Intermarium – the view from Georgia

If friends of Ukraine and Georgia want to achieve a lasting security on the eastern frontiers of Europe, they should invest their time and energy to minimise intra-European divisions.

Andreas Umland’s commentary “Countering Russian expansionism: Blueprints for a new security alliance”, crystallises some of the author’s earlier thoughts on Poland’s flagship project of an “Intermarium” – a community of states stretching across the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas. In a well-developed argument, Umland lays out his vision of the organisation as a multilateral defence alliance of Central and South East European states to counter the mounting Russian influence in the region, and makes the case for an “Intermarium” as a sustainable solution to security challenges of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia.

While far from being the only attempt to draw the geographic and political contours of an “Intermarium”, the article is possibly the very first detailed piece of writing to mention the role that Georgia might play in such an alliance. Ever since the newly-elected Polish President Andrzej Duda declared a new regional bloc as his foreign policy priority in August 2015, a lot has been said and written on the idea. Yet, Georgia has been paid almost no attention in this discussion.

To be fair, Tbilisi has expressed no interest to Duda’s proposal and no senior politician has spoken on the issue to this day. Nor has it become a matter of public scrutiny. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that if Poland was to pursue the plan seriously, Tbilisi would enthusiastically welcome the idea of an “Intermarium”.

The timing for such an opening could not be better for Georgia – with almost a quarter of its territory occupied by the Russian Federation, Georgia remains as one of the most militarily exposed countries in Eastern Europe. Tbilisi’s quest to guarantee its security through joining NATO, has been met with continuous foot-dragging from western European capitals. The Turkish-Georgian-Azerbaijani defence collaboration, the other possible option for Tbilisi, is too young to amount to a significant defence mechanism, let alone a regional alliance. As a result, Georgia finds itself left out of major defence networks, leading to a dangerous security vacuum in the region and paving ground for further Russian inroads.

Against this backdrop, a Polish-led “Intermarium” might appear to be a reasonable instrument for strengthening Georgia’s international standing and increasing its security. The prospect of a strong regional defence alliance capable of supplanting Russia’s adventurism, would help to allay Georgia’s security concerns and would resonate with Tbilisi’s prior regional activism.

Georgia finds itself left out of major defence networks, leading to a dangerous security vacuum in the region and paving ground for further Russian inroads.

Participation in explicitly and implicitly anti-Russian regional coalitions has been the centrepiece of Tbilisi’s foreign policy in the first two decades of Georgia’s independence. In 1997, Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan and Moldova set up the Organisation for Democracy and Economic Development (better known as GUAM) as a counterweight to the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States. Later, in 2005, the Ukrainian and Georgian presidents initiated the Community of Democratic Choice – an intergovernmental organisation of nine Central and Eastern European states to deter Moscow’s growing influence in the region.

Over time, however, Tbilisi’s hopes for forging strong regional cooperation mechanisms have faded away. First, the absence of a strong regional sponsor and then the change of the Ukrainian leadership in 2010, has gradually pushed these projects off Georgia’s political agenda. But now, with Ukraine back on track and with Poland willing to take on the leadership role, the prospect of stronger regional cooperation might catch Tbilisi’s eye again.

Yet, Georgia, and for that matter Ukraine as well, should not get their hopes up too much for two reasons – the capacity of Poland to act, and the willingness of the West to support it.  

Umland notes accurately that “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.” True, western European states are still and will continue to be reluctant to provide further commitments to the region, but it is unclear whether Poland will be able and/or willing to do so, especially with lingering security concerns of its own. And even if Warsaw was to partner with some of the bigger states in the region, such as Turkey and Romania, their gross defence capabilities would still trail significantly behind that of the Russian Federation, not to mention the combined powers of western European states or NATO as a whole.

And even if Warsaw was to partner with some of the bigger states in the region, such as Turkey and Romania, their gross defence capabilities would still trail significantly behind that of the Russian Federation.

That Warsaw cannot punch above its weight (to Georgia’s misfortune) was well demonstrated in the 2008 Russian-Georgian war. Despite ardent political support of Lech Kaczynski and four other Eastern European leaders, that included flying to Tbilisi along amid the Russian-Georgian war on August 12, 2008, it was Nicolas Sarkozy, acting on behalf of the European Union, who brokered the ceasefire agreement between Moscow and Tbilisi and not the five Central and Eastern European leaders.

And then, there is the question of western commitments. In his commentary, Umland argues that an “Intermarium” would “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.” The author is correct in assuming that a strong regional defence alliance would free western countries from additional obligations, but that’s not necessarily a good thing for the region, especially when such commitments are already quite shallow.

As Umland himself put it, a sustainable solution to fundamental security challenges of Ukraine and Georgia “is in the interest of all of Europe, and deserves full Western support.” An “Intermarium”, however, would institutionalise East-West divisions and with that, loosen the already existing western support to the region. As a result, Europe’s eastern borders could become far less secure than they are today.

Europe’s current security structures have failed to avoid the current crises not because they are inherently flawed, but because the countries have failed to come to terms with the fact that responding threats from the East requires consolidated efforts. And what is needed is not another international organisation that may or may not deliver, but a more intensive solution within the existing system. Instead of turning back on what has come along for decades, if friends of Ukraine and Georgia want to achieve a lasting security on the eastern frontiers of Europe, they should invest their time and energy to minimise intra-European divisions.

Tornike Zurabashvili is a Research Fellow at Georgia’s Reforms Associates (GRASS), a non-partisan, non-governmental policy watchdog and think-tank based in Tbilisi, Georgia.

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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