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Ben Robinson

Russia Yearns for Yalta

Nico de Pedro

This is an edited translation of an article in Spanish published on The Objective. Published with permission.

The original is here.

Russia both wants to be a part of Europe. And at the same time, it doesn’t. This contradiction reflects both the ups and downs Russia has been through since the fall of the Soviet Union, and  the dilemmas over its collective identity (the Russian idea) and its place in the world. The Kremlin yearns for the times when nobody questioned either its power to impose its will at home and on its neighbours or its right to a place at the top table where international relations are settled. Moscow wants a return to the spirit of Yalta (1945) more than the principles of the Helsinki Agreement (1975). But the world has changed completely and rapidly, and the Kremlin feels uncertain in the face of forces which it no longer dominates in a globalized and inter-dependent world, and with which it feels poorly equipped to cope. The Russian economy lacks the necessary dynamism to sustain its grand plans for the restoration of the sort of state power which Moscow wants; and this will remain so for the foreseeable future. To change this, structural reforms would be needed which the Russian government is not willing to make. Nevertheless, the Kremlin will continue to march ahead at all costs, whilst at the same time looking backwards. Imperial grandeur – be it Tsarist or Soviet – is the mirror in which Moscow sees itself.

Russia openly questions the accepted order of European security, which it sees as being dominated by NATO (for which, read the US), backed up by the European Union. This makes Russia feel sidelined and irrelevant. In Spain - as often happens elsewhere in Western Europe - a certain intellectual inertia leads some to accept uncritically the Kremlin’s complaints and its point of view. One should not lose sight of the fact that Moscow conceives its international relations – and the architecture of European security is no exception – as an exclusive issue whereby strong countries who are equals have the right to use their power to subdue the weak, who must abide by their status as vassal states. But this idea inevitably implies that there exist areas of influence, and that some states have limited sovereignty. This proposal clashes head on with the principles which maintain the process of European integration put forward by the EU, or a community based on collective security for democratic states, such as NATO.

We do not know – or at least we cannot be absolutely certain – what Moscow’s exact plans are. Territorial ambitions beyond the former Soviet space seem to be neither a likely option nor a rational one. But the fuel which feeds and guides the Kremlin is its acute post-imperial syndrome, and a profound feeling of defeat and grievance against the West. So it’s not enough to consider the rational approach. The annexation of Crimea, for example, was unthinkable before it occurred; and it is impossible to understand it without taking into consideration the emotional factor. Likewise, the nationalistic fervour, bordering on hysteria, which this unleashed in Russia. In recent weeks – mostly as a result of the unpopular pension reform – social well-being as an objective and rational issue has once again taken up the central position in the Russian political debate. Nevertheless, the emotional factor, the Russian idea of the grandeur of the Motherland, will remain relevant.

The bloody war in Ukraine should be seen from both perspectives. The inability of the Putin regime to carry out structural reforms entails the need to maintain captive markets against more competitive neighbours such as the EU or China. This is why Moscow was willing to do everything - including, as we witnessed, start a war - in order to keep Ukraine within the orbit of the paralysed Eurasian Economic Union. At the same time, the desire of most Ukrainians to be closer to the EU comes into conflict with the Kremlin’s idea of the identity and scope of Russian civilisation. Until then, Russia and Ukraine (and to an extent Belarus) were just about the only former Soviet countries which did not have a clear narrative about the end of the USSR and its significance. Russia, oddly enough, also gained its ‘independence’ from the Soviet Union. The future of both countries is uncertain; but the Russo-Ukrainian War is consolidating two clearly separate and even diametrically opposed political identities. The war in the Donbass, which is a tool in the Kremlin’s hands and not an end in itself, will likely remain unresolved for a long time to come, even if a permanent ceasefire is achieved.

It is not surprising that Russia tries to militarise its dispute with the Europeans, and often uses language which is both ambiguous and aggressive enough to concern them. Moscow feels confident in this domain and assured that it has operational and strategic advantages over the EU, which was conceived with the precise aim of eradicating military conflict from European soil. So for Russia, eroding the transatlantic link, and even the hypothetical disappearance of NATO, is an objective of utmost strategic importance. Neither now nor in the foreseeable future is there a credible military alternative to the US security umbrella for Europe.

Furthermore, Russia seems convinced both that military force will be a determining factor in the forging of a new global order, and that the so-called “international liberal order” (whether such a thing exists or not) faces a systemic crisis which is probably irreversible. This perception is worrisome for Europe, precisely because it encourages an increase in military pressure and the maintenance of confrontation with the Western world that is supposedly in decline in order to gain advantages in a hypothetical reconfiguration of the global order – perhaps a Yalta with the participation of China and maybe India. A multipolar world order is regarded favourably by many Europeans. However, a multipolar reality does not necessarily mean either greater multilateralism or even better global governance.

Interestingly, and despite its economic and social stagnation, Russia sees itself more as part of the emerging order than of the old, declining one. The EU’s tendency for constant self-criticism and fears for an uncertain future probably contribute to this Russian cognitive bias. However, contrary to the view held by those who advocate repairing dialogue and relations with Moscow at any price, rapprochement with Russia and a cooperative and mutually beneficial relationship with Europe will be achieved only if the EU’s position is firm and clear. If not, the Kremlin will maintain its commitment to undermining the European security architecture and eroding the EU and NATO from within by helping political actors with anti-EU agendas; buying support in the corporate world; and the use of widespread and systematic disinformation operations.

Put simply, if there are no obvious costs for the Kremlin, it will continue to be more inclined to confront a Europe that it rejects and desires with the same intensity.

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