By Richard Cashman
The Visegrád Group, a consortium of Central European nations (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) was formed on 15 February 1991 with the aim of speeding up its members’ integration into what was then about to become the European Union. In 1993, after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia, the group took on its present guise, comprised of Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia: the ‘V4’. On 12 May this year, the V4 announced the formation of a new battlegroup.
The battlegroup is to be composed from the armed forces of all V4 members but led by Poland, and is expected to be operational in the first half of 2016. According to Polish defence minister, Bogdan Klich, it will be capable of operating independently of NATO, although, beginning in 2013, training exercises will be conducted alongside other NATO members under the auspices of NATO’s Response Force. So far, so understandable for this small bloc of new Central European democracies looking to shore up its security after the Obama administration’s decision not to station components of a European missile shield on its territory.
Yet the idea of a militarised Central European bloc is not new. Although more modest in its dimensions, the Visegrád battlegroup bears more than a passing resemblance to Josef Pilsudski’s Intermarium concept of a century ago; a concept supported by Halford Mackinder. Pilsudski, Poland’s interwar leader, conceived of his Intermarium – or ‘between the seas’ (Miêdzymorze, in Polish) – idea to ally the states of Eastern Europe from the Baltic to the Black Sea in a defensive formation to buffer Germany and Russia. This was to be achieved through the realisation of his earlier Promethean strategy to reduce the Russian Empire piecemeal by encouraging the secession of its minority peoples.
In his 1904 paper, The Geographical Pivot of History, British geographer and father of modern geopolitics, Halford Mackinder, highlighted the vital importance of Eastern Europe on which the security of the West depended.
In 1920, Mackinder met Pilsudski in Warsaw and returned to London to lobby the British cabinet for the formation of a Western-orientated East European bloc, evidently based on Pilsudski’s Intermarium. In some respects, then, it can be argued that Pilsudski and Mackinder’s vision has already been realised with the expansion of NATO to include the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary in 1999, followed by the Baltics, Slovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in 2004. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that NATO is failing to satisfy the security concerns of many of its new members; concerns that were familiar to both Pi³sudski and Mackinder.
At the heart of NATO and, indeed, the EU’s nascent security and defence identity, are a number of core tensions that pull at once in differentdirections. The most salient relate to Russia. Decolonisation after the Second World War has meant that Germany has been able to assume its lead role in Europe without the jealousy that encouraged much of its earlier aggression. Germany has also formed a close bond with France and, to a lesser extent, Italy, to drive the EU integration project. France, Germany and Italy, however, do not view European security through the same lens as the Eastern European nations. And it is primarily this difference in perspective that has informed the V4’s recent announcement.
For the Euro troika, Russia represents first and foremost a commercial opportunity rather than an existential menace. The German embassy in Moscow is the largest in the world in terms of full-time diplomatic staff. France, unlike Britain, has demonstrated its sincerity for a trade-led relationship with Russia through the controversial sale of its advanced Mistral Class assault ships. And Italy’s close relations extend beyond Berlusconi’s friendship with Putin, to a more comprehensive shared attitude towards patrimony and corruption. These cross currents, combined with Washington’s focus on rapprochement with Moscow, the strain on Britain’s increasingly limited resources in Libya and Afghanistan and its traditionally schizophrenic inertia in the EU, have put the wind up the East Europeans.
The deployment of Russian military units in Central Europe – what George Kennan’s arch critic, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, Walter Lippmann, saw as the fundamental obstacle to European security in 1945 – is still a fact today. Russia’s Black Sea fleet is still at Crimea, its 14th Army is still in Moldova, and its Baltic fleet remains based in the exclave of Kaliningrad, from which the ethnic German population was evicted in 1945. Yet far from any of these being major issues between Germany and Russia, the two are forging ahead with the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline that will isolate Eastern Europe.
Of course, both Russia and Germany deny the strategic implications of the project and stress only their best, commercially-focused intentions for the region. Yet not for nothing has Poland called it the Molotov-Ribbentrop pipeline.In these circumstances, we might see in the V4’s new battlegroup the genesis of a middle way to begin imitating Pilsudski’s Intermarium and mitigating its members’ dependence on Western Europe and the US in the face of unconvincing assurances from Russia and Germany. The states to watch now are Bulgaria and Romania, as well as the opposition in Ukraine, all of which would be needed to complete the Intermarium.‘We are straddling two stools’, said Pilsudski in 1934 of Poland’s non-aggression pacts with Russia and Germany. ‘What we need to know is from which we will tumble first’. Although sounding sharp in the ostensibly more benign climate of Eastern Europe today, it is a sentiment that still resonates for the people there.
Richard Cashman is an Associate Fellow at The Henry Jackson Society