China’s New Vassal
How the War in Ukraine Turned Moscow Into Beijing’s Junior Partner
WHEN the representatives of the small nationalities on the western border of Russia made their plea for independence in 1918 and 1919 several reasons were brought forward why it should be granted. One was the principle of national self-determination, just proclaimed by President Wilson. Another, dear to the heart of British politicians of the old school, was the desire to weaken Russia. A third, uppermost in Clemenceau's mind, was the idea of surrounding the "Red area" with a "sanitary cordon" which would preserve the rest of Europe from being contaminated by Communism. A fourth reason, advocated by French military strategists, was the desirability of setting up a group of states under Allied influence between two potential military allies -- Russia and Germany. Thus anyone could choose his particular reason for favoring the independence for the border nations. In the final analysis, the real reason they gained independence was Soviet Russia's extreme political weakness in those years; but they accomplished their aims amidst the blessings of Europe and America. And the chief reason European leaders approved was because they desired to isolate Russia from the rest of Europe, and in particular to separate her from Germany.
On the whole, the border states fulfilled what was expected of them. They proved intensive hothouses of modern nationalism, with its various advantages and defects. Because the popular mind was so busy creating new national systems, and -- perhaps -- because of the familiarity of the local population with some extremely unattractive features of early Communism, they remained immune to communistic doctrine. How far they contributed to the weakening of Russia must remain unsettled; but if all the Baltic territories had remained Russian, and if Moscow had been able to cope successfully with the various national problems involved, undoubtedly Soviet Russia would have been a tremendously stronger entity. As for their function in separating Germany and Russia, two possible allies, this indeed was a major service of the border states from 1920 to 1933. During that time only one link was missing in the pro-Ally front of the border states: Lithuania. Poland's annexation of Wilno had left the Lithuanians no choice but to fall back on Russia and Germany.
Since Hitler's advent in Germany the border states again have begun to play an important part in the political system of Europe due to their geographical position between Germany and Russia. Now, however, these two Great Powers no longer face one another as potential allies: they have changed into deadly enemies. In this situation the border states have served for several years as an effective buffer. Despite the fact that Germany was not yet thoroughly prepared for military undertakings, and despite Russian reluctance to become embroiled abroad, the atmosphere of hostility between the two nations, constantly kept alive by verbal and press attacks, has been so intense that if the two territories had been contiguous frontier incidents would have been sure to occur and these might in turn have led to war. That there still is peace in Europe, then, is due in part at least to the existence of the chain of border states between Russia and Germany.
But will the buffer suffice to ward off war indefinitely? Perhaps. There is much to be said for the British policy of postponing radical decisions in the international sphere. For, despite everything, it is not at all certain that "war must come." Internal changes may take place in Italy or Germany or Japan, which may result in the diversion of one of these nations from projects of aggression. This is not likely; but neither is it impossible. To postpone war is therefore a highly important task of present-day diplomacy. And among the factors operating to postpone war, the border states have their place.
We cannot conceal from ourselves, however, that there is sufficient fuel ready at hand to start a war almost at any time; and clearly in any European war Russia and Germany will be involved as two of the opposing belligerents, Russia to preserve the status quo, Germany to satisfy its desire for expansion. What would be the attitude of the border states in this event? The answer is of great interest to the outside world, and of overwhelming importance to those small states themselves. Public opinion there is not yet crystallized, but the process is well under way. The factors at work will be analyzed in the following pages.
A truly remarkable change in orientation has taken place in Poland. Until 1933, that is to say while Soviet Russia and Germany were potential allies, Poland clung steadfastly to the French alliance, ready and willing to tackle Germany despite the danger of a simultaneous attack by Russia. In 1933 Russia veered into the French orbit, and as a consequence partnership with France became much safer for Poland than it had been before. Yet at this very moment Poland developed a sudden tendency to forego the guarantees of a French alliance and to seek salvation in an attitude of isolated neutrality backed by non-aggression treaties with both Germany and Russia. However, this was a flimsy hope: isolation from France hurts Poland much more than it could possibly hurt France. If Germany were to make a choice between attacking France backed by Russia and England, or attacking Russia, a powerful nation not devoid of allies, or attacking Poland, a much weaker opponent who had chosen to isolate herself from her former friends, she clearly would pick on Poland as the most convenient opponent, treaty or no treaty.
To escape this danger, Polish statesmen went so far as to play for a while with the idea of actively making common cause with the Germans in a campaign against Russia and Czechoslovakia. That so much overreaching seemed necessary indicates how little security Poland can hope to find in an attitude of neutral detachment.[i] To avoid the risk of having to serve as a marching-ground for Russian soldiers on their way to Germany, it was willing voluntarily to assume the part of a marching-ground for German soldiers on their way to Russia! The Polish Government came close to doing just that; but the pendulum swung back in time. Warsaw perceived what overwhelming risks the scheme involved. In the first place, the probability is that if Poland definitely sided with Germany the latter's aggressive powers would be so increased that she would precipitate the very war which Poland, essentially a satisfied nation, is so anxious to avoid. Further, if the German-Polish coalition were victorious, Poland would probably have to submit to a continuing and oppressive German hegemony. Its only possible compensation would be a further increase in its Russian, Ukrainian, or Lithuanian minorities -- and the numbers of these already constitute a severe strain on the internal structure. Nor would the victory be at all certain, in view of the probable intervention of powerful Western nations in the conflict; while a defeat, though it might not disrupt the essential unity of Germany, would probably end in disaster for Poland. Lastly, the risks that would be presented by a general war might lead the Germans at the last minute to seek relief in the direction of a comparatively easy little war against Poland -- a sufficient outlet for all German ambitions, and a fairly safe course in view of the thorough dislike which Poland by that time would have incurred in Russia, France and Czechoslovakia.
These arguments seem to have been operating in Poland in the last year, and today the Polish Government shows definite indications of realigning itself with France. The evolution is by no means complete, and the writer does not venture to predict the outcome. But the following prognosis can be offered. If Poland decides to stay with Germany or to remain on the fence, the present European tension may be relieved in the end, without a general war ever occurring, by the simple means of a two-sided conflict between Germany and an isolated Poland. If, on the other hand, Poland takes its place with the Franco-Russian-Czech alliance, it will find itself, should war come, in a risky position but nevertheless supported by a coalition sufficiently strong to offer reasonable prospects of victory. Even more important, however, is the fact that Poland's definite adherence to such a bloc would make that bloc so strong that Germany might recoil before the danger of defeat, and thus war might be averted altogether.
To the north of Poland lies Lithuania, a country of two and a half million inhabitants. Lithuania continues to nourish deep resentment against its southern neighbor for having taken by sheer force the richest part of its traditional patrimony, a region with a million inhabitants and including the former Lithuanian capital, Wilno. This resentment against Poland has conditioned the whole of Lithuanian foreign policy since 1920. In turn, it is due to the unsettled relations prevailing between Lithuania and Poland that the two other Baltic countries, Latvia and Estonia, despite their many affinities and common interests with Lithuania, have hesitated to associate themselves with it too closely lest they also incur Polish hostility. And thus it came about that Lithuania, finding little active sympathy among its natural allies or among the Western nations allied with Poland, turned toward Germany, the other "aggrieved" state of that part of the world, and even -- despite fundamental differences in political and social outlook -- toward Soviet Russia.
The practicability of any close Lithuanian relationship with Russia was lessened by the absence of a common frontier: the area taken over by the Poles lay between. As for the initial sympathy felt towards Germany, this was largely swallowed up in Lithuanian impatience at having to play the part of an impotent martyr. Smarting under the blow which the seizure of Wilno dealt their national pride, the Lithuanian people decided to find partial compensation, and incidentally to relieve their pent-up rage, by a similar coup de force. They accordingly occupied the city of Memel. This happened in 1923, in a period when Germany was particularly weak and just when French troops were already preparing to march into the Ruhr. From that time on, German-Lithuanian friendship not unnaturally cooled off quite considerably.
Lithuania was not merely resentful towards Poland; it also was fearful. In Poland, as in Hungary, the ruling caste of large landowners is accustomed to dominate a peasantry of other nationalities and hence is not inhibited in its expansionist aspirations by regard for mere ethnographical frontiers. Casting an eye over surrounding countries, Polish expansionists long ago perceived that the simplest and safest road to glory lay in the annexation of the remaining part of Lithuania, a country relatively without friends and at the same time united to Poland by ancient religious and political ties. Following the Memel coup, voices were not lacking in Germany suggesting a Polish-German understanding at the expense of Lithuania. One solution contemplated that Germany should receive back most of the provinces she had lost to Poland, while the latter in compensation would receive most or all of Lithuania. Alternatively, it was suggested that Lithuania be divided, Poland receiving the southeastern part of the country and Germany the northwest, with a view to permitting further German expansion toward Latvia and Estonia.
In recent years, as German expansionist trends grew more and more marked and as the German-Polish understanding matured, the Lithuanian Government felt that the dangers of a joint attack against it had become uncomfortably real. More and more it tended to seek salvation in friendship with Russia and in solidarity with Latvia and Estonia. Lately Lithuania has almost become willing to let bygones be bygones with regard to Wilno, if only it could be assured of its present status quo, if only it could be relieved of the fear of a Polish attack. It has been able to register some success in this connection. Last year, when the Memel controversy with Germany was at its height, the Soviet Government officially declared that an invasion of Lithuania would not leave Soviet Russia indifferent. On the other hand, Latvia and Estonia, impressed by the new defensive trend of Lithuanian policy and the lapse of the former tendency to foster an anti-Polish irredenta, and even more impressed by the common danger of German expansion eastwards, seem to be making up their minds that they would have to come to the assistance of their southern neighbor in case it was attacked. Of course if Poland actually took its place with the status quo states Lithuanian fears would be greatly relieved.
But whatever friendships it may form, Lithuania remains the most vulnerable of all the border states. Its own powers of defense (like those of Latvia and Estonia) are negligible. To the factors already mentioned add the fact that Lithuania lies on the direct route from East Prussia to Moscow, and it will be understood that any war spells disaster for Lithuania and that its chief preoccupation must be to preserve peace. Are there any active contributions to peace that Lithuania might conceivably make? Two are possible: a very careful handling of the Memel situation, with a view to avoiding any incidents which might precipitate a war; and a definite alignment with those nations which are ready to oppose aggression in Europe. Lithuania now seems to have decided to act cautiously in Memel; nevertheless, no one would dare say for certain that some shattering incident, provoked or unprovoked, might not occur in the little Baltic port. The second contribution is one which Lithuania began making long ago, for whatever it may be worth. The fact is, of course, that Lithuania's small resources neither frighten its potential enemies nor give much consolation to its potential allies. Still, with what little force it commands, Lithuania pulls steadfastly with the powers of consolidation.
There is a third conceivable Lithuanian contribution: to renounce Memel entirely. The Lithuanian Government does not seem to consider this possibility seriously. And indeed, the forces and appetites that form the essential cause of European unrest today -- Germany's urge for expansion -- are so Gargantuan that to attempt to satisfy them by throwing Memel to Germany would be childish. From the Lithuanian point of view, to cede Memel to Germany would be to acquiesce pointlessly in an amputation of territory -- pointlessly because it could not conceivably mitigate the danger of war.[ii] Nor would it make any difference from a military viewpoint, for within a day after war had broken out Memel would be occupied by German troops and all its port facilities and the man power of its population would be at Germany's disposal.
Once a war has started, there will be no such thing for Lithuania as neutrality. It has only the choice which Belgium had in 1914. In the prevailing circumstances, what this choice would be is not open to doubt: it will side with Russia and against Germany. Meanwhile, it watches closely the position which Poland will assume, hardly knowing what to pray for. If Poland sides with Germany, the odds against Lithuania are overwhelming for the duration of the campaign; but final victory would mean reunion with Wilno. If Poland sides with Russia, the military picture is somewhat brighter; but at the end of the period of suffering there appears no glittering prize.
The two million inhabitants of Latvia, Lithuania's northern neighbor, would not weigh heavily in the balance of a European war, but individually they enjoy the reputation of being the best fighters east of Germany. The Lettish regiments were the pride of the Russian infantry in the days of the World War, and later they served as the backbone of the early Red armies. The country's strategic position is determined by its common frontier with Russia (the slower of the two prospective major belligerents) and by the absence of a common land frontier with Germany (which will probably be the more rapid in mobilizing and advancing its troops). Moreover, its extensive Baltic shoreline makes it a likely spot for German landing operations. In general, resistance to Russian invasion would mean the rapid overrunning and destruction of most of the Latvian territory by Russian troops, with the probability that southern Latvia would serve as a first line of battle between them and the German armies. To side with Russia might mean that the main battlefields would remain further to the southwest, with merely the danger of German attacks on the Latvian coast and from the air.
The sympathies of the Lettish people are with neither of the prospective antagonists. Russia is a former sovereign power which tried to impose on them its political and cultural domination, and represents in addition a thoroughly disliked political and social system. Germany is the nation which supplied the haughty and oppressive landlords of other days, landlords who have not become reconciled to the freedom of their former serfs; those former serfs regard that nation neither with forgiveness for the past nor with confidence in the future.
Like Estonia, Latvia would remain if it could outside the opposing blocs now being formed in Europe and would try equally hard to maintain its neutrality if ever war broke out. But would the belligerents respect Latvian neutrality? Hardly. It lies too close to -- if not on -- the battle-line. Besides, the very existence of Lithuania would plainly be involved in any general future war. If Lithuania, or part of it, fell into German hands, Germany's desire to regain her historical predominance in the "Baltic provinces" -- Latvia and Estonia -- would soon result in the submission of those countries. On the other hand, a Latvia which had declined to join in the struggle might not escape the wrath of a victorious Russia. The truth of the matter is that, within the last two years, Latvia has already made up its mind. It realizes the extreme improbability of being permitted to stay neutral; it realizes further that if it did so it would lie helpless and isolated at the mercy of the victor once the war was over; therefore it has decided to take its stand with one of the opposing parties.
Latvia is not willing to stake its future on the mere question of "defending its neutrality," which would mean joining in the attack on whatever belligerent first penetrated its territory. Its stand is dictated by the consideration that Russia is, on the whole, satisfied with its frontiers whereas Germany is land-hungry and looks toward the East. For that reason, it is fairly confident that it could maintain its independence in case victory lay with its Russian ally. It thinks that if it joined a German bloc, and that side emerged victorious, German troops would simply forget to leave when the war was over. In case of defeat, Latvia's independence is of course compromised in either case.
Moved by these considerations, the present Latvian Government -- an authoritarian dictatorship -- is preparing to cast the country's lot with Soviet Russia, Lithuania and the other nations which are willing to defend the status quo against aggression. Aside from purely practical reasons, this choice is another demonstration of the tremendous force of nationalism as the supreme moulder of European opinion. Latvia's antipathy for Russia springs mainly from a desire to preserve the existing economic and social system; its antipathy for Germany flows from the desire to preserve its national independence. The latter antipathy is the stronger.
Estonia with its 1,200,000 inhabitants lies to the north of Latvia, somewhat aside from the main theater of battle. Its value from the German point of view consists in the close approach it offers to Leningrad in case of a German-Russian war; while the Soviets take it into consideration because it lies just on the outskirts of their great northwestern industrial center and also because the lines of communication which pass through it would become extremely important if an equivocal Polish attitude rendered the roads further south unsafe.
As far as political and social factors are concerned, the situation in Estonia is almost identical with that in Latvia. As in the case of its southern neighbor, Estonia faces a choice between antipathies rather than a choice between sympathies. This fact, as well as the country's extreme vulnerability to an attack from the East, almost precludes the possibility of its joining the anti-Russian group. On the other hand, it lies further from Germany than Latvia does, and so the danger of German annexation appears less real. Moreover, the cultural and political influence of Finland and Sweden, always strong among Estonians, adds to their determination to keep neutral. Latvia and Estonia have signed a treaty of defensive alliance with Lithuania; and all three countries have participated recently in general staff conferences with Russian military leaders, including Marshal Gegoroff, Soviet Chief of Staff, during the visit he paid to the Baltic States this past February. Despite these indications, it seems that Estonian opinion is not yet reconciled to the idea of giving up neutrality. Estonia will try to keep neutral if possible. If it must choose sides, the choice is made: it will march with Russia, Latvia and Lithuania.
The furthest north among the border states is Finland, a nation with 3,800,000 inhabitants. No objective reason exists why Finland could not remain essentially and serenely neutral in case Germany and Soviet Russia engaged in a death struggle. It does not lie in the direct line of fighting. Its inhabitants are sturdy soldiers, and Moscow would not dream of wantonly adding them to the list of its enemies if it could arrange to have them remain neutral. For them to be neutral is all that Russia could ask, for in that case the flank of Leningrad would be secure and a line of communication would remain open with northwestern Europe. Even the Germans, though they regard Finland as an ideal military, naval and air base for operations against Russia, would not risk invading the country unless sure of a friendly welcome. German landing forces that met resistance there would find themselves in a sad plight.
Indeed, Finland is the only one among the border states, and one of the few states in Europe, in the enviable position of not being a playball of international politics, of being a master of its own fate, of being permitted to decide for itself whether it wants war or peace, and of probably having this decision respected by all the belligerents.
Should it of its own accord decide in favor of war, the probability is that Finland would side with Germany. Powerful Finnish elements are sympathetic with the present political tenets of Germany. There is no tradition of distrust toward Germany, and no reason why distrust should develop. Finland has had to deal with Germany only once in its history -- in 1918, when Germany intervened in Finland in the fight against Communist Russia. From that struggle Finland emerged independent; the Germans withdrew; and the Finns have retained a sense of gratitude to them. On the other hand, distrust toward Russia is traditional. Imperial Russia tried to smother self-government in Finland and reduce the country to the status of a "coordinated" province. Short-lived democratic Russia hesitated in 1917 to acknowledge Finnish independence. Red Russia tried to subdue Finland by force and only withdrew in face of strong resistance. In addition, the vast region of Karelia, lying just across the Soviet border, is inhabited by people closely related ethnically to the Finns -- a glittering prize to be won in case of victory. There is nothing that Finland could win if it joined an anti-German coalition, even if it were victorious. All these circumstances create a fertile soil in which to propagate the idea of a "crusade against the communist revolution." The strongly individualistic Finnish farmer would in any case be quite susceptible to that argument.
Of course other forces would operate to keep Finland neutral. These can be reduced to four. One is the natural desire to preserve peace, when peace can be had for the asking. Another lies in the tremendous economic advantages which would accrue to a neutral Finland out of commerce with a belligerent Russia. A third is the influence of the strongly socialistic proletariat of Finnish cities. A fourth is the pervading habit of emulating the Scandinavian states, whose peaceful, civilized outlook makes them symbols of true progress in Finnish eyes. So long as the Scandinavian countries remain neutral, nothing will induce Finland to join Russia -- unless Germany, angered by the extent of Finland's neutral trade with Russia, were to bombard Finland from the sea or from the air. And even if the Scandinavian countries rallied to the defense of the Covenant of the League and perhaps joined an anti-German coalition, Finland would still hesitate: the dislike of Russia is too strong. It is not to be wiped out by diplomatic visits like the one paid recently to Moscow by Foreign Minister Holsti, though doubtless that will help smooth the path for more normal relations between the two neighbor states.
Each of the border states has now been treated as an entity. But the question arises whether the conflicting attitudes of political factions or of national minorities within each state may not threaten its national unity in case of war. The truth is that, except in Poland, no such complications are likely to arise. In the first place, none of the countries in question has any appreciable pacifist movement which would be in a position to make propaganda or organize effective resistance against participation in a war which the government favored. Further, the prevailing nationalist ideology leads members of the dominant nationality to rally around their state with a fervor and loyalty transcending all political and economic conflicts.
It cannot be sufficiently emphasized for the American reader how strongly nationalism is entrenched east of Germany. Fundamentally, it is stronger there even than in the Reich. The National Socialist emphasis on national solidarity seems almost artificial to a people already thoroughly used to consider its nationality and its national state or states as matter-of-fact phenomena. Further east this is not so. There constant friction between nationalities living at close quarters has made every person painfully sensitive to anything affecting national interests. The states which have been created there are first and foremost manifestations of the active and conscious political and cultural domination of national majorities in given regions. The members of each majority feel a profound sense of national solidarity which swallows up political and economic differences. Whatever course promises to better the chances of survival of the "national state" can be sure of the loyal support of the dominant nationality.
The issue at stake in the cases of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia -- in the order of decreasing intensity -- is how best to maintain the political and cultural domination of the Lithuanians, the Letts, and the Estonians respectively. Now it happens that these peoples think that their domination is threatened by Germany rather than by Russia. Hence their decision to join the Russian bloc if they cannot remain safely neutral. Of course this decision is particularly applauded by the socialist and communist groups. But actually the decision is being reached under the leadership of governments belonging to the semi-fascistic Right. True, in the three countries under discussion there exist still more extreme Right groups which are in opposition to the existing régimes. But even if they met with political success they would not be able, either in Lithuania or Latvia, to change the essentials of the national problem and to modify what seems the inevitable political orientation. In Estonia, where the danger of German hegemony is considered to be more remote, the success of the Right opposition might well strengthen the case for neutrality, with a tendency even to favor the anti-Russian bloc if once Russia began showing signs of internal disruption or military weakness. But even there that tendency would hardly result in definite pro-German action.
As for the national minorities in these States, a mere statistical analysis proves how little they would be able to affect government policy. The population of Lithuania (aside from Memel) consists of 75.1 percent Lithuanians, 7.3 Jews, 3.2 Poles, 2.2 Russians, 1.2 Germans, and one percent others; Latvia has 75.4 percent Letts, 11.9 Russians, 4.8 Jews, 3.2 Germans, 2.5 Poles, 1.2 Lithuanians, and one percent others; Estonia has 88.1 percent Estonians, 8.2 Russians, 1.5 Germans, 0.7 Swedes, 0.5 Letts, 0.4 Jews, and 0.6 others.
National independence is not at stake in Finland. Hence the probability that Finland will stay neutral. The Finnish labor movement is hardly strong enough (there are 83 socialist members in a parliament of 200) to engage Finland in a war on Russia's side, even if it wished to do so. But presumably it is strong enough to keep the country out of an anti-Russian war. National minorities are not a complication here either. The population contains 89.4 percent Finns, 10.1 Swedes, and 0.5 others.
In Poland, however, the picture is much more complicated. While our analysis has seemed to show that Poland's vital national interests would best be served by coöperation with the nations determined to resist non-aggression, there are important Polish elements which sincerely favor a policy of neutrality or even adherence to the German bloc. Whichever course Poland finally chooses, public opinion is likely to be much divided, and this might lead to serious internal conflicts in case military upsets occurred. This consideration is particularly serious in view of the half-hearted nature of the Polish dictatorship. It is severe enough to arouse the deep hostility of opposition groups; it has not been severe enough to abolish them or to bring about a superficial national unity like that achieved in Russia, Italy and Germany. There already exist strongly entrenched and well-organized forces of the Right opposition, of the socialists, and of the peasant party, each ready to try to take over the government at the first opportunity. Most serious of all is the country's "nationality map." No satisfactory statistics on Poland's minorities have ever been made available, but the best estimates would give about 64 percent Poles, 17 percent Ukrainians and Ruthenians, 10 percent Jews, 4 percent White Russians, 4 percent Germans, and one percent others, of whom a large part seems to be Lithuanians. With the exception of the Jews, who live dispersed all over the country, the minorities live in concentrated areas. A bloc of seven million Ukrainians, White Russians and Lithuanians live along the Russian frontier; another bloc of one million Germans stretch along the border of the German Reich. Obviously, Poland would run tremendous risks in any war, whatever rôle she chose to play. Hence the feverish search of Polish statesmen for a solution which will prevent war altogether, or, if the worst comes, will best ensure the preservation of Polish unity.
[i] On this subject see Akzin, "La Pologne à la croisée des chemins," in L'Esprit International, 1935, p. 210-223.
[ii] This is not to say that in a sane world, where territorial disputes were solved by popular vote in areas under dispute, Memel would not return to Germany by overwhelming vote.