The explanation that the Non-Aggression Pact was an agreement in which Hitler ultimately exploited Stalin may not necessarily be accurate. There is even the supposition that Stalin was deeply hurt on a personal level by Hitler's betrayal. But in reality, the Pact was sufficient to prevent the Soviet Union and Germany from coming into conflict until almost a full two years later. These were two years during which Hitler needed to focus his efforts on facing the British and French while strengthening Germany's key alliances with Japan and Italy.
Likewise, the Soviets benefited in the intervening time both by reaching gradual armistice with the Japanese and by enjoying the full extent of the Pact's guarantees to unchecked Soviet reclamation of the Baltic States, and its share of Poland. Though "Nazi Germany occupied the remainder of Poland when it invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941," the Soviet foothold in Poland would beget its postwar occupation. (HMM, 1) As opposed to the 6-year occupation enjoyed by the Nazis there, Poland would fall under Soviet control for the next five decades.
More importantly though is the evidence that would stack up during this two-year period of Non-Aggression, that the Soviets genuinely anticipated German victory in the war and sought in no way to intervene there with. Hitler's invasion of Poland was quickly followed by Russia's invasion of its contracted half of Poland, with the two nations returning to negotiations even before the month of September had ended. Here, they signed a second Non-Aggression Pact which demarcated spheres of control in Poland along a natural border and articulated a contract with more long-term implications. (Roberts, 15) For two years, this compact was sufficient in keeping both powers in balance in the region.
An in fact, Stalin was so convinced of the eventuality of Nazi victory that Russia actively participated in non-militant support of Hitler's ambition, aiding the Third Reich with natural resources, economic support and a promise of non-intervention in its European growth. This was a promise which Hitler needed in order to begin the German invasion of Western Europe. The Pact functioned to institute such a promise, with Stalin essentially consenting to entitle Germany its imperial ambitions in return for Hitler's restraint in obstructing Soviet expansion. Essentially, this is an indication that Germany and Russia sought to gain equivalent goals in their Pact with one another.
Thus, "in response to Hitler's stunning defeat of France in June 1940, Stalin moved to consolidate the Soviet position in the Baltic. Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were invaded, occupied and then formally incorporated as territories of the U.S.S.R. A significant Soviet military build up in the region also began to take shape." (Roberts, 18)
To Stalin, this was merely a fulfillment of the promises which Hitler had ceded in the Pact. Moreover, his confidence that Germany would soon achieve the full scope of its military ambitions in Europe caused Stalin to erroneously predict the end of the war. This was sufficient imperative for Russia to begin the process of claiming its spoils for supporting the winning side.
The conception that Russia had entered the original Pact at a point of weakness might more accurately be described as a moment of opportunity for the reviving imperialist nation, now under communist leadership. Just as Germany saw its territorial expansion as an entitlement to the re-establishment of historical boundaries, the Soviet Union targeted the aforementioned Baltic States, as well as Poland, Rumania and Finland in an attempt to re-establish authoritarian ties which also had historical precedent. (Roberts, 19).
This would prove a miscalculation on the part of Stalin, at least insofar as it concerned his relationship with Hitler. In 1940, its enablement of the German invasion of France began a period of negotiation, in which Hitler offered the Soviet Union terms of agreement for a four-way pact between the Axis Powers and Russia. (Roberts, 19) The agreement failed to satisfy Russia though, as it limited its entitlement to expansion in the Baltic and Balkan states. The limitation was not an accident though. Even as Stalin assumed that the two nations had developed mutual but non-intervening spheres of imperial influence, Hitler had grown intensely wary of what an expanded Soviet Union represented.
In particular, the Soviet aims in Rumania, a nation rich in natural resources such as oil and timber, caused Hitler enough concern to re-focus the ideological message which pertained to the Russians. (Roberts, 19) The anti-Bolshevik sentiment which had previously been a key aspect of Nazi jargon once again began to return in late 1940 to German public discourse. The threat of a Jewish/Communist conspiracy emerging from the expanding Soviet borders began to surface in Nazi propaganda, signaling a return to the public image campaign against the U.S.S.R.
When the two nations signed the pact in 1939, Russia and Germany entered into an agreement which instructed that "should disputes or conflicts arise between the High Contracting Parties over problems of one kind or another, both parties shall settle these disputes or conflicts exclusively through friendly exchange of opinion or, if necessary, through the establishment of arbitration commissions." (Halsall, 1) In June of 1941, the agreement would be breached and dismantled by Hitler's ultimate decision to turn its hostilities directly on Russia. Stalin's reliance upon the Non-Aggression Pact for its stake in the spoils of a war which it had yet to fully engage would prove just the opportunity that Hitler needed to surprise Moscow. Indeed, Stalin would continue to seek its expansion without provoking Hitler.
This would show Stalin to be somewhat naive as historians and critics have contended. In one regard, it can be assessed that by attempting for so long to extend its policy of Non-Aggression with a clearly belligerent partner, Stalin provided a major advantage to Hitler's blitzkrieg style war as the Third Reich partnered with Rumania and pushed its tanks across the Russian border. The Russian army took dramatic losses during the first year of this conflict, with its lack of readiness functioning as an extension of Stalin's general unpreparedness for Hitler's betrayal. The Nazis made great advances through the Soviet Union, and likewise forced a reversal of nearly every gain that the U.S.S.R. had made during two years of expansion. The Baltic States quickly fell under the sway of Nazi ambition even as Hitler advanced to Leningrad and Moscow. (Roberts, 20)
However, even as it began to face the reality of a long and costly struggle with German, Stalin would stand behind his agreement to the Non-Aggression Pact "on grounds that it had given the U.S.S.R. time to prepare for war with Germany. The Soviet Union did gain a respite in which to prepare for war. In June 1941 Stalin gambled that he could extend this respite, perhaps into 1942." (Roberts, 20) Within the short-term context of the war itself, it can be assessed that Stalin was wrong in his wager. But it may perhaps be fair to assess that history bears Stalin out in the long run.
The German invasion of Russia would prove to be the bigger of miscalculations than Stalin's trust of Hitler. All evidence suggests that had Hitler been willing to compromise with Stalin, the two nations may have been partners in dividing the spoils of World War II. Certainly, every overture made by the Soviets between 1939 and 1941 would indicate that Stalin wished for such an outcome. Instead, Hitler saw the Soviets as a direct threat to the Third Reich's ultimate goal of imperial continental dominance and, believing his deception would be sufficient to defeat Russia with its guard down, attempted an enormous feat. Germany would fail in its goal, and suffer defeats in Russia which would significantly turn the tide of war against Hitler, constituting the first retractions of German borders since the collapse of the Weimar Republic.
Halsall, P. trans. (1997). Modern History Sourcebook: The Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact, 1939. Modern History Sourcebook. Online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1939pact.html>
Holocaust Memorial Museum. (2005). Invasion of Poland, Fall 1939. Holocaust Encyclopedia. Online at http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/article.php?ModuleId=10005070>
Roberts, G. (2001). From Non-Aggression Treaty to War: Documenting Nazi Soviet Relations, 1939-41 Geoffrey Roberts Explains the Fateful Sequence…