As former world chess champion Anatoly Karpov (picture above) – one of the key organizers of the conference – told me after the first session of the conference that it is extremely important to preserve the integrity of historical memory. “Today`s world is experiencing a lot of changes, including the growth of nationalism, tendencies towards disruption of national states, security threats and economic and social challenges,” Karpov said. “We need to remind the world that a dialogue of equals is the key to securing peace.”
On February 4 and 5 I attended a conference in Yalta to mark the 70th anniversary of the famous summit of the Big Three – Stalin, Roosevelt, and Churchill – in the winter of 1945. It was jointly organized by the Foundation for Civil Society Development, the International Association of Peace Funds, and the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation at the historic Livadia Palace, the venue of the famous meeting seven decades ago.
“Yalta” determined the final military operations of World War II, as well as the principles of the postwar world. For all its shortcomings, it provided an example of the interaction of the three great powers in pursuing peaceful coexistence.
My own contribution was focused on the role of Russia as a major European power since Peter the Great to our own time. Russia’s relations with the rest of Europe arguably have never been based on the Western powers’ acceptance of Russia’s great power status, however. European statesmen consistently have tended to regard Russia as an outsider who was only half-heartedly admitted to the table. That admittance was clearly the result of Russia’s military and political strength, not the product of other actors’ willing acceptance that Russia belonged at that table no less than England, France, Prussia, or Austria belonged. This deep prejudice, which often turned into outright antipathy, rested on the implicit assumption that Russia was not a “normal” power.
The sentiment was concisely summed up in Dr. Henry Kissinger’s claim that Imperial Russia’s expansionism was devoid of any self-imposed limits and that therefore it could only be contained by force (“Russia always preferred the risk of defeat to compromise”): “The absolute nature of the Tsar’s powers enabled Russia’s rulers to conduct foreign policy both arbitrarily and idiosyncratically… To sustain their rule and to surmount tensions among the empire’s various populations, all of Russia’s rulers invoked the myth of some vast, foreign threat, which, in time, turned into another of the self-fulfilling prophecies that doomed the stability of Europe.”
This is a remarkable claim. It comes from a scholar and statesman well versed in history, yet it is shockingly inaccurate. To start with, “vast, foreign threats,” far from being a “myth,” are a historical constant. Russia’s heartland has no natural barriers – and that fact has tempted, at various times, various attackers from the West: the Teuton Knights, Poles, Swedes, Napoleon, the Kaiser, Hitler… To claim that “all of Russian rulers” invoked this “myth” is belied by the sustained attempts of Catherine II, Alexander I, and their successors to act within the European balance-of-power system.
On balance, contemporary Western neurosis about Russia can be traced to long-standing European anxieties about “Asiatic, despotic Russia” as a bastion of primitive pre-modernity, dangerously and infuriatingly resistant to “European values.” This deeply ingrained hostility towards Russia as the ultimate “other” was reflected in the early XIXth-century Letters From Russia by Marquis de Custine, where “the veneer of European civilization was too thin to be credible.”
Seven decades after the Yalta Conference,, the challenges which Russia faces from the West in general and from the U.S. in particular – and which it will continue to face for the foreseeable future – are numerous and dangerous. Some commentators have called the events of the past year “a new Cold War,” but they are wrong: the Cold War has never ended, as manifested in two rounds of NATO expansion after the USSR’s collapse and the second crisis in Ukraine in a decade.
The challenges Russia faces are unrelated to Russia’s actual policies. They reflect a deep odium of the Western political and media elite towards Russia-as-such. That animosity exists, and it has been developing in its current form roughly since the time of the Crimean War. Russia needs calm clarity about the nature of the challenge she faces and firmness in the articulation and execution of counter-strategies. Catherine the Great’s diplomat Semyon Vorontsov, who knew the West well, summed it up more than two centuries ago when he defined what Russia needed in her diplomacy: “Firmness is the most important quality; brains and knowledge are nothing without firmness.” He also understood that “the more you demean yourself, the more others will humiliate you.”
Putin understands, too. We are witnessing the end of the notion of “Europe from the English Channel to Vladivostok.” The economic impact on Western Europe will be catastrophic in the long term. Washington’s never-ending claims to exceptionality and indispensability, its pretensions to the leadership of some imaginary “international community,” have always been ridiculous. As a result of Putin’s new alliances and partnership in Peking, Delhi, Ankara and Tehran, such claims are beginning to sound pathetic – like a faded celebrity hysterically demanding attention from a public which has moved on.
We are witnessing a tectonic change which is still to be diplomatically codified. The end of monopolarity calls for a new Yalta… But if there is to be a new “Yalta” a few years from now, setting the framework of a currently unsettled world order for some decades to come, Russia needs to force “the West” – through firmness – into grudging acceptance of her equal status as a great power with legitimate security interests and regional concerns. No such acceptance will ever be obtained through appeasement, good will gestures, concessions, or appeals to reason.