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The Intermarium: The Formation of a New European Containment Line

Sept. 15, 2017 Xander Snyder and Antonia Colibasanu discuss the countries involved in the Intermarium, their motivations and why it matters. Sign up here for free updates on topics like this.

Xander Snyder: So hi everyone and welcome to the Geopolitical Futures podcast. I’m Xander Snyder and I am joined today by senior analyst Antonia Colibasanu and we’re going to be talking to you about a concept that’s very important in our model. It’s this idea of a containment line that we’ve come to call the Intermarium. We’re going to talk about what it is, how it is developed and why it is important.  So maybe we just start with that first question Antonia, what is the Intermarium?

Antonia Colibasanu: Hello everyone first of all. Well the Intermarium is a concept. It is something that was inspired from General Pilsudski but in current days, we are talking about basically a containment line that has two pillars, Romania and Poland and is backed by the U.S. as an alliance that is forming between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. Basically, what we are seeing is increased cooperation between these two pillars in the region and the U.S., Romanian and Polish strategic partnerships allowed that American military be on the ground and cooperating more with these countries. And second of all, it also entails cooperating within the region with other countries.

XS: So there are some core countries involved in the Intermarium, you mentioned Poland and Romania. But there are some where there is a little bit more variability going on right now. For example, you mentioned the Baltics but all the way down south are the Balkans. Where do these two regions fit into it and why does that add some degree of uncertainty in establishing this containment line?

AC: So, the Baltics up north have Russia as the main security threat and they are on board with the Intermarium and they would like to actually have more U.S., NATO, Polish groups helping them fight so they are totally on cooperation with these countries and the concept itself. The Intermarium however, as it goes south, it has two question marks basically. One is in between Poland and Romania where we have Hungary which kept balancing Russia and the West. And the other one is down south in the Balkans. Ideally, the Intermarium would have served better if two words the Caucasus because that is another node where Russia and the West are colliding.

But currently we have Russia in the Black Sea and therefore the logical point where the Intermarium should evolve strategically is in the Balkans. Now, we do hear often now talk about the Three Seas strategy that Poland and Croatia basically put on the E.U. agenda also but also within NATO to have increased cooperation between Croatia which is a country in the Balkans and the northern part of the continent, Poland. And basically, naturally spread Intermarium into the Balkans. However, you cannot have just Croatia joining in and forming a cooperation with the others in Eastern Europe without having the other countries in the Balkans on board with the major country being Serbia that is balancing between Russia and the West.

So you basically have two nodes of instability in the containment line that is the Intermarium. One is in Central Europe and the other one is down in the Balkans in southeastern Europe.

XS: Yeah you mentioned Serbia and that really sort of does complicate the establishment of this line right because for a long time for historical and ethnic reasons, Serbia has often been closer to Russia for example than the West. But we’ve seen a lot of sort of interesting developments going on in Serbia lately that we’ve been certainly monitoring internally here at GPF.

And despite that historical tie with Russia, we’ve seen Serbia leaning to the West some. We’ve seen China looking for investment opportunities in Serbia. Why do you think Antonia that Serbia is becoming this relatively large country in the Balkans but small otherwise, this competing grounds for the all the different world’s powers?

AC: Well geographically if you look at Serbia, it is the core of the Balkans and therefore that makes it the country that is most logically to be controlling the Balkans or dominating the Balkans, historically it has been so. And culturally it is a Slavic country therefore there is a connection that will never go away with Russia and there is a natural influence of Russia in Serbia due to recent history and how Serbians perceive the West which is twofold. One is the West that is modeled after the E.U. and European values and the other is the NATO West.

Now, Serbia has been balancing between Russia and the E.U. mostly because it wanted to have economic development. And therefore, both sides were giving funding and were helping with investments, the E.U. more than Russia. But now both have problems, economic problems, and therefore funding is getting lower and lower. And help from Russia, while Serbia is strategically important for Russia, is diminishing because Russia has other priorities right now. Therefore, Serbia needs to see alternatives. From an economic standpoint, these alternatives can come from anywhere, China including.

China is an interesting actor not only in Serbia but also in other Eastern European countries. It comes in and proposes investments, talks to the governments but ultimately, they are not that structurally important. Because some of the countries in Eastern Europe as Serbia do not necessarily want to tie to Chinese labor which is tied to Chinese investment. And also because the way that China comes in is not as strategically important as other actors, as the Europeans or the Americans.

Now, the Americans have not invested a lot in Serbia. But Serbia sees itself surrounded now by NATO which is basically the U.S. It sees the U.S. being more involved in the building up of the containment line which we call Intermarium and therefore has two options. Going, balancing with Russia against the U.S.  and continuing the trend that it has already set while hoping to get more from the E.U. in terms of funding. And this is something that is no longer that much viable.

But the other option is opening up to the West, the West including now what NATO means, meaning the U.S. and the E.U. And during the last year, both the U.S. and the E.U. have worked together to basically get Serbia on board with them, considering that the E.U. has no longer has that much power in the region because of its own socioeconomic problems and the migration crisis and everything else attached to it.

The U.S. has become more visible and has become more involved. Therefore, we are going to see Serbia still having attachment to Russia but getting more and more interested and on the same line with the West because it needs to. But so far, speaking of the Intermarium again, we are at the very incipient phase of it so we are not going to see that happening very soon, Serbia getting on the same containment line that is.

XS: Right, I think that’s an important point when we talk about this concept, when we talk about the Intermarium. This is something that we have forecast to come about. It’s not going to happen next week, right? You don’t have these countries sitting in a planning session saying “Hey, guys, let’s put this containment line together.” This is a development that is on-going, that as you said we’re just beginning to see emerge. And this is why we are beginning to lay out our theory behind it, how different states fit into this containment line and why it matters, why it’s different than NATO.

I want to come back to the question of NATO in a moment but since we were just on the Balkans, I was reading George Friedman’s book “Flashpoints” the other day and George is the founder of Geopolitical Futures. And the book “Flashpoints” is in a very brief summary about Europe and the idea of a flashpoint is a region where there are overlapping interests in an area that overlap in such a way that are highly likely to cause conflict in one way or another and have seen conflict develop in those areas in the past.

And two areas in Europe that he points out are the Caucasus and the Balkans. And the point that George makes in his book and I think it’s a good point is everyone in Europe after World War II has, well not everyone in Europe but lots of people have said after World War II in Europe, we have seen this long peace. There have been no major wars in Europe and George says well hold on a minute, there was the dissolution of Yugoslavia which was extremely bloody and required the intervention of major powers.

And in fact, it was the intervention of major powers that re-sparked some of the tension between the United States and Russia that had existed before the end of the Cold War. And then there was the Russia invasion of Georgia which was the first step of Russia really beginning to assert itself military in a way that it hadn’t since it had been the Soviet Union.

Now when we look at the Balkans and we think about competition from major powers in that area, we really have to think about Russia and also Turkey. And I mean throughout the 18th century and the 19th century, really these were the two powers competing in the Balkans. Later in the 19th century, they were joined by the Austria-Hungarian Empire.

And as Turkey grows more powerful which is something that we’re also anticipating in our forecast, it seems increasingly likely that some of the claims that Russia has made to, and this is in the past, protect the orthodox in this area when the Ottoman Empire so ruled over the Balkans. I mean that seems like a conflict that can come about again. Now as we talk about a containment line against Russia extending into the Balkans, then we also have to talk about Turkey. So how does Turkey fit into the development of this Intermarium?

AC: Right, that is a very good point. Actually, our model talks about how specific pillars are going to build themselves up considering the tensions that are around them. Turkey is in a very interesting position and has always been because of its geography of managing multiple regions that contain a lot of tension. One is the Caucasus, the other one is the Middle East and the other one is the Balkans. When it comes to its north, it is really an interaction between Russia and Turkey to manage the tension in the two regions, in the Balkans and the Caucasus.

Now Turkey strategically needs to be close to the United States and that is a relationship that we’ll never abandon. But it also is a rising power and to understand the limits of that power, we need to understand how these regions are shaping up and the relationships between these countries in the Balkans and the Caucasus. With the last layer of influence coming from regional powers as Russia and Turkey and the U.S.

So basically, what we’ve begun to see is Turkey accommodating on the short term with Russia because it needs to, considering both the economic and the political problems that it has internally and also the way it has to keep balancing the Caucasus. In the Balkans however, we’ve seen little Turkey activity. There is only at the level of symbolism.

But we do have to understand that symbolism is important as you well pointed out, it is related to religion and religion is part of the culture of the Balkans and it is part of why we have these tensions in the Balkans. You have Muslims living together with Orthodox and Catholics so you basically have it all in one region that is very mountainous and that means that communities are very much into their own stronghold and keep their values pretty much untouched. They don’t necessarily influence each other but they are conserving themselves which means that tension is more or less constant.

So Turkey acting up and the symbolism of religion and working on projects that are supporting culturally the Muslim populations while Russia is using pretty much the same card supporting those that are Orthodox in the regions. All these tensions are adding up to the basics of social life basically and while we at GPF look at what is strategically important. And we say well it’s economics and it’s major politics that will drive imperatives. We also focus on the little things, the details that are building up to shape those imperatives and these regions both the Balkans and the Caucasus, those details are very, very much related to how you shape up social life with all the intangibles that are.

Now in terms of Intermarium and how the Intermarium relates to Turkey, one Turkey is a Black Sea power. You cannot have Black Sea security without having Turkey engaged, and through the alliance between the U.S and Turkey, you will have Turkey engaged. In the Balkans however, if this evolves, if the Intermarium evolves into a containment line that includes Croatia and goes into the Adriatic, then there is an alternative for Turkey to actually fight against this containment line while also being on the same side with the U.S.

And this is an inflection point that we are going to follow at GPF, very much important because if you look at the map, you basically see the Austria-Hungarian Empire being kept under the border of the Intermarium in one way or another. And Turkey rising as a regional power, more or less as the Ottoman Empire has been during the 18th, 19th century. So, you have two facets of Turkey’s action and you have more questions now than answers on how Turkey coordinating with the Intermarium countries is going to happen in the Balkans.

XS: Yeah I always like the opportunity to talk a little bit more about how think about things at GPF and the big trends and the small details that you mentioned. George always guides us to identify these deep trends, these relationships between states but then once you’ve done that, get into the details because really it is the details, it is how things develop that let you understand the process of our forecasts. So we spend a lot of time at GPF thinking about really fundamental things that you can’t change like geography. Geography is extremely important to geopolitics. And then getting down to the day to day and the details that might be noticed by other outlets but might not be interpreted in the context of these developments that we’ve identified. And that’s really something that we do differently here.

And at the risk of another tangent, you mentioned Turkey and its symbolic support of Muslims in the Balkans stemming from the historical relationship that the Ottoman Empire had with the Balkans, it was under its direct control for hundreds of years. And in the podcast that I did last week with Kamron, we’ve seen Turkey taking on a more of a symbolic role in this respect, even further away now too in Myanmar with the Rohyingas coming out and making statements that we just haven’t seen before. The Rohyinga crisis as we mentioned isn’t new, but it seems like Turkey’s at least public interest in it, is.

Now, I want to talk about one more country in the Intermarium because we’re seeing it’s kind of right in the middle of the where this containment line would run from the Baltic all the way south and that’s Hungary. And we’ve seen Viktor Orban beginning to have meetings with different countries that very likely would need to be in this Intermarium, maybe interested in taking a lead role in this containment line. What does Hungary have to gain out of involvement in the Intermarium or perhaps not being in the Intermarium? Why does it want to be a leader here?

AC: So Hungary has usually done and is doing now the balancing act between Russia and the West because it wants to gain economically from the relationship with Russia, but at its core it needs to secure it’s country but it needs to secure its terrain which is the first pillar. Security is attached to NATO and therefore the U.S. Looking at the map, you see that there is no way that you can have a containment line that is functional without having Hungary functional within that containment line.

It’s because military needs roads and roads are in Hungary as well from North to South. Therefore Hungary cannot avoid to be part of this containment line and while it thought and hoped that there will not be a containment line being, existing in Europe. It is there and the U.S. is supportive, therefore it cannot ignore it.

So now what Hungary can do is leverage its geographic position. Considering the talks about the Three Seas strategy and the two pillars that are already formed into an alliance with the U.S., Hungary will seek to leverage its geographic position not necessarily to become a leader but to facilitate integration of the alliance itself because it is at the point where everything meets. It’s the east, it’s the south, it’s also the center of Europe and therefore you have to have Hungary involved as a node of the alliance. It’s the very logical thing to do.

Now that does not mean that Hungary is going to end its relationship with Russia. It will probably continue to have a relationship which gives it economic profit but it will look primarily towards what the U.S. is doing in the region because that is related to its security and cannot avoid it.

XS: Now there’s one last question I want to ask you. For our listeners, I am sure as we’ve talked about this idea of a containment line, they’re thinking well what about NATO? NATO was meant to establish a containment initially for the Soviet Union. And we’ve talked about NATO, we’ve talked about this new containment line developing from the Baltic down south. Why is a new line developing when NATO still exists? What makes NATO either ineffective now or what can make it ineffective in the future?

AC: Well there are two layers here, you have the NATO that was founded to fight against Soviet Union when the border line of the Soviet Union reached through its buffer states and buffer zones, Berlin. So now you have a different West, you no longer have Western Europe only in NATO but you have also have Eastern Europe. And after the Cold War ended, NATO reshaped itself and thought that by enlargement it’s going to sort of dominate the terrain that was left empty from this Soviet Union’s domination. However, Russia has thought to kept its own buffer states and that meant Ukraine, that meant Moldova, that meant Belarus.

Once you had the revolutions, the color revolutions starting up, Russia woke up as well and understood that the West is actually entering in the very last buffer zone and understood that it has to defend it. For countries in the East in NATO, Russia is an existential threat and these countries have been under Soviet Union occupation and Soviet Union influence. They know how that is and NATO for them is changing to the other side which they thought better and they hoped to have for security.

Now the Western Europeans, the traditional Western Europeans are not focused on Russian threat because they have other threats, other primary threats of their own and they work with Russia on an economic level. And within NATO, you no longer have a core goal. You have goals of the West, of the East. You have working groups that are focused on one theme and you have a more political NATO overall. It’s more PR than military cooperation because it is ultimately still the U.S. who is investing into the military of NATO. They’re supportive of the operations, you cannot have a NATO lead operation without having U.S. involved.

And there is basically almost diverging influences in Europe that keeps NATO not necessarily being ineffective but it keeps it cool to threats like the Russian threat in the East. And therefore, these countries in the East needed to react. One way to react is forging ties with the U.S. which they see the most important actor and which they benefit from having their armies trained, having a strategic partnership that will hopefully evolve into economic benefits as well. And therefore, they’re seeking to both send a message to the East and Russia that they’re no longer alone, that you know you have basically the U.S. on your border when you’re looking at Romania and Poland now if you’re looking from Moscow. And they feel much more secure having this relationship with the U.S. even if the relationship itself is within NATO.

So to summarize, NATO is no longer only a military alliance. It can play the role of a military alliance if needed but it is more of a political alliance than anything else.

XS: Great well for listeners out there that are interested in learning more about the Intermarium, we will be following these developments closely as well as what happens in Turkey which plays a very important part in our forecast and Hungary. So be sure to keep following us. If you haven’t checked out our website yet, geopoliticalfutures.com and you can read all of our analysis there which goes into more depth probably than what provides for on these podcasts. And thanks for listening and thanks Antonia for joining me.

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