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Imperial Russia's Diplomatic Goals in World War I

Дата публикации: 04 сентября 2007
Публикатор: Александр Павлович Шиманский
Рубрика: RUSSIA (TOPICS) - Imperial Russia →
Источник: (c) http://russia.by
Номер публикации: №1188905942 / Жалобы? Ошибка? Выделите проблемный текст и нажмите CTRL+ENTER!

Did Imperial Russia have feasible diplomatic goals during World War I?

Viewpoint: Yes. Russia's goals--to control the Turkish Straits, to expand its borders southward, and to continue influence in the Balkans--were realizable.

Viewpoint: No. Russia entered World War I because of the swell of pan-Slavism; it had no well-formulated diplomatic goals.


Like all the combatant powers at the onset of World War I, Russia expected to prevail in the conflict and developed comprehensive and far-reaching war aims. Many of these goals were long-standing. Since the eighteenth century, Russia had been trying to seize the Turkish Straits, its only access to the Mediterranean Sea and rich southern trade routes. Russian interests in Central Europe had moved from defending its western borders in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries to expanding into Polish territory in the eighteenth and attempting to create a hegemony over the Balkans in the nineteenth.
Russia's ambitions in the Balkans were its primary reason for going to war in 1914, but it continued to press for its other aims as well. Russia wanted to secure the Turkish Straits, expand territorially in Asia Minor, increase its ethnically Polish territories at the expense of Germany and Austria-Hungary, secure territorial expansion for its Serbian client state, replace Austrian control of Bohemia with an independent kingdom under the rule of a Russian prince, and restore the independence of several lesser German states subsumed within the German Empire after 1871.
To many students of Russian history, these aims were outrageous and unrealistic. Russia's principal goal--the acquisition of the Turkish Straits--had long been opposed by western Europe, especially by its prewar Entente partners and World War I allies, Britain and France. Gaining their acquiescence was a major challenge. Russian aims in Central Europe were intended to dismember Russia's main enemies, Germany and Austria-Hungary. But given the battlefield performance of the Russian army, these goals soon seemed impractical.
Other scholars, however, have argued that Russia's war aims, however ambitious, were not out of character with those of the other combatant powers. Germany looked toward broad hegemony over much of Russia's western borderlands, the Balkans, and the Middle East. The Germans also aspired to substantial territorial annexations in France, domination of Belgium and Luxembourg, major acquisitions in the colonial world, and huge financial indemnities. France wanted to recover territory it lost to the Germans in 1871, and it sought a partition of Germany. Austria-Hungary wanted the major role in the Balkans that forces of nationalism and domestic political problems had long denied it. The United States wanted the dissolution of the German and Austro-Hungarian monarchies and a fundamental reformulation of international relations. None of these powers, not even the victorious ones, got all they wanted. But neither the scope of their ambition nor the length of their lists of goals cast doubt on the feasibility of their aims.

Viewpoint: Yes. Russia's goals--to control the Turkish Straits, to expand its borders southward, and to continue influence in the Balkans--were realizable.

For decades, historians of Russia have agreed that its diplomatic goals during World War I were unrealistic and inconsistent with its military capabilities and strategic interests. These scholars point out that the Russian Empire was woefully unprepared in 1914 to prosecute a modern and sustained war against the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and Bulgaria) and that Russia was unable to convince its chief allies, the Entente Powers Britain and France, to accept Russian diplomatic objectives. While the Russian army suffered staggering battlefield losses, its allies refused to accept many Russian ideas for a postwar settlement, such as ceding the Austrian ports on the Adriatic Sea to Russia's Balkan client state, Serbia, or establishing Russian-led states in Central Europe on the territories of the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. By 1917 the pressures of Russian failures were so great that the Russian Imperial government--considered one of the strongest and most autocratic regimes in Europe--fell in days to a popular revolution. For many historians the collapse of the Russian Empire provides the clearest testimony to the futility of its diplomatic aims during World War I.

At the same time, however, Russian diplomats were able to achieve several important diplomatic breakthroughs during the war, and their record of failures was often not appreciably worse than that of either their American or European counterparts. Even Kaiser Wilhelm II and President Woodrow Wilson, who headed the most powerful countries participating in the war, Germany and the United States, fell far short of reaching their diplomatic goals during the conflict or in the peace that followed. Nor were Austro-Hungarian, German, or Ottoman diplomats any better than Russian diplomats at pursuing strategies that ensured the survival of their governments, all of which collapsed by the end of the war or shortly thereafter.

Russian diplomatic, military, and domestic policies during World War I were closely related but hardly identical. Russia's diplomatic victories often coincided with crushing battlefield reverses, while Russian diplomacy seems to have been weakest when Russian military power seemed strongest. The failure of the Russian government to supply the army, feed its population, or build a viable domestic support base--key issues in the 1917 revolutions--was hardly the fault of Russian foreign policy. Rather than asserting that foreign policy undermined the domestic position of the Russian Imperial government, it could be argued that Russian domestic policies created the circumstances under which it was impossible for the government to fulfill its diplomatic goals abroad.

Russia's diplomatic aims during World War I were often based on the prevailing assumptions of a pre-1914 European political landscape; wars were expected to be short, and extended wars among great powers seemed unimaginable. While some astute observers noted that new technologies and tactics might change the methods and duration of warfare, their views were ignored by most Europeans, who had not experienced a war involving all the great powers simultaneously for nearly a century. Within the pre-1914 context, the size of a state's army and the number of males eligible for military service were seen as far greater barometers of state power than the factors that later defined military strength, such as industrial and agricultural production or the ability to provision armies for long periods. When the diplomatic goals of Imperial Russia during World War I are viewed from the pre-1914 perspective, they appear realizable and consistent with those of the other powers participating in the conflict. Russia, after all, had by far the largest population of any European power and therefore the largest number of potential military recruits.

Throughout the war, Russian diplomats adhered to a conservative diplomatic strategy in keeping with traditional Russian goals and commitments, which differed from the highly ambitious plans of other great powers. Above all, Russia wanted to seize the Turkish Straits and positions in the Mediterranean. Achieving these objectives would solve two of the most vexing problems that had faced the Russian Empire throughout the nineteenth century: its dearth of warm-water ports that could be used year-round and its lack of unimpaired routes to the Mediterranean Sea. Here Russian diplomacy was strikingly successful. Although Britain and France had opposed the Russians' gaining access to the Bosporus and the Dardanelles throughout the nineteenth century, Paris and London agreed in the spring of 1915 to Russia's postwar acquisition of them, the city of Constantinople, and the adjacent littoral--a major policy change for Britain in particular.

In the Dardanelles Campaign of 1915-1916, the British attempted to seize Gallipoli and open the straits to Russian shipping. By contrast, on no fewer than four occasions in the previous century, Britain had lent military, diplomatic, and financial support to the Ottoman Empire to block Russian access to the straits. As recently as 1908, Britain and France had rejected an international understanding under which the straits would be opened to Russian warships in exchange for Russian recognition of the Austro-Hungarian annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Furthermore, Britain and France had agreed to cede the straits to Russia after the Germans inflicted heavy losses on the Russian army in 1914-1915 at Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes and captured 225,000 Russian soldiers.

While the 1914-1915 negotiations over the entry of Italy into the war as a member of the Entente alliance--which blocked the Russian client Serbia from gaining Adriatic ports that the Russians wanted to use as naval bases--left Russian diplomats nervous about the Allies' commitment to the postwar agreement, the Russians could be confident that they had won an historic concession. Even if the Allies reneged on the straits agreement, the Russians were confident that they would receive just compensation. This confidence was boosted in 1915, after the Russian army rapidly seized Ottoman territories in eastern Anatolia stretching from the Black Sea coast to the Caucasus, an action that fulfilled a long-term Russian strategic objective to extend the Russian borders southward. In addition, as Britain and France suffered in the stalemate on the Western Front, they became increasingly desperate to keep the Eastern Front against Germany open. As a result, Russian officials seemed certain of gaining additional concessions and firmer guarantees from these Allies in the postwar period.

In addition to seeking attainment of long-term goals, the Russians also had new political aims that arose from the changing relationships among the great powers in the decade before 1914. Russian diplomacy in World War I also aimed to reassert the empire's power in the Balkans and Europe in general. Russian prestige had been weakened by the reversals of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 and the Balkan crises of 1908 and 1912-1913. In these episodes Russia had been forced to back down--often by the threat of war from Germany--and accept international settlements that confirmed the position of Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, limited Serbian power, and gave no compensation to Russia. These settlements were a humiliation for Russia, which saw the Balkans as its natural sphere of influence and Serbia as a client state. Given these events, Russia's decision to mobilize its forces against Germany and Austria-Hungary during the Balkan crisis of 1914 fulfilled twin diplomatic objectives. First, the mobilization demonstrated that Russia was an important power in the Balkans whose interests could not be ignored. Second, the mobilization showed that Russia was willing to use all means to defend the interests of its friends. Any Russian policy short of mobilization would have demonstrated that Russia was not a great power in Europe--an outcome entirely unacceptable to the Russian government and important segments of society.

There is little doubt that Russian diplomacy in World War I rested on its army--the largest and most powerful in Europe in 1914, with 1.3 million troops in uniform and 5 million reservists. French war planners saw Russia as an important check on German power, forcing the German army to fight on two fronts simultaneously, and not just against France as had been the case in the 1870-1871 Franco-Prussian War. While Germany had been much wealthier than Russia for decades, Russian industrialization and construction of railway lines in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (often financed by French banks) had allowed Russia to reduce the gap between the two states and become the fifth-largest industrialized nation in the world. Shortly before the start of the war, Russia maintained an annual defense budget nearly equal to that of Germany. Despite heavy losses and the frequent inferiority of their weapons to those of the Germans, Russian soldiers fought tenaciously and forced the Germans to maintain a second and expensive front in the East for most of the war.

While Russian military power may not have been equal to that of Germany, it was far greater than that of either of the other European great powers it fought in World War I: the Ottoman Empire and Austria-Hungary. Those two empires governed heterogeneous territories marked by religious, ethnic, and linguistic divisions. Important communities in both empires--such as Armenians, Orthodox Christians, and Balkan Slavs--looked to Russia as their patron and aided the Russian army whenever possible. As Paul Kennedy notes, Austria-Hungary was so beset by ethnic division that it had to issue the orders to mobilize its army for World War I in fifteen languages. Neither Austria-Hungary nor the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to attack another European great power without the full support of Germany.

The diplomatic position of Imperial Russia in World War I was perhaps even stronger than the government's military position. After 1907 St. Petersburg could count on the support of two of the strongest nations in Europe, France and Britain. France invested millions of francs in Russia before 1914 and also provided the Russian government with a diplomatic bridge to its most bitter great-power rival, Great Britain. In 1907 Britain and Russia reached an agreement by which they resolved a host of long-running disputes from one end of Eurasia to the other. This agreement, and a conciliatory arrangement with Japan in the same year, permitted Russia to focus on Europe during World War I and not to worry about Russian interests in distant non-European regions. Russia was never forced to balance colonial and continental interests, a constant problem for Britain, France, and Germany.

Russia's freedom to focus on Europe illustrates the principal difference between its diplomatic goals and those of the other great powers. While Russia--along with Austria-Hungary--used wartime conditions to advance traditional diplomatic goals in regions close to Europe, the other powers (Britain, France, Germany, and the United States) pursued diplomatic objectives in Europe and extra-European regions vigorously. For these countries, World War I was a global war in which control of important trade routes, natural resources, and strategic territories and waterways was at stake worldwide. U.S. and German diplomatic goals were by far the most ambitious because both nations sought to change not only which countries controlled the world's political-economic system, but also the rules under which the system was administered. Although the United States won the war in military terms, President Wilson's vision for a new international system based on American liberal principles was not fully implemented after the war, and key parts of the Versailles Treaty that ended the war directly contradicted Wilson's plans. Similarly, Britain and France failed to meet their goal of decisively defeating Germany, and in less than a generation they had to contend with a revitalized Germany aiming to avenge its losses in World War I with a second global war.

When one compares Russia's diplomatic aims in World War I with those of the United States and the other European powers, they appear reasonable--even when one takes into account the greater financial and industrial capabilities of the United States, Germany, and Britain in relation to Russia in 1914. Russians did not aim to conquer the global political-economic system, achieve "their place in the sun," or reframe international political and economic norms. Russian diplomats stuck to the goals that guided their predecessors' actions for centuries: direct maritime access to the Mediterranean, expansion of Russia's borders southward, and continuation of Russian influence in the Balkans. Thanks to careful diplomacy, Russia stood to attain many of its diplomatic aims, especially control over the straits, at the end of the war.

French and British acceptance of Russian postwar control over the straits points to a larger truth about Russian diplomacy during World War I: military defeats and revolutions do not prove that Russian foreign policy was unrealistic. Those events resulted from the intersection of a constellation of factors, most of which were related to domestic or military problems outside the purview of Russian diplomats. If the Russian government had better managed these nondiplomatic factors, Russian diplomacy would have made even greater gains. Imperial Russian foreign policy set realizable goals and was consistent with those of the other powers that fought in World War I.

-- Sean Foley, Georgetown University

Viewpoint: No. Russia entered World War I because of the swell of pan-Slavism; it had no well-formulated diplomatic goals.

Carl von Clausewitz, the nineteenth-century Prussian theorist of war and diplomacy, succinctly explained the purpose of war: "war is the continuation of politics by other means." States go to war when they cannot achieve their political goals by negotiation or when they perceive the cost of war to be lower than the price they might pay as a result of negotiations. A state might, for example, want another state to disarm but find that the negotiations for that result would be so cumbersome and fraught with compromise--and the results so uncertain--that a quick and easy war might be desirable in comparison. War is supposed to be the result of careful political and diplomatic calculations; only when the cost of not fighting is higher than the cost of fighting should states go to war.

World War I is an excellent historical example of how politics and war can become disconnected. The diplomacy of Russia and the other belligerents was ruinously out of tune with the realities of power politics. Russia entered the war for the most frivolous and what proved to be the most unavoidable reasons. The Bosnian crisis of 1908, in which Austria-Hungary--backed by the military might of Germany--annexed Bosnia, had embarrassed the tsar's regime. This event came on the heels of Russia's humiliation in the 1904-1905 Russo-Japanese War and was followed by Austro-German diplomatic checks on the expansion of Russia's ally and client, Serbia, in the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913. The tsarist government felt that it could not afford another blow to its prestige. Thus, in June 1914, when Serbia provoked Austria-Hungary by responding to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in a manner the Austrians found unsatisfactory, the political tides of pan-Slavism drew Nicholas II and his government into a major contest of power, and he felt he could not afford to lose face. As a result, Russia entered the war with no preconceived aims, except to uphold the prestige of the realm.

In World War I, Russia could have gained domestic prestige only by meeting the challenges posed by its allies and enemies, not by pursuing its own goals. Austria-Hungary and Germany could and did dictate the terms of battle. Allowing one's enemies to do so is not an auspicious way to conduct a war. Nor is it a good policy to allow strategy to be dictated by one's allies. No alliance is guaranteed. Russia's common interest with France and Britain was a mutual fear of Germany, but Russian antagonism toward Germany was not a permanent condition. In fact, for centuries, Prussia/Germany and Russia had more in common with one another than Russia had in common with France and Britain. Russia, Prussia, and Austria had divided Poland in the eighteenth century, and in the nineteenth century Russia and Prussia/Germany had cooperated in stabilizing eastern Europe against revolution and other challenges to the status quo. In fact, the Russians and Germans had not fought one another since the Seven Years' War of 1756-1763. In 1914 Russia's strategy ought to have been to uphold stability in the region and to avoid being drawn into a major conflict in which it had no direct interests apart from prestige. Instead, Russia found itself defending Serbia, which had little utility as an ally, and overlooking its profound differences with France, a vigorous democracy whose citizenry was hostile to the tsarist regime and its values. In return, France could offer Russia nothing but financial credits. Russia entered the war as the result of flawed strategy and bankrupt diplomacy.

Russia could still have salvaged the situation if it had declared its honor served by coming to Serbia's aid and then quickly secured a separate unilateral peace with the Central Powers. Yet, in September 1914, Russia signed the London Declaration, in which the Allies pledged not to agree to a separate peace. Russia signed this document because the tsar and his ministers believed that the honor of the regime depended on showing its good faith to its allies. The price Russia paid for showing good faith was revolution in 1917.

In keeping with diplomatic tradition, France and Britain made pledges to Russia in return for its contributions to the war effort. In a series of negotiations that lasted from the beginning of the war until almost the collapse of the Russian Provisional Government in November 1917, Russia was promised Constantinople, the Turkish Straits, and defensive positions in the Aegean Sea. Russia also had plans to annex some of Germany's Polish lands and encourage the partitioning of Germany and Austria-Hungary into core states that would be neutral or favorable to Russia. One rather fanciful plan called for a Romanov prince to adopt Catholicism and become king of an independent Bohemia. Their willingness to cede Constantinople and the Turkish Straits to Russia was a measure of the Western Allies' desperation. After all, they had engaged in more than a century of diplomacy and fought the Crimean War (1853-1856) to prevent Russians from making these strategic gains. But at the same time many in the West, and even some skeptical members of the tsarist government, doubted that it would be easy for Russia to secure these gains after the war, especially after the Western Allies began military operations to seize the straits on their own in early 1915. Even by then, Russia's dismal performance in the war against Germany indicated that any postwar gains would come solely as the result of the victory of the Western Allies. Russia was sacrificing millions of its men and fatally undermining its regime for empty promises. It was a bad strategy.

Having fared so poorly at the old diplomacy in 1914-1917, Russia did not do much better in the "New Diplomacy" associated with President Woodrow Wilson, who moved the United States toward war with Germany with the promise of a new liberal democratic international order where nationalities could live in peace, harmony, and--most important--independence. These conditions essentially were a recipe for the dismantling of the Russian Empire, nearly half of which was non-Russian. After the tsar's abdication in March 1917, his successors were no more willing than he to countenance this radical change. Indeed, the Provisional Government retained the tsarist regime's annexationist war aims, particularly with regard to the Turkish Straits. Sharing those aims and remaining committed to the war, the Provisional Government compromised its prestige among the war-weary Russian population, contributing to its own downfall just months after the tsar's. Russia's final exit from the war in March 1918 left it without a trace of what its leaders had aspired to gain four years earlier and actually cost it a massive amount of territory--virtually everything it had acquired on its western frontier since the mid seventeenth century.

Russia's strategy and diplomacy in World War I were a disaster from the outset. The tsar entered the war to defend no vital national interest, and once in the war he failed to secure his goals. He fought on the side that in fact was antagonistic to his political and dynastic interests. He surrendered the strategic initiative not only to his allies, but even worse, to his adversaries. From his putative allies, he accepted empty promises and pledges of material support that rarely showed up. His successors did little better. Perhaps Clausewitz's admonitions might apply to Russia in World War I in this way: those who fail to follow the rules of statecraft will be crushed by the realities of power. Nicholas II did, and he was.

-- Phil Giltner, Albany Academy



On February 19 (March 4), 1915, the Minister of Foreign Affairs handed to French and British Ambassadors a Memorandum which set forth the desire to add the following territories to Russia as the result of the present war:

The town of Constantinople, the western coast of the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmora, and the Dardanelles; Southern Thrace, as far as the Enos-Media line; the coast of Asia Minor between the Bosphorus and the River Sakaria, and a point on the Gulf of Ismid to be defined later; the islands in the Sea of Marmora, and the Islands of Imbros and Tenedos. The special rights of France and England in the above territories were to remain inviolate.

Both the French and British Governments express their readiness to agree to our wishes, provided the war is won, and provided a number of claims made by France and England, both in the Ottoman Empire, and in other places, are satisfied.

"As far as Turkey is concerned, these claims are as follows:--

"1. Constantinople is to be recognized as a free port for the transit of goods [coming from Russia, and not going] to Russia, and a free passage is to be given through the Straits to merchant ships.

"2. The rights of England and France in Asiatic Turkey to be defined by special agreement between France and England and Russia are recognized.

"3. The sacred Mahomedan places are to be protected, and Arabia is to be under an indepent Mahomedan soverign.

"The neutral zone in Persia established by the Anglo-Russian agreement of 1907 is to be included in the English sphere of influence."

Source: The Secret Treatises and Understandings, edited by F. Seymour Cocks (London: Union of Democratic Control, 1918), pp. 19-20.



Paul du Quenoy, "With Allies Like These, Who Needs Enemies?: Russia and the Problem of Italian Entry into World War I," Canadian Slavonic Papers/Revue canadienne des slavistes, 45 (September/December 2003): 409-440.

Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (New York: Random House, 1987).

D. C. B. Lieven, Russia and the Origins of the First World War (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1983).

David MacLaren McDonald, United Government and Foreign Policy in Russia, 1900-1914 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992).

C. Jay Smith, The Russian Struggle for Power, 1914-1917: A Study of Russian Foreign Policy during the First World War (New York: Philosophical Society, 1956).

A. J. P. Taylor, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954).

Опубликовано 04 сентября 2007 года

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