Russia's geopolitical threat to Central and Eastern Europe should have everyone's mind rushing in the direction of a protean Polish revolutionary, statesman and military leader, Jozef Pilsudski, and his concept of the Intermarium — Latin for "between the seas;" Miedzymorze in Polish. This was a belt of independent states from the Baltic to the Black seas that would work in unison against Russian tyranny from the east and German tyranny from the west. While geopolitics may be about the impersonal influence of geography upon international relations, human agency still applies, so that the idea of an individual Pole from the early 20th century could provide a means for defending freedom in our own era.
Pilsudski dominated Polish affairs from the middle of World War I until his death in 1935. In the words of the late British-educated academic Alexandros Petersen, Pilsudski was from a "staunchly Polonized" family of "disestablished nobility" that had held lands in present-day Lithuania and originally owed its position to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, one of the great powers of 16th- and 17th-century Europe. The destruction of that colossal geopolitical force at the hands of invaders from both east and west provided the motivation behind Pilsudski's vision of a belt of small states to hold in check both Russia and Germany. It was not an altogether new idea. The British geographer Halford Mackinder had proposed something similar a few years earlier in 1919. But whereas Mackinder was only a well-known scholar writing in a book, Pilsudski was a dynamic political leader.
Pilsudski's vision was a product not only of his family history but also of his own bloody experience. He had saved Poland from invading Soviet forces in 1920 in the midst of a number of border wars and went on to become the primary founder of the Second Polish Republic in 1926. Pilsudski's belief in a multicultural Poland to encompass his own Lithuanian background played well with his expansive vision of this anti-Russian belt of states that was, in turn, a spiritual and territorial descendant of that vast tract of territory that had constituted the late medieval and early modern Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, which stretched at its zenith from the shivering flatlands of northeastern Europe to the confines of the Ottoman Empire — in present-day Ukraine.
Pilsudski's realization that the independence of the Baltic states, the Balkans and Ukraine was central to Poland's own security lives on today in the country's post-Cold War foreign policy. To wit, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski has been publicly tireless and ever-present in pushing NATO and the European Union toward a tougher stance against Russian President Vladimir Putin's annexation of Crimea. Of course, the European Union's expansion to include Poland, the Baltic states, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, together with their incorporation into NATO, has represented the partial institutionalization of Pilsudski's idea — even if Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and the countries of the Caucasus lie stranded in the neither-nor geopolitical landscape of the European Union's Eastern Partnership, which offers insufficient protection against the designs of Russia.
But while danger lurks in the east, the west is less worrisome. For Germany has emerged as a benevolent giant, satisfied with its borders and providing the engine for the European economy. Thus, despite Putin's Revanchism, the European security environment still contains more possibilities than at any time since some of those comparatively dull 19th century decades following the 1814-1815 Congress of Vienna. Of course, the relative peace of the 19th century had lulled Europeans into the false sense of security common to all people who have lost their sense of the tragic. And because a sense of the tragic is necessary to avoid tragedy, the result was World War I.
Poland and Romania are two pivotal countries that need no lessons in cultivating the sense of the tragic, for both have long been borderlands between stronger states and imperial forces coming from the east and west. And it is Poland and Romania, the two largest NATO states in northeastern and southeastern Europe respectively, that are crucial to the emergence of an effective Intermarium to counter Russia. Together they practically link the Baltic with the Black Sea.
Though they appear distinctly separated on the current map (even as both countries can claim whole or partial membership in Mitteleuropa), the shadow of Poland has in the course of history crept well into Romanian lands. While a traveler must cross the winding Carpathians twice to get from one country's capital to the other, Poland and Romania have at times been closer than you might think. For example, in the Romanian town of Targu Neamt, I craned my neck up at the citadel that had been conquered by Polish forces under King John III Sobieski in 1691. Lionized by English poet John Milton and praised by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz, Sobieski waged war against the Moslem Turks far away to the south from his native Poland and Ukraine in epic campaigns that helped save the Austrian Habsburgs and thus the Christian West. Sobieski's distant forays southward toward the shadowlands of the Black Sea were certainly part of Pilsudski's mental map — a map that is still critical to Europe's future as a liberal Western dynamo.
Indeed, during a recent visit to Romania, the president, the president's national security adviser and the prime minister all told me in separate meetings that Poland and Turkey were critical countries for Romania in light of the Ukrainian crisis. Throughout my stay in Bucharest, calls for closer relations with Warsaw and Ankara as part of an anti-Russian alliance were made explicit. While Pilsudski's vision of an Intermarium extended from Finland to Bulgaria, an expanded version fitted to 21st century geopolitical realities would naturally include Turkey and the Caucasus. Turkey is the geographical organizing principle for half of the Black Sea and Azerbaijan's vast hydrocarbon wealth gives it the financial and political leverage to keep Russia from wholly dominating the Caucasus, now that Armenia hosts thousands of Russian troops and Georgia is under threat.
The new Intermarium is still far from crystalizing. Turkey is compromised by its appetite for Russian natural gas via the Blue Stream pipeline. Bulgarian and Serbian politics are heavily influenced by Russian money, criminal networks and — like Turkey — the need for Russian natural gas. Romania looks south to Bulgaria and rather than see an ally, sees a weak, at times chaotic state trying to steer a middle path between Russia and the European Union. And while Romania sees Poland as a more powerful, more economically vibrant and strongly institutionalized version of itself — one that cuts a larger profile in the world media — Poland looks south to Romania and sees merely a burdensome, weaker and more corrupt state than itself.
Nevertheless, a trend is discernible. High-level meetings between the Intermarium countries have intensified, as the Pentagon and State Department act as hubs for all these countries' militaries, intelligence services and diplomatic corps to interact. Stronger U.S. support to Eastern and Central Europe must be matched by stronger bilateral ties between the countries themselves — to say nothing of increased defense expenditures in the region. This is all a function of geography that Mackinder and especially Pilsudski were the first to address. Pilsudski knew from his own experience that geography is only destiny if you don't turn it to your advantage. The real balance of power should not be a cynical formulation of the status quo between America and Russia, but a bulwark of democracies blocking the path of tyranny.