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A nation must think before it acts.
During a press conference in 2005, Russian President Vladimir Putin argued that there is no need to talk “every day” about such “realities of the past” as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, European colonialism or slavery in the US. At the same time, the Russian president admitted that he did not study much at the university, as he was spending his time drinking beer.
Today things have changed, and the former student has become a wannabe history lecturer. On June 18, The National Interest published an article signed by Putin attempting to justify the so-called Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocol.
The pact, signed on August 23, 1939, was a Soviet-Nazi non-aggression treaty with a secret protocol that divided Eastern Europe into Nazi and Soviet spheres of influence. Initially, Lithuania, as well as Western Poland, were attributed to Nazi Germany, and Bessarabia, Eastern Poland, Latvia, Estonia and Finland to the USSR. However, on Sept. 28, 1939, Lithuania was exchanged against several Polish territories, ending up in the Soviet sphere.
Putin’s National Interest article comes in the ever-changing context of Russian and Soviet narratives about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But what is the impetus for Putin’s changing position? And what are the consequences of these claims for the Baltic states specifically?
In August 2019, the Russian Foreign Ministry marked the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact by a social media campaign framing the Soviet-Nazi agreement as a common pre-WWII practice and blaming Latvia and Estonia for the Nazi invasion of Poland. While historians would definitely agree that the pact should be analyzed in its historical context, contextualization and justification are two very different things. The 1938 Munich Agreement between France, Great Britain, Italy and Nazi Germany authorizing the Nazi annexation of Sudetenland, a region of Western Czechoslovakia, does indeed show that violations of small state sovereignty were a common pre-war practice. Yet, two wrongs do not make a right, and similarity is not exactitude. As historian Sergey Radchenko has underlined, Britain and France did not grab a part of Czechoslovakia for themselves, while Stalin did precisely that to Poland. Similarly, Latvia and Estonia did indeed sign a non-aggression treaty with Germany in 1939. Still, as Latvian minister of foreign affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs pointed out, these treaties did not include a secret protocol dividing the Soviet Union into spheres of influence.
Romania, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia reacted to the Russian social media campaign by issuing a joint statement calling for a collective European effort to counter “disinformation campaigns and attempts to manipulate historical facts.” Finland was unsurprisingly silent: Having maintained its independence and sovereignty during the dark years of the Cold War, Helsinki tends to distance itself from the history debates between Moscow and the former Soviet bloc countries.
In September 2019, the European Parliament adopted a resolution that took the memory wars a step further: The document not only condemned the attempts to whitewash Soviet crimes, but also implicitly called for the removal of Soviet monuments in Europe.
Putin continued the row in December 2019. During the Summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States, he denounced the European resolution and blamed Poland for the outbreak of WWII. Radchenko, who has systematically fact-checked Putin’s speech, concluded that with such an outlook, “Putin the amateur historian would not get a passing grade at any reputable university.” While most of the hard facts that the Russian president evoked both in his December 2019 speech and in his 2020 article are correct and long known to historians, as Radchenko notes, Putin twists the evidence.
When interpreting Polish, French and British diplomacy in the WWII period, Putin systematically assumes that these countries were guided by the worst possible intentions. Meanwhile, the Soviet policies are portrayed as driven by noble aims and/or circumstances beyond Moscow’s control. The analytical inconsistency leads to an oversimplified and absurd depiction of Poland as an active agent of its own demise, while the USSR is seen as a passive victim of the hostile international environment pushed into cooperation with the Nazis. In this “my country, right or wrong” perspective, the Nazi-Soviet pact and the secretive division of Eastern Europe seem to be an unfortunate, but understandable and necessary policy move. Yet, this analysis made by Russian President Vladimir Putin differs from the one made by Russian Prime Minister Putin in 2009.
In 2009, during a less tense period in Russian-European relations, the same Vladimir Putin, at the time prime minister of Russia, sent a letter to the “Polish Nation” that was aimed at reconciling Russian and Polish memories of WWII. In the letter, while rejecting the idea that the MRP had triggered WWII, he admitted that the pact was condemnable and insisted that in his country, the immoral nature of the MRP had “been clearly assessed by the parliament.” The parliament Putin was referring to was not the Russian Duma, but the Soviet Congress of People’s Deputies. On Christmas Eve 1989, Soviet lawmakers had indeed admitted the existence of the secret protocol of the MRP and condemned it with a vote of 1432 to 252. For many years, the Soviet Union had dismissed Western scholarship on the MRP secret protocol, arguing that it was a Western forgery and claiming there was no such document in the Soviet archives. This line of argument was upheld even by Mikhail Gorbachev until deputies from Estonian SSR initiated the creation of a special Commission to examine the issue. The decisive vote of Dec. 24, 1989, resulted from joint efforts deployed by lawmakers from the Baltic republics, Russian Democrats and Aleksandr Yakovlev, one of the most prominent perestroika thinkers. While Baltic deputies provided crucial archival evidence from Finland, West Germany and the US, it was Yakovlev who convinced the Congress to support the resolution. The document made a clear distinction between the non-aggression treaty and the secret protocol. The resolution stated that the treaty itself conformed to the standards of international law, while the secret protocol was a deviation from Vladimir Lenin’s principles in Soviet foreign policy, and a violation not only of the sovereignty of third states, but also of the obligation that the USSR had undertaken while signing bilateral treaties with Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania and Poland. The document condemned the conclusion of the secret protocol and declared it null and void from the moment of signing.
Putin mentions the Soviet resolution in both his 2009 letter to Poland and in his 2020 article, yet the use that he makes of it varies greatly. Today, Putin sees the secret protocol as a necessary realpolitik choice made by Stalin under challenging circumstances. In 2009 Putin’s perspective on the secret protocol was closer to the 1989 Soviet resolution, which depicts it as not just as illegal, but also as morally wrong. While discussing both the Munich Agreement and the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Putin argued in 2009 that no policy could be seen “as reasonable and responsible if it trespasses moral and legal frames.”
What has changed between 2009 and 2020? First, the aim of the 2009 letter and 2020 article differ significantly. In 2009, Prime Minister Putin was indeed attempting to improve Russian relations with Poland and Europe and in his letter called for a collective European security system that would include Russia. The 2020 article is aimed at restating Russia’s great power status and calls for reinforcement of an oligarchic international order based on the post-WWII status quo. Ignoring ongoing debates about the necessity to reform the UN Security Council, Putin projects a vision of a world managed by five “nuclear states,” “five members of the UN security council.” In other words, Putin proposes the reinforcement of a 70-year-old system that does not take into account transformations brought by decolonization, European integration, and the collapse of the USSR and the Soviet bloc.
These calls are troubling for states like Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, which fear big power deals because of their historical experiences. Breaking out of the Russian zone of influence in which they were sealed by the MRP was the central goal of their foreign policy until 2004 when they joined the EU and NATO. Overcoming the trauma of Soviet and Nazi occupations is an ongoing struggle for their multi-ethnic societies to this day. Yet, Putin dismisses Baltic grievances by declaring that they voluntarily joined the USSR and benefited from the Soviet system.
The Baltic states, as well as the international community, have always insisted that the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania in the summer of 1940 was illegal. During the Cold War, the US and most Western European states maintained this position, arguing that, legally, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were not part of the USSR. In 1991, the West re-established diplomatic relations with the already existing Baltic states, while other Soviet republics were recognized as new states. In other words, throughout the Cold War, the Baltic states continued to exist de jure, despite de facto Soviet occupation.
However, according to the Soviet official narrative, the Baltic states joined the Soviet Union voluntarily after spontaneous and simultaneous working-class revolutions took place in the Baltics. This position was officially upheld even by Gorbachev, despite the fact that the 1989 Christmas Eve resolution pointed out that Stalin and his associates used the protocol “to make ultimatums and to put pressure on other countries by violating the legal obligations assumed by the USSR to those countries.”
Indeed, in September 1939, after the Soviet and Nazi invasions of Poland, the Soviet Union requested the governments of Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Finland to allow the establishment of Soviet military bases on their national territories. Baltic governments yielded to Soviet demands. During their talks, the Soviet side made it clear that the only other alternative to the military bases would be a direct occupation. “If you do not want to conclude with us a mutual assistance pact,” Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov told his Estonian counterpart Karl Selter on Sept. 24, 1939, “then we have to use, to guarantee our security, other ways, perhaps more drastic; perhaps more complicated. I ask you, do not compel us to use force against Estonia.” In early October, treaties of mutual assistance were concluded between Kaunas, Riga, Tallinn and Moscow, affirming that the sovereignty of the three Baltic states would be respected by the Soviet Union. In return, the authoritarian governments of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia accepted Soviet demands and 20,000, 30,000 and 25,000 Soviet soldiers were stationed on their soil, respectively. Meanwhile, Finland’s refusal to meet Soviet demands led to the Winter War.
Nine months later, on June 14, 1940, the day the Nazi army marched into Paris, the Soviet government presented an ultimatum to Lithuania, asking for the formation of a new Soviet-friendly government and the free entrance of Soviet forces into its territory. In the early hours of June 15, the Latvian border post at Maslenki was attacked by Soviet troops. The next day, similar ultimatums were made to Latvia and Estonia. According to historian Mikhail Meltyukhov, anticipating possible Baltic resistance, Moscow had prepared camps for 50,000 to 70,000 Baltic prisoners of war. However, the Baltic governments decided not to resist the USSR, and the Red Army occupied their countries in the space of a few hours.
Putin’s take on these events has changed over the years. In 2005, when the Russian president had not yet discovered his passion for historical narratives, he gave a rather confusing account of Baltic history between the two world wars: “I believe that the Brest peace [treaty] in 1918 led to a plot between Germany and Russia. And Russia handed over part of its territory to de facto German control. This is where today’s Estonian state began. But in 1939, another plot took place, between Russia and Germany, and Germany returned its territory to Russia. In 1939, they [the Baltic states] joined the USSR. Whether it was good or bad, let’s not talk about it now — it’s history. I think it was a plot in which small countries were treated like cash.”
In the spring of 1918, the Bolshevik government did indeed cede Western territories of the former Tsarist Empire to Germany. However, at that point, Estonia and Lithuania had already proclaimed their independence, and Latvia followed in November. After 1918, the Baltic states became a terrain of the Russian civil war and a testing ground for German revanchist ambitions. Still, after two years of liberation wars, the newly proclaimed republics prevailed.
In the interwar period, the Baltic countries were fully independent sovereign states, and not, as Putin implied, some “territories” that Berlin could hand over to the USSR. Despite the factual confusion, it is very clear that the Vladimir Putin of 2005 sees the big power dealings in a rather negative light and admits that the Baltic states in 1939 had no agency in shaping their fate. Interestingly, the Vladimir Putin of 2020 strongly disagrees with this perspective. In his National Interest article, the Russian president claims that: “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.” The Russian president openly admits that the USSR started to plan incorporation of the Baltic states already in 1939, signalling that he has dropped the narrative of spontaneous working-class revolutions in the summer of 1940. However, he also argues that this incorporation was carried out with the consent of local authorities and according to international law. The social media accounts of the Russian embassies in Latvia and Estonia have duly followed their president’s lead, actively tweeting about Baltic “legitimate accession” and then blocking both Russian and Baltic citizens who have tried to contradict them. These activities highlight an interesting trend in the Russian official use of social media. States often use the internet to engage with foreign publics and exercise soft power through cultural appeal and promotion of shared values. It seems that Russian embassies in the Baltic region have lost their hopes to project an attractive image of the Russian Federation. Instead, they are engaging with social media users in the Baltic states with a clear intent to irritate and provoke them. This “diplomacy of trolling” has nothing to do with historical facts.
Soviet ultimatums to the Baltic states violated a number of treaties that Moscow had concluded with Tallinn, Riga and Kaunas: the peace treaties signed in the early 1920s, the non-aggression treaties signed in 1926 by Lithuania and in 1932 by Estonia and Latvia, and the mutual assistance treaties of 1939. Furthermore, the US and most of European states perceived the annexation of the Baltic states as illegal since it was carried out through coercion. During the 1920s, the tragic legacy of the Great War generated transnational attempts to change the basis of international conduct. While secret diplomacy and bilateral alliances were to be replaced by multilateral institutions, the use of force had to be restricted by international law and norms. The most striking example of these attempts was the Briand-Kellogg Pact of Aug. 27, 1928. This agreement, signed by 63 states, outlawed war and the use of force in international relations. In the light of World War II, this document has often been seen as a utopian delusion. However, as international law scholars Oona Hathaway and Scott Shapiro have argued, the Briand-Kellogg Pact was a “turning point in world history,” bringing about the principle ex injuria jus non oritur (“law does not arise from injustice”) as an international norm. For example, in 1932, the US refused to recognize the Japanese annexation of Manchuria, arguing that it was carried out by force. The same principle was applied to the Baltic case.
Most contemporary historians, just like Western diplomats in 1940, see Baltic yielding to Soviet demands as a decision made under duress and threats. In the fall of 1939, the three authoritarian governments of the Baltic states believed that they might preserve their sovereignty by closely cooperating with the USSR. In June 1940, having received aggressively worded Soviet ultimatums that accused them of an anti-Soviet conspiracy, having experienced direct threats during the 1939 negotiation, and having witnessed the destruction of Poland and the war against Finland, they hoped to avoid war and large-scale human losses by opening their borders to the Red Army. In July 1940, Moscow-orchestrated elections were organized in the Baltics: A single list was accepted — that of the “working people.” In July, these newly “elected representatives” that Putin mentions in his 2020 article, formally requested Baltic incorporation in the USSR.
In an attempt to portray Soviet occupation as “not so bad” or even beneficial for the Baltic states, Putin emphasizes that the USSR gave the city of Vilnius to Lithuania and claims that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania “within USSR preserved their government bodies, language, and had representation in the higher state structures of the Soviet Union.”
In the fall of 1939, Lithuania did indeed receive Vilnius from the USSR, which had recently seized the city from Poland. Already at the time Lithuanians ironically pointed out that “Vilnius mūsų, o mes rusų “(Vilnius belongs to us, and we belong to Russia). The rest of Putin’s argument is false: Baltic states did not preserve their government bodies, they were brutally Sovietized while their citizens were repressed, tortured and deported to Siberia. The Soviet nationality policy was a complex and malfunctioning mechanism that did indeed encourage the preservation of some of the local, national languages and cultures through generous state funding for Moscow-approved cultural activities, while at the same time depriving these identities from any meaningful political expression and future prospects. Starting from the 1970s, Latvians and Estonians feared the disappearance of their national identities due to the large influx of migrants from other Soviet republics. The impression that the Estonian, Latvian, and eventually, also Lithuanian nations might disappear was shared by scholars in the West. In 1978, French historian Hélène Carrère d’Encausse wrote: “The eventual extinction of nations having such a strong personality is a historical tragedy that every Balt consciously feels, however nobody seems to be able to prevent it.”
As we know, the Baltic nations did not disappear, and the USSR collapsed. Yet the experience under Soviet rule left its marks on Baltic nations’ perception of the world and international affairs. Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians are, of course, not the only ones marked by the past. The trauma of WWII runs deep in European identities and mentalities, including in Poland and Russia. It might never be possible to fully reconcile the memories of those whose family histories and identities have been shaped by sacrifices made in the name of Soviet victory over Nazism, and those whose family histories and identities have been shaped by the destruction of independent Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Yet, there can be points of connection and possibilities of dialogue, especially if the conversation is built around the suffering of individuals and not high politics. Such an effort would require recognition of nuances and empathy for the other. Yet, none of these can be found in Putin’s approach to the past. On the contrary, what can be seen is a tendency for oversimplification, contempt for the other, and attempts to use historical narratives as an instrument of domination and symbolic violence.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.