Washington, 20 August 1999 (RFE/RL) -- Monday will mark the 60th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the deal between Hitler and Stalin that touched off World War II and that continues to cast a shadow over Eastern Europe and relations between Moscow and the West.
On August 23, 1939, German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov signed a non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.
Because this agreement eliminated the immediate threat to Germany of a two-front war, it freed Hitler to launch the attack on Poland that began World War II. And because it allowed Germany to acquire numerous militarily important supplies from the USSR, it helped to power Nazi victories in Europe in 1939 and 1940.
But even more important, this agreement -- and especially a secret protocol, the existence of which both Berlin and Moscow long denied existed -- drew a new line in Eastern Europe between a German and a Russian sphere of influence, a line that allowed Stalin to put pressure on and then absorb the three Baltic countries.
If much of the importance of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was made irrelevant by Hitler's decision to attack the Soviet Union in June 1941 and by the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany in 1945, the sphere of influence the pact gave to Moscow over Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania has had a much longer life.
Virtually all Western governments followed the United States in refusing to recognize as legitimate Stalin's occupation of these three small countries. Most maintained ties with the diplomatic representatives of the pre-occupation authorities and adopted other measures to show their non-recognition of what the Soviet Union had done.
And that policy, one that Baltic leaders have always said encouraged them in their struggle against the occupation, continued until August 1991 when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania successfully achieved the restoration of their state sovereignty as full members of the international state system.
But in an important sense, Moscow's sphere of influence as defined by this long ago pact between two dictatorships continues to play a role in the thinking of both Russian and Western leaders.
Until almost the end of the Soviet period, Moscow officials denied the existence of the secret protocol to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. And when they could no longer deny that, they retreated to an insistence that the Sovietization of the Baltic states in 1940 had nothing to do with this accord.
In fact, however, as Baltic, Russian, and Western historians have demonstrated, Stalin occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania when he did only because of the assurances Hitler had given him that these countries lay within Moscow's sphere of influence.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation has changed again, but it is still the case that many in Moscow call for Western recognition that the Baltic countries lie within a Russian sphere of influence. And they advance as the basis for that claim the notion that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were part of the Soviet Union.
In the past, most Western officials were careful to speak about the existence of 12 Soviet republics and three occupied Baltic states and thus to implicitly reject Moscow's pretensions in this regard.
But more recently, senior Western officials and various Western academic experts have made ever more references to the supposed existence of "15 former Soviet republics." These call into question the West's non-recognition policy. Moreover, they are taken by Moscow as an implicit recognition that the Soviet borders are still a dividing line in Europe. And that pattern in turn has encouraged some in the Russian capital to assume that Moscow can deal with the Baltic countries in much the same way it has dealt with its other neighbors, an assumption that threatens not only the security of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, but also the stability of Europe as a whole.
As a result, and despite all the talk about a Europe without new lines of division and about the future inclusion of everyone in all international structures, such comments and assumptions appear to reinforce just such a line -- and one drawn 60 years ago next week by two of the most evil figures of our time.