The Early Demise and the Long Afterlife of Yalta-Potsdam Diplomacy

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

The Early Demise and the Long Afterlife of Yalta-Potsdam Diplomacy

Derek Fraser

Featured remarks by former Canadian Ambassador to Ukraine, Greece, and Hungary, Derek Fraser, delivered during UA HES Special Event: Contested Ground, at the University of Alberta in Edmonton AB, October 23-24, 2015.


A call for a return to Yalta-Potsdam diplomacy has become for the Russians, a slogan for restoring Russia’s lost great power status and equality with the United States. Russia intends to be accepted again as a great power by bringing the other former Soviet republics back under its control, weakening NATO and the EU, and establishing new East-West structures, in which Russia would have a veto, to be the principal instruments for governing European affairs. Consequently, in our relations with Russia, we are traversing a long, difficult, and dangerous period with no easy solutions. Under the circumstances, we must maintain robust sanctions against Russia, NATO, and enable Ukraine to continue to withstand a long war of attrition.


In order to understand the significance for Eastern Europe of the Potsdam Conference as the last of the three wartime and post-war Summits, I propose to look at the Conference from the point of view of the policies pursued by Russia at the Summits.
Zbigniew Brzezinski in an essay in written in 1984, summarized Soviet wartime objectives as follows:

  • “first, recovery of the territorial status quo ante as of June 1941;
  • second, securing politically acquiescent regimes in east-central Europe;
  • third, gaining a preponderant voice regarding the political organization of the rest of Europe.” (1)

He noted the continuity between the first two Soviet objectives and Czarist aims in the First World War.
At the Potsdam Conference, the Soviet Union had to accept that the third goal, a preponderant voice in the organization of the rest of Europe, was not attainable because the United States would not be withdrawing from the continent.
The Soviet Union gained, however, other advantages. The task of the Conference was to decide on the structure of the administration of Germany and Austria, the distribution of German reparations, the location of Poland’s boundaries, the Soviet Union’s role in Eastern Europe and the prosecution of the war against Japan.

In an atmosphere of increasing suspicion and acrimony, the Potsdam Conference initiated the division of the continent. In order to avoid having the Western zones of occupation in Germany pay for the Soviets’ considerable demands for reparation, the US Secretary of State, James Byrnes, proposed, and Stalin accepted, to divide Germany into two economic units. Stalin built on this division by suggesting that the German liquid assets should be split between the parties along a line running from the Adriatic to the Baltic, the border of the zone of nascent Soviet control. (2) Stalin also rejected any Western involvement in Eastern Europe. Stalin did, however, agree to declare war on Japan.

For the Russians, furthermore, the three summits established a basis for dealing with major international issues during the Cold War, under which the Soviet Union, as a great power, negotiated on an equal standing with the West, and especially the United States.

The Russians complain that, since the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union, Russia is no longer treated as an equal, and the United States acts unilaterally.

At least since the return to power of President Putin in 2012, Yalta-Potsdam has become for the Russians, a symbol for its lost great power status and equality with the United States. The aim of current Russian policy is to recover its great power status by bringing the other former Soviet republics back under effective Russian control, weakening NATO and the EU, and establishing new East-West structures, in which Russia would have a veto, to be the principal instrument for governing European affairs. The continuity between these goals and the Soviet Union’s wartime aims, may not be coincidental.

Let us look first at Russia’s attempt to bring the other former Soviet republics to heel. Ruslan Pukhov, the director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, which is close to the Ministry of Defence, and the author of an authoritative study of the new Russian Military Doctrine, declared in August 2013 that to achieve the aim of the Russian National Security Doctrine-2020, which is the renaissance of Russia as a great power, required the restoration of Russian dominance over the other former Soviet Republics. Russia could, if necessary, use force to achieve its objectives. (3)

The chief instrument for establishing Russian dominance is the Eurasian Economic Union. (EEU), which replaced the Customs Union on 1 January 2015. The Russians hope that the EEU will grow into a geopolitical bloc. (4) For Russia, Ukrainian membership in the EEU was essential to the success of the organization.

In September 2013, Putin’s aide for developing the Eurasian Economic Union, Sergei Glaziev, warned Ukraine that, if it signed the EU Association Agreement, which would have made Ukrainian membership in the Eurasian Economic Union impossible, Russia would institute a trade boycott and might support secessionist movements in Ukraine. (5)

The overthrow of President Yanukovych of Ukraine in February 2014, and the decision of the new government to sign the EU Association Agreement, and to apply for membership in NATO, launched President Putin on his campaign to subjugate Ukraine.

To achieve this goal, Russia, not only seized Crimea, but launched the secessionist movement in Donetsk-Luhansk for the purpose of giving the Moscow-controlled areas a veto over the domestic and foreign policies of the central government.

An influential voice on Russian foreign policy, Sergey Karaganov, the Honorary Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defence Policy, and a Kremlin adviser, stated in April 2014 that Russia wants “a united, federative Ukraine, if possible. Only this arrangement will maintain the formal integrity of the state, but Ukraine as a full-fledged state will be a distant historical memory.” “This scenario will ensure Russia’s de facto dominance in east and southeast Ukraine and semi-autonomy for the country’s west.” (6)

While the Russian military campaign in the East of Ukraine has stalled, the Russian intentions remain the same. President Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov made it clear at the beginning of September this year that the Russian position remains as it had been since the beginning, that a special status for Donetsk-Luhansk had to negotiated between Ukraine and Donetsk-Luhansk and incorporated into the constitution of Ukraine. Lavrov raised the possibility of the federalization on the same basis of all of Ukraine. If this were carried out “then the Minsk armistice will be complied with” (Interfax, September 2). (7)

Among the many Russian speeches and articles that have advocated a return to the Yalta-Potsdam system of diplomacy, the most recent is perhaps an address given by Igor Ivanov, the former Foreign Minister and Secretary of the Security Council, in June in Beijing at the Fourth World Forum for Peace. He stated: “… in retrospect, the Yalta-Potsdam system … was able to maintain peace and stability in the world for forty years.” “…the end of the Cold war also opened new opportunities for European nations to work with each other in promoting security and prosperity across the continent. Unfortunately, these expectations turned out to be premature at best.” “… major European powers – along with the United States – preferred to place their hopes with old institutions, inherited from the Cold war period. “The perception evidently was that the mere geographical expansion of these old institutions – like NATO and the European Union – would automatically bring along peace, stability and prosperity. In reality, however, the old structures and institutions turned out to be too slow, too bureaucratic and too loaded with antiquated political luggage to respond in a timely and successful way to modern challenges and threats.”

“The Ukrainian crisis has become a very explicit manifestation of the fragility of the European security architecture.” (8)

What should replace the current security architecture, was spelled out by President Medvedev in 2008, immediately following the Russian-Georgian War.

In August that year, he set out the principles of Russian foreign policy. Among them were:

  • The world should be multipolar. Russia did not accept the primacy of the United States in the international system.
  • Russia would protect the interests of Russians wherever they are.
  • “As is the case of other countries, there are regions in which Russia has privileged interests.” (9)

It is worth noting that the second of these principles, the protection of Russians abroad, has given Russia an instrument of coercion, certainly over the other Soviet republics, but perhaps further afield. A law in 2009 gave the government the authority to intervene militarily abroad in support of Russians. The Russians use the terms Russians, Russian speakers and Russian compatriots indiscriminately. Putin defended the invasion of Ukraine by the need to protect Russian compatriots. Under Russian law, the term compatriot includes a former citizen or descendant of a former citizen, of the Soviet Union or the Russian Empire, making the Russian claim of a right to protect Russian compatriots another instrument for controlling the other former Soviet republics. Thus, a disgruntled Pole or Finn would have the right to ask for Russian military intervention to right wrongs. (10)

In October 2008, Medvedev followed up the statement of foreign policy principles by a proposal for a European Security Treaty that would have:

  • devalued existing security arrangements, such as the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty (CFE),
  • prevented NATO from acting independently of Moscow,
  • weakened the independence of the East European Countries by dropping the OSCE principles of:
    • the inviolability of borders,
    • non-intervention in internal affairs,
    • respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms, and
    • equal rights and self-determination of peoples. (11) (12)

Russia also proposed a Union of Europe between Russia and the EU. The Union would co-ordinate energy, military, political, and strategic matters. In October 2014 Foreign Minister Lavrov stated that this agreement would be based on a system of indivisible security where no country would strengthen its security at the expense of the others. Such provisions could prevent the EU from acting independent of Moscow in important areas. (13) North America would not be included.

For several reasons, the West has largely ignored the Russian proposal, although the EU has offered to negotiate free trade with the Eurasian Economic Union, provided East European countries would be free to decide whether or not they wished to join the Eurasian Economic Union.

The Medvedev proposals apparently remain the Russian position. For Foreign Minister Lavrov, speaking on 20 October 2014, the Ukrainian civil war could have been avoided if Russia’s proposed treaties on European security had been concluded, or Russia had been party to the negotiation of the EU’s Association Agreement with Ukraine. (14)

In a speech on 24 October 2014, Putin stated that the Ukrainian civil war was an example of a conflict “at the intersection of major states’ geopolitical interests,” “and I think it will certainly not be the last” without a clear system of mutual commitments and agreements. (15)

As James Sherr has noted, Lavrov stated in the same month in another speech, that Moldova and the Baltic states should ‘consider events in Ukraine and draw conclusions’. (16)

This examination of Russian policy will have been useful if it dispels the illusion that there can be an easy or quick end to the current East-West crisis:

  • The present lull in the fighting in the Donbas does not mean a change in Russian policy. Putin has evidently not given up his aim of rendering Ukraine ungovernable so as to keep it out of NATO and the EU, and eventually to bring it into the Eurasian Economic Union.
  • Giving Ukraine a neutral status, therefore, would likely not satisfy Putin, if Ukraine would still be free to keep its Association Agreement with the EU.
  • Nor would the EU’s proposal to conclude free trade agreement with the Eurasian Economic Union, if Ukraine would be free to retain its ties with the EU.
  • Unless the West accepts the Medvedev proposals, a Western abandonment of Ukraine, whether by removing sanctions against Russia, by not providing sufficient aid to Ukraine, or by recognizing the seizure of Crimea, could merely invite Russian moves against the Baltic States and Moldova.
  • Western acceptance of the Medvedev proposals as they now stand, can lead to the unravelling of NATO, hamstringing the EU, and excluding North America from Europe.

We must face the fact that, in our relations with Russia, we are traversing a long, difficult, and dangerous period with no easy solutions. Under the circumstances, we must maintain robust sanctions against Russia, strengthen NATO, and enable Ukraine to continue to withstand a long war of attrition

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