The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk

by D. West

What perspective does this little-known treaty cast on the current relationship between Russia and NATO?

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was the treaty that ended Russia’s participation in the First World War. It marked the success of Germany’s strategy of allowing Vladimir Lenin to return to Russia in a sealed railway car from his exile in Switzerland in April 1917, following the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II after the February Revolution. The Provisional Government continued Russia’s participation in the war, with resultant large numbers of casualties and food shortages in the major cities. Lenin agitated for ‘peace, land and bread’ and, after the October Revolution that same year, became head of the new Soviet Russian government. The treaty was signed on 3 March 1918 between Russia and the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire. The British and French continued fighting on the Western Front with the participation of the United States, which entered the war on their side during 1917. In November 1918, an armistice was declared, Germany having been defeated militarily. This effectively terminated the treaty, fortunately for Russia. When Germans later complained about the harshness of the Treaty of Versailles of 1919, the riposte was that it was more benign for them than Brest-Litovsk had been on Russia.

What did the treaty do?

Under the treaty, Russia gave up all claims to the territories of Finland, the Baltic States (which were largely ceded to Germany), Belarus and Ukraine (which by another treaty of the same name and date was established as an independent republic under German military protection) – all of which had been part of the Russian Empire at the start of the war. So too was Congress Poland, not mentioned in the treaty but in respect of which Russia in effect also gave up any claim. Russia also transferred Ardahan, Kars and Batumi in the South Caucasus to the Ottoman Empire. It is commonly estimated that Russia lost at least a quarter of its population, arable land and industry and most of its coal mines. The treaty returned Russia to the European boundaries it had before the start of the Great Northern War against Sweden in 1701 – apart from the area around St. Petersburg east of the Narva River which Russia, led by Peter the Great, took early in that war and retained ever afterwards.

Ironically from a contemporary perspective, no issue arose over Crimea, which remained part of Russia and was shown as such on the treaty map.

What were the German objectives?

These were not clear, and it seems there were two schools of thought. The German Foreign Ministry wanted to establish a series of buffer states that would isolate the Soviets from the heart of Europe. They envisaged that the new states would establish strong ethnic and national identities which would lead them to assert their independence of outside control. On the other hand, the German Army High Command, headed by Paul von Hindenburg and driven by his chief of staff Erich Ludendorff, wanted permanent mastery over the periphery of the Russian Empire, with puppet governments facilitating German strategic and economic exploitation of the region. When asked why the annexation of the Baltic States was necessary, von Hindenburg said: ‘to secure my left flank for when the next war happens.’

What happened afterwards?

The treaty worked out badly for the Germans. Although they moved large numbers of veteran troops to the Western Front for the Spring Offensive, they had to leave over a million soldiers behind to maintain their presence in the huge area they occupied from Poland eastwards.

In the wars and civil war that followed during the next three to four years, Ukraine was recovered by the Bolsheviks and became one of the republics of the Soviet Union, Poland and the Baltics emerged as independent countries. However, in consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 the Soviet Union annexed the Baltic States and Poland was divided between it and Germany. At the end of World War II, Poland’s sovereignty was restored but with its north-south borders moved westwards on both sides of the country. The Baltics only became independent again during the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

What is the significance of this today?

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk was formally nullified as between Germany and Russia by the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922. However, some treaties – even short-lived ones – have a way of asserting a ghost-like presence in international affairs long after they have become defunct as legal instruments.

To see this, let us first review the period from the end of WWII until the end of the Cold War based on traditional, non-ideological “realpolitik.” During this time, most of Europe was divided into two ‘blocs’ (only a few states being neutral). One, under US tutelage, consisted of the NATO alliance which included most of western Europe (but not Austria, Sweden, Finland, Ireland, Switzerland and Yugloslavia) and Turkey. The other, driven by Russia, had two layers. The first was the Warsaw Pact, a central and eastern European alliance intended to counter NATO. The second was the Soviet Union itself, which consisted latterly of 15 Soviet Socialist Republics, the largest and most dominant being that of Russia.

Since the break-up of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991 (25 years ago next month), Russia’s western boundaries have been the same as those following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk. In the Caucasus, they have been reduced by the independence of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia.

This may have seemed relatively inconsequential at first because there was no apparent reason for Russia to be concerned militarily about its western or southern frontiers. However, NATO expanded into much of central Europe – most significantly including Poland and the Baltics, both of which had been within the Russian Empire (although only in part for Poland) and subsequently either the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union.

Furthermore, for so long as neutrality was maintained by Ukraine, Belarus and Finland on Russia’s western flank and Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia to the south, they effectively provided a buffer zone. Once discussions started about including Ukraine and Georgia in NATO, there was no longer any assurance to Russia that their neutrality would necessarily be continued.

It is in this context that the differences in German strategy relating to the Brest-Litovsk Treaty come back to life. The policy of establishing (or reviving, depending on one’s viewpoint) states with strong ethnic and national identities that would assert their independence has clearly been effective. However, extending NATO to Poland and the Baltics and holding public discussions about including Ukraine and Georgia inevitably revives (consciously or unconsciously) memories of the plans of the German General Staff in 1918.

It also inevitably raises again the question put to von Hindenburg – what do you need it for?

DC West
London
8 November, 2016