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USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa


The USSR 101 articles intend to deepen the reader’s knowledge of the history of the USSR during the 20th century. The fundamental purpose of this series is to rebuild, from a historical point of view, the steps that have led to the creation of one of the main international actors during the 1900s, the relations with other countries and the factors that have determined its collapse.

USSR 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters:

  1. USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa

  2. USSR 101: The Building of the Eastern Block

  3. USSR 101: The Age of Khrushchev and the Riots

  4. USSR 101: From Competitive Coexistence to Détente with the US

  5. USSR 101: From Gorbachev to Yeltsin: the Fall of the USSR

USSR 101: Operation Barbarossa: The Turning Point of the World War II

The USSR felt safe from the Nazi menace after signing the Molotov - Ribbentrop Treaty, and was confident that it could spread its power to the West without difficulty.

Figure 1. Hitler versus Stalin: from collaboration to enmity [Image] - ArtStation
Figure 1. Hitler versus Stalin: from collaboration to enmity [Image]. ArtStation

Hitler's initiation of hostilities was aided by the Soviet agreement, and the invasion of Poland began on September 1, 1939. After that, the war was proclaimed, and the system of alliances was enacted. In September, the USSR advanced against Poland in accordance with the secret articles of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The Protocol was changed after the Soviet intervention: the German sphere's border in Poland was increased, giving the USSR power over Lithuania. In essence, all of Poland west of the Curzon Line was occupied by the Germans (Suny, 1998). As a result, Stalin was able to reclaim the regions that Poland had acquired from Bolshevik Russia in 1920-1921, territories that were home to Ukrainians and Belarusians. As a result, Stalin enlarged the Soviet Union's territory, beginning to draw a security line that separated it from Nazi Germany. Stalin thus combined Belarusian and Ukrainian areas under the Soviet banner in 1939 (Ibidem).

The USSR gradually implemented the secret protocol in the seven months between the invasion of Poland and May 1940. Stalin enacted his foreign policy with increasing vigour. It was a gradual operation that would end in August 1940, but it began in October 1939 with the goal of annexing the territories listed in the Secret Protocol. The Polish issue was quickly addressed, and attention was next directed towards the Baltic states (Andrews, 2018). It was not only the army that was deployed, but also the Communist Parties: in these countries, in fact, Russian minorities were already organised together in Communist Parties, thus Stalin was able to establish alliances with them through propaganda, threats, and political pressure.

Such a process began with alliances and culminated with annexation in the summer of 1940. Finland proved to be a stumbling block for Stalin. The Winter War began in November 1939 and continued until March 1940, when the Moscow Peace Treaty was signed. The Soviets wanted bases, islands, and peninsulas in Finland in order to gain a piece of land that would relocate the border at least 60/80 kilometres away from Leningrad, on the Karelia isthmus (Ibidem). This move served a geopolitical purpose: Stalin wanted to promote communism by including Finland as a Soviet country via the Finnish Communist Party. In Finland, the Soviets set up a communist government to challenge the already existing one.

Figure 2. War, debts and sacrifices [Image] - Redavangarde
Figure 2. War, debts and sacrifices [Image]. Redavangarde

The deficiencies in the Soviet army's preparation were exposed during the Winter War, leaving Hitler with a window of opportunity. He remarked that the USSR had had numerous crises and issues. The passage of the Germans into Finnish territory and the annexation of Bessarabia by the Soviets, which resulted in the formation of the Republic of Moldova, were just two of the areas of contention (Ibidem). The Bucovina region, which was populated by Germans and was not included in the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, was particularly overrun. On the other hand, the Russians were especially irritated by the fact that the Germans entered Romania in order to acquire oil wells, which were critical resources for the war to continue: in this way, a country that was especially strategic for the USSR passed under the Nazi rule. There were thus a number of issues that needed to be solved between Berlin and Moscow. Following the failure of the landing in the United Kingdom, Hitler was once again gripped by the terror of a possible war on two fronts. Hence, Hitler decided to negotiate again with Stalin to revise what had been agreed in 1939 (Chamberlin, 1943).

Hitler considered taking one more step to protect the Eastern Front, namely forming an alliance with the Soviet Union. In November 1940, Hitler recommended Molotov that he joined the Tripartite Pact, which was equally appealing to the Soviets since the USSR could establish its own worldwide sphere of influence by interposing itself between Europe and Asia (Kenez, 1999). This area of Soviet expansion stretched from Turkey's eastern border to India. The region of the globe that included Persia was offered to the USSR; additionally there was Afghanistan, another border undoubtedly held by the USSR and before that by the Russian Empire. On the other hand, India was too far away and never a target of Russian expansionism. In front of Hitler's "generosity," Stalin and Molotov made opposing demands: they sought Germany's collaboration to reclaim Finland entirely. German soldiers should have departed from Finland, but they should also have aided the USSR in reacquainting and dominating the area. Furthermore, Bulgaria, which was historically and culturally related to Russia, needed to fall under its influence for it to impose control over the Black Sea (Ibidem).

Figure 3. The meeting between Molotv and Hitler in 1940 [Photo] - Denik
Figure 3. The meeting between Molotv and Hitler in 1940 [Photo]. Denik

Hitler's attempt was simply to remove the USSR as much as possible from the continent allowing its ambitions to be unfolded elsewhere. Instead, Stalin aimed to avoid being driven out of Europe by remaining first and foremost on the Baltic: in fact, with regard to Bulgaria, Stalin underlined Russia's refusal to be evacuated from the Mediterranean (Ibidem). The Germans realised at the end of the discussion between Molotov and Hitler that there was no way to achieve a compromise since the Soviets were determined to remain in Europe. Exactly because of such awareness, Hitler felt compelled to conduct war against the Soviet Union. It was a decision that evolved over time, culminating in the concept of Operation Barbarossa, which would take shape on December 18, 1940, with the order to Wehrmacht to plan the invasion against the Soviet Union (Britannica, 2022).

Through Ukraine, the major lines of attack were three: Leningrad, Moscow, and Kiev (Ibidem). Even though the German advance was quick at first, the seizure of the major towns proved more difficult than anticipated. The local community, influenced by the party's patriotic propaganda, openly worked with the Soviet Red Army, and established groups of partisans who, aided by the Soviets, carried out frequent sabotage operations against the Wehrmacht. By early December, it was evident that the Nazi force would never be able to break past Moscow's defences, nor could it withstand the Soviet counter-offensive for long. The retreat began, and the Nazi army was instructed to alter its course and to proceed southwards, so as to capture Stalingrad and intercept supplies being sent there for the Soviets. This plan was likewise met with Soviet opposition, resulting in the Nazi surrender after a year of battle, with Wehrmacht troops devastated (Ibidem). The Soviet victory in Stalingrad, together with the setback at El Alamein in Africa, would prove to be the beginning of the end for the Axis.

Figure 4. The three German major lines of attack towards USSR [Image] - Zanichelli
Figure 4. The three German major lines of attack towards USSR [Image]. Zanichelli

The political-diplomatic consequences of the new German onslaught were already visible in August 1941: an Anglo-Soviet agreement resulted in the shared occupation of Iran, an essential transit bridge for supplies from the United Kingdom that powered the Soviet struggle. Meanwhile, with the implementation of the Lease and Lend Act on March 11, 194, a strong torrent of military aid to democracies had flowed from the United States, where Congress had abandoned its isolationist posture and begun the nation's rearmament since 1937 (Sakwa, 1999). On August 14, 1941, F.D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill met in Newfoundland to draught the Atlantic Charter, an unambiguous expression of America's intention to participate directly in the war.

Hitler's shift in strategy had the opposite impact of what he had hoped for in 1939. Stalin had been caught off guard by Operation Barbarossa, but it had also allowed him to gain a stronger relationship with France and the United Kingdom by portraying himself as a victim of Nazi attacks. From that point forward, the war's course shifted dramatically, and the Soviet assistance to the Allies' efforts was crucial.


  • Operation Barbarossa | History, Summary, Combatants, Casualties, & Facts. (2022, ). Encyclopedia Britannica; Retrieved April 8, 2022 from:

  • Chamberlin, W. H. (1943). Russia’s Role in the Postwar World. The Russian Review, 2(2), 3–9.

  • Kenez, P. (1999). A History of the Soviet Union from the Beginning to the End. Cambridge University Press; 2° edition

  • Sakwa, R. (1999). The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Union: 1917-1991. Routledge.

  • Suny, R. G. (1998). The Soviet Experiment: Russia, the USSR, and the successor states. New York: University Press

  • Andrews, E. (2018, September 3). What Was the Winter War? - HISTORY. HISTORY;

Image references

  • Figure 1. Hitler versus Stalin: from collaboration to enmity [Image] - ArtStation.

  • Figure 2. War, debts and sacrifices [Image] - Redavangarde.

  • Figure 3. The meeting between Molotv and Hitler in 1940 [Photo] - Denik.

  • Figure 4. The three German major lines of attack towards USSR [Image] - Zanichelli.



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