Articles

Intermarium in the 21st Century

This paper was written by Agnes Tycner for IWP 634: Geography and Strategy. Agnes is currently pursuing a graduate degree in Statecraft and International Affairs with a specialization in Eastern Europe and Russia. Her goal is to practice law one day and to gain experience in government, diplomacy, and policymaking until then. 

The Intermarium Project, a geopolitical project developed by Józef Piłsudski in the 1920s, has once again resurfaced and become a topic of debate in foreign policy. Western Institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the European Union (EU) have not proved to be sufficient in securing “non-integrated in-between states” such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan against Russian aggression.[1]  Neighboring countries in Eastern Europe also share this security threat and know from history what could possibly happen again if Russian power was to remerge. Recreating Intermarium in the 21st century to correspond to the security needs of today would unite Central and Eastern European countries to compete against the Russian balance of power as well as help each other politically and economically. However, Intermarium will not have a chance to be successful until all the post-Soviet countries work together and have a common global threat that will unite them. Furthermore, Intermarium as a united front would still need help from the U.S. military to face Moscow. If Intermarium in the 21st century was to succeed, it would create the strongest union in Eastern Europe since the 1989 national uprising dedicated to overthrowing communism.[2]

It was hoped that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Soviet Eastern bloc would lead towards a more unified Europe. However, neither the EU nor the enlargement of NATO decided to include Russia in their plans. As a result, a “geopolitical gray zone emerged between the Western organizations on one side and the Russian-dominated space on the other.”[3] The security of these gray zone states such as Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, and Azerbaijan all became dependent on whichever side would choose to cooperate with them. This model of switching between east and west proved to be greatly unstable, as “it 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.”[4] Finally, in 2014 the annexation of Crimea proved to be the “final straw,” and countries in the region knew they could not continue to live in this uncertainty.

Around this time period was when the countries of Eastern Europe, both inside and out of NATO and the EU, began seriously discussing reviving the 20th-century project known as Intermarium. The goal of this project would be collectively to increase the region’s security and, most importantly, “improve the balance of power against Russia.”[5] If all the nations in the region cooperated under this common objective, they would not need to expand NATO further East nor add members to the European Union. Intermarium in the 21st century would function as an independent project and, with time, prove itself to be a leader on the international stage.

There have been several attempts by NATO and the EU in the past to prevent Europe from dividing itself; however, none of their initiatives have proved themselves successful. The reality is that these institutions will not be able to provide the post-Soviet Eastern Europe zone with the security it needs. It has been proven that “both organizations have, in the past, amply demonstrated their inadequacy as strategically thinking and geopolitically resolute actors.”[6] As a result, Intermarium has been discussed as a promising alternative to Western organizations.

However, in order to recreate Intermarium in the 21st century, its historical roots must be understood first as well as the reason why it failed.  After WWI, there was a set of newly-independent nations to the East which faced a common threat of “German expansionism to the west and Russian imperialism to the east.”[7] A Polish “chief of state and First Marshal of the Second Polish Republic” known as Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935) came up with the plan known as Intermarium today to combat these rising powers.[8] Piłsudski’s Intermarium project is originally known in Polish as Miedzymorze and later earned its Latin cognate known today as Intermarium. Both definitions translate to mean “between the seas.” This is because the alliance was to stretch from the Baltic Sea all the way down to the Adriatic and Black Seas. The original Intermarium group was to include Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine and “thereby partially re-creating the medieval Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.”[9] An example of the proposed map for the original Intermarium project is shown below:

Map of the initial plan of the Intermarium
Image 1: GalaxMaps, Map of the initial plan of the Intermarium, July 6, 2020, Wikimedia Commons accessed October 15, 2020 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Intermarium_Polish-Lithuanian_Commonwealth.png

Piłsudski believed that if these nations were connected economically, politically, and militarily, they could push back power coming in from the eastern and western fronts.[10] It should be noted that Piłsudkski also incorporated parts of his Promethean plan into his Intermarium project and used both of these developments to combat the Soviet threat while simultaneously strengthening the Polish eastern border.[11]

However, the plan was met with a large resistance due to Poland’s history of “political and cultural domination during the period of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.”[12] First, there was Belarus which was strategically located and could have “formed the most significant barrier to Soviet expansionism.”[13] However, it generally had a weak national movement during this period and did not seem to do much to counteract Soviet influence at the time. Next, Lithuania was also hesitant to join because it did not want to risk its independence. Ukraine had similar thoughts and had fought a border war in 1918-19 over the Lviv/Galicia area. Eventually, the Treaty of Warsaw was signed to enforce a military and economic alliance between Ukraine and Poland. However, they were so busy fighting between themselves that they failed to realize their common threat of Russia. Eventually, Ukraine and Belarus fell under the rule of the Bolsheviks, and the Intermarium project was foiled.

Józef Piłsudski then came up with a new version of the project that did not include communist-ruled Ukraine or Belarus but rather encompassed other nations of Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Scandinavian countries and Italy and Greece, as shown below.[14]

Piłsudski's revised plan for the Intermarium
Image 2: GalaxMaps, Map of the revised plan of the Intermarium, July 6, 2020, Wikimedia Commons accessed October 15, 2020 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Intermarium_revised.png

The reason for including a wide range of countries was to strengthen their union against “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.”[15] In the end, the wide geographical scale of the project, the large diversity of countries involved, their differences in interests and foreign policy, and the distrust regarding Polish ambition stopped Intermarium from ever happening.[16]

Unfortunately, after Piłsudski’s plans were foiled, his fears became a reality. In September of 1939, Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland from both sides. After the war ended, the states that were planned to be a part of Piłsudski’s Intermarium were instead part of Moscow’s empires. Lastly, the result of the February 1945 Yalta deal caused the Eastern and Central European nations to suffer a fate that Piłsudski was trying to prevent with Intermarium. For the next 44-46 years, these nations collectively suffered Soviet and communist rule. Having Intermarium in the 21st century would unite countries with these shared experiences to ensure that an occupation like this would not happen again.

Intermarium in the 21st century would not face the same challenges as were present during Piłsudski’s time. Today, borders are established, and these nations have been officially independent for about 30 years. In addition, the relations between Poland and Ukraine are much stronger than they were during the Polish-Ukrainian War in 1918-19. In fact, the two are each other’s greatest international supporters today. Taking this into consideration, the likelihood of a successful Intermarium is much more probable under current circumstances.

If an Intermarium were to be created today, Ukraine would be prioritized as it does not have any protection from NATO or other security measures outside its own country. Next, Poland, the original creator of this Slavic union, would be on the list. Poland faces the threat of Kaliningrad in the north and also would not want Russia on its southern border in the case of Ukraine being taken over.[17]  In addition, the Baltic states, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovenia, Czechia, and Hungary would also likely follow suit as they “are likely to have populations that recognize the threat in the longer term.”[18] It is possible to consider the Nordic states such as Sweden and Finland joining, as they are not NATO members and also share a security concern with regard to Russia. It is not guaranteed which nations would end up joining, but it would be well advised to leave the welcome open to “Slavonic states in the Western Balkans” as well as “Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan.”[19]

The only real ambiguity in the region would concern Belarus. It is in the interest of Belarus’s neighbors to help liberate this country from Russia peacefully; however, Belarus is still greatly influenced by and intertwined with Russia politically, economically, and culturally. Still, one cannot forget how, “Belarussians have died in Maidan and in the war in Donbass fighting for Ukrainian liberty – and in the end for the liberty of Europe;”[20] therefore, this country cannot be left on its own.

A 21st-century Intermarium would be committed to protecting every nation threatened by Russia. Still, the most important factor to consider under a 21st-century Intermarium would be to not repeat the mistakes of the first project. This means not letting internal matters dominate and hopefully uniting under a shared, common global threat.  Intermarium cannot be successful until, “the entire post-Soviet sphere in Europe, learns how to work in solidarity together.”[21] It should also be noted that “no successor state can stand up to Moscow successfully on its own.”[22] Therefore, only when these nations have put their differences aside would a proposed Intermarium in the 21st century have a chance for working out.

There is a question of whether Intermarium in the 21st century would even be relevant or needed today. In fact, the project had been largely forgotten in the political mainstream until 2014 when Crimea was attacked by Russia and Ukraine was left to its own defense, or in other words, left to fight alone. The driving force for this project to resurface today would be for uniting against possible Russian aggression and increasing overall security in the Eastern/Central European region.  Ukraine felt abandoned by its Western Allies, which prompted it to look for new alternatives to strengthen its military and security.

This is why it would be important to establish Intermarium in the 21st century, a group that would be separate from the NATO alliance and would dedicate more attention to the concerns of the Intermarium member nations.[23] This is not to put the blame on NATO’s western allies; this is just to highlight the fact that the Central/Eastern European nations share a concern that is not prioritized by other NATO members. Another factor to consider is the “those closest to Russia are more concerned than those further away.”[24] Of course, this is expected; however, the Central European nations have all been “subjected to Russian domination” and are therefore cautious about Russia’s movements. For the Eastern countries of “Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic states, Romania, Moldova (and almost certainly Belarus too) Russia is a primary and existential threat.”[25] A proposed map of what Intermarium could look like in the 21st century is shown:

21st Century Intermarium Map

There are, so far, four possible strategies that Russia could use to attack its western neighbors. The first and best-case scenario is that Russia does not attack and stays content with its influence over Belarus, the Donbass region, and Crimea. It will still hold economic and political ties with Ukraine and Belarus but not show any desire to expand them more than they currently are. Next, the Russians could engage in hybrid warfare with Eastern European countries through propaganda, computer hacking, aggressive activities, and, even in some cases, physical harm. A third possible scenario is that Russia and Germany will once again form an alliance.  Based on the historical idea of continuity, it is reasonable to assume that old alliances or pacts between Russia and Germany could resurface. The only solid proof currently available is Nord Stream 2, which is a gas pipe that combines the two superpowers and skips over the Baltics and Poland.

Lastly, the worst-case scenario is that Russia decides to attack Ukraine or another country in the Intermarium alliance. This attack would essentially provoke a response, “from Poland, Romania, Moldova, Bulgaria etc and for Russia to win that war would involve them attacking NATO nations thus drawing in Germany, France, UK, USA, Canada etc etc…”[26] The outcome of this scenario is highly debatable. Perhaps another Cold War would occur, or maybe there would be attempts to fight through conventional ways. The world has reason to believe something could happen based on Russia’s past actions and recent red flags which include: the Minsk II agreement after a failed first one, a growing partnership with China which is heavily politically and militarily intertwined, Russia testing limits and crossing NATO occupied zones with aircraft, the 2007 Estonia cyber-attack, Nord Stream 2, and many other incidents. One cannot predict the future or how Russia will act, but the hope is that Intermarium would have prepared strategies to respond to any of these situations.

Still, one must consider the possible consequences of implementing a 21st-century Intermarium. Russia wants to continue to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence and will block any attempts to ensure that it does not link further with the West. It is already rather unlikely that Western NATO members will ever approve Ukraine of joining the alliance. They do not want to anger Putin nor lose their business deals, but they especially do not want to be involved in a war with Russia. Therefore, it is possible the allies and partners of Central/Eastern Europe would not support a 21st-century Intermarium. The Eastern Europe unified military power would unfortunately not be enough to support a real threat from Moscow, and it would need the help of the United States. However, having an Intermarium in place would provide greater security and perhaps a greater fighting chance.

One question of the past continues to arise among historians, “How different would the world be if Intermarium succeeded? Could have it prevented the German Reich?” Perhaps the same question will be given to late 21st century historians if Intermarium does not form this century.

Regardless, as the Russian state continues to break international law, it is no surprise that Intermarium is a topic that is resurfacing today. Ukraine would probably benefit the most from this project today; however, the security threat of Russia is shared throughout the region. As it is evident in history time and time again, the nations of central Europe have often been the battleground for war and therefore can only survive as a united pact. They all shared similar fates during WWI/WWII and, as a result, today, share historical reasons to join this kind of alliance. Perhaps one cannot guarantee how Intermarium would work out or who the exact members would be. Regardless, Intermarium in the 21st century is vastly different compared to the conditions Józef Piłsudski dealt with and has a greater chance of succeeding.

Intermarium is a geopolitical project from the 20th century that is gaining more momentum each year. The exact workings and politics of how Intermarium in the 21st century would work are still undergoing discussion by “post-Soviet politicians, diplomats, and intellectuals.”[27] Still, the important thing to note is that it is a project worth considering again and updating to the current needs of the 21st century. Today, it is mainly being advocated as a result of Central/Eastern European security concerns. If Intermarium in the 21st century is going to succeed, it needs total cooperation from each member state as well as U.S. military help. Intermarium has the potential to completely transform the international stage and overall create a stronger Europe for the future.

End Notes

[1] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[2] Cohen, Nick A. “Intermarium in the 21st Century.” New Eastern Europe, November 2019, 101–5.

[3] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Cohen, Nick A. “Intermarium in the 21st Century.” New Eastern Europe, November 2019, 101–5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[10] Cohen, Nick A. “Intermarium in the 21st Century.” New Eastern Europe, November 2019, 101–5.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cohen, Nick A. “Intermarium in the 21st Century.” New Eastern Europe, November 2019, 101–5.

[16] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

[17] Drozdowski, Richard. “Intermarium as a Compromise Solution.” EMPR, March 1, 2019. https://empr.media/opinion/analytics/intermarium-as-a-comprimise-solution/.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Drozdowski, Richard. “Intermarium as a Compromise Solution.” EMPR, March 1, 2019. https://empr.media/opinion/analytics/intermarium-as-a-comprimise-solution/.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

Works Cited

Chodakiewicz, Marek Jan. Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas. New York, NY: Routledge, 2017.

Cohen, Nick A. “Intermarium in the 21st Century.” New Eastern Europe, November 2019, 101–5.

Drozdowski, Richard. “Intermarium as a Compromise Solution.” EMPR, March 1, 2019. https://empr.media/opinion/analytics/intermarium-as-a-comprimise-solution/.

Fedorenko, Kostiantyn 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 29, 2017. https://warontherocks.com/2017/08/how-to-solve-ukraines-security-dilemma-the-idea-of-an-intermarium-coalition-in-east-central-europe/.

Laruelle, Marlene. “Imagined Geographies of Central and Eastern Europe: The Concept of Intermarium.” IFRI.org. The George Washington University, March 2019. https://www.ifri.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/laruelle-rivera-ieres_papers_march_2019_1.pdf.

South of a Horizon. “Putin’s People’s Republics.”, December 6, 2016. https://alsurdeunhorizonte.com/2016/09/30/las-republicas-populares-de-putin/.

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 15, 2020 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Intermarium_Polish-Lithuanian_Commonwealth.png

Wikimedia Commons. Accessed October 15, 2020 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Intermarium_revised.png

Wishart, Alexandra. “How the Ukrainian Far-Right Has Become One of the Biggest Proponents of Intermarium.” New Eastern Europe – A bimonthly news magazine dedicated to Central and Eastern European affairs, November 8, 2018. https://neweasterneurope.eu/2018/09/25/ukrainian-far-right-become-one-biggest-proponents-intermarium/.