When Russian President Vladimir Putin mentioned Yalta at the beginning of his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, he was invoking history on many levels.
“The decision to establish the UN [was] made in our country, at the Yalta Conference of the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition,” Putin told the assembly. He made it clear he was speaking as the head of the Russian state, the legal successor of the Soviet Union, and of the men who formulated the principles of the post-World War II global order.
The phrase “our country” was full of meaning. In 2014 Putin deliberately re-drew the map of the world when Russia took over Crimea, including its famous port-city of Yalta. But Yalta was also the place where Joseph Stalin perfected the art of re-shaping international geography in 1945. By Putin’s logic, that makes Russia the birthplace of the UN.
First of all, the three men strongly disagreed. Secondly, Stalin was not ready to talk about UN voting procedures. Third, he argued that the Soviet republics of Ukraine and Belarus should get their own seats—Roosevelt relented on this in order to appease Stalin and guarantee Soviet support in the unfinished war with Japan.
Finally, the Yalta Conference was one of several places where the formation of the UN was discussed. It was first debated at Dumbarton Oaks in 1944 and the full planning for the new organization happened in San Francisco in April 1945.
Putin’s invocation of history was again not quite correct when, declaring that the world’s powers should united against a common foe, he compared the coalition against Islamic terrorists he wants to create in Syria—on his own terms—with the Allies’ World War II coalition against Hitler. Including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in an anti-ISIS coalition would in fact be more like inviting Franco or Mussolini to join the fight against Hitler.
A harbinger of Putin’s historical discourses in New York came a few days earlier from Warsaw, when the Russian ambassador Sergei Andreev sparked outrage by accusing Poland of being partially to blame for World War II, claiming that the country had blocked the formation of an anti-Hitler coalition. (No doubt it was Poland’s reticence that forced Stalin to make a deal with Hitler).
Andreev’s statement was seen as an insult to the memory of the 22,000 Polish officers massacred by the Soviet regime in the Katyn Forest in 1940. People are asking how a diplomat can work in a country he hates with such passion that he distorts the meaning of a whole historical period. Or is this an example of coercive diplomacy Russian-style?
Russia’s attempts to project “soft power” by using historical analogies are not working. Maybe this is because the current regime maintains its legitimacy not only with the memory of historical victories, but thanks to defeats poorly disguised as victories.
Even Syria has historical associations for the Russian public, as it provides them with a fond reminder of the Soviet Union’s “traditional” spheres of interest. As for the Yalta Conference of 1945, there was also a declared and a hidden message in Putin’s speech. The real result of Yalta was not a “concert of nations,” but the division of the world into spheres of influence. This kind of division is surely the ambition of the man who is the legal successor of everything Soviet, including “our Syria” and “our Yalta.”
The parallels between the late Soviet era and contemporary Russia are indeed striking. But is this analogy applicable? Not entirely. To assess Russia’s future we should look not to its own recent history, but to the developments in countries that experienced similar transitions.
Vladimir Putin is making a bid to regain global respectability by leading a fight against ISIS and evoking the anti-Hitler coalition of World War II. The West is yet to be convinced that the appeal to be “brothers-in-arms” is serious.
Many people are trying to rewrite the history of the 2008 Georgia-Russia War in the light of the Ukraine crisis. The EU’s report on the war is still a useful baseline and a reminder of how different the two conflicts are.
The recent decline in the Chinese stock exchange reveals economic weaknesses that Russia had been trying to ignore. Russia’s relationship to China has too many emotional mood swings and needs to be more pragmatic.
A new Ukrainian campaign to blockade Crimea is a gift for the Kremlin as it tries to distract the public’s attention away from the major challenges facing the peninsula and the questionable actions being undertaken by the Russian government against its population.
Even as confrontation deepens between Russia and the West in other parts of the post-Soviet space, the Karabakh conflict has its own logic and still compels the geopolitical rivals to work together.
As the Russian economy declines, Vladimir Putin faces a classic choice between greater freedom and more repression
Local elections in Russia last weekend seemed to confirm the dominance of United Russia, the "party of power." But the Kremlin may be forced to end its reliance on United Russia before next year's Duma elections.
Russia's oil and gas industry faces long-term systemic problems, even in the unlikely scenario that the price of oil rises sharply again. This has severe implications for the country's economic prospects.
Eurasia Outlook provides insight into this critical but difficult-to-understand region with analysis from Carnegie’s experts in Moscow, Washington, and other leading voices.
Sign up to receive Eurasia Outlook updates in your inbox! Fields marked with an asterisk (*) are required.
You are leaving the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy's website and entering another Carnegie global site.