- The Russian Origins of the First World War by Sean McMeekin
Russia’s role in the Great War has long been overshadowed by accounts that focus on the participation of the Western nations. Sean McMeekin, assistant professor of international relations at Bilkent University in Turkey, admirably seeks to remedy this neglect. In so doing, he not only attempts to demonstrate the importance of Russia in the war but also to assert that it was instrumental in provoking the outbreak of war in 1914 through aggressive imperialist policies. McMeekin argues for a reassessment of Fritz Fischer’s thesis of German responsibility for war in light of often overlooked Russian sources. Drawing largely from the Archive of Imperial Russian Foreign Policy and the Russian State Military History Archive, the author insists these sources belie the conventional wisdom that posits the tsarist empire as a reluctant, stumbling participant in the war, and instead reveal a calculated and forceful Russia that had much to gain in major international conflict, in particular, in the crumbling Ottoman Empire. It is through the lens of Russia’s policies and actions on its eastern front that he stakes his claim.
The book begins with a detailed analysis of the development of Russian foreign policy, the main focus of which, McMeekin argues, was the securing of the Straits and possession of Constantinople, which drove Russia’s casus belli. Examining documents left behind by major (and some minor) players in shaping Russia’s foreign policy goals, and its preparations for war, he argues these men strongly pushed for war, and were successful in shaping Russian actions, as part of the realization of age-old obsessions of Russian foreign policy: the acquisition of a warm water port, as well as the ancient drive to gain control of “Tsargrad.” This, he says, was the central focal point of all of Russia’s other international interests—even its willingness to fight a war against Germany and Austro-Hungary in Eastern Europe. McMeekin further argues that the military focus on Polish lands was not only another long-standing desire of tsarist expansion, but that securing this region was necessary to facilitate movement to the southwest to complete the conquest of the Straits and Constantinople. He even goes so far as to say that control of Poland was not central to Russia’s war aims, but rather merely a piece of the eastern strategy.
The author attempts to demonstrate that Russia, rather than entering the war reluctantly only after coming to the conclusion that there was little alternative, was so primed for conflict that it actually began secret mobilization of its forces a full five days before any declaration [End Page 719] of war had been made. He dismisses the conventional wisdom concerning Russia’s great fear of being unprepared for and, therefore, less than willing to go to war against what was perceived as a superior enemy (Germany). Echoing Norman Stone’s seminal work The Eastern Front, 1914–1917 (1975), he argues that the Russians were fairly well matched against the Germans, whom they outnumbered in terms of troops in the field and whose technology was roughly on par with their own. The author then details the process by which Russia’s ally, Great Britain, unwittingly played into its goals in the Straits, even to the point of providing the major military muscle to achieve them (and as a result, suffering terrible losses like those sustained at Gallipoli), despite the fact that little more than a half century before the British had gone to war in the Crimea to prevent this from occurring. The result of this discussion of British actions, however, leaves the reader with the impression that Russia was the passive beneficiary of its ally’s changed “Eastern Question” goals, rather than a deliberate puppeteer manipulating the British into acting in step with Russian aims in the Straits. He provides great detail about the campaigns fought against the Ottomans. In fact, despite the stated diplomatic focus of the book, much of the narrative...