Jagiellonian Policy in the 21st Century
It is now 100 years since the signing of the peace treaty in Riga, which ended Poland’s war in the east with Soviet Russia and established relations in our part of the world for the following 20 years. Then Tehran, Yalta, Potsdam and the end of World War II, closed the chapter of the Jagiellonian foreign policy of Poland. Or so it would seem.
Poland won the war, but lost the peace. This is how the course of military operations and peace negotiations can be summed up. One more battle was missing somewhere near Orsza and Vitebsk, at the Smolensk Gate, which would have pushed Russia beyond the Dnieper and the Daugava Rivers. However, there were not enough forces for this, both political and military. Discussions are still underway as to whether or not this was really the case and the source materials do not give a clear answer over the feelings of Józef Piłsudski (because he was the one who made the decision) in the fall of 1920 and the spring of 1921 when it came to a specific balance of power. It was Piłsudski who had to consider the arguments that were to decide the scope of war, peace and the geopolitical system of Eastern Europe. He made them based on his own reading of the situation and the system of forces, often intuitively, because how could it be otherwise. It is much easier to judge such a decision after a hundred years, having archival resources and, above all, knowledge of how history unfolded further. Responsibility rests with the individual politician who has to make a decision within a certain timeframe, based on his own judgment of the situation. It’s tough, that’s why politics is tough.
Poland lost the peace, and Piłsudski himself was disappointed with the Treaty of Riga. Giedroyć even claimed that after signing the treaty, Piłsudski became a different man, closed to others who did not believe in the durability of the Polish state. He felt that Poland’s existence was temporary, that he had failed to build a new, favourable balance in the Intermarium that would permanently remove Russia from the European political system by building a federation of nations separating Russia from Europe.
For various reasons, the war did not bring about the establishment of the federation, despite the assault on Kiev, the Ukrainian independence attempts supported by Poland, the great victories of Polish soldiers near Warsaw and on the Niemen River. Society, tired of seven years of uninterrupted war, enormous economic and war devastation, did not support the federalization plan of consolidating the entire Intermarium. At the same time, the dissimilarity of a large part of the population in the Eastern Frontier from the Polish “Crown” (Corona Regni Poloniae) did not provide grounds for forcing the construction of a uniform state reaching up to the Daugpilis and the Dnieper for fear of the weakness of the internal cohesion of this entity due to ethnical minorities. Piłsudski had to struggle with his thoughts in those days.
Hence the compromise of Riga, which was only a “pieriedyszka“, a temporary rest that imperial Russia, in this case in the Soviet form, used to restore its power. The geopolitical pause gained by the efforts of the Polish soldier began to end in the late 1930s with a clear end on the day of signing the continental pact by Ribbentrop and Molotov.
And then the Soviets did everything they could to kill the Jagiellonian idea: the extermination of the Polish population in the East, deportations, destruction of the culture and material world defined by the presence of several hundred years beyond the Nieman and Bug rivers. Post-Yalta borders, expulsions and ideological orders were to eliminate the foundations of Polish politics in the East once and for all.
The communist Poland – a vassal state vis-à-vis the Soviet Union did not even dare to think about Polish eastern policy. The former Eastern Frontier (Kresy) itself appeared to the Polish independence intelligentsia in the People’s Republic of Poland as a story from the old days, a bit romantic, manorial, and slightly out of tune with the realities of the “twentieth century”. But certainly the case appeared to be a closed past.
In 1989-1991 a miracle happened. The empire in the East collapsed. Not as the result of a war with our participation, but as the result of a world war between the USSR and the USA – and more specifically the course of the Cold War and the balance of power formed at its end between the superpowers, which broke the Soviet continental empire, freeing the peoples and nations that the empire imprisoned. Then, almost all of them ran for freedom – and certainly all the nations of the Intermarium.
Implementing the ideas of Mieroszewski and Giedroyc, the new Poland recognised all the new and independent states in the east. Over the next years, we believed that the power of the West, its institutions and lifestyle, as well as the values that were so different than those embodied by the Russian or Soviet Empire, would “do” for us as an eastern policy, which for several hundred years had consistently been reduced to a very simple goal: prevent the possibility of Russia playing in the European balance of power political system, which usually results in overwhelming the agency and development of self-determination of Poland and other countries in the region.
From the perspective of 2021, it should be made clear: this was a mistake.
The lack of own business, capital, economic, relational, cultural, intelligence and military influence, that were not promoted due to internal affairs of the countries in the East, closed the East to the effective influence of Poland or failed to deliver political leverage. That was quite obvious during the Belarusian crisis in the summer of 2020. It showed that Poland is the subject of politics in the region, not its organizing entity. In the political game for their place in the international system, the Ukrainians or Belarusians do not need Poland. They carry out their activities through the Germans, French or the European Union institutions, or they have to come to terms with the Russians. The Baltic countries also did this, although this has changed somewhat in recent years, when they found out that in the face of Russia’s pressure, the only real land force in the region from the first day of the war is the Polish Army. So they started to count, though we are not using this leverage sufficiently.
Our strategic restraint has been a result of a serious misunderstanding of the interplay between the Piast and Jagiellonian versions of foreign policies and a clear misunderstanding of what contemporary influences and instruments of pressure on the policy of another state consist in, so that these instruments serve their own interests.
The Jagiellonian policy complements the Piast policy. It is not a disjointed alternative. There is no one without the other, and vice versa. This conclusion epitomizes the curse of the geopolitics of Poland, which has traditionally had too weak a population and economic potential to survive with its own “agency” with Russia and Germany, when both of these powers are mighty and well-governed.
Economic consolidation, development, the construction of infrastructure and taking care of the shaping of internal and external strategic structures to serve Poland, even through a “Piast foreign policy” enabling ties to the Atlantic-oriented economic zone, must be complemented by a Jagiellonian policy consisting in shaping a Polish-friendly space in the East, from which there will be no threats to the “Piast” consolidation. The space in the East should be optimally shaped geopolitically by shaping strategic flows in the region.
The Jagiellonian policy appeared to be imperial because it referred, on a subconscious level, to the land, territories formerly colonized by the Polish Crown, where Poles had ownership and property dominance, associated with imperial domination and, despite our sweet ideas, often mistreating the Ukrainian or Belarusian populations.
Such a perception and design of this vision, for example by criticizing the postulate of the Jagiellonian policy in the 21st century (albeit perhaps under a different name) results from a lack of understanding of the determinants of 21st century strategy.
In the past, the main source of power, and therefore the influence and connections on which politics is based, was land and capital resulting from land labour or land ownership. So – from territories that give taxes, produce, resources, capital and recruits. The more recruits the better, because this number also mattered in military realm. It was during this period that the mental maps of the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and Eastern Frontier were formed, as well as the borderland culture, which Poles remember sentimentally while browsing old albums. This understanding of the source of power obviously resulted in ethnic conflicts and civil wars, including genocide. We also have a lot to accuse ourselves of, for example, political repressions against the Ukrainian minority in the eastern provinces or the inappropriate treatment of the Cossacks at the time.
In the meantime, the industrial revolution took place, which did not appear in the Eastern Frontier until the 20th century, and significantly changed the sources of power. It was strategic flows that began to be of great importance. The marches of the armies were still of great importance, but this also began to mean the movement of people by trains, cars, planes, the movement of goods, raw materials, energy, capital, technology, knowledge and data, creating a variable and fluid system of forces which, organised by the organising state, determined the influence, instruments of pressure, and the shaping of relationships for the benefit of the one’s state and its power. This was the expression of agency in a modern sense. It is the strategic flows that constitute the chessboard of the international game. Of course, there are still important places in the region, such as Małaszewicze, the Baranowicz communication junction or the port in Gdańsk, but they result from the strategic flow corridors that generate relative changes in power.
Shaping the space in the East to the benefit of the interests of the Polish state as part of a Jagiellonian policy can be achieved through capital, regulatory and business issues that generate levers of political pressure that must be taken into account in everyday politics. To have a chance to do it you must be in the East in terms of business, energy deals, capital investment etc., and stop viewing East from “moral high grounds”. Then you have a leverage that can change events. Otherwise, you just shout hollow rhetoric.
This is also overlapped by the ongoing information revolution. Information, its processing, its transmission, is becoming both a commodity and a weapon in the fight for perceptions and for building the power of agency. This growing phenomenon distracts us even more from any territorial revisionism, at the same time strengthening the essence of controlling the rules on which strategic flows take place.
This determines the necessity and building influence in the East so that the policy pursued there is friendly to Piast consolidation, which in turn has to deal with the not-insignificant challenge of dealing with dependent development in order to converge with Western Europe. A modern Jagiellonian policy results from the need for Piast consolidation, and it is possible to conduct effectively if the area of Piast consolidation gives it the means to do so, which builds influence in the east within a complex checkerboard of strategic flows.
Thus, a Jagiellonian policy in the east shapes the geopolitical environment of the Polish state, without which there is simply no Piast policy. This, however, is completely different than territorial claims or sentimental chats about Wilno or Lwów, or the exalted attitude of Poles towards other nations of the bridge.
The Jagiellonian policy of the 21st century is expressed in business, capital penetration, bank expansion, agency on the regulations defining these flows, on linking the population from the east with the Polish economic area, favourable cross-border traffic, importing labour supply from the east, reverse pipelines, energy transfers, the use of transport corridors, military cooperation within the framework of anti-access systems to blunt Russian “agency”.
It is the interdependence that builds the Jagiellonian policy. Observing from a distance does not build it, but even undermines the possibilities of Piast consolidation. Especially when the security order in the East breaks with the end of the geopolitical pause, which is repeated cyclically. And it bodes badly for Poland, which has been trying to rebuild, consolidate and modernize for 30 years.