How reviving an erstwhile concept of Intermarium can help contain Russia and avert a dangerous escalation in Eastern Europe
As Winston Churchill famously said, “There is only one thing worse than fighting with allies, and that is fighting without them.” Small nations with turbulent pasts and precarious presents could not agree more.
Georgia first officially declared its North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) aspirations back in 1999 (when President Shevardnadze made a vague and non-committal statement that Georgia would "knock on NATO's door in 2005"), and since the Rose Revolution in 2003, cooperation with the Alliance has intensified. While the 2008 NATO Bucharest Summit left the country short of a Membership Action Plan (MAP), the Alliance pledged that Georgia would become a member. Shortly afterwards, however, Russia moved troops into Georgia, occupying a significant part of the country’s territory. To many, this signaled that Georgia’s NATO bid was effectively put on the back burner. While Georgia continues to strengthen cooperation with the Alliance through the NATO-Georgia Council and an Annual National Plan (ANP), the membership promise, thus far, remains just that: a promise.
A recent reinvigoration of discussions among Central and Eastern European (CEE) States about improving cooperation, however, has given Georgia hope that it may be able to participate in new initiatives.
The Russian invasion of Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, and the intervention in Eastern Ukraine served as a wake-up call for the CEE states, who regained independence following the fall of the Iron Curtain. Their sense of vulnerability was further exacerbated by the U.S. decision to embark on a “reset” policy with Russia. The U.S. policy shift was compounded by the warming of relations between Berlin and Moscow through energy projects and improved political ties. All of these factors contributed to an increased demand for collective security measures for Central and Eastern Europe.
New regional cooperation projects hold potential for countries like Georgia and Ukraine, which are stuck in limbo between full-fledged NATO membership and immediate security demands against Russian domination. One such regional undertaking is the Three Seas Initiative (TSI), designed to unite Central and Eastern Europe through trade, energy, and infrastructure projects. The TSI was spearheaded by Poland and Croatia and currently counts 12 participating states. The initiative aims at connecting the North-South corridor of Central and Eastern Europe between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. This represents a unique opportunity for the Eastern Partnership countries - including Georgia - to push for widening the membership circle.
The TSI received a significant boost last summer when U.S. President Donald Trump, who attended its summit, assured the audience that the U.S. will be the “strongest ally and steadfast partner in this truly historic initiative.” Described as “a security project that reaches out economically to the welfare of Europe” and, by extension, “strengthens the entire transatlantic community,” the TSI has now secured the U.S. “stamp of approval.” It is crucial to maintain the U.S. interest in the undertaking since American support will serve as an important vehicle for deepening cooperation among the participating states.
On the European front, Poland has demonstrated a marked interest in seeing regional integration projects flourish. The current activism is a continuation of the efforts made by the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who was an adamant supporter of Georgia’s Western integration. Kaczyński’s successor, Andrzej Duda, has expanded regional cooperation ideas even further. Making Central and Eastern European integration a focus of his foreign policy priorities from the moment he assumed office, the Three Seas Initiative, in which Duda has played a leading role, can be seen as a modified version of the old theme rooted in Polish history.
The core rationale behind regional cooperation ideas goes back to the Polish interwar leader of the 1930s, Józef Piłsudski. Piłsudski’s concept is known under the name of "Intermarium.” The Intermarium project consisted of two interconnected ideas. The plan envisioned Poland joining forces with other Central and Eastern European states - most notably Lithuania and Ukraine - to secure the country among the ring of independent states from the Baltic to the Black Sea. An equally weighty aspect of the strategy - often dubbed a “Promethean idea” - focused on promoting the liberation of border nations under Soviet rule. This involved supporting independence movements of such countries as Ukraine, Belarus, Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan.At its inception, Piłsudski saw Intermarium as a potential counterweight to the major continental powers of Germany and Russia. When the Polish leader died in 1935 before putting the strategy into practice, however, Georgia and other Soviet-controlled nations were left without a Promethean rescue. Instead, Piłsudski’s fears fully materialized when, left alone against its adversaries, Poland was unable to fend off a dual Russian-German attack at the onset of the World War II. The subsequent historical developments left the war-ravaged country under Soviet domination for years to come.
Poland has been traditionally worry of Russian-German rapprochement, more specifically, energy projects like Nordstream II, which the CEE states believe jeopardizes their security.
Despite the legitimacy of the CEE stats’ concerns, it is important that the ideas centered around reviving of the old Intermarium concept are not perceived as directed against any European nation or, more broadly, against the existing security architecture in Europe. If the project fails to serve as a complementary element to NATO, no wide-ranging support can be garnered among the NATO and EU member-states. Euroscepticism or attempts to counterbalance Germany will naturally cause concern among those potential participants which rightly put much stock in European unity and want to speak with a single voice in security matters. Meanwhile, keeping the focus centered on the Europe-wide peace and prosperity will have the tremendous benefit of transforming this historical concept into a modern-day pillar of European security. The ultimate goal is to assist the CEE states and the countries in the Eastern Partnership to acquire adequate means to withstand Russian pressure. This will ensure Europe remains whole, free and at peace.
Why are regional cooperation projects being brought back from oblivion and how can they contribute to European security?
Russia is currently on a steady and, thus far, largely undeterred quest to reclaim its former sphere of influence. Independent, prosperous and secure nations at Russia’s borders is something the Kremlin dreads to the core. The results of this resentment are well-known in Georgia and Ukraine. Concerns that the Russian appetite for menacing sovereign nations does not stop at NATO’s borders has prompted the Alliance to dispatch four rotating battalions to Poland and the Baltic States – NATO’s vulnerable eastern flank – which, according to one study, can be overrun in 60 hours. While signaling is an important component of deterrence, the West has not responded to Russian actions in Georgia and Ukraine with a solid plan for defending NATO-member Central and Eastern European states if they also come under duress. As a result, worries regarding the security of the CEE states have markedly grown.
The initial alarm for the Central and Eastern European states rang with the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. As early as 2009, a letter signed by 22 intellectuals and former leaders of Central and Eastern Europe - including Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa - expressed utmost concern over America’s insufficient effort in countering the Russian threat. One publication called the letter “a remarkable breach of convention” and a “public expression of mistrust,” where “close and very dependent allies of the United States display their anxieties about being sold out to Russia by the country they regard as the guarantor of their sovereignty and independence.”
Five years after signing the letter, Alexandr Vondra, former Czech Republic Minister of Defense and a signer of the open letter, reflected on the warnings voiced in the original piece. He remembered being accused of “Russophobia” and “Russia threat obsession” by Washington and Brussels: looking back, he argued he would not change a word of it.
Russian annexation of Crimea and its invasion of Eastern Ukraine largely confirmed the validity of the fears expressed earlier by CEE states. Today, these concerns are further compounded by Russian military trainings held by the NATO borders. Such tactics demonstrate to the Baltic States and Poland how Russian soldiers train against “fictional nations” - thinly veiled substitutes for their home countries. Russia’s recent attempts to destabilize the Balkans, including a coup attempt in Montenegro, the fueling of Serb separatism in Bosnia, as well as the recently emerged evidence of the decade-long meddling in Macedonia, is another reminder that Moscow is willing to go a long way before it accepts the demise of its former sphere of influence.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, many came to believe that the war in Europe was a relic of the past. Central and Eastern European states made enthusiastic strides toward Western institutions and away from the Russian orbit. Still, the threat of Russian assertiveness did not die with the collapse of the USSR, even if fears of Russian resurgence were missing from the minds of many as Central and Eastern European nations joined NATO.
As a result, NATO forces were not dispatched to the new-member states and military strategies and defense plans lacked any focused thought. On the contrary, NATO expansion was accompanied by a steady drawdown of U.S. forces in Europe, even as the Alliance’s security commitments grew. Consequently, in purely geopolitical terms, a de-facto power vacuum was created in the region; Russia is now attempting to fill this void. In a recent study commissioned by the National Democratic Institute in Georgia, the majority of respondents stated that they view Russia as militarily superior to the United States. Russian attempts to create the aura of a superpower - despite the fact that the country no longer lives up to the title - unavoidably feeds into the pro-Russian sentiments among the nations menaced by its threat.
Since Russian intentions towards Central and Eastern Europe are much clearer now, the time has come to reverse the trend. A lot has changed since Piłsudski mused about the security of Poland in a precariously unstable Europe headed toward the bloodiest war of the 20th Century. Still, the fundamental principles that underpinned his thinking are strikingly accurate today. The importance of steady alliances united by a common threat, military preparedness, and effective coordination still remains a solid guarantee against a mighty opponent.
Deepening regional security cooperation is one way to unite the states threatened by a common adversary. Such regional cooperation plans also open the door for countries like Georgia and Ukraine to go beyond institutional dividing lines and make meaningful contributions to a common cause. Keeping Russia at bay is in the interest of Europe as a whole, and the countries most threatened by Russian actions have the biggest motivation to take the lead. The improved deterrence posture in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Black Sea region will make Europe more secure as it will alter Russia’s calculation of costs and benefits of provocative actions that may lead to escalation.
Using Existing Security Structures
How can the CEE states strengthen military cooperation covering both NATO and non-NATO states and avoid creating new dividing lines in Europe?
Regional security initiatives in Central and Eastern Europe are often seen as competitors to the European Union and NATO. As a result, any regional security integration project ideas easily become a matter of contention.
Pushback against the creation of competing institutions is all too familiar to those European Union member-states that spearheaded the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), but ran into U.S. skepticism in the process. Then U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright encouraged the EU members to resolve existing concerns by adhering to what became known as the three Ds concept (de-linking European security initiative from NATO, avoiding duplication of existing resources, and avoiding discrimination against non-NATO members). The EU has since invested mainly in external crisis management missions, but has not developed into a viable military actor, allowing the debate to subside.
In order to avoid a similar conflict of interest, a natural starting platform for Central and Eastern European states will be within NATO itself. This removes the fear of competition and allows vulnerable NATO member-states to use existing structures to push for closer military convergence. The NATO framework also leaves the door open for those member-states willing to join the undertaking at a later stage. The idea can be compared to a similar theoretical concept within the EU - a multi-speed Europe – that argues for allowing EU member-states to form smaller coalitions and engage in deeper integration in the areas of their choosing. Taken together, the NATO framework may be a more acceptable platform to those Western European states that harbor suspicion toward the project. Unlike independent undertakings, NATO provides skeptical states with a bigger say in the process and better leverage for control.
Lastly, the NATO framework will avert a potential dispute among the CEE states over which country should lead the integration process. Within NATO, U.S. support for the project will be indispensable as its backing is the strongest vehicle for better coordination and cooperation.
A more complex institutional and political arrangement has to be elaborated in case the geographic scope of the new initiative covers non-NATO countries. As one author notes, the CEE states will have to extend resources and show the will to defend non-Alliance members. The security agreement between Turkey and Azerbaijan is one example how such an arrangement may work in practice. The Charter of Partnership among the U.S. and the Baltic States signed in the late 1990s, prior to NATO membership, is a similar case. Despite the absence of an outright defense pledge, the Charter envisioned active cooperation in security and defense.
The original Intermarium concept referred to an alliance of Central and Southeast European states between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas. As one author argues, in the 21st-century geopolitical environment, the updated version of the regional security concept would also naturally include Turkey and the Caucasus, adding the Caspian Sea as a fourth pillar. Turkey’s influential position on the Black Sea and Azerbaijan’s resources will undoubtedly serve as valuable contributions to counterbalancing Russia in the region.
The Way Forward
Many acknowledge that there are significant risks and uncertainties involved in the given initiative. Still, as some note, “inaction brings risks of its own.” Under any possible grouping, the member-states’ aim is to create a viable sub-NATO security coalition, where, even at its minimum strength, members of the new initiative will be able to pool enough resources and capabilities to deter Russia from taking aggressive steps in the neighborhood.
In 2007 Georgia unveiled in its capital a statue of Prometheus as a symbol of freedom vested in the idea of anti-communist resistance of the interwar period. The late Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who attended the opening, shared his vision: “Nowadays this is an entirely different world that we live in; a free world. But it needs to be always remembered that freedom must be pursued and fought for. From the perspective of my country, what is most important is to have as much freedom as possible also east and south-east of Poland. This is becoming a reality now but our pursuits should never cease.”
This year Georgia will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its declaration of independence from Tsarist Russia. A century after this declaration, the fight against Russian domination carries equally passionate meaning in the country. At the end of World War II, the U.S. and its allies agreed that the USSR constituted the most formidable global threat. In response, they united their efforts to halt further Russian expansion. Today, Russia’s return as a destabilizing force does not unnerve every European capital equally. The appetite of each for confronting Russia differs based on other pressing security concerns, the geographic distance, political taste, and economic or energy ties.
In July, heads of state and government of NATO member-states will meet in Brussels to discuss adapting the Alliance to 21st-Century challenges. It will be vital for these actors to remember that divergent security interests of NATO member-states risk creating the very cracks in European unity that Russia works so actively to exploit. Neglecting these threats will not make them disappear, and to turn a blind eye to the recent experiences of Georgia and Ukraine would be reckless. It is time for Central and Eastern European nations to actively promote the idea of cooperation and hedge their bets.
Meanwhile, it is crucial that Georgia and Ukraine - the countries directly affected by Russia’s aggressive policies - take the lead in accelerating the push for tying the Eastern Partnership nations to existing and future regional cooperation projects. In the long run, joining these new initiatives opens up the possibility to finally unite the European continent into a peaceful and secure whole, fulfilling the historic promise of Promethean freedom.