History is a succession of actions and consequences. The significance of an action isn't always immediate, and in the case of the Russian withdrawal from World War I, it appeared to benefit Germany at first. However, in the long run, the terms of the Russian withdrawal would come back to haunt Germany. In Russia, the withdrawal led to civil war and forced the Allies to defend the eastern front.
Setting the Scene
Russia entered the war in 1914 badly prepared. Only nine years earlier, in 1905, a series of revolts and uprisings resulted in the tsar having to concede some power and form a parliament. When war broke out, Russia was a country filled with political tensions, but peasants and workers rallied to the call to defend Mother Russia. The Russian army's advance stopped the German's plan for a swift victory by forcing the Germans to deploy troops on the eastern front. However, the Russians lost at least 250,000 men in 1914 and by the following year, the German army forced a partial retreat. Although the Russian army had a number of successes in 1916, the war created food shortages and a loss of work on the home front, leading to unrest. Added to this, there were unfounded rumors that mystic and royal family adviser Rasputin, and the tsarina were German spies.
The Catalyst for Withdrawal
By the end of 1916 some 1,700,000 Russian soldiers were dead. As 1917 dawned, riots and mutiny forced Tsar Nicholas to abdicate in February. The new socialist government led by Alexander Kerensky hoped to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal, but neither Germany nor Russia's allies accepted this. Russian soldiers stopped obeying officers' orders and during the summer of 1917, Russian soldiers deserted in droves. The soldiers returned home to support the October revolution, which took Russia out of the war.
The Treaty Of Brest Litovsk
The Germans agreed to let the Russians negotiate a peace treaty. Lenin, leader of the Russian revolution, sent Trotsky, his second in command, to the Polish town of Brest-Litovsk to make the negotiations. Trotsky refused the terms of the treaty initially, but had to sign in March 1918 when the German army responded to his delaying tactics by resuming an invasion of Russia. The treaty forced Russia to give up Finland, Poland and the Baltic states plus a third of its agricultural land and three-quarters of its industries. The harshness of the treaty, which took so much of Russia's means of economic survival, set a precedent that the Allies used when imposing reparations on Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles.
Russia's Civil War
The terms of the treaty unleashed a civil war in Russia that became a battle between Whites and Reds. The White Russians were Tsarists who wanted to continue supporting Britain, France and the newly-joined U.S. The Bolshevik Red army opposed them and eventually drove thousands of White Russians into exile. The Red army's victory gave Russia a sense of being a strong military power that could stand up to western powers. Historian Dr. Jonathan Smele suggests this is the root of Russia's Cold War stance.