Geopolitics of Intermarium: Kiev’s Conduct Escalates Tensions in the Baltic-Black Sea Region

A change in Ukraine’s borders will aggravate interstate rivalry in the entire Baltic-Black Sea region. In the past decade, Russia and NATO countries tried to establish an alternative to the OSCE. To preserve stability in the Baltic-Black Sea region, it is essential to establish new anti-crisis mechanisms in Europe.

By mid-May, the punitive operations of the Kiev authorities in Odessa and Donbass led to geopolitical shifts in Eastern Europe. On May 11, the Donetsk and Lugansk regions held a referendum during which the majority of votes were cast for independence from Kiev. On May 13, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry raised before Kiev the issue of establishing a Hungarian autonomy in the Transcarpathia. Debates on the status of Transnistria resumed during the Victory Day celebrations. All of these events confirmed that Ukraine is unlikely to remain within its borders as of January 1, 2014.

A change in Ukraine’s borders will aggravate interstate rivalry in the entire Baltic-Black Sea region. In 1998, Russian political scientist Vadim Tsymbursky coined the term, “Baltic-Black Sea conflict system.” He used the term to describe the rivalry between Russia, Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Ottoman Empire in the 16th-18th centuries. Today, the notion of the Baltic-Black Sea conflict system is returning. The Ukrainian crisis may speed up this process.

Notion of Intermarium

The formation of the renewed Baltic-Black Sea region or the Intermarium started in the 1990s. In 1993, US Presidential National Security Adviser Anthony Lake proclaimed the concept of expanding democracy. It provided for the involvement of former Eastern bloc countries and Soviet republics save Russia to Transatlantic institutions. The Clinton Administration launched NATO’s eastward expansion in 1994 with a view to its implementation. The Kremlin adamantly objected to this policy. Since then, Russia and NATO have been competing in the Baltic-Black Sea region that included:

– Finland, which is debating the expediency of retaining its neutral status;
– Baltic states, which advocated the closest rapprochement with NATO and the EU;
– Visegrad Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia), which is engaged in rapid integration with NATO and EU;
– Belarus, which is integrating with Russia;
– Ukraine, which is balancing between Russia and NATO;
– Moldova, which is split by the Transnistrian issue;
– Romania, which is integrating with EU and NATO and seeks reunification with Moldova or part of the country;
– Georgia, which favors rapprochement with NATO but is not a strong state;
– Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have broken away from Georgia and been recognized by Russia as independent states.

Moscow and Washington made their first attempt to determine the rules of the game in the Intermarium under the 1997 Russia-NATO Founding Act. NATO countries promised not to deploy large troop contingents and nuclear weapons on the territory of new members. Russia pledged not to threaten the security of these countries or to deploy troops near their borders. On May 6, 1997, Russia and NATO harmonized in Brussels the adapted version of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty) in Luxembourg. Europe was divided into levels and sublevels, with a definite structure of troop strength. The new version of the treaty was signed at the OSCE summit in Istanbul on November 19, 1999.

The issue of the rules in the Intermarium was raised for the second time in the mid-2000s. By that time, NATO had already been joined by the Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. In parallel, these countries acceded to the EU. Velvet revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine led to their unprecedented rapprochement with NATO. Moscow feared that the United States was trying to spread NATO’s influence across the entire post-Soviet space.

Things changed after the 2008 five-day war. It proved Russia’s readiness to effectively project its power beyond its borders and simultaneously change the status quo in problematic areas. After the war – in early 2009 – the Obama Administration froze NATO’s eastward drive. A belt of buffer states – Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova – took shape between Russia and NATO.

Third revision

Once again, the issue of changing the rules of the game in the Intermarium came to the fore when the EU embarked upon its Eastern Partnership Program that provided for accelerated political unification and the deepening of economic integration between the EU and Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine. The program was launched at the Prague summit in May 2009 upon the initiative of Sweden and Poland. The financial crisis compelled the EU to suspend its implementation. Brussels resuscitated the Eastern Partnership only in fall 2013.

For its part, Russia hastened the implementation of its Eurasian project. President Vladimir Putin announced this in October 2011 as a priority task of his next presidential term. The signing of the treaty on the Eurasian Union to include Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan is scheduled for May 29.

Since early 2010, Russia has repeatedly offered the United States to sign an agreement on the rules of interaction in Eastern Europe, but the Obama Administration turned them down. U.S. experts wrote with pride that Washington would not participate in a second Yalta. Vice President Joe Biden even emphasized that the United States does not operate in terms of spheres of influence. This U.S. position compelled Moscow to take response actions.

Scenarios for Kiev

The aggravation of the Russian-U.S. rivalry led to the collapse of the government in Ukraine. Subsequent events led to a coup d’etat on February 21, 2014 and the advent to power of extreme nationalist forces. This evoked a resistance in the southeastern region of the country and led to the loss of Crimea. The following three scenarios are the most likely to take place.

The first scenario – Ukraine turns into a federation of the South-Eastern Republic, Ukraine proper, and the Hungarian-Rusyn Transcarpathia. The chances for this scenario were considerable in March, but the military operation led by Kiev in Donbass and the tragic events in Odessa are driving some regions to secede from Ukraine.

The second scenario provides for the country’s split into states – Ukraine proper and Novorossiya. In theory, the first state might be admitted to NATO and probably the EU, while the second state might join the Eurasian Union. Chances for this scenario are increasing because of Kiev’s bent on punitive operations against the southeastern regions.

The third scenario proceeds from the possibility of Ukraine’s disintegration, whereby some of its regions would fall under the control of neighboring states (Russia, Hungary, Romania, and Poland). At present, this scenario is unlikely but its chances may grow if an armed conflict develops in Ukraine.

The situation is complicated by Washington’s tough stance. First, it regards Ukraine’s existence in its current borders a guarantee against the restoration of the Soviet Union. Second, the United States used Ukrainian diplomacy as resource to torpedo integration projects into the CIS. Third, Washington does not rule out the possibility of Russia sending troops to Ukraine. Under these circumstances, the United States will try to cooperate with the Kiev authorities regarding their nationalism as a bulwark against the spread of Russian influence.

These scenarios are hypothetical for now. However, the Ukrainian crisis has shown that modern Europe lacks mechanisms for settling crises. Not a single European agency came up with peace initiatives. Neither the United States, nor EU countries want to discuss the Ukraine issue with Russia. They prefer the strategy of introducing sanctions. As a result, tensions may escalate in all Intermarium states.

In the past decade, Russia and NATO countries tried to establish an alternative to the OSCE. It was believed that the latter’s bulky apparatus and red tape made it impossible to find effective solutions. The institutionalization of informal round-tables and discussion venues became an alternative – from the Munich conference to the Euro-Atlantic Security Initiative. However, they also faded into the background during the Ukrainian crisis. To preserve stability in the Baltic-Black Sea region, it is essential to establish new anti-crisis mechanisms in Europe.

Alexei Fenenko is Leading Research Fellow, Institute of International Security Studies of RAS, Russian Academy of Sciences.

This article was originally published in Russian in Nezavisimaya Gazeta

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.