The Legacy of White Foreign Policy
By Allison Abrams
"Current Russian foreign policy finds itself faced with the very same problems that the Whites tried unsuccessfully to solve from 1917-20: retaining great power status and imperial ambitions at a time of decline and disintegration," remarked Anatol Shmelev, Researcher, Russia/CIS Collection, Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and Title-VIII Supported Research Scholar, at a Kennan Institute lecture on 15 December 1998. Shmelev was joined in his discussion on the White movement's foreign policy and its parallels with the current situation in Russia by discussant Vladimir Brovkin, NATO Research Fellow, Program Coordinator, United Research Centers on Organized Crime in Eurasia (UReCOrCE), American University, and former Title-VIII Supported Research Scholar, Kennan Institute.
The ultimate goal of White foreign policy was defined in the slogan, "a great united Russia." This policy both defined the White movement and united the various anti-Bolshevik factors, and for these reasons was strictly adhered to despite the difficulties it caused. White foreign policy makers, unable to see the changes both the revolution and the end of the war wrought, sought to preserve imperial Russia and its foreign policy despite a weak administration and the lack of a strong military with which to enforce this policy. This aim of a restored Russia, primarily motivated by geopolitical considerations, problems of national security, and strategic concerns, eclipsed the basic goal of the White movement--the struggle against the Bolsheviks, commented Shmelev.
Shmelev noted that the Whites began their struggle not against the Bolsheviks, but against the "Germano-Bolsheviks." They viewed the Bolsheviks as German agents who would disappear of their own accord after the war, and therefore did not feel it necessary to separate the war against Germany from their conflict with the Bolsheviks. The Whites' belief that the Allies thought along the same lines proved to be an important misconception, which the Whites came to realize after the armistice ending World War I was signed and Allied interest in intervention tapered off, remarked Shmelev.
The Allied powers maintained an apprehensive attitude toward the Whites in part because many in the West viewed the Whites as reactionaries, who had shown little sign of democratization or popular support, but also partly due to White foreign adventurism. Shmelev maintained that in addition to military aid, the White movement hoped for moral encouragement from the Allies, in the form of recognition of their government. In addition to opening lines of credit and uniting various anti-Bolsheviks elements, the Whites expected recognition to secure treaties that were made with preceding Russian governments, which could have potentially expanded Russian territory into areas that would threaten Allied interests. One example of this was the Whites' continued insistence on the annexation of Constantinople and the straits.
Instead of trying to alleviate Allied fears and ensure support, the Whites continued to be more concerned with Russian territorial unification and expansion, commented Shmelev. He remarked that this mind-set also explains the Whites inability to come to terms with the breaking away of the border regions, including Finland, the Baltics, and Ukraine, and the lack of attempts to induce them to intervene in the civil war, which many have speculated could have produced a different outcome. The Whites felt that the splintering of "Russia" would lead to economic, political, and military inviability of the border regions, which would result in their subjugation by hostile foreign powers, Shmelev remarked.
The real legacy of the White movement, Shmelev concluded, is that the "great united Russia" concept forms a powerful consideration in the formulation of Russian foreign policy across temporal and ideological boundaries. This is especially important to bear in mind in viewing current Russian foreign policy.
In his comments, Brovkin agreed that this "continuing great power ambition of Russian rulers" is truly one of the legacies of the White experience. He also remarked that he is inclined to compare the years 1919 and 1999, as the same feeling that Russia is in need of a "strong hand," is present now in Russia, as it was in 1919. Brovkin noted that the Whites were originally greeted as liberators who would save Russia from the chaos and anarchy that came with the beginning of Bolshevik rule. However, instead of returning law and order to Russia, the nation was "split into pieces with only the pretense of a national government." Brovkin remarked that he is not predicting that this will occur in 1999, but that this cannot be excluded as a possibility.
Brovkin also reflected on the importance of the role that Allied intervention played in the Russian civil war. He noted that the White government was in actuality only a "virtual government"; a government lacking any structure or real administration. For this reason, Brovkin contended, Allied intervention played a marginal role in the failure of the White movement as a whole, as the Whites were unable to take advantage of Allied aid due to corruption and the collapse of authority in their own government. Shmelev agreed that the domestic failures of the Whites were certainly the key to their overall failure, and their foreign policy must be considered within this context.