ANN: H-German Forum -- First World War -- Bobroff (December 2014)

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Russia and the Origins of the First World War

Ronald P. Bobroff, Oglethorpe University

            The Russian government in July 1914 reacted to developments in a fashion that transformed a local Balkan war into a continental conflict.[1] Russian leaders, however, did not act in a vacuum.  While concerns about the sovereignty and security of Serbia and about Austrian intentions in the Balkans played their roles, by the summer of 1914, the Russian leadership acted in an atmosphere of real distrust of Germany that had built up over a decade of misunderstanding and rivalry. A string of diplomatic crises increased Russia’s suspicions of German intentions in the Near East, a region of strategic, economic, and cultural interest to Russians. Vital trade relations between the two were increasingly strained as Russia grew to resent German economic power. In this context, Russia perceived German manipulation of Austria during July 1914 and thought that the only way to preserve its prestige in Europe, to slow German penetration into a region vital to its interests, and to prevent a German move for hegemony in Europe would be to deter action by the Central Powers through a strong show of resolution via the mobilization of its army. While these measures increased the threat of a war Russia did not want in 1914, it felt only such a demonstration could make an impression on rival leaders. The failure of the Russian deterrent helped lead to the outbreak of the Great War.

            The debate over Russian motivations has been as long as the broader debate over the origins of the war. In the 1920s, early Soviet works, including Mikhail Pokrovskii's, blamed Russia for starting the war in order to obtain the Turkish Straits – the Bosphorus and Dardanelles.  During the Stalinist era, the trend in Soviet historiography shifted to treating Russia as a victim of colonial exploitation. In the wake of Fritz Fischer’s interrogation of German internal factors, Dominic Lieven subjected the tsarist realm to the same treatment in his Russia and the Origins of the First World War (1983), but he found the Fischer thesis wanting in Russia’s case.  Perhaps the biggest debate recently has been again over the role of the Straits in Russian policy.  Sean McMeekin has argued that the Russian leadership manipulated most of the other powers of Europe into a war that would facilitate Russian seizure of the waterway.  He overstates, however, the Straits’ role in Russian thinking, failing to incorporate a broader range of motivations into his interpretation. It is worth noting that in other recent works on Russian policy toward the Ottoman Empire, neither I nor Michael Reynolds deal directly with the July Crisis, which I know in my case and believe in Reynolds’ case to be because we don’t believe that the Straits played a direct role in Russia’s deliberations that summer.[2]

            To explain Russian thinking, this essay will examine long-term developments that radicalized Russian thinking, discuss a set of factors that mitigated the desire to take strong measures, and conclude with direct factors leading to the militarization of Russian diplomacy in the final crisis.  The first long-term development to note is the growing hostility toward Germany.  The string of crises starting with the March 1909 German ultimatum to Russia during the Bosnian Crisis raised concerns among many in St. Petersburg about German intentions.  Yet Minister of Agriculture A. V. Krivoshein welcomed rapprochement with Berlin, believing that Russia had to accommodate itself to reality.  While détente seemed possible during the November 1910 meeting in Potsdam of German and Russian leaders, the Balkan Wars of 1912-13 soured that hope.  Krivoshein and the new foreign minister, Sergei D. Sazonov, saw a German hand in Austro-Hungarian obstinacy.  The crisis that blew up over the assignment in late 1913 of General Otto Liman von Sanders as the new head of the German military training mission to the Ottoman Empire sealed Russian suspicions of Germany, as his influence there appeared a direct threat to Russian interests.

            This diplomatic evolution was reinforced by economic tensions. Every ten years, Russia and Germany renegotiated the treaty governing their mutual trade. This was particularly important as Germany was Russia’s biggest trading partner from the 1890s. In 1904, the treaty was renewed with tariffs that heavily favored Germany. Prince Bernhard von Bulow’s tactics, which raised the specter of the end to German benevolent neutrality in the Russo-Japanese War, politicized their trade relations, creating a great deal of resentment.[3] Krivoshein sounded very hostile in correspondence about this in late 1912, and indications in 1914 that Germany would not compromise made this worse, inside the government and out.

            Beyond this frustration with Berlin, a second long term development operating in Russia was a growing willingness to use military measures to back diplomacy, much as Samuel R. Williamson., Jr., has shown for Austria-Hungary and David Stevenson has argued more broadly.[4] After several years of Pacific posturing in the wake of the defeat of the Japanese, Russia engaged in limited military posturing during the Balkan Wars. The army performed a trial mobilization right before the outbreak of fighting and during the First Balkan War mirrored Austrian army reinforcement with the retention of the outgoing year of soldiers. The foreign minister also had become bolder. When it appeared that Bulgaria might break through Ottoman defenses and enter Constantinople, Sazonov pushed for the preparation of a detachment of soldiers that could be sent there quickly lest Sofia try to use the capture of the Ottoman capital to achieve dreams of a restored Byzantium and threaten Russian interests at the Straits. But such a move would not have directly involved the other great powers so was only a limited step forward. When near the end of 1912 the ministers discussed a proposal by army district commanders to respond to the continuing tension with Austria-Hungary by further strengthening units along their common border, Sazonov and Prime and Finance Minister V. N. Kokovtsov opposed measures that would increase the threat of fighting among the great powers.[5] There were still real limits to the lengths the civilians, and even War Minister General V. A. Sukhomlinov, were willing to go.

            During the Liman von Sanders Crisis, however, Sazonov was now willing to go further. While waiting for a resolution of the affair, Sazonov suggested in January 1914 that Russia might seize Ottoman Black Sea ports to force the Sultan’s hand. With Germany at the center of the crisis, however, the threat of continental war was far greater. That Sazonov might entertain such a risk, one that the military leadership counseled against given the uncertainty about support from the Triple Entente, speaks to the length he had traveled in considering the use of force to bolster his diplomacy.

            A third development was the loss of voices for moderation. Prime Minister P. A. Stolypin had insisted on the need for peace while Russia recovered from the Russo-Japanese War, and he maintained that general line through to his assassination in September 1911. His replacement, Kokovtsov, followed a similar policy until his February 1914 dismissal, caused in part by a desire of the tsar and other ministers for Russia to maintain a stronger posture.

            In contrast, there were a number of reasons for Russia to hold back from war in 1914. First and perhaps foremost, the army and navy were both still in the early stages of major expansions. The Great Program, approved months before the First World War in order to add more than a half-million men to the Russian army, had years still to run. The war minister, right before the July Crisis heated up, privately got word to Sazonov that “even with France’s support we would find ourselves until 1917, and perhaps even until 1918, in a position of indisputable inferiority to the combined forces of Germany and Austria. Consequently, we should do everything in our power to avoid war.”[6] Things were little better with the naval buildup as the forecast two squadrons on the Baltic Sea would not be ready before 1919, and slow Russian building would mean that once the Ottoman Empire took possession of the dreadnoughts being built in Britain, Russia would face inferiority on the Black Sea until 1915 at the earliest.

            Uncertainty about Great Britain also worried Russian leaders. London had resisted all attempts by friends and rivals to obtain a commitment about engagement or neutrality in a future war. In the winter of 1914, in discussions during the Liman von Sanders crisis, Sazonov argued that only a clear statement from the British would deter the Germans from intervening, but all the ministers agreed that with that not forthcoming, no measures threatening war could be taken. Sazonov repeatedly but in vain pushed in 1914 for turning the Triple Entente into a Triple Alliance, but he was unable to even get the British to negotiate energetically for a naval agreement between the two. In the July Crisis, no one knew if Britain would participate in a war that started in the Balkans.

            Finally, concerns about the Turkish Straits actually served as a deterrent to war, in contrast to the argument advanced by McMeekin. Planning for an operation against the Straits was happening, but preparations were in their early stages. Land and sea units were not collected in July 1914 for action, and major exercises to train for such a mission were scheduled only for the autumn of 1914, leaving no forces operationally prepared. The generals believed that taking Constantinople required beating Germany and Austria-Hungary first. According to the accounts that we have of the ministers’ discussions in late July, the Straits were not discussed. As another sign that Sazonov was not seeking to push Europe into a war for the Straits, when the war did break out, Sazonov endeavored to keep the Ottomans out of the war as long as possible, not draw them in. So while the Russians worried about German intentions in the Near East, interest in the Straits was a factor that militated against war.

            So while several good reasons existed in July 1914 to follow a cautious path, the Russians employed diplomacy backed by military measures. In the immediate crisis, several reasons existed for the decision. One reason was certainly Serbia. The Austrian ultimatum appeared to threaten Serbian sovereignty, and given the long history of Russian interests in the region, Russia’s prestige in Europe appeared to be at stake.

            A second factor was French support. With the rise of Raymond Poincaré at first to the premiership in 1912 and then to the presidency of France the next year, French support for Russian interests was renewed. Poincaré visited St. Petersburg in the days before the ultimatum’s delivery, and while the text of the note was unknown, there were enough rumors and intelligence about Austrian intentions that the allies’ leaders could have talked about the prospects for cooperation. The French president was clear in his toasts about the French commitment to its alliance responsibilities. And during the period that the French leaders were sailing back to France and largely out of touch, French ambassador Maurice Paléologue vehemently pressed for and supported Russian inclinations to stand firm. Such support, regardless of its legitimacy, could only have reassured the Russian government. Third, Austria-Hungary’s new belligerence alarmed the Russians. The Austrian ambassador had reassured Sazonov in mid-July that nothing immoderate was in the works, so when the harsh ultimatum was revealed, the subterfuge on top of the short deadline made Austrian actions appear all the more bellicose and compromise unlikely.     

            Of more consequence, however, was the fourth factor – Germany. As has been shown, the Russian leadership had already grown quite suspicious of Germany and the threat that it posed to Russian interests not just in the Near East but in Europe as a whole. Sazonov immediately told the tsar that the ultimatum must be the fruit of coordination between Berlin and Vienna. In the Council of Ministers’ meeting on 24 July, talk of Germany’s drive for hegemony in Europe dominated the discussion. Sazonov argued that the ultimatum was likely drafted under direct German influence and he told the meeting that if Russia did not resist “Germany’s armored fist” now, German demands would only grow.[7] Krivoshein agreed and said after the meeting that Russia ought to prepare for “military operations” if it wished to stop Germany.[8] The service ministers agreed, and the council decided that a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary would be prepared if negotiations failed to hold Austria back and also to begin the arrangements associated with the Period Preparatory to War. Voices for moderation were gone, and the tsar agreed to these recommendations not just for a diplomatic response, but one backed by strength.

            Hopes that a partial mobilization would have some effect on Vienna dimmed as it became clear that Germany was doing nothing to hold Austria-Hungary back. With the Austrian declaration of war on Serbia on 28 July, the move toward partial mobilization commenced. The measure’s limited and diplomatic nature was stressed by Sazonov as he tried to reassure Berlin that these measures were not directed against Germany. He held up as further evidence of Russia’s desire to negotiate that even after the declaration of war, Russia was not withdrawing its ambassador from Vienna. But as news filtered in of German military preparations and then Germany demanded that Russia cease its military preparations lest Germany have to mobilize, Russian suspicions of Germany were confirmed and war with Germany now seemed inevitable. Thus Sazonov and the generals agreed that general mobilization, not partial, was crucial. The tsar famously prevaricated, shrinking before the prospect of another war, but with so much evidence against Germany, Sazonov was able to persuade Nicholas II to order general mobilization on 30 July.

In these ways, then, Russia accepted war. Russia did not stumble into war, nor engineer it for its own gain, but turned to military measures as a show of strength that it hoped would support its diplomatic effort. Much appeared to be at stake in July 1914: the independence of Serbia; Russian prestige and honor; its position as a great power in Europe; and a balance of power in Europe that would prevent German hegemony. While some of these concerns had arisen before, Russia had not stood as firmly because its leaders had not agreed that it was yet necessary or even possible. Only after Germany’s repeated challenges to Russia in both diplomatic and economic arenas and after a hawkish shift in the position of Russian leadership to one ready to back negotiations with force, did Russia make its stand in July 1914. In the face of other states seeking war for gain or survival, the Russians reluctantly stood their ground, because they could no longer see any alternative.


[1]. This post is based upon my more in depth treatment of the problem in “War accepted but unsought: Russia’s growing militancy and the July Crisis, 1914” in Jack Levy and John Vasquez., eds. The Outbreak of the First World War: Structure, Politics and Decision-Making. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014, 227-51.

[2]. Michael A. Reynolds, Shattering Empires: The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires 1908-1918. (Cambridge University Press, 2011) and Ronald P. Bobroff, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits. (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

[3]. Robert Mark Spaulding, Osthandel and Ostpolitik: German Foreign Trade Policies in Eastern Europe from Bismarck to Adenauer (Providence, RI: Berghahn, 1997), 84

[4]. Samuel R. Williamson, Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War. (New York: St. Martin’s, 1991), p. 14, David Stevenson, “Militarization and Diplomacy in Europe before 1914,” International Security, 22/1 (1997).

[5]. Bruce Menning, unpublished manuscript.

[6]. Nicolas de Basily, Memoirs: Diplomat of Imperial Russia, 1903-1917 (Stanford: Hoover Institution Press, 1973), 91.

[7]. P. L. Bark, “Iul’skie dni 1914 goda: nachalo velikoi voiny,” Vozrozhdenie 91 (1959), 19-20.

[8]. Ibid., 25