22/7/1916 Exit Sazonov

Sergei Sazonov has been Russia’s foreign minister since 1910. He played his part in the crisis that led to this war’s outbreak and continued to guide his country’s foreign policy afterwards. Russian politics has become increasingly tense since then, with arch-conservatives facing off against those who favour a more liberal course. Sazonov is on the liberal side, but the conservatives are in the ascendant, as they have the support of Tsarina Alexandra and Rasputin, her spiritual advisor.

In an effort to bolster foreign support for Russia, Sazonov has come up with a plan to offer Poland autonomy after the war. This could also undercut German and Austro-Hungarian efforts to recruit Poles into their armies. He puts his proposal to the Tsar, who is probably unsure what to make of it. The Tsarina however is furious, seeing Polish home rule as a dangerous concession too far. She reminds her husband of his duty to maintain his autocratic rule. And so the Tsar acts, dismissing Sazonov from the government.

image sources:

Sergei Sazonov (Today in World War I)

Rasputin, the Tsar, and the Tsarina (Wikipedia)

16/9/1915 Tsar Nicholas dissolves the troublesome Duma

In Russia, Tsar Nicholas has assumed personal command of the army. He is increasingly convinced that he must rule in the autocratic rule of his predecessors. Concessions to liberalism have been a mistake, he feels. Russia’s parliament, the Duma, was convened in August in the hope that this would reinvigorate popular support for the war. Instead the Duma has become a troublesome hotbed of dissent and grumbling, with the Progressive Bloc of deputies seeking to chip away at the Tsar’s authority. Nicholas has had enough of this nonsense. He orders the suspension of the Duma. He will rule without it.

The Tsar’s loyal prime minister, Ivan Gormeykin, informs the cabinet of the Tsar’s wishes. They are aghast, seeing the Duma as necessary to provide some popular support for the regime. Foreign minister Sazonov makes the unguarded comment that the Tsar has lost his mind.

In Petrograd (as St. Petersburg has been renamed) there is a short-lived general strike in support of the Duma, but generally there is little popular reaction to the assembly’s closure. Perhaps the Tsar is right to think that he does not need any body mediating between his royal self and the Russian people.

image source:

Ivan Goremykin (Wikipedia)

12/3/1915 Britain replies to Sazonov

Sergei Sazonov, the Russian foreign minister, has written to the British and French ambassadors in St. Petersburg saying that Russia should take control of Constantinople and both banks of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles once Turkey is defeated. Now Britain’s ambassador, Sir George Buchanan, delivers the reply given to him by his masters in London. Britain will acquiesce to Russian occupation of the Straits, provided that free passage through them will be guaranteed. In return, Russia is expected to accept increased British influence in Persia. Buchanan delivers his reply to the Tsar himself, with Sazonov in attendance. The Russians agree that they are getting a bargain.

Of course, Turkey remains as yet undefeated, but the planned Franco-British attack on the Straits will surely bring the Allies to Constantinople and knock the Ottoman Empire out of the war.

map (West Point)

4/3/1915 The return of Sergei Sazonov

It is easy to imagine that once war broke out last year the foreign ministries of Europe closed their doors, that diplomats retired to their country estates, perhaps with a satisfied sense that their life’s work had been accomplished. But not so. Even in the midst of war, diplomacy continues. With the Ottoman Empire looking increasingly shaky, the leaders of the Allied nations begin to think about how it might be carved up between them.

Today Sergei Sazonov, foreign minister of Russia, writes to the French and British ambassadors in St. Petersburg. Sazonov proposes that Constantinople be ceded to the Russian empire. Furthermore, he says that Russia should receive control of both sides of the Bosphorus and Dardanelles and the shores of the sea of Marmara. In short Sazonov is proposing that Russia receive complete control of the Straits, achieving the long-held Russian goal of unimpeded access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean.

Sazonov attempts to secure British and French support for the annexation of the Straits by promising to scrupulously respect their interests there. He also suggests that Russia would be happy to support their own plans to annex Turkish or other territory.

image source (Oriental Review)

1/8/1914 Germany’s declaration of war is served on Russia

And what of Russia? Pourtalès had presented Germany’s ultimatum to Sazonov just after midnight. At that point Sazonov said that Russia’s mobilisation could not be halted, for technical reasons. But he also said that Russia’s mobilisation is not like Germany’s, meaning that it does not have to lead to war.

The ultimatum’s deadline passes with no further reply. Pourtalès receives his instructions from Berlin and at the appointed time he calls again to see Sazonov. He asks again whether Russia can give a favourable reply to the ultimatum. Sazonov says no. Pourtalès asks again, emphasising that there will be serious consequences for non-compliance. Sazonov reaffirms his refusal a second time, and then a third. An emotional Pourtalès hands Sazonov the declaration of war. The two men embrace and then part.

Pourtalès collects his passports and makes preparations to leave St. Petersburg in the morning. Sazonov telegrams his ambassadors the news and then meets Buchanan and Paléologue for dinner.

Dramatis Personae

image sources

Friedrich Pourtalès image source (Oriental Review: Who ignited First World War?)

Sergei Sazonov image source (Wikipedia)

30/7/1914 The Tsar orders general mobilisation again, for real this time

Yesterday the Tsar ordered general mobilisation and then cancelled the order shortly afterwards. Today he is trying to hold firm to not mobilising, refusing even to talk to people he thinks might try and cajole him into changing his mind again. But he agrees to meet Sazonov in the afternoon, for a briefing on the general situation from his foreign minister.

When they meet, Sazonov impresses on his master that Germany is clearly angling for war. Russia’s mobilisation would be a sensible precaution, not something that would provoke further escalation. The Tsar is torn, not wanting to set in train events that will lead to armageddon. Yet finally he gives in and authorises the general mobilisation of Russia’s army against both Austria-Hungary and Germany. It is agreed that mobilisation will be kept secret for as long as possible, to give Russia as much of a head start on its enemies as possible.

The French ambassador is informed. He wires home the news. This is important, because under the terms of the Russo-French alliance, the two countries are to launch joint invasions of Germany on the 15th day after mobilisation begins.

Sazonov himself wires Benckendorff, his ambassador in London. He is to make urgent representations to the British regarding two battleships being built there for Turkey. Their transfer to the Turks must be stopped, as this would drastically alter the naval balance of power in the Black Sea.

Dramatis Personae

30/7/1914 The Tsar upsets the Kaiser

After midnight, Sazonov summons Pourtalès and confronts him with the contradiction between the conciliatory telegrams from the Kaiser and his own threatening messages. The German ambassador tries to claim that his messages were a friendly warning to Russia to halt its mobilisation against Austria-Hungary. But Sazonov is not having it and insists that the mobilisation cannot be reversed.

In the small hours of the morning, the Tsar decides to send another telegram to the Kaiser. He tries to reassure the Kaiser of Russia’s peaceful intentions, but he lets slip that Russia began its military preparations five days ago. When the Kaiser reads this, he is furious. The duplicitous Tsar has tricked him, for Russia’s armed forces were already readying for war when Nicholas sent his first telegram saying that Russia might have to start military preparations in the future.

Dramatis Personae

29/7/1914 The Tsar orders general mobilisation, then orders it halted

In Russia, the Tsar talks to Sazonov by telephone. Nicholas is perplexed by the discrepancy between the friendly telegram he has received from the Kaiser and the threats of Pourtalès. He telegrams the Kaiser, asking for an explanation.

Sazonov telephones the Tsar later, asking him to approve general mobilisation, given Austria-Hungary’s moves against Serbia and Germany’s threats. The Tsar agrees. Telegrams go out to district commanders, setting the wheels of war in motion. But then the Tsar receives another telegram from the Kaiser (a reply to his message of yesterday). The message is conciliatory and urges Nicholas to avoid mobilisation. There is still a chance for peace!

The Tsar telephones Sukhomlinov, the war minister. Despite the protests of Sukhomlinov and Yanushkevitch, the army chief of staff, the Tsar insists that mobilisation be halted.

29/7/1914 The Russians lose faith in the Germans

The British government is divided. A minority, including Churchill, Grey and Prime Minister Asquith, favour siding with Russia and France in the event of a European war, but most are for neutrality. At this stage any definite decision risks splitting cabinet and bringing an end to the government. A definite decision is therefore avoided.

Wilhelm meets with Bethmann Hollweg, Falkenhayn and Tirpitz (the naval minister) in Potsdam. Time seems to be running out and the Kaiser berates the chancellor for his incompetent management of policy. Nevertheless, with diplomatic efforts still in train it is deemed too soon to declare Kriegsgefahrzustand, let alone start mobilising the army.

Bethmann Hollweg suggests handing over the fleet to Britain to buy its neutrality. To Tirpitz’s relief, the Kaiser baulks at this suggestion.

The Russians learn of Austria-Hungary’s shelling of Belgrade in the late afternoon. Sazonov meets Pourtalès again. So much for Germany’s restraint of its ally! The German ambassador now advances the line sent to him by Bethmann Hollweg, that Russia should halt its military preparations lest Germany itself mobilise. Sazonov takes this as threat and accuses Germany of pushing Austria-Hungary into belligerence.

29/7/1914 Bethmann Hollweg tries to give diplomacy a chance

In St. Petersburg, Sazonov and Pourtalès meet. The German ambassador insists that Germany is doing everything possible to restrain Austria-Hungary and urges Russia not to inflame the situation by mobilising its army.

In Germany, worrying reports continue to arrive about the scale of Russian military preparations. Moltke sends a note to Bethmann Hollweg demanding that Austria-Hungary be told to mobilise against Russia as well as Serbia.

Bethmann Hollweg meets with Moltke and Erich von Falkenhayn, the war minister. Falkenhayn wants to declare Kriegsgefahrzustand, an Imminent Danger of War, which would advance military preparations and be followed after two days by mobilisation. Bethmann Hollweg demurs, hoping that diplomacy can still prevent war. He wires his ambassadors in St. Petersburg and Paris to have them warn Russia and France that if they proceed with their military preparations then Germany will have to respond in kind.