As the Ukraine crisis deepens and European countries increasingly worry about the possibility of an all-out confrontation with Russia, the Kremlin has begun to make public the basic conditions of an overall political solution that could stabilize and deescalate the standoff. This week (February 25), Duma speaker Sergei Naryshkin, 60, a member of president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of St. Petersburg acquaintances from the KGB, highly praised the February 1945 Yalta conference of the Big Three—the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom and the Soviet Union, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, respectively. The 1945 conference in the Livadia Palace near Yalta, in Crimea, in essence divided Europe, giving the Soviet Union effective control of the eastern half of the continent. This state of affairs lasted until the end of the Cold War and the collapse of communist governments and the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact in 1990–1991. In the countries of Central and Eastern Europe, “Yalta” has become a symbol of the shameless sellout of smaller European nations by the US and UK that tacitly accepted Stalin’s de facto sphere of influence backed by massive military force. Naryshkin, making a keynote speech at a conference in Moscow in commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Yalta, slammed present British and American leaders for “disowning one of the finest and noble moments of their own and world diplomatic history” (Rossyskaya Gazeta, February 25).
According to Naryshkin, the decisions reached in Yalta in 1945, “reflected the balance of military power” and laid the foundation of a world order that prevented World War III and kept the peace in Europe “almost until the end of the 20th century.” Naryshkin accused the West of “forfeiting the Yalta principals” and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of expanding to Russia’s doorstep, while some Western politicians promote a civil war and “help pro-Nazi forces in Ukraine.” Naryshkin followed up with an attack on the United States, accusing Washington of having “committed crimes against humanity” by its “barbarian and senseless” nuclear bombing of Japanese cities in 1945. US crimes must be investigated and punished, he declared (Rossyskaya Gazeta, February 25).
Earlier this month, a ten-ton bronze sculpture of Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin was erected in the Livadia Palace gardens to commemorate the 1945 conference. The sculpture was cast by well-known Russo-Georgian artist Zurab Tsereteli about a decade ago. It was to be placed in Yalta, but the authorities in Ukrainian Crimea refused the gift, due to protests by Crimean Tatars, who were ethnically cleansed from the peninsula under Stalin’s orders in 1944. Since then, the bronze composition of the Big Three sat in the backyard of a restaurant complex, owned by Tsereteli, in downtown Moscow, sometimes startling unaware patrons who had stepped outdoors to have a smoke. With Crimea taken over by Russia, the Sevastopol regional authorities easily permitted the erection of the controversial sculpture (Krym Realiyi, February 3).
The Kremlin has been actively revising Russian and Soviet history—often rehabilitating its darkest pages. On February 15, on the anniversary of the 1989 withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan, Putin publicly reversed the official evaluation of the Soviet 1979 Afghan invasion as politically and morally wrong. Putin told a gathering of war veterans: “Now we know more about the real threats the Soviet leadership was attempting to counter by invading Afghanistan” (Kremlin.ru, February 15). And as Russian forces occupy Crimea and are actively involved in supporting pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, it may seem a good time to the Kremlin to rehabilitate previous Russian (Soviet) invasions. But Naryshkin’s vocal praise of Yalta 1945 can be more significant than other historical revisions. In fact, it appears to represent a distinct desire on the part of Moscow to resolve the present Ukraine crisis through a new Yalta-2 summit: Western leaders would be expected to recognize the Kremlin’s sphere of interests and special rights not only in Ukraine, but in the entire post-Soviet space.
The fighting in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine has, at present, mostly subsided; though, the ceasefire is fragile, and all sides are wrangling and trying to shift the blame on why the withdrawal of heavy weapons, in accordance with the February 12 “Minsk Two” agreements, is not being fully implemented. A fragile ceasefire may continue in Donbas for some weeks or months, until the fields dry up after the spring thaw, while the warring parties regroup and prepare the troops that have been in intense fighting during the winter campaign. Meanwhile, Moscow and the Russia-backed rebels have made absolutely clear the terms of transforming a wobbly ceasefire into a more permanent settlement: The rebel-controlled regions “may again become part of Ukraine, if it is a different nation with a different constitution” (Interfax, February 26). A fundamental change of regime and the national constitution in Kyiv could be guaranteed by some Yalta-2 summit involving Western leaders—possibly French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who took part in the February 12 Minsk negotiations.
In the absence of a comprehensive Yalta-2 agreement that could settle Ukraine permanently inside Russia’s sphere of influence and (or) a failure by the Kyiv authorities to implement constitutional changes that Moscow—through its proxy rebel forces in Donbas—could approve, the conflict may continue and possibly escalate. The Ukrainian currency, the hryvna is in freefall (Segodnya, February 26). Russian military and political pressure, as well as economic and financial collapse, exacerbated by the war, may lead—it is hoped in Moscow—to a final Ukrainian disintegration. Russia could move in to gather the pieces left over from the failed Ukrainian state instead of continuing with a costly military action. This week, the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta published an analytical paper put together, apparently, by some Moocow think tank a year ago and sent to the Kremlin. The analytical piece describes possible Russian moves to exploit internal hardship in Ukraine in order to take over Crimea and other pro-Russian parts of the country (Novaya Gazeta, February 25).
Of course, as time passes, plans change. Different concepts now circulate in Moscow on how to proceed with Ukraine. But at present, the predominant view in the Kremlin is that the threat is not all about Ukraine per se, but about the West—led by the US, which is somehow using the crisis to contain and hinder Russia. So the best possible solution, the Russian argument seems to imply, is some type of Yalta-2 mutual tradeoff of geopolitical assets. The alternative seems to be further escalation.