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20 April 2022

From the NS archive: The springs of Soviet diplomacy

22 May 1948: What constitutes Stalin’s foreign policy?

By AJP Taylor

In the immediate postwar years, as the Cold War began to harden, there was much discussion about the new balance of power in the world and how advantage could still be gained. In this piece, the historian and public intellectual AJP Taylor examined Soviet attitudes to the West. Before the war, he concluded, Russia’s aim was to keep western Europe out rather than to expand into it. After the war things had become more complicated: Russia, said Taylor, had been duped by the Nazi-Soviet pact and was not likely to fall for promises – made in good or bad faith – again. It also kept an eye not just on Istanbul and the access it offered to the Soviet underbelly, but on Japan and the Far East too. Hence, Taylor believed, “It is therefore a fair general deduction that the object of Soviet policy is security, based on a ring of buffer states and a Balance of Power beyond this ring.”


Scholars once combed the Scriptures for polemical texts; now the powers fling at each other fragments from the German archives, a more long-winded and less elegant substitute. The Americans launched the campaign with “Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941” (even the title is polemical); the Russians have retaliated with documents on Munich. Since the Americans had no foreign policy before the war, it is impossible to discredit them (or the reverse); therefore, the Russian counter-blow, so far as it hits anyone (which is not much), misses them and lands on the British – a symbol of present international relations. We get the knocks intended for the Americans.

When Bismarck started this type of appeal with French documents captured during the Franco-German War, there was perhaps a “world opinion” affected by it; and the Germans were even more successful with the documents which they published between the wars. Hitler’s success would hardly have been possible without the guilty conscience in England and America which the 40 volumes of German documents did much to create. This world opinion no longer exists, and each side publishes documents merely in order to bolster its own convictions.

British opinion is not likely to be shaken by the discovery that when Chamberlain and Halifax negotiated with Hitler, they did so in the hope of reaching an agreement with him. The same charity is not extended to the Russians. The Economist headed its account of the Nazi-Soviet Documents, “When Stalin toasted Hitler.’’ What else was he expected to do? After all, Stalin has toasted other notorious anti-Bolsheviks. Even Professor Namier [the British historian Lewis Namier], previously reticent in his judgements on Soviet policy, found in “Nazi-Soviet Relations” proof of “Stalin’s war-guilt”. These condemnations are based on the view that the Soviet effort at collaboration with the Germans was sincere.

[See also: Why Putin is beholden to Stalin’s legacy]

Other commentators have taken a smarter line and have accused the Soviet government of cheating the Germans. The moral is clear: since they cheated in their deals with the Germans, they will cheat us, too, and therefore, I suppose (though this is not said so openly), we had better apply Hitler’s remedy. Pseudo-historical speculation by journalists is not really very profitable, except to the writers; and the historical conclusions which can be drawn from “Nazi-Soviet Relations, 1939-1941” are of a more humdrum character.

Still, conclusions can be drawn. Since the Franco-Soviet pact was stillborn, the Nazi-Soviet pact of 23 August 1939 marked the first appearance of Russia as a European Great Power since the revolution. Like traditional Russian foreign policy (including the original Franco-Russian alliance), Soviet policy in 1939 aimed to keep out of Europe, not to return to it; or, more strictly, to keep Europe out of Russia. Between August 1939 and June 1941, Soviet policy worked for a cordon sanitaire in reverse. The Baltic states and the Western (Polish) Ukraine were the first stage; Finland and Bulgaria the second; the Straits leading from the Baltic and Black seas a more remote third. These latter steps were represented to the Germans as a defence against England, to the British as a defence against Germany; in reality they were both – the cordon sanitaire does not discriminate in the germ-carriers that it bars.

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Soviet statesmen claim to be far-sighted; in fact, their programme of 1939 was mostly improvised. Since 1917 they had only the pretence of warding off dangers, never of making demands. In 1939 they were conned by both sides and brushed up the diplomacy of 20 years before; after all, states, like individuals, can only start again where they left off. The alliance negotiations with England and France make sense only on the assumption that the Soviet statesmen genuinely desired an alliance and discovered its impossibility (for them as much as for others) only when they came to formulate precise conditions.

Similarly, the Soviet rulers had not thought out what gains they were to demand from the Nazi-Soviet pact; their full schedule was not ready until Molotov’s visit to Berlin in November 1940, and then it was too late – the Soviet insistence on control of Finland, Bulgaria and the Straits led Hitler to resolve on war. In fact, Constantinople was the stake in the war of 1941 just as much as it had been in the war of 1812. For Hitler, as for Napoleon, Constantinople was the symbol for the mastery of the world. For Molotov, as for Alexander I, the Straits were the one chink in Russia’s defensive armour; in Molotov’s words, “England’s historic gateway for attack on the Soviet Union.” The demand for Soviet garrisons at the Straits was an old-fashioned way of closing this gateway; nevertheless, it is difficult to think of any other.

Beyond the cordon sanitaire, Soviet statesmen thought in terms of the Balance of Power. There was sincerity in Stalin’s words: “A strong Germany is the absolute requisite for peace in Europe, whence it follows that the Soviet Union is interested in the existence of a strong Germany.” This is the exact counterpart of the attitude of the Western powers, who had welcomed a strong Germany as a barrier against Bolshevism. Both sides burnt their fingers (and most of their bodies) with this policy and now hesitate to renew it; hence the present confusion of policy with regard to Germany. Still, the bidding for German friendship must start soon; the only slender hope of preventing it lies in a possible German weariness with their warrior role.

[See also: The cult of Stalin the intellectual]

In 1939 Stalin counted on the French to keep Germany occupied; he told Ribbentrop “that France had an army worthy of consideration”. Hence the indignation with France which Stalin still showed in 1945: he complained at Yalta that “France opened the gates to the enemy”. The French defended their own gates, though inadequately; the gates which they opened to the enemy were the gates of Russia. Soviet statesmen are not likely to fall victims again to the illusion that France is a Great Power; and this lack of a Balance of Power probably accounts for their apprehensions ever since the end of the war. Those who could sit unmoved through the endless harangues of Hitler, with his visions of a new world order, will not easily be affected by American good intentions; and, short of faith in these, it is difficult to devise security except by means of the Balance of Power. Maybe a more independent British policy since the war would have lessened Soviet anxieties; on the admittedly inadequate evidence of the German documents, however, Soviet opinion wrote off British power almost as much as French.

The German documents give a reminder of one factor often overlooked: Soviet policy is as intimately concerned with the Far East as with Europe. Here too, the Soviet aim was a Balance of Power: Japan was to keep Asia in order and act as a buffer against America, yet not to conquer China nor be conquered by America. This balance too has collapsed, though not so disastrously as the balance in Europe; but, unless Communist China can be transformed into an adequate buffer the Soviet Union will, one day, have to enter the competition for Japanese favour.

It may be objected that these considerations were valid only in the period of German, and Japanese, aggression; but the Soviet leaders do not distinguish between one capitalist state and another. Indeed, they found it easier to understand the Germans than the British and French or, subsequently, the Americans; and their anger at having been taken in by Hitler has made them resolve never to be taken in again.

The Marxism which underlies their long-term policy reinforces these suspicions; their day-to-day policy would be much the same whether they were Marxists or not. After all, the Soviet Minister of Transport, also a Marxist, is concerned in day-to-day practice with the specifically “Russian” problems which spring from broad-gauge railways and a great land mass; the same is true of Soviet diplomacy. It is therefore a fair general deduction that the object of Soviet policy is security, based on a ring of buffer states and a Balance of Power beyond this ring.

There is however one economic factor, not specifically Marxist since it was also characteristic of Tsarist policy in the days of the Franco-Russian alliance. The deepest force in Nazi-Soviet friendship was the exchange of materials and foodstuffs for machine-tools. This economic bargain was the essential preliminary to a political agreement on which Molotov insisted, and the Soviet outlook is not likely to have changed. Machine-tools would buy Soviet friendship on favourable economic and political terms for a long time to come. The peace and future of the world probably depends on whether anyone has machine-tools to offer and cares to offer them.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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