Crimea crisis: Will the Yalta rules apply?

Analysis: Hard-nosed bargaining based on balance of leverage on the ground usually shapes outcome of geopolitical parley

Russia's President Vladimir Putin (C) chairs a government meeting in his Novo-Ogaryovo residence, outside Moscow on March 5, 2014.

The key players in the Ukraine standoff all say they’re ready to negotiate a solution, but they can’t agree over the terms on which the crisis will be resolved. The White House said Friday that President Barack Obama in a phone call with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin had reiterated his demand that Russia withdraw troops from Crimea and negotiate directly with the new government in Kiev, while his administration has imposed limited sanctions on individuals deemed to be involved in Russia’s intervention. But Putin shows no inclination to heed those demands, and he refuses to recognize a government created through street protests which Moscow says is not representative of all Ukrainians.  Russian troops have, instead, strengthened their grip on the Crimean peninsula, while the region’s parliament has called a March 16 referendum on seceding from Ukraine and reuniting the peninsula with Russia – a plan denounced Friday by the U.S. and the European Union.

The Ukrainian city whose history may be most predictive of the terms on which the current standoff will be resolved may not be Kiev or Donetsk, Simferopol or Sevastopol. It may, in fact, be Yalta. It was in that Crimean resort city that Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin in February 1945 effectively divided postwar Europe into rival “spheres of influence” in which the allies tacitly acknowledged one another’s extra-territorial prerogatives. And the principles that shaped the Yalta outcome may also determine the political solution to today’s Crimea crisis.

The key principle in play at Yalta — and throughout the history of geopolitical parley — was that seats at the negotiating table and the shape of what was agreed there was determined not by the strength of moral claims, but by the balance of real leverage among key players.

To the suggestion that the Pope be invited to join the talks, for example, Stalin countered, “How many divisions has (the Pope) got?” He was reminding his interlocutors that the only reason they were talking to the leader of the Soviet Union, a state their countries had tried to crush in its infancy, was because of the massive power of the Red Army. The Soviet military had fought the lion's share of the war against the Nazis and was bearing down on the German heartland by the time of Yalta. It was the balance of facts on the ground that necessitated Stalin – but not, say, Charles De Gaulle – from having a seat at the table. And it’s in this tradition of unsentimental horse-trading that Cold War diplomacy was practiced.

Ukraine, today, is a classic Cold War standoff, and the policies being adopted by the current Western leadership earned a rebuke on Thursday from veteran Cold Warrior Henry Kissinger.

"The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never be just a foreign country," the former Secretary of State wrote in a Washington Post op ed. "Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then." Today, Ukraine remains of central importance to Russia's national strategy.

Kissinger blamed the crisis on the immaturity of Ukraine’s 23-year-old democracy, where pro-Russian and anti-Russian leaders — each of whom has at various points won a narrow majority of votes from a divided electorate — have refused to cooperate and share power. "A wise U.S. policy toward Ukraine would seek a way for the two parts of the country to cooperate with each other," Kissinger wrote. "We should seek reconciliation, not the domination of a faction." But, he warned, "Russia and the West, and least of all the various factions in Ukraine, have not acted on this principle. Each has made the situation worse. Russia would not be able to impose a military solution without isolating itself at a time when many of its borders are already precarious. For the West, the demonization of Vladimir Putin is not a policy; it is an alibi for the absence of one."

Kissinger urged that the idea of NATO membership for Ukraine — Russia’s key strategic fear — be taken off the table if a political solution is to be achieved, and recommended that Ukraine adopt the independent but geopolitically neutral posture of Finland rather than alignment with either Moscow or the West.

Through the Yalta lens, of course, the leverage being wielded by Obama and his allies has not been of sufficient magnitude to change Putin’s calculations. Russia’s most important economic ties are with the European Union, particularly Germany, which has reportedly resisted anything more than symbolic wrist-slap measures such as suspending preparations for a G-8 summit in Sochi and talks with Moscow over liberalizing visa rules.

Putin will be listening less to the grave language coming from Washington than he will be watching the extent of leverage the European powers are willing to muster to reverse the facts on the ground created by his intervention. “There isn’t that much that we could do at the end of the day," Finland's Europe Minister Alex Stubb told the Financial Times after a day of EU meetings on how to respond to the crisis. "And I think the Russians know that.”

Moscow lost its footing in Ukraine when the government of its corrupt and incompetent proxy, Viktor Yanukovich, imploded two weeks ago, but it has recovered significant leverage by cementing its hold on Crimea with boots on the ground — and the implied threat that it could intervene to put major Russian-speaking cities of eastern Ukraine, such as Donetsk, Kharkiv and Odessa, outside of Kiev’s control. Russia will suffer consequences, of course, but right now the most significant ones may be more in the damage to its long-term prospects for attracting foreign investment than in any pain inflicted by the current menu of sanctions.

One key indicator of the balance of leverage that will shape the outcome of the Ukraine crisis will be whether Russia agrees to bilateral talks with the new government in Kiev, as the U.S. has demanded, or whether it keeps the diplomatic parley confined to the big powers while demanding a new power-sharing government in Ukraine. By the Yalta rules, it’s the balance of leverage that will determine who is at the table — and also what’s agreed there.

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