A Nasty Little War: The Western Intervention into the Russian Civil War

Image of A Nasty Little War: The Western Intervention into the Russian Civil War
Release Date: 
February 6, 2024
Basic Books
Reviewed by: 

“The author’s conclusions on the long-term effect of the intervention on Russia’s current internal political and foreign policy viewpoint is fascinating.”

Most Americans have no idea that the U.S. invaded Russia in an attempt to overturn the Russian Revolution. As part of a larger western intervention that involved Britain, France, and even Japan, the United States from 1917–1920 participated in a sweeping and ultimately unsuccessful military operation across the breadth of Russia to at first prevent, and then overturn, the Bolshevik Revolutionaries that overthrew the Romanov dynasty and took Russia out of World War I. In this long overdue history, the author provides the first complete politico-military history of this forgotten expeditionary effort.

When the Bolsheviks first came to power in 1917, the first World War was reaching its climax. All of the warring parties were nearing exhaustion, with the collapse of the Russian Army and the abdication of the Tsar just the first of what was anticipated to be the crumbling of the old regimes of Europe.

Although the United States had entered the war, any significant contribution to the Allied war effort was not expected for at least a year. The Allies initially sent troops into Russia at first in a vain attempt to keep them in the war, and then, when it was clear the Russians were simply walking away from the conflict, to keep the Germans from obtaining Russian war material. The initial efforts collapsed when Lenin reluctantly accepted the onerous Brest-Litovsk Treaty, taking Russia completely out of the war and freeing dozens of German divisions for their final offensive effort in the spring of 1918.

The Western powers faced a number of challenges as they shifted their focus to overthrowing the “Red” Bolsheviks. The murder of the Tsar and his family left a considerable power vacuum that various potentates, wannabe warlords, and Imperial generals tried to fill while appealing to the western powers for arms, money, and Allied troops and eventually became known as the “White Russians.” The Allies themselves could not totally agree on an overall strategy or desired outcome and even though almost 200,000 troops at some point intervened in the growing Russian Civil War, they were often committed piecemeal and were scattered from Archangel to Vladivostok with no integrated command structure or overall strategic goal.

As the various “White” and “Red” factions built up their forces following the defeat of Germany, the Allies found themselves in the middle of numerous conflicts for local control and had a challenging time determining friend from foe.

As the author chronicles, the colorful cast of characters that tried to establish themselves as a legitimate ruler presented myriad bad choices to the Allied powers, and their inability to decide on who would be the alternate government to the Bolsheviks essentially doomed their efforts from the beginning.

The opening of the Versailles Conference in 1919 coincided with the climatic year of what was now a full-blown civil war in Russia between the Reds and Whites. As the victorious Allied powers met to redraw the map of Europe and try and influence the dissolution of three of the great dynasties of Europe, the issue of what to do about Russia continued to be a controversial topic.

Some politicians, notably Winston Churchill, took a strong anti-Bolshevik stand and lobbied for continued intervention to effect regime change in Russia and restore some semblance of a more moderate democratic government. Other politicians were content to let the Russians fight their own civil war, concerned more with new nationalist movements in the rubble of the Hapsburg Empire and the level of punitive measures to impose on Germany as it was struggling with its own political turmoil after the abdication of the Kaiser.

As the Allied powers continued to grapple with the changes in Europe and went through the first of many “Red Scares” going into 1920, the intervention finally collapsed as most politicians lost interest, soldiers demanded to go home, and the growing internal struggles in Ireland diverted British attention. In the United States, the incapacity of Woodrow Wilson due to a stroke paralyzed the American stance on Bolshevik Russia, which eventually morphed into diplomatic isolation that would continue until FDRs first Administration.

Whether the intervention could have succeeded is a question left to the reader. If the Allies had not been diverted by the heaving fighting of 1918 and a general war-weariness, a more concerted effort might have been mounted. The failure of the intervention and the haphazard approach indirectly contributed to the general mood of isolationism and disdain for war that came to dominate Western foreign policy during the 1920s and 1930s, perhaps indirectly contributing to the appeasement of the next generation of dictators in Germany and Italy.

The author’s conclusions on the long-term effect of the intervention on Russia’s current internal political and foreign policy viewpoint is fascinating, as Vladimir Putin’s regime seems equally capable of praising the White and Reds to push their narrative of Russia’s eternal glory and place in the world. This volume is very timely as the specter of another war over many of these same battlefields continues in the Russo-Ukraine War.