A Soviet Retreat from a Danish Island after World War II Suggests how Putin Could Find an "Off Ramp"Roundup
tags: military history, Soviet Union
Caroline Kennedy Pipe is professor of war studies at the University of Loughborough, U.K. Caroline has published extensively on Russia, the Cold War and its legacies and is author of Stalin’s Cold War.
James Rogers is DIAS assistant professor in war studies, within the Center for War Studies at SDU in Denmark. Rogers works on the history of weaponry and military strategy. He is host of the Warfare podcast.
As the Russian war effort in Ukraine turns into a debacle, the world ponders what Russian President Vladimir Putin’s end game is and wonders how to end the needless bloodshed.
While Ukrainians have fought valiantly to defend their country, it still seems as though the conflict will end in a negotiated settlement. There are many historical models that could guide such a settlement. But one largely forgotten case — in which Russia withdrew from a region it occupied — might prove illuminating.
In 1946, Soviet troops retreated from the Danish island of Bornholm, after a year of occupation. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin accepted a Danish proposal under which he would withdraw his troops in exchange for a promise that Bornholm would not house foreign soldiers. This agreement confounded Western expectations about Soviet strategy and Stalin. Yet it may offer a model for crafting an end game that could be acceptable to Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in 2022, while securing Ukrainian sovereignty and independence.
The schoolbook history of World War II peace talks is quite simple: At the Yalta Conference in early 1945, the three major allies — the Soviet Union, the United States and Britain — divided up the world.
While this take is flawed, it’s true that President Franklin D. Roosevelt, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Stalin devised a grand vision looking to balance great-power ambitions with the need to prevent any possibility of a resurgence of German power. While there was agreement that Allied troops should occupy both Germany and Japan, and that both countries should be democratized, there was less consensus about the fate of some of the Eastern and Central European states.
Having seen his country invaded through Eastern Europe, Stalin desired a Soviet sphere of influence, one that included Poland as well as the Baltic states. Roosevelt and Churchill didn’t love that idea, especially the inclusion of Poland, and protested. But they eventually acquiesced. After all, Stalin’s troops occupied those countries. This decision reflected how cold-eyed realism drove the decision-making as the three leaders consigned lands and peoples either to a Western or Eastern bloc. Stalin proved a wily negotiator as he prepared to make permanent his hard-won territorial gains from the bloody war with Adolf Hitler.
As the war entered its final phase in Europe, both Roosevelt and Churchill acknowledged that Stalin would push his military forces as far to the West as possible; they understood that the Soviet dictator could impose his own social system “as far as his army can reach.” They recognized that Stalin wanted the Soviet Army to take — with furious fighting — the prize of Berlin. The dictator saw this as essential to provide him with optimal leverage to influence and reshape Germany, along with postwar Europe.
Yet Stalin’s desire for leverage and a sphere of influence did not mean he was unyielding when it came to places occupied by his troops.
Enter the Danish island of Bornholm. Located in the Baltic Sea, the island was situated in the middle of a strategically important shipping channel, which linked the Soviet Union to the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The Nazis occupied the island during the war, and Hitler had attempted to build gigantic heavy gun batteries, tasked with sealing off the approach to Soviet naval activity. This made Bornholm a site of critical strategic importance between East and West — and Stalin knew it.
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