After more than a year of conflict, the causes of the Ukrainian crisis remain bitterly contested. As analysts and power brokers on both sides argue vehemently in favor of their own interpretations of recent events, one essential point is often overlooked: The conflict is rooted in decisions made long before any fighting broke out. To fully understand what provoked one of the gravest geopolitical crises of our time—a necessary first step if we hope to pull back from the brink of a profound disaster—we must regard it as an outgrowth of two events that helped shape the course of the 20th century. The Yalta Conference in February 1945 and the Malta Summit in 1989 are either long forgotten or poorly understood by many in the West, but both meetings continue to resonate today. Though they were quite different in substance and historical context, both sought (and ultimately failed) to produce a more stable European security order. The Ukrainian crisis is only the latest symptom of the long-term failure to reconcile the various interests on the European continent.
Seventy years ago, when the fate of small European countries was trapped between the advancing Red Army and Western forces, leaders representing the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union gathered in Yalta to forge a postwar peace for Europe. Among other things, Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin accepted the idea of European pluralism—that different social systems would have to learn how to live side by side without coming into conflict.
The conference also confirmed a mutual understanding that the Soviet Union was a great power whose interests would henceforth have to be taken into account. It is for this reason that Yalta was so much appreciated by the Soviet Union, and has attained something of a mythological status in Russia. The 70th anniversary of the Yalta meeting is being celebrated by numerous conferences and events.
One definition of “myth” is that it is a way of freezing time. In this respect, the Russian myth of Yalta is a way of confirming Russia’s status as a great power for all time. The Yalta Conference settled a whole range of detailed issues, including national borders in Eastern Europe, spheres of influence, democratic elections in Poland, and plans to create the United Nations. But above all, it recognized that Red Army victories in the war gave the Soviet Union the right to be treated as an equal in deciding global issues. It is this status that Vladimir Putin has tried to restore. He has complained endlessly that in the post–Cold War years, Russian views have been ignored.
The turning point was the Malta Summit, which brought Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush together on two ships on a stormy sea in December 1989. The meeting represented another moment when the great powers held the fate of Europe in their hands. This time, however, the diplomatic and strategic balance of power had shifted.
Gorbachev understood that the Cold War standoff between the Soviet Union and the West had served to undermine the development of both. When he became the leader of the Soviet Union in 1985, he quickly signaled his commitment to serious domestic reform. In 1986, he launched what he called perestroika, the “restructuring” of the Soviet system, which became a grand exercise in trying to create a “humane, democratic socialism.” Gorbachev encountered a tough but sympathetic interlocutor in the person of President Ronald Reagan, and soon the tensions of the Cold War began to ease. With the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 and the end of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, it seemed that a new era of peace was at hand, reinforced by the reunification of the European continent.