Vladimir Putin: The Real Lessons of the 75th Anniversary of World War II
The Russian president offers a comprehensive assessment of the legacy of World War II, arguing that "Today, European politicians, and Polish leaders in particular, wish to sweep the Munich Betrayal under the carpet. The Munich Betrayal showed to the Soviet Union that the Western countries would deal with security issues without taking its interests into account."
Later, during the Nuremberg trials, German generals explained their quick success in the East. The former chief of the operations staff of the German armed forces high command, General Alfred Jodl admitted: "… we did not suffer defeat as early as 1939 only because about 110 French and British divisions stationed in the west against 23 German divisions during our war with Poland remained absolutely idle."
I asked for retrieval from the archives of the whole body of materials pertaining to the contacts between the USSR and Germany in the dramatic days of August and September 1939. According to the documents, paragraph 2 of the Secret Protocol to the German-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 23 August 1939 stated that, in the event of territorial-political reorganization of the districts making up the Polish state, the border of the spheres of interest of the two countries would run "approximately along the Narew, Vistula and San rivers". In other words, the Soviet sphere of influence included not only the territories that were mostly home to Ukrainian and Belarusian population but also the historically Polish lands in the Vistula and Bug interfluve. This fact is known to very few these days.
Similarly, very few know that, immediately following the attack on Poland, in the early days of September 1939 Berlin strongly and repeatedly called on Moscow to join the military action. However, the Soviet leadership ignored those calls and planned to avoid engaging in the dramatic developments as long as possible.
It was only when it became absolutely clear that Great Britain and France were not going to help their ally and the Wehrmacht could swiftly occupy entire Poland and thus appear on the approaches to Minsk that the Soviet Union decided to send in, on the morning of 17 September, Red Army units into the so-called Eastern Borderlines, which nowadays form part of the territories of Belarus, Ukraine and Lithuania.
Obviously, there was no alternative. Otherwise, the USSR would face seriously increased risks because – I will say this again – the old Soviet-Polish border ran only within a few tens of kilometers of Minsk. The country would have to enter the inevitable war with the Nazis from very disadvantageous strategic positions, while millions of people of different nationalities, including the Jews living near Brest and Grodno, Przemyśl, Lvov and Wilno, would be left to die at the hands of the Nazis and their local accomplices – anti-Semites and radical nationalists.
The fact that the Soviet Union sought to avoid engaging in the growing conflict for as long as possible and was unwilling to fight side by side with Germany was the reason why the real contact between the Soviet and the German troops occurred much farther east than the borders agreed in the secret protocol. It was not on the Vistula River but closer to the so-called Curzon Line, which back in 1919 was recommended by the Triple Entente as the eastern border of Poland.
As is known, there is hardly any point in using the subjunctive mood when we speak of the past events. I will only say that, in September 1939, the Soviet leadership had an opportunity to move the western borders of the USSR even farther west, all the way to Warsaw, but decided against it.
The Germans suggested formalizing the new status quo. On September 28, 1939 Joachim von Ribbentrop and V.Molotov signed in Moscow the Boundary and Friendship Treaty between Germany and the Soviet Union, as well as the secret protocol on changing the state border, according to which the border was recognized at the demarcation line where the two armies de-facto stood.
In autumn 1939, the Soviet Union, pursuing its strategic military and defensive goals, started the process of the incorporation of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Their accession to the USSR was implemented on a contractual basis, with the consent of the elected authorities. This was in line with international and state law of that time. Besides, in October 1939, the city of Vilna and the surrounding area, which had previously been part of Poland, were returned to Lithuania. The Baltic republics within the USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher state structures of the Soviet Union.
During all these months there was an ongoing invisible diplomatic and politico-military struggle and intelligence work. Moscow understood that it was facing a fierce and cruel enemy, and that a covert war against Nazism was already going on. And there is no reason to take official statements and formal protocol notes of that time as a proof of ‘friendship' between the USSR and Germany. The Soviet Union had active trade and technical contacts not only with Germany, but with other countries as well. Whereas Hitler tried again and again to draw the Soviet Union into Germany's confrontation with the UK. But the Soviet government stood firm.
The last attempt to persuade the USSR to act together was made by Hitler during the visit of Molotov to Berlin in November 1940. But Molotov accurately followed Stalin's instructions and limited himself to a general discussion of the German idea of the Soviet Union joining the Tripartite Pact signed by Germany, Italy and Japan in September 1940 and directed against the UK and the USA. No wonder that already on November 17 Molotov gave the following instructions to Soviet plenipotentiary representative in London Ivan Maisky: "For your information…No agreement was signed or was intended to be signed in Berlin. We just exchanged our views in Berlin…and that was all…Apparently, the Germans and the Japanese seem anxious to push us towards the Gulf and India. We declined the discussion of this matter as we consider such advice on the part of Germany to be inappropriate." And on November 25 the Soviet leadership called it a day altogether by officially putting forward to Berlin the conditions that were unacceptable to the Nazis, including the withdrawal of German troops from Finland, mutual assistance treaty between Bulgaria and the USSR, and a number of others. Thus it deliberately excluded any possibility of joining the Pact. Such position definitely shaped the Fuehrer's intention to unleash a war against the USSR. And already in December, putting aside the warnings of his strategists about the disastrous danger of having a two-front war, Hitler approved the Barbarossa Plan. He did this with the knowledge that the Soviet Union was the major force that opposed him in Europe and that the upcoming battle in the East would decide the outcome of the world war. And he had no doubts as to the swiftness and success of the Moscow campaign.
And here I would like to highlight the following: Western countries, as a matter of fact, agreed at that time with the Soviet actions and recognized the Soviet Union's intention to ensure its national security. Indeed, back on October 1, 1939 Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Admiralty back then, in his speech on the radio said, "Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest… But that the Russian armies should stand on this line [the new Western border is meant] was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace." On October 4, 1939 speaking in the House of Lords British Foreign Secretary Halifax said, "…it should be recalled that the Soviet government's actions were to move the border essentially to the line recommended at the Versailles Conference by Lord Curzon... I only cite historical facts and believe they are indisputable." Prominent British politician and statesman D. Lloyd George emphasized, "The Russian armies occupied the territories that are not Polish and that were forcibly seized by Poland after the First World War ... It would be an act of criminal insanity to put the Russian advancement on a par with the German one."
In informal communications with Soviet plenipotentiary representative Maisky, British diplomats and high-level politicians spoke even more openly. On October 17, 1939 Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs R. A. Butler confided him that the British government circles believed there could be no question of returning Western Ukraine and Belarus to Poland. According to him, if it had been possible to create an ethnographic Poland of a modest size with a guarantee not only of the USSR and Germany, but also of Britain and France, the British government would have considered itself quite satisfied. On October 27, 1939, Chamberlain's senior advisor H.Wilson said that Poland had to be restored as an independent state on its ethnographic basis, but without Western Ukraine and Belarus.
It is worth noting that in the course of these conversations the possibilities for improving British-Soviet relations were also being explored. These contacts to a large extent laid the foundation for future alliance and anti-Hitler coalition. Churchill stood out among other responsible and far-sighted politicians and, despite his infamous dislike for the USSR, had been in favour of cooperating with the Soviets even before. Back in May 1939, he said in the House of Commons, "We shall be in mortal danger if we fail to create a grand alliance against aggression. The worst folly would be to drive away any natural cooperation with Soviet Russia." And after the start of hostilities in Europe, at his meeting with Maisky on October 6, 1939 he confided that there were no serious contradictions between the UK and the USSR and, therefore, there was no reason for strained or unsatisfactory relations. He also mentioned that the British government was eager to develop trade relations and willing to discuss any other measures that might improve the relationships.