A New Yalta – Putin’s Obsession

Kyiv Post - 12/01/2022

Carmen Claudin, Associate Senior Researcher at CIDOB, reflects on Russia’s internal repression and Putin’s ambitions over what he considers its area of “vital interest” in this article retrieved by Kyiv Post and originally published in El País: ‘“The dominant discourse of the Russian establishment is nourished by the idea of a threatened Russia claiming the right to have its borders protected by a buffer of sovereign states. Russia believes that it alone can legitimately assert its supremacy in the area, but the former Soviet republics, now independent states, cannot decide to free themselves of the postcolonial geopolitical condition imposed on them by the Kremlin.

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Carmen Claudin, Associate Senior Researcher at CIDOB, reflects on Russia’s internal repression and Putin’s ambitions over what he considers its area of “vital interest” in this article retrieved by Kyiv Post and originally published in El País: ‘“The dominant discourse of the Russian establishment is nourished by the idea of a threatened Russia claiming the right to have its borders protected by a buffer of sovereign states. Russia believes that it alone can legitimately assert its supremacy in the area, but the former Soviet republics, now independent states, cannot decide to free themselves of the postcolonial geopolitical condition imposed on them by the Kremlin.  

“This message (material) was created and (or) by a foreign mass media outlet performing the functions of a foreign agent, and (or) a Russian legal entity performing the functions of a foreign agent.” 

“This is what would appear in the pages of the present publication, in every one of its editions, in paper or digital format, if it were declared a “foreign agent” in Russia.  

The thing is, Russia is under threat: enemies proliferate within and without. Inside the country, “foreign agents” are popping up everywhere, in the pages of a newspaper, in surveys carried out by a sociological institute, and even in individuals. The web page of the Russian Ministry of Justice provides regular updates of a list of such infiltrators, from a civic movement of diabetics to another fighting gender violence, through to the Memorial organization, a fragile symbol of moral dignity in today’s Russia.  

Outside the country, the “collective West”—we, dominated by the United States—are searching for any pretext to snatch from Russia its legitimate supremacy over its post-Soviet neighborhood. This jargon harks back to Soviet rhetoric reserved for “enemies of the people”, “agents of imperialism”, and puppets of the “capitalist encirclement”. It was along similar lines that President Putin declared in a key speech in September 2013 that, “Too often in our nation’s history, instead of opposition to the government we have been faced with opponents of Russia itself.”  

Russian mentality stuck in Cold War era, “backyard leader” role  

So, Russia is under threat. The arrogant West is determined not to recognize the legitimate interests which, associated with Russia’s status as a great power, entitle it to control the post-Soviet space. This stance feeds into the dominant discourse of the Russian establishment that is, one way or another, engaged in foreign affairs. It is taken for granted that Russia has the right to have its borders protected by a buffer of sovereign states which, in turn, cannot have the right to emancipate themselves from Russia.  

This strip of European territory—former Soviet republics, and now independent states—constitutes, for the Kremlin, its security belt, its sphere of “vital interest”, the place where the very survival of the Russian state is at stake. However, the West not only fails to respect this existential fear but is now also meddling in the internal affairs of these countries. In the eyes of the Kremlin, this is not a response to the desire of the societies of these countries to move closer to Europe but maneuvering by the West to usurp Russia’s place in Europe. For Moscow, this is the very heart of the “matter of European security architecture”. In short, Russia considers that it is the only country that can legitimately act in this area, whereas former Soviet republics—that is to say, some 70 million inhabitants, not counting Central Asia—cannot decide to break free from the postcolonial geopolitical condition imposed on them by the Kremlin.  

Putin wants return to post-WWII era borders & influence    

Moscow is now demanding legal guarantees of NATO’s non-expansion to the east, in keeping with a line of reasoning rooted in the sharing out of spheres of influence agreed upon in Yalta in 1945 by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States. It was no accident, Putin claimed in the speech I mentioned above from 2013, that these were the agreements which, “taken with Russia’s very active participation, secured a lasting peace”.  

The logic of Putin’s current policy is rooted in this historical reference. As Fernando Claudín rigorously describes in his The Communist Movement from Comintern to Cominform (The Crisis of the Communist International, 1970), Stalin’s obsession was to make Churchill and Roosevelt accept the Soviet borders established by the division agreed upon with Nazi Germany in the secret protocols of the German-Soviet pact. And, like Stalin, then, Putin wants the same.  

Moscow is now demanding legal guarantees of NATO’s non-expansion to the east, in keeping with a line of reasoning rooted in the sharing out of spheres of influence agreed upon in Yalta in 1945 by the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States.  

While Stalin’s obsession in 1945 was with Poland, for Putin, now, it is Ukraine. “The Soviet Union has a right to make efforts that there should exist in Poland a government friendly toward the Soviet Union, and […] the Soviet government cannot agree to existence in Poland of a government hostile toward it”, Stalin wrote to President Truman, and irritably added, “it is not clear why, while the question on Poland is discussed it is not wanted to take into consideration the interests of the Soviet Union from the point of view of its security.”  

The reader who changes Poland for Ukraine and Soviet Union for Russia will have the key to interpreting what the Kremlin has been pursuing since the Ukrainian people decided to take a different path in 2014 after the mass-based movement known as Euromaidan.  

It, therefore, “all started” in Ukraine, Putin told the German weekly Die Zeit in June 2021, because the European Community (led by Washington), “actively supported the unconstitutional armed coup” in Kyiv. In fact, Putin’s obsession with Ukraine dates back to before the Maidan protests and feeds on his theory that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same people, invoking essentialist arguments as hard data on a par with the law of gravity or the number pi.  

Kremlin twists truth, reality of events    

The Kremlin tale juggles words and reality in claims where the principle of truth is totally irrelevant. º it drummed into their heads from the cradle that their country is special, and the bottom line is that nobody really understands it. Or, as the eminent historian, Marlène Laruelle describes it, they are inculcated with the “tautological idea that Russia’s distinctive feature is to be Russian”.  

Russia’s brazen politics, rhetoric work against it  

Yet, stubborn facts show that it is Putin’s politics that is working against Russia. Neither Brussels nor Washington needs to work too hard to attract the populations of the region, supposing that was their intention, given that it is well known that enlargement is no longer fashionable. What explains increased support in these countries for the EU and NATO is the Kremlin’s aggressive policy. It is not that they idealize this option but, with all its limitations and contradictions, it is more respectful of national sovereignty and the wishes of their peoples.  

With the latest, continuing show of force on the border with Ukraine, the Kremlin has employed all its arts for an operation of “coercion to dialog”, very much in line with Russian diplomatic traditions. Although one might think it was just a maneuver (let’s threaten so we can sit down to talk), it is very clear who is endangering peace in Europe.  

Andrei Sakharov, one of Memorial’s founders, reminds us of this when he says, “a country that does not respect the rights of its own people will not respect the rights of its neighbors”.’