February 17, 2017
By Vadim Shtepa
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first telephone call with the newly inaugurated President of the United States Donald Trump, on January 28, resulted in nothing sensational. A promise to immediately lift US sanctions against Russia never materialized. The parties agreed only to maintain regular contacts and to continue to cooperate on combating international terrorism, first of all, against the Islamic State (Kremlin.ru, January 28). Nevertheless, among many figures close to the Kremlin, there is hope that the new US president’s alleged sympathy for Putin could translate into pulling Russia out of its global isolation—into which Moscow drove itself particularly after starting a war against Ukraine three years ago.
In January, a group of pro-Kremlin “political technologists” (in the former Soviet Union, the rough equivalent of Western political operatives, strategists or “spin doctors”) held a round table on the topic “Russian-US Relations in the Era of the New US President.” One of its members, the director of the Political Conjuncture Center, Alexei Chesnakov, said: “If Trump wants to be a great president, he should be ready to conclude big deals” (Actualcomment.ru, January 31). As a historical model for such a “big deal” the organizers pointed to the Yalta agreement of 1945, according to which US President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill de facto ceded to Joseph Stalin control over half of Europe, recognizing it as part of the Soviet “zone of interest.” As a result, the Soviet Union established Communist regimes across Eastern Europe, which ruled those countries for almost half a century.
Today’s Russia broadly lives in the categories of the past, as underscored by a recently published report from the Moscow-based Free Historical Society (Komitetgi.ru, January 23). One of these categories is a persistent desire to divide the world into rival “geopolitical blocs.” Such thinking permeates the highest levels of the Russian government. Although modern Russia is smaller and weaker than the Soviet Union and lacks a global-reaching ideology like Communism, the Kremlin continues to see the country as one of the world’s major players entitled to its own “zone of privileged interest” (see EDM, April 23, 2009; July 30, 2013; November 18, 2015).
It should be noted that the Kremlin itself has not yet openly called for a “New Yalta.” Rather, this idea is being put forward by a few Russian non-governmental organizations (NGO)—albeit, ones with close links to the people in power. For example, the organization “Crimea Zhongguo,” which supports Crimean-Chinese cooperation, has specifically promoted holding a summit of Russian, US and Chinese leaders, in Yalta (RIA Novosti, January 20). Such a tripartite summit held there would automatically remove the question of Russian sovereignty over Crimea. And it would be a major symbolic victory for Putin.
The call for a Russian-US-Chinese summit in Yalta could be considered a fantasy of one small NGO; but in fact, it reflects standard “political technology” long practiced by the Kremlin. The Russian government often uses radical politicians and movements (Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Alexander Dugin, etc.) to float policy ideas or plans, and then tracks world opinion toward these suggestions. It is worth recalling that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was justified by the purported voiced desire of local residents themselves, and not by the fact that this decision was really made by Putin and his narrow circle. It is thus particularly notable that, in early 2015—against the background of the ongoing war in Ukraine—State Duma (lower chamber of the Russian parliament) speaker Sergei Naryshkin specifically praised the 1945 Yalta agreement reached by the “Big Three” as a format ideal for solving international problems (see EDM, February 26, 2015). Today, however, the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambitions include not only Ukraine, but also Syria.
Whatever the idea’s initial origin, in recent months the topic of a “New Yalta” quickly became widely discussed throughout Russian media. Though, not all responses have been positive. Writing for the Russian daily Vedomosti, philosopher Alexander Rubtsov predicts this project will bring about a “dark future” and resurrect the international confrontations of the 20th century (Vedomosti, January 23).
But how realistic is it to pursue a renewed Yalta today? Such an agreement would require its participants to specifically think in terms of “geopolitical blocs.” Yet, modern China, for example, appears more interested in global-wide economic expansion (see EDM, January 23). And it is unlikely the Chinese government is looking to become embroiled in any sorts of geopolitical confrontations with other countries, especially the US, since this could restrict Beijing’s long-term economic strategy.
Could a “New Yalta” be interesting for the United States? President Trump has already repeatedly dismissed various international institutions and pillars of the current world order as “obsolete,” and he has a reputation for being unpredictable. Perhaps, then, he could be tempted to try to solve global problems in this way—“to get along with Putin” in a new “Big Three” format. But this early into the Trump administration, all such speculation is based solely on unproven assumptions.
In the minds of its supporters in Russia, a “New Yalta,” if it could be negotiated, would relegate the entire post-Soviet space to Moscow’s “zone of privileged interests.” This project’s advocates hope that in exchange for Russian cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State and global terrorism, Trump would close his eyes to Putin’s neo-imperial policy toward Russia’s neighbors. However, those who dream of a second Yalta accord clearly underestimate the scale of the changes that have occurred in the world since 1945, and particularly since the early 1990s. In the last few decades, common values have arguably become more important than “geopolitical blocs.” Civil society, which has become globally interconnected, may well deliver a decisive answer to those politicians who dream of making grand geopolitical bargains in the style of the Big Three. Another important question is whether the Europeans would even agree to be objects of a new “partition of the world” between the superpowers. French commentator Laurent Marchand believes that Europeans today must protect global freedom (Ouest-France, February 3). Indeed, as the fall of the Berlin Wall demonstrated in 1989, a civil initiative by everyday European citizens, not a deal cut by a handful of politicians, remade the world.