This is another essay I wrote at the University of York.

Why did the Soviet Union sign the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact?

On 23 August 1939 the German foreign minister von Ribbentrop arrived in Moscow, where he met the Soviet leader Stalin and foreign minister Molotov. They agreed on a treaty of non-aggression, which had a secret protocol defining the spheres of interest of the parties in Eastern Europe. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was signed late at night on August 23.

The purpose of this essay is to explain the most important reasons for concluding this treaty from the Soviet perspective. I shall argue that the fundamental reason for signing the pact was that Stalin wanted to avoid a war on two fronts. He also needed time, as the Soviet Union was not prepared for war, and a treaty with Germany could probably guarantee this better than one with Great Britain and France. Germany could also give Stalin a free hand concerning certain territories.

I shall conclude by assessing how well the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact achieved the foreign policy aims of the Soviet Union, arguing that the pact was an inferior option to an agreement with the Western Powers, and as such not a clear-cut success; it was, however, the only possible solution to the Soviet Union's security concerns in 1939.

1. The position of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939

In the summer of 1939 the position of the Soviet Union was precarious. In the Far East it was engaged in hostilities with Japan (Calvocoressi, Wint & Pritchard, 1999). In Europe it faced an ideologically hostile Germany, with war between Germany and Poland over Danzig imminent. Great Britain and France were also ideologically hostile towards Bolshevik Russia. Indeed, the fear of a capitalist coalition against the Soviet Union had influenced Soviet foreign policy after the First World War, and had been a reason for the conclusion of the Rapallo treaty with Germany in 1922 (Roberts, 1995). Stalin could not rule out an assault on Russia by the combined forces of Great Britain, France and Germany, no matter how impossible such an idea would have seemed in these countries themselves.

The British Prime Minister Chamberlain said that the Russians had "made up their minds probably not to make a deal with anybody but to watch them all tear themselves apart" (quoted in Aster, 1973: 285). The latter part of this statement probably has some merit, but the first part does not. Stalin clearly needed an agreement with someone. Otherwise he risked a war on two fronts.

2. The failure of the negotiations with Great Britain and France

Soviet foreign policy in the 1930s had been based on the idea of collective security (Chamberlin, 1956). In 1939 there was still some hope that this policy would work. Geoffrey Roberts argues that before July 1939 the Soviet Union assumed that a coalition against Hitler would be better than an agreement with him (Roberts, 1995). This is a more credible explanation than the one which argues that the Soviet Union sought a pact with Hitler all along (Roberts, 1995). The unlimited expansion of Germany into the cordon sanitaire between Germany and the Soviet Union established by the Versailles treaty was hardly in the Soviet Union's interest.

British and French negotiators were sent to Moscow so that a common front against Hitler might be presented (Taylor, 1961). On August 17 these talks were adjourned by the Russians (Beloff, 1949). They were never seriously resumed (Taylor, 1961). The basic reason for the failure was that the Soviet Union demanded the right of its troops to enter Poland, and the Western Powers could not persuade Poland to concede this (or even want to) (Taylor, 1961; Beloff, 1949). Thus, no matter who is blamed for the breakdown of negotiations, the Soviet Union had to abandon the policy of collective security. It could either withdraw into some sort of isolationism or seek an arrangement with Germany. Clearly the latter was the better option in terms of Soviet national interests.

3. Why was an agreement with Germany attractive?

The attractiveness of a German pact in comparison with a Western one is well illustrated in the following which the German trade negotiator Julius Schnurre said on July 26 to Georgi Astakhov, the Russian charge d' affaires and the head of the Russian trade delegation, E. Babarin in Berlin:

"What could Britain offer Russia? ... At best participation in a European war and the hostility of Germany, hardly a desirable end for Russia."

Germany could offer "Neutrality and keeping out of a possible European conflict, and if Moscow wished, a German-Russian understanding on mutual interests which, just as in former times, would work out to the advantage of both countries" (quoted in Aster, 1973: 297)

It is also clear that Germany could offer Russia much more in terms of territory. Great Britain and France could hardly give the Soviet Union a free hand in Eastern Poland, Finland and the Baltic countries because of public opinion and fear of losing face on the international stage because of their commitments. Germany had no such qualms. She could even help the Soviet Union get her share of Poland by attacking Western Poland and therefore weakening the ability of Poland to resist a Soviet onslaught in the east.

Germany could also help the Soviet Union to solve the situation in the Far East, since Japan was Germany's ally. This was one of the points which Molotov stressed in his reply to Ribbentrop's proposal of August 14 for a meeting in Moscow (Beloff, 1949). This was not a part of the final treaty, but clearly the Soviet Union got what it wanted - on September 15 Japan and the Soviet Union signed an agreement ending hostilities between them (Ulam, 1968; 1).

Another fundamental reason why Stalin needed a pact with Germany was that he needed time (Duff, 1958). The Red Army was not ready to fight a war against Germany. In 1941 it was seen that the Red Army was not ready even then.

It is debatable whether Germany could offer the Soviet Union more time than the Western Powers. An alliance with Great Britain and France might have deterred Hitler from starting the war, and thus given the Soviet Union a considerable amount of time to prepare. There is some indication of this, as Hitler delayed the attack on Poland when he learnt that Great Britain and France would honour their pledges to Poland. Maybe he would have delayed the attack even more if he had faced a potential war on two fronts. Duff argues, however, that "the Western Pact would have exposed him (Stalin) to imminent danger" (Duff, 1958: 504). This is quite credible as a German attack on Poland would have dragged the Soviet Union into war with Germany had there been a pact between Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. However, it must be remembered that there was a fundamental disagreement between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers, and thus such an agreement was quite hypothetical.

Aster points out that the negotiations meant that "Moscow too could play its German card" (Aster, 1973: 288). Perhaps one reason for the negotiations between the Soviet Union and Germany was that they were a way of exerting pressure on the Western Powers to conclude an alliance with the Soviet Union. This is supported by the fact that the Russo-German trade talks preceding the political negotiations were publicized by Moscow Radio on July 21st - thus ensuring the Western Powers were aware of the rapprochement between the Soviet Union and Germany - even though the Germans had made it known that they did not want publicity (Aster, 1973). This point is credible only if one thinks Soviet policy was basically undecided, as I believe was the case and as Roberts argues (Ulam also argues that the Soviet Union did not "burn all its bridges with the West") (Roberts, 1995: 64, 148-149; Ulam, 1968: 278; 2). Thus, negotiating with both the Western Powers and Germany gave the Soviet Union extra leverage to exert pressure on both parties, since it could threaten to conclude a treaty with the other party. However, it must be remembered that the Soviet Union could not afford to fail in both sets of negotiations. It should also be pointed out that even though this might have been a reason to engage in negotiations with Germany, it cannot explain the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact.

4. Conclusion

Was the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact a success for the Soviet Union?

One of Stalin’s most important goals - avoiding a two-front war against Germany and Japan - was clearly fulfilled. Hostilities with Japan were ended, and the pact arguably had a major impact on achieving this.

The Soviet Union also got some time to prepare for war - the treaty was concluded in August 1939, and hostilities between Germany and the Soviet Union broke out in June 1941. However, as the early phases of Operation Barbarossa show, this period of time was not sufficient for the Soviet Union to be fully prepared for war. The success of the pact in this respect is therefore debatable.

Though it is not fully clear what the Soviet Union's plans were in 1939, it is evident that the pact was at least a partial success from a territorial point of view. The Soviet Union was able to annex Estonia, Latvia and Eastern Poland and its invasion of Finland was partly successful. This meant the Soviet Union had a considerably stronger position when Germany eventually invaded. However, the pact also meant the Soviet Union consented to a stronger Germany in Eastern Europe. Also, it should not be assumed that it was the Soviet Union’s intention to gain all these territories when it signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, as factors such as Poland’s ability resist the German invasion could not be known. Despite this, the pact gave the Soviet Union the opportunity to seize these territories if it felt the need to do so.

Some historians have argued, and indeed the official Soviet position was, that the goal of Soviet foreign policy was to keep out of a war. It is quite clear that the pact did not achieve this. It is arguable that an alliance between the Soviet Union and the Western Powers might have averted a war, since Hitler wanted to avoid a war on two fronts, and feared such an alliance. Thus, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was essentially the second-best option for the Soviet Union, and it is understandable why its success is ambiguous. However, it was the only realistic option for the Soviet Union in 1939, since an agreement with the Western Powers was not possible.


1. Ulam argues that "This detente in Soviet-Japanese Relations was a direct result of Tokyo's disenchantment with Germany. With the latter abandoning it pressure on the Soviet Union in order to pursue its interests elsewhere, there was every reason for Japan to do likewise."

2. One of the best indications that the Soviet Union's foreign policy was not clearly defined before and not even after the conclusion of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact is that after the German attack on Poland, Soviet officials hinted to Poland that the Soviet Union might sell them military supplies (discussed, eg., in Beloff, 280). Soviet aid to Poland when Poland was fighting a war against the Soviet Union's supposed ally Germany is surely incompatible with the thesis that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was a definite partition of Poland. Some historians have also pointed out that the first article of the secret protocol of the pact concerns Finland and the Baltic countries, not Poland, which is curious if the purpose of the pact was to partition Poland (eg. Roberts, 96).

5. Bibliography

Aster, Sidney; 1973. 1939: The Making of the Second World War (Andre Deutsch, London)

Beloff, Max; 1949. The Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia, Volume II: 1936-1941 (Oxford University Press, London)

Calvocoressi, Peter; Wint, Guy & Pritchard, John; 1999. The Penguin History of the Second World War (Penguin Books, London)

Chamberlin, William Henry. "Seven Phases of Soviet Foreign Policy" in Russian Review, Vol. 15, No. 2., pp. 77-84

Duff, Katharine; 1958. "The U.S.S.R" in Toynbee, Arnold & Toynbee, Veronica M. (eds.) Survey of International Affairs 1939-1946: The Eve of War, 1939 (Oxford University Press, London)

Roberts, Geoffrey; 1995. The Soviet Union and the Origins of the Second World War: Russo-German Relations and the Road to War, 1933-1941 (Macmillan Press, London)

Taylor, A.J.P.; 1961. The Origins of the Second World War (Hamish Hamilton, London)

Ulam, Adam B.; 1968. Expansion and Coexistence: The History of Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-67 (Secker & Warburg, London)