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Great War - Russian War Aims

The Third RomeAfter becoming in 1910 the Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Russian Empire, Sergey Sazonov continued rapprochement with England and Japan, trying not to aggravate diplomatic relations with Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, he tried to unite the Balkan States and Turkey against the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a "confederation" under the aegis of Russia. Further activities of the minister were aimed at strengthening of ties with the Entente bloc. In June 1914 Sazonov made an attempt to attract Romania to the bloc.

When a Serbian terrorist assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne in late June 1914, Austria delivered an ultimatum to Serbia. Russia, fearing another humiliation in the Balkans, supported Serbia. Being sure of the inevitability of war, Sazonov persuaded Emperor Nicholas II to issue 17 (30) July a decree of general mobilization. The German ultimatum to Russia to stop mobilizing was rejected, and two days later Germany declared war on Russia. The system of alliances began to operate automatically, with Germany supporting Austria and with France backing Russia. When Germany invaded France through Belgium, the conflict escalated into a world war.

Russia's large population enabled it to field a greater number of troops than Austria-Hungary and Germany combined, but its underdeveloped industrial base meant that its soldiers were as poorly armed as those of the Austrian army. Russian forces were inferior to Germany's in every respect except numbers. Generally, the larger Russian armies defeated the Austro-Hungarians but suffered reverses against German or combined German-Austrian forces unless the latter were overextended.

Russian war aims played an active and critical role in beginning the hostilities. The Russians wanted to conquer chunks of the declining Ottoman empire, most notably Constantinople, or a would-be "Tsargrad" - passage thru Bosphorus via ownership of Straits and Constantinople. The Russian secret pre-mobilization (before declaring war as their prior wargaming indicated that they were no match for the speed of the Schlieffen Plan) inevitably provoked Austria-Hungary and Germany into a war. This war had nothing to do with pan-Slavic feelings for Serbia.

In 1914, the Russian regime was going to war reactively (as was everyone) and the Tsarist government in particular wanted a short victorious war to bolster itself. It never really convinced itself what it was fighting for (note how, after the vain attempt to make Galicia into a national cause, when the Ottomans entered the picture, it suddenly became "To the Straits!").

Russia considered the annexation of Istanbul and the Straits a deserved prize following the victory in the First World War. However, the British and French did everything possible to prevent this from happening. The Russian General Staff was also incapable of the operation to capture the Straits. For some reason, the idea that following the results of the victory in the Great Wa, Russia should have received the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, as well as Tsargrad (Constantinople, Istanbul), somehow got into Russian patriotic consciousness. The allies of Russia on the Entente, France and England, never gave such a promise.

Wartime agreements among the Allies reflected the imperialist aims of the Triple Entente and the Russian Empire's relative weakness outside eastern Europe. Russia nonetheless expected impressive gains from a victory: territorial acquisitions in eastern Galicia from Austria, in East Prussia from Germany, and in Armenia from the Ottoman Empire; control of Constantinople and the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits; and territorial and political alteration of Austria-Hungary in the interests of Romania and the Slavic peoples of the region. Britain was to acquire the middle zone of Iran and share much of the Arab Middle East with France; Italy — not Russia's ally Serbia — was to acquire Dalmatia; Japan was to control more territory in China; and France was to regain Alsace-Lorraine and to have increased influence in western Germany.

After Austria's annexation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Russian diplomacy increased tension and conflict in the Balkans. In 1912 Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, and Montenegro defeated the Ottoman Empire but continued to quarrel among themselves. Then in 1913, the Bulgarians were defeated by the Serbians, Greeks, and Romanians. Austria became Bulgaria's patron, while Germany remained the Ottoman Empire's protector. Russia tied itself more closely to Serbia.

During the war, Foreign Minister Sazonov held talks with Britain and France for military cooperation and the conditions for future peace. He took an active part in preparation of the Anglo-Franco-Russian agreement of 1915, which provided for transfer of Black Sea straits to Russian. Given the direct relationship between the Russian national policy and ensuring of international interest, in late 1915, the Minister developed a draft of the Russian-Polish union, which stipulated for common monarch, court, army, borders, finances, diplomacy and communication routes. However, this draft was rejected by the Russian government.

Sazonov's vague thoughts were annexation of some Polish areas: Greater Poland in something like the border of 1807, and some juicy bits of Upper Silesia to go with Galicia. The eastern half, as I said, they tried to to turn into Ruthenia irredenta, which in practice ment setting up provincial governments there which banned Ukrainian in a society various conscious of its Ukrainian identity, and senting more Orthodox priests than bullets into a country where Greek Catholicism was a national institution. (They also fancied Bukovina, if they could possibly avoid giving it to the Romanians, which caused some friction.) And then they endorsed the principal goals of the allies (Alsace, the German fleet).

Thing got interesting once the Ottomans became involved: the Russians wanted control of "Tsargrad" [a Slavic name for the city or land of Constantinople] and the straits at least for propaganda purposes, and also an annexation or at least sphere of influence throughout eastern Anatolia corresponding to the 1913 Armenian Reform Package; probably political-economic domination of Anatolia in general, in fact.

Before 1916, the Russians, like everyone, expecting the Hapsburgs to stay simply because that was easier than to deal with the mess tat would result from its fall. They did want to turn it into a triple-monarchy, and had vague plans of using the Czechs (as well as superior physical power) to influence it and make it a Russian dependency rather than a German one.

In the Balkans, Russia endorsed Belgrade's Greater Serbian ambitions (it was this program and not Yugoslavism that was expressed in the Serbian DoW with Austria), of course, and also resisted Italian ambitions in the Adriatic in order to keep up their pan-Slavist prestige. Sazonov even nursed vague dreams of getting Serbia to hand some chunks of Macedonia to the Bulgarians, buying their friendship with that and parts of Ottoman Thrace that they had lost after the Balkan Wars, and possibly bulking up at the expense of Greece and Romania (which in 1914 both had German monarchs, remember).

In the initial phase of the war, Russia's offensives into East Prussia drew enough German troops from the Western Front to allow the French, Belgians, and British to stabilize it. One of Russia's two invading armies was almost totally destroyed, however. Meanwhile, the Russians turned back an Austrian offensive and pushed into eastern Galicia. The Russians halted a combined German-Austrian winter counteroffensive into Russian Poland, and in early 1915 they pushed more deeply into Galicia. Then in the spring and summer of that year, a German-Austrian offensive drove the Russians out of Galicia and Poland and destroyed several Russian army corps.

The war started as a disaster for Russia. In 1914, two of its armies in Eastern Prussia suffered a humiliating defeat, and then 1915 witnessed the Great Retreat when the country lost vast territories in the West. One of the reasons for this debacle was the lack of weapons and ammunition, especially cannon shells, as the Russian economy could not provide the necessary war supplies.

“In autumn of 1915, the Germans were halted at distant frontiers. They were not close to Moscow or Petrograd … As far as those people who are able to think strategically, or one might say historically, it was already clear by the end of 1915 that we were winning the war! The question remained when would it be over and at what price? ... Germany was doomed,” said Vladimir Lavrov, senior research associate of the Institute of Russian History. In the autumn of 1915, the German offensive on the Eastern Front (known in Russia as the “Great Retreat”) grounded to a halt, and Berlin’s strategy of a quick victory was derailed both in France and Russia, the historian underlined.

In 1916 the Germans planned to drive France out of the war with a large-scale attack in the Verdun area, but a new Russian offensive against Austria-Hungary once again drew German troops from the west. Russia also launched a massive operation in 1916 against Austria-Hungary - the Brusilov Offensive. Although successful, Russian generals were unable to convert it into a game changer on the Eastern Front.

These actions left both major fronts stable and both Russia and Germany despairing of victory: Russia because of exhaustion, Germany because of its opponents' superior resources. Toward the end of 1916, Russia came to the rescue of Romania, which had just entered the war, and extended the Eastern Front south to the Black Sea.

The aggressive tendencies of the Russians in the direction of Constantinople were nearly as old as the Russian nationality, and much older than the Russian Empire. The Russo Slavonians, whoheld the valley of the Dnieper from the ninth to the thirteenth century, were one of those numerous border tribes which the decrepit Byzantine Empire attempted to ward off by diplomacy and rich gifts, and by giving daughters of the Imperial family as brides to the troublesome chiefs, on condition of accepting Christianity. Vladimir, Prince of Kief, accepted Christianity in this way, and his subjects followed his example. Russia thus became ecclesiastically a part of the Byzantine Patriarchate, and the people learned to regard Tsargrad—as the Imperial city is still called by the peasantry — with peculiar veneration. In the fifteenth century, the relative positions of Constantinople and Moscow were changed. Constantinople fell under the power of the Turks, while Moscow threw off the yoke of the Tartars. The idea that the Tsar may some day take Tsargrad and drive out the infidel ursuper, had become deeply rooted in the minds of the common people.

By treaty, as the world understood — and all nations of the Entente were willing - Constantinople was to be handed over to Russia, thereby fulfilling its long-heralded transformation and becoming Tsargrad, the city of the Tsars.

By late 1916, picture looked clear. There are no more retreats, the Germans haven’t advanced further than Pinsk and Baranovichi, and the 1500-km Russian-Austrian front runs through the territory of Romania and Austro-Hungary. On the Turkish front, General Nikolai Baratov’s corps has pushed their enemy out of Persia and is making its way into Turkish-controlled Mesopotamia—they are only a little more than 100 kilometers from Baghdad. The Germans are still a very difficult opponent, but it’s already clear that the war can only end with a German defeat. The production of military supplies has been figured out, and the “ammunition famine” was over [the military was so stocked with artillery and small arms that these munitions will be sufficient for the whole Civil War]. It was already clear that the US would enter the war in its last moments.

Of course, by 1916, the Russian government was divided between those who nursed extravagant dreams of what they could achieve; and those, like Boris Vladimirovich Stürmer, who realised that it would be a win if there was still a Tsarist Russia when it was all over.

“On 1 March 1917,” Churchill would write later, “the tsar was still on his throne. The Russian Empire and Russian Army were holding on, the front was holding fast, and victory was guaranteed… The system headed by Nikolai II at that moment was winning the war for Russia.” Churchill had in mind 1 March by the Gregorian calendar, that is, 16 February for the Russian Empire. If Nikolai had come to his senses that day, everything could have turned out differently.

The British Government agreed with Russia in the time of the Czar to waive its old objections to Russia taking possession of Tsargrad and the narrow straits to the Mediterranean. But it did not bind itself to take Constantinople from the Turks and to present it on a salver at Petrograd. Yet that was what it attempted to do, and it was a just retribution when, by the turn of the political wheel and Czar Nicholas being got rid of, the Russian people exclaimed, and very impolitely too.

The situation continued to deteriorate. In an attempt to alleviate the morass at the tsar's court, a group of nobles murdered Rasputin in December 1916. But his death brought little change. In the winter of 1917, however, deteriorating rail transport caused acute food and fuel shortages, which resulted in riots and strikes. Troops were summoned to quell the disorders. Although troops had fired on demonstrators and saved tsarism in 1905, in 1917 the troops in Petrograd (the name of St. Petersburg after 1914) turned their guns over to the angry crowds. Support for the tsarist regime simply evaporated in 1917, ending three centuries of Romanov rule.

A Provisional Government was established after the abdication of Nicholas II in February 1917. By the end of 1916 Russia could no longer fight, but those who came to power in February 1917 did not realize it. Until the very end the Provisional Government tried to carry on with the war in line with its obligations to the Allies. This was the "fatal mistake” that led to the Bolshevik Revolution in October.

In October 1917 the Bolsheviks came to power promising to end the war, which they did in March 1918, concluding a peace with Germany. The war finally ended for all combatants in November when Germany and Austria-Hungary acknowledged defeat.

Some experts claim that Russia was on the road to victory in the Great War but then it was abruptly sabotaged by selfish and cowardly politicians who organized the two revolutions in 1917, and who then later signed a separate peace deal with Germany.

“… This victory was stolen from the country. It was stolen by those who called for the defeat of their own Fatherland, own army, who sowed discord and aspired to grab power, betraying the country’s national interests,” said President Vladimir Putin on the occasion of the centenary of the Great War's commencement.

The majority of Russians (40 percent) think the country was on the path to winning the war, according to a 2014 survey. Most citizens are sure that Russia could have won the First World War, but this was prevented by the 1917 revolution. This is evidenced by the data of the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM). Confidence that Russia won the military campaign of 1914-1918 is most common among the younger generation (18-24 years). Russians over 60 mostly believe that the war was lost. Most of the respondents (42%) believe that Russia did not need to participate in the Great War at all.

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Page last modified: 10-12-2018 18:49:14 ZULU