Today is an anniversary that is being marked rather somberly in places like the Baltic countries.
Seventy years ago today, the foreign ministers of the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany - Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop - stunned the world by announcing a non-aggression pact between their two (totalitarian) countries.
While there had been a great deal of vituperate invective between the two great socialist powers, the underlying reality was that they had long been de facto allies. During the 1920s and into the 1930s, the Soviet Union provided training facilities for German pilots as Germany tried to secretly rebuild its air force - something that was forbidden to Germany under the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In the meantime, the Soviet Union continued to be a very large supplier of raw materials to Germany's rebuilding industries. And during the 1930s, Nazi Germany's nascent "security services" learned a great deal from the Soviet Union's "security agency"....
So on the surface, the agreement of a simple "non-aggression pact" seemed rather anodyne.
But it was the secret protocols that were the real "content" of the agreement.
We'll look at those details - and why they are suddenly important again - below the fold.
The mechanics of the secret protocols are best covered in pieces, from north to south.
Stalin wanted to carve some pieces off of Romania, and in the pact the Germans agreed to give him a free hand to do so.
The main trick of Stalin was to exploit an old piece of Romanian linguistic history.
Prior to Romania's gaining of independence from the Ottoman Empire in the 1880s, Romanian - despite being a Latin-based language - had been written in Cyrillic. After independence, to help cultivate useful interactions with the more-developed countries of western Europe, a Latin-character alphabet was introduced as the official script for written Romanian.
Stalin had some of his "scholars" make the "discovery" that in the northeastern part of Romania, there was a slightly-different dialect - and that this dialect should be written in Cyrillic, "proving" that this was a region that had deep Russian roots (unlike the rest of Romania). Thus, the northeastern region of Romania was carved off, deemed the Moldovan S.S.R., and incorporated into the Soviet Union. As a consequence, the Republic of Moldova is today an independent country in its own right - and "Moldovan" is still written in Cyrillic.
On the northern edge of Romania, Stalin carved off three pieces of territory - the largest of which was (and still is) known as Northern Bucovina. These pieces were grafted onto the Ukrainian S.S.R, and today they are part of now-independent Ukraine.
The Baltic Countries
Perhaps the most dreadful fate of the secret protocols was inflicted upon the three small Baltic republics - Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. These three small countries had only gained their independence from the disintegrating Russian Empire in the immediate chaos following the end of World War I, in 1919.
Basically, it was agreed that Stalin could annex these three independent countries; Russian troops rolled in great force across the borders in 1940, and the three Baltic countries became S.S.R.s for the next fifty years.
Stalin was also given a free hand to make territorial demands on Finland - all in the name of "greater security" for the Soviet Union, of course. Having also escaped from the Russia following World War I (and then facing a civil war in which - unlike in Russia - the "whites" defeated the "reds"), independent Finland had long looked to Germany as a model for development; thus, the pact represented something of a betrayal to the Finns.
When the demands were presented to the Finns in November of 1940, they refused to accede to them. Stalin retaliated by sending his air force to bomb Helsinki, and huge numbers of Soviet troops poured across the border. In a memorably-heroic struggle, the badly outnumbered Finns used the dark and cold of the northern winter to their advantage; Finnish ski troops blunted the Soviet attack, and inflicted horrid casualties upon the Red Army. It was only after months of attack (and probably the coming of spring) that the Red Army was able to break through the Finnish lines, and force Finland to agree to the Soviet demands.
But it was Poland that was the centerpiece of the secret protocols - and it was here that the Germans had their main interest in coming to the agreement.
Basically, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union agreed to partition Poland between them - similar to what had happened back in the 18th century, Poland would be partitioned between its neighbors and effectively cease to exist.
And indeed, shortly after the German blitzkrieg rolled over Poland, Soviet troops crossed the border from the east; facing little resistance, they advance right up to the agreed demarcation line, and met the advancing Germans there.
Stalin's piece of Poland was grafted onto the Ukrainian S.S.R. At the end of the war, Poland was reconstructed by taking the German-occupied part of 1939 Poland and augmenting it with a large chunk of what had previously been part of eastern Germany. The chunk of Poland that Stalin had carved off was retained by the Soviet Union, and is today part of independent Ukraine.
Exactly what Molotov and Ribbentrop were really thinking at the time is of course unknown and unknowable. But in the wake of the secret protocols and the various invasions, the two great socialist empires were now in direct contact with each other....
The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact had faded as an issue in recent years - with the end of the Soviet Union and the regaining of independence of the various eastern Europe countries.
During Soviet times, the Soviet authorities were always quick to defend the pact as an agreement of necessity for the Soviet Union - that they had no other good choice, as it provided the only way to buy time to prepare for an eventual war with Nazi Germany. (Why this required, for example, that parts of distant-from-Germany Romania be carved off and added to the Soviet Union, of course, goes unsaid). In fact, in typical Soviet fashion, the Soviet propagandists blamed the catalysis of this pact on the western powers - trying to argue that the rebuffing of Soviet diplomatic efforts by Britain and France (regarding the formation of a collective security agreement) left them no other choice.
Sadly, today the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact has resurfaced as a critical fault line in Europe.
Today's Russian government is once again talking the line that the pact was a "necessity" - and not a matter for shame.
This is largely a matter of convenience - since the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact gave to the Soviet Union something that today's Putin/Medvedev Russian government really wants.
Molotov-Ribbentrop was a tacit diplomatic acknowledgment of a Russian "sphere of influence" in eastern Europe.
Today's Russian government wants that acknowledgment to be made once again.
The best-known manifestation of that desire became apparent during the August 2008 Russian incursion against Georgia - which has served to solidify the status of South Ossetia and Abkhazia as de facto independent territories (though they have been virtually annexed by Russia at this point). Even three years ago, when I was Sochi, it was notable that tourists could - if they so desired - day-trip to Abkhazia if they possessed a Russian visa in their passports; any notion of Georgian political control was already long gone.
I also happened to be in Estonia last fall, a few weeks after the Russian incursion into South Ossetia. To say that this event rattled Estonian nerves would be an understatement. To so many Estonians, it seemed as if the same movie was starting to be run again - that the Russian government was boldly and unilaterally (?!) re-asserting its view of a Russian sphere of influence that it wanted the rest of the world to acknowledge. Inside this sphere, Russia is to have a free hand, and everyone else should just keep their noses out of "Russian" business.
Russian interest in Georgia follows along those lines - that Georgia was part of the old Russian Empire for centuries, and was an S.S.R. Thus, Georgia should be abandoned by the West and recognized as a Russian area of interest. The possible prize, longer-term, is the energy corridor that runs from the Caspian to Turkish ports on the Black Sea - with Georgia providing a crucial territorial link in the chain.
But the bigger prize of Russian attentions is Ukraine - "Little Russia" as it was known to the Tsars. The flashpoint of Sevastopol (the only good port on the northern Black Sea coast, where the Russian Black Sea fleet is based - in what is now a Ukrainian port) is becoming more widely known. But Ukraine in general remains the real centerpiece of any Russian "spheres of influence" strategy. Beyond any tangible considerations, a re-invigorated Russia simply cannot be great unless it regains Ukraine.
And that may be the final story. As I've opined before, I hold a different view of Russian intentions - due to continual on-the-ground exposure in eastern Europe. Russia is in deep social, economic, and demographic trouble. It would seem that it would be better for Russia to turn inward and tackle those problems - and many observers have expressed astonishment that Russia's present leadership seems to be foolishly looking outward rather than inward.
I disagree with that viewpoint.
In my view, the present Russian government is looking outward not in spite of those problems - but because of them. In the old Peter-the-Great and Catherine-the-Great viewpoint, Russia's problems stem from one core factor - when Russia is weak and disrespected, Russian society suffers. If Russia can be made great and important again - a great power again on the world stage - then all of Russia's social problems will magically disappear. I don't necessarily agree with this prescription - I just find that it is this viewpoint that underlies what is driving the present Russian leadership.
There is one last frightening piece of information.
I've long told my jittery Baltic friends that they should worry a bit less about Russia - and a bit more about Germany. Historically, Russia has been unable to gain ground (both literally and figuratively) in eastern Europe without overt co-operation from Germany. My Baltic friends found this puzzling - Germany has gotten over its past, and is now a fellow EU country, isn't it?
Well, perhaps. But who could not notice that there might be a temptation to use the new-Europe countries (chiefly through their presence in the EU) as bargaining chips, to be traded "back" to Russia for various considerations.
Frighteningly, Germany is becoming a growing headache on that count. Due to an idiotic drive for a "green" society, Germany has been taking its nuclear power capacity - a technology in which Germany was once a world leader - out of use, with the intent of replacing it with "renewables."
Well, that's working out about as well as might be expected. As a result, Germany has had to make up the gap by importing large quantities of .... Russian natural gas.
Putin and company know an opening when they see it - and this dependence on Russian natural gas is warping Germany to the point of causing what used to be known as "Finlandization." Germany is increasingly acting as a client state of Russia - and acting as a virtual Russian-interests section inside the EU - and NATO. It was the German veto last year that kept NATO from extending the beginnings of a NATO membership route to Ukraine and Georgia. The tussle is in progress, but Germany is clearly serving the Russian goal of a renewed "sphere of influence."
We'll of course have to see how this all plays out.
But the root of so much of this can be traced back to the moment when Molotov and Ribbentrop affixed their signatures to that agreement, seventy years ago today....