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The Myth of Yalta II
The Myth of Yalta II
Despite the improvement in U.S.-Russia relations over the last two years, the belief that the «reset» is doomed remains widespread in both countries.
According to the naysayers, Russia and the United States are fundamentally and inexorably at odds on many issues, in particular their approaches to the countries neighboring Russia.
This view is based on flawed, dated assumptions. A closer look at the facts tells a very different story.
«Reset» skeptics in the two countries have little in common with
one another — as they will be the first to tell you. Yet,
paradoxically, they are united in their fervent belief that the only way
for Russia and the United States to avoid confrontation in the
The Russian skeptics say the reset is meaningless until such a bargain is concluded. Their American counterparts, knowing that the entire mainstream U.S. foreign policy establishment rejects out of hand the very idea of spheres of influence, argue that unless the Obama administration undermines this basic tenet of U.S. foreign policy, the return of rivalry with Moscow is just a matter of time.
Both views ignore the fact that today «grand bargains» between great powers to delineate «spheres of influence» are impossible.
First, unlike when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in Yalta to carve up Europe, both Russia and the United States are party to a whole host of international treaties, from the United Nations Charter to the Helsinki Final Act, that guarantee the right of all states to make their own foreign policy choices. Particularly relevant is the 1990 Charter of Paris for a New Europe in which all signatories committed to «strive for a new quality in [their] security relations while fully respecting each other’s freedom of choice in that respect.»
Second, even if one of the sides tried to impose decisions
on a country in the region against the will of its
citizens, it would likely fail. This is particularly true in the
countries where perceived U.S.-Russia rivalry is said to be most
acute, like Ukraine. Whatever
Moscow’s or Washington’s intentions might have been, neither the
victor in the presidential race there last year nor his main rival were
running on a
But even if it were possible, a grand bargain between Moscow and Washington is unnecessary. Historically, spheres of influence were delineated between irreconcilable rivals — for example, between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Today, differences between Moscow and Washington vis-à-vis the former Soviet region can be largely accounted for by mutual misperceptions — not a fundamental divergence of interests.
Ghosts from the Cold War that continue to haunt both capitals are
largely to blame. Many in Moscow are convinced that Washington
is inclined to support
For Washington, even discussion of the region with Moscow, let alone joint action there, is a fraught endeavor, in large part because it immediately conjures the ghost of Yalta: the lingering sense of responsibility many Americans feel for those arrangements which gave the Soviet Union a virtual carte blanche to impose repressive regimes fashioned in its own image on the states of Central and Eastern Europe. And although Moscow no longer claims to be the font of world revolution or the keeper of an expansionist ideological flame, these phantoms of past transgressions against smaller countries in the region continue to haunt many in the United States.
But if we put historical experience and inflammatory rhetoric to the side, it quickly becomes clear that both countries are shadow boxing with imaginary adversaries.
Russia’s political transformation clearly has a long way to go, but there are no longer any fundamental reasons for a division of Europe. Nevertheless, Washington often seems to operate on the assumption that cooperation with Moscow would necessitate imposing decisions on Russia’s neighbors against their will.
Yet recent tragic events in Belarus demonstrate the opposite
to be the case. Prior to the purported
But neither Brussels nor Washington made an effort to talk
directly with Moscow about the situation in Belarus, let alone coordinate
their efforts. The Kremlin seems to have grown suspicious that Belarus was
somehow about to be wrested away, and did
The continuation of this dated approach to the former Soviet region by both sides does pose an imminent threat to the «reset." But the conclusion of a new Yalta agreement is not an option for resolving the problem. The fact is that there are no longer any insurmountable conflicts between Moscow and Washington that would require a «grand bargain» to mitigate. The alleged spheres of influence that drive policy makers in both capitals into fits are little more than a figure of speech.
Samuel Charap is a fellow in the National Security and International Policy Program at the Center for American Progress; Mikhail Troitskiy is an adjunct professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations.
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