By Paul Goble
at the conference «Contested Ground: The Legacy of the Second World War for Eastern Europe»
in Edmonton, Canada, 23-24 October 2015
There are three main reasons why events in the past are recalled. Sometimes it is on an anniversary and many are inclined to make reference to them as a marker of the passage of time. More often, someone or other wants two draw lessons – positive or negative – from those events for the present And perhaps most often of all it is because someone wants to hold one event or another up for emulation in the service of his or her own goals.
Yalta is one such event. That we are marking the anniversary because it is a round one is one thing, but the other two reasons are vastly more important. On the one hand, Yalta is a clear example of something that must never be allowed to happen again because any repetition would have consequences even more dire than the original. And on the other, it is something Vladimir Putin and his regime routinely talk about as their ideal of what the international system should again become.
But like many who claim they have a conservative agenda and only a desire to restore this or that aspect of the past, the current Kremlin leader is in fact a radical revolutionary who has selected out of all the things the original Yalta accord meant only three things. Moreover, he seems entirely pleased to pursue a course which would inevitably lead to disaster not only for others but also for his own country. And he utterly fails to recognize that he can be stopped and disaster prevented if the West recognizes what he is doing, why he must be stopped, and even more why he must be punished for what he is doing.
Those three things are my subject here because I believe that unless we think about what Putin’s references to Yalta mean now, we will fail to adequately understand why Putin is so wrong and what is at stake.
Putin’s Tendentious Version of Yalta
Yalta is neither the French Revolution nor the American Civil War, but it has been the subject of an enormous number of books and articles over the years. What is striking is how selective Vladimir Putin has been in his understanding of what that meeting stood for, a selectivity which serves his purposes of aggression against Ukraine and his other neighbors. For him, Yalta was not a temporary accord to deal with the problems of the final months of World War II but a model of how the international system was and from his perspective should be. He could not be more wrong.
That system as created at Yalta in Putin’s estimation has three aspects and only three: First, in it, the only measure of a state’s power is its military strength. Those countries with the strongest militaries get seats at the table; those without, don’t. Second, the countries whose military strength entitles them to a seat at the table have the right to make decisions about those who are not there and to impose their will on them regardless of international law. And third, those militarily powerful countries have the right to spheres of influence around them that other powerful countries must respect and that within those spheres the militarily powerful have the right to dispose of things as they see fit, up to and including forming an empire with themselves at the center.
This reading of Yalta has led Putin in recent months and years to violate the three bedrock principles of the international system that the United States took the lead in putting in place over the last century. First, Putin has acted to unilaterally redraw the borders of neighboring states. He and his supporters claim that they are doing no more than the United States did in Yugoslavia, but that is simply false. The United States did not organize the transfer of Kosovo to Albania. Instead, what we are seeing is naked aggression, covered by a trumped up “referendum” and a massive propaganda effort in Russia and the West.
Second and more seriously, Putin has decided that in service of this goal, ethnicity is more important than citizenship, thus reversing the hierarchy which was the basis of the anti-Hitler coalition and of the formation of the United Nations. Not only does that promote more nationalist and nativist behavior and refugee flows, but invites other countries with large overseas “compatriot” communities – such as China – to follow the same course. A world of that kind will inherently be more unstable and more authoritarian – and thus more inclined to permanent war.
And third and most seriously of all, Putin has challenged the nation-state as the organizing principle of the world and insisted that empires are not only legitimate but necessary. That inevitably entails both repression against minorities and all others within those imperial states and repression against those absorbed into these empires of whatever form, a condition that inevitably will spark resistance and mean that the collapse of his empire, when it comes, will truly be the nightmare many had but that did not occur in 1991, a “Yugoslavia with nukes.”
A Second Yalta Would Be Worse than the First
Those are just some of the negative consequences of a new Yalta. In fact, there are three others which matter even more. First, if at the Yalta conference, the West made concessions because it was in a position of relative weakness in Eastern Europe, now it would be making concessions when it is in a position of strength if it chooses to be. It would be a triumph of bombast over reality unprecedented in modern times. That would not only lead to the demoralization of the West but would undermine international recognition of and support for those values, making it easier for other despots to challenge those values and the West and in fact guaranteeing that they would do so.
Second, such a step would be the end of NATO and of the Atlantic alliance more generally. That would put all of Europe and not just those on its eastern borders at risk of the worst forms of aggression. It would represent the achievement of what has been a Moscow goal since 1945, since Yalta in fact.
And third, it would open the doors to a Hobbesian world far worse than any of us can imagine.
The West Can and Must Prevent It
Nonetheless, there are some in the West who say a new Yalta, a new grand bargain in the realist tradition, is the best the West can do given Putin’s new assertiveness and an era in which the West has lost its way and self-confidence. Such defeatism is exactly what Moscow’s invocation of Yalta and of fears about a New Cold War is intended to produce. But this is also the result of the shock that Putin has inflicted on Western regimes who were all too ready to believe in “the end of history” because that would let them off the hook and who failed to see what is really going on.
When individuals face unexpected changes, they typically go through three stages: denial, a fevered search for analogies in the past and, only latterly, an empirical focus on what is actually going on. Countries are no different, and the Western world’s response to Putin’s actions in Georgia, Ukraine and elsewhere is a tragic confirmation of that reality. Consequently, the very first step the West must take if it is to respond at all adequately to the challenge Putin presents is to recognize the increasingly poor fit between what Putin is doing and what the West expects. Otherwise, like the German generals who had always expected the Allies to attack across the English Channel at the Pas de Calais when in fact the Allied armies were landing in Normandy, the Western democracies will find themselves unable to respond in a timely and forceful manner.
Second, and arising from that, the West must recognize what Putin already implicitly has even though he says otherwise: national security is not just a military issue. The West needs to focus on economic, communications and other means not just to track what Moscow is doing but also to come up with methods designed to counter it. Had Western governments gone public with the illegally acquired funds Putin and his entourage have in Western bank accounts immediately after the Anschluss of Crimea and excluded Russia from the international banking system, that would have done far more good than any amount of military assistance to NATO front-line states. And had the West been willing to call an invasion an invasion and aggression aggression, that too would have helped. The failure of Western leaders to do so until very late in the game gave Putin a victory he didn’t deserve.
At the same time, however, if military power is not the only defence of a nation’s or an alliance’s security, it must never be forgotten that it is a critical one. The foolish assumption of many in the West that they do not need to spend the money a modern military needs, or that they can rely on sanctions and moral persuasion to protect themselves, is a dangerous delusion to which all too many Western governments have fallen victim. Putin could not be happier with that outcome. The West – and that means all of its members – needs to rearm in order to underscore our seriousness.
Third, Western governments must re-establish something like the coalitions between business and rights activists that allowed them to prosecute the Cold War for so long. Each of the three parties to this arrangement must recognize how different the situation now is, and to make some concessions it won’t like. But unless there is a recognition that fascist regimes like Putin’s are ultimately a threat to all, there won’t be the political will needed to fight them. The first step has to be to tell the truth: what Putin is doing in Georgia or Ukraine is ultimately a threat to the interests of the democratic and free enterprise worlds. That is because it gives primacy to a corrupt politics over individuals and groups far from the political world, and that is a threat that can be understood if Western leaders are willing to speak about it in terms. To date, tragically, they aren’t even willing to stop talking about Moscow as “a partner” and its political system as “a democracy,” a use of words which drains them of all meaning.
Fourth, the West needs to recognize that, in the new world Putin is seeking to create, the best defense is often a good offence—not only militarily but also in all other spheres. Western leaders can and should pre-emptively extend security guarantees to all countries who feel threatened by Moscow. Even Neville Chamberlain did that to the countries of Europe after Hitler tore up the Munich Accords. What he did not do is go back there a second time, much as Western leaders did after Minsk-1 failed. To make sure that offer is credible, the West must spend far more on defense than many of its citizens want. Their ranks include the front-line states as well. It is simply appalling that some of these are talking about only approaching the 2% of GDP target for defense spending sometime later this decade.
The West must go over to the offensive in other ways as well, using its diplomatic heft against Russian aggression. Why have no Russian consulates been closed, no Russian ambassadors sent home and no Russian visas cancelled? Why does Russia still have a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and a veto against any findings against itself? In addition, the West must restart its international broadcasting, especially via direct-to-home satellite channels to Russians and Russian speakers to counter the Kremlin’s lies about the world. And it must recognize that it is engaged in a conflict in which cash, corruption and subversion must be held up to public scrutiny, blocked where possible, and condemned in every case.
Finally, the West must plan for something that no Western leader has yet been willing to talk about. There is no possibility that the world can return to the status quo ante, even if Putin backs down everywhere—something he will not do or, even if he is overthrown, something which no one can count on. The current international order and all its institutions were created at the end or immediately after World War II, often at Yalta in fact. These institutions reflected both the power relations, military and economic, that existed at the time and, equally, expectations about what the allies of the end of that conflict would do in the future.
Those power relations have shifted, and the expectations have not been fulfilled. But now, by his actions in Ukraine, Putin has made a return to the old order impossible, however much those in the quest for “stabil’nost’ über alles” may think otherwise. There needs to be an international organization in which no rogue state can veto any judgement against itself, no matter how many nuclear weapons it may possess. There need to be political and financial arrangements that reflect the shifting balance in the world between the US, Europe and Asia. And all of those things will require new organizations and a new generation of wise men—and now wise women, as well.
Putin and Russia must pay a price for what the Kremlin has done, and that price will not be paid just by having them stop doing it. The world needs to remember the 1957 Krokodil cartoon in which a student complains that he has been given a failing grade even though he has admitted all his mistakes. The way ahead is going to be far more difficult than almost anyone now imagines. But the longer these intellectual and political tasks are put off, the more damage Putin will do, and the harder it will be for the West to defend its values and itself in the future.
Only if we do all these things and more – and the way ahead is going to be hard and difficult because we have delayed so long — restoring and defending our values rather than conceding the ground to those who do not share them and who trample upon them can we hope to avoid a second Yalta. And if we do take these steps, we can look forward to another Yalta anniversary, one in which Putin’s misreading of that accord will stand revealed for just what it was and in which as a result he and his regime will no longer be major players.