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Intermarium: An empty signifier?

A review of The Intermarium as the Polish–Ukrainian Linchpin in Baltic–Black Sea Cooperation. Edited by: Ostap Kushnir. Cambridge Scholars, Newcastle upon Tyne, 2019.

November 12, 2019 - Matthew Kott - Books and ReviewsIssue 6 2019Magazine

In recent years, the idea of some kind of strategic bloc of countries in Central and Eastern Europe (extending from the shores of the Baltic to those of the Black Sea, and, occasionally, out towards the Adriatic) has experienced a sporadic renaissance. As with the Swedish saying that “a beloved child has many names”, so, too, are there many different appellations for this project: some with concrete historical and ideological baggage (i.e., the Polish Międzymorze) while others signal ambitious visions of the future (like the “Three Seas Initiative”). As a kind of shorthand in an English-language context, it is common to collect these various ideas under the umbrella term “Intermarium”, from the Latin for “between the seas”.

As suggestions of building Intermarium-style co-operation in the political, security or economic spheres have been brought to the discussion table in various fora, it is both timely and useful that a number of scholars from the region have come together to produce The Intermarium as the Polish–Ukrainian Linchpin in Baltic–Black Sea Cooperation, a unique anthology on the topic, edited by Ostap Kushnir and published by UK-based Cambridge Scholars Publishing in 2019.

Who will lead?

The book’s title identifies the perceived basic core for the Intermarium scheme (i.e., the relationship between Poland and Ukraine). These two contiguous countries connect the Baltic Sea region to the wider Black Sea area that interfaces with the strategically important Middle East, and of course they have a certain amount of shared history. Furthermore, since the 1990s, the two countries have experience of a number of different forms and spheres of co-operation. Nevertheless, by necessitating a Polish–Ukrainian motor for any feasible iteration of Intermarium, the volume’s contributors also offer a clear tool for analysing the inherent strengths and weakness of the whole idea.

The book’s cover art adequately illustrates several of the main insights of the book. Firstly, while many proponents of Intermarium see it as an integrated system (represented by interlocking gears, one for each country), there is little agreement on just what form this system should take. Secondly, even if Poland and Ukraine are perceived as the natural motor of Intermarium, akin to the Franco–German motor at the heart of the EU, it soon becomes clear that there is no consensus on the conceptualisation of Intermarium between the Polish and Ukrainian sides, nor, indeed, within each of the countries’ own discourses. Tellingly, the gear for Belarus does not mesh with the others; then again Belarus does not receive much attention in the book, either.

Daria Nałęcz begins the book with an overview of the historical development of the Intermarium strategy in Poland, with its historical justifications stretching back to the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and its ideological underpinnings invariably linked to Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s interwar geopolitics. This latter aspect makes many neighbours suspicious of Poland’s motives for its present-day initiatives, as Piłsudski’s schemes clearly assigned Poland the role of regional leader. Volodymyr Poltorak counters this with a narrative of Baltic–Black Sea regionalism in Ukrainian history, which has different foci than the Polish one – both in its greater orientation toward the Black Sea, and its anti-imperial, underdog perspective. Here, Ukraine is the natural leader of the imagined Intermarium bloc.

The contribution by Kateryna Pryshchepa shows how the ideas of a Cold War émigré intellectual, Jerzy Giedroyc, shaped, and arguably distorted, Poland’s foreign policy towards independent Ukraine up to 2014. While fluctuating over time, the “Giedroyc doctrine” promoted the view that Poland’s natural orientation, echoing Piłsudski’s Prometheism, was to prevent a resurgence of Russia by fostering the former lands of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth: Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine. This naïve idea continued to hold sway in influential Polish circles long after the trajectories of the three countries diverged radically from each other, and from Poland. Blinkered by echoes of Giedroyc’s Cold War thinking, Poland made policy decisions that did not always align with the realities on the ground. Only after 2014 did Poland shake off the vestiges of Giedroyc and take a more pragmatic approach, but also where more recent historical traumas of the Second World War could overshadow older affinities.

Models of co-operation

One example of such a policy is discussed by Maksim Bugriy. His chapter looks at the ups and downs of Polish–Ukrainian co-operation in the sphere of defence and security. This relationship is interesting in that it demonstrates how transfer was not always one-way: while Ukraine certainly benefited greatly from adopting the best practice models that helped Poland’s NATO accession, Ukraine supplied Poland with significant armaments. Furthermore, Ukraine’s experience of the Donbas conflict offers Poland and other NATO countries valuable information on Russia’s capabilities and tactics.

Tomasz M. Napiórkowski examines Ukraine’s international economic relations from the standpoint of Intermarium-style regional integration. Here, we clearly see one of the weaknesses of the Intermarium, namely, that it does not have the same kind of deep, cross-sectoral drawing power as competing models of co-operation. While Ukraine certainly trades with its neighbours in the Intermarium region, and there is room for increasing trade, the overall benefits to economic growth are relatively marginal, especially compared to the greater economic integration with the whole EU, whose more varied, complementary markets offer much greater long-term opportunities.

This hearkens back to Ostap Kushnir’s main contribution in the middle of the book concerning the inherent ambiguity of the concept of Intermarium. As Kushnir points out, it has become a kind of catch-all term, a tabula rasa,upon which different actors freely project their own ideas. In attempting to address this, the idea of a Polish–Ukrainian linchpin is proposed. Nevertheless, looking at how Ukraine has acted over the years in other regional frameworks, like the ODED-GUAM group or the Black Sea Economic Cooperation, Kushnir notes that Ukraine has not participated very effectively in these fora for reasons that include an unresolved sense of belonging to any particular geopolitical bloc. As such, Kushnir raises doubt over whether Ukraine, with an indeterminate, liminal identity, could really serve as a solid foundation for any kind of Intermarium bloc in the near future. Having read this book, one is inclined to concur. Furthermore, to build upon the ideas discussed in the historical chapter by Nałęcz, Poland, today, appears divided between a “Piast” identity oriented towards the Baltic and northern and western Europe, and a “Jagiellonian” identity whose continental orientation is more eastwards and southwards; until this polarisation, reflected also in voting patterns, is overcome, it is unlikely that Poland can make a meaningful contribution to a rebooted Intermarium project.

The risk is that Intermarium becomes an empty signifier, or is abandoned to a narrow group of interests who define it in a very particular way. Kushnir, more than once, refers to the warnings previously expressed here on the pages of New Eastern Europe that Intermarium could be appropriated by a cross-border alliance of far-right nationalists for their own agenda. Alternatively, it could be promoted by third parties like China as a way to leverage influence in a zone otherwise allied with either the EU or Russia. Although it is vague, the topicality of Intermarium as a concept is likely to continue for some time to come. Despite its hefty price and sometimes stilted language, this book deserves a wider readership beyond the limited circles of academia.

Matthew Kott is a historian and researcher with Uppsala University.

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