Ukraine and Poland Spearhead Promethean Liberation
Story by Janusz Bugajski
Illustrated by Ludvig Ödman
Two mythical interpretations of the ancient Greek god Prometheus apply to Russia’s future: fire and creation. As the Titan “God of Fire,” Prometheus, or the “Forethinker,” defied the Olympian gods — in the contemporary setting these would be the Western powers — by stealing their fire and giving it to humanity — in other words, by arming Ukraine. This fire not only consists of the tools necessary to defeat a genocidal state but the technology, resources, and knowledge that would guarantee national independence. In the second ancient Greek myth, Prometheus is credited with creating humanity from clay. In the modern world, he thereby becomes the symbol of liberation of numerous nations from the Muscovite empire. These two versions of the Promethean myth are both complementary and implementable.
“Prometheism,” an ideology and strategy devised in the early part of the 20th century to combat Russia’s imperialism, is being revived in Europe’s east. Poland and Ukraine are spearheading a steadily evolving movement to weaken Russia from within by supporting a host of national and regional groups seeking to restore or establish their sovereignty and independence. This new wave of “Promethean Liberation” contains three essential concepts: the pursuit of national independence and democracy; an end to imperialism, colonialism, and autocracy; and the equality of emerging states within international institutions. All three objectives challenge the foundations of the Russo-Muscovite state and will only be fully achieved when that state ruptures. Representatives of free nations and regions are in the process of specifying not only what they are against but also the importance of multi-national collaboration in realizing their aspirations. In this context, Ukraine’s war of National Liberation is not simply a defensive operation but an assertion of independent existence which will have a positive resonance throughout the Russian Federation.
Myth Becomes Reality
The Promethean strategy was originally developed by revolutionary fighters for Poland’s national independence from the Tsarist empire. It registered both successes and shortcomings during the 20th century and is now being revived and unofficially adopted by both Ukraine and Poland. In response to Russia’s intensified invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Kyiv and Warsaw have been laying the foundations of a new power center in Europe. The two states have put aside their historic disputes and share a strategic vision that the Russian state must never again be allowed to threaten its neighbors. With a combined population of some eighty million, two of continental Europe’s most powerful armies, and substantial prospects for economic development after the war in Ukraine, both countries will be strengthened by a closely synchronized foreign and security policy. One important weapon in this coordinated and forward-looking foreign policy arsenal will be Promethean Liberation.
Current “neo-Prometheism” is the third stage of its historic development following the collapse of Tsarism and Sovietism. The first Promethean movement emerged during the death throes of the Tsarist Muscovite empire and heralded the national liberation of Poland, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Moldova from Russia’s control, and which served as an example to other captive nations. Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power in October 1917 in order to restore the collapsing Russian empire under an internationalist communist ideology. After several years of war and reconquest, they managed to subjugate several new states which had declared their independence, including Ukraine, Belarus, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and a number of republics in what was renamed as the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, including in the North Caucasus, Middle Volga, Siberia, and the Far Eastern regions.
Prometheism became a geopolitical project pursued primarily by Poland after it regained its independence in 1918. The Promethean movement became both an anti-communist and an anti-imperialist international, intended to promote the disintegration of the newly forming Soviet Union and to carve out independent states for the major nations seeking emancipation from the Russian-Soviet empire. Poland’s leader and founder of the modern Polish state Józef Piłsudski favored the establishment of a Promethean League to bring together Polish strategists with exiled national liberationists from the Russian empire.
Prometheism was designed to promote any centrifugal forces, whether ethno-national or regional, that could weaken and dismantle the Soviet-Russian imperial state. It was also based on the calculation that if Russia subjugated Poland, which had been prominent in supporting the oppressed nations between the Baltic and Black Seas, then it could dominate all of Central Europe. According to Piłsudski and leading Promethean thinkers, Poland could only be protected against Moscow’s expansionism by pushing Russia back eastward and keeping it permanently enclosed within the borders of the 16th-century Grand Duchy of Muscovy. Poland’s plans for a wide-ranging Promethean revolution in the post-Tsarist empire were bolstered by its defeat of the Red Army in 1920 and the subsequent liberation of substantial eastern territories.
Piłsudski’s alliance with Symon Petliura, supreme commander of the Ukrainian People’s Army and head of the independent Ukrainian People’s Republic during the post-Tsarist Civil War, offered the prospect of further dismantling the Russian empire. However, such aspirations were thwarted by the Treaty of Riga signed by Poland and Russia in March 1921 at the insistence of Piłsudski’s ethno-nationalist opponents in government. In retrospect, the Treaty did not guarantee Poland a lasting peace or border security, while the partition of Belarusian and Ukrainian territories prevented the creation of independent states and allies against Russian imperialism along Poland’s eastern frontier. On the contrary, it created conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians in particular and gave ammunition to Moscow’s divide and rule policy.
The inter-war movement sponsored by Warsaw was based on several overriding principles. First, it sought to establish a durable organizational structure to help captive nations to coordinate their activities. This was considered essential as “decisive historical moments” necessitated communication and political understanding between revolutionary liberationist movements. Second, it operated on the principle every nation subdued by Russia had as much right to demand their independent development as all nations who had thrown off the yoke of foreign imperialism anywhere in the world. Third, Prometheism underscored that all nations oppressed by Russia had equal rights to develop independent states whether or not they had previously possessed any form of statehood. And the fourth Promethean principle enshrined the idea only independent nations could freely enter into any unions or federations of states in order to achieve common goals.
During the interwar period (1920–1939), Warsaw promoted a Promethean movement as an umbrella organization which included representatives of nations seeking to gain independence from the Soviet Union. Polish agents and strategists also worked behind enemy lines in parts of the USSR to monitor, encourage, and coordinate national liberation movements. A Promethean League was formally established in Paris in 1926 by representatives of several governments‑in‑exile from the Soviet Union. It included Ukrainians, Georgians, Azeris, Armenians, Turkmens, Kuban and Don Cossacks, Ingush, Yakuts, Karelians, Komi, and national representatives from the confederated Idel-Ural or Volga-Ural Republic. It was supported primarily by the Polish government, which provided political, financial, and ideological backing. One of its main leaders was Ukrainian Professor Roman Smal-Stocki who headed the Eastern Institute in Warsaw. It also had significant backing from Petliura even after the independent Ukrainian government ended military operations against the Soviet Union in 1922. By 1925, the Promethean League had established offices in several cities, including Paris, Bucharest, Istanbul, Helsinki, and Prague, and upheld consistent relations with the Polish and Czech governments in particular.
The Promethean agenda was followed by several public institutions in Poland dealing with eastern European affairs and in the late 1920s became state policy until the signing of the Polish-Soviet non-aggression Pact in 1932. Prometheism also had a military dimension as the Polish army included several senior Ukrainian, Georgian, Armenian, and other non-Polish officers who would be well positioned to establish independent national armies in the event the Soviet Union started to rupture and experienced another internal war. Prometheists also developed contacts with pan-Turkic groups and a series of publications addressed the aspirations of the Muslim nations trapped in the USSR.
The Promethean project suffered a major setback when Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany arranged their own non-aggression pact (Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) in August 1939 to divide up Europe’s east and subsequently launched World War II by invading Poland. As a consequence of the war, by 1945 Moscow’s communist empire expanded to control half of Europe, eliminated the national independence of those states that had freed themselves from Tsardom, and stifled all political opponents. The Promethean ideology survived mostly in émigré circles and was reactivated by the Polish government in exile in London in the late 1940s. This government was the legitimate successor to the pre-war Polish government which did not recognize the Soviet-communist takeover.
The Second Promethean Wave
A reformed Promethean League was unveiled at its April 1946 Congress at The Hague, with Smal-Stocki as president. However, the initiative was not able to be sustained due to a shortage of funds, insufficient internal cohesion, and Western recognition of Moscow‑imposed governments in Central‑Eastern Europe. Similarly, the revived “Intermarium” movement among exiles calling for a federation of Central European states between the Baltic and Black Seas as a means of self-protection against Russian and German imperialism received minimal support in the West. It exerted little influence in the region because of Moscow’s opposition to any independent federal arrangement which could challenge Stalin’s divide and rule policies.
Nonetheless, the notion of national liberation from Moscow was preserved and one of its embodiments was the Captive Nations initiative in the US, which equated Soviet communism with Russian imperialism as anti-democratic forces denying independence to subject nations. An advocacy group called the National Captive Nations Committee was established in 1959 according to an act of the US Congress by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Among the 22 nations represented were Poland and Ukraine, as well as Idel-Ural and Cossackia. The law also established an annual Captive Nations Week in the third week of July, aimed at demonstrating American solidarity with oppressed nations and raising public awareness, and which is celebrated to this day.
During the 1970s, Polish émigrés Jerzy Giedroyć and Juliusz Mieroszewski developed a doctrine following the Promethean tradition by advocating reconciliation among all Central-East European countries, supporting the independence of Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania, and for a future independent Poland to give up any claims to its former eastern territories seized by the Soviet Union after World War II. This policy was adopted by all democratic governments in Warsaw after the fall of communism in 1989 and was instrumental in developing trust between Poland and its newly independent neighbors. Some Solidarity and other opposition activists smuggled underground materials and printing equipment into the Soviet Union during the 1980s to help nascent anti‑communist and pro‑independence groupings in Lithuania, Belarus, Ukraine, Latvia, Estonia, and other republics. The “Fighting Solidarity” (Solidarność Walcząca) outfit was often at the forefront of such initiatives.
The long drawn-out second stage of Prometheism bore results in the early 1990s, when the Soviet bloc was dissolved, the Central European countries liberated themselves from Moscow’s control, and the Soviet Union itself collapsed into fifteen new states, including Ukraine. In effect, this constituted the second phase of dismantling the Russian empire. Since that time, no Polish government or any significant political party has harbored aspirations to absorb, partition, or suborn Ukraine or Belarus. On the contrary, since the rejection of Soviet imperialism, Warsaw has campaigned for the freedom of independent states to enter the multi-national institutions of their choice. For Poland, NATO and EU membership and a strategic partnership with the US became cornerstones for the defense of its independence.
Warsaw also endeavored to secure and stabilize its eastern borders by helping immediate neighbors move closer toward European institutions. In addition, Poland has revived the post-World War I “Intermarium“ project among Central-East European states and is including Ukraine in this pan-regional initiative. “Intermarium” is not intended to be a substitute for either NATO or EU membership, but a proposed alliance to enhance regional cooperation in national defense and economic development and as mutual protection against any resurgence of Russia’s imperialism. Poland’s multi-national regional efforts have included the Three Seas Initiative to enhance economic and infrastructural connections between the Baltic, Adriatic, and Black Seas.
Prometheism now offers an important and timely strategy to embroil Moscow in its own internal problems while dismantling its imperial possessions. Moscow’s expanded military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 was an attempt to recapture wider swathes of its former empire. The plan not only failed militarily but it backfired geopolitically by reviving a multi-national neo-Promethean movement supported by both Warsaw and Kyiv. The third historical stage of this broad multi-national project is the permanent rupture of the centralized Muscovite inner empire, disguised as the Russian Federation. Although the fracturing of Russia is not official state policy, both Warsaw and Kyiv have hosted meetings among representatives from national and regional movements seeking liberation from Moscow. This can be viewed as the first stage of support for Promethean Liberation.
Even though most liberationist activists operate in exile, they also maintain links with their home republics and regions inside Russia. The Ukrainian media broadcasts news and documentaries on the aspirations and struggle of various nations for sovereignty. The independent Chechen-Ichkerian government in exile hosts meetings in Kyiv and Warsaw and other national movements are recognized as legitimate by several parliamentarians and officials. In May 2023, an International Conference commemorating the 105thAnniversary of the independent Northern Caucasus Mountaineer Republic was held in Kyiv. The recently formed United Circassia organization was involved in the event and expressed solidarity with the Chechen-Ichkerian government in exile and met with representatives from Tatarstan, Dagestan, and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, to develop cooperation among the indigenous peoples of the North Caucasus and ensure stability in the region “in the post-Russia era.” Several Ukrainian officials, Polish parliamentarians, former officials, and a number of experts have also consistently stated Russia’s demise is essential for any durable regional security.
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2023 witnessed the emergence of several embryonic liberationist movements and networks. The Forum of Free Nations of Post-Russia developed as a decentralized platform for a broad and growing network of private individuals and institutionalized movements seeking independence for their nations or regions. It has included the government-in-exile of the Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, the Tatarstan government-in-exile, the Independent Sakha movement, Buryat groups, the Free Ingria movement, the Congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk people, the Bashkir National Movement, the Raspberry Wedge-Independent Kuban, the Eastern Krivno Platform (Smalandia, Pskov, and Tver Republics), the Ingush Independence Committee, and movements for the independence of Cherkessia, Don, Karelia, Ural, Zalesia, Erzya, Chuvashia, and others. The Forum also coordinates its activities and projects with other umbrella movements. These include the League of Free Nations, the Alliance of Indigenous Peoples, and the Union for Liberation of Peoples. Kremlin’s agencies have sought to discredit the Forum of Free Nations and other groupings and as the initiatives develop, they will seek to infiltrate them and provoke divisions between different nations by raising historical, ethnic, and territorial disputes.
Moscow’s failing war in Ukraine and its increasing isolation from Europe and the rest of the democratic world provides a unique opportunity for building new states to ensure the dissolution of Europe’s last empire. Activists representing a diverse assortment of nations from Chechnya and Tatarstan to Siberia, Buryatia, and Sakha in the Far East believe conditions for imperial collapse are ripening. Moscow’s enormous military losses and the country’s accelerating economic decline are revealing the incompetence of Russia’s ruling elite. Moscow is increasingly perceived as the exploiting colonial metropolis which has failed to provide either security or welfare for its subjects. Ukraine’s military victory will also demonstrate Russia’s claimed borders are transient. The loss of the temporarily occupied Crimean peninsula and three Ukrainian regions officially annexed by Moscow will symbolically and practically demonstrate Russia is losing territory. Other regions can also free themselves from Moscow’s control as regime capacities weaken in holding together the diverse and unwieldy Russian state.
During the Spring of 2023, the incursions from Ukraine into Russia’s Belgorod and Bryansk oblasts of armed units of the Liberty of Russia Legion and the Russian Volunteer Corps revealed the shrinking manpower and resources of the Russian military embroiled in the invasion of Ukraine. It also demonstrated how Ukraine’s military can help assist both in Russia’s liberation and in liberation from Russia. At the end of June 2023, the head of the Wagner mercenaries Yevgeny Prigozhin performed an enormous service for all aspiring insurrectionists, revolutionaries, and liberationists throughout the Russian Federation when he took over the regional capital of Rostov in southern Russia with just a few thousand troops. He demonstrated the weakness of the imperial state and the inability of the regime to control key roads and regional cities.
Warsaw and Kyiv believe it is crucial for independent voices beyond the narrow Moscow and Saint Petersburg-centric liberal opposition to bring their massage to the US and Western Europe, similar to the voices of the “captive nations” during the Cold War whose independence was supported by the US government and Congress. Russia’s neighbors must also be involved in managing the process of imperial dissolution and state formation — including Turkey, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Japan, and Canada. China’s potential aspirations to current Russian territory will also need to be addressed by Western and Far Eastern governments as well as by emerging states whose territories may be claimed by Beijing. As the Free Nations Forum and other umbrella organizations expand, they will require offices in several capitals to accommodate representatives from numerous republics and regions. The local chapters will need to connect and advocate at all levels — with governments, legislatures, civil groups, diaspora organizations, business, media, religious organizations, and educational and cultural networks.
The key message of Promethean Liberation for Western leaders is that encouraging regions and republics to cooperate in designing a “post-Russia” will help contain the violent disintegration many in the West fear. The regime in Moscow is likely to promote violence to try and keep the country together, as occurred during the collapse of Tsardom and to some extent during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when military crackdowns were attempted in several Union Republics. Moreover, it is unclear how many states will arise from the demise of the Russian Federation, what their precise borders will be, and what political structures each will develop. One administrative format which may have wide appeal is the establishment of pan-regional and pan-republic confederal states as witnessed in the North Caucasus and Middle Volga during the collapse of Tsarism.
Nations trapped inside Russia who want to coexist peacefully with their neighbors will welcome Western support and mediation over statehood, borders, minorities, resources, and institutions. Hence, preparations to recognize the independence of new states seeking freedom, democracy, self-determination, and international cooperation are fully in line with Western values and interests. Inside an imperial and authoritarian Russia, no republic or region has any credible prospects for genuine democratization, but outside Russia they will each have that opportunity.
Aspiring states must also focus attention on the positive outcomes of Russia’s rupture. A shrinking state under international sanctions with a collapsing central budget and escalating internal pressures for the creation of new states will have severely reduced capabilities to attack its neighbors. Moscow’s ability to entangle Europe in energy dependence, engage in political corruption, and spread disinformation will all be curtailed. NATO’s eastern flank from the Arctic to the Black Sea will become more secure and enhance economic development, business investment, and regional cooperation. Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia can regain their occupied territories and petition for EU and NATO integration without fear of Russia’s reaction. Belarus can also secure its independence. Despite frequent threats from Moscow, a shrunken Russian state will not use nuclear weapons against internal adversaries and its leaders will not commit suicide by attacking the West. As during the Soviet collapse, they will seek to retain as much power and assets as possible to ensure their political survival.
Promethean Liberation exhibits a positive view of Russia’s populations rather than the patronizing stereotypes evident among many Western policy makers who see them as passive followers of autocratic rulers. With open support from the West for pluralism, democracy, and regional sovereignty, Russia’s citizens will realize they are not globally isolated. They will also need information Moscow suppresses, particularly on the political and economic advantages of forming new states that will cultivate cooperative relations with all neighbors. Russia’s rupture and the emergence of new entities is likely to be a prolonged process which can generate new instabilities for which Washington needs to prepare and minimize any spillovers and escalation of regional conflicts.
Nonetheless, the positive results of Promethean Liberation must also be acknowledged and pursued, as several arising states can become new allies for Western and Eastern democracies, whether across the Atlantic, Pacific, or Arctic Oceans. American leaders should not fear the collapse of a failed empire but view it as an opportunity to intensify multi-national cooperation, open and expand new markets, and help embryonic democracies to develop. The most effective way to prevent any imperial resurgence by Moscow is to recognize the independence of all republics and regions seeking statehood. Trans-Atlanticism, Trans-Pacificism, and Trans-Arcticism will become the three directions of new states and regions seeking inclusion in multi-state institutions.
Polish-Ukrainian Neo-Prometheism is based on an optimistic vision of Europe and Eurasia, in which freedom ultimately prevails over imperial subjugation. Warsaw and Kyiv can play a facilitating and advisory role for Promethean Liberation. They will be the conduits for international recognition and membership in international institutions. They can also serve as models for political and economic development. The foundations and structure of each emerging state and federation must be deliberated, because a power vacuum could emerge in the region much faster than we have anticipated as the central government in Moscow weakens or is disrupted through escalating power struggles and potential mutinies and coups.
Among the priorities for debate on the liberation agenda are the role of current Moscow‑appointed governors in the transition to independence, the holding of national elections and referenda on questions of statehood, drafting of republican and confederal constitutions, the involvement of diasporas in the development of their home countries, and the administrative structure of new states. Such a planning process can itself engender cooperation across national, ethnic, linguistic, regional, and religious lines, both in exile and in country. Cross-national and cross-regional cooperation will also be important, especially between the national republics in the North Caucasus, Idel-Ural, south Siberia, and the far East, in which strategies and experiences in state construction and international connections can be shared.
Critics of neo-Prometheism may claim that many of the emerging states will not be open democracies but new autocracies and point to Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan as examples. However, Promethean Liberation is a clearcut concept in which the first stage for ensuring progress for subject nations and regions is independence and statehood. Without liberation from Russia there is little chance for democratic development, but with liberation the democratic West and East will gain new partners and be able to exert stronger political and economic influence on embryonic states. In its essence, Promethean Liberation offers new horizons and opportunities for nations and regions seeking to defy the stagnant and repressive status quo imposed by the increasingly obsolete Olympian gods.
Other stories by Janusz Bugajski
Other stories illustrated by Ludvig Ödman
Janusz Bugajski is a Senior Fellow at the Jamestown Foundation in Washington DC. His recent book is Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture. The Ukrainian and Russian editions are available at failedstate.com.ua. His next book is titled Pivotal Poland: Europe’s Rising Strategic Player.
 Janusz Bugajski, Failed State: A Guide to Russia’s Rupture, Jamestown Foundation, Washington DC, 2022.
 Taras Kuzio, “Poland and Ukraine: The Emerging Alliance that could Reshape Europe,” Ukraine Alert, Atlantic Council, April 12, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbfpd [Accessed July 2023].
 Jonathan D. Smele, The “Russian” Civil Wars, 1916–1926: Ten Years That Shook the World, Oxford University Press, 2017.
 Jan Jacek Bruski, Between Prometheism and Realpolitik: Poland and Soviet Ukraine, 1921–1926, Jagiellonian University Press, Krakow, 2017.
 Marcin Kwiecień and Grzegorz Mazur, “Kilka dokumentów z dziejów ruchu prometejskiego w II Rzeczypospolitej,” Czasy Nowożytne, Vol. XII (XIII)/ 157–171, 2002, Muzeum Historii Polski, Warsaw.
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2016, p.416.
 Jonathan Levy, The Intermarium: Wilson, Madison, & East Central European Federalism, Dissertation.Com: Boca Raton, Florida, 2006, p.168.
 Ibid., p.169.
 Edmund Charaszkiewicz, “Zbiór Dokumentów ppłk. Edmunda Charaszkiewicza, Opracowanie, Wstęp i Przypisy (A Collection of Documents by Lt. Col. Edmund Charaszkiewicz, edited, with introduction and notes by) Andrzej Grzywacz, Marcin Kwiecień, Grzegorz Mazur (Biblioteka Centrum Dokumentacji Czynu Niepodległościowego, Krakow, Księgarnia Akademicka, 2000.
 Jonathan Levy, The Intermarium: Wilson, Madison, & East Central European Federalism, Dissertation.Com: Boca Raton, Florida, 2006, pp.172–174.
 Ibid., pp.301–305.
 Marek Jan Chodakiewicz, Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2016, p.224.
 UATV English. “Kazan Tatars. Prisoners of Moscow. Struggle for Sovereignty | The Nation”. YouTube, February 7, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbhle [Accessed July 2023]; “Kalmyks: enslaved Mongolic people of the Caspian region”. YouTube, April 12, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbhms [Accessed July 2023]; “The Buryats. The Nation. To die for the imperial ambitions of the Kremlin. UATV documentary”. January 10, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbhnr [Accessed July 2023]; “Bashkirs have been fighting for independence from Russia for 300 years — ‘The Nation’ project”. March 30, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbhoj [Accessed July 2023]; and Tuvans: “‘Our Future Is Outside of Russia’: Tyva Wants Independence”. June 22, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://surl.li/jbhot [Accessed July 2023].
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 Based on personal meetings and discussions in Kyiv, Warsaw, Brussels, and Washington throughout 2023.
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 Paul Goble. Windows on Eurasia — New Series. “Approaching End of Today’s Russia More Likely to Resemble 1918 than 1991”. April 29, 2023. [Online]. Available from: http://windowoneurasia2.blogspot.com/2023/04/approaching-end-of-todays-russia-more.html [Accessed July 2023].