Letter From Crimea: Yalta’s Terms and Why Peace Treaties Don’t End Wars

This is the twentieth installment in a series about a journey, by train and bicycle, across Russia to Crimea shortly before the war began.


The Chinese harbor of Lüshun, formerly known as Port Arthur on the Liaodong Peninsula, where the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War began, when the Japanese attacked the Russian fleet anchored here. If the 1945 Yalta conference resolved any conflict, it was that of the 1904 war between Russia and Japan—and it that did poorly. Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

It would be nice to think that a peace conference of the world’s powers, perhaps meeting in Geneva or Vienna, could end the current fighting in Ukraine. But the unintended consequences of most peace treaties is that they rarely settle of the issues of the war that has just been fought—a thought that occurred to me as I was wandering around downtown Yalta on my bicycle, plotting my departure amidst the rain and mud.

Perhaps the only peace that was arranged at the 1945 Yalta conference in Crimea was the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that began with the Japanese sneak assault on the Russian naval base at Port Arthur in southern Manchuria and ended with Japan in control of Korea and much of Manchuria (in China).

At Yalta, Stalin managed to persuade the Allies to restore the Chinese Eastern and South Manchuria railways to Russian ownership, with the understanding that at some point it would jointly operate the line (connecting Russia to Vladivostok via Harbin) with China. Yalta also gave Russia possession of the Kuril Islands—historically Japanese—which blocked Soviet assess to the warm waters of the western Pacific.

As the current war in Ukraine can best be understood as further adjudication of Yalta’s hazy terms, and as Russia has violated most of those agreements, maybe Japan should be encouraged to retake the Kuril Islands.

If President Vladimir Putin—in a fit of revisionism—can annex and redraw borders in Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk, why cannot Japan and other aggrieved 1905 powers (China?) “renegotiate” the terms of Yalta that gave Russia expanded spheres of influence in the Pacific?

Heads of Agreement

As for the rest of the Yalta conference, its highlights were:

—Agreement over the division of postwar Germany into four sectors of occupation held by the Russian, British, American, and French armies, and broad, if unspecified, agreement on the “denazification” of Germany (which, interestingly, remains a war aim of Vladimir Putin in Ukraine).

—Agreement on the forced labor, in effect slavery, of German POWs to assist in the reconstruction of the Soviet Union. (Agreement on the forced repatriation of Soviet prisoners of war from the West was left out of the public record of the conference. That cost the lives of thousands of Cossack soldiers who did not want to return to Stalin’s USSR.)

—A vague understanding that Britain would have more influence than Russia in postwar Greece while elsewhere in Eastern Europe the Soviet Union would be the dominant power.

—Recognition of the Communist, aka Lublin, government in Poland, agreement on “free elections” in Poland at some indeterminate date, and establishment of the so-called Curzon Line (from Versailles days in 1919) as Poland’s eastern border, which ceded Lviv and the Baltic States to the Soviet Union. (As an aside, I am sure the Curzon Line is what Putin has in mind as the border between NATO and a reconstituted Soviet Union.)

—Agreement on Russia’s entry into the Far Eastern War several months after the ending of the fighting in Europe, and the cession of the Kuril Islands to the Soviet Union. (The Russian occupation of the islands are the reason that Japan and Russia have remained at diplomatic odds since 1945.)

—Agreement that the Soviet Union would join the United Nations and its Security Council.

War’s End: Who Had the Upper Hand?

Ironically, the United States approached Yalta as if it were militarily weaker than the Soviet Union, despite winning wars in Europe and the Far East, and having its navy in control of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Russia departed from the conference having picked up (in its mind) western Ukraine, the Baltics, Poland, Hungary, east Germany, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia.

Plus it was invited into the division of the Japanese spoils, despite having been neutral in the Pacific fighting for four years. As well, Russia was offered a seat on the Security Council so that, in effect, it could hamstring that organization for the next forty years.

Soviet Socialist Republics at the UN

One of the most contentious issues at Yalta, ironically in retrospect, was whether all sixteen constituent states of the Soviet Union should be awarded votes and representation in the new United Nations General Assembly.

Stalin took the view that many British colonies, such as India, were getting votes in the assembly and that places such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan should also.

In Allied strategizing on the issue, here’s another irony: it was the alleged Soviet mole Alger Hiss, a U.S. State Department official, who was most vociferous in opposing giving UN votes to all the Soviet socialist republics.

Had he really been the spy coded-named ALES, would the Russians have awarded him a medal as he passed through Moscow on his way back to the United States? I doubt it. More likely, they would have shot him.

In the end only Belarus and Ukraine were given votes in the UN General Assembly. So it could well be stated today that, beginning in 1945, Russia recognized Ukraine as an independent nation.

Legacies of Yalta

Most of all, what Yalta laid bare was that all the Allies in World War II were fighting for goals that had nothing to do with each other (other than the defeat of Nazi Germany):

—The Soviet Union was fighting, as Russia has since Catherine the Great, to partition Poland, re-occupy Ukraine, dominate the Black Sea, and extend its Far Eastern influence to the warm waters east of Port Arthur and Vladivostok.

—Britain was fighting to restore its empire and the balance of power on the continent, and to protect its lifeline to its colonies. In that, it wanted to reduce German hegemony and keep Russia away from the Straits (as in 1853).

—The United States was fighting to maintain its commercial markets in western Europe and the Pacific, and to establish an international organization of collective security (the United Nations) so that it would not have to fight more European wars.

As long as the Allies shared a common goal of defeating Germany, none of their disagreements on larger geopolitical goals surfaced. But at Yalta, with Germany in retreat and the Japan home islands under assault by air, land, and sea, the fissures began to appear, and less than six months after the war’s end the Yalta agreements lay in tatters.

The Current Crimean War

The current fighting in Ukraine could well be called The Yalta War, as what is at stake are the varying interpretations of the 1945 conference.

In Poland and Eastern Europe, what the Allies heard was that there would be “free and fair” elections, which could well apply to Ukraine today, although Stalin left Yalta with the understanding that Eastern Europe (including Ukraine) would be a Soviet sphere of influence up to the Curzon Line (roughly the eastern Polish border today), if not beyond.

In other ways the allied bloc supporting Ukraine today is a reprise of what in the 19th century was called the Crimean coalition, the 1853-56 alliance of Britain, France, Sardinia (aspiring independent Italy), and the Ottoman Empire against Russian encroachments in the Danubian Principalities, the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Land.

In 1853 Prussia and Austria remained outside the coalition (much as Germany is tepid is its support for Ukraine today). Otherwise, the battlegrounds remain remarkably similar—in Crimea and on the shores of the Black and Azov seas. Kerch—the site now of the new Crimea bridge—was also the site of an Allied attack during the Crimean War (as it will one day in this war).

In the first Crimean War, the Allies seized Sevastopol (still a Ukrainian goal in this war) but then discovered that it was as tired of the war as was Russia, and eventually concluded a peace (not unlike Yalta in 1945), which barely lasted ten years.

The Imperfect Peace

What stands in Yalta’s favor is that we’re still discussing its terms almost one hundred years after they were agreed. Most peace treaties are out of date by the time the delegates in their top hats get home to report on the agreed terms.

Keep in mind that President Wilson personally negotiated the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which the Senate refused to ratify, and that the 1877 Treaty of San Stefano, which adjudicated the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, didn’t last for a year. (The Treaty of Berlin replaced it, and its terms contributed to the outbreak of both the 1912-13 Balkan Wars and World War I.)

The famed Congress of Vienna met over the fall and winter of 1814-15 to restore aristocratic order to the post-Napoleonic European world, only to discover, as it was organizing its last Viennese waltz (Vienna was nicknamed “The Dancing Congress”), that Napoleon had freed himself from Elba and was marching toward Waterloo.

Russia lost the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, but its capable negotiator Serge Witte dominated the subsequent Portsmouth (New Hampshire, USA) peace treaty negotiations (which earned American President Theodore Roosevelt a Nobel Prize for Peace), in which Russia, defeated at war, won the peace. The losers were China, which was not represented in the talks (although under adjudication was its lands), and Japan, which won on the battlefields.

That peace treaty, however, left the Japanese so enraged that thirty-six years later, when Japan attacked the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, its fleet flew pennants from the ships that had attacked Port Arthur—and in the Russo-Japanese War the Americans were simply arbitrators of a flawed piece treaty.

Yalta must have touched on some truths for it still to be in the conversation today, if only for all the points that it missed or muddled.

Next: Simferopol, Crimea, on the way home. Earlier installments can be found here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.