Vladimir Putin published an essay last year stating that Russians and Ukrainians were “one people.”
He wrote: “I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.” Thirteen years earlier, in a 2008 meeting with President George W. Bush, Putin went further, telling Bush that Ukraine was “not a nation.” But Putin’s assertive claims have long been contradicted by Russia’s most-notorious 20th–century leader, Joseph Stalin — a man whose empire Putin aspires to reclaim and whose brutality he often imitates.
Seven years before his death, in preparation for the Soviet Union joining the newly formed United Nations, Stalin advanced the proposition that Ukraine was an independent state.
His pronouncement came about during the conference that established the UN in San Francisco in the spring of 1945. There, Stalin demanded that Ukraine be admitted to the body as a separate, distinct nation with all the rights and privileges that come with full membership, including its own ambassador and participation as a member state in all UN sessions. Stalin’s stance initially grew out of the Dumbarton Oaks conclave, which was held in Washington a year earlier, where the four sponsoring nations of the UN — Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and China — met to draft the UN Charter.
At the Washington meeting, Stalin issued a surprising ultimatum on the matter of member states. He contended that the 16 republics of the Soviet Union, including Ukraine, should all be admitted as separate countries to the UN. Though he would not admit it, he was pragmatically (some say cynically) concerned that if he did not get these extra 16 votes in the body, the other partner states, including the Western European bloc, the Latin Americans, the African territories, the Middle Eastern nations and the Asian lands, would regularly outvote his nation.
Britain and the US opposed his proposal on the grounds that these 16 republics were not autonomous lands. This left Stalin’s proposition in abeyance. Later, in February 1945, Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Stalin held a meeting in Yalta to finalize a deal on the UN. There, the three men ironed out the last details for the conference in San Francisco to set up the organization. By now, Stalin dropped his demand for his 16 republics. Instead, he insisted that only two be enlisted in the new body: Ukraine and Belarus.
His argument for both states was that they had borne the most agony, devastation and sacrifices of World War II, so they rightly deserved recognition as sovereign lands. His proposal, on the face of it, may have been a sham, as these two republics were still extensions of the Soviet imperium, but nonetheless from the world’s perspective, once they were in the UN, they would be treated as independent entities. Stalin hardened his position, making clear that unless these two admissions happened, he would back out of the UN conference.
Roosevelt gave his sign-off to the arrangement, with one proviso, that the assembly in San Francisco, rather than the participants at Yalta, ratify the inclusion of these states. Nobody at the time regarded that as an insurmountable problem. But once the meeting commenced, Stalin’s emissary to the conference, his foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, faced difficulties in gaining approval for the entry of the two nations. He had to fight tooth and nail to gain their admission. He threatened to hijack the meeting if Russia did not get its way. Adding to his troubles, the 20 Latin nations at the conference, who had remained in the background, abruptly put forward their own ultimatum, insisting that one of their own brethren, Argentina, also become a UN member.
The Soviets angrily opposed this idea. Stalin heartily disliked Argentina because of its pro-Nazi leanings during the war. But the Latins remained defiant. They told the organizers that if they did not get their way on the issue of Argentina, they would cast all of their 20 ballots against the Soviets’ two countries, assuring their defeat. Such a rebuff, the US feared, would drive the Soviets from the conference. On the other hand, if the Latins were thwarted, they might pack up and depart San Francisco themselves.
American officials came up with a last-minute deal. Washington said it would stick by the Soviet Union and support the entry of Belarus and Ukraine, but at the same time collaborate with the Latin coalition and support Argentina’s entry, thus assuring Latin support for the admission of Belarus and Ukraine. Molotov publicly lambasted Washington for its stance on Argentina. Still, the conference went ahead and, by a large margin, voted in favor of the US position, leaving the Soviet foreign minister isolated.
Now what was going to happen? Would an indignant Molotov leave San Francisco and ruin the UN conference? Or would he stay? He decided to remain. The votes of these two lands were presumably too important to the Soviet Union to be sacrificed just to reject Argentina.
Ukraine’s membership in the UN has since then held steady for almost eight decades. And a series of Soviet and Russian leaders, including Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev, Yuri Andropov, Mikhail Gorbachev, Boris Yeltsin and Putin, for 21 years, all in turn, accepted its legitimate standing within the guardian organization. Today, Putin’s own claim that Ukraine is a Russian territory is all but impossible to square with his country’s 77 years-long support for Ukraine’s legitimate member status at the UN.
Stalin got what he wanted and, none, save Putin, ever reversed him. Yet Stalin created his own Frankenstein by placing Ukraine in the UN, where it soon evolved into its own sovereign land. Putin is now coming on too late and too frantically and too cruelly to destroy what Stalin, Putin’s role model, created.
It is his war of impossibility.
Stephen Schlesinger is the author of three books, including “Act of Creation: The Founding of The United Nations,” which won the 2004 Harry S. Truman Book Award. He is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in New York City and the former director of the World Policy Institute at the New School (1997-2006) and former publisher of the quarterly magazine, The World Policy Journal. In the 1970s, he edited and published The New Democrat Magazine; was a speechwriter for the Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern; and later was the weekly columnist for The Boston Globe’s “The L’t’ry Life.” He wrote, with Stephen Kinzer, “Bitter Fruit,” a book about the 1954 CIA coup in Guatemala.
Thereafter, he spent four years as a staff writer at Time Magazine. For 12 years, he served as New York State Governor Mario Cuomo’s speechwriter and foreign policy adviser. In the mid 1990s, Schlesinger worked at the United Nations at Habitat, the agency dealing with cities.
Schlesinger received his B.A. from Harvard University, a certificate of study from Cambridge University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He lives in New York City.