Not surprisingly, the recent post on Russia’s new law on history sparked numerous comments. Also not surprisingly, the comments careened in a surprising direction, specifically, Russia’s role in WWI. One skein of that argument was whether Russia saved France by eschewing in 1914 a plan to stand on the defensive against Germany, and instead mounting an offensive that distracted Germany enough to permit the French to fend off the German attack at the Marne.
This exchange spurred me to look at a couple of books on my shelf, William C. Fuller Jr.’s Strategy and Power in Russia, 1600-1914 and Kissinger’s Diplomacy. These sources put a much less favorable light on Russia’s actions in the lead-up to Europe’s Armageddon.
Fuller argues that Russia’s agreement with France to attack Germany was part of a quid pro quo to get French assistance against Germany. Russia was convinced that a war against Austria-Hungary was highly likely. Moreover, it calculated that Germany would intervene on Austria’s behalf because it could not countenance the defeat of its only major ally. But Russia could not beat Germany and Austria, so an alliance with France was imperative. As Fuller puts it “[i]n 1912 the Russians began a desperate effort to re-cement the French alliance.” He says further:
At the staff conversations of 1912 and 1913 the Russians tried to buy French good-will by promising to attack Germany with 800,000 men by the fifteenth day after the declaration of mobilization.” [p. 439]
Fuller goes into more detail about the forces driving Russian thinking. He notes that Russia’s tenuous position in Poland and its fear that Austria-Hungary would take advantage of Polish discontent led it to conclude that simultaneous attacks against Germany and Austria were imperative: “If Russia’s alliance policy compelled it to plan to attack Germany, it was its nationality policy that in the end made a simultaneous attack on Austria inescapable . . . . To attack Austria alone would be to imperil the French alliance and was consequently unthinkable. To attack Germany alone was to risk the Austrian conquest of Poland.” [p. 441]
With respect to Russia’s ability to carry out these plans, Fuller notes how Russia’s pendulum swings between Asia and Europe led it to shift its forces to the east, thereby compromising its ability to fight Germany and Austria in the west. Similarly, its Asian focus led it to stint on railroad building in Poland, which also compromised its ability to mass in the west.
Kissinger is even more critical of Russian policy. Indeed, he even puts the blame on Russia for the “military doomsday machine” of responses to mobilization that culminated in the catastrophe of August, 1914.:
The first step in this direction occurred during the negotiation for a Franco-Russian military alliance. Up to that time, alliance negotiations had been about the causus belli. . . .
In May 1892, teh Russian negotiator, Adjutant General Nikolai Obruchev, sent a letter to his Foreign Minister, Giers, explaining why the traditional method for defining the causus belli had been been overtaken by modern technology. Obrucev argued that what mattered was how mobilized first . . .
Far from deploring the prospect of automatic escalation, Obruchev welcomed it enthusiastically. The last thing he wanted was a local conflict. . . .
According to Obruchev, it was in Russia’s interest to make certain that every war would be general. The benefit to Russia would be a well-constructed alliance with France would be to prevent the possibility of a localized war. . . . [a] defensive war for limited objectives was against Russia’s national interest. . . . However trivial the cause, war would be total; if its prelude involved only one neighbor, Russia should see to it that the other was drawn in. Almost grotesquely, the Russian general staff preferred to fight Germany and Austria-Hungary jointly than just one of them. A military convention carrying out Obruchev’s ideas was signed on January 4, 1894. France and Russia agreed to mobilize together should any member of the Triple Alliance mobilize for any reason whatsoever. [pp. 202-203; emphasis in original]
Kissinger notes that there were dissenting voices, notably Peter Durnovo, a former Interior Minister. But from 1894 up through July-August, 1914 Russian policy was committed to fighting Germany and Austria-Hungary simultaneously. Even when the Tsar tried to mobilize only against Austria-Hungary during the Sarajevo crisis, his military (“without exception disciples of Obruchev’s theories”) forced him out of it. Kissinger also argues that Russian commitment to support Serbia was not completely rational, but was driven by concerns of reputation and honor and loss of face in the Balkans (evocative of Thucydides’s claim that men go to war out of fear, honor, and interest).
The rest of Kissinger’s (and Fuller’s) discussion of the beginning of WWI makes it plain that every power made calculations that contributed to that world catastrophe. But Russian calculations were quite important in shaping the outcome, the ultimate consequence of which was, of course, the destruction of the Russian Empire and the Tsarist system. This ended what one commentor noted was a period of remarkable economic and social transition in Russia.
I don’t know enough about this particular subject to do more than summarize what Kissinger and Fuller state. I’m sure there are dissenting views. And I’m sure they will be voiced, and strenuously, in the comments. I look forward to that with anticipation.