Could the War in Ukraine be a Revival of Polish Geopolitical Ambitions?


Poland is in a quagmire. Its latest consternation arises from the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian conflict that has once again awakened memories of a dark and troubled past. As the conflict becomes more protracted with no end game in sight, a spillover of the looming Russian threat is a real possibility for many Poles today.

Fear and anxiety in the minds of Russia’s western frontier nations, especially Poland, are nothing novel. Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, and annexed by both countries in the past centuries, the Poles are once again in the frontline of this latest catastrophe – both humanitarian and geopolitical. However, the current predicament that Poland finds itself in could be the cornerstone for the resurrection of its past geopolitical ambitions – namely the rebirth of the Intermarium.

The Intermarium, or Międzymorze in Polish, is a geopolitical constructpopularised post WWI byJózef Piłsudski thatalludes to Poland’s glorious past – namely the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that lasted in different variations between 1386 and 1795. The Poles have long yearned for the return to their resplendent history that was manifestly prosperous, tolerant, democratic, and free. In fact, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, at its height, was the largest and the most powerful of all European States – it was successful in stopping the ambitions of Ivan the Terrible, the Teutonic Knights and the Ottoman Empire. Although the Intermarium has morphed as a concept through several iterations of its erstwhile Commonwealth  over the past century, at its core it refers to the loose federative grouping of states that are located “between the seas” (Tycner, 2020), namely the Baltic Sea, Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea, that would sustain its security and its independence from both Russia and Germany. But to understand this Polish Grand Strategy or psyche apropos the Intermarium, we must refer to its historical conception.

Between 1795 and 1918, Poland did not exist as an independent country. It was divided between Russia, Prussia, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Furthermore, the Congress of Vienna in 1815 created a rump Polish kingdom ruled de facto by Russia. It was at this time with lost independence that Poland began to reformulate the idea of resurrecting the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This was evidenced in the plan formulated by Polish prince, statesman and diplomat Adam Czartoryski. Czartoryski’s worked tirelessly to link Polish independence to the independence movements of other nations in Europe, eastern Europe, and as far as the Caucasus, and aspired for the support of the British, French and the Ottomans. During this period, in the uprising of 1830-31, that the Poles rebelled for their liberation against Russia waving the banner “for our freedom and yours” (Macierewicz, 2017) – which has become over time Poland’s unofficial motto linking Poland’s freedom to others in the region. Furthermore, in his Essay on Diplomacy (1830), borne out of his long association with Russia, Czartoryski identifies that an imperialistic Russia was a constant threat for Europe, and Poland in particular. Yet, his federative plans never come to fruition as they seemed premature and suspicious by other states.

However, Czartoryski’s ideas of a federative Commonwealth based on Poland’s Jagiellonian antiquity paved the way for Józef Piłsudski – who created the idea of the Intermarium in the 1920s. Post WWI, Marshal Piłsudski’s – as the new Head of State of newly independent Poland (2nd Republic), referred to Czartoryski’s plan to create an alliance of federative states in central, east, and southern Europe to build a geopolitical balance against Russian (and German) imperialistic ambitions. Furthermore, Piłsudski’s other geopolitical strategy would give birth to the Prometheist project – with the main purpose of systematically disintegrating the Soviet Union.  Piłsudski understood that the Soviet Union, as the successor of the Russian Empire, would constantly pose a threat to Polish sovereignty. Hence his Prometheist project aimed at weakening the Soviet Union by supporting independence movements in the non-Russian constituent states in the Baltic, Black and Caspian seas (Ukraine, Georgia) that would form a defensive alliance against future Soviet encroachment. Piłsudski’s two headed geostrategic projects (the Intermarium and Prometheist) failed to garner much support within the central and east European countries (including the West). Although Piłsudski was successful in concluding a non-aggression pact with both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in the 1930s (before his death in 1935), his Intermarium ambitions and desires of an independent Poland were once again halted with the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and the subsequent division of her lands between the Germans and the Soviets. Poland continued to face hardships, not just during the brutal events of WWII, but post 1945, when it was included within the ambit of the Soviet iron curtain as a buffer state– and would remain till 1990.

The Poles probably understand the seriousness Russian threat better than anyone. For almost two hundred years before its liberation in 1990, apart from the interwar period, it was one way-or another subjugated by Russia (and sometimes Germany). Apprehensive about its history of living under the constant threat of Russian domination – post-Cold War, Poland’s geopolitical ambitions was displayed in its steadfast integration with the west – in the form of NATO membership (1999) and later with EU membership (2004) to keep the possible Russian threat at bay. From the western perspective, particularly the US, the rapid expansion of NATO under the “open door policy” to the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, and later Slovakia), and later to the Baltic and Balkan states was based on three assumptions. First, the liberal idea that newly integrated states in the post-Cold War “gray zone” would promote democracy and free markets that would encourage cooperation and non-aggression to create a “peaceful Europe” (democratic peace theory). Second, the idea that integrating the “buffer countries” in central, south, and eastern Europe within NATO would prevent any future rapprochement, however minute, between Germany and Russia. Finally, the Prometheist idea that such integration based on collective security principles would contain any future threat from Russia (see Mandelbaum, 1995). Such Prometheist ideas were further expanded during the NATO Bucharest Summit of 2008 – with the decision to invite Georgia and Ukraine, erstwhile Soviet republics, into NATO’s ranks.

For the US, Poland is of particular importance for the future of NATO. Poland is an industrialised country – a middle power, and a thriving democracy at the frontier of Russia. In fact, America needs the support of Poland and other new members of NATO in its eastern flank as its western allies, such as France and Germany, referred by Donald Rumsfeld as “new and old Europe” (Baker, 2003) respectively, have tried to wean away from the American dominance in the European security architecture for some time. Hence, moving forward, any containment strategies that NATO adopts for Russia must include Poland as its leading eastern flank ally. This is manifested by Poland becoming America’s stalwart NATO ally by being one of the few countries in the alliance to spend 2% of their GDP on defence; implementing military modernization; and welcoming the presence of NATO troops, defence systems and battlegroup alliances. With the current war in Ukraine still unfolding, the Poles are naturally apprehensive apropos the Russian bellicosity. Poland has already become the geopolitical and logistical epicentre for NATOs current manoeuvres against Russia.

In this regard, although Poland finds itself facing an uncertain future once again, the current Russo-Ukrainian war could be a pedestal for Poland to move beyond its strategy of survival to one of success.  In Piłsudskian fashion, the Poles are deeply cognizant of their chequered history and realize that the freedom of Poland is intrinsically linked to the freedom of Ukraine today – hence it is even more important for Poland on one hand to play a leading role in bolstering the integration and security of the central, south, and eastern European states (Intermarium) and to deter the possibility of any future Russian advances (Prometheist) on the other. To achieve this, Poland must first reinforce its position as a key and unwavering NATO ally against an encroaching Russia. Poland’s survival depends on the ability of NATO and its alliance to quickly respond to any threats from Russia. In the current circumstances, Poland must make gains out of its recent positional advantage for NATO as their most important eastern flank ally. With the present Russian belligerence, NATO members, and the world in general, have finally woken up to the Polish warning regarding Russia (The Economist, 2022). Today, western logistical and armaments to support and defend Ukraine pass mainly through Poland. Also, Poland must place further impetus on the successful integration of “new Europe” (on democratic and free market values) as an independent but a complementary bloc to both NATO and the EU. Such Intermarium ambitions are already taking root in the form of the Visegrad Group and the Three Seas Initiative (includes 12 States bordering the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Sea) that was launched in 2015 by Poland and Croatia. Both initiatives have seen success in terms of member cooperation and aspirations.

Poland’s future prospects, both in maintaining its independence and playing a greater geopolitical role in the region, will be forged in the upcoming months. Its ability to unite the west, and more importantly its region against the common Russian enemy, might finally correspond to the realization of Piłsudski’s geopolitical ambitions.

Dr. Suddha Chakravartti
Dr. Suddha Chakravartti
Dr. Suddha Chakravartti is the Head of Research, and Lecturer in International Relations at EU Business School.


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