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Illusion of a friendly empire: Russia, the West, and Ukraine’s independence a century ago

Map of Ukraine entitled “World Peace in Ukraine!” published in Vienna by Christoph Reisser and Sons in 1919 or 1920
Illusion of a friendly empire: Russia, the West, and Ukraine’s independence a century ago
In December 2017, Finland will celebrate the 100th anniversary of its independence. Next year, the same grand jubilees will be marked in Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, and Latvia, which all emerged on the ruins of the Russian Empire. Ukraine, on the contrary, has just observed its 26th Independence Day, though in January 1918 the sovereignty of the Ukrainian People’s Republic (known after the acronym UNR) was proclaimed in Kyiv.

After World War I, the nascent Ukrainian state, which also tried to break away with the empire, did not manage to withstand several waves of the Russian Bolshevik invasion. Since 1920, most of today’s Ukraine fell under the communist rule for nearly seven decades, excluding western Ukrainian lands, which were incorporated into the Soviet Union later, during the Second World War.

The failure of the Ukrainian revolutionary statehood of 1917–21 was connected to a large extent with the fierce internal collisions of various social and political forces, the strength of invading Red troops, and the crucial role of Ukraine in the Bolshevik economic and geopolitical strategy.

However, one more major factor was the lack of recognition and real support of Ukraine on the part of the victorious powers in the wake of WWI. While the United States and the Entente (France and Britain) proclaimed the emancipation of enslaved nations as their chief political goal at war and during the peace talks, their program was not implemented fairly and systematically.

The Western leaders solemnly declared that an independent Poland was a necessary condition “of a solid and just peace, and of the regime of right in Europe.”[1] After the war, French Prime Minister and head of the Paris Peace Conference Georges Clemenceau was immensely proud of restoring the Polish state, whose partition by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the 18th century he labeled no less than “the greatest crime in history.”

“By the collapse of military Russia [in WWI],” Clemenceau writes in his memoirs, “Poland found herself suddenly set free and re-created, and then all over Europe oppressed peoples raised their heads, and our war of national defence was transformed by force of events into a war of liberation.”[2]

A poster devoted to the resistance of the newborn Ukrainian People’s Republic to the Russian imperialism, late 1917. Below are the words of the national anthem: “Our enemies will fade like dew in the sun, And we too shall rule, brothers, in our own land!” Source: State Archives of Lviv Oblast

However, when the Ukrainian issue arose in the British parliament in October 1917, a Foreign Office staff member responded with irritation that “we have never accepted the impossible principle that nationalities should decide their own sovereignty.”[3] In the post-World War years, the Ukrainian Directory, the highest governing body of the restored UNR, was denied recognition by the war victors. Moreover, it did not receive any aid from the Entente at all, though its resistance to the Red Army could substantially constrain the resources of the Bolsheviks and impede their further expansion.

What was behind this scorn for the Ukrainians’ right to independence a hundred years ago?

One can point to the rapprochement between Ukraine and the Central Powers (Germany and her allies) in early 1918 as a factor that gravely damaged the image of the newly proclaimed state in the eyes of Paris and London political circles. This factor, although important, cannot fully explain why not just certain Ukrainian political figures or parties, but the very idea of an independent state on the banks of the Dnieper was viewed unfavorably in world capitals after Germany’s defeat.

Map of Ukraine’s territorial claims presented by the Ukrainian delegation at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. Source: Virtual Museum of the UNR

Three mutually interfacing and reinforcing elements of Western political thinking can be put forward to explain this:

  1. the image of the “great” Russia as an indispensable major player of the European concert;
  2. the belief in the possibility of her democratic reconstitution;
  3. the poor awareness of the very difference between Ukrainians and Russians.
The contemporary Kremlin leadership has been exploiting some of these ideas not without success to this day while fighting a war in Ukraine. Russian propaganda has been working hard to mask the hybrid aggression as a chivalrous support of imaginary “New Russia” or “Little Russia,” randomly projecting the categories from the century-old imperial vocabulary onto the territory of the contemporary Ukrainian state. In a contradictory but persistent manner, Putin has alleged that Russians and Ukrainians are either “brotherly peoples” or cannot be differed from each other and constitute a “single nation.”

These statements should not be neglected, no matter how ridiculous they might seem.

Kremlin strategists are likely to expect that foreign countries will tolerate their aggressive actions against neighbors as a mere reconstruction of a Russia unfairly “divided” by evil forces in 1991 or even in 1917. In this vein, the illegal invasion and annexation of Crimea was understood by some recipients of Russian soft power as its “reunification” with the Russian continent.

But there are not only the current Moscow rulers who share archaic irredentist visions. In July 2017, Alexei Navalny, who is widely perceived in the West as a leading figure of the Russian “liberal opposition” and a “good guy” to succeed Putin and restore democracy, met face to face with the Russian war criminal Igor Girkin-“Strelkov” at the debate and agreed with him that there had been a gross problem of a “split Russian people” since the collapse of the USSR.

One hundred years ago, many Western leaders bought such kind of arguments.

Since 1914, the Allied Powers felt uneasy when fighting German “tyranny” side by side with the absolutist Russian monarchy. After the fall of tsarism, they were looking forward to the prospect of a new, democratic Russia. In reality, all the main opponents in the Russian Civil War were far from those pink dreams.

European and American leaders linked their expectations to the anti-Bolshevik Russian White movement, whose leaders confirmed their readiness to repay the debts of the fallen empire to foreign creditors. Following the Whites, many influential foreign politicians and experts saw the Ukrainian national aspirations as merely in-Russian “separatism.” For the British General Staff on the eve of the Armistice, which ended the world war, there was no doubt that Ukraine, though a state de facto, would sooner or later be in “some form of tie with Great Russia.”[4] Likewise, the leading British Slavist Alexander Bruce Boswell wrote in 1919 that Ukraine’s independence from both Poland and Russia seemed “almost impracticable.”[5]

The position of the United States remained even further from understanding East European realities. During the meeting on 30 June 1919 with Arnold Margolin, UNR’s representative at the Paris Peace Conference, US Secretary of State Robert Lansing tried to persuade him that Ukraine should recognize the authority of the “Supreme Ruler of Russia” Admiral Alexander Kolchak and join her troops with White armies:

“When it came to the Wilsonian principles [the idea of national self-determination promoted by then American President Wilson],” Margolin writes, “Lansing declared that he was aware of only one people of Russia and that a federation, like the United States, was the only way to reconstruct Russia. When I tried to argue that the existence of individual states, as entities, was the prerequisite of their federation, as in the United States, Lansing evaded the point and continued emphatically to call for the recognition of Kolchak.”[6]

It should not be left out that the memory of the 1861–65 American Civil War and the support of the Northern States by Imperial Russia affected the attitude of the Wilson Administration to the possibility of Russia’s disintegration.

While the Western powers relied on Russian anti-Bolsheviks, key White leaders firmly denied the right of Ukraine to any self-determination. For them, “Malorossiya,” or, literally “Little Russia,” as they called the country, was unimaginable not only as an independent state but even as an administrative and cultural autonomy. As the appeal of White General Anton Denikin to the “population of Malorossiya” showed in August 1919, he was not going, even for tactical reasons, to step back from his ultra-conservative ideas. The cornerstone of the latter was restoring the unity of the “split” Russian people, of which “Little Russians” were said to be a temporarily detached branch.

Denikin’s appeal “To the Population of Malorossiya” in the press of occupied Kyiv, August 1919. Source: Digital Library of Historical and Cultural Heritage

Upon the seizure of Kyiv by the Whites, their ideologist Vasily Shulgin repeated in the press his idee fixe about the “Southwestern Krai” (another imperial name for Ukraine) as “Russian, Russian, Russian.” In his usual jingo manner, Shulgin added that “we will never give it up to either Ukrainian traitors […] or Jewish butchers.”[7]

In pursuing his fundamentalist program of a “Russia, One and Indivisible,” Denikin weakened anti-Bolshevik forces and advanced their collapse. In the spring of 1919, Vasily Maklakov, a semi-official representative of Russia in Paris (he was appointed ambassador by the Provisional Government on the eve of the Bolshevik coup in the fall of 1917), warned against that strikingly outdated “great-power chauvinism, which is as typical for us as for [defeated and deposed] Napoleon on the island of St. Helena, where he insisted on maintaining all the ceremonies of the imperial court.”[8]

In the Ukrainian territory occupied by Denikin’s forces (and divided to three oblasts: Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Novorossian) in 1919, all Ukrainian schools and cultural institutions were effectively banned. Now even the circulation of books available in pre-revolutionary tsarist Russia was outlawed.

Denikin also demanded the Entente that no aid was provided to the Ukrainian leader Symon Petliura and his army. Those calls proved to be successful: the UNR never received material and military support from the great Western powers. At one moment, the French government announced its intention to send their military mission to help Ukrainians but did not keep the word. Moreover, the Allies shut out the materials bought by the Ukrainian Directory from the American Liquidation Mission from delivery to Ukraine.

“Kolchak was supported by the United States, [White Russian generals] Denikin and Yudenich by England, [Polish general] Galler by France… Petliura was not supported by anyone,” noted Arnold Margolin.


“England did not know, of course,” he went on, “that British arms so generously supplied to Denikin for his use against Bolsheviks would be used also against Ukrainians, against the legitimate aspirations of the people who were defending their land and liberty.”[9]

The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, 28 June 1919 by William Orpen. Source: Imperial War Museum

It is worth noting that, when working on their nation’s peace plans, the panel of American experts known as the Inquiry found that Poland, Ukraine, Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania all comply with the criteria of self-determination pursued by President Wilson.

In the following years, however, Baltic states and Ukraine faced similar obstacles on the way to the membership in the international community. Like the Ukrainian one, the delegations of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia were denied an official status at the Paris Peace Conference.

In August 1920, Wilson’s new Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby stressed that his government favored the respect for the “territorial integrity and true borders of Russia,” which would include the whole former Russian Empire, except for Finland, ethnic Polish lands, and Armenia.[10] Only later, when the defeat of White armies became clear, the great powers reluctantly recognized the right of the three Baltic states to independent development—given that their territories, in contrast to most of Ukraine, remained free of Bolshevism.

In 1940, when the Red Army occupied these three states, Moscow reminded the Americans of the position Washington had held twenty years ago. In its response to a US protest against the aggression, the Soviet government justified itself as the successor of the imperial Russia and stated that the Baltic nations were “reunified” with the USSR.

In the following decades, the United States would never recognize the Soviet annexation of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and praise their restoration in 1990. However, in August 1991 President George Bush would speak in the Ukrainian parliament in favor of a rebranded, “free” Soviet Union and warn the MPs against the perils of the prospective Ukrainian independence.

The idea of a “good great Russia” thus survived through the 20th century and has nurtured the imperial appetites of Kremlin celestials. For some Western politicians and observers, there has still been a temptation that Crimea, Donbas, or the whole Ukraine under Moscow’s domination could be an acceptable price for the cherished “normalization” and “democratization” of Russia. The century-old experience shows that this option does not work.

1. Denis Clark, “Diplomacy in the Apogee of Nationalism: Nation and State in Allied and American Public Statements on the Polish Question, 1917–18,” in Elka Agoston-Nikolova et al. (eds.), Unknown Fronts: The “Eastern Turn” in First World War History (Groningen, 2017), 75.
2. George Clemenceau, Grandeur and Misery of Victory (London etc., 1930), 180, 182.
3. David Saunders, “Britain and the Ukrainian Question (1912–1920),” English Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 406 (1988): 62.
4. Keith Neilson, “‘That elusive entity British policy in Russia’: The Impact of Russia on British Policy at the Paris Peace Conference,” in Michael Dockrill and John Fisher (eds.), The Paris Peace Conference, 1919: Peace without Victory (Basingstoke and New York, 2001), 69.
5. A. Bruce Boswell, Poland and the Poles (London, 1919), 165.
6. Arnold Margolin, Ukraine and the Policy of the Entente (New York, 1977), 116–17.
7. Kievlianin, no. 1 (21 August 1919).
8. Anna Procyk, Russian Nationalism and Ukraine: The Nationality Policy of the Volunteer Army during the Civil War (Edmonton and Toronto, 1995), 102.
9. Margolin, Op. cit., 177.
10. Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1920, vol. 3 (Washington, 1936), 168.
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