“It was for the freedom and independence of Poland that Britain went into this war…It’s also important that Poland is a Catholic country. We cannot allow internal developments there to complicate our relations with the Vatican…”
Prime Minister Churchill, by way of pompous opening…
“How many divisions does the Pope of Rome have?”
Marshal Stalin, in direct response.
Trakai, Lithuania. 16 January. A myriad of miniscule snowflakes drift across the landscape before me giving the impression I am enshrined in a Georges Seurat painting. The frozen lake and frigid forest before me dipple and dapple as momentary shafts of weak sun paint solitude in broad brushes. Here, at the truly beautiful IDW Esperanza Resort in deepest Lithuania I have just had the honour of part-moderating the outstanding annual Snowmeeting in support of Foreign Minister Linus Linkevicius and his team. What was interesting to me was the marked difference between how the Russians see the current strategic situation in NATO’s east, and how senior NATO politicians and officials see it. If there was an implicit if unspoken theme running throughout the Snowmeeting it was this; no more Yaltas.
Yalta I took place between February 4-111945. Otherwise known as the Crimea (!!!) or Argonaut Conference, the meeting was the last time British Prime Minister Churchill, US President Roosevelt and Marshal Stalin of the Soviet Union were to meet. The purpose of the meeting was in effect to ‘carve’ up post-World War Two Europe into spheres of influence between the Soviet Union and the Western Allies.
Marshal Stalin certainly understood that, as did Prime Minister Churchill, although by 1945 Britain was, as it is today, a shadow power with little or no real influence. Unfortunately, an ailing President Roosevelt still clung onto the idea that Stalin’s Russia would be a constructive partner in a post-war United Nations which would see Machtpolitik in Europe replaced by Gesetzpolitik.
On several occasions over the last year I have head Russians call for a Yalta II. As I rose to speak some 187 US main battle tanks, 4000 personnel, plus a couple of hundred other assorted vehicles of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team were bedding down in Western Poland as part of Operation Atlantic Resolve. US Army Europe yet again to the fore of defending Europe. The Russian reaction was both typical and illuminating, as though a virtual Yalta II already exists. That the Americans were intruding on an existing sphere of Russian interest, rather than reinforcing the defence and deterrence posture of NATO in pursuit of the legitimate collective security of the Alliance.
Yalta was just one of a whole herd of elephants in the room at the Snowmeeting. Perhaps the largest was Colonel-General Kartapolov’s nearby Russian Western Military District which can now boast both mass and manoeuvre forces way beyond anything NATO can put into the field,. As I spoke there were some 400,000 Russian troops either side of me, reinforced by treaty-busting short range nuclear missiles, including the estimated 800 tanks of the First Guards Tank Army.
President Putin’s reaction to Atlantic Resolve is not that dissimilar to Marshal Stalin’s put down of Churchill in 1945. For Putin power is as power does. And yet at the Snowmeeting NATO officials put preservation of existing structure above transformation and effect by highlighting the marginal gains the Alliance has made by halting the decline in defence-spending as absolute gains. President Putin, rather, views Russia’s influence through the all-important prism of relative power. Russia to Putin’s mind now ‘controls’ much of Eastern Europe simply by the fact of the military vice Russia is constructing there. A few American tanks to his mind makes little real difference to the politico-strategic situation, not least because he thinks President-elect Trump is of a similar mind and about to ‘reward’ him with some form of Yalta II.
There are lots of caveats in my analysis. Let’s see what President Trump really demands of Russia and what, if anything, actually comes out of the Putin-Trump bromance. However, Trump has a point in his critique of NATO. For too long Europeans have become strategically ‘fat’, lazy and complacent under the protection of America’s strategic umbrella. It really is about time an American president exerted pressure on all of us to get our European strategic act together. A Yalta II might also look superficially attractive to a president who is going to want to spend most of his time meeting the needs of the people who voted for him. President Trump is first and foremost a businessman. In business spheres of business influence are an essential part of deal-making.
For all of the above reasons President Putin believes he is well on the way to securing his strategic objectives and the creation of a buffer zone – both actual and virtual – between Russia’s Western border and the NATO he despises. Ukraine has been divided, both the EU and NATO have all but abandoned any further enlargement to Europe’s further east, Turkey has been rendered semi-detached from the Alliance, and powerful Russian forces exert an unwarranted influence over the Baltic States whether we like it or not.
What I heard at the Snowmeeting was as ever interesting. However, I come away from Trakai with a profound sense of unease. Business as usual is about to end, hard change is coming fast to the transatlantic relationship, and yet what I heard was business as usual. Europeans had better understand this in the way President Putin clearly does. Unfortunately, we Europeans have become very good at self-delusion, at forever ‘defending’ values, but useless at defending space, territory and people, or even wanting to think about it.
To President Putin’s mind NATO is the new Vatican – pious but powerless. President Trump could well be of the same opinion.
A new Atlantic resolve or Yalta II? Our choice to make!