In the place where postwar history was made, fear abounds for Ukraine’s future
Pro-EU rallies have caused alarm in Crimea, which leans towards Russia
The Livadia Palace in Yalta, the summer home of the last Russian tsar and where the allied leaders met in 1945 to reshape a shattered Europe. Photograph: Daniel McLaughlin
It must have been cold then too, when allied leaders met here in February 1945 to reshape a shattered Europe.
At the Livadia Palace in Yalta, snow is piled up against the palm trees, and another storm smudges the Black Sea as it swirls towards the Crimean peninsula in Ukraine. The palace’s grand halls are quiet, save for a few elderly attendants, their murmured conversation and the clink of their teacups.
Famous photographs hang on the walls: Josef Stalin and Winston Churchill in greatcoats seated either side of Fran- klin D Roosevelt, a cape around his shoulders, the military top brass of the Soviet Union, Britain and the US behind them.
With the Red Army occupying central and eastern Europe and bearing down on Berlin, Stalin came to Yalta demanding a postwar “sphere of influence” between the Soviet Union and Germany. Barely a year later, Churchill spoke of an “iron curtain” descending from the Baltic to the Adriatic, a barrier that would remain until the collapse of communism across the eastern bloc in 1989, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later.
Years of chaos
With the loss of empire came years of chaos for Russia, while Nato – despite what the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, claims were western promises not to expand the military alliance “one inch” to the east – welcomed in a host of ex-communist states, and drew right up to Russia’s border when the Baltic states joined in 2004.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who called the Soviet Union’s demise the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, has spent 14 years as president and prime minister trying to restore Kremlin power at home and abroad.
He sees the West’s desire to gain influence over former Soviet territory and “contain” Russia as a driving force for EU and Nato expansion, for US plans to build a missile defence shield in central Europe and for “coloured revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine.
The Kremlin was relieved when leaders of Ukraine’s 2004 Orange Revolution squandered power and were replaced in 2010 by a more pro-Russian administration led by Viktor Yanukovich. One of Yanukovich’s first decisions as president was to sign a deal allowing Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to stay at Sevastopol, 80km (50 miles) from Yalta, until at least 2042.
Many people in Crimea share the Kremlin view that the protests in Kiev and western Ukraine are part of a foreign bid to rip the country from Moscow’s sphere of influence.
Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov has derided the West’s “hysterical” reaction to Yanukovich’s decision last month not to sign a major trade pact with Brussels, and the way US and EU officials rushed to Kiev to support the opposition and meet protesters. US senator John McCain’s presence on the city’s Independence Square last weekend only reinforced Moscow’s perception of Ukraine’s crisis as a new phase in a long geopolitical struggle.
When Russia bailed out Ukraine on Tuesday with $15 billion (€11 billion) and cheaper gas, probably Putin’s closest friend in Ukrainian politics compared the EU’s overtures to Kiev with invasions of Moscow’s territory by Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. “The ‘reload’ of relations between Ukraine and Russia means that violent one-sided Euro-integration didn’t happen in 1812, 1941 and again in 2013,” politician and businessman Viktor Medvedchuk posted on Twitter.
Ukraine is special to Putin, not only for the Slavic and Russian-Orthodox culture that it shares with Russia, but because it is vital to his planned Eurasian Union of ex-Soviet states.
The presence of the Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol is also a matter of great military importance and pride to Russia and to many people in Crimea, most of whom are Russian.
The protests gripping Kiev and western Ukraine have not disrupted life further east, and have barely touched Crimea, fuelling fears of a split in the country. “We don’t go in for that sort of stupidity,” said Valery, a Sevastopol taxi driver.
“We have order here and people want to work . . . This is basically a military city, a Russian city. But now we’re in Ukraine, unfortunately.”
Little in common
Many in Sevastopol depict rural western Ukraine – part of Poland and the Habsburg empire until 1939 – as a region of lazy bumpkins seeking EU handouts, who have little in common with those in eastern and southern areas who are proud of their heavy industry, coal mines and close ties to Russia.
Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said Ukraine was divided by a “tectonic fault” that “threatens the stability and even the very existence of the state”. The presidium of Crimea’s supreme council has warned that the region’s autonomous status and links to Russia are endangered by protests whose “instigators and sponsors we know well” – a heavy hint at western involvement.
“The fate of the state and the autonomous republic are being decided now,” the presidium declared, accusing opposition leaders of using “the technology of the ‘coloured’ revolutions” to seize power “at any cost”, after which they would deprive people in Crimea “of our right to speak, write and be educated in the Russian language”.
“Autonomy is in danger – prepare to stand in its defence,” Crimea’s leaders intoned.
Ukraine’s crisis has fuelled speculation over how Russia would defend its strategic interests, especially the Black Sea Fleet, if it faced “losing” the country to the EU. Giorgi Baramidze, deputy speaker of Georgia’s parliament, recalled during a recent visit to Kiev how Moscow went to war with his country in 2008 to “protect Russian citizens”. “Russia invaded Georgia to stop it moving closer to Nato,” he said. “Now it is trying to stop Ukraine moving towards the EU.”
As another blizzard sweeps over the Livadia Palace, Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill gaze out of those 1945 photographs, and the lines they drew across Europe continue to blur.