This essay examines how the British Government, in the lead-up to Operation Barbarossa, perceived the notion of an anti-German coalition comprising Britain and the Soviet Union British diplomats, including Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden and Ambassador Sir Stafford Cripps, assessed the extent to which the Soviet Government was committed to its Non-Aggression Treaty with Germany and how far Josef Stalin was prepared to appease Adolf Hitler and thereby prevent a military conflict with the Third Reich. As a consequence, following the fall of France to the Germans in the summer of 1940, of Britain perilously standing alone against the might of Nazi Germany, Whitehall looked increasingly to the USSR, a country which many British officials traditionally harboured feelings of grave disquiet over, as a means of salvation. However, British diplomats reported, indeed, lamented, that such was the fear felt by the Soviet Government of a war with Germany, together with Stalin’s ingrained distrust of Britain, that the chances of Moscow abandoning its Non-Aggression Treaty with Berlin and joining forces with London in an anti-Hitler coalition were negligible.
To download PDF you should sign in
Evaluation of USSR-Germany relations in the documents of the UK Embassy in Moscow
A particularly insightful document detailing the appraisal of Soviet-German relations by the British Embassy in Moscow centred on a letter from Cripps to Eden, dated 27 May 1941. The British ambassador began by saying that “we are completely in the dark here so far as any facts are concerned and that we have nothing really tangible by which to judge the progress…of the situation.”6 Perhaps, by his words, Cripps was lamenting, in a veiled manner, a failure by British intelligence to gather information, which would have thrown more light on the inner workings of the Moscow-Berlin relationship. In any case, the ambassador went on to express his view on Stalin’s mindset, something which constituted a mystery for many in Whitehall, though imperative for the purposes of determining whether the Soviet leader could, in certain circumstances, break from his pact with Hitler and enter the war on the side of Britain. Cripps wrote that the Soviet leader is not “affected by any pro-German or pro-anything feeling except for pro-Soviet and pro-Stalin.” He added that: “He is no more friendly or antagonistic to us than to Germany and he will always use any country that he can to attain his objective which is to keep out of the war as long as he can without jeopardising his regime or Soviet forces in doing so.”7 Such an opinion on Stalin was, in the early months of 1941, the prevalent one in Whitehall, signifying how previous views of the Soviet leader having found common cause with Hitler and how he was intent on carving up Europe with the Germans (following the conclusion of the non-aggression agreement between Moscow and Berlin), was now a faint, though not totally dispelled, memory within the British Government. Cripps contended that there were two principal factors, which would determine whether Stalin might feel inclined to enter the war against Hitler. First, the “actual military situation and his calculation” of German power, Britain’s powers of resistance, and the strategic implications for a German attack on the USSR; and second, an appraisal of how appeasement of Berlin could endanger the future preparedness of the Soviet Union.8 In view of Cripps’ analysis, it can be persuasively argued that Whitehall was of the opinion that nothing short of a German invasion of the USSR would bring the Soviet Government into conflict with Hitler because (as British officials would have realised) it would have been painstakingly clear to Stalin and the rest of the Soviet leadership that German power, by May of 1941, had grown inordinately following on from Germany’s recent conquering of Yugoslavia and Greece. Furthermore, the rapid and clinical defeat inflicted on the British Army in Greece by the Wehrmacht would not have been lost on Stalin vis-à-vis Britain’s long-term ability to successfully resist the Third Reich and assist the USSR if it was engaged in a war with Germany.
Issues relating to a possible German attack on the USSR and potential UK aid to Russia in talks between Eden and Maisky
Reflecting on his meeting with Maisky, Eden remarked on how “stiff” the discussion had been, which, he said, could have been partly due to the presence, throughout, of the Counsellor of the Soviet Embassy. The foreign secretary noted that both Maisky and the Counsellor had known that “I should have preferred to see the Ambassador alone.”17 With reports reaching Stalin, including from highly trusted Soviet agents abroad, of an impending German attack on the USSR, combined with his profound fear of how any word spoken or measure undertaken by his government could provoke a German military onslaught against his country, the Soviet leader would have sought to ensure that his ambassador in Britain be deterred from saying anything controversial in conversations with the British authorities. If leaked, the information could have been either construed by Berlin as anti-German and evidence of the USSR preparing to enter into an alliance with Britain, thereby warranting German military action against the Soviet Union, or simply used as a pretext by the German Government to wage war against the USSR. That deterrent would have taken the form of the Counsellor of the Soviet Embassy in London accompanying Maisky to meetings with British officials because, invariably, Soviet counsellors were, in fact, intelligence officers. As a matter of fact, the counsellor who accompanied Maisky to his meeting with Eden was Kirill Vasilevich Novikov, whom Eden had referred to as a “Kremlin watch-dog upon Maisky.”18
Evaluation in the Foreign Office of Russia’s position on the Balkans, Turkey and Iran
UK sanctions on the USSR and the US factor in Russia-Germany relations
No posts found