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Blaming it on the Russians

I long ago came to the conclusion that the Second World War would never have happened if the Soviet Union had been less aggressive. Now, in The Russian Origins of the First World War, Sean McKeekin makes essentially the same argument about the Great War that preceded it (and that in many ways laid the foundations for it). His is particularly interested in the role played by the Ottoman Empire, whose land was coveted by Russia (which wanted Constantinople especially), France (Lebanon), and Britain (Palestine). This focus is explained by his position on the faculty at Turkey's Bilkent University.

"The war of 1914 was Russia's war even more than it was Germany's." p.5 Argues that it was Russia that mobilized first, forcing Germany to follow.

"Poland was the suppurating wound of Russian military planning, subject of hundreds of anxious analyses and endless war gaming." Speaks of Russian Poland as a "salient," vulnerable to the German and Austrian empires on the north, west, and south, "its flanks undefended by natural frontiers." p.19

"To assume that Russia really went to war on behalf of Serbia in 1914 is naive." p.27

As Germany increased its presence in Turkey, "Russia was now faced with the frightening prospect that her most powerful enemy would soon possess a chokehold at the Straits over her export economy, on which depended everything else." p.30

Started out well enough. Russians moved into Galicia. Occupied Lemberg/Lwow on 2 Sep 1914, "and a general Austro-Hungarian retreat began...." This had the effect of fattening the "salient." p.85 These gains would be reversed when the Germans reinforced the eastern front in 1915 and drove the Russians back.

But Russia's major interests lay to the south. Turkey and Persia (Iran) were "the primary arena of Russian imperial ambitions." p.101

The Gallipoli campaign: "Misdirected pity born of the Russian Revolution has militated against condemnations of Russia's opportunism and passivity by most French and British authors." p.141

Eastern Anatolia "was on a permament war footing long before 1914." p.147

14,000 Russian troops began landing at Pahlevi on Iran's Caspian coast 7 Nov 1915 to occupy north Persia. p.186

"... the loss of Poland in 1915, despite the initial panic, had not been an unmitigated disaster for Russia."p.215 "Even before the Germans occupied Warsaw in August 1915, [Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister] had cooled down considerably in his rhetoric. Disappointing Polish nationalists who viewed him as an ally, Sazonov emphasized that Eastern Galicia would never be included in any future Polish kingdom." p.216

"Whether Poland would be ruled by Petrograd or Berlin was, it seemed, less important to Russia's war aims than the 'fundamental axiom' that postwar Poland not be independent." p.216

"The bamboozlement of the British by clever Russian diplomats [with respect to getting them to doing the heavy lifting at Gallipoli and elsewhere] has much relevance for our own age." An autocracy always has the advantage over a democracy in such matters.

"It is high timed that Russia, too, receive its fair share of scrutiny for its role in unleashing the terrible European war of 1914, and for helping spread the war into the Middle East. Neither a deliberate German plot nor an avoidable accident, the First World War was the inexorable culmination of a burgeoning rivalry between Wilhelmine Germany and tsarist Russia in the Near East, each lured in its own way down the dangerous path of expansionism by the decline of Ottoman power. In the end the war destroyed both regimes, though this was little consolation to the millions who died in it--or the millions more who perished in the Russian Revolution, the Second World War, and other conflicts born out of the wreckage of the First." p.243


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