Russia and External Menaces, 1878–1890

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia in the uniform of the Chevalier Guard Regiment, 1896

In the aftermath of the Turkish war Russia faced the gravest internal problems. The war deficit of more than a billion rubles had obviously disrupted the country’s finances. Political problems were, however, even more acute. The People’s Will (Narodnaia volia) conspiracy, formed in 1879, had resolved to topple the autocracy by means of a terrorist campaign whose chief objective was the murder of the Emperor himself. The government’s responded to the terrorist attendats by beefing up the police, proclaiming martial law, and finally establishing a temporary military dictatorship under Prince Loris-Melikov. Yet key members of the People’s Will party managed to avoid detection and eventually (March 1881) succeeded in assassinating Alexander II with dynamite bombs. That brutal attack stimulated popular revulsion, and the People’s Will conspiracy swiftly disintegrated under the reprisals of the new Tsar, Alexander III. However, for almost two and one-half years after the conclusion of the peace, the entire Russian government felt itself to be in a state of siege.

Nor could that government find any consolation in the international environment. Relations with Britain remained poor. In the minds of many prominent Russian statesmen, war with England was still possible, despite London’s apparent satisfaction with the outcome of the Congress of Berlin. On top of that came the news of conclusion in 1879 of an alliance between Germany and Austria. At least initially, St. Petersburg was unaware that the secret military convention appended to that document was defensive only. In a confidential memorandum, the Russian Foreign Ministry wrote of the new treaty that it “had all the appearances of an offensive and defensive alliance against Russia.” Nor did intelligence intercepts allay Russian fears. In November 1879 Bismarck met with the French Ambassador to Berlin on the subject of the Austro-German alliance; the Frenchman’s aide-memoire of the conversation fell into Russian hands. As they read it, Petersburg officials were appalled by the emphasis that the German Chancellor placed on the exclusively anti-Russian character of the new alliance. Other recorded comments by Bismarck were also unlikely to inspire Russian confidence in the sincerity of his personal (and oft-expressed) friendship for Petersburg. The Chancellor had regaled his French guest with a string of gratuitous insults about the chief figures in the Russian government and the Tsar personally (“this prematurely aged man, worn out and enervated by aphrodisiacs, this autocrat without control, the toy of favorites and generals of the boudoir”).

Therefore, when Bismarck began to sound Petersburg out about the possibility of renewing the Three Emperors’ League, the tsarist government was suspicious. N. K. Giers, soon to be Russia’s Foreign Minister but already a power in the formulation of foreign policy, complained to the Tsar that the Chancellor’s proposal was grotesquely one-sided: Germany would acquire almost total security, while Russia would be forced into an odious partnership with Austria. But eventually Giers realized that Russia was not in a strong bargaining position. A conference held on December 18, 1879, at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs resolved that Russia had no choice but to accept the German offer, precisely because the Austro-German alliance contained “an eventual menace” against Russia. If Russia refused to join a revived Three Emperors’ League, the hostility of Germany “and of all our other adversaries” would surely increase. Russia needed diplomatic ties to Berlin and Vienna, if only to manage the threat posed by the new treaty between the German powers.

Bismarck had thus succeeded, just as he had hoped, in frightening Russia back into a nominally friendly posture. Eventually he was able to manipulate the Austrians as well, and agreements establishing a new Dreikaiserbund were signed in the summer of 1881. The three empires pledged to each other their neutrality in the event of an attack on one of them by a fourth state; Austria gained the right eventually to annex Bosnia and Herzegovina; and Berlin and Austria-Hungary committed themselves to the principle of the neutrality of the straits.

The real beneficiary of the Dreikaiserbund of 1881 was, of course, Bismarck. In the decade of diplomatic activity remaining to him, Bismarck spun a complex web of treaties building upon both it and the Austrian alliance of 1879. Russia, however, harbored no illusions about the good will of either of its nominal allies. In Petersburg, the Three Emperors’ League was seen as an impermanent phenomenon, a particularly nasty-tasting draught of medicine that Russia had to take temporarily to ensure itself “the repose of which she has the most imperious need.” The secret instructions Giers issued to Russia’s Ambassador-designate to Berlin in 1884 stressed the latent dangers of the League. Germany, could, for example, exploit it to attack and destroy France, while Austria might be able to pursue “morally and materially a policy of encroachment on the Balkan peninsula.” In either event, the League would guarantee neither peace nor Russian interests. The key to Alexander Ill’s policy, Giers explained, was to buy time—years of calm and status quo—in the expectation that the accession of a new Emperor in Germany might provide Russia with the opportunity to uncouple Berlin from Vienna.

The Russian foreign policy approach in the early 1880s, then, echoed that taken by Gorchakov in the early 1860s: on both occasions Russia sought to avoid overt clashes with the other Great Powers and equally tried to employ diplomacy to paper over military weakness. After the Crimean War, the undeniable need for internal reform, including military reform, had momentarily rendered Russia incapable of waging war. In the early years of Alexander III, fiscal austerity had the same effect. Russian military expenditures—more than 255 million rubles in 1881—had fallen below 200 million by 1884. In the same three-year period, the standing army was reduced from 863,000 to 756,000 men. The potential hazards of such troop cutbacks and such underfunding became increasingly evident over time. As the souring foreign relations, diplomatic crises, and war scares of the 1880s demonstrated, the Dreikaiserbund was too weak a buckler to protect Russia even from its Austrian and German allies, let alone the British.

Russian official policy toward London throughout the 1880s was driven by the alternating sentiments of frustration and fear. The near clash with the British at the end of the Turkish war had reconfirmed the Russians in their belief in the implacable enmity of Britain. As before, Russian statesmen felt encumbered by impotence to strike back at London in any meaningful way. How indeed could the elephant exert pressure on the whale? The only expedient was to adopt a forward policy in Central Asia, which might alarm the English about the security of India. In the winter of 1881–82, a Foreign Ministry official, Charykov, urged the Imperial government to accumulate as much intelligence as possible about British India, not in order to prepare for a war of conquest but to acquire “an important means of political pressure.” The problem was that St. Petersburg simultaneously wanted to persuade London that its suspicions of Russian ambitions in the East were groundless. The fundamental contradiction in Petersburg’s mingling of threat and mollification naturally served to keep English Russophobia alive. That Russophobia stiffened British responses to Russia’s Central Asian activities, which led in turn to escalating Russian counterresponses.

In 1878, with a crisis brewing in the Bosphorus, the Imperial government made a hostile maneuver against London by dispatching Major General N. G. Stoletov to Kabul with orders to secure an anti-English treaty with the Emir of Afghanistan. Sher Ali’s signing of an agreement to that effect provoked the outrage of the British government, which construed Stoletov’s presence in Afghanistan (really no more than a petulant gesture) as evidence of a serious Russian conspiracy against India. The Stoletov mission led directly to the second Anglo-Afghan war. Although that war resulted in the reduction of Afghanistan to a tributary of the British Empire, Britain blamed Russia for the two years of bloody campaigning and observed Russian activities in Asia for years afterward through the prism of that episode. Petersburg meanwhile predictably misinterpreted the British invasion of Afghanistan as the preliminary stage in a policy of encroachment against Russian Central Asia. In particular, the Russian government believed that Britain would exploit its victory to enhance its influence first in Persia and then among the bellicose Teke Turcomans north of the Persian frontier. Russia decided to respond by attacking the Turcoman stronghold at Geok Tepe. Although the first Russian expedition (1879) suffered a humiliating rebuff at the hands of the Turcomans, in 1881 Skobelev took Geok Tepe by storm; the entire Akhal Teke oasis region was swiftly absorbed into a newly created Russian province, Transcaspia. When Persia recognized the legitimacy of this conquest, Russia acquired for the first time a fixed border with Iran. Three years later, in 1884, the strategically important oasis of Merv peacefully submitted to the authority of the Russia crown, an event that alarmed the British once more, in view of the proximity of Merv to Herat.

Given Russia’s concern for its security in Europe, on no account could it risk the outbreak of a war in Asia. In 1881 Russia had considered it prudent to cede the Tien-shan passes back to Beijing to avert war with even so weak an opponent as China. As Britain was a far more dangerous potential enemy, it was all the more necessary to appease it. A special conference on the Russo-Afghan border issue held in Petersburg in December 1884 had recommended making concessions during the negotiations “in the interest of general policy not to arouse alarms in the British government through the occupation of points too close to Herat.” Upsetting that plan, however, was the border incident at Panjdeh (March 1885), which quickly escalated into an open battle in which Russian troops routed Afghan forces.

Gladstone, once again Prime Minister of Britain, denounced the clash as an inexcusable Russian provocation; for his part, the Russian commander on the spot claimed self-defense. Foreign Minister Giers tried to repair the damage by means of a formal explanation to the British Ambassador. Unhappily for Giers, Ambassador Thornton’s report of this conversation to London was picked up by Russian intelligence and transmitted to the Tsar. Giers’s description of the Panjdeh battle as an “unhappy accident” infuriated Alexander III. “This proves how careful one has to be with expressions. It is insulting to Russian honor!” the Emperor wrote in great heat. For a moment it seemed as if Russian Foreign Ministry’s policy of reassuring Whitehall had collapsed, a victim of the Imperial temper. Indeed, Alexander’s sense of personal insult made the risk of an Anglo-Russian war very real in the spring of 1885, for he stubbornly insisted that his government repudiate any apologies or explanations for the Panjdeh events. Negotiations with London were suspended. As Gladstone appealed to Parliament for war credits, Alexander began to make military preparations of his own. So serious was the Tsar about war that he instructed Giers to demand that Russia’s partners in the Dreikaiserbund use their influence to force Turkey to neutralize the straits. Bismarck’s response showed that the promises underpinning the Three Emperors’ League were valueless. His assertion that it was “untimely” to put pressure on the Sultan revealed that neither Germany nor Austria intended to give Russia any help. Eventually, as the Tsar cooled down, the danger of war receded. The Russo-Afghan frontier was regularized, with compromises on both sides, by a treaty in September 1885, to which the British gave diplomatic assent two years later.

The crisis of 1885 left a bitter aftertaste. Convinced that Berlin and Vienna could not be trusted to stand by the obligations of the Dreikaiserbund, the Imperial government concluded at the very end of that year that Russia had to acquire the means to close the straits itself at any time. Eight million rubles’ worth of credits were appropriated. The 13th and 15th Infantry Regiments in Odessa district were to be strengthened and trained so that an amphibious assault on Constantinople could be launched without warning. For its part, the navy was supposed to acquire warships, troop ships, and a stockpile of mines for the creation of a barricade at the Bosphorus. As subsequent events proved, Russia never became strong enough to undertake a surprise attack on the straits, but the consistent interest over the next twenty years in purchasing such a capability indicated how vulnerable Russia continued to feel about the prospect of English naval blackmail.

Nor was Russia at ease during the 1880s about its relationship with the Germans and the Austrians. The highly protectionist tariff that Bismarck had erected against Russian agricultural products in 1879 was but one irritant to St. Petersburg. Another was the fulsome interest (from the Russian perspective) that Berlin now began to manifest in Near Eastern affairs. I. S. Dolgorukov, whom Alexander III occasionally employed as a personal envoy, reported in 1882 that “the presence in Constantinople of military instructors and of a number of German personnel charged with the administration of finances prepares the ground slowly for the predominant influence of Germany in the Danubian basin, the Bosphorus, and the Dardanelles.” That theme—Germany as a potential rival of Russia in the Levant—was continuously reiterated and embroidered by the conservative publicist M. N. Katkov, whose newspaper Moskovskie vedomosti became the bellwether of anti-German sentiment during the period.

Russia’s real rival in the Balkans, however, remained Austria-Hungary. The flashpoint of conflict between Petersburg and Vienna in the 1880s was Bulgaria. Bulgaria had, of course, become independent as a direct result of Russia’s defeat of Turkey in 1877–78. In part for that reason, the Russian government expected Bulgaria to behave as a docile satellite of St. Petersburg. Yet the Prince of Bulgaria (and nephew of the Tsar), Alexander of Battenberg, was too proud and ambitious to act the role of an obedient puppet. Courting popularity via appeals to domestic nationalists, Alexander presided over Bulgaria’s effective absorption of the province of Eastern Rumelia (1885), oblivious to Russian protests. Eventually Alexander’s unwillingness to take St. Petersburg’s dictation drove the Imperial government to launch a series of plots to unseat him. The ins and outs of Russia’s blunders in Bulgaria in 1886 and 1887—including the attempted kidnapping of Alexander—do not warrant retelling here. Alexander was at last induced to abdicate. The new Prince elected in 1887 by the Bulgarian parliament, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg, however, was even less acceptable to Russia than his predecessor had been because of his Austrian connections. To Russia, the only tangible political gain of the Turkish war—predominant influence in Bulgaria—appeared to be slipping away. Petersburg accordingly warned Sofia that it might mount a military intervention.

But Austria issued counterthreats to Russia. At various points in 1886 and 1887 it appeared as if the two eastern empires might soon be locked in war. Indeed, during those two years it seemed that all of Europe could be engulfed in war, for paralleling the Bulgarian crisis was the Boulanger affair in the West. In 1886 General Georges Boulanger, a fire-breathing advocate of a war of revenge against Germany, became the French Minister of War. Bismarck responded by introducing legislation to increase the size of the German army. The French and German press vied to outdo each other in nationalist vituperation and abuse.

However, as had been true in 1875, neither Germany or France was actually willing to go to war, a fact of which Russian military intelligence was well apprised. If information from Paris had a soothing effect on the nerves of tsarist statesmen, that collected in Vienna had the direct opposite effect. During much of 1887 Russian intelligence indicated such extraordinary military preparations on the part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that many came to the conclusion that Russia was in imminent danger of attack. In Petersburg it was noted with alarm that work on strategic railroads in Galicia had been accelerated, that large numbers of transport trains and locomotives were being concentrated between Neu Sandec and Kashits, that several million portions of rusks were being concentrated at Lemberg, and so forth. Kiev Military District reported in January that the Austrians had come to consider war with Russia inevitable and “that it would start very soon, perhaps no later than the beginning of next spring.” Although the Russian military attaché in Vienna reported that the head of the Austro-Hungary General Staff, General Beck, had insisted to him that the preparations had exclusively defensive purposes, unsettling dispatches about Austrian war readiness continued to pile up on Obruchev’s desk (and the Emperor’s) for several months. At the very end of March 1887 War Minister R S. Vannovskii summarized what had been learned of the suspicious Austrian military activity in a memorandum for his sovereign. Work on the Membits-Tarnow railway line, so indispensable for operations toward the Vistula, had sped up; increased stocks of food and forage were being amassed in Lemberg, Tarnow, and Cracow; Vienna had placed rush orders for 300,000 uniforms, coats, and pairs of boots; and 240 temporary barracks had been constructed in Galicia, presumably to accommodate a large influx of troops preliminary to the invasion of Russia. As late as May the War Ministry would turn to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for help in confirming or refuting the rumor that Vienna intended to conduct a clandestine mobilization of the VII and XII Army Corps.

The war scare of 1887 blew over, just as that of 1885 had. But it, too, had its unpleasant consequences. In the first place, Alexander Ill’s government now repudiated the Dreikaiserbund, then up for renewal. Bismarck moved to fill that void by proposing what became known as the Reinsurance Treaty of 1887. The treaty, with a term of three years, obliged Germany and Russia to be neutral in the event either of them was attacked by a third power. In 1890, however, the government of the new German Emperor, William II, declined to reaffirm the Reinsurance Treaty. Russia was considerably alarmed at that, despite verbal promises by the Germans that all would go on as before. Thus by 1890 Russia found itself once again alone and without allies. Many potential grounds for war with Britain over Asian disputes still existed. And in Europe, the Russian government felt itself confronted with a maleficent Austria and a more devious (but scarcely less hostile) Germany.

Prospects were all the more ominous because the crisis of 1887 had forced Petersburg to come to terms with harsh truths about the military balance. Russian diplomacy had very nearly failed during the crisis, almost forcing Russia to rely exclusively on its military power. In the Russian government’s pessimistic assessment of its own military preparedness, Russia in 1887 was not even strong enough to resist an invasion by Austria, acting independently of its German ally.

That assessment was in fact far too pessimistic. At the height of the crisis, the Austrian General Staff wrote the Emperor Franz Josef that Austria was in no condition to make war on Russia without German support. The Russian elite, however, was unaware of that Austrian view. Somewhat later, in 1891, Russia’s military attaché in Vienna, Colonel Zuev, reported to St. Petersburg that General Beck had called him into his office to protest against Russia’s strengthening its forces on the Galician frontier. On his copy of Zuev’s report, Alexander III scrawled: “Thank God that they are still afraid of us!”—a remark that stands as an authoritative confession of self-perceived Russian military weakness. How had Russia managed to neglect its defenses to this (ostensible) degree? The answer must emerge from a brief examination of Petersburg’s military policy and strategy in the 1880s. Deliberate fiscal austerity had a heavy influence on both. War Minister Vannovskii wrote in a note to himself of 1887: “[We are] supposed to be ready to prepare weapons, rations, and food, and they don’t even give us kopecks for these things.”

“Our Borders Are Completely Open”: Military Policy and Strategy in the 1880s

After 1881 it was increasingly the Minister of Finance to whom the new Emperor Alexander III listened most attentively. By nature fiscally conservative, Alexander was worried about the continued economic distress that had been one consequence of the Turkish war. The war had been followed by an economic slump, which persisted until the late 1880s. The finances of the country were in disarray. The budget was unbalanced, and the national debt stood at over 4.9 billion rubles. In those circumstances the Finance Ministry had little difficulty convincing the Emperor that the only possible remedy was the immediate slashing of state expenditures. The cuts were hard on every ministry, but most particularly on the Ministry of War, which had traditionally enjoyed a 30 percent share in the Imperial budget. Army outlays, more than 255 million rubles in 1881, had fallen to 203 million two years later and had not worked their way back up to 225 million until the end of the decade.

The fiscal crisis of the 1880s put pressure on the military in several respects. For one, it made it impossible for the Ministry of War to modernize the army’s weaponry, a major concern at a time when all the other European Great Powers were beginning to introduce magazine rifles. But equally, the downward pressure on the state budget meant that work on a system of railways and macadamized roads in the western frontier zone was indefinitely postponed. By 1888 construction had begun on only three of the eleven railroad lines that the Ministry of War had identified as strategically indispensable back in the early 1870s. The Main Staff concluded that, with regard to railroads, “the task of 1873 is farther away than ever” and appealed for a crash program of railway building. The Staff’s request for an immediate commitment to build 959 versts of new lines and to doubletrack 602 versts was rejected out of hand by a special conference held in the beginning of December 1888.

The situation with regard to macadamized roads was no better. Roads were needed both to permit the troops to march quickly from one part of the defensive line to another and to connect front-line units with their secondary magazines in the rear. Alexander III himself had approved a plan for a net of 2,655 versts of them in 1881. By 1888, however, scarcely 1.5 percent of the plan had been realized; only 40 versts had been built.36 When Obruchev (by now Chief of Staff) provided Giers with a survey of the strategic landscape in 1883, he laid particular stress on the imbalance in military transportation between Russia and the Teutonic Powers. In Obruchev’s opinion, Poland—that enormous salient protruding into Austrian and German territory—had been placed “in a state of unconditional siege” owing to the density of the rail nets of the Dual Alliance. “There is no doubt,” he continued, “that Germany and Austria-Hungary are incomparably stronger than we and can mobilize and concentrate their armies on the frontier much more rapidly than we. Our borders are completely open.”

Yet, as has been often observed, despair is not a strategy. It fell to Obruchev, War Minister Vannovskii, and their colleagues to develop plans making the best use of what they had. The strategic plan of January 1880 was an important step in that direction. Its preamble stated that “in view of the superiority of enemy forces [at the opening of the campaign], we must recognize as least risky for ourselves the employment of a concentrated defense in the center of our western borders so that the distribution of our armies will reliably defend access to the interior of the Empire and so that we will be able to meet the blows directed against us from different quarters with the largest possible concentration of our forces.” The basic plan required Russia to divide its forces into four armies. The first, consisting of 140 battalions and 90 squadrons of cavalry, would hold a line on the Neman on a front between Polangen and Avgustov. Its task would be to protect Lithuania, the Baltic states, and the road to Petersburg. The stronger second army, with 232 battalions, 128 squadrons, and 678 guns, would be positioned in Poland on a line extending between the Bug, Narew, Vistula, and Veprezh rivers. The third or southern army (148 battalions, 108 squadrons) would defend Volynia, Podolia, and the other provinces of southern Russia from its initial deployment on a front from Lutsk via the Styr River to the Prut. Finally, the main (glavnaia) or reserve army would concentrate its 244 battalions, 157 squadrons, and 798 guns in eastern Poland, from Belostok to Pruzhany. This large force was, naturally enough, to serve as a general reserve for the other three.

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