Sergey Ivanov is currently the Special Representative of the President of the Russian Federation on Issues of Environmental Activities, Environment and Transport and is the chairman of the Russian Military Historical Society.
The Soviet Union and Germany signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, named for the Soviet and German foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, on August 23, 1939. A secret protocol delineating "spheres of interests" between the two countries was signed simultaneously with the pact. According to the document, USSR's sphere of influence included Latvia, Estonia, Western Belarus, Western Ukraine and Bessarabia and moved the European border of the country much to the west.
Sputnik: Relations between the USSR and Germany deteriorated sharply after Hitler came to power. When did this deterioration happen exactly, why and on whose initiative did it come about?
Sergey Ivanov: In the 1930s, the USSR was clearly anti-fascist and therefore anti-German. Its relations with Germany started changing gradually only after the Munich Agreement, with Berlin taking the initiative, initially in the form of sounding the Soviet position. However, the Soviet leaders, focused on forming a coalition with Britain and France, were wary and reluctant to meet the German proposals.
As acknowledged by prominent – even Western – historians, until mid-August 1939, right up to the failure of trilateral negotiations, Stalin was aiming to create an anti-Hitler coalition comprising the USSR, France and Great Britain. In the Soviet Union, they were well aware that the Third Reich’s foreign policy concept was directly connected and merged with Nazi ravings about “living space” not somewhere in Africa, but in the East, as Hitler said, on Slavic lands. Therefore, Berlin was our main enemy.
But what was Stalin to do when the negotiations with the British and French had failed and Germany was about to invade Poland? Given the armed conflict at Khalkhin Gol, he first of all had to think about the national and state security of the country. He had to delay the start of the war with Germany. Why would the USSR have to be the first to enter the war with Hitler Germany, contrary to the clearly declared opinion of the Polish government? Why would the USSR have to impose its assistance on the Poles, and to send their soldiers to die for the sake of Poland, when Great Britain and France didn’t want to fight with Germany?
Sputnik: Why did the Anglo-Franco-Soviet negotiations held in Moscow in the summer of 1939 fail? We often hear that the Soviet leadership had deliberately thwarted the signing of the agreement with France and the UK, and that the whole negotiation process was nothing but a performance in order to induce Hitler to conclude an agreement with the USSR.
Sergey Ivanov: There have been such accusations; even now we often hear them. But if we look at the Anglo-French-Soviet negotiations in more detail, we’ll realise the fallacy of such allegations. Let’s have a close look. On 18 March, the British government asked the Soviet Union and a number of other countries for their position in the event of a German attack on Romania. In its turn, Moscow suggested convening an international conference including Eastern European countries, ruling out the possibility of discussing Romania or Poland’s fate with the UK without consulting the representatives of those two most interested states. Then London suggested signing a joint declaration, but Poland refused to do that! And how could one sign a declaration on protection of Poland without Poland itself? At that time, no one could guarantee that Poland wouldn’t yield to Hitler’s pressure and meet Germany’s demands – without any war.
As a result of this development, Poland would become Germany’s vassal, its junior coalition partner. Then the scenario of Germany and Poland’s joint attack against the USSR, and the unification of the military capabilities of the two states based on the common hostility towards the Soviet Union would become more likely. Let me remind you that in January 1939, during Ribbentrop-Beck negotiations, that was basically what the German Foreign Minister offered Poland.
As we know today, Soviet intelligence, informed the Kremlin about the content of those talks. But the key point is that on 31 March, the UK provided Poland with unilateral guarantees of independence; again, without consulting the USSR, behind its back.
Nevertheless, on 17 April, Moscow offered London and Paris to conclude a tripartite agreement on mutual assistance. But the position of the Polish government and the governments of the Baltic States still remained the stumbling block in the negotiations. The USSR had no common border with Germany. How could the USSR start a war with Hitler, if both Poland and the Baltic states were repeatedly saying that “no Soviet soldier would be allowed to step onto their territory” and refused to discuss any guarantees of its independence and territorial integrity by the USSR? It was the non-constructive stance of these states, the irrational anti-Soviet position of the Polish elite, that made any discussion or even the signing of some kind of military convention implying the creation of a new Entente modelled on the First World War and represented by the Soviet Union, Britain and France impossible.
Nevertheless, till the very end the Kremlin was trying to do something – we know that in August 1939, the British and French missions did arrive in Moscow. And it was only during the Moscow talks that it turned out that it would be impossible to sign anything other than the “declaration of intent”, and that it was impossible to make Poland agree to accept Soviet assistance; it was only then that the Kremlin decided in favour of contacts with Berlin.
Sputnik: Was there any discussion regarding the Soviet strategy in relations with Germany in Stalin’s circles? Was there a consensus in the Soviet leadership on the need to sign a non-aggression agreement?
Sergey Ivanov: At that time, a small group of the country’s leaders was involved in solving such issues. In addition to Stalin, it included Vyacheslav Molotov, Andrei Zhdanov, Georgy Malenkov, and some others. As for the military, Commissar of Defence of the USSR Clement Voroshilov should be called first. Having analysed the political course of Western democracies and the course of tripartite negotiations, there was no doubt that the British and the French sought to channelise German aggression eastwards. Therefore, there was a consensus among the top Soviet leaders regarding signing a non-aggression agreement with Germany.
When during the trilateral negotiations it became clear that the military convention with Britain and France could not be concluded, the USSR signed a loan agreement with Germany on 19 August; on 23 August, they signed a non-aggression agreement and secret additional protocol to it.
Sputnik: In your opinion, would Poland be able to get help from France and England if the Red Army hadn’t crossed its eastern border on 17 September?
Sergey Ivanov: Poland was doomed by the arrogance of its own leadership, who had rejected the Soviet initiatives to create a collective security system in Europe, as well as the reluctance of the French to “save” it. By 17 September, the main body of the Polish army was destroyed or enveloped. German troops isolated Warsaw – the centre of the military and political administration of the country; the country’s government went into emigration and was already preparing to cross the border. Before the outbreak of hostilities, most of the small Polish fleet had gone to join the English fleet, abandoning any attempt to protect their own coast.
What is there to talk about if, starting from 9 September, the Polish leadership started talks with France regarding granting asylum to the Polish government? This means that at that time they had already realised everything – and decided to flee. By the way, the president of Poland left Warsaw on the day the war began, 1 September. On 4 September, the evacuation of government institutions started. On 5 September, the government left the country; and on the night of 7 September, the commander-in-chief of the Polish army Edward Rydz-Śmigły fled.
If Britain and France really wanted to help Poland, they would have easily destroyed the weak German barrier on the German-French border, where their superiority was overwhelming. But they never did.
It is not by chance that, in the West, this period of the war is called “strange” or “sitting” - on 21 November, the French government created an “entertainment service in the army, giving additional alcohol to soldiers was discussed in parliament, the tax on playing cards was abolished for the “active” army, they also bought 10 thousand balls…
Sputnik: Perhaps, if there had been no Polish campaign, the Red Army would have been easier to defend against the Germans on the already prepared “Stalin line”?
Sergey Ivanov: All defence lines created before the Second World War in European countries failed; those that were attacked were eventually broken through or surrendered. In that mobile war, distances mattered more than frontiers. If Germany was preparing an offensive against the USSR’s western border of 16 September 1939, the likelihood of holding Leningrad would have been very low; Minsk and Kiev would have fallen even earlier. But most importantly, there would have been even fewer opportunities to evacuate defence enterprises; and even in we succeeded in 1941, there would be practically nothing for us to fight with in 1942.
If there were no pact, in 1941, the German troops wouldn’t have to fight hundreds of kilometres in Western Belarus and Ukraine. They would launch an offensive from a much more advantageous position, and would reach Moscow and Leningrad much earlier than they did. Would Moscow survive in that case?
In the summer of 1941, by buying more time in exchange for their territory, the Soviet command was able to mobilise and arm dozens of divisions, which eventually managed to stabilise the front and drive the Germans away from Moscow.
Sputnik: How did the shift in Soviet-German relations affect the Soviet society? To what extent did the rejection of harsh criticism of the Nazis disorient the society and the ruling elite in the early 1940s?
Sergey Ivanov: The communists of different countries were bewildered when the criticism of Nazi Germany stopped after the conclusion of the non-aggression pact. But no one spoke out publicly. Inside the country, people also asked that same question. However, the overwhelming majority of the population understood that the treaty with Germany was a forced step. Since Germany remained a Nazi state with a misanthropic ideology and aggressive plans, there was no doubt that the treaty was a temporary manoeuvre. The military understood this better than anyone.
Sputnik: What was Japan’s reaction to the Soviet-German treaty?
Sergey Ivanov: For the Japanese, this came as a shock. Without consulting their ally, Germany, signed a non-aggression pact with the USSR when the Japanese were fighting with the Soviet and Mongolian troops at Khalkhin Gol. As a result, the agreement concluded by their ally forced the Japanese government to resign!
I believe that the defeat at Khalkhin Gol and the Soviet-German treaty turned the vector of Japanese aggression southwards. The move by Hitler, who suddenly agreed to sign a treaty with the USSR, resulted in lowering Tokyo’s trust in the Third Reich Führer.
Sputnik: As we know, the Secret Protocols to the Soviet-German non-aggression treaty were condemned by the Congress of People’s Deputies of the USSR of 24 December 1989. In the light of new conditions, maybe it’s worth considering the abolition of that decision?
Sergey Ivanov: The Russian Federation, as the successor state of the USSR, certainly has the opportunity to do so. The thing is that we have already suffered all the negative effects of the adoption of that resolution, since it served the cause of our diplomatic, ideological and actual disarmament before the West in the Perestroika times and in the 1990s. Today, there should be no rush regarding this matter. Historians and lawyers can take their time investigating the situation and rendering their verdict; and then, based on that verdict, our society will decide, either independently or through legal representation, how to treat secret protocols and whether to cancel that resolution of the Congress of People’s Deputies.
Sputnik: Nowadays, the West often makes movies and series that directly or indirectly show Russia and the USSR in a bad light; Kursk and Chernobyl are recent examples. We can assume that the signing of the non-aggression treaty may as well become the object of such a work at some point. Shouldn’t we reciprocate and make a film, say, about the Munich Agreement of 1938?
Sergey Ivanov: The examples you gave illustrate not only the thesis about the anti-Russian vector of these films, but also its commercial success. Very often, the demand for such films from among Western audience allows you to recoup the costs of their production due to wide release. If one manages to create a good screenplay about the 1938 Munich Agreement or some other event and make its successful production, then why not? But making an expensive film simply to hurt someone in the West is a goal that doesn’t justify the means.