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Woodrow Wilson’s Ukraine Failure Foreshadows West’s Dilemmas

By James G. Neuger
March 14, 2014 7:00 PM EDT 120 Comments
A Russian flag inside the entrance to Crimea's regional parliament building in Simferopol on March 13, 2014.
Photographer: Filippo Monteforte/AFP via Getty Images
A Russian flag inside the entrance to Crimea's regional parliament building in Simferopol on March 13, 2014.

Woodrow Wilson didn’t care much for an independent Ukraine.

Wilson went to the post-World War I peace conference committed to “self-determination” for other parts of eastern Europe, while keeping Ukraine tied to Moscow in the hope that a rebuilt Russian empire would reverse the Bolshevik takeover.

Wilson’s tactics in 1919, and the West’s ambivalence toward Ukraine after it finally broke free of Soviet control in 1991, show the limited options available to the U.S. and its allies in response to Vladimir Putin’s claim -- backed up by armed force - - on Ukraine’s southern region of Crimea.

“Catherine the Great conquered the Crimea in the 18th century just to make Russia a great power,” said Carole Fink, emeritus professor at the Ohio State University and author of “Cold War: An International History.” “Putin is responding to the tumult in Ukraine in a similarly great power strategic fashion.”

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The next act in Crimea’s history comes tomorrow, when voters in the majority Russian-speaking region decide whether to sever links with Ukraine’s central government and pledge allegiance to the Kremlin. Western powers have denounced the hastily organized referendum as illegal.

Some 59 percent of Crimea’s 2 million inhabitants are ethnic Russians, incubating the same conflicts between majority rights and minority rule that bedeviled the nation-builders -- and empire-dismantlers -- at the Paris peace conference after World War I.

Statehood Clamor

That war felled the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, bequeathing to the Allied victors a panoply of ethnic and cultural identities clamoring for statehood. The peace pitted Wilson’s “imperative principle” of self-government for formerly subject peoples against what the U.S. president dismissed as the European diplomatic ritual of drawing lines on maps in secret.

Wilson was less principled on Ukraine. His opposition to a sovereign Ukrainian state was backed by the British and French, supporters of anti-Bolshevik forces in the civil war that followed the communist seizure of power in Moscow in 1917.

British Prime Minister David Lloyd George said he had glimpsed a Ukrainian only once in his life “and I am not sure that I want to see any more,” Margaret MacMillan wrote in her 2001 book, “Peacemakers.”

While the Paris peacemakers bestowed statehood on the likes of Czechoslovakia and Hungary, Ukraine was left to be fought over by Poland and Russia. Poland seized swathes of Ukraine’s territory and the rest became part of the Soviet Union when it was founded in 1922.

Wilsonian Moment

Nor were Wilson’s ideals extended to the African, Middle Eastern and Asian colonies of European powers.

One supplicant inspired by what Wilson called “the sacredness of the right of self-determination” was Nguyen Tat Thanh. The man later known as Ho Chi Minh petitioned the conference to grant Indochina independence from France. Wilson never replied, according to “The Wilsonian Moment,” a 2007 book by Erez Manela, a Harvard University history professor.

Ukraine’s proximity to Russia in geography, culture and commerce, and its distance from allied capitals, continues to heighten the Kremlin’s sense of national interest and give it greater leverage. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s rebuke of Russia’s pursuit of “unilateral geopolitical interests” this week was both a denunciation and acknowledgment that there is little that can stop Putin from using force.

Liberator Putin

The question now is whether Crimea’s probable vote for attachment to Russia will ignite secessionist sentiment elsewhere in eastern Ukraine, with Putin posing as the liberator of ethnic Russians eager to shake off rule by the central government in Kiev.

The evidence is mixed, said Tetyana Malyarenko, a law professor at Donetsk State University of Management in eastern Ukraine. The area around Donetsk is unlikely to rebel, she said, because it “is comparatively rich, comparable with Kiev, with a growing middle class and young people sharing western liberal values.”

In Luhansk on Ukraine’s eastern fringes, separatist fervor is stronger. Malyarenko said that coal-mining territory tends to feel ignored by the central government and has “no strong local economic elite, interested in Western markets.”

Linguistic Map

The ethnic and linguistic map matters because long after minority protections were enshrined in the industrial world’s constitutions, politics in Ukraine remains defined by the duel between Ukrainians in the west and the Russian-speaking minority in the east.

Country-wide, Ukrainians make up 78 percent of the population and Russians 17 percent, according to the latest census, in 2001. The ratios flip in Crimea, consisting of 59 percent Russians, 24 percent Ukrainians and 12 percent Crimean Tatars, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group once persecuted by Stalin.

Ukraine’s parliament played cultural politics in the immediate aftermath of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych’s ouster from office, only for the tactic to backfire. Lawmakers on Feb. 23 sought to downgrade the status of Russian as an official language. That drew the ire of President Putin, who claimed that the rights of ethnic Russians were under threat.

Language Law

Less than a week later, pro-Russian forces appeared in Crimea, seizing airports and other facilities, even though the interim president eventually blocked the new language law. Today, the peninsula is effectively cut off from the Ukrainian mainland.

The Kiev parliament’s aggravation of Russian sensibilities highlights the crisis facing Ukraine, said Gwendolyn Sasse, a professor of eastern European politics at Oxford University.

“It doesn’t justify the actions Russia has taken, but it does justify concerns about the current interim government in Kiev,” she said. “What we currently see is not a national unity government.”

Crimea was the crisis that didn’t happen in the 1990s. Moves to grant it greater autonomy were under way when the Soviet Union collapsed, and the weakened Russia under Boris Yeltsin was unable or unwilling to press the claims of the region’s Russian speakers.

How today’s bolder Russia will advance those claims after the referendum is a matter of speculation.

Putin is unlikely to follow Wilson’s advice, in a speech to Congress on Feb. 11, 1918, that “peoples and provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were mere chattels and pawns in a game.”

Then again, Wilson didn’t always follow it either.

To contact the reporter on this story: James G. Neuger in Brussels at jneuger@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Alan Crawford at acrawford6@bloomberg.net John Fraher

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