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There was NO other way (by Sergey Naryshkin)

There was NO other way (by Sergey Naryshkin)
The USSR's decision to sign a nonaggression pact with Germany was based on verified intelligence reports.

By Sergey Naryshkin, chairman of the Russian Historical Society and head of Russia’s foreign intelligence agency SVR.

Exactly 80 years ago, in the early hours of August 24, 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union signed a nonaggression pact in Moscow.

The news came as a bolt fromthe blue. Thousands of Soviet people wrote letters to central and local newspapers, expressing their anger and dismay, as the Soviet Union and the Third Reich were mortal enemies.

In the late 1930s, the USSR was the only European nation whose soldiers and officers fought face to face with Nazi Germany and its satellites. Undeclared wars were raging in Spain, where the Soviet government supported the Republicans, China, which was on the defensive against Japan's aggression, and Mongolia, where a large-scale offensive started on August 20, 1939, near the Khalkhyn Gol river – only three days before the signing of the treaty.

Driven by the ambition to destroy the USSR and simply out of cowardice, Britain and France made unprecedented concessions to Hitler.

There were many reasons for the unexpected shift in the Soviet Union's foreign policy, and you have to understand the complicated background.

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We should start with the foundation of the Versailles-Washington system that was established after WWI. Many historians agree that inequality was the foundational principle of the world order that existed between the two wars. The so-called Great Powers, i.e. Britain, France and the US, sought to secure their dominance by targeting and undermining the positions of potential rivals. Germany's rights were limited, it was demilitarized and had to pay humiliating reparations. The Ottoman Empire and Austria–Hungary faced division of their territories, while Soviet Russia experienced international isolation.

Along our western border there was now a "cordon" consisting of the countries that had emerged on the rubble of the Russian Empire, and many of the new states had nationalist regimes. Poland with Józef Piłsudski at the helm, the largest of these countries, gained Russia's territories in western Belarus and western Ukraine in 1921. By the end of the 1920s, forced Polonization of the local population had spiraled into blatant state terrorism. The situation in the neighboring Baltic region was no better.

Great Britain and France revealed their true feelings towards "Europe's back-door entryway" in the 1925 Locarno Treaties. Fearing the growing rapport between the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union, the guarantors of the Treaty of Versailles moved to make a distinction between Germany's western borders that could never be disputed, and eastern borders, where Germany was given significant leeway. In other words, it was decided that Germany's rising revanchism should not be suppressed but rather "properly" channeled eastwards. Thus, it is not surprising thatwhen the Nazis rose to power in Germany, the calls to "conquer more living space inthe East and unmercifully Germanize it" became the focal point of the Third Reich's foreign policy.

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When some power seeks to rule the world, whatever their pronounced goals might be, it will inevitably lead humanity to a tragedy.

Driven by the ambition to destroy the USSR and simply out of cowardice, Britain andFrance made unprecedented concessions to Hitler.

The policy of appeasement made it easier for the Nazis to create a capable army, have a convenient training camp in Spain, and recapture demilitarized Rhineland in 1936.

The appetite of the aggressor, unaccustomed to resistance, only grew with time. In March 1938, Hitler, with the connivance of Britain and France, concluded an Anschluss of Austria and started the Sudetenland Crisis that ended with the shameful Munich Betrayal. On September 12, right before his meeting with the Führer, the leader of the British 'appeasers' Neville Chamberlain proclaimed that Britain and Germany were "the two pillars of European peace and buttresses against communism." After that came the division of sovereign Czechoslovakia, whose representatives, for the record, were not even invited to the negotiating table.

"What happened in Munich was the end of Bolshevism in Europe, the end of any political influence of Russia on our continent," Italian dictator Mussolini said in triumph. It became clear that abstract matters like international law would not stop the fascist aggressors and their supporters. The Soviet Union found itself in a truly difficult situation and had to urgently adjust its foreign policy priorities.

It should be noted that ever since the Nazis came to power in Germany, the USSR pursued a policy of collective European security. In 1934, the Soviet government supported the proposal of French Foreign Minister Louis Barthou to sign the Eastern Pact that would bring together all countries of Eastern and Central Europe, includingthe USSR and Germany. For reasons that became obvious later, Hitler categorically refused to enter into such treaty. Ironically, it was Poland that strongly supported Germany.

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The blatant anti-Soviet attitude of the "colonels' regime" had been pushing Poland towards Hitler's sphere of influence for a long time. Germany encouraged them at first, even gave Poland part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, and then dangled Soviet Ukraine with Black Sea access in front of them. At least this is what was mentioned during the meeting of Germany's foreign minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, with thehead of the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Jozef Beck, in January 1939 in Warsaw – Soviet intelligence operatives were able to obtain the recording of that conversation.

The central tenet of history holds that one should never assess past events exclusively from a present day viewpoint.

In March 1939, Europe was shaken by yet another diplomatic crisis. Despite all the assurances given to Britain and France in Munich, Hitler occupied the Czech Republic and proclaimed Slovakia a protectorate of the German Reich. Building on this success, Hitler annexed the Memel territory in Lithuania and delivered an ultimatum to Romania and Poland. The prospect of a new great war breaking out in Europe was now clear to all.

Having found themselves under tremendous public pressure, London and Paris condemned Germany and recalled their ambassadors from Berlin. The entirety of March 1939 was marked by intense international discussions and consultations – this time, with full involvement of the Soviet Union. In response to British proposals, the Soviet government put forward an initiative to negotiate a new Anglo-Franco-Soviet mutual assistance treaty, and as an appendix to it a tripartite military convention. Thus, on April 17, 1939, at the precipice of war, the Soviet-British-French talks started in Moscow – a desperate last-minute attempt to forge an anti-Hitler coalition, doomed to fail. It is symbolic that just days before the launch of the talks, on April 11, 1939, the German General Staff adopted the infamous Fall Weiss plan, which involved a surprise attack on Poland.

To this day, historians argue as to what caused the Anglo-Franco-Soviet initiative to fail. First of all, it is noteworthy that neither the British nor the French leader wantedto meet with Stalin personally. Former British Prime Minister David Lloyd George described it this way: "Mr. Chamberlain negotiated directly with Hitler... He and Lord Halifax paid a visit to Rome... But whom did they send to Russia? They have not even sent an ordinary minister. No, they sent a clerk from foreign office. It is an insult."

Documents, some of which were obtained by Soviet intelligence, show that London did not even attempt to negotiate with Moscow. Unlike the French, who were well aware of the threat to their national security, the British still saw Hitler as an unruly ally who needed to be 'tamed' by invoking a hypothetical alliance with the Russians.It is also clear that the 'appeasers' did not mind negotiating a new Munich Agreement, now with Poland as its target. Up until August 1939, Soviet intelligence was regularly informing the country's leadership on communications of that nature between London and Berlin.

In July, Latvia and Estonia announced their refusal to accept Soviet guarantees and entered into non-aggression treaties with Germany. Thus, the entire Baltic region was turned into a springboard for Germany's invasion of the USSR. Realizing the imminent threat, the Soviet Union suggested abandoning political consultations andmoving directly to military talks.

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Stalling for time, British and French diplomats chose the longest travel route to Moscow possible: first to Leningrad by sea, and then to Moscow by train. Furthermore, upon their arrival, it turned out that General Joseph Doumenc, the leadFrench delegate, was only authorized to discuss and negotiate, while British AdmiralReginald Drax came to Moscow with no powers whatsoever.

The deciding factor, or rather the final straw, were the disagreements regarding the Red Army's passage through the territory of Poland. Poland, still in denial about its situation, emphatically refused to allow the Soviet troops to pass through. Even pressure from Paris could not change Warsaw's position. "It will be Poles, not Germans, who will charge deep into Germany in the very first days of the war!" responded Poland's ambassador Juliusz Łukasiewicz boldly to every attempt at persuading him. Later, seeing off the Western military delegations, Marshal Kliment Voroshilov said to Admiral Drax bitterly, "So does this mean we should have conquered Poland first, in order to offer them our help? Or maybe we should have gotten down on our knees and begged the Poles to let us save them?" As we know now, history itself answered this rhetorical question.

After this, events started to unfold at a lightning pace. Seeing no promise or progress in the consultations with London and Paris, the Soviet leadership reaffirmed its readiness for direct talks with Germany. And on August 23, 1939, Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Third Reich Joachim von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow with an urgent visit. German diplomacy made unprecedented concessions in order to secure Soviet neutrality ahead of the Poland campaign. The draft treaty was approved on the same day, and signed in the Kremlin the following night.

This tactical agreement with Hitler allowed the coalition of Anglo-French 'appeasers' and the axis powers to be split, bought the Soviet Union a couple more years of peace and helped push the border with Germany westwards. The main reasoning behind the treaty was national security – by that time, no one actually believed in lasting peace with the aggressor.

The signing of the Soviet-German Non-Aggression Pact was completely ignored by Warsaw, but strongly condemned by Tokyo. The developments at Khalkhin-Gol didn't benefit the aggressor, which made Germany's betrayal a particularly painful blow to Emperor Hirohito. Five days later, the entire anti-Soviet government of Kiichiro Hiranuma resigned. Once again, the Japanese could see that Hitler was a man driven by political opportunism and expediency. In fact, some historians believe that this very lesson kept Japan from attacking the USSR in the fall of 1941.

A week later, on September 1, 1939, the Second World War broke out in Europe. This was the single largest failure of the British and French governments, diplomacies and intelligence services. In an effort to protect themselves and push Germany to attack the Soviet Union, the 'appeasers' fell victim to their own schemes. "I must admit that the Soviet Union was clever in its foreign policy," said Finnish leader Karl Mannerheim, who, it should be noted, was never a big fan of the Soviet political system.

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Further events confirmed that, had it rejected Ribbentrop's proposals, the Soviet Union could have found itself in a significantly worse situation – militarily and politically. Having overestimated its importance in the eyes of its senior 'partners', Poland ultimately received no actual help from Britain or France. Just two weeks intothe war, it ceased to exist as an independent state, and the promises given by Western leaders resulted in diplomatic asylum for the Polish government-in-exile.

Despite Hitler's insistent demands, Soviet forces had not crossed over to Poland's territory until the Polish Army stopped resisting and the government of the Polish Republic evacuated. On September 17, 1939, the first Red Army units crossed the Soviet-Polish border. Commander-in-Chief of Poland's armed forces Marshal Edward Rydz-Smigly took a rational approach and ordered his troops not to engage.

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Making rapid advances, the Red Army reached the old borders of the Russian Empire in five days (let me remind you, only 18 years had passed since these former Russian territories became part of Poland under the Treaty of Riga). The effects of forced Polonization were felt throughout the region, and Red Army soldierswere often welcomed as liberators, while anti-Polish guerilla units were spontaneously formed in some areas. One of the most significant episodes in the liberation movement was the Skidel Revolt in western Belarus. As a result of this uprising, a major Polish contingent was basically paralyzed.

It is important to note that Soviet military presence both in Poland and later in the Baltics prevented large-scale pogroms that were often initiated by local Nazi thugs who attacked Jews even before their German masters got there. We must take all these factors into account as we assess the Soviet Union's foreign policy during thatperiod.

The new Soviet-German border was implicitly recognized at the international level. Winston Churchill stated in his address, "That the Russian armies should stand on this line was clearly necessitated for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace." Paris also gave its implicit consent to the territorial changes.

And the Soviet government used diplomatic channels to inform Britain and France that "the current demarcation line is not to be considered an official state border between Germany and the USSR", and the future of Poland "will depend on many factors and opposing forces that are impossible to take into account at this point."

As we know, the beginning of the Great Patriotic War ended up being the main factor. In 1941-1944, Polish national units were formed and armed behind the Sovietfrontlines. Soldiers of the First Polish Army fought shoulder to shoulder with Red Army troops liberating their homeland from the Nazis. Over 600,000 Red Army soldiers gave their lives fighting in Poland. Together with their brothers in arms they liberated the prisoners of Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka...

Let me give you one more detail: after the victory over Nazi Germany, it was the Soviet Union that made sure that major industrially developed territories like Silesia,East Prussia, and Pomerania, would become part of Poland. Through the efforts of Soviet diplomacy, the Polish Republic expanded by almost a quarter. So our Polish partners should look for the right role models in their past – I doubt that Polish nationalists, whose only deed was to flee the country in grave danger, deserve to be commemorated.

In conclusion, I would like to say that as we study history, we shouldn't forget about its main principle – not to evaluate past events merely from our present circumstances. We can only learn important, relevant lessons from history if we embed ourselves in the context of that period, study original sources, and take into account a range of expert opinions shared by professional historians. In this respect, I would like to invite my distinguished readers to a historical exhibition organized bythe Federal Archival Agency. It's called ‘1939. The Beginning of World War II’. You will find it in the exhibit hall of the Federal Archival Agency, at 17 Bolshaya Pirogovskaya, Moscow. I think that when you see the unique documents and other rare exhibits, you will understand how tense pre-war foreign relations were, and alsosee for yourself that when some power seeks to rule the world, whatever their pronounced goals might be, it will inevitably lead humanity to tragedy.

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