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Analysis & Opinion

RUSSIA'S BALTIC POLICY BEFORE WORLD WAR II

18:21 30/05/2005

MOSCOW (Valentin Falin, for RIA Novosti).

Without making references to events of the Middle Ages or even the rule of Peter the Great in Russia, it is worth starting on Russia's Baltic policy with some historical background.

The development of state interests in the Baltic region proceeded for nearly a thousand years, taking the form of armed fighting and dynastic deals. For example, Catherine the Great bought Livland, a Baltic province, from the Danish crown. For a century before World War I, the situation in the region did not change much.

During World War I, Kaiser Wilhelm's troops occupied Lithuania and a number of Latvian regions. Acting on the order of General Paul von Hindenburg, the Eastern Protectorate was created in Belarus, Lithuania and Courland occupied by Germans in June 1915. The Baltic Germans proclaimed it a zone of German colonization. Land taken from Letts in Courland was to be handed over to about 60,000 families of German settlers.

In Lithuania the occupiers established the Lietuviu Tarybos (Lithuanian Council) led by Antanas Smetona in October 1917. On December 11, the council proclaimed the "restoration of Lithuanian statehood" and adopted an act of eternal allied relations between the Lithuanian State and Germany, which were to be reinforced by a military covenant, a customs union and a common currency, the Reichsmark. Yielding to public pressure, the council issued a new act "On the Independence of Lithuania," on February 16, 1918, which did not mention the military covenant with Germany. Instead, it called on Germany and Russia to recognize the restoration of the Lithuanian State, which should become, according to the council's decision of July 4, 1918, a monarchy ruled by Prince Wilhelm of Urach, Count of Wurttemberg.

Latvia was only partially occupied by the Kaiser's troops; the occupied territories were ruled by German military commandants. Russia's tsarist officials fled the unoccupied areas of the Livland Province and Courland after the 1917 February revolution. The Riga Council of Workers ordered provisional government leader Kerensky's henchmen to be expelled from the republic.

German troops had not reached Estonia when the tsarist regime fell in Russia. Several nationalist parties that sprang to life there after the 1917 February revolution, called for autonomy within Russia. Representatives of the top classes were to form the core of the gubernatorial council that was created at the time.

The situation in Latvia and Estonia changed dramatically in August 1917, when General Kornilov surrendered Riga to the Germans and a group of Estonian officers of the tsarist army helped the adversary to take the islands of Saaremaa and Muhu. The leaders of the gubernatorial council (the future dictator Konstantin Pats and Jaan Tonisson and Jaan Poska) supported Kornilov's revolt but were pushed out of power. In November 1917, the councils of workers' and peasants' deputies proclaimed the creation of the Worker Commune of Estland, which became the government of Estonia.

Pats entered a conspiracy with the Kaiser's Germany and ordered the opening of the front to the Germans, who wanted control over Tallinn, Parnu and other centers. At the same time, Pats and his team established contacts with the Entente, including in Murmansk, where British and American intervention troops were creating an Estonian Legion.

In February 1918, the Germans launched an offensive along the front from the Baltic to the Carpathians. The task of the northern group of forces was to seize Pskov and Narva and create a bridgehead for a strike at Petrograd. By February 23, the aggressor had occupied the Baltic region, Belarus and Ukraine.

This endangered the existence of Russia as a state and a nation. The Soviet republic did not have the military resources to repel the threat of the developing interventionist coalition. To survive, it had to sign the cabal Peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, under which Germany retained control of the regions of the former Russian empire it had occupied by that time.

On March 8, 1918, the Courland Landtag was convened at the initiative of the occupation forces in Mitava (Jelgava). Made up mostly of Baltic Germans, the Landtag proclaimed the creation of a Duchy of Courland under the rule of Wilhelm II, the German Emperor and King of Prussia.

A month later, the Council of Baltic Lands was created according to the same scenario. It proclaimed the secession of Latvia and Estonia from Russia and the establishment of the Baltic Duchy of Livland, Estland and Courland. The duchy, ruled by Wilhelm's brother Prince Heinrich Hohenzollern, created a personal union with Prussia. Parties, trade unions and public organizations were prohibited and local newspapers and magazines were closed down in the Baltic Duchy. German was proclaimed the one and only official language at the workplace and in schools. The duchy pursued a policy of accelerated Germanization of the Baltic region and its incorporation into the Reich.

The collapse of the German empire put an end to the Baltic Duchy and everything else that could be associated with the peace treaty of Brest-Litovsk. Moscow cancelled the peace treaty but the Entente soon provided a replacement. Under the Copmpiegne truce of November 11, 1918, the Germans were obliged to stay on the territories of the former Russian empire they had occupied, including Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, for maintaining order there. The Treaty of Versailles confirmed this settlement. The act of November 19, 1918 transferred civilian authority to the provisional governments of Augustinos Valdemaras (Lithuania), Karlis Ulmanis (Latvia) and Konstantin Pats (Estonia).

German and British troops were used to suppress mass protests against the intervention powers and their puppets. On February 18, 1919, the nationalist governments of Latvia and Estonia, acting on the prompting of Entente military missions, agreed to form a military union against Soviet Russia. Latvia and Lithuania signed a similar agreement on March 1. On August 26, the Entente signed an agreement with Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on joint actions against Soviet Russia. The U.S. and Britain started delivering arms under this agreement.

A campaign was launched in late 1918 in the Latvian regions occupied by Germany to form a Russian Western Army. By early October 1919, it had about 55,000 troops, including 40,000 Germans. Its formal commander was General Bermondt-Avalov but all commanding posts were taken by officers from the corps of Ruediger von der Goltz. Avalov refused to remain subordinate to Yudenich and shamelessly flirted with Germans, who played their own game in Latvia. The Entente demanded that all German troops be pulled out of Latvia and Lithuania, which was done by mid-December 1919.

That decision had negative consequences for Britain and France, who supported and incited Pilsudski to prepare for an offensive against Kiev and Moscow in 1919-1920. At the same time, the French and British generals expected to encourage German troops to move against Soviet Russia via the Baltic region, disguised as the Western Army under the command of Avalov. But Berlin proved smart and cautious enough to refrain from this opportunistic project.

The Soviet government offered peace treaties to Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia even before the German troops had pulled out. Estonians launched talks with the Soviet government on September 17, 1919 but were in no hurry to get down to business. They waited to see the outcome of Yudenich's offensive against Petrograd, in which Estonian nationalists took part. Yudenich was routed and Estonia signed the peace treaty in Tartu on February 2, 1920.

Despite the resistance of the Entente, Latvia signed a peace treaty on August 11, 1920. A month before that, on July 12, the Soviet government signed a peace treaty with Lithuania, which recognized Lithuania's claims to Vilnius and the Vilnius region.

Peace treaties with Latvia and Lithuania were signed at the height of the Polish-Soviet war. The recognition of the secession of the Baltic republics was the price Russia paid for their non-participation in the new policy of intervention and a pledge not to provide their territory for the military actions of other states against the eastern neighbor.

It cannot be said that the obligations of the Baltic governments always matched their policy, but the peace treaties with Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania marked the first major breach in "the strategy of democracies," which Winston Churchill described by saying that Soviet Russia should be separated from Western Europe by a cordon of states that despised Bolshevism.

The Entente more than once reminded the Baltic states about their "disloyalties" of 1919 and 1920. When conflicts with Germany or Poland threatened the Balts, Britain and France usually took the side of the former. But this did not prevent the security services of Britain, France, the U.S., Germany, Sweden, Finland and Japan from establishing intelligence networks in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Since late 1935, Germany became the predominant influence on the domestic policy of the Baltic states and started using their territory against the Soviet Union's interests.

Admiral Canaris and other senior figures in the German intelligence community had visited Estonia regularly, once a year, since 1936. Alfred Rosenberg, a notorious Nazi ideologist, supervised Latvia. German's relations with Lithuania were strained by the problems of the Vilnius region and Memel (Klaipeda).

Reacting to Britain's probing, Estonia (and subsequently Finland) categorically protested against accepting guarantees against external threats if the Soviet Union would be involved in the guarantees in any form. The signing of the non-aggression pacts between Estonia, Latvia and Germany in summer 1939 formalized that position of the Baltic states.

The situation with Lithuania was somewhat different. On March 22, 1939 it accepted von Ribbentrop's ultimatum and "ceded" the Memel region to Germany. In May that year, Lithuania demanded that Germany return the Vilnius region as compensation for Memel in the event of a German-Polish war. There is no documentary proof that Germany granted the demand, but the signing of the treaty of defense between the German Reich and the Lithuanian Republic (September 20, 1939) is quite explicit. The treaty stipulated the ensurance of "mutually complementing interests of the two countries" and Lithuania's agreement to accept "the protection of the German Reich."

That deal was soon rendered impotent by the so-called Border (Boundary) and Friendship Agreement signed by Germany and Soviet Russia on September 28, 1939. Under it, Lithuania was included in the zone of Soviet interests.

The Soviet-German non-aggression pact (the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) signed in the night of August 23/24, 1939 was precipitated long before that fateful night. If it had had a choice, Moscow would have teamed up with Britain, France and other countries in the struggle against the Nazi threat. But the available documents show that the Soviet leadership tried in vain to convince London and Paris to abandon the policy of appeasing the aggressor. Britain hoped to put Russia and Germany against each other and come out unscathed, U.S. Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes wrote in his diary.

In March 1939, London promised Poland to help in case of any threat, direct of indirect, to her sovereignty. The real value of our [British] guarantee to Poland is that it gives Poland a chance to come to terms with Germany, Sir Neville Henderson, Britain's ambassador to Germany, said at an August 26, 1939 session of the government.

The real goal of the talks with Moscow, which London at long last agreed to hold, was to prevent Russia from establishing any ties with Germany, Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax said. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain was even more direct, saying he would sooner resign than sign an alliance with the Soviets.

What should Britain do if the logic of events forced it to sign a military agreement with the Kremlin? Sir John Simon, Chancellor of the Exchequer, said at a Cabinet session on July 10, 1939, that the country should ensure freedom of maneuver, so that it could tell Russia that it was not obliged to enter the war [in the event of a Nazi aggression] because it did not accept her interpretation of the facts.

The invasion of Poland was to begin before September 1, 1939 - Moscow and London knew this for sure. The Soviet leadership faced a difficult choice: To swim with the tide, remaining an aloof observer, or accept Berlin's offer of a non-aggression pact similar to the ones Germany had with Poland, Britain and France? Had the Soviet Union rejected the offer at a time when it did not have effective mutual assistance agreements with the Western democracies, Germany could have made a casus belli (a pretext for a war) of it at any opportune moment.

Even Polish researchers, who do not regard Russia in a friendly manner, admitted in the 1980s that the situation at that tragic period deprived Moscow of any chance to maneuver. They even admitted that the pre-war leadership of Poland was to blame for the failure of the attempts to create a collective security system in Europe jointly with Moscow. But the modern attempts to rewrite history are similar to the striving to find in the past a justification for a new fit of Polish haughtiness.

In principle, the mutual obligation "to desist from any act of violence, any aggressive action, and any attack on each other, either individually or jointly with other powers" (see Article 1 of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 23, 1939) was a positive achievement. But it is much more difficult to correctly interpret the secret protocols signed by the two men on August 23 and September 28, 1939.

It were these protocols, and not the non-aggression pact with Germany, that were recognized as null and void in December 1989. The USSR Congress of People's Deputies denounced them as incompatible with the Leninist principles of Soviet foreign policy. The initiative by Vytautas Landsbergis, then chairman of the Lithuanian reform movement Sajudis, to qualify the protocols as contradicting the norms of international law was rejected as unsubstantiated. Secret agreements as regards the third countries were a widespread form of political relations in the 20th century used by Britain, France, Italy, Japan and the U.S.

Besides, the protocols speak of the demarcation of 'the spheres of interests', rather than 'the zones of influence'. This is not a case of pure semantics but an attempt to set a limit to Germany's expansion, which Moscow was forced to tolerate in that situation. It was with good reason that Winston Churchill described the Soviet Union's actions at the time as the development of the eastern front. In their secret protocol of August 23, 1939, Russia and Germany recognized "the interests of Lithuania with regard to the Vilnius region."

The protocols, and the Molotov-Ribbentrop negotiations in general, did not cover the future status of the Baltic states. In June 1940, Berlin was pondering the possibility of using the annexation of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia to the Soviet Union as a pretext for attacking it immediately, and soon after the French campaign. But the Generals discouraged Hitler.

When Germany crossed the Soviet border on June 22, 1941, the incorporation of the three Baltic states in the Soviet Union was one of the main complaints to Moscow, which Berlin accused of violating the 1939 agreements and hence provoking the conflict.

The reasons for the decision of the Soviet leadership to replace control of the Baltic states with annexation are a separate subject. However, it is apparent that Moscow was guided not by ideology or nostalgia for its imperial past, but by a desire to push back the defense lines as far west of its vital areas as possible.

Valentin Falin is a historian and a former Soviet ambassador to West Germany

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