On March 18, 1921, the Treaty of Riga sealed an uneasy peace between Soviet Russia and the Second Polish Republic following the Polish-Soviet War. The conflict was nominally a Polish victory over the Soviet Union’s attempt to expand westward into the rest of Europe. As a result, portions of modern-day Ukraine and Belarus came under Polish rule, containing the Soviets to the periphery of the continent.
However, despite the territorial gains, the terms of the Treaty of Riga negatively affected Polish foreign policy over the next two decades. It hindered Poland’s alliance-building capability with other central and eastern European states. Additionally, the Polish government maintained a policy of conflict avoidance with the Soviets, even after Moscow violated certain treaty provisions.
The Treaty of Riga also enabled the Soviets to exploit Poland’s ethnic minorities, which already had difficult relations with the central government. Specifically, the Belarusian and Ukrainian national movements became co-opted by the Soviets and were instrumentalized to exacerbate the internal conflicts within Poland. This led to heightened repression by the Polish state and greater opposition from the ethnic minorities. The outcome was a divided Eastern and Central Europe, susceptible to both Stalin and Hitler. The case study of the Treaty of Riga, its negotiation process and subsequent execution, offer lessons for another one of Russia’s neighbors with which it is currently at war.
Negotiating with Moscow
During treaty negotiations, the Bolsheviks employed several tactics to gain an advantage and mitigate the initial shock of the Polish victory. One of the most crucial strategies was reneging, threatening to renege, and altering the interpretation of a given provision. For instance, the initial agreement acknowledged Poland’s claim to a portion of imperial Russian gold reserves, which were now under Soviet control. However, subsequent negotiations became more intricate, delving into arguments over what exactly was considered “Russian” gold and what was precisely included in the gold reserves. Later, the agreement was held contingent on other issues in the negotiation.
The final terms of the Treaty of Riga stipulated the Soviets would compensate the Poles with items other than gold for several years. Since payments could always be halted, these arrangements provided the Soviets with additional leverage. The Soviets utilized delay tactics in many initial treaty provisions, with detained Polish prisoners serving as bargaining chips long after the treaty’s signature. Poland’s other geopolitical problems further compounded the issue. Allies such as Britain and France eagerly encouraged expediting the peace agreement. Poland’s motivation also hinged on the hope of a future economic relationship with the Soviet Union. Similarly, such a situation could unfold today if Ukraine is pressured into accepting a less-than-favorable peace treaty under Russian persistence and international pressure. Likewise, any arrangement that relies on a future Russian commitment, such as arms inspections or coordination meetings, is highly likely to be used as a bargaining chip even after the formal treaty is concluded.
The fledgling Polish state made several mistakes that played into the hands of the Soviets. The Polish delegation was excessively large and included members from multiple political parties outside the government, leading to vulnerability to disagreement and factional decision-making. Additionally, Poland’s allies were disunified and focused on economic relations with Russia, anticipating the eventual collapse of the Soviet model and a return to imperial rule. There would be no use in ruining future imperial relations by overtly favoring Poland.
Today, the West needs to maintain cohesion through the long term, even when Russia attempts to prolong negotiations. Moscow will exploit any desire for a swift end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict to enhance its position, and Russian revanchism will persist in a different guise.
Terms and Compliance
The final terms of the Treaty of Riga featured significant Soviet territorial concessions to Poland. Additional concessions included payment of a portion of the Russian Imperial Treasury to Poland, restitution of various rolling stock, return of various national treasures and archives, and, most notably, a mutual commitment to respect each others’ sovereignty.
While these terms seemed acceptable initially, multi-year commitments and Poland’s lack of tools to enforce the treaty significantly reduced their benefits to Warsaw. As a result, the Soviets were more comfortable violating the treaty than the Poles in the succeeding years. As the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany strengthened, many central and eastern European countries shifted toward a policy of non-provocation, aiming for strict neutrality to remain sovereign. A similar situation could arise today if the future peace agreement for Ukraine lacks a long-term, reliable enforcement mechanism.
A Ukrainian Negotiated Peace
Ukraine alone, just as Poland alone, would find it challenging to enforce peace with Russia. Poland experienced growing power disparity with the Soviets as the latter recovered from World War I and the Russian Civil War. In the case of Ukraine and Russia, even if a bilateral agreement were signed, there would be little recourse for Ukraine if Russia violated its terms. If Ukraine responded with cross-border retaliation, it would risk a resumption of war on its soil, and it would have to rely on the goodwill of its allies to underwrite its sovereignty. It could even stoke fears of provoking Russia when addressing actions below the threshold of war, such as information operations or the establishment of pro-Russian entities within Ukraine.
An arrangement between Ukraine and Russia, similar to the Minsk Agreements, is unstable unless ongoing external support rectifies the power disparity between the two factions. Over time, the power disparity between Ukraine and Russia will continue to diverge as Russia recovers from the present conflict. Ukraine could adopt an “Israeli Model” and modernize its economy for a qualitative advantage, but this is uncertain and contingent on many factors beyond its control.
A Truly Lasting Peace
A lasting peace between Ukraine and Russia would necessitate a security underwriter with a vested interest in maintaining a long-term armistice, leveling the power disparities between Kiev and Moscow. This is not possible with partners who are only willing to offer diplomatic condemnations and, at best, sanctions if a provocation occurs.
For a lasting armistice to endure, Ukraine needs legally binding guarantees supporting its peace, including repercussions for provocations below the threshold of war. These guarantees could include North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) membership, European Union (EU) membership (with an untested but legally binding defense clause), a separate multilateral treaty, or a combination of all three.
Given the likelihood of Russia pushing the limits of the agreement and testing Western resolve— much like the Soviets did in the years following the Treaty of Riga—we are assuming some degree of continuity between Soviet and now Russian foreign policy. The presence of foreign troops may be needed not only on Ukraine’s border with Russia but also on the border with Belarus, where provocations can occur with some degree of Russian deniability.
The Korean Armistice
Some argue that a Russo-Ukrainian peace should be modeled on the Korean Armistice, involving the United States, China, and (implicitly) the Soviet Union underwriting the peace for their respective counterparts. The great powers underwriting this peace could enforce the agreement and were invested in avoiding regional conflicts that could spiral out of control. To fulfill its commitment, the United States continuously maintains sizable forces on the Korean peninsula. Korea’s mountainous terrain favors the defense, making renewed offensives difficult. The stalemate led to a scenario where maintaining the armistice remained in the long-term interest of both sides and has only crystallized over time.
Even if the Republic of Korea succeeded in reunification on its terms, it would face reintegrating an economically backward region along with a populace that has been isolated for several decades. In addition, there would be significant political ramifications concerning China. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) is even less likely to accomplish such a feat as the Kim Regime’s primary interest is maintaining the status quo.
Implementation of a Ukraine and Russia Treaty
To replicate the Korean model, several conditions must be met. These include an agreement supported by credible security guarantors, sustained resolve not subject to the whims of election cycles, and defensible terrain. Regardless of the form of the security agreement, it must respond decisively across the spectrum of conflict to uphold the armistice. Failure to achieve this could lead Russia to provoke and take action below the threshold of war, degrading the agreement’s validity and weakening Ukraine. Ensuring long-term resolve through legally binding channels undermines Russia’s strategy of reliance on the whims of election cycles or public forgetfulness to resume the conflict.
Drawing insights from the Treaty of Riga and the Korean Armistice, a future agreement needs security guarantors with a lasting interest in maintaining the new status quo. While France and Germany held powerful geopolitical influence, they lacked the political will motivated by self-interest when facilitating the Minsk peace process. Additionally, the terrain of Ukraine is naturally flat and conducive to large mechanized offensives. It necessitates the implementation of a heavily fortified (and costly) border between Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus. These border defenses must be of sufficient depth to address the Russian military’s reliance on mass.