The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk: Russia and the Entente

The Brest-Litovsk peace treaty that ended Russia’s part in the war has been the subject of heated debate from the moment it was signed in March 1918. To this day, scholars offer differing interpretations of the circumstances that led to the treaty and its domestic and foreign policy importance.

On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia, effectively beginning the First World War. 2014 marks 100 years since the start of the WW1.

World War I has long been the “forgotten war” in our country, and restoring memory of the war in the public consciousness poses a challenge. In the West, Russia’s role has been reduced to the abdication of its commitments to allies in 1918 and the separate peace it made with the enemy, forgetting how the Russian army saved the allies more than once. But at the time, French Marshal Ferdinand Foch wrote: “France was not erased from the map of Europe primarily owing to the courage of the Russian soldiers.”

The Brest-Litovsk peace treaty that ended Russia’s part in the war has been the subject of heated debate from the moment it was signed in March 1918. To this day, scholars offer differing interpretations of the circumstances that led to the treaty and its domestic and foreign policy importance.

Western view of Brest-Litovsk

The “betrayal of Brest-Litovsk” is a popular trope in the work of foreign historians. They accuse the Bolsheviks, who came to power in 1917, of violating Russia’s commitments to its allies by making a separate peace with Germany, bringing the Entente countries to the brink of military defeat and increasing the human toll many times over.

In his famous book “The Russian Revolution” American historian Richard Pipes writes that, following Russia’s withdrawal from the war, the allies “suffered immense human and material losses…the Germans withdrew from the inactive Eastern Front enough divisions to increase their effectives in the west by nearly one-fourth (from 150 to 192 divisions). These reinforcements allowed them to mount a ferocious offensive.” But the sacrifices of the allies “finally brought Germany to her knees.” Pipes argues that the allied victory in the war actually saved Soviet Russia.

Collapse of the army

Let’s consider the situation in Russia at the time in more detail.

By the time Lenin’s party came to power, Russia’s army was no longer fit for combat after years of war, so peace with Germany was simply a recognition of reality.

The army’s disintegration started with the publication of the notorious Order #1 of March 2, 1917, according to which “representatives of the lower ranks shall be elected in all units and their committees shall control all weapons and shall not give them to officers even if ordered.” It went on to say that “soldiers shall report all misunderstandings with officers to company committees.” This order destroyed the foundations on which every army rests, such as subordination to superiors, clear-cut hierarchy and unquestioning execution of orders. The order was issued in nine million copies for the 11 million-strong Russian army.

After several months under the Provisional Government, the Russian army had ceased to exist as an organized and centralized force. Practically all generals in the field, regardless of which side they would take in the coming civil war, were unanimous in their opinion of the order, from Anton Denikin, Carl Gustav Mannerheim and Pyotr Krasnov to Mikhail Bonch-Bruyevich.

Alexander Kerensky, who became the war minister of the Provisional Government on May 5, upheld the order and four days later issued his own Order for the Army and Navy, which came to be known as the declaration of soldiers’ rights and which forbade officers from reprimanding soldiers or punishing them in any way.

As a result, soldiers started deserting en masse and many officers were killed.

Under the circumstances, the Bolsheviks found they had little room for maneuver after coming to power. Regardless of their subsequent plans, making peace with Germany became an absolute imperative. Almost immediately they felt compelled to reach out to German representatives, which resulted in the signing of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on March 3, 1918.

In search of allies

When the head of the Soviet delegation Leon Trotsky rejected the German ultimatum and walked out of the talks, German troops launched a massive offensive along the entire eastern front. But there was nobody to defend it: the old Russian army no longer existed, while the new Red Army was still being formed. As a result, Germans quickly seized vast swathes of territory. To arrest this disastrous turn of events, Lenin sent the Germans a telegram accepting the ultimatum.

After the treaty was signed, Lenin, facing complete international isolation and immense challenges at home, put out feelers to Entente representatives. He said Soviet Russia would refuse to ratify what he called the “dirty peace treaty” and continue fighting against Germany if the United States and Britain promised to provide assistance.

Chief of the American Red Cross mission Col. Raymond Robins and Special Commissioner of the British War Cabinet Bruce Lockhart were in Moscow at the time. They worked together closely and both agreed that under the circumstances support for Russia against Germany was the only sensible policy for their governments.

They met with Lenin. The Soviet leader did not conceal the reluctance of his government to sign the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and said he was ready to consider alternatives. The US and British representatives decided to persuade their governments to recognize and save Soviet Russia, thereby preventing Germany from securing victory on the Eastern Front.

At Robins’ insistence, Lenin sent an official note to the US government. It read: “In case (a) the All-Russia Congress of Soviets will refuse to ratify the peace treaty with Germany or (b) if the German Government, breaking the peace treaty, will renew the offensive in order to continue its robbers' raid...

1. Can the Soviet Government rely on the support of the United States of North America, Great Britain, and France in its struggle against Germany?
2. What kind of support could be furnished in the nearest future and on what conditions – military equipment, transportation supplies, living necessities?
3. What kind of support would be furnished particularly and specially by the United States?”

For his part, Lockhart sent a cable to London on March 5 about the need to recognize the Soviet government. He wrote that the situation had never been so favorable for the allies as a result of the outrageous peace terms that Germans imposed on Russians. He implored the British government not to miss this opportunity if it did not want Germany to dominate Russia.

Neither message received a response. Robins recalled how on March 15, 1918, the second day of the IV All-Russia Congress of Soviets, Lenin waved to Robins to come to speak to him.

Lenin said, “What have you heard from your government?”

Robins said, “Nothing. . . What has Lockhart heard from London?”

Lenin said shrugging his shoulders, “Nothing.”

Then Lenin said: “I shall now come out in favor of ratifying the treaty. It will be ratified.”

The exchange speaks for itself.

Consequences of Brest-Litovsk

Surprisingly, there is no reliable information on the strength and composition of the German troops transferred from the Eastern to the Western Front in late 1917-early1918. There are only assumptions based on the reasoning of different historians. Estimates range from 60-80 to 160 or more divisions. However, the thrust of their argument is that the Germans were essentially unopposed in the East.

Indeed, from March to June 1918, the Germans prepared and launched a number of offensives on the Western Front, but they ended in utter failure. At the same time, German food requisitions in occupied territories, primarily in Ukraine and Belarus, sparked massive popular resistance. Suffice it to recall the uprisings in Zvenigorodka-Tarashchany and Nezhin in Ukraine and Rudobelka in Belorussia.

Incidentally, the famous Makhno and Petlyura guerrilla armies were formed at that time primarily to fight against the German occupiers, forcing Germany send reinforcements to the East.

World War I lasted for four long years. The first year, when it looked like the German blitzkrieg might succeed, was the most difficult for the Entente. It was the Russian army’s surprise offensive in mid-August 1914 that turned the tide. And its endurance in subsequent years played an enormous role in helping the Entente Cordiale resist the German onslaught.

By the final year of the war, Russia was broken, but its contribution had already sealed Germany’s fate.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.