“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; who rules the World-Island commands the world.” Every scholar of international relations knows this formula uttered by the geopolitics pioneer Halford Mackinder almost a century ago. While the geopolitical center of gravity may have since moved towards the Asia-Pacific, these words still apply to security and stability in Europe. The peoples of Eastern Europe’s wide plains have suffered from many actual and would-be conquerors. That the capitals of Eastern Europe can decide their own sovereign affairs is a recent development in the scope of history. Given the choice, most deigned to enter the Western zone of stability and prosperity embodied in the twin pillars of NATO and the European Union, profiting from the unprecedented wave of opportunity in the form of subsequent institutional enlargements. Unfortunately, economic and political constraints prevent immediate continuation of the enlargement policy, leaving several former Soviet Union member states in a security vacuum. Therein lies a paradox in which pro-European societies in Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine are left alone to contend with a revisionist Russia. However, one has to be careful not to propose solutions that would not only fail to improve the security situation of these countries, but could also lead to the unraveling of NATO and E.U. enlargement in Central and Eastern Europe.
Yet this is exactly what Andreas Umland and Kostiantym Fedorenko propose in their recent article in War on the Rocks. They call for an Intermarium (“between the seas”, which refers to the area between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas) security coalition involving both NATO and non-NATO states in Central and Eastern Europe. Effectively, it would attempt to place NATO countries like Poland, Estonia, and Hungary with non-NATO countries like, Ukraine, and Georgia on the other into the same military arrangement. Despite being one of the top experts on this region, Umland is mistaken if he thinks this would serve stability. Instead, this course would only fuel the Western-Russian rivalry and risks provoking a major global conflict.
This makes their proposal not only unrealistic, but even dangerous. It is not new, either, but rather illustrates a certain geopolitical nostalgia over the 1990s and some ideas which used to circulate back then. One of them was the so-called “NATO-bis,” a security arrangement between former Warsaw Pact members which would enjoy cross-cutting security guarantees from both NATO and Russia and thus placate fears of both Russian and German revisionism. There is no excuse to revive this ill-fated concept of some of Lech Walesa’s (who at the time was president of Poland) advisors over 25 years later.
Let me be clear, however – the very idea of a regional strategic cooperation, currently taking the shape of a Three Seas Initiative project is good for all parties involved and could produce economic and political benefits for the whole continent. Should this ambitious project be realised, it holds a potential to diminish the civilizational and economic divergence created by fifty years of Communism. Yet a military alliance is a very different idea and it involves too many risks.
The Intermarium military coalition and NATO-bis proposals are based on three assumptions:
First, in the current situation Russia is a constant threat to the independent states between the Black and Baltic Seas. The best way to maintain peace in this region is to improve these states’ deterrence capabilities, thus increasing the cost of aggressive behavior for Russia.
Second, further political and military integration of the non-NATO states in this area with the Western structures is a distant goal.
Third, the status quo is unsustainable. It actually encourages Russian aggressive behavior and provokes the creation of frozen conflicts in the area. The Russian intent is clear: to sabotage Georgian, Moldovan, and Ukrainian integration into Western institutions.
However suboptimal the current situation may be, it is still preferable to the institutionalization of parallel security structures like an Intermarium military coalition. Such a move would endanger the security of Poland and other NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe without actually improving the situation of Ukraine, Georgia, or Moldova.
The main point of concern when it comes to the Intermarium security arrangements is the cascading and entangling nature of such an alliance. To deter Russian aggression, such a military pact would have to be big enough, grouping together NATO and non-NATO allies. If we were to follow the Turkey-Azerbaijan model, we would create an unsustainable situation in which some Intermarium members enjoy NATO’s security guarantees and others do not.
Any aggression directed at a non-NATO Intermarium member would force the rest of the allies to ponder their options, resulting in a potential chain reaction. An escalation in the Caucasus or Eastern Europe would create a dynamic eerily mirroring that of the July Crisis that led to World War I, when a local conflict in the Balkans erupted into a global war, to a large degree because of entangling alliances.
Russia would be well aware of that. We would have to expect a series of military provocations or even new frozen conflicts (and the list of potential clashes goes on: Gaugazia in Moldova, Ajaria in Georgia, intensification of fighting in Eastern Ukraine, etc.) intent on testing the Intermarium’s reaction. And events could unfold in two ways:
In the first scenario, Russian behavior would not trigger any serious action from Intermarium members who are also NATO members. They would exert political and economic pressure on Russia, but the military inaction would expose the Intermarium pact as a paper tiger. Moscow would triumph, proving that no political initiative in the region could flourish without explicit consent of Russia, leading to increased bandwagoning, in the model of current Belarussian security policy. More and more governments would seek to rely on Moscow for security guarantees, leading to the recreation of long-defunct zones of influence. Furthermore, such a scenario would harm the image of Central European NATO allies, suggesting that they pursue an adventurous foreign policy without the means or spine to support it. As a consequence, leading NATO allies would be wary of maintaining the enhanced forward presence on the eastern flank, hollowing out the Washington Treaty’s guarantees.
In the second scenario, should Russian aggression trigger a military response from the Intermarium states, they would not be covered by the Article 5 guarantees, as they extend only to self-defense. As a result, one or more NATO members could end up in a military confrontation (even a limited one) with Russia without NATO support, eroding the deterrent effect of the alliance. This situation would only help the revisionist power — Russia — achieve its main geostrategic objective: rolling back the inclusive expansion of Western security, political, and economic institutions. By undermining NATO we risk feeding isolationism in the United States, Western Europeanappeasement of Russia, and outright bandwagoning in the East.
The Intermarium concept made sense in the 1930s when it was meant as an integrating structure for states squeezed between aggressive powers: the Soviet Union and German Reich. A new NATO-bis-like structure would be implemented in a different geopolitical setting, with Germany being a stalwart North Atlantic member. Creating this parallel security structure would pose a major risk for Central and Eastern European NATO members without offering clear benefits to the former Soviet Union states left behind. Furthermore, should such an arrangement become permanent, it would be easier for those E.U. Member States who are sceptical of Eastern Neighbourhood Policy — the union’s attempt to create a special political, economic, and legal relationship with countries stretching from Belarus, throughout Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and up to Armenia — to deny any association or membership benefits to Eastern European states, citing their Intermarium membership as sufficient enough.
That is not to say that cooperation in Central and Eastern Europe should be forfeited. Quite the contrary: the Three Seas Initiative, a common project of 12 countries placed between the Black Sea, the Adriatic and the Baltic spearheaded by Polish and Croat presidents would forge sustainable economic and infrastructure links across the region. Construction of new energy and transport infrastructure in the Three Seas framework would correct the negligence from the past, when in the Cold War realities the East-West connections were prioritised over North-South corridors. By integrating the gas and electricity markets and improving the rail and road freight connectivity, the Three Seas Initiative would offer a functional integration in the region, akin to the original framework of European integration which used the economic means to achieve the political goal of peace and stability.
Jacek Saryusz-Wolski, PhD, was Poland’s first Minister for European Integration, one of the architects and negotiators of Poland’s association and membership with the EU (1991-96, 2000-2001). Member of the European Parliament since 2004, he was the first Pole to serve as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and Vice-President of the European Parliament.
Image: Public domain