Sunday, March 3, 2019

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (March 3, 1918)

The Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, signed between Soviet Russia and the Central Powers, marked Russian defeat and the end of her participation in World War I.

The Bolshevik government had come to power in Russia after the October Revolution, but was in a desperate situation a few months later. The revolutionary government, as a first step in foreign affairs, released a decree about peace during the second All-Russian Congress of the Soviets on October 26, 1917. The decree, authored by Vladimir Lenin, proposed all belligerent countries to start negotiations to create a “fair democratic world.”

The Entente (Great Britain, France, United States, and Italy) rejected the decree and Soviet Russia went forward to sign a separate peace with the Central Powers. The negotiations started in Brest-Litosvk on December 9, with the participation of Russia, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire. The Soviet delegation, headed by Adolph Joffe, brought as conditions the evacuation of troops from occupied territories, freedom to nations enslaved during the war, relinquishing to all war compensations and penalties, et cetera.

The German delegation countered with its own plan, which included the annexation of the Baltic region to Germany and the division of Poland. Germany, besides, wanted to keep the Russian occupied regions in order to exploit their resources.

The Allies did not agree to negotiate peace, and Soviet Russia started separate negotiations with Germany on December 27. One month later, the Central Powers came to an agreement with the Central Rada (the all-Ukrainian revolutionary parliament) to obtain food from Ukraine in exchange for military aid. On the same night, Germany submitted an ultimatum to Russia to comply with German conditions, which entailed to take the German border to Narva, Pskov, and Dvinya. The next day, Lev Trotsky, who had taken over the Soviet delegation, answered that Russia would not sign the agreement, ceased the hostilities, and evacuated its troops. The Central Powers went on the offensive on February 18 in the entire Eastern front. The Russian armies could not resist and consented to an agreement on February 19. However, the Germans continued their offense and only stopped on February 22, dictating even harsher conditions.

The Central Committee of the Communist Party agreed to the signature of a peace treaty. The Treaty of Brest-Litosvk was signed on March 3, 1918. The harsh conditions of the treaty were humiliating. Russia lost the Baltic lands and part of Belorussia; Ukraine and Finland were declared autonomous republics, with the subsequent evacuation of the Red Army. More importantly, it also ceded to the Ottoman Empire the regions of Kars and Ardahan, which were Armenian territories, and Batum (Georgian territory) in the Caucasus. It is important to remember that, after the October Revolution and the retreat of the Russian troops, Turkey had gone on the offense and reoccupied the territories of Western Armenia lost to Russia in 1916, later invading the Caucasus. Interestingly, Russia no longer had effective presence in the region, and maintained a purely nominal attachment after the revolution.

The end of the hostilities allowed Germany to concentrate its forces on the southern front and start an offense from March 21 to June 17, 1918, but this was unsuccessful, as the Allied forces countered with a tactic of continuous attacks that finally ended in German defeat.

It is important to note that the Bolsheviks were not the legal and recognized authority of Russia in 1918, and therefore had no legal right to sign a treaty on behalf of the country. However, this signature allowed the Bolshevik government to keep the power and dismiss their opponents, particularly the Socialist Revolutionaries. In the end, this would also become a motive for the beginning of the bloody civil war in Russia that would last four years.

A supplementary agreement signed in Berlin on August 27 established the payment of six billion German marks by Russia to Germany as war compensation. However, the Treaty of Brest Litovsk was declared null and void by Russia on September 20 and after the end of the war, by Turkey on October 30, and by Germany on November 13.