Dr. Chodakiewicz speaks on geopolitics in the Intermarium

February 20, 2012  |  KOSCIUSZKO CHAIR

On 8 February 2012, Prof. Marek Chodakiewicz addressed the geopolitics of the Intermarium: the lands between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. The lecture constituted the tenth in a sequence of an ongoing series of brownbag lectures on the history, politics, and culture of the region.

Geopolitics may be defined as the conjunction of and synergy between geography and power. While geography is not tantamount to destiny, the former certainly shapes the latter. The Intermarium is a land-based region possessing few sea lanes of communication and vital chokepoints. Thus, the theories of the American geostrategist, Alfred Mahan, regarding the significance of sea power, were of little relevance.

The thinking of the British geographer, Sir Halford Mackinder, left a much more enduring imprint, however. Mackinder offered a geographically deterministic paradigm and claimed that the steppes of Eurasia - extending from Mongolia through southern Ukraine all the way to the Hungarian Puszta - form the "geographic pivot of history." Hence, he argued that whoever controlled this "pivot" (pictured below) would inevitably dominate the world island of Eurasia, and, ergo, the entire world. Accordingly, a power must rule the "pivot," lest chaos ensue and barbarians swoop in to fill the vacuum. After all, had not barbarians from the East - such as the Huns, Avars, and Mongols - utilized the Eurasian Steppe as a westward invasion route? This conception reflected not only the concerns of a satiated, status quo power (the British Empire) with maintaining a balance of power predicated on "order," but also a strong hint of Social Darwinism, and an unspoken fear of the "Yellow Peril." Thus, Mackinder sanctified "scientifically" the Muscovite domination of the Intermarium, whose southern part overlapped with the "pivot."

Mackinder pivot

His policies also exerted a strong influence on American thinking on Central and Eastern Europe, as demonstrated by the Yalta Conference, the Sonnenfeldt-Kissinger Doctrine, the policies of George Bush Sr., and more recently, the approach of the Obama administration. From this perspective, freedom and independence movements of the Intermarium peoples, or more assertive policies by the region's newly-independent states, are treated as irritants at best, and threats to stability at worst.  

Dr. Chodakiewicz further discussed five layers of geopolitics presently impacting the region: the global, continental, regional (blocs of countries), national (bilateral relations between states), and local. The powers that matter on the global stage are the United States, post-Soviet Russia, and neo-communist China. At the same time, these actors - the Kremlin in particular - are also present in the other arenas. As America's interest in the region has diminished in recent years, especially as a result of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia, Moscow has launched a renewed offensive to further its goal - the imperial reintegration of the post-Soviet space. Meanwhile, Beijing has also penetrated the region, much to the Kremlin's chagrin. Yet, the Red Chinese have been most active in Belarus, where they have courted "Europe's last dictator," Oleksandr Lukashenka. On the continental level, Turkey has been quite involved in the post-Soviet space as well, focusing on Turkic and/or Muslim peoples from Central Asia and the Caucasus to the Intermarium. For instance, Ankara has taken an interest in the Gagauz of Moldova and the Tatars of the Crimea and the former Grand Duchy of Lithuania (now inhabiting Poland, Lithuania, and Belarus), even helping to fund mosques throughout the region.

Although Poland and the Baltics are European Union members, the EU is not a power as such. In spite of the efforts of federalists striving to transform the Union into a super-state, the Union remains divided. A tendency towards undermining "nationalism" and the nation-state is strong, as exemplified by support for "regionalism." At the same time, no coherent EU policy towards Russia has been formulated, for example. Germany is powerful but, simultaneously, reluctant to lead. Berlin nurtures a "strategic partnership" with the Kremlin, while Paris and Rome remain close to Moscow as well. As a result, the new post-communist EU members feel insecure. This fear is compounded by the increasing irrelevance of NATO, which, until 2010, had not even bothered to draft a contingency plan to defend the Baltic states.

The Russians are unlikely to resort to outright invasion in the near future, Dr. Chodakiewicz argued. After all, aggression generates negative PR and consumes huge amounts of resources. Instead, the Kremlin prefers to utilize the energy weapon as leverage to reward the cooperative and punish the recalcitrant. In addition, Russia employs such tools as cyberwarfare. Moscow also operates behind fronts, such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) or the Eurasian Economic Union (a customs union). Russia allows Belarussian and Ukrainian citizens to cross its border unimpeded. Meanwhile, the EU has effectively closed its eastern frontier, which only assists the process of post-Soviet imperial reintegration. Yet, the August 2008 attack on Mikheil Saakashvili's Georgia - which refused to subordinate itself to Russia' diktat - demonstrates clearly that the military option is never completely "off the table."

Dr. Chodakiewicz emphasized, however, that it is a mistake to perceive "Russia" as a monolith. The post-Soviet entity remains the world's last surviving colonial empire, and should certainly not be reduced to Moscow. It certainly contains other cities (e.g. St. Petersburg, Smolensk, or Vladivistok), political traditions (Novgorod the Great), and regions (e.g. the Far East, North Caucasus, or the Don River area), and this pluralism should be recognized and encouraged by the West. Yet, until we jettison our deeply-seated, Moscow-centric cultural prejudices, they will continue to cripple our policies towards Eurasia as a whole.

Currently, the Intermarium finds itself in a state of conceptual flux. The void is being filled by the return of nineteenth-century geopolitics on the national level. The old "concert of powers" appears to have been resurrected, much to the unease of small and medium states. Even so - contrary to the claims of geographic determinists - no outcome is written in stone. After all, political actors possess free will. In such a context, of course, much depends on America's willingness to lead.