1. Europe has never achieved closure regards to the wars that ravaged it during the 20th century. Following the First World War, the second and third (Cold War), all based on hegemony in Europe, were also concluded with an armistice and thus no verdict was shared or codified by winners and losers.
At the end of the 20th century, the American empire appeared to have suppressed the intra-European rivalries that had led it, reluctant to the very end, to settle our disputes. These included the crucial one between Moscow and Berlin.
Nowadays, with a no longer undisputed Washington exhibiting its global primacy and hoping to mitigate it by reducing its imperial costs – the toll every superpower donates to glory – Europeans have yet to process the grief caused by their demotion from masters to supporting players.
Under the illusion of joining forces in morganatic marriages with selected partners (what else is the European Union seen yesterday from Paris and today from Berlin?) the remaining Old Continental powers are discovering they no longer have the desire nor the power to do so.
It is above all central-eastern Europe, the canonical theatre of euro-world conflicts, the geopolitical accordion of which Russia and Germany move the bellows with obstinate dissonance, which is subject to tensions marking nations as burdened with history as they are lacking a shared identity.
Centuries-old conflicts were reopened by the Soviet Union’s suicide, contemporaneous to the break-up of the Yugoslav mini-empire – both initially considered undesirable by the United States let alone by the remaining Euro-Western powers.
This was predicted and pointlessly exorcised in a speech made on August 1st, 1991 by Bush Sr. with which he wished to publicly warn the Ukrainians about to divorce from the dying USSR - and through them all aspiring neo/old nationalists in the East - that “Americans will not support those who seek independence in order to replace a far-off tyranny with a local despotism. They will not aid those who promote a suicidal nationalism based upon ethnic hatred.” (1)
What remains of those intentions in the increasingly disputed area between Russia and Germany over which America is supposed to watch supreme.
Before analysing the matter in depth, it is worth remembering what the strategic paradigm was, the implosion of which started all this, because it is there that we will find the genes of current disputes, as well as those of the consequent recurrence of competitions re-emerging after the Cold War’s long truce.
2. Europe’s imperfect bi-partitioning between the United States and the Soviet Union (1945-1991) was a parenthesis. Passed off as being final, and at the time almost universally perceived as such, the entrustment of the European continent to lateral and structurally heterogeneous superpowers was a superficial patching-up, legitimised and narrated as an ideological conflict.
Or as the last hand played in the match between right and left-wing Hegelians, with the additional emotional follow-up – Good against Evil – that the media and politics never tire of. Anything to hide the territorial wounds that the Great War had inflicted in the Old Continent’s fabric. This to the extent of banishing the word “geopolitics” as it was strangely compressed in the Germanic Geopolitik, in turn demonised because it was “Nazi science”.
Those brief fifty years assigned everyone a place. East or West. In this formal placé party, some eastern partners tried to assume a sideways position (Yugoslavia, Albania, Romania), some westerners tested careful ambiguity (Italy, Federal Germany) or dressed-up as great powers so as not to abdicate their own rank (France, Great Britain). Others pretended to be neutral (Sweden, Finland, Austria, even Switzerland).
The partition established by the United States and the USSR, based on the Iron Curtain, united Europe while bisecting it. It created two specularly opposed Europes that were therefore strategically symmetrical. One justified the other. The Szczecin-Trieste line was its backbone.
A divided Berlin was this dual Europe’s geographical barycentre – humiliated, weakened but not annihilated as we discovered on the night of November 9th, 1989. Europe was content with being dual in the American semi-protectorates, while unhappy, but generally resigned, in the Soviet colonies.
As far as Washington and Moscow were concerned, they considered this status suboptimal. The nuclear nightmare, however, induced them to maintain a conservative attitude, temporary in their more excited imperial dreams, and yet acceptable and de facto accepted. As stated in the aphorism used by John Fitzgerald Kennedy when he was informed on August 13th, 1961, that Moscow’s German clients were fencing-in Berlin’s western districts using cement and chevaux de fries, “A wall is a hell of a lot better than a war”. (2)
Set along the axis that conventionally links the Iberian southwest to the Russian northeast, Europe appears as an ellipse, a shape that in geometry is a curve in a plane surrounding two focal points. That is what we were in the days of the Cold War. Having torn down Berlin’s supporting Wall, Western Europe – the semi-continent set within the American empire – appeared to be able to change its status from being part of something to being a whole.
Brussels’ rhetoric about “European reunification” evoking a never-existing lost unity, envisaged our continent’s reconfiguration from an ellipse to a circle; a homogeneous space in which the centre is, by definition, equidistant from all points of the circumference. Euclid’s third postulate would be applied; a circle may be drawn with any given radius and an arbitrary centre. The (metaphoric) centre: “Brussels”.
The (effective) radius: the enlarging European Union’s mobile border tous azimuts. In the early Nineties, Kohl, Mitterrand and Major fought about to what extent the compass’s eastern arm should be opened (extremely contracted in the French case), which each of them centred on their own countries, marking the provisional limits of the expanding community in the former pre-Wall Soviet Union. Such cases involved roaring inebriation.
The wake-up call came from Clinton, who in 1999 started NATO’s expansion to the East. This was potentially unlimited and just like the Napoleonic logistic regiments, the European Union followed, thereby determining an almost perfect concurrence of the unequal Euro-Atlantic couple.
An incomplete and asymmetric Europe replaced the two symmetrical ones, with an increasingly smaller grey area separating it from the western Russian borders. All this with the reckless autism of ultra-Europeanists under the illusion of soon seeing the imperial powers, needed to keep this undefined “Europe” at peace, reunited in the pan-continental EU, civilised by “European values” (which ones?).
3. When investigating power relations at a pan-European level, all-round Europeanism appears as a utopia. Or a dystopia. It is in any case the paradigm of a badly-worded question, due to logical and geopolitical flaws. We live on a continent without a centre, because, of the two powers dividing Europe, Russia has suffered such amputations that they have caused its imperial status to experience a crisis, while the United States, a global lead player and hence also a European one, having won (two hot and one cold) wars for Europe, considers the Indo-Chinese Pacific theatre a key issue.
This also because the other lead player to whom the French, British, Italians and other Old Europeans attributed plans (not always in a whisper) to become the continental hegemon, a reunited Germany – the smallest “united” German state in history – confirms that it does not have the cultural and strategic resources needed so as to translate its geo-economic centrality into a 360° power. A synoptic analysis of the three variables proves the impracticality of a full hegemony over our continent.
This can be excluded in the Russian case, is very improbable in the German one (if not in association with the Russians or as America’s junior partner) and relative if in partnerships with the Americans. Let us analyse them in order of improbability.
Having sold the Soviet version of the Russian empire for a 5 billion German Mark tip paid by Kohl to Gorbačëv – cause of an ecumenical trance experienced by the last-but-one General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union – the Kremlin’s imperial radius has been reduced by 1,717 kilometres. Such is the orthodromic distance between the Brandenburg Gate, the heart of Berlin presided over by the Red Army until 1990, and the monument to the Scuttled Ships, the symbol of Sevastopol, retaken from Kiev in 2014.
This, however, only after having, perhaps forever, compromised Moscow’s control over Ukraine, a holy land for Greater Russian patriotism, the empire’s baptismal font. Russia has now been pushed back to the margins of the Euro-Atlantic organisation. Treated as an opponent, at best as a tactical partner on a small number of fronts – with the exception of the vital and reciprocal energy bonds, Moscow can apply pressure on the European Union and NATO’s eastern border areas, as well as exercising a degree of influence over the rest of our Eurasian peninsula (Near Asia, seen from Moscow).
However, the mirage of continental supremacy cultivated by Stalin has evaporated. It remains to be seen how a power involved in a (brilliant) struggle for survival is perceived as a mortal threat by most Europeans, especially those close to its moveable western border. For Russophobe Swedish, Polish and Baltic citizens, a smaller Russia will always be too big. Should it vanish they would pester its ghost.
Let us address “Greater Germany”. Berlin is attempting to re-emerge from decades of forced strategic miseducation, an art exercised with suicidal passion by the Second Reich. This then turned into catastrophic racial supremacism under Hitler, who saw Slavic Europe as a German India to be colonised, having liquidated the Jewish element.
Nowadays the lexicon of the Bundesrepublik is once again using in its official rhetoric words such as “power”, “national interest” and “leading from the centre”. It is quietly implementing its Geopolitik, albeit a pale academic-media version. It is trying to equip itself with a credible military apparatus, appropriate to its geo-economic power – that of an export colossus, not an aspiring geopolitical hegemon. Just like or even more than their other European counterparts, German leaders see (would like to see?) America withdrawing. The less Washington gets involved with the Old Continent, the more Berlin must assume responsibility; always in the name of Europe of course. God forbid.
The bland Germanic desire for power is held back by the pacifist vocation of a quite introverted public opinion, not ready to assume the duties linked to an imperial role, in addition to its own historical memories as well as those of other Europeans. The pedagogy of more ambitious elites resorts to shock therapy to train Germans to accept responsibilities they would rather avoid.
There are two examples. The semi-secret report drafted by the German Armed Forces outlines six strategic scenarios between now until 2040, among them the collapse of the European Union caused by multiple conflicts (3) and the “think the unthinkable”, with which, since November 2016, some political leaders, strategic analysts and journalists have launched the hypothesis that Germany should be equipped with nuclear weapons – possibly in co-ownership with the French, paying a fee for them (sic).
It is an exercise in a popular Socratic method and according to a clever pedagogue, has the objective of “familiarising Germans with issues concerning nuclear strategic policies”. (4) This has been enough to alarm Germanophobes to the east and west of Berlin. Americans included.
The gap between reality and portrayal – resounding in the Russian case and clearly visible in the German one – to a lesser extent also concerns the United States of America. Washington is, on the contrary, perceived as a retreating superpower, focused on competition with China. Some are pleased, especially among self-centred Europeanists or the multi-coloured ranks of ideological anti-Americans, ranging from the various rising extreme Right movements to the epigones of the ultra-Left.
Others are instead alarmed, especially if close to the Euro-Russian fault line, which for them is the equivalent of the front lines in the imminent and hopefully definitive war against the barbarian from the East. A more sober look establishes that America’s commitment in Europe cannot be compared to what it was during the period involving anti-Soviet containment, were it only due to the reduction of forces and assets deployed.
However, one also sees how following the indirect but victorious battle aimed at emancipating Kiev from Moscow, in which Washington’s role was and remains invisible, the partial revitalisation of NATO and the albeit modest redeployment of American battle troops and weapons in our continent, are incompatible with the withdrawal thesis.
It is sufficient to not waste time on an exegesis of Trump’s somewhat incoherent tweets, the charades of his ministers and his advisors’ statements, remaining concentrated only on facts. Such facts allow one to deduct that America has no intention of withdrawing from Europe, leaving its care to the unreliable Germans, Russian enemies and Chinese challengers. Or even worse to a coalition of all three.
The United States can and wants, however, to pay limited attention to Europe, more or less the same amount that separates the Normandy landings (1944) from the “Normandy format” (2014), which attributes a formal role to the French and the Germans in arbitrating the Russian-Ukrainian conflict under American supervision.
Of course, control from a distance is not pervasive considering the American empire’s overexposure and its inability to retreat from the useless and actually counterproductive “War on Terror”. Mentions of withdrawal from Europe, however, are aimed at encouraging “allies and friends” to pay a less miserly fee to their American protector.
They do not mean that the American umbrella is about to be closed. They do, however, indicate that Washington does not intend to allow its allies – considered clientes in the Roman sense – to have the same power as equals in pushing the buttons that regulate the size of this umbrella and, above all, its use. As is correct, America selectively rewards, rejects or neglects Europeans according to its own imperial strategy.
The discord between the national interests of Atlantic partners excludes a “reunified” Europe being perfectly other-directed than by America. Between hegemony and withdrawal, U.S. influence in the Old Continent marks various degrees. The imperial temperature is currently relatively low.
Who knows what tomorrow will bring? There is only one certainty. In any eventual war against Russia, the United States would not leave NATO “partners” any autonomy. It is, however, a given that many, if not all, starting with those calling for American protection from the Russian bear, would try and cut out a little for themselves.
Also because in the uncertain atmosphere of our times, current post-war Europe appears to be saturated with pre-war tones. This is happening especially where the Russian tricolour meets the blue of the Atlantic (Norway, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland) and the semi-Atlantic coat-of-arms (Sweden, Finland) or the white that in strategic maps indicates intermediate areas (ambiguous Byelorussia, Azerbaijan with its Turkish cultural influence), but also the grey so typical of fought-over terrae nullius (from the Ukraines to the Georgias, the plural is necessary here due to Russian or pro-Russian exclaves tactically encysted in those countries, not to mention Transnistria, an informal outpost near Moldova).
Here we are in historical areas in which, over the past century and a half, variously named Russian and Germanic empires clashed, with the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans co-starring in the central-southern regions. These are lands that in the 19th and 20th centuries were marked by Polish uprisings against the oppressors of the times (Russian, Prussian/Germans, Austro-Hungarians), where later imperial disintegrations resulted in the current plethora of states and statelets.
Between the Second and Third Reichs, German strategists pertinently described them as Zwischeneuropa: Middle Europe, or rather in the middle, between Russians and Germans. This to distinguish the region from the classic Mitteleuropa (central Europe), the garden of Germany’s imperial ambitions and its economic and cultural diffusion.
We find ourselves here in the boundless plains set between three small Mediterraneans – the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and (via the Aegean and Ionian) the Adriatic. Bordered by the Alps, the Illyrian, Balkan and Carpathian mountains, all the way to the Urals, the theoretical conventional border between Europe and Asia, to then move further south across the Volga uplands to the Caucasus.
It is in these median regions between the Russian Empire and its European or Turkish-Ottoman homologues, later joined and then superimposed by the American one, that peace or war in Europe is decided. It is, however, in the central-northern region of what in a bipolar Europe was once the East, between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea, where Euro-American and Russian deployments are in direct contact, that in recent years inflammable material is being stacked, a region filled with identity-related/territorial litigation and its correlative advanced military deployments. All it would take is a spark, even an accidental one, to once again set those prairies on fire to a potentially nuclear degree.
4.In central-eastern Europe small and medium-sized nations have generated or been subject to multiple states, splitting and often multiplying the identities of the populations living there. States and states of mind – self-certifications of identity – do not instantly coincide. Rather than geopolitical analysis, what better applies is the image of the poet Paul Celan, inspired by both Ukraine and Bucovina, who having been born in Czernowitz/Cernǎǔți/Černivci wrote, of the “Illegibility of this world. All things twice over.” (5)
This in an everlasting topological painful search for “unfindable places”, which “do not exist”. (6) Just like baptism, place names work well as identity and community bonds when administered just once. Between the Baltic, Black and Adriatic Seas, after a second, third and umpteenth renaming of citizenship and/or language (see the miraculous transformation of Serbo-Croatian speakers into polyglots due to the disintegration of Yugoslavia), people are inclined to react to a sense of bewilderment with the disdainful negation of ever-changing otherness.
In those areas of Europe there is usually a process that results in the ethno-linguistic community becoming a nation and then eventually a state. This is the perfect opposite of what applies to euro-western classical national states, starting with the Grande Nation and not excluding Italy. The Polish historian Tomasz Kamusella, who teaches at Scotland’s St. Andrews University, has drawn on an analysis of the ethno-linguistic characteristics of nationalisms in central-Eastern Europe for a thesis on the normative isomorphism of language, nation and state.
This consists of five postulates: all citizens must speak the same national language (also in order to provide depth to the nation’s history that comes long before the creation of the state); the national language cannot be shared with other nations; it is the only official language nor can it be that of any other country; autonomous regions with their own idioms are excluded; consequently, no autonomous region in another country can use the official language of the state in question (7).
Effectively, no country can be fully isomorphic, hence ethno-linguistically homogeneous. Not even the three that Kamusella identifies as such (Iceland, Japan, Poland), although they come close to such utopia. And yet, with the fall of the Soviet Empire, this is the explicit or implicit line along which the new/old states of the former (?) East tend to define themselves. All while fervently awaiting for Russia’s final decomposition to spark the super-Sabbath of Euro-Asian ethno-nationalisms in the shadow of ten thousand nuclear weapons, events that fill the dreams of some Baltics, and the nightmares of many others.
Traumatic transitions into and from state-nations – let us call them that to distinguish them from the equally stereotypical category of nation-states – are in fact almost always caused and re-caused by the consequences of the violent and apparently inexhaustible decomposition of empires and nations of various sizes, as one can see by travelling backwards (2018-1918) along the geopolitical curve of the last Eastern European century.
The outcome is a constant, hypertrophic reference to the past and to ethnonational symbols as the identity-linked foundations animating geopolitical projects that are often backward-looking and at times phantasmagorical.
In the second post-war period, while yearning for a federation of central-eastern European nations, the Hungarian political philosopher István Bibó – minister for one day in the revolutionary government formed by Imre Nagy (1956) –was aware of how, in view of such an objective, it would be necessary for the populations prepared to create it to find a balance between reality and norms, to establish and have (want) to establish a balance they had not yet proved to have achieved.
Starting with his graduation thesis on Cogence, the law, freedom (8) and then in his masterful Misére des petits États d'Europe de l'Est [Translator’s Note: The Misery of small Eastern European states] (1946) Bibó diagnosed the epidemic of “communitarian hysteria” among the people in his region. It was a collective tabes that did not allow people to distinguish reality from ideals, the feasible from the desirable, thereby generating two kinds of intellectuals, politicians and decision-makers; false realists and ecstatic existentialists. (9)
This was the effect of fervid ethno-linguistic nationalisms, since post-imperial states “did not have at their disposal certain elementary data, common in western nations, such as the existence of their own national and state framework, a capital, political and economic cohesion, a homogeneous social élite etcetera” (italics as in the original, Editor’s Note). Hence “the most characteristic feature of central and eastern European people’s psychic attitude and political imbalance; fear for the community’s existence”. (10) Does that sound current?
Bibó’s psycho-politics explains the inferiority complex – compensated by exhibitions of superiority or offended lack of cooperation – that plague part of the populations that we in the West continue to define as East-Europeans. It also explains why the ancient and new nations that have recovered or invented a substantial degree of sovereignty, at the expense of the defunct USSR, prefer to describe themselves as central-European.
They do this in spite of the fact that in reality this allows the Russians to also consider themselves Europeans – unless Eastern Europe occupies another continent. This should sound irritating to Polish, Lithuanian, Estonian and Latvian ears.
We nowadays are picking the poisonous fruits of enlightened Orientalism. In the 18th century, various Euro-Western intellectuals spread a negative stereotype of the East, thereby inventing an Eastern Europe as the opposite of civilisation. Overturning the perspective, they played on the stated Slav-Oriental backwardness to found the West as a superior cultural community.
The result was a civilisation-barbarianism or enlightenment-obscurantism continuum, which from France and Great Britain via Germany, moved by negative degrees all the way to Russia, engaging the Slavs and other Christian peoples distributed between the Adriatic, Black and Baltic Seas – not forgetting the Islamic East of Ottoman origin. (It is a paradox that the furious Orientalist and Russophobe was the communist – but not universalist – Karl Marx, who would perhaps have died of a broken heart had he heard that a certain Lenin was to give him equal credit for the October Revolution).
By extension, first among anti-Soviet dissidents and then throughout the post-communist ecumene, the myth spread about an unfindable central Europe, “kidnapped” yesterday by Muscovite despotism in the famous image presented by the Franco-Czech author Milan Kundera (11). It was a cult practised above all by the Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Poles and Baltics – neglecting the Balkans.
The centre is per se sacred. It is symmetric, hence transcendental. It is authoritative and therefore the place of command. Dozens of locations in the former East compete for the honour of representing the continent’s centre, each with its monument claiming primacy.
The Poles remember how in 1795 the royal astronomer Szymon Antoni Sobiekrajski had established that Suchowola (nowadays a village with seven thousand inhabitants in the Voivodeship of Podlachia, Eastern Poland) was Europe’s geographical centre. In 1990, the French geographer Jean-Georges Affholder chose Purnuškės, in Lithuania, as the continent’s “centre of gravity”, while geodesy experts based in Minsk, supported by Russian colleagues, swore on the centrality of Polotsk, the most ancient Byelorussian city. All scientists are good patriots, choosing the method that best validates the only real centre.
The safest line of reasoning consist in pre-establishing that one’s own nation is central within Europe, hence its centre is the centre of the continent. This to confirm that in the post-communist universe, the nationalisation of Europe prevails over the Europeanisation of the nation. To this one must add the interesting appendix of Austria, which, contradicting its name (Österreich = Empire of the East), states in its national anthem that, “You who are at the centre of the earth/like a strong heart.” (12)
What applies to space extends to time. We are not referring to the time zone, pompously classified as Central European Time, distributed generously from Spain to Poland, from Norway to Italy. The mental and strategic clocks of “central” Europeans are different. The Gregorian calendar and geopolitical time never correspond. The principle in force is the subjectivity of time, enunciated by St. Augustine, confirmed by Kant, not denied by Einstein, nor by contemporary physics. Time remains a mystery of which everyone is the hermeneut.
Once again it is literature that reveals itself as geopolitical. The Polish poet Czesław Miłosz wrote in 1986, “The most striking feature in Central European literature is its awareness of history, both as the past and the present. (…) Personae and characters who appear in these works live in a kind of time which is modulated in a different way than is the time of their Western counterparts. (…) [In Central Europe] time is intense, spasmodic, full of surprises, indeed practically an active participant in the story. This is because time is associated with a danger threatening the existence of a national community to which a writer belongs.” (13)
The spacetime of countries beyond the former Iron Curtain tilts towards history as the legitimisation of present identity and the measure of national geopolitical ambitions. It is an idea linked to the isomorphism theorised by Kamusella.
History is always contemporary here, the present always historical. Ethno-national leaders choose in their homeland’s history the hero that projects his protective light on their authority and projects. This hero is often the villain according to neighbouring countries. Every post-communist country has its narration, often in conflict with that of others, especially with neighbours. Or, if the hero comes from very far away, as migrants do, he is rejected as incompatible with the state’s ethnic identity, which is expected to be homogeneous.
It is not too late to admit the neo-Orientalist arrogance of Western Europe, which was under the illusion it could conform the East, liberated by the fall of the USSR, to its cultural, political and institutional standards, without having lifted a finger to help it. On the contrary, rooting to the bitter end for Gorbačëv as the reformer/preserver of Moscow’s empire, when not cheering on the coup leaders who in August 1991 aimed for the same objective moved by more concrete ideals, produced the opposite of what it intended to achieve.
Forgetting that historical processes are neither linear nor unilateral, “Brussels” ignored the fact that in the encounter between the two Europes, one would have contaminated the other. Economists state, with reason, that we have converted the East’s soul to capitalism. Historians, geopolitical analysts and anthropologists do, however, have the right to ask themselves whether we have not become more oriental than the “brothers” who survived Moscow’s imprisonment have become westernised. Also because they usually know our history better than we know theirs. Perhaps some among the Euro-Westerners have taken too literally the title of Bibó’s book about “small Eastern countries”.
Firstly, because even if they are “small”, they have not lost all hope of becoming great (again). Like Orbán’s Hungary, which treats the amputations of the Treaty of Trianon (1920) as a temporary incident, has mobilised its diaspora in Slovakia, Romania, Ukraine and Serbia, has named after Sándor Wekerle, the country’s prime minister between the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, an apparently infrastructural plan aimed at asserting Budapest’s hegemony over the entire Carpathian basin.
Secondly, because not all former Eastern European countries are particularly small when compared to three of Western Europe’s co-founders (Luxembourg, Belgium, Holland), not to mention more recent members such as Cyprus or Malta.
Thirdly, and decisively, in this “New Europe” – resorting to the American laudatory choronym – there is a country that is not and does not feel medium-small. It is a country that in the not too distant past was an empire in the form of a Polish-Lithuanian Confederation (1569-1795), which, for a couple of years, extended all the way to Moscow (1610-12). The Russians have not forgotten this, seeing that every November 4th they celebrate National Unity Day in memory of the driving out of the Polish invaders. Poland, now led by a profoundly nationalist, Catholic-traditionalist government that is above all Russophobe and Germanophobe – hence geopolitically pro-American – lays claim to its great past. In its own way, it aspires to revive itself to the extent that this is possible in the current context.
This will be done, for example, through the Trimarium project. Apparently this project seems to be a loose geo-economic framework assigned to the three seas – Baltic, Black and Adriatic – that wash the coasts of Northern and Central-Eastern Europe. It is in this region that twelve countries – the four members of the Visegrád group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary), the three Baltic states (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania) plus Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Romania and Bulgaria – intend to build railways, motorways, waterways and above all gas and oil pipelines, as well as other energy connections, along a north-south intra-community axis.
In essence it is an economy-based geopolitical project, blessed and supported by the United States of America and subcontracted to Poland and Croatia as regional suffragans, aimed at organising the Europe in the middle in anti-Russian form (and, above all also anti-German as far as the Poles are concerned). Regards to the containment of the Russian Federation’s perceived aggressiveness, the former commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Europe, General James L. Jones Jr., now co-president of the Atlantic Council, a think tank quite actively involved in this project, has been explicit. In denouncing at the 2016 Trimarium summit in Dubrovnik the “’divide and conquer’ strategy” with which Russia, relying on its energy power, undermines Atlantic cohesion, he stated that, “You might think of it as a hybrid strategy of your own!” (14)
The Trimarium is not improvisation and is the outcome of a long and very Polish history.
5. Late in the spring of 1904, soon after the outbreak of the Russian-Japanese War, Roman Dmowski and Józef Pilsudski, very different champions of Poland’s liberation from St. Petersburg’s domination, were reciprocally surprised to come across one another on the streets of Tōkyō. Dmowski, co-founder and leader of the National League, dreamt of an ethnic Poland and considered Germany the main enemy, referring to the ethno-territorial traditions of the medieval dynasty of the Piasts. Pilsudski, a socialist revolutionary, was instead inspired by the multi-ethnic geopolitics of the Jagiellonian dynasty of Lithuanian origin that paved the way for the glorious confederation with the Polish crown and announced a neo-imperial Greater Poland.
The final objective was to dismantle Russia from the interior, dividing it up along ethnic lines (the Promethean project). A socialist sui generis, as he later admitted, “Comrades, I took the red tram of socialism to the stop called Independence, and that's where I got off.” (15)
Both men had separately made contact with the Japanese secret services and in particular with Colonel Akashi Motojiro, who encouraged them to persuade Polish soldiers to desert the Tsarist army and press them to rebel against St. Petersburg. Dmowski seemed sceptical, stating that the Russians would have quelled any Polish uprising with bloodshed and then move troops deployed around Warsaw to the Asian front.
Pilsudski instead gave the Japanese General Staff a memorandum in which he proposed the formation of a Polish Legion to be deployed in Manchuria alongside the Japanese, mentioning that he would instigate defection of Polish troops among the Tsarist soldiers and offered his services to the Japanese intelligence services in view of the coming decomposition of the excessively heterogeneous Tsarist colossus.
The Japanese officers treated the two Polish patriots with condescension and then restricted relations to sporadically equipping them with weapons (30,000 roubles given to Pilsudski to buy them) and exchanges of information. Convinced they would win the war, the Japanese were reluctant to end up involved in the complex plotting of Warsaw’s independentists. (16)
The two protagonists of the Tokyo adventure were to remain proud rivals for the rest of their lives. Pilsudski as the chief of state of a Poland that had risen from the ashes of the double imperial-German and tsarist-Russian catastrophe in the Great War. Dmowski, a signatory of the Treaty of Versailles, tried in vain to undermine Pilsudski’s leadership, who as Marshal had stopped the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920 (“miracle of the Vistula”) and six years later assumed dictatorial attitudes.
Dmowski and Pilsudski’s geopolitical and ideological visions were to continue to influence disputes concerning the best Polish strategy until modern times. It was almost as if they had divided their spheres of influence, with care of the polish identity attributed above all to Dmowski and external projection mainly inspired by Pilsudski.
Hence the illiberal, Catholic-clerical and anti-Semite ultra-nationalism of Dmowski, fundamentally a Germanophobe (since the Russians were far too inferior to be compared to the German threat), has nowadays become Europhobia, as witnessed at the March of the 60,000, which attracted representatives of the extreme right from all over Europe, held in Warsaw last November 12th. This is a singular celebration of ninety-nine years of independence – the Molotov-Ribbentrop two-year period, the four years of World War II and the almost half century as a People’s Republic and province of Moscow are not part of this calendar.
But the horizons of Dmowski’s epigones are locked within the national state, which must be kept immaculate; White and Christian. The empire, in any shape or form, is not attractive. As multi-ethnic it would be incompatible with the purity of the race, unless the Poles were to be attributed formidable assimilative virtues.
Jarosław Kaczyński, Poland’s real leader as the head of the Law and Justice Party, just like the little more than figurative President of the Republic Andrzej Duda, colours his traditionalist Jagiellonian nationalism with neo-Jagellonian hues. Russophobe with Germanophobic undertones.
Their Trimarium belongs to the Intermarium’s imperial tradition (Międzymorze), the federation between Poland, Finland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Byelorussia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Yugoslavia and Romania, proposed in vain in the early Twenties by Pilsudski. This was, in turn, inspired by the analogous project conceived in the Thirties of the 19th century by Prince Adam Czartoryski, a reference to the Polish emigrants who met in the salons of the Parisian Hôtel Lambert. One must not be misled by the maritime evocation in Pilsudskian macaronic Latin, the yearning for a “Polska od morza do morza” (“Poland from sea to sea”) of Jagiellonian memory. In the Trimarium the sea is the frame for strictly land-related geopolitics.
The objective is to build a multinational counterweight based on Warsaw to widen as much as possible the space between Berlin and Moscow. It is also aimed at accelerating Russia’s definitive collapse as well as its dismantling into its multiple ethnic factors as the weak link of the circle that in the course of history has gripped intermittent Polish sovereignty, to the extent of repeatedly destroying it.
Even if in Warsaw not everyone likes to explicitly mention this unfortunate precedent, there is no doubt that it is the ancestor and model for the modern Trimarium, prefigured in its current form by Duda’s Chief of Staff, Professor Krzysztof Szczerski. This, not without qualms, considering that, according to some, its implicit security inclinations risk creating overlaps with the NATO framework. This does not appear to worry Donald Trump, who exalted this “incredible success” by participating in the Trimarium summit in Warsaw, on July 6th, 2017. (17)
This is all taking place with the consensus of American strategic apparatuses, in which some envisage closing the Black Sea’s circle, including in the block designated to enlarge the distance between Moscow and Berlin even what remains of Moldova, Ukraine and Georgia, thereby conferring to the Trimarium an anti-Turkish aftertaste.
All in military symbiosis with the Bucharest Nine (the Trimarium countries minus Austria, Croatia and Slovenia). A powerful book written about the Intermarium by the Polish-American historian Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is circulating in the workshops of American intelligence. According to the author, this is a concept of medieval origins, when Poland was the solid defender of western civilisation against the Mongols, nowadays “culturally and ideologically compatible with American national interests.”
And that is not all; Chodakiewicz describes the “American political culture as the inheritor of the freedom and rights stemming from the legacy of the Polish-Lithuanian/Ruthenian Commonwealth.” (18) And he invites the United States to use the Intermarium/Trimarium as a “springboard” for dealing with all former Soviet countries, “the Russian Federation included”. (19) A Polish “empire” as the devastating regional arm of American power? For the moment, the prose of facts does not justify such poetry.
6. The Trimarium’s prism helps us explore power relations in the U.S.-Russian-German triangle within the area evacuated during the last century by defeated or annihilated territorial empires. This from the Baltic to the Black Sea, plus the north-Adriatic line that excludes Italy, paying the price for being close to the Muscovite enemy, attributing to us what are now past strategic talents of which all that remains are Pavlovian reflexes or Levantine trade-related ploys as a backdrop.
The Trimarium zone marks the eastern border of Atlantic/American penetration, tracing the limes between the American and Russian empires. Only two relevant countries, of medium-large size according to European parameters, guarantee significant discontinuity in the segment of direct contact between NATO and Russia.
There is understated depth provided to the grey area that on the central front interrupts the direct impact between the preponderant formation led by Washington and the “dangerous rival” that is Russia – a definition used in the most recent paper on national security published by the White House (20). These countries are Ukraine and Byelorussia. Ukraine is amputated of Crimea and Sevastopol, undermined by the not-so-low density conflict in the Donbas, infested by disputes between the oligarchs who continue to strip it of its residual resources, and yet consolidated in its identity by the threat posed by Moscow.
The so-far respected red line is to prevent this part of Ukraine from slipping into the Atlantic sphere of influence, perhaps together with Moldova and Georgia. They too, like Kiev, have had to undergo the Kremlin’s preventive surgery in Transnistria, Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. As far as Byelorussia is concerned, an ambiguous buffer state to the east of the River Bug held together by “Europe’s last dictator”, it is less dependent on the Kremlin than generally thought – as confirmed by the quarrel over electricity that Minsk now refuses to import at prices imposed by Moscow – and sanctions the bonds of the Eurasian Economic Union sponsored by Putin.
He will not, however, allow the country to slip towards the Atlantic group for any reason whatsoever. As far as NATO neighbours go, led by Warsaw, they do not seem to be upset by the Byelorussian regime’s authoritarian characteristics, because a “coloured revolution” attempted in Minsk would push Russia to invade this (not quite) fraternal country, thereby reaching the Polish border. In Byelorussia one coexists with the saying that “In every Pole there is a Muscovite who can be reawakened with a suitable dose of vodka.” (21)
Taking a closer look, the “NATO of the East” with its strong Baltic imprint, deployed beyond the right bank of the Oder-Neiße – along the Trimarium strip – to which it is compulsory to add de facto Finnish and Swedish partners in all strategic equations, is less compact than Polish-American lyrical analysis suggests.
There are four relevant factors.
Firstly: the internal fault lines within the Visegrád Group, with the Czech Republic and Slovakia robustly linked to the German geo-economic sphere and rather sensitive to Russia’s reasons; Hungary that with it dreams of grandeur worries all its neighbours, while Orbán cultivates a special relationship with Putin; Poland that is chasing the ghosts of its imperial past and emphasising renewed authoritarian vocations to the extent of risking EU sanctions (see the Germans). Warsaw’s leaders remain convinced they must redeem us Western Europeans, too tolerant towards “others” and those who are “different” and lead us back to the correct path outlined by religion and tradition. On this subject one should read the most recent book by Krzystof Szczerski, eloquently entitled Utopia Europejska: Kryzys integracji i polska inicjatywa naprawy [A European Utopia. The Integration Crisis and the Polish Reparation Initiative]. (22) In terms of European organisation, this means a rejection of the “two speed” solution – de facto 27-28 - à la Merkel and the reassertion of its own rank as a great community country.
Secondly: the latent German temptation to elevate to geopolitics its own geo-economic centrality, organising the Kerneuropa (Euronucleus) strengthening the Bundeswehr to propose it as the army-anchor of Mitteleuropa, suitably dressed in Euro-Atlantic colours, and offering itself as the guarantor of liberal-democratic values threatened by the ethno-nationalisms spreading between the former Hapsburg areas and the Baltic front. When a contributor for the Süddeutsche Zeitung brands the Trimarium and its surrounding areas as the “International of autocrats”, he expresses an opinion that is widespread among the German establishment. (23) Merkel also fears that Trump might encourage Polish Germanophobia. The Pentagon’s strategists do, in fact, foment the countries of the Zwischeneuropa not only in an anti-Russian key but also in order to contain the Bundesrepublik’s geopolitical desires. Perhaps inspired by colleagues in Washington, a group of influential German analysts and advisors of undisputed pro-Atlantic faith have launched a manifesto denouncing the revival of “German nationalism”, a reaction to “American nationalism” (read Trumpian nationalism). There is a great deal of German-centrism, report the signatories, who have reached the point of suggesting “ad hoc coalitions” or even “equidistance between Russia and America”. So Berlin will end up “turning to Russia or China.” (24)
Thirdly: China’s incursion into central-eastern Europe, strengthened by the 16+1 initiative, the umpteenth chapter in the new silk roads. Geopolitics masked as economics, but quietly, with modest resources invested so far, as insistent as drops of water on stone.
Fourthly: uncertainty concerning “Trump’s America”. The quotation marks are used to indicate both a widespread perception and an optical illusion. The first, especially acute in the region addressed, confuses rhetoric and facts, portraying the certainly weakened superpower as if it were adrift. The second mistakes a very visible but equally relative part of America’s powers, embodied by the president, for the ensemble of the imperial power. In communicative emphasis – official, journalistic and (a)social, almost always in shorthand (twitter) – perceptions can produce effects that are as unwanted as they are devastating.
This concise exploration of the Europe in the middle, the epicentre of world wars, is not reassuring. Too much of the past remains unforgotten in too small an area. Churchill established that “the Balkans produce more history than they can consume.” One could envisage that nowadays he would broaden that geographical area.
(Translated by Francesca Simmons)
- H. W. BUSH, “Chicken Kiev speech”, https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Chicken_Kiev_speech
- J. M. MARKHAM, “A lot better than a war”, The New York Times, 8.2.1987.
- K. von HAMMERSTEIN, “Militärplaner halten Zerfall der EU für denkbar”, Spiegel Online, 4.11.2017.
- VOLPE – U. KÜHN, “Germany’s Nuclear Education: Why a Few Elites Are Testing a Taboo”, The Washington Quarterly, Fall 2017, pp. 7-27.
- P. CELAN, Gesammelte Werke in sieben Bänden, by B. ALLEMANN, Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp, vol. II, p. 338, cit. in C. MIGLIO, Vita a fronte. Saggio su Paul Celan, Macerata 2005, Quodlibet, p. 32.
- CELAN, La verità della poesia. Il “meridiano” e altre prose, by G. BEVILACQUA, Turin 2008, Einaudi, p. 20.
- KAMUSELLA, “The normative isomorphism of language, nation and state”, in M. MOSKALEWICZ-W. PRZYBYLSKI (by), Understanding Central Europe, New York, NY 2018, Routledge, pp. 144-145.
- BIBÓ, Kényszer, jog, szabadság, in ID. (by), Válogatott tanulmányok, vol. 1, Budapest 1986, Magvető Kiadó, pp. 5-149.
- Z. BRETTER, “No federation without separation. István Bibó about the prerequisites of regional and European integration”, in M. MOSKALEWICZ-W.PRZYBYLSKY (by), op. cit., pp. 231-238.
- BIBÓ, Misère des petits Etats d’Europe de l’Est, Paris 1986, l’Harmattan, pp. 161-162. This book has been translated into Italian by the publishing house Mulino (Bologna 1994), in an edition curated by Federigo Argentieri.
- M. KUNDERA, “The Tragedy of Central Europe”, New York Review of Books, n. 7, 1984.
- “Österreichische Bundeshymne”, http://www.wien-konkret.at/kultur/musik/hymne/oesterreichische-bundeshymne/
- MIŁOSZ, “Central European Attitudes”, Cross Currents, n. 5, 1986, pp. 101-102.
- “Remarks by General James L. Jones, Jr. at the Dubrovnik Three Seas Initiative Presidential Roundtable”, Atlantic Council Publications, 25.8.2016.
- PEDERSEN, The World Island, Santa Barbara (California) 2011, p. 63.
- P. S. WANDYCZ, The Lands of Partitioned Poland, 1795-1918, Seattle-London 1996, University of Washington Press, pp. 308-311.
- “Three Seas Initiative: Trump in Warsaw supports the project”, Visegrad Post, 7.8.2007.
- J. CHODAKIEWICZ, Intermarium. The Land between the Black and Baltic Seas, New Brunswick (U.S.A.) – London (U.K.) 2016, Transaction Publishers, p. 2.
- “National Security Strategy of the United States of America”, December 2017, The White House, https://www.whitegov
- KAZHARSKI, “On ‘East’, ‘Central’, and ‘Eastern’ Europe. Belarus and Central European politics of identity”, in M. MOSKALEWICZ-W. PRZYBYLSKI (by), op. cit., p. 93.
- SZCZERSKI, Utopia Europejska. Kryzys integracij i polska inicjativa naprawy, Kraków 2107, Biały Kruk.
- KORNELIUS, “Ein Sturm, den die alte G-20-Ordnung kaum überleben wird”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 25.6.2017.
- “Trotz alledem: Amerika. Ein transatlantisches Manifest in Zeiten von Donald Trump”, trotzdem-Amerika.de/