05/30/2014 09:59 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Ukraine: What Would Churchill Do?

FDR Presidential Library & Museum/Flickr


Would Winston Churchill have sent troops in to stop Vladimir Putin's grab for the Crimea? Those still calling for military action love to draw parallels with Churchill's early and unyielding opposition to Hitler during the run-up to World War II. They are, however, citing the wrong Churchillian chapter (and verse).

Look not at 1938 but at 1919. Churchill's words and deeds regarding Russia in its post-Revolutionary chaos after World War One are the key. As Secretary of State for War in the war's immediate aftermath, Churchill desperately wanted Great Britain to stop "Bolshevism" militarily by supporting the anti-Bolshevik forces battling what was essentially the newly-Bolshevized Russian army. Did he support military intervention? Yes, but with powerful reservations. Might he have sent in British troops today? Never. Would he have rallied Europe and America to jointly send troops? Conceivably. As a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, however, he might well have embraced economic sanctions as the most powerful weapon he could wield against Putin. After all, Churchill's greatest non-military priority in 1919 was to dissuade the British government from officially recognizing the Communist regime and beginning to trade with it. (In this, he failed. Britain resumed commerce with Russia in May 1920).

What Churchill never would have done would be to mistake Vladimir Putin invading the Crimea for Adolf Hitler invading the Sudetenland. Churchill understood power and the difference between a grasping despot and an epically-fortified dictator poised to take over the world.

Churchill stood up to Communism long before he stood up to Nazism. And with good reason, though with far greater nuance. In a letter that he drafted to Prime Minister David Lloyd George in February 1919 (but did not ultimately send), Churchill's prognostication for Russia's future resonates with our own moment to a disconcerting degree:

Russia will certainly rise again, perhaps very swiftly, as a great united empire determined to maintain the integrity of her dominions and to recover everything that has been taken away from her. While this process is going on, Europe will be in a perpetual state of ferment. The belt of little States we are now calling into being will be quaking with terror and no doubt misconducting themselves in every possible way.

Britain, "ought to...try and keep alive the Russian forces which were attempting to make headway against the Bolsheviks," Churchill proclaimed at a War Cabinet meeting on February 12. Lloyd George, however, resisted (and even belittled) Churchill's advocacy. While leaving in place the 14,000-or so British troops already on the ground in Russia (a remnant from the Great War), Lloyd George refused to send reinforcements, or further armaments, or even very much in the way of orders.

This was not Winston Churchill's style. More than anything, Churchill wanted a coherent plan laid out for Great Britain in Russia. "It seems to me most urgent for us to frame and declare our policy," he had written to Lloyd George in a letter that was sent on January 27.

Evacuate at once at all costs' is a policy; it is not a very pleasant one from the point of view of history. 'Reinforce and put the job through' is a policy; but unhappily we have not the power. ...Therefore, we must confine ourselves to modest limits. At present we are extending our commitments, curtailing our contributions, and not even maintaining our own men.

In fact, Churchill believed the Western Powers, as one, should declare war on the Bolsheviks. For this, however, he found virtually no support anywhere. Absent such a declaration of war, Churchill accepted that evacuating the remaining British forces and leaving Russia to its fate was inescapable. But Churchill knew that fate could be influenced. He demanded a strategic design for Britain's withdrawl, with a substantial investment of arms and money left behind to bolster the anti-Bolsheviks, after British troops were gone.

Churchill wrote to Lloyd George on March 14:

You and President Wilson have, I fear, definitely closed your minds on this subject and appear resolved to let Russian affairs take their course...You are the masters and you may, of course, be right...It is my duty, however, to warn you of the profound misgiving with which I watch the steady degeneration of so many resources and powers which, vigorously used, might entirely have altered the course of events...We shall nevertheless be drawn, in spite of all your intentions, into the clutches of the Russian problem...and we shall then bewail the loss of much that is now slipping through our fingers unheeded.

Churchill's take on the Ukraine, specifically, is fascinating and echoes instructively. "Profiting by the fact that German troops were rapidly withdrawn after the Armistice, and no other ordered force took their place, [the Bolshevik armies] advanced rapidly and overran the whole of the Ukraine," Churchill told the House of Commons in a speech on March 26. (How familiar this sounds.) The Ukraine, Churchill added bemusedly, "has not yet fully experienced the joy of Bolshevik rule and therefore the people are to some extent under the first influence of the disease." Yet, even as he advocated waging war on Bolshevism, Churchill remained painfully prudent about the delicacy of attacking any part of Russia, particularly the Ukraine, warning the West against any "rash interference or meddling, which would enable the Bolsheviks to rally to themselves perhaps even a patriotic movement."

"The Bolsheviks destroy wherever they exist," he concluded, before the assembled MPs. "By rolling forward into fertile areas, like the vampire which sucks the blood from his victims, they gain the means of prolonging their own baleful existence."

The point is that Churchill, while possessing a terrible clarity about the carnage that a Bolshevik Russia would ultimately wreak, understood the trickiness of attempting to seize unpleasant events in Russia and bend them to the West's will. "It would not be right for us to send out armies..." he acknowledged in a speech in London on April 11, 1919. "If Russia is to be saved, it must be by Russian manhood, but all our hearts are with these their splendid struggle to restore the honour of muted Russia, to rebuild on a modern and democratic basis the freedom, prosperity, and happiness of its trusted and good-hearted people."

Ninety-five years later the world again (or, perhaps, still) watches and waits. For almost a century, "Russian manhood" has not had a particularly good time of it restoring the honour of "muted Russia." With Churchill's help they might have had their best chance in 1919. With Churchill's wisdom we might yet help them now.

Books by Barry Singer: