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Better off without Russia Putin says the U.S. planned Russia’s partition in 1918. It’s true. (And Lenin was on board!)

Source: Meduza
Alexander Zemlyanichenko / AP / Scanpix / LETA

Last week, at a press conference with 500 journalists, Vladimir Putin reiterated his suspicions about American intentions toward Russia, recalling that one of President Woodrow Wilson’s advisers once endorsed the partition of Russia, writing more than a century ago: “It would be better for the whole world if a state in Siberia and another four states emerged in the European part of what is now greater Russia.” The quotation is real — it belongs to Edward House, Wilson’s informal chief adviser on European politics and diplomacy during World War I. To find out more about America’s proposal to carve up the Russian Empire (and to get some much-needed historical context), Meduza turned to historian Alexander Etkind, who recently authored a book about William Bullitt, the U.S. diplomat sent to negotiate with Lenin on behalf of the Paris Peace Conference. It was Bullitt who devised the plan in 1918 to partition Russia.

Washington averted Russia’s partition before suggesting it

In 1917 and 1918, two revolutions and then the start of a bloody civil war plunged Russia into chaos. In March 1918, the Bolsheviks exited the war, signing a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers. The deal threatened to flood Germany with resources just as it was losing the wherewithal to continue fighting, encouraging some among the Allies to support a Japanese invasion of Russia from the east.

Alexander Etkind told Meduza that Woodrow Wilson and Edward House resisted this plan for three reasons: (1) They nurtured “romantic” affinity for Russia that was fashionable in the early 20th century; (2) On purely racist grounds, they opposed an Asian invasion of a white European territory; and (3) On geopolitical grounds, they feared strengthening Japan by endorsing a scheme that would grant it access to the natural riches of Siberia and the Urals.

In negotiations, Wilson and House impeded progress on the Japanese invasion plan and diluted it with different conditions, such as limits on the Japanese invasion force to 10,000 men and a proposal to have Czechoslovakian troops advance simultaneously from the west.

Lenin endorsed America’s plan to partition Russia, but Wilson dropped it

The concept of breaking up Russia into smaller independent states was the product of President Wilson’s broader thinking about self-determination, Etkind told Meduza. Modeled on the creation of the Balkan states from the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Wilson envisioned border demarcations, followed by referenda on which territories belonged to what state, followed by elections and the formation of governments, and ending with recognition by the League of Nations.

The Wilson administration tapped a diplomat and journalist named William Bullitt to travel to Russia and normalize relations with the Bolsheviks. In Petrograd, Bullitt spoke to Grigory Zinoviev and Maxim Litvinov before meeting Vladimir Lenin in Moscow. This trip occurred in April 1919 when the Bolsheviks were at their most vulnerable during Russia’s Civil War.

Trying to craft a plan that would satisfy all sides of the conflict, William Bullitt proposed the partition of the former Russian Empire into 23 parts. Some of these new nations, like Finland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states, already enjoyed international recognition. Others would have been new, like Southern Russia, The Urals, Siberia, and Tatarstan. The Bolsheviks would have received control over Moscow, Petrograd, and eight surrounding provinces.

Lenin agreed to Bullitt’s plan and signed an accord pledging his participation in a conference to be held in Oslo with representatives from all 23 “states.”

When Bullitt returned to Paris to get presidential authorization to move forward, however, Woodrow Wilson suddenly fell ill. Etkind told Meduza that Wilson may have suffered his first stroke at the time or perhaps the U.S. president was merely reluctant to endorse so monumental an initiative. Without Wilson’s support, the plan to break up Russia and end the civil war collapsed.

Etkind says Vladimir Putin probably fails to appreciate all the complexities of America’s “partition plan” for WWI-era Russia. At the same time, even if he grasped the history better, Putin likely wouldn’t thank the White House for preserving a unified Russia.

The deeper meaning hidden in Putin’s recent allusions to Russian history, says Etkind, is the president’s apparent panic about a new wave of “decolonization” that will trigger the Russian Federation’s own dissolution.

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Interview by Semyon Bashkirov

Summary by Kevin Rothrock

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