The Big Lesson From the West’s Last Invasion of Russia

Foreign Policy, 03.03.2024
Theodore Bunzel, director jefe de Lazard Geopolitical Advisory
  • What the Allied intervention in the Russian civil war teaches us about Ukraine today.

Northern Russia must have felt bitterly cold to U.S. soldiers, even though nearly all were from Michigan. On Sept. 4, 1918, 4,800 U.S. troops landed in Arkhangelsk, Russia, only 140 miles from the Arctic Circle. Three weeks later, they were plunged into battle against the Red Army among towering pine forests and subarctic swamps, alongside the British and French. Ultimately, 244 U.S. soldiers died from the fighting over two years. Diaries of U.S. troops paint a harrowing picture of first contact:

We run into a nest of machine-guns, we retire. [Bolsheviks] still shelling heavily. Perry and Adamson of my squad wounded, bullet clips my shoulder on both sides. … Am terribly tired, hungry and all in, so are the rest of the boys. Casualties in this attack 4 killed and 10 wounded.

These unlucky souls represented just one prong of the sprawling and ill-fated Allied intervention in the Russian civil war. From 1918 to 1920, the United States, Britain, France, and Japan sent thousands of troops from the Baltics to northern Russia to Siberia to Crimea—and millions of dollars in aid and military supplies to the anti-communist White Russians—in an abortive attempt to strangle Bolshevism in its crib. It’s one of the most complicated and oft-forgot foreign-policy failures of the 20th century, captivatingly retold in technicolor detail by Anna Reid in her new book, A Nasty Little War: The Western Intervention Into the Russian Civil War.

The specifics of the conflict, which Reid brilliantly weaves alongside personal diaries from the participants, often feel otherworldly. Japanese troops occupied Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East. The mercurial French—at first the most hawkishly pro-intervention out of all the Allies—led the occupation of southern Ukraine, tussling with the Reds over cities now familiar to readers: Mykolaiv, Kherson, Sevastopol, Odessa. The British—who invested the most in the intervention, including 60,000 troops—were crawling all over the Russia’s fringes: defending Baku from the oncoming Turks, conducting naval sabotage against the Bolsheviks in the Baltics, and ultimately evacuating the Whites from Black Sea ports as they crumbled in the face of a Red Army onslaught.

The disturbing question hanging over Reid’s excellent book is whether the West is doomed to repeat history. The intervention failed, and if you squint hard enough, today’s intervention in Ukraine may appear similarly futile in the face of a vast and determined Russia with a seemingly endless well of materiel, manpower, and political will. It’s what the far-right flank of Republicans in Congress, Viktor Orban in Hungary, and former U.S. President Donald Trump would lead you to believe. A sense of hopelessness articulated by Edmund Ironside, the British commander of Allied forces in northern Russia during the intervention: “Russia is so enormous that it gives one a feeling of smothering.”

But despite the strong historical echoes, the differences between the two interventions are more instructive than their similarities. A close study poses perhaps an even bigger question: What conditions make for a successful foreign intervention? Yes, the Allies bungled things, but in fairness, they mostly failed because of what was out of their control, rather than what was in it. The most limiting factor was their feckless (and noxious) White Russian allies, a disparate group of anti-Bolshevik socialists and incompetent former Tsarist officers who were Great Russian autocrats at heart. They had the buy-in of neither the Russian population nor, critically, Tsarist Russia’s tapestry of ethnic minorities—from Ukrainians to Balts—whom they sought to restore under Russia’s heel.

The circumstances today are much more favorable. The United States and Europe have a unified and determined partner in Volodymyr Zelensky’s Ukraine, in a struggle with blinding moral clarity. Russia’s economy may be on wartime footing, but collectively the West has significantly more resources at hand. And the task—defending a motivated Ukraine against a hostile invasion—is much less ambitious than trying to topple the government of the largest country in the world. A sober comparison of the two interventions should, in fact, fortify Western resolve that it can see Ukraine through—as long as its own political will, waning now as it did in Western capitals then, doesn’t get in the way.

The critical ingredients of any foreign intervention are clear and achievable objectives, reliable allies on the ground, an assailable adversary, material means, and the political will to finish the job. On nearly every measure, the Allied intervention in Russia was fatally lacking.

Perhaps most striking about Reid’s narrative is that it’s often unclear what exactly the Allied troops were meant to do in Russia. Yes, all Western governments loathed Bolshevism and feared its expansionist and infectious potential. But beyond that, there was little in the way of shared strategy or purpose. In fact, Western troops were initially sent to guard railways and Allied military stores in northern and eastern Russia that they feared would reach German hands. But this was slightly complicated after Germany surrendered in November 1918. As George F. Kennan put it in his masterful volume The Decision to Intervene, the “American forces had scarcely arrived in Russia when history invalidated at a single stroke almost every reason Washington had conceived for their being there.”

Zealous British officers on the ground—egged on by hawkish ministers at home such as War Secretary Winston Churchill, who nearly depleted his own political capital advocating for the quixotic Russian adventure—soon took the initiative to actively intervene and fight the Reds. In other arenas, including southern Ukraine, the mission was clearer in support of the local White forces—though France quickly lost heart and sailed home in April 1919 after it suffered a series of setbacks and mutinies.

Encapsulating this ambiguity were instructions for the U.S. military intervention written personally in a July 1918 memo by President Woodrow Wilson, who was characteristically tortured by the decision and “sweating blood over what is right and feasible to do in Russia.” He opened the memo by warning that military intervention would “add to the present sad confusion in Russia rather than cure it”—yet then committed U.S. troops to aid the Czech Legion operating in Siberia and to northern Russia to “make it safe for Russian bodies to come together in organized bodies in the north.” Hardly clarifying stuff.

U.S. officers took these instructions quizzically. Gen. William Graves, in charge of the 8,000 doughboys in Siberia, was decidedly skeptical about the United States playing a role in the conflict and interpreted Wilson’s instructions as permitting him only to guard railways, not fight the Reds. He later wrote in his memoirs that he had no idea what Washington was trying to achieve. This was all to the chagrin of his more pro-interventionist British colleagues in Siberia, who instead proactively aided the Whites’ monstrously incompetent “supreme ruler,” Adm. Alexander Kolchak, a former head of the Russian Black Sea Fleet who incongruously found himself fighting deep in landlocked Siberia. (He was also, incidentally, a dead ringer for current Russian President Vladimir Putin.)

Which brings us to the White Russians. Perhaps the sine qua non of any foreign intervention, especially one as ambitious as the Western intervention in both Ukraine and in the Russian civil war, are allies on the ground. It’s the difference between the chaos that followed Western intervention in Libya and the successful intervention in the Balkans. On this score, the Whites failed miserably.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Beyond Kolchak, there was the overmatched Gen. Anton Denikin leading White forces in southern Russia, who dissembled to Allied governments about the horrific pogroms against the Jewish population of Ukraine perpetrated by Whites under his watch. And beyond operating across an impossibly large and disconnected front covering the entire periphery of Russia—a country of 11 time zones—the different White factions acted essentially as warlords, with little loyalty or coordination among them.

Just as fatal to the Whites was a conspicuous vacancy: any coherent or compelling ideology. Antony Beevor, in his fabulous new history of the Russian civil war, pins the White loss on both their lack of political program and fractious nature: “In Russia, an utterly incompatible alliance of Socialist Revolutionaries and reactionary monarchists stood little chance against a single-minded Communist dictatorship.”

Contrast all this with the Reds. They controlled the industrial heartland of Moscow and St. Petersburg, operating from the inward out with stronger interior lines of communication. It allowed Commissar Leon Trotsky—who, Reid notes, “blossom[ed] into a war leader of near-genius: shrewd, decisive and boundlessly energetic”—to hop on his armored train to shore up flagging fronts as the Whites advanced from the east and south. The Bolsheviks—though enacting ruinous economic policies and initiating the first waves of terror at home—were motivated and possessed a clear ideology that held, at least at that juncture, some appeal to the local population.

And, fundamentally, their will was much stronger than the Whites’ or the West’s. After the devastation of World War I, Allied governments feared the spread of Bolshevism but couldn’t bring their exhausted publics along with them. Here, the historical echoes are most troubling. Public support understandably flagged, and budgetary pressures mounted. As Britain’s Daily Express put it in 1919, in echoes of today’s Republican rhetoric in the United States: “Great Britain is already the policeman of half the world. It will not and cannot be the policeman of all Europe. … The frozen plains of Eastern Europe are not worth the bones of a single British grenadier.” Rolling White setbacks in Siberia and southern Russia were the nail in the coffin. Then, as now in Ukraine, foreign political support for intervention depended most on the sense of momentum on the battlefield.

The job of foreign-policy makers is to distinguish between what is in versus out of their control. To the degree that they intuit favorable conditions—allies, geography, the enemy’s vulnerability—then the task is to focus on and optimize the things they can manage: strategy and objectives, mobilizing political will, providing the materiel to support the effort, and coordinating with allies.

Despite the current pall of pessimism pervading Western capitals, today’s war in Ukraine presents some of the more propitious circumstances a policymaker could hope for—unlike those faced by the Allies during the Russian civil war. Ukraine is a worthy and competent ally, fighting to defend its territory with a highly motivated population behind it. The Ukrainian cause is a righteous one, with a Manichean quality to it easily explained to Western publics. While Putin’s personal will to win is strong, it’s clear by his actions and hesitancy to fully mobilize Russian society that he senses a ceiling on what he can ask from his population. Though Russia’s manpower and materiel are larger than Ukraine’s, the amount needed to keep Ukraine armed and in the fight is completely manageable. A $60 billion aid supplement from the United States—currently held up by far-right Republicans in the House of Representatives—is a pittance compared with the returns: holding the line on international norms; standing up for the Ukrainians and, in doing so, Western values; bogging down Russia in a strategic sinkhole and reducing its capacity to threaten the rest of NATO’s eastern flank; and fortifying the trans-Atlantic alliance. Today, Western capitals are much more united than they were in 1918, and defense coordination among them is strong. Though they can sharpen the shared sense of an endgame in Ukraine, everybody knows that the conflict will end in some sort of negotiated settlement—the questions will be on whose terms.

If the United States and its allies can avoid the pitfalls of the Western intervention in the Russian civil war—developing a clear long-term strategy, continuing to coordinate closely, and reinforcing domestic support by making the case to their own populations—then they have a real shot of prevailing over Putin. Given the auspicious conditions, the main, perhaps only obstacle to long-term success is the political will to see the job through.

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