Brest-Litovsk and the Lessons Putin Should Learn

Heads of State usually struggle to balance international affairs with domestic needs. In today’s unpredictable global climate, world leaders should look to and learn from history. Here, Justin Leopold-Cohen explores the centennial anniversary of Russia’s departure from World War I, and how newly elected Chairman Vladimir Lenin chose to focus on domestic issues rather than foreign affairs: a lesson that current Russian President Vladimir Putin should heed.

Justin Leopold-Cohen
March 29, 2018

This year marks several World War I (WWI) centennials. Many challenges surfaced during the war. For example, as the war raged on, combatants switched sides and even dropped out of the fighting altogether. March 8th marked the centennial of the Brest-Litovsk Treaty, which established an armistice agreement between the newly formed Bolshevik government of Russia (which was fighting on the side of the Allied Powers alongside Britain, France, and the United States) and the Central Powers (led by Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the Ottoman Empire). In the beginning, Russia had been fighting alongside the Allied Powers, but with this signed agreement, Russia ended up leaving the war in 1917 forcing the rest of the Allied Powers to fight with a reduced number of combatants.

With Russia in the war, the German soldiers, who were the aggressors, had been split between fighting the Russians on the Eastern Front and the Allied Powers on the Western Front. Russia’s departure meant that the German forces that had been deployed against Russia on the Eastern Front marched back west to concentrate on the remaining Allied Powers, tipping the balance. While 100 years ago this was thought of as a betrayal, the United States and Western European leaders today would surely applaud if Russia were to withdraw from world affairs.

The Brest-Litovsk treaty was finalized in 1918, and the Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin was forced to hand over substantial concessions to the Germans in order to implement the armistice. Russia’s withdrawal greatly aggravated the Allied Powers, but Lenin knew there was too much domestic unrest to keep Russia involved in the global crisis. This move may have made sense at the time. However, the fighting ended soon after, and Russia was not allowed to reclaim the territory it had lost in the war.

Recalling a centennial anniversary is memorable enough on its own, but looking back on the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk under today’s global climate generates a good deal of irony. In 1918, Russian leadership abandoned world affairs making the Allied Powers nervous and angry. Today, whenever Russia does get involved in world affairs, the United States and its Western allies are once again uneasy over potential consequences. This has happened almost every time Russia, led by its current Head of State Vladimir Putin, leaves its borders and intervenes elsewhere as it has done with Syria and the Ukraine.

Russia’s past withdrawal from world affairs along with its present foreign activities both stem from similar origins: domestic upheaval. One hundred years ago, Vladimir Lenin had assumed control of a country with substantial “political and economic problems”—problems compounded by losses during the war. Vladimir Putin, however, is believed to be using his military campaigns as a means of distracting the Russian nation from present internal strife.  

While I would hardly encourage Putin to follow in Lenin’s footsteps, there is, perhaps, something to be said for Lenin’s focus on domestic stability rather than global affairs. Russia’s current domestic situation is hardly rosy. There were over 250 arrests during anti-Putin protests in late 2017 and there have been hundreds more this year. And this anti-Putin activity shows no signs of subsiding. With such domestic unrest, the distraction of military campaigns may not be worth all the blood and treasure it’s costing Russia. After all, it was the same type of behavior that led to the downfall of the Czars, allowing Lenin to seize power a century ago.

If domestic instability is not enough to make Putin reconsider his current global intentions, perhaps the other lesson of Brest-Litovsk will.

After the treaty was signed and the Central Powers’ forces marched back west, the British, French, and American forces deployed on the Western Front were justifiably worried that without Russia’s involvement they would not be able to defeat the Central Powers. Fortunately, they prevailed. Russia’s abandonment, however, was neither forgotten nor certainly forgiven. Once the war ended, punitive measures were imposed on Russia despite the fact that it had fought against the Central Powers for the majority of the war.

Today, Putin is no stranger to punitive measures. Since 2014, the United States, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Japan have all issued sanctions against Russia. Although these sanctions have yet to slow Putin down or change his mind, they will continue until Putin reverses his policies. He may well be forced to if faced with more severe consequences, which are sure to be worse than the ban on Russian athletes from the Olympics. The ongoing sanctions coupled with domestic unrest means that there is nothing bright in Russia’s future. Putin, if you’re worried about looking cowardly just remember the words of Miguel de Cervantes’ sidekick character Sancho who tried to calm his liege lord Don Quixote from his wild endeavors: “to withdraw is not to run away, and to stay is no wise action, when there's more reason to fear than to hope.”

Justin H. Leopold-Cohen (@jleopoldcohenis a graduate of the Johns Hopkins University MA program in Global Security Studies. He received his BA from Clark University in American History. He currently lives in Washington D.C. and works on security policy. Any opinions expressed in his writing are solely his own and do not speak for any institution or government.