This blog was posted on the CDA-Institute at https://cdainstitute.ca/law-towards-yalta-two/ on 9 August.
In February 1945, as it was becoming increasingly clear that Hitler Germany was about to lose World War Two, the leaders of the victory camp – US President Roosevelt, UK Prime Minister Churchill and USSR Communist Party General Secretary and Premier Stalin – met at a much-celebrated meeting in Yalta.
Yalta, a resort and spa town in Crimea, was in 1945 part of the Russian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic. It was transferred to Ukrainian control in 1954 by then Soviet leader Khrushchev, himself of Ukrainian origin. It became part of the Soviet successor state, the Russian Federation, in a trumped-up (pun intended) referendum in 2014.
Three features of the Yalta meeting stand out.
First, it was the “big guys” that called the shots. The three leaders meeting in Yalta divided Europe into Soviet and Western zones of influence. Those countries where the Red Army had displaced Hilter’s hordes came under Soviet control. Where America, Britain and their occidental Allies had proved victorious over Germany, a Western sphere took hold.
Second, the meeting was characterized by a strong element of gullibility on the part of the then American President. Roosevelt is said to have believed that through the war-time alliance between the United States and the Soviet Union, Stalin would move to democratize his regime in the aftermath of the conflict.
Third, the European countries whose trajectory was decided at Yalta had absolutely no say in the determination of their fate, with particularly horrific repercussions for those who were to come under Soviet influence. There communist dictatorships were to dominate across Eastern and much of southern Europe for almost half a century.
(In defence of Roosevelt and Churchill, it has to be said that in February 1945, the Red Army was effectively in control of those territories that were attributed to its zone, the American and British populations were war weary and how the atomic bomb might affect the final phase of the conflict was as yet unclear.)
In 2018, almost three-quarters of a century later, the 16 July meeting between US President Trump and his Russian counterpart in Helsinki has taken place under much different circumstances. Still, there are disturbing parallels.
First, whatever Trump and Putin have decided – since they met alone except for interpreters, we do not know what was agreed – can have huge implications for international security. A man who was elected by less than 50% of the American electorate finds himself in a position to reshape the security architecture of the world in tandem with his Russian counterpart, whom I have argued elsewhere has much less of a mandate to do so.
Second, in Helsinki, the gullibility factor was again on display. Trump has repeatedly given Putin a pass on his multiple foreign policy transgressions, downplayed the authoritarian nature of his regime and embraced him as a strong leader with whom he can do business. So, Obama is responsible for the Russian takeover of Crimea! Putin denies that Russia “meddled” in the US 2016 Presidential elections (so it must be true…)! America also kills its dissidents! And all the while, Trump lays into the leaders of traditional American Allies and attacks the institutions which the Western community has relied on to secure its security and prosperity for multiple decades.
Last but not least, the countries whose future will be affected by Helsinki were not at the table. This is particularly threatening for Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, the three post-Soviet states whose territory is partly under Russian control, and countries such as the Baltics where there are significant Russian populations. But several other countries could find themselves at risk in face of an aggressive Russia, a disinterested America and a declawed NATO.
Against this background, I expect that Russia and America are moving towards a new Yalta. The Helsinki meeting will likely only be the first step in a continuing process in which Putin plays Trump – without, or more probably with, his complicity – as the two countries move towards a 21st century version of dividing up geopolitical responsibilities. As it unfolds, this will be characterized by Russia extending its tentacles and the US pulling back its own.
For the time being, it is America and Russia that are forging Yalta Two. Depending on how matters develop on the trade and security front in East Asia, however, the People’s Republic of China could also end up being part of this game. Note that Russia and China are engaged in a strategic relationship and cooperate on a variety of fronts.
There are three overarching factors pushing in the direction of a Yalta Two. Trump’s America wants to disengage from its historical responsibilities. Putin’s Russia wants to re-establish control over post-Soviet space. Xi Jinping’s China wants to neutralize any resistance to Chinese Communist Party dominance in East Asia.
Putin and Xi Jinping are well established authoritarians. Trump is still seeking to become one. My sense is that the three are looking to do a deal à la Yalta 1945.
David Law is a former Head of the NATO Policy Planning and Speechwriting Unit and Senior Fellow for Security Sector Governance at the Geneva Centre for Democratic Control of Armed Forces.
For more from David Law, go to www.davidmlaw.com.