1 Alvin Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union (New York, Random House, 1960), 143-144. 2 Ibid., 142. Friends of Necessity: The Effects of the 1939 German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact

William D. O’Dell, Jr, Western Carolina University


Since the early 1900s, Russia’s dealings with her western neighbors have sparked many debates concerning the motivations and reasonings behind Russian foreign policy decisions. These discussions frequently stem from an overarching question regarding Russia’s status as either a part of or separate from Europe. The Treaty of Nonaggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, also called the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, of August 23, 1939, offers an interesting focal point for understanding Russian diplomatic relations with the West. The Pact collapsed in 1941 with Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, an act of betrayal that not only brought the Soviet Union into World War II on the side of the Allied Powers but also influenced future Soviet diplomatic policies. This essay attempts to address that question. It will also discuss the treaty itself, and the diplomatic situation surrounding its signing. This study will use data to analyze later writings and policy decisions to show that Hitler’s betrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact left an indelible mark on Russian diplomatic history. Finally, it will argue that the Pact created a dangerous precedent that colored Soviet perceptions of and policies towards Western Europe. As a point of clarification, the aforementioned debate concerns The Soviet Union and not Russia proper. However, considering that Joseph Stalin viewed the Soviet Union as an extension of Russia’s power, and all of the foreign policy decisions and observations this essay addresses occur under his rule, it reasons that these Soviet acts are part of Russian history.

This essay will compare the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet response to the foundation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO. It will shed light on the subsequent reactions and justifications of these agreements, which reveals insight into Soviet views on foreign policy. Specifically, this essay illustrates a Soviet realpolitik, which both underscores policy decisions and observations on world politics and derives from a sense of distrust of and isolation from the Western European powers.

The Soviet Chairman of the Committee of People’s Commissars Vyacheslav Molotov and the German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact on August 23, 1939. Building on the 1926 Neutrality Agreement, the new Pact guaranteed ten years of complete nonviolence between the Third Reich and the Soviet Union as well as a promise from each nation to abstain from joining any coalition against the other.1 However, at the time of the signing, Germany had already entered an anti-communist coalition, the Anti-Comintern Pact, which they negotiated with Japan in 1936. This German duplicity was an ominous foreshadowing of later diplomatic events. Notwithstanding this initial betrayal, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact further outlined, in a secret addendum, the negotiated political boundaries separating these two nations’ spheres of influence within Europe. Part of these provisions dissected the country of Poland and established the sole use of diplomatic processes to handle any conflict between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Pact, as written, achieved every foreign policy initiative Stalin outlined earlier that same year, at least insofar as Germany was concerned.2 At its signing, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, on paper, was a diplomatic success.

The measure of this success needs consideration within a broader global context. On August 31, 1939, only eight days after the Pact’s signing, Molotov confirmed the dire political situation faced by the Soviet Union in a speech he gave before the legislative body of the Soviet Union, the Supreme Soviet. Negotiations with France and Great Britain had failed.3 Molotov cited “howling contradictions” and failure to take negotiations seriously on the part of French and British diplomats as reasons for the impasse. He claimed that these diplomats offered military assistance if the Soviet Union suffered an attack, but, unfortunately, these diplomats lacked adequate powers to provide such concessions.4 With the failure of negotiations with Britain and France, the Nonaggression Pact served as the best possible means of “ensuring peace and eliminating the danger of war between Germany and the USSR.”5 

Aside from providing a paper shield against Hitler, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact also carried implications for foreign policy outside of the Soviet Union’s direct relations. It played against the tensions amongst the Western European powers in the exact way Lenin and Stalin had intended Soviet foreign policy to work.6 Hitler’s growing belligerence and repeated violations of the terms of the Treaty of Versailles caused much consternation among French and British diplomats. By signing the Nonaggression Pact, the Soviet Union set up a political situation that forced the British and French to spend more of their attention and resources on their problems with Hitler as opposed to their issues with communism and the Soviet Union. Four days before the signing of the Pact, Stalin delivered a speech before the Politburo. He believed that the Pact guaranteed that Germany and France would go to war, that it was in the Soviet Union’s best interest that this war last “as long as possible in order that both sides become exhausted.”7

The fact that the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact took place after the diplomatic failures in both Britain and France is evidence of Soviet realpolitik. As Stalin and Molotov understood, Britain, France, and Germany all nursed anti-communist sentiments. However, their pursuit of diplomatic relations with each of these nations indicated the Soviet Union’s willingness to sign any agreement necessary to protect its interests.8

Molotov also addressed the historical importance of the Nonaggression Pact. The two largest European powers agreed to end violence between themselves, while simultaneously dissecting the European continent into two separate spheres, the German West and the Soviet East. By Molotov’s reckoning, this narrowed both the total possible area for European military violence and the scope of hostilities should war break out.9 The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact bought the Soviet Union time to continue to consolidate power, increase military strength, and grow in international influence.10 Despite the advantages granted to the Soviets, it was the Germans who initiated the original discussions. Molotov claimed that Germany pressed negotiations and that if the Soviet Union did not agree to its terms, they would lose to German expansion the parts of Poland that the Soviets considered their lands.11 While the Pact did grant the Soviet Union time to recover and bolster its forces, it also gave Germany precisely what Hitler wanted, free rein to invade Poland.

The signing of the Nonaggression Pact begged the question; why did the Soviet Union need such defense in the international arena? Part of the answer lies in the effects of Stalin’s purges on both the Red Army and the Soviet Union’s political and administrative leadership. According to Anthony Read and David Fisher, between 1936-1939, the most reliable estimates place the number of killed or incarcerated men at roughly 4.5 million. Under the orders of the Defense Commissar, Marshall Kliment Y. Voroshilov, alone, 35,000 men were eliminated.12 Of particular note, Marshal M. N. Tukhachevsky, revered as the most brilliant commander of the Red Army as well as a possible threat to Stalin’s power, was executed in 1937 along with seven other leading generals.13 An estimated half of the Red Army’s officers were killed, with the remainder being “inexperienced, disorganized and completely demoralized.”14 Aside from the cost to the military, these purges also carried a stigma in international diplomacy. The Soviet Union’s viability was questioned, particularly by the French government. The French reasoned that these purges must either reflect the instability of the Soviet Union caused by the apparent presence of innumerable traitors or that it was governed by a madman whose paranoia had prompted him to betray and execute his best generals and commanders.15 The Nonaggression Pact thus carried for the Soviet Union a promise of a much-needed commodity, time. However, while Molotov’s signature bought Stalin time, Ribbentrop’s bought Hitler the power to start a war.

If the Soviet Union’s position was weak before negotiations began, Germany’s position was decidedly stronger. While Stalin had purged his military and political institutions of perceived threats to his power, Hitler had set himself in direct command over the Wehrmacht and secured the compliance of his foreign ministry by appointing Joachim von Ribbentrop to the office of Foreign Minister.16 Ribbentrop was Hitler’s pawn in every sense of the word, incapable of acting against the Nazi leader’s foreign policy agenda.17 As a result, Ribbentrop’s foreign policy decisions mirrored those of Hitler himself. From Hitler’s point of view, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact offered Germany not only the opportunity to invade Poland without fear of Soviet retaliation, but also access to the grain, oil, and other raw materials necessary to fuel the Nazi war machine.18 This resource grab was vital for Hitler in rallying his generals behind his plan of invasion since, at the time, the Wehrmacht lacked either resources or ammunition enough to fight a prolonged war.19

By 1941, the situation had changed. Hitler’s military successes in the West meant that Soviet resources no longer held the vital necessity they once did, specifically at the price Stalin demanded, both in terms of money and armaments.20 In an attempt to realize his broader goal of destroying the Allied Powers, Hitler decided he needed two things to happen: America must fall, and, for that to happen, the Soviet Union must also fall.21 The latter of these coincided with Hitler’s other aspirations of destroying communism and securing control over Ukraine.22 On June 22, 1941, with the commencement of Operation Barbarossa, the decade of peace promised by Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was shattered, a mere two years after the treaty’s ratification.

This betrayal came as a surprise to Stalin, despite the warnings he received. The Nonaggression Pact had been unpopular with other Western European powers, specifically France and Great Britain. In his 1939 address to the Supreme Soviet, Molotov accused French and British diplomats of falsely blaming the Nonaggression Pact for the abject failure of Franco-Soviet and Anglo-Soviet negotiations. He also erroneously suggested that the Pact operated as a military alliance, making both parties responsible for the military actions taken by the other.23 He went on to say that such accusations made by France and Great Britain coincided with their desire that the USSR fight a war against Hitler’s Germany with Great Britain as an ally.24 

Stalin knew the folly in this thinking, and that war with Germany with a weakened Red Army would only serve the ends of those in the West who would prosper at the expense of the Soviet Union. This paranoia led Stalin to disregard intelligence coming from both the Soviet embassy and the Allied Powers that warned him of Hitler’s imminent attack. Stalin perceived this intelligence as faulty at best and deliberate misinformation at worst.25 From Stalin’s perspective, despite his paranoia, any betrayal by Hitler defied logic. At the time of its signing, Hitler’s need for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact exceeded Stalin’s own.26

Hitler needed the Nonaggression Pact for both the assurance against retaliation for invading Poland and for the economic benefits it offered to Germany. These benefits took the form of the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement of 1940. Under this agreement, Stalin promised Hitler 1,000,000 tons of feed grain and legumes, 900,000 tons of mineral oil, and 100,000 tons of cotton. The agreement also included 500,000 tons of phosphates, 100,000 tons of chrome ores, 500,000 tons of iron ore, 300,000 tons of scrap and pig iron, and 2,400 kilograms of combined “platinum Manganese ore, metals, lumber, and numerous other raw materials.”27 The total price for these deliveries was set at 650,000,000 Reichsmarks, with 305,000,000 of that set to cover the costs of just the grain, oil, and cotton.28 Shipments of these resources were set to conclude within eighteen months, with payments ending within twenty-seven months. The Pact scheduled installments in six-month intervals. These provisions provided Hitler the resources necessary to fuel his military ambitions for Europe, and it, on paper, guaranteed Stalin a steady influx of capital to pay the expenses incurred by establishing “socialism in one country.”29 However, only Stalin upheld his side of the accord, delivering shipments on time while Hitler found reasons to delay or withhold payments. These German actions breached the terms of the Pact, and the fact that they went unpunished confirms the notion that the Soviet Union was in no position to go to war with Germany. 

Hitler’s violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was a catastrophic turn of events for Soviet international diplomacy. The Pact represented one of the first seemingly successful treaties between the new Soviet government and a western European power. As history showed, Germany’s betrayal at the onset of World War II was merely the first in a chain of European betrayals throughout the 1940s and the 1950s. Along with Stalin’s existing distrust of French and British diplomats, this betrayal proved that the great Western European powers were hostile towards not only the Soviet Union as a political entity but towards bolshevism as a whole.

Operation Barbarossa reinforced the notion that the Soviet Union was surrounded by enemies, or at the very least hostile parties. This sense of isolation appears as a recurring theme in Soviet diplomatic thought. As previously mentioned, Stalin understood that each of the Western European powers harbored anti-communist sentiments. This understanding instilled the belief that the European powers could not be relied on or expected to respect Soviet interests. However, this did not mean that the Soviet Union would refuse allies during wartime. What began with an unlikely pact between dictators shattered with the start of Operation Barbarossa. Ultimately, the end of the Pact started a new alliance against Hitler between the Soviet Union and the other Western powers, those who previously spurned Soviet diplomacy. By the War’s end, the old animosities returned, fueled on Stalin’s side by a new realization that Western Europe had no intention of dealing with the Soviet Union as an equal or honoring its agreements.

Western Europe seemed bent not only on treating the Soviet Union as an unequal party but also as a hostile one. The North Atlantic Treaty, proposed in March and later signed in April of 1949, represented a clear threat to Soviet interests.30 The pre-war fear of a Western European anti-communist coalition manifested with the foundation of NATO. From a Soviet perspective, NATO represented another betrayal, a betrayal of the United Nations Charter.31 The Soviets believed that NATO violated Article 53 of the UN Charter, which outlines that “no enforcement action shall be taken under regional arrangements or by regional agencies without the authorization of the Security Council.”32 Since the Soviet Union served on the United Nations Security Council and therefore had veto powers, it became evident that Stalin viewed NATO as a betrayal.

Some within the Soviet camp believed that NATO represented the weakness of the United Nations and a desire to undermine the organization instead of empowering it.33 Within the terms of the North Atlantic Treaty, the Soviet Union perceived a thinly veiled attempt by the signing parties to consolidate military power, not for self-defense as the powers claimed, but for a possible attack against Soviet interests.34 From the Soviet perspective, NATO was not only a betrayal of the United Nations but also a simultaneous breach of individual treaties with the Soviet Union by Great Britain, France, and the United States.35 Great Britain violated the terms of the 1942 Anglo-Soviet Agreement in which Article VII outlined a promise by each signing party not to enter into any alliance or join in any coalition directed against the other.36 Part Five of the 1944 Franco-Soviet Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Aid offered the same promise, so in the eyes of Stalin, the NATO agreement broke the French treaty.37 

Analysis of the North Atlantic Treaty and its impact on the Soviet Union must also consider the role of the United States. Throughout the postwar years leading up to 1949, the Western European powers, as well as the United States, recognized three phenomena coming West from the Soviet Union, each a cause for consternation. The first was the increasing “Sovietization” of Eastern Europe as the country’s influence spread. The second phenomena were the repeated attempts by Moscow to undermine Western governments, and the third was the difference in conventional armed forces available to each party.38 The Soviet-Persian crisis of 1945-46 served as an example of the diplomatic friction that occurred in the United Nations between the great powers.39 Within the United Nations, the Soviet Union possessed veto power, yielding its delegates the ability to forbid any action, proposal, or debate that did not serve Soviet interests. This power was a marked difference from the previous League of Nations, as well as something that the Soviet Union had adamantly pursued in the original charter of the United Nations. Molotov claimed that the Soviets pushed for veto power because it incentivized the great powers of the United Nations to collaborate and work towards their common interests.40 However, Soviet usage of said power reflected a far different motivation, defense of Soviet interests against the other delegates.

The Greek Civil War serves as an example of the Soviet use of the United Nations veto power. The Soviet delegates vetoed the initial proposal to hold an inquiry into allegations that Greece’s northern, communist neighbors aided the like-minded rebel forces. Later on, the Soviet delegates used the veto to render the inquiry ineffective.41 These tactics, according to diplomats like British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin, left NATO’s signing powers with little choice but to sign the Treaty. While the Soviet Union quoted Article 53 of the United Nations Charter in its attack on the treaty, the signing powers quoted Articles 51 and 52 in defense of the treaty’s legitimacy and legality.42 Because the Soviet Union possessed the veto and the will to utilize it, NATO seemed the only way for its signing powers to protect their interests from growing Soviet power.

The Soviet Union’s pursuit and usage of the veto power within the United Nations is a direct result of the consistent betrayals in diplomatic affairs and the resulting sense of isolation it perceived. Veto power offered the Soviets the absolute power to protect their interests and to act with relative impunity since they could stop any incoming criticism or consequence by killing hostile proposals regardless of the wishes of the other nations. This Soviet stance also explained why the members of NATO enacted the treaty without authorization from the Security Council. The Soviets certainly would have vetoed NATO because of the various agreements between the Soviet Union and the NATO signing powers, which forbid such a coalition.

While not a perfect comparison, the parallels between Hitler’s betrayal of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the betrayals brought about through the foundation of NATO, do exist. With Molotov-Ribbentrop, there was a promise of both a decade of nonaggression and that Nazi Germany would not enter into any alliance or coalition against the Soviet Union. A declaration of war broke these promises two years after signing. With the signatory powers of NATO, both Great Britain and France promised not to enter into any coalition directed against the Soviet Union. Great Britain broke their promise with the Soviet Union seven years after their signed agreement while France did the same five years after theirs. Despite the argument that the North Atlantic Treaty was defensive in nature, it is undeniable that the Treaty focused its attention on the Soviet Union.43 One important distinction is that Molotov-Ribbentrop was a peacetime arrangement, whereas the Anglo-Soviet and Franco-Soviet agreements were both signed during times of war. Furthermore, the breaking of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact seems to have been unprovoked, whereas the foundation of NATO was a response to Soviet imperialism, espionage, and diplomatic obstinance. However, in each case, the Soviets signed these agreements with the hopes that they would result in “Soviet first” interests. Stalin made any deal he could with any partnering nation he could if it protected Soviet interests. However, each subsequent betrayal reinforced the foundation of Soviet realpolitik, which promoted the idea that the Soviet Union was politically isolated and surrounded by enemies.44 

Betrayal was nothing foreign to the Soviet Union. Betrayal was also a defining characteristic of Stalin, who betrayed those closest to him when politically necessary or advantageous, as evidenced by his treatment of Nikolai Bukharin.45 On an international level, Stalin had no intention of honoring the Soviet Union’s agreements when it was to his advantage to break treaties. Published on April 4, 1948, the US Department of State Bulletin XVIII outlined several violations of the terms of postwar agreements by the Soviet Union. The bulletin argued that the Soviet Union committed violations against Germany. It declared that the Soviets practiced imperialist expansion beyond legally recognized borders and that it refused to submit reports concerning reparations payments. It also accused the Soviets of restricting political freedoms of any non-communist elements and the infringement on Germany’s status as a single economic unit.46 In addition, the bulletin accused the Soviet Union of illegal actions in Poland, Rumania, Korea, and Manchuria. The bulletin detailed the hypocrisy underlying Stalin’s Soviet realpolitik. From the late 1930s throughout the 40s and up until Stalin’s death in 1953, Soviet foreign policy pursued Stalin’s imperialist views, through whatever means necessary, and made no qualms about using every tool in its arsenal to subvert and sabotage the countries Stalin viewed as hostile to these ends.47 Stalin’s behavior in the international community in the years after World War II rekindled the spirit of Lenin. Both men claimed that one of the chief objectives of Soviet foreign policy was to “exploit all conflicts of interests among capitalist countries.”48 

The relationship between the Soviet Union and the other European powers was extremely complicated. Stalin was a diplomatic opportunist, willing to make deals with anybody who offered him even partial aid in the protection of Soviet interests. He very clearly understood the power dynamics at work in Europe throughout the pre-war, wartime, and postwar periods. Stalin demonstrated political savvy by upholding his end of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He knew that provoking the Reich was not in his best interest. Stalin later cried foul after the signing of NATO. However, his unwillingness to respect the terms of the Yalta, Potsdam, and Moscow agreements revealed his untrustworthy nature in relation to Western European powers.49 On both sides of the table, the Soviet Union and the Western European powers consistently practiced realpolitik, seeking after their self-interests and only honoring agreements with each other as long as they served those interests. The Soviet Union and the Western European countries frequently breached international agreements once those treaties became cumbersome or obstructive to self-interest. Even if the communism of the Soviet Union was fundamentally different from the capitalist nature of the Western European powers, their collective approach to international diplomacy was very similar. 

This essay was not crafted to cast the Soviet Union, and particularly Joseph Stalin, in a victimizing light. The crux of the argument addresses the motivations behind Euro-Soviet treaties and the reactions to their violation. In doing so, it has revealed the nature of Soviet diplomacy to be a realpolitik geared towards the protection of Soviet international interests. This focus on self-interest led to betrayals by the Soviet Union in pursuit of Stalin’s imperialistic ambitions. It also targeted the use of the United Nations veto in defense of those actions. Despite these international strategies of realpolitik, the Soviet Union propaganda machine publicized the betrayals it had suffered instead. The Soviet Union understood itself to be isolated and surrounded by its enemies. From the Soviet perspective, they could not trust the West to look out for the best interests of their nation. Whether through the cautious maneuvering of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the expansion of international power through the United Nations Security Council, Stalin and the Soviet political machine understood that realpolitik could only develop through Soviet effort.

1 Alvin Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union (New York, Random House, 1960), 143-144.
2 Ibid., 142.
3 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 146-147.
4 Ibid., 147.
5 Ibid., 147-148.
6 David Dallin, Russia and Postwar Europe (New Haven, Yale University Press, 1943), 104-105.
7 Albert Weeks, Stalin’s Other War: Soviet Grand Strategy 1939-1941 (Lanham, MD: Lanham, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 2002), 173.
8 Dallin, Russia and Postwar Europe, 177.
9 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 149.
10 Ibid., 151.
11 Michael Jabara Carley, 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II (Chicago, Ivan R. Dee, 1999), 209-210.
12 Anthony Read and David Fisher, The Deadly Embrace (New York, London, W.W. Norton & Company, 1988), 13.
13 Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 12.
14 Ibid., 13.
15 Carley, 1939, 26.
16 Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 19-20.
17 Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 22.
18 Carley, 1939, 195.
19 Read and Fisher, The Deadly Embrace, 244-245. 20 Ibid., 643-644.
21 Ibid., 496-497.
22 Ibid., 644.
23 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 150.
24 Ibid., 151.
25 Read and Fisher. The Deadly Embrace 604-605.
26 Ibid., 643.
27 “Memorandum on the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement,” signed on February 11, 1940, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/ns120.asp.
28 Ibid.
29 “Memorandum on the German-Soviet Commercial Agreement,” signed on February 11, 1940, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/ns120.asp.
30 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 265.
31 Marshall Shulman, Stalin’s Foreign Policy Reappraised (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1963), 63. 32 “Charter of the United Nations and Statute of the International Court of Justice” signed June 26, 1945, https://treaties.un.org/doc/publication/ctc/uncharter.pdf
33 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 267.
34 Ibid., 268
35 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 268-269.
36 “Twenty-Year Mutual Assistance Agreement Between the United Kingdom and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics” signed May 26, 1942, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/brsov42.asp.
37 “The Franco-Soviet Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Aid” signed December 10, 1944,
38 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 246.
39 John Mackintosh, Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy (London, Oxford University Press, 1962), 66. 40 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 227
41 Mackintosh, Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy, 67.
42 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 246.
43 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 268
44 Mackintosh, Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy¸ 64.
45 Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler 1929-1941 (New York, Penguin Press, 2017), 10-12.
46 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 254.
47 Mackintosh, Strategy and Tactics of Soviet Foreign Policy¸ 70-71. 48 Dallin, Russia and Postwar, 104-105.
49 Rubinstein, The Foreign Policy of the Soviet Union, 254-258.