The states lying west of Russia could not avoid establishing a tight defense union but they failed to move beyond their own narrow national interests
One cannot fight alone: Ukrainians convinced Germans to recognise their independence but failed to work out joint plans with the Poles and the three Baltic peoples. The view of a Delegation of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic (UNR) at the Brest peace talks (1918)
Relatively small peoples have long since understood that combining efforts to defend themselves from big aggressive neighbours is the only way to protect their freedom. Most countries have different versions of a popular saying about a bundle of sticks, which are impossible to break when held together, yet are easily breakable when they are held apart. The experience of Ukraine and other countries which freed themselves from oppression by the Russian Empire in 1917 and the Soviet occupation in the early 1990s demonstrates that they have not yet fully realised the essence of this well-known saying.
From the Baltic to the Black Seas
The first attempts to unite Ukrainians, Poles, Finns, Lithuanians, Estonians, Georgians and the many Islamic peoples of the Russian Empire was evident in the Association of Peoples Enslaved by Russia which was established in 1916-1918. Its members planned to combine their efforts and use the support of Germany to liberate their lands from foreign occupation. However, their further experience proved that seeking liberation from one aggressive neighbor by using another was problematical. Yet another factor that dented prospects to unite the Baltic and the Black Sea States came from Poland’s expansionist ambitions. After the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and defeat of Germany in World War I, Poland laid out plans to conquer neighbouring territories: Galicia and Volyn in Ukraine and the Vilnius region of Lithuania.
The negative impact of ensuing military and political instability in 1919 on the just independent Central and Eastern European states was further aggravated by the lack of the Entente’s uniform position on the region’s future. Ukraine was squeezed between three fronts –Polish, white and red Russian– and was close to losing its sovereignty in the face of the treat of Soviet Russia’s intervention. Meanwhile, the governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Finland were searching for ways to preserve their statehood through combining their efforts. In autumn 1919, the Association of Peoples Enslaved by Russia three held three conferences that entrenched a belief in its members that there were no alternative options for survival except within a strong union. At the end of 1919, the administration of these countries uniformly agreed about the need for a tight political union to defend their lands from German and Russian revanchism.
The prospects for cooperation with Ukraine were considered within this context. Herman Gummerus, then-Ambassador to Ukraine, insisted in his 11 April 1919 letter to Finland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs: “Despite the fact that power in Kyiv is now in the hands of a Bolshevik government which has conquered most of the country with the help of the Russian army, we should not ignore the Ukrainian national movement. Our country also just barely escaped the yoke of Russian Bolshevism even despite possessing a much stronger social order and greater patriotic feelings.”
On the verge of danger
Finland’s administration supported similar initiatives as it faced a growing threat of Russian intervention. In August 1919, Prime Minister Carl Mannerheim and Foreign Minister Rudolf Holsti offered an initiative to establish the Baltic and Black Sea Union to protect its members from aggression. At the beginning of 1920, Holsti announced that his country was ready to encourage other peoples in the former Russian empire which sought their freedom to join the union of Baltic States. Exhausted from fighting on three fronts, Ukraine received a new chance to protect its new independence.
As Russia’s aggression towards Ukraine expanded into an attack against Poland, the states occupied earlier by Russia gained for themselves improved prospects to develop the concept of the Baltic and Black Sea Union. In October 1919, during the middle of a grueling war with Russian Bolsheviks and the White Guard, Symon Petliura, President of Ukrainian People’s Republic, began to lean to support for the union with Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The April 1921 treaty between Ukraine and Poland signed in Warsaw opened way to expanding the country’s in the union. As soon as Ukrainian troops supported by Poland liberated Kyiv from Bolshevik occupation, the Finnish government decided to confirm its de facto recognition of the Ukrainian Peoples Republic and renewed diplomatic relations with it on 11 June 1920.
In response to its support for Ukrainian sovereignty, the Soviet puppet government sent a protest note to the Finnish government on 1 July. Local pro-Russian forces launched protests. But, all of these developments failed to keep the states lying between the two seas from drawing closer together. Between August-September 1920, Polish and Ukrainian representatives, in addition to delegations from Finland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia, attended the conference in Baldur near Riga. Ukraine’s membership transformed the Union into a Baltic and Black Sea union leading to hope that other states would join who had earlier been members of the Association of Peoples Enslaved by Russia (especially Azerbaijan and Georgia which had also been involved in unequal struggles against Russian intervention until 1920-1921). The programme of the Union, drafted by Latvia’s Foreign Minister Ziegfried Meyerowitz, outlined plans for a defence union, economic integration, common banking and monetary policies, a political convention that would outline mutual areas of support and a uniform foreign policy, which together would provide for a free zone of states lying between the Baltic and Black Seas.
One man cannot fight alone
The success of the Baltic and Black Sea Union largely depended on the independence of Ukraine. Ukraine’s defeat made Russia’s foreign policy much more aggressive, divided the states lying between the Baltic and the Black Seas, and made it easier to take them over piecemeal. The Finnish Ambassador to Ukraine wrote: “Ukrainians were our obvious and natural allies. If this big and rich country became independent, it would weaken Russia, spur the liberation of Finland and help us preserve our freedom.” This was not just about Finland, but all the states lying between the Baltic and Black Sea.
Sadly, the Polish administration– the most influential country in the potential union – failed to appreciate this. Despite the successful conference and a treaty on the Baltic and Black Sea union of states that was signed on 31 August 1919, it failed to be ratified. The reasons for this included individualistic actions by Poland which, leaning on support it was receiving from France, returned to its earlier destructive aggressive line to build a Second Rzechpospolita (Commonwealth) through sacrificing its partners. On 9 October Poland launched a war against Lithuania and occupied Vilnius and its surrounding neighborhood. Three days later, Poland signed a peace treaty with Soviet Russia dividing Ukraine between both countries. Under these circumstances, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia preferred to establish a defensive union of their own, which they did in 1923. Because of the controversies provoked by Poland’s occupation of part of Lithuanian territory, the next eight conferences of the five Baltic-Black Sea States proved to be futile.
Almost two decades later, all these countries found themselves under another (Soviet) Russian occupation. In September 1939, Jozef Stalin and Adolf Hitler divided Poland between themselves, similar to what Poland and Russia had undertaken with Ukraine nineteen years earlier. In winter 1939-1940, the Soviet Union attacked Finland. By the end of 1940, (Soviet) Russian troops had occupied one by one Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These countries fully for their selfishness and inability to unite in the interests of regional security.
The recent attempts by Poland to dabble in warming relations with Putin’s Russia coupled with the intensifying pro-Russian mood in the Baltic States demonstrates that all of these countries have failed to learn the lessons of history.
The success of the Baltic and Black Sea Union critically depended on Ukraine’s independence