Monday 22 January 2018

The port of Yalta and the great global carve-up

The decisions taken at the Crimean port in 1945 still shape the world we live in, writes Eamon Delaney

Winston Churchill with Franklin D Roosevelt and Josef Stalin with their advisers at the Yalta Agreement talks in February 1945.
Winston Churchill with Franklin D Roosevelt and Josef Stalin with their advisers at the Yalta Agreement talks in February 1945.
Eamon Delaney

Eamon Delaney

Seventy years ago this week, three powerful men representing the Allied powers, sat down in the Crimean coastal port of Yalta and rearranged the post-world war landscape, carving Europe into power blocs, creating the United Nations and deciding on the fate of the soon to be defeated Germany.

The three men, famously pictured sitting in friendly fashion in front of the Livadia Palace, were Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, British Premier Winston Churchill and US President Franklin D Roosevelt.

It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the Yalta deliberations and the decisions made there, which resonate even to this very day. For example, the current war in eastern Ukraine and the land grab by Russian President Vladimir Putin is a reflection of the continuing belief in Russia that the areas surrounding Russia are part of its sphere of influence, a 'right' conceded by the West to the Stalin at Yalta. The nostalgic Putin has described the fall of the Soviet empire as a catastrophe and has yearned to recreate some of its reach. Amazingly, Yalta is one of the areas that fell to the Russians in the recent annexation of Crimea.

Many would say that there is thus an appropriate grim irony in this recent fate for Yalta given that it was the place where the West caved in to Stalin in 1945, just at the moment when they seem to have got the better of another dictator in Nazi Germany.

However, the West would not have defeated Germany without Soviet support and besides, by 1945, they were at a severe disadvantage in that Stalin already had his Red Army parked in huge numbers in Eastern Europe and was not inclined to reverse this new occupation and let these countries not go Communist. Pious declarations were drawn up for 'democratic and free elections' in Poland and Hungary but these were ignored or abused by the Soviets. On this, Churchill and Roosevelt have a lot to answer for and one could ask on what authority they made this concession.

Another decision made at Yalta which had major repercussions was the creation of the United Nations, a world body for peaceful resolution, but one in which crucially (and by secret agreement) the US and USSR would have a power of veto over actions by the UN to intervene internationally or impose its decisions. This veto is still used regularly today, by Russia to prevent action on Syria, for example, or against itself, while the US continually uses it to prevent censure on Israel.

One reason the US may have conceded to Stalin on Eastern Europe was because it desperately wanted the Soviets to enter the war against Japan, still very much under way in the Pacific, and this Stalin agreed to at Yalta. However, aspects of this decision have also had bitter consequences apparent even today, as the Soviets were granted the Kuril islands and Sakhalin island, which Japan still vehemently insists are theirs.

Ironically, one of the main aims of the Yalta conference got turned on its head and has shown the extraordinary turns of history. This was the aim of all the participants to punish Germany and split it into four military zones and possibly into two or three separate 'agricultural' Germanies, to prevent it ever coming back as one big power again, to dominate and disrupt the world. However, with a Cold War growing, the West realised that it needed a strong Germany, and the Soviets followed suit by building up Eastern Germany. Seventy years later, and with the two Germanies united, the country is at the absolute centre of Europe, running the EU and acting as economic powerhouse for the entire continent.

The lesson of Yalta is how much can be decided in just a few days diplomacy, but with often bitter consequences. Although it created the new post-war world order, and a UN that has endured, however unevenly at times, the Yalta sit-down was also regarded as a cynical sell-out to 'diplomatic realities'. For example, eastern Poland was hacked off and given to Russia, although Poland did get a chunk of Germany instead.

But many Poles never forgave the way that they were sold into Communism by the British, having seen Britain enter the war to save them from Hitler. It is interesting that Churchill, who made much of Chamberlain's appeasement and trust in Hitler, should himself suffer the same with the Soviet leader. Certainly, the real winner at Yalta was Stalin who proved that might is right and that if your army is in occupation, it is very hard to have it reversed. It is a lesson that Vladmir Putin is trying to prove today, with an even weaker and more confused West.

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