia. (In Kyiv, there has emerged an even more radically anti-Western interpretation of the Intermarium idea, in the foreign policy agenda of the 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.)
Some East-Central European states, to be sure, are not ready to go as far in their opposition against Brussels and Berlin as Warsaw. For instance, only Hungary seems to support PiS’s ideas about a devolution of powers in the current E.U. structures. Most states in the region do not want to get into a conflict with Germany or France to any serious degree. Against this background, a new trilateral format of cooperation — between Austria, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia — was recently initiated as a possible counterweight to the Warsaw-dominated V4.
Yet, another cooperation reminiscent of the Intermarium, the already mentioned Three Seas Initiative, was started at a September 2015 meeting of 12 states from the region in Dubrovnik — namely, the V4, Baltic states, Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, and Austria. It gained prominence in July 2017 when its Warsaw summit was attended by U.S. President Donald J. Trump (b. 1946). Also called Adriatic — Baltic — Black Sea or Trimarium (Three Seas) initiative, the TSI has infrastructure development as its main focal point, including transport projects (such as the Via Carpatia highway from Lithuania to northern Greece). It also fosters energy cooperation, for example, via new regional liquefied natural gas terminals currently under construction, and aims thereby to reduce East-Central Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. While not being a member of the TSI, non-E.U. countries such as Ukraine may, in the future, benefit from these plans too. China as well has expressed interest in supporting such infrastructure projects in the larger framework of Beijing’s One Belt One Road scheme.
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. A functioning Intermarium alliance after World War I might have been able to prevent World War II, as it would have raised the stakes of Nazi Germany’s actions in Czechoslovakia in 1938 and in Poland in 1939, and of the Soviet Union’s various European adventures in 1939-1940. To be sure, an Intermarium at that time would have still been militarily inferior to the Third Reich and USSR. Yet, it could have meant a different geopolitical landscape in East-Central Europe that might have, at least, complicated Hitler’s and Stalin’s calculations when they divided up Eastern Europe in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939.
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 today as the biggest risk, a clear threat, and a dangerous enemy. Inside NATO, the political mainstreams of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and Romania especially 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-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, for historical or other reasons, be willing to support, join, or associate themselves with such an alliance.
With regard to its legal set-up, the above-mentioned 2010 Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support between Turkey and Azerbaijan could play the role of 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 Intermarium country. The pact could simply state an obligation that, if confronted with an attack, the parties would “mutually assist each other” and that the “means and extent of this assistance” would be agreed upon ad hoc, once a military infringement has happened.
An Intermarium treaty’s text could outline a procedure of providing help without pre-defining the support’s exact contents and dimension. 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 new coalition of non-nuclear-weapons states cannot be a comprehensive solution to the post-Soviet security dilemma, it would still constitute an enormous improvement of the so far largely unstructured situation of Zwischeneuropa (in-between-Europe).
However, paralleling the course of events after 1918 in East-Central Europe, since 1991 the Intermarium idea has so far remained within the realm of discussion, speculation, and proclamation. The resulting non-inclusion of the gray zone countries continues to leave the perceived costs and risks of further Russian aggression in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine low. Even after the fateful events of 2014, coalition-building in Eastern Europe has not gotten off the ground. The three associated Eastern Partnership countries now receive some political, economic, and also military support from NATO and the European Union. 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.
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.