CEE hopes to fare better in Helsinki than it did in Yalta
In Crimea, spring begins theoretically in February, but in 1945 Yalta was dominated by a cold, piercing wind, which evidently took its toll on the aging western leaders, US President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Churchill. In contrast, Joseph Stalin was at home; he felt healthy, full of strength and self-confidence.
The previous February had seen the victorious Red Army oust Germans from Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, most of Yugoslavia and was only 40 kilometres from Berlin. Meanwhile, the armies of the Western Allies had liberated France, Belgium and the Netherlands, a territory equalling approximately one third of the area under the control of the Red Army. Moscow de facto controlled half of Europe, and its army was flooding into Germany.
The future of Poland was one of the central themes of the conference. Churchill wanted to push for free elections and a pro-western or at least neutral orientation. Stalin remained calm and was able to convince his momentary allies of his good intentions towards Poland. The three leaders even issued a joint declaration, in which they pledged to abide by the principles of self-determination and free elections in the countries liberated by their armies.
In reality, Stalin had already recognized the Lublin collaborative committee, which he had set up, as the new Polish government. In essence, Poland was already a Soviet satellite, and the conduct of free elections was left to the good will of the criminal tyrant that Stalin was.
The facts were that in Yalta the West was weak and Soviet Russia was strong; thus, Poland was deprived of the right to vote nor maintain a true sovereignty. The West satisfied its conscience with the assurances about the aforementioned good intentions towards Poland. It ended with a cold war, a communist dictatorship and the backsliding of civilizations in Poland and the other Soviet satellites.
The question for today is whether 73 years after Yalta can we count on real solidarity from the West? This inquiry holds significant meaning in the context of the upcoming meeting of Presidents Trump and Putin in Helsinki.
A new stage for a new dynamic
Helsinki will not be a new Yalta because Russia is not as strong as it was 73 years ago and cannot dictate to the Americans any conditions. Russia, however, is relatively stronger than it was 11 years ago when Putin shared with the world the idea of reforming the world order at the Munich conference.
At the same time, the United States is weaker than it was 11 years ago. In 2007, Putin accused the Americans of creating a unipolar world order and dominating the international arena. Since 2007, Americans poured hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq and Afghanistan without winning either of these wars, they were hit by the economic crisis in 2008 and a crisis of faith in themselves.
Today, no one accuses Americans of unipolarism. Pax Americana has ended in many regions of the world and is being replaced by the rapidly growing presence of China.
In 2007, in the Middle East, Americans were the only major power. Today, the US’s presence and influence in Syria is far less than Russia’s, a situation further exacerbated by Trump’s announcement to completely withdraw from Syria and entrust the “solution” to this problem to Russia. In East Asia, the US President, in turn, is counting on China’s help to bring order to North Korea.
Trump obviously has a personal weakness for Putin, whom he never speaks about critically; on the contrary, he often refers to the Russian President with praising superlatives. In addition, he will want to get Russia’s assistance on practically every area where the US is involved (e.g., Syria, the fight against ISIS, Afghanistan, fostering diplomacy in Iran and North Korea, etc.).
For the US President these areas are more important than Central and Eastern Europe while for his Russian counterpart, it is exactly the opposite. Therefore, realistically it is expected that the interests of the region will suffer as a result of this meeting although we will probably not know the details because, as we all know, it will be a face-to-face meeting.
In the past, Putin has demanded the USA abandon the project to build an American missile defence shield in Poland, which he spoke about at the Munich conference in 2007. Since then, this project has been modified during the Obama presidency, but the construction of shield elements is already advanced and according to plans should be completed this year. Deserting this project at this late stage seems unrealistic if only because the financing was accepted by the US Congress and the construction is under way.
Putin, on the other hand, will certainly protest against the consolidation of the US military presence in Poland and the Baltic States. In this case, it seems likely that Trump will be more sympathetic to this Russian argument although he will probably treat it as a bargaining chip.
Trump’s talk with Putin on Central-Eastern Europe may also deal with energy security and economic issues in the region. Of course, we do not know the detailed agenda nor will we, so some conjecture must be allowed. The format of the conversation will be ultra-discreet, but we can expect that they will talk about us, Central Europeans, without any of us at the table.
Dangerous, but not a disaster
Helsinki will most likely be a detrimental meeting for Central and Eastern Europe, but it won’t be too dramatic. In contrast to 1945, we are not at the mercy of Russia and the role of the West is not to preserve what they can.
Let us not, however, have the illusion that the United States will be principally and effectively defending Poland’s interests. In 1945, the Americans did not even have our preservation on their agenda, only Winston Churchill took an interest into Poland’s well-being, though unsuccessfully. For the Americans, the most important factor was securing the Soviet Union’s help in the war with Japan.
73 years later, fortunately, we are in a completely different situation, but one thing has not changed; the US president wants to get Russia’s help in the fight against global threats. In this context, the issues of major concern to Poland are not of primary importance to the United States and will be regulated to the background. It is to be expected that the same will happen in the future, even when the President of the USA will no longer be impressed by Putin.
In order to avoid a future similar to what was agreed upon in Yalta, Poland cannot rely only on the goodwill of allies and must take over the responsibility of our security from the United States, which will be leaving the transatlantic circle anyway.
Poland must invest in its own security and take a leading role in the region, making the best out of the opportunity to build a coalition within the European Union. Poland lies at the heart of Europe and our interests in defence and maintaining the Union are strong. When we accomplish this, a meeting of the American President at a Russian embassy will be just a diplomatic event and not a potential threat to our security.
The article is published as part of the #DemocraCE project organised by Visegrad/Insight. It was originally published in Polish in Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.
Marcin Zaborowski is a Senior Associate at Visegrad/Insight.