Countering Russian expansionism: Blueprints for a new security alliance

Prospects for a central and eastern European security union

Many in the West think that the future security of Eastern Europe and the South Caucasus is an issue that only countries such as Ukraine or Georgia need to seriously worry about. Yet, the degree to which these states are embedded in international frameworks is also of fundamental concern for the EU and its security interests. In the worst case scenario of a new large military escalation of Moscow’s conflict with Kyiv, for instance, the destiny of Ukraine’s four nuclear power plants – among them Europe’s largest in the Zaporizhzhya Oblast – would be of interest not only to eastern but western Europeans too. A continuation of Russia’s trade wars, subversion tactics and covert military operations against its neighbours could also compound the effects of the current refugee crisis by forcing millions of eastern Europeans and southern Caucasians in the direction of the EU. While eagerly dismissed by many western European observers as a non-NATO issue, a sustainable solution to the fundamental security problems facing such countries as Ukraine or Georgia is in the interest of all of Europe, and deserves full Western support.

Alas, neither NATO nor the EU will be able and/or willing to provide comprehensive, plausible and truly effective security assurances to Kyiv, Chișinău, or Tbilisi in the near future, in spite of these countries dire need for such support. To be sure, all of the European and south Caucasian post-Soviet countries had, after the break-up of the USSR, the chance to join one of the accession tracks; yet only some of them used this lucky moment. Economic and political reforms in Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia progressed much more slowly than those of the Visegrad or Baltic countries. Unlike Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which were once just as insecure, the other Europe-leaning former Soviet republics missed their windows of opportunity to join the EU and/or NATO during the 1990s or 2000s.

As a result, Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia are still a long way off from NATO or EU membership (Moldova, one should add, officially does not pursue NATO accession). Russia has taken advantage of their limbo situation to purposefully deepen their internal divisions, covertly invade their territories, and transform them into failed states. At the same time, Moscow’s increasing rhetorical and political confrontation with the West has caused the stakes for these countries’ EU and NATO integration to rise. Many citizens of Western Europe have, over the last two years, become afraid of an eruption of World War III. Not only is Russia strictly against NATO’s and the EU’s further Eastern enlargement; it has also vividly demonstrated its willingness to use military force to achieve its aims. For these reasons, Ukraine and Georgia will – in spite of their eagerness to join NATO as well as the EU – remain outside the major Western institutions for many years to come, even if they successfully reform themselves in the near future.  

Against this background, the only feasible solution for Ukraine and Georgia’s mounting security problem today is to revive an old Polish idea from the inter-war period called “Intermarium”. This would mean forming an alliance of Central and South East European states located between Scandinavia in the North and Asia minor in the South, and between Germany in the West and Russia in the East. The countries of that geographical area would ally themselves in an “Intermarium” (mezhdumore) bloc – “an association of the lands between the seas”.

This early twentieth-century plan could today take the form of an entente cordiale or mutual aid pact of the countries in between the Baltic and Black Seas. Such a bloc would be uniting those states that today perceive Moscow as a threat to their national sovereignty, territorial integrity and core interests. The Intermarium concept has reappeared in Central East European political and intellectual discourse at regular intervals since the dissolution of the Soviet bloc and Union. It has its deepest roots in Poland and been most explicitly promoted by former President Lech Kaczyński, and current President Andrzej Duda.

The purpose of the Intermarium’s mutual assistance guarantees would be to:

(a)        Improve its member countries’ national security, international embeddedness, institutional coherence and political self-confidence

(b)        Deter Russia from attacking its member countries via traditional, hybrid, information, trade or other warfare

(c)        Increase the freedom, range, weight and impact of the actions of its member countries on the international arena.

A modern day Intermarium would – unlike the project of the inter-war period – not imply an economic union or federation of states as the socio-economic integration of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia into the EU is already being pursued via implementation of these countries’ Association Agreements. Instead, it could take the form of a limited and single-purpose defense treaty signed by a group of countries that agree to assist each other in combatting hybrid warfare activities conducted by foreign powers against them. It would be a mutual aid pact among those Council of Europe member countries who are ready to commit to some degree of military and other cooperation in confronting Moscow. Many states across Russia’s western and southern borders have recently, to one degree or another, been affected by the Kremlin’s information, trade, cyber, cold and/or hot wars, and are becoming increasingly aware of their shared experiences as well as interests vis-à-vis Moscow. Their coalition of the willing may include members and non-members of both the EU and NATO in Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as in Western Asia. An Intermarium’s mutual assistance obligations could remain below those of Article 5 of NATO’s Washington Treaty – which holds that an armed attack against one NATO member is an attack against them all – yet should still be far more robust than those of the OSCE.

The signatories of an Intermarium security pact could unambiguously announce to the Kremlin their willingness to actively assist each as regards their hitherto bilateral conflicts with Russia. The areas of cooperation for an Intermarium’s members could encompass:

  • Multilateral coordination of economic and other sanctions
  • Mutual lethal defensive weapons deliveries
  • Enabling cross-border movement of volunteer troops
  • Collaboration in matters of energy security and transportation
  • Mutual assistance in combat training and arms modernization
  • Sharing of strategic, counter- and other intelligence
  • Joint military industrial and dual technology ventures
  • Logistic help in resisting hybrid warfare measures
  • Joint international counter-propaganda initiatives
  • Exchange of military advisors and other experts
  • Support for establishing transnational NGOs in the Intermarium

It could also include implementation of other targeted projects in a variety of secondary, yet also relevant spheres, ranging from collaboration among think-tanks and universities, to international tourism and cultural exchange.

There is also the possibility for Turkey to be involved in this Intermarium. As Ankara’s relations to Moscow are now plagued by tensions, the likes of which have been experienced in many East European capitals since the fall of the USSR, a modern day Intermarium could stretch beyond the former Soviet bloc. It could include Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Moldova, Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Azerbaijan. It might also include the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and even Belarus, should the domestic political configurations there change. Perhaps, certain Western Balkan or Scandinavian countries would be interested to support such a project too. Many politicians and intellectuals, in these countries perceive Russia as a threat, have memories of anti-imperial resistance to Moscow’s expansionism, and/or may be, for other reasons, motivated to support Kyiv, Chișinău, and Tbilisi in their disputes with the Kremlin over their territory and sovereignty.

An informal Intermarium is already evolving, and – whether acknowledged or not – is becoming a problem for Moscow. On a bilateral basis, intensifying defense-related cooperation is taking place between, for instance, Ukraine, on the one side, and Poland, Lithuania or Turkey, on the other. There is also some nascent multilateral cooperation between the countries of this informal Intermarium, for instance, within the joint Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Brigade currently being formed. Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova are members and Turkey as well as Latvia are observers of the GUAM Organization for Democracy and Economic Development. After the Orange Revolution in 2005, a so-called Community of Democratic Choice was established by nine East European countries (Estonia, Georgia, Lithuania, Latvia, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine) and eight observing delegations (Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, United States, European Union, OSCE) to promote democracy and the rule of law in the former Soviet bloc. In 2011, the NATO member Turkey and EU Eastern Partnership participant Azerbaijan ratified a far-reaching Agreement on Strategic Partnership and Mutual Support which includes provisions for military and military-industrial cooperation.

The fact that there is more and more such bi- and multilateral collaboration indicates that there would be considerable political support for an Intermarium bloc among the elites and populations of its potential member countries. The idea of a common destiny and a shared risk is strong in the lands of, what the Germans sometimes call, Zwischeneuropa (In-between-Europe). For most people in the West, South Ossetia, Transnistria or the Donets Basin are merely far-away regions – or simply unknown. In contrast, in the nations of a potential Intermarium, there has always been acknowledgement of a common destiny vis-à-vis, first, the German and Tsarist/Soviet empires, and, today, the Russian Federation.

Moscow’s attack on Ukraine and its annexation of Crimea has not only intensified existing feelings of mutual solidarity within Eastern Europe. It has also brought Turkey into the game, as the Crimean Tatars are closely related to the Turks and strongly resist their inclusion as part of Russia. Over the last 25 years, the Crimean Tatars have become ardent supporters of Ukraine as a sovereign state and their preferred home country. At the same time, according to different estimates, the number of Crimean Tatars living in Turkey ranges from 150,000 to 6 million. German-Azeri historian Zaur Gasimov writes that, moreover, “a not inconsiderable part of Turkey’s leading historians are of Crimean Tatar descent. […] As authors of best-selling books and as public intellectuals, they frequently comment on issues in Turkish politics, historical interpretation and religion.”

Even before the most recent escalation, these, and other factors, had led to Turkish-Russian relations becoming frustrated. For a while, the negative effects of Moscow’s new foreign adventurism were mitigated by Turkey’s economic interests in Russia. Since autumn last year, however, the schism has been widening, especially after Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet on 24 November. As a result of the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria and economic sanctions against Turkey, relations between Moscow and Ankara are now deeply damaged. The decline of the Russian economy has also contributed to Turkey’s changing perception of Russia as a reliable partner.

While it is thus no surprise that Ankara’s empathy for Kyiv has recently increased, the magnitude of Turkey’s new engagement with Ukraine is noteworthy. Not only has the Turkish leadership, since December 2015, taken some ad hoc measures to support Kyiv, such as delivery of five mobile military hospitals to Ukraine. During President Petro Poroshenko’s visit to Ankara in early March 2016, Ukraine and Turkey signed a 21-point Joint Declaration that includes cooperation concerning economic, cultural and consular issues, as well as in security affairs ranging from cooperation in weapons production to military education. Turkey and Ukraine hope to conclude their ongoing negotiations for the creation of a free trade zone in 2016.

Worsening relations between Turkey and Russia, combined with the threat of hybrid interference in states bordering Russia, has created the necessary preconditions for the formation of an Intermarium. A more formal and official alliance of the already cooperating countries would not only be in their own national interests. It could also help the EU and NATO to ensure more stable Eastern borders and partners while, at the same time, avoiding the issue of further Western commitment in the post-Soviet space. Core countries such as Ukraine and Poland – as well as, perhaps, Romania – should engage in special efforts to include Turkey in such a possible bloc (by, for instance, offering to found it in Istanbul where the organization’s secretariat could also be located).

Today, the proposal to form an Intermarium may sound to many unrealistic or even like mere fantasy. Yet, both Ukraine’s recent past experience and likely future prospects should be taken as a warning against inaction. The under-institutionalisation of Zwischeneuropa caused a sudden collapse, in 2014, of nothing less than the post-Helsinki European security system. In connection with the concurrent devaluation of the Budapest Memorandum through Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it also led to a dangerous subversion of humanity’s nuclear non-proliferation regime. A Ukrainian future without a strong and dependable security framework could lead to more unexpected damage to the international system. There is little reason to believe that continued exclusion of such countries as Ukraine and Georgia from effective transnational security structures bodes well for the future of Europe.

It is difficult to predict how the Kremlin would react to such a new alliance at its borders. However, past experience indicates that it might help to mitigate Russian foreign adventurism. Previous Western inaction and appeasement has not tamed the Kremlin’s behaviour, while, on the contrary, decisive counter-action against Russian attacks has led Moscow to moderate its military activities. On the one side, the timid, accommodating and inconsistent Western policy regarding the presence of illegal Russian troops in Transnistria, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Crimea has done nothing to end these occupations. On the other side, recent Western economic sanctions and Turkey’s resolute resistance against Moscow’s intrusions in the Donbas and Syria have led Moscow to limit its aggressiveness. The lesson seems to be: when the costs of foreign adventures rise above a certain level, their relative attractiveness for Moscow decreases. An official mutual aid pact of the lands of the Intermarium would signal to the Kremlin increasing expenditures for, and mounting risks of, current and future hybrid warfare against non-NATO countries.   

A new defence pact of the non-nuclear states between Russia and Western Europe could be based on the already existing Community of Democratic Choice, and may be modeled on the Turkish-Azeri agreement of mutual support. While it would not, in principle, change European geopolitics, it could help to deter further Kremlin adventurism, and make the states of Zwischeneuropa more secure. It may also assist in defusing the tension in the West’s relations with Moscow, by refocusing Russia’s attention away from the US, NATO and EU. Europe’s current security structures have proven insufficient – and something needs to be done about this. A substantive reconfiguration of East European inter-state relations is overdue. The emergence of an Intermarium coalition would demonstrate not only to the Kremlin, but also to Russia’s population that Moscow’s growing foreign adventurism is detrimental to Russian national interests.


Andreas Umland, Dr. Phil. (FU Berlin), Ph. D. (Cambridge), is senior research fellow at the Institute for Euro-Atlantic Cooperation in Kyiv, as well as editor of the book series “Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society” published by ibidem Press in Stuttgart and distributed outside Europe by Columbia University Press.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


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