Russia’s Strategic Imperative…

…circa 1914.

The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin.


In my introductory post on this book, I offered the following regarding the complimentary nature of McMeekin’s book to that of Frankopan’s Silk Roads:

My one disagreement – or maybe better stated, skepticism: McMeekin portrays the Russians as cunning diplomats and the British diplomats as dupes.  If I believe Frankopan’s analysis, British diplomacy knew exactly what it wanted and got it: Russia focused on Europe and not Asia; if I believe McMeekin, the Russians fooled the British regarding ultimate Russian objectives.

I am about half-way through the book, and so far I believe Frankopan.  My concern: is this so only because I read Frankopan first or is it so because Frankopan’s arguments are more compelling?  On this question, I try to remain open-minded.

At the time, my concern was basic: Great Britain, a tiny island, held an empire that spanned the globe.  Is it possible that this tiny land with no resources of its own was virtually completely inept in the art of diplomacy, in reading tea leaves, in understanding how to manipulate others?

Time to buy old US gold coins

I felt this not to discount Russian diplomats; I only felt that British diplomats couldn’t be so wrong at almost every turn. The Russian Origins of... Sean McMeekin Best Price: $5.22 Buy New $13.85 (as of 05:55 EDT - Details)

I am now much further along in the book, and am coming to the conclusion that – as important and valuable as I find much of McMeekin’s work – I think I lean toward Frankopan’s interpretation of events.  What has swung me on this is McMeekin’s description regarding the British attempts at Gallipoli; while this is a topic for a future post, I will offer a brief summary here:

Russia, being quite clear on her objectives to possess Constantinople and the Straits after the war, somehow got Great Britain to sacrifice tens-of-thousands of her sons in a purely altruistic endeavor – capture the Straits and access to it, then turn over to Russia this access to the Mediterranean, gratis.  Russia was able to trick Britain to attempt this even while offering virtually no support at the Black Sea entrance to the Bosporus at the time of the British landing.

It is difficult to believe.

Now, on to today’s episode….

McMeekin lays out thoroughly Russia’s interests in Constantinople and Austrian Galicia, while touching on Germany’s fears of her neighbor to the east.

Regarding the latter point first, Russia had over three times the population as did Germany; Russia’ army was triple the size of Germany’s; Russia’s economy was growing at ten per cent per year.  Of course, Russia had also recently had some military setbacks – most notably against Japan a few years earlier. The Silk Roads: A New ... Peter Frankopan Best Price: $6.42 Buy New $13.15 (as of 09:00 EDT - Details)

The Romanov Empire had grown by fifty-five square miles a day since 1683:

It was not hard to extrapolate forward a geopolitical map on which Russian territory included half of China, Afghanistan, northern Persia, Anatolia, Constantinople and the Straits, Austrian Galicia, and Eastern Prussia.

And this, for me, is where McMeekin runs headlong into Frankopan (and MacKinder): Britain intended to divert Russia from Asia by getting Russia to focus on Europe.

In the meantime, Germany had grown to be the greatest military power in Europe – defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871.  Germany’s literacy rate in the military was nearly universal, whereas for Russia it was about 30%.  Germany’s economy had also exploded in the latter half of the nineteenth century – surpassing even Britain’s and second only to the economy of the United States.  From pharmaceuticals to automotive to military hardware, Germany was a world leader:

The words Krupp and Skoda alone were enough to terrify infantrymen who might have to face Germans.

McMeekin discounts Britain’s and France’s interest in the Middle East and the future of the Ottoman Empire; in Britain’s case especially, they had already secured their desired prizes – Egypt and the Suez Canal.  Either the desires of these two pre-eminent European colonialists changed drastically within the first year or two of the war’s start, or McMeekin is seeing something that was never there.

Meanwhile, Russia was making plans to take Constantinople: The Lost History of 19... Jack Beatty Best Price: $1.89 Buy New $6.29 (as of 01:40 EDT - Details)

The mood of the time was well captured in a General Staff memorandum of October 1910 that outlined plans for seizing Constantinople: first the rail and telegraph lines to Adrianople and Ankara would be cut by “agents from the Christian population” (Macedonians and Bulgarians in Europe, Greeks and Armenians in Anatolia), whereupon Russia-friendly Christians in the city would “burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stambul”…

…a Muslim district blanketed with wooden houses.

Russian operational planning to seize Constantinople dates as far back as 1895-1896, in response to the Turkish massacres of Armenians at that time.  Nearly all Russian naval and army policy papers regarding an amphibious landing on Constantinople referred to the “annihilation of Turkish dominion.”

I recall from Jack Beatty and his book, The Lost History of 1914: How the Great War Was Not Inevitable, that in the years prior to the war, Russia was looking for external peace due to its very unstable domestic situation.  McMeekin sees things a little differently, but offers a clarification:

Stolypin’s famous 1909 remark that Russia needed “twenty years of peace” to complete her economic modernization in reality referred conditionally, like Sazanov’s professions of pacifist intentions, to the prospects of a European war on Russia’s vulnerable western borders.

But Russia’s skirmishes in the east and south would continue. And this was precisely the opposite of what Britain was after; and, it turns out, Russia focused on Europe once the war began.  It leaves one to ask – which “ally” manipulated the other into fighting the desired war?

Russia saw two weak and weakening empires to her south – Austro-Hungary and Ottoman.  She saw the Ottomans lose in the first Balkan War, with Italy, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Serbia and Greece all allied against the Turks; she saw Austro-Hungary stay out of the war, as Germany did not offer support.

Meanwhile, Russia also saw Turkey invite Liman von Sanders and more than forty German officers to command the Straits defenses; Russia’s European enemy now defending Russia’s target in the south.  Russia saw the British building naval ships for Turkey; these ships would virtually eliminate any hope of Russia taking major action in the Black Sea.

For Russia, the time for war was fast approaching.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.