Russia's leader may have the stronger hand in a negotiation that could give him greater sway over eastern Europe while the U.S. gets little of strategic value in return, says Frida Ghitis
The Trump-Putin relationship compromises the spread of democracy and human rights around the world, she writes
Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review, and a former CNN producer and correspondent. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.
When Americans elected Donald Trump president, they unleashed a political earthquake whose magnitude the entire world is urgently trying to gauge. The list of concerns is far reaching, but for many, the most pressing is whether Trump will keep the United States as an advocate and defender of democracy, freedom, and self-determination. The question comes down to whether Trump is about to carry out a grand betrayal, known to many by the shorthand “Yalta 2.0.”
The term refers to a historic meeting held in 1945, the final days of World War II between the Allies. Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill met in the Black Sea resort of Yalta, in Crimea, to decide the fate of post-war Europe. They carved out the continent for what was supposed to be a period leading to democracy.
What came out of Yalta, however, was a divided Europe, with the Soviet Union imposing repressive Communist regimes throughout its sphere of influence – Eastern Europe and the Soviet Republics – for nearly half a century.
Eastern Europeans felt betrayed and abandoned, and the United States has been trying to atone for Yalta ever since the end of the Cold War by backing efforts to develop democratic institutions, pledging to defend the new countries from aggression, and opening the doors of NATO to independent nations wishing to strengthen ties with the West.
That policy, along with America’s overall commitment to the spread of democracy, human rights, and free markets, appears in doubt since Trump’s election. After all, Trump has vowed more than a reset in relations with Moscow. He has vaguely drawn the outlines of what looks potentially like the wholesale demolition and reconstruction of America’s post-war foreign policy.
Talk of a “New Yalta,” has been floating for years. In fact, Russian President Vladimir Putin himself declared he seeks a “New Yalta” during a speech he gave in Crimea in 2014, after Russia invaded and annexed the Ukrainian peninsula.
After the annexation, Europe and the United States rejected Russia’s unilateral move as a violation of international law and imposed economic sanctions. But Trump appears prepared to lift sanctions in exchange for yet-to-be-explained concessions.
Some in Trump’s team, it’s worth noting, seem unpersuaded by prospects for a new relationship with Moscow. Defense Secretary James Mattis noted that, “Since Yalta [meaning 1945] we have a long list of times we’ve tried to engage positively with Russia,” with a “relatively short list of successes.”
But earlier efforts have never come as part of a policy overhaul of the magnitude that Trump may envision. Previous presidents wanted resets with Russia, but not at the cost of abandoning America’s fundamental policies and beliefs.
Since 1945, while the USSR curtailed all manner of freedoms for people living in its sphere of influence, the U.S. crafted what is known as the liberal international order, a network of institutions and like-minded nations grounded on the pursuit of democracy, national sovereignty, and personal and economic freedoms. The practice was far from perfect, but the ideal was always a guiding principle. That’s why the US president is known as the “leader of the free world.” But it is unclear whether that term should still apply.
After 1989, most Soviet republics and Eastern European countries tried to follow this path. Even Russia did for a time, until it started deviating towards autocracy.
Putin has chafed under NATO’s expansion, and he doesn’t want former satellites defying Russia’s will. When the former Soviet Republic of Georgia got out of line, he didn’t hesitate to use military force. When Ukraine looked set to sign an economic agreement with the European Union, Russia warned against the “suicidal step.”
Russia’s aggressive moves against Ukraine, its repeated taunts and warnings to other countries, and its muscular military, cyber, and propaganda moves beyond it’s borders have raised alarm, particularly in the Baltic States, which were sold out to the Soviet Union even before Yalta.
Just before Trump took office, NATO deployed forces in Poland to deter Russia. Poland’s defense minister declared the move meant that “Yalta is over.” But within a week Trump was the new president.
The fear of a Yalta 2.0 is so palpable that Poland’s Foreign Minister traveled to Washington before the inauguration and tried to reassure his people, telling them he spoke with Trump advisors and – “there will not be a new Yalta.”
But nobody really knows what exactly Trump has in mind – or how much he knows about the original Yalta and its consequences.
It’s clear what Putin wants. His vision of Yalta 2.0 is an agreement in which Russia regains an old-fashioned sphere of influence, keeping the former Soviet Republics (Russia’s “near abroad”) on a short leash without US or NATO interference, and perhaps extending a version of that power over former Eastern European satellites. He wants NATO to stop expanding and become weaker; he wants the US and NATO and the US to relinquish their protective umbrella over Russia’s sphere of influence. He wants the sanctions lifted. He wants the US to recognize Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. In short, he wants the U.S. to turn a blind eye on many of its values, commitments, and international law.
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What is less clear is what exactly the US would obtain in return. Trump boasts of being a great negotiator, so perhaps he has another “secret plan,” but it all remains achingly vague. His recent suggestion that Russia give up some nuclear weapons in exchange for lifting the sanctions indicated he’s still trying to figure out what to ask in return. Russia, incidentally, seems uninterested in the disarmament idea.
The entire Trump-Putin relationship is clouded in controversy. But as far as we can tell Trump wants Russia’s cooperation fighting ISIS, which is hardly a concession by Russia since Russia also wants to get rid of ISIS and, in fact, cooperation along those lines was already approved by the US.
The United States might also receive greater access to Russian natural resources, which would make American companies happy. Russia could presumably also provide backing on other issues, perhaps Iran. On the whole, however, it looks like a one-sided deal, like the kind Trump criticized Obama for making.
Of the many looming unknowns in Trump presidency, few have the potential to alter the course of history more than a possible Yalta 2.0