UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground
The Legacy of the Second World War in Eastern Europe

1945: The Yalta Summit/Expectations & Results

Yuri Shapoval

Featured remarks by Academician of Ukraine Dr. Yuri Shapoval, delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015.

The year coming to a close has become one of significance not only for us, Ukrainians, but for the entire world. In the context of a series of regional conflicts that are plaguing the international community and the analyses of which vary widely, one of the leading roles, unfortunately, belongs to Ukraine. The military conflict in Donbas continues, the future international-legal status of Crimea has not been settled. The speeches and rhetoric of the lead actors in world politics are once again imbued with the spirit and overarching theme of the Cold War era.

The last cold war, as we all know, began, in fact, immediately with the end of active military fighting on the fronts of the Second World War in September 1945 (with the exception of Japan, which de jure left the war only in 1951, signing the agreement with the United States in the city of San Francisco).

The general strategic positioning prior to the Yalta Summit on 4-11 February 1945 leads us to believe that the war was an instrument. At that time, the leading political players understood that not only military might and its magnitude, but the traits of diplomacy and flexibility would play a significant role in ultimately shaping the post war political map.

At the beginning of 1945, General D. Fuller noted: “…The war was no longer a strategic problem. The battle moved exclusively into the political arena and was no longer being fought among military forces, but between two political systems: on the one side was the system of Western allied nations, and on the other – Russia. At issue was which system would rule in Eastern and Central Europe.”

A similar point-of-view was being advocated by then Prime Minister of Great Britain Winston Churchill: “The closer the war being waged by the coalition nears its end, the greater the significance of the political factors.” The expectations of the British politician came down to a series of key nuances: the limiting at all cost of the influence of Soviet Russia, the absolutely imperative control of Western nations over Berlin, the immediate military liberation by American and British armed forces of Austria and Czechoslovakia, the prevention of the “unilateral” liberation by Soviet armies of Vienna, Prague and Trieste – “pearls of the Adriatic.”

The highlight of the Yalta Summit and its main plot was the position of the President of the United States, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Ultimately, he would decide which post war scenario would prevail in the concluding documents.

American researchers and diplomats to this day have not reached consensus in their assessment of the significance of Yalta. Conservatives and those right of centre consider it to be a demonstration of the weakness, spinelessness, and, in fact, even the “naivety” of the Roosevelt administration. Liberals, centrists and those left of centre support an opposing assessment: The United States successfully maintained the dynamic or “fluid” balance of the foreign political proscenium. The distribution of spheres of influence in the new bi-polar world facilitated the deterrence of a new – nuclear war that would have even greater destructive consequences for the entire world.

In the opinion of Slovak historian Michal Stefansky, “The USA, on principle, was leaning toward the separation of the spheres of influence in Europe. They were criticizing the policy of Great Britain for attempting to restore the imperialist status-quo. According to the vision of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, three victor-states – the USA, the USSR and Great Britain together with China were, in the form of a consultative world council, to protect the world from new aggression. In Great Britain which, according to the American side, was to closely safeguard the fate of the Central-Eastern European countries, they were examining different forms of confederation or federalism on the territory between Germany and Russia. Prior to 1945, the U.S. State Department was conscious of the fact that the USSR would be the dominant force east of the Berlin-Trieste line.”

Therefore, in Stefansky’s opinion, on the eve of the Yalta conference, two main scenarios of the development of events were being evaluated, primarily by Washington. One – on the basis of the Baltic model, in other words the hegemony of Moscow over all territories and countries that will make up the Soviet Union. The alternative being considered was the Czechoslovakian model, in other words, the free development of national states on the condition of «soft» economic cooperation with the West. In foreign policy, western nations would clearly respect the authority of Soviet national security. This model foresaw that the region of Central and South-Eastern Europe would remain an «open sphere of influence.»

On the eve of Yalta the USA and Great Britain sought to preserve this envisioned “open sphere of influence” in which it would be possible to “avoid the economic dependence of the Central-East European countries on the USSR.” This idea, supported by Roosevelt, was criticized by George Kennan who assessed the idea as one “full of erroneous assumptions, dangerous illusions and a lack of understanding of the foundations of Soviet policy,” and he promoted his “doctrine of containing” the USSR.

The Yalta Summit helped destroy these illusions. In fact, in the opinion of previously mentioned Mikhal Stefansky, the scenario predicted by George Kennan played itself out. The issue is a clear delineation of the spheres of influence, with the goal of preventing future confrontations beyond the Berlin-Trieste line. Yugoslavia, Poland, Czechia, Slovakia and Hungary, for a protracted period of time, moved toward the a priori Soviet (Russian) sphere of influence. Ukraine moved from a monarchist patriarchal empire to a Bolshevik partocratic superpower. The same analogy can be made in the case of Poland. With the exception, however, that Poland existed under the pretense of a sovereign state in a “people”s democracy”.

Soviet and contemporary Russian historiography emphasize that precisely due to the unwavering and principled diplomacy of Joseph Stalin the Soviet Union was able to successfully achieve notable tactical successes. How were these successes defined?

1. The meeting of the “Big Three” did in fact take place in Yalta on the territory of a country with the “red dictator” at the helm, but it was precisely this country that suffered the greatest human and material losses in the war. For this reason, for the longest time, the allies, particularly the American President, did not support this option understanding the symbolic subtext. Joseph Stalin, on his part, refused proposals by his counterparts on several occasions to meet on neutral territory (rejecting alternative proposals – Scotland, Greece, Turkey).

2. The Allies were unsuccessful in unilaterally taking control of Berlin, Prague, Trieste and other strategic locations in Central-Eastern Europe.

3. The separate negotiations of Washington and London with anti-Hitler coalitions in Nazi Germany failed.

It is worth noting, that the assessments of the results of the Yalta Summit, which to this day influence the geopolitical map of the world generally and Central-Eastern Europe in particular, are ambivalent in nature. In content they differ: from the complimentary to the reserved. From optimistic to foreboding. From the metaphoric to dry pragmatic.

American and British circles, in their assessments, were guided, in the words of W. Hadsel, by a “heavy anchor of isolationist suspicion of Russia”. Suspicions that, to this day, slow constructive dialogue and cooperation on the most important issues of international security (the non-proliferation of nuclear weaponry, the settlement of military conflicts in Syria and Ukraine, the resolution of the refugee problem in the countries of the European Union, to name only a few.) On its part, the Russian Federation, as we well know, has also taken decisive steps to escalate tensions and consciously violate fundamental international agreements and conventions.

The American journalist Eugene Lions (he worked in the Soviet Union in 1928-1934) wrote about the results of Yalta as the “new Munich and the obvious surrender of Eastern Europe to totalitarianism.” The historian-internationalist from the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Arnold Beichman, on his part, noted that according to the conclusions of Yalta “Roosevelt unintentionally helped Stalin consolidate his hegemony in Central-Eastern Europe.”

A more neutral assessment of the role and significance of the Yalta Summit is offered by Serhii Plokhii: “Whereas the expectations of Yalta can be summed up in the negative assessments, the perceptions of this event differ depending on the political camp of the victor. They say, victors are not condemned. The debates in the U.S. and the Russian Federation… are testimony to the fact that they are being condemned not only by others, but by themselves as well.”

The differing explanations of the results of Yalta lead to new contradictions and mutual complaints among former allies of the anti-Hitler coalition. The delineation of spheres of influence has left the subjective explanation to each individual state.

Today”s Russian Federation – the legal successor and ideological descendent of the Soviet Union – prefers to first fall back on its position as the “main conqueror of fascism.” As is known, Vladimir Putin in fact approved the implementation of a particular Russian project on the Second World War. Now, according to a plan designed by Putin ideologues, the victory should now be painted as a victory for Russia and Russians. This idea now prevails in re-Sovietized text books and other publications, contemporary Russian commemorative initiatives, and symbolisms. Russians also emphasize their contribution to the national adminstrative-territorial development of post-war Poland and Ukraine.

The U.S. and Great Britain refer to the Yalta Summit as an obligatory moment of historic sentiment, and an important milestone in the development of international-legal accountability, claiming Moscow has violated the post-war “fluid balance.”

Events in Hungary in 1956, in Czechoslovakia in 1968, in Moldova in 1992, in Georgia in 2008, and finally, in Ukraine in 2013-2015 return our focus, once gain, to Yalta 1945, to the ritual moralization of its concluding agreements, to the permanent conflict of “mutual blame.”

A separate page of the Yalta meeting – the fate of several million imprisoned Soviet citizens who, as Nikolai Tolstoy wrote, the Stalin regime categorically wrote off as “traitors of the Fatherland.” The post-war fate of the repatriated – Ukrainians, Poles, Belorussians, Jews and others – oddly enough coincided with the fate of their native homelands that were sentenced by history to the new communist reality, “Beyond Good and Evil” (from the relevant thesis of Friedrich Nietzsche).

According to the opinion of some Russian researchers, Joseph Stalin, “having demonstrated intelligent adherence to principles” on the Polish and Ukrainian questions, achieved, in fact, his tactical goal – “the unification of those subjugated by Fascism and Nazism in a new “brotherly subjugation”, a country of common truth, one path and one leader.

In summary, we are becoming convinced that the definitive abstractness of the Yalta agreements played to the advantage of all allies of the anti-Hitler coalition. Contemporary Russian researcher Olga Rychkova justly notes, that “the reaction to the agreements on liberated Europe was based on political improvisations, constructed on the personal interpretations by various groups of the means of implementing the adopted decisions, since the documents from the Yalta gathering did not outline in detail how and what will be done specifically in every Eastern European country.”

Poland, “supplemented” by new territories in accordance with the Yalta agreement, became part of the Russian sphere of influence and the dominant Moscow-centric political discourse. We can hardly forget the words of Franklin Roosevelt at the conclusion of the third meeting in the Livadia Palace. His words were as follows: “…For five centuries the Polish question has given the world a headache.” These words were picked up by Winston Churchill who encouraged everyone to “try to ensure that the Polish question no longer causes a headache for mankind.” And the conversation was concluded by Stalin who underscored that “this must absolutely be done.”

The violation by the Soviet Union of the Yalta agreements, specifically, on the formation of coalition governments in the region of Central-Eastern Europe, resulted in the establishment of communist dictatorships under the protectorate of Moscow on the broad Eurasian territory from the Adriatic to Kamchatka. Along with this, it is worth noting that Poland and Ukraine with their histories and national similarities, the nature of both neighbouring countries, were precisely as a result of the Yalta gathering predestined to a unique “vaccination” against communism. Anti-communism and anti-imperialism formed the key focus in the former countries of the “people”s democracy.” The focus, which will always stimulate the fight against “Russia”s image” (A. Beichman) for the sake of national survival.

The alternative “Czechoslovakian scenario”, which suited Washington and London prior to Yalta, faded away. This was guaranteed thanks to the work of pro-Moscow agents and national-communists in the European states “liberated” by the Red Army. And after Yalta, in the late 1940s of the XX-th century this was responsible for the creation of a “security belt” for the USSR comprised of countries of the “people”s democracy.”

Aside from the jargon of the Cold War in the popular Fulton speech by Winston Churchill in 1946, its true origins should be found in the imaginary Berlin-Triest line, the line where the Red Army detachments stopped and where on the other side of the line stood advancing American-British armies.

Yalta was to draw a “road map” for post war settlement and the formation of a new system of international collective security. The victory over Nazi Germany and its satellites should have given birth to a new ethic for international relations, based on an understanding and a safeguarding of joint responsibility in a bi-polar world, a new system of foreign policy coordinates. Instead, this meeting demonstrated a particular mistrust by the parties, the existence of a singular introverted vision of relations between the superpowers and the scale of political influence of the former allies.

Thank you for your attention!