Co-opt Russia or destabilize Russia and cause chaos along its entire frontier – this has been the foreign policy of first Britain, then the United States, for well over 100 years. It continues even today.
The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan.
Previously, Frankopan offered an overview regarding Britain’s concern of the threat created by Russia against her empire. In his view, this was perhaps the primary cause of the Great War. Frankopan goes on to develop some of the specifics:
…Russia’s influence and involvement in the east continued to expand at accelerating speed as it developed its own Silk Roads. The construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway, and the connection with the Chinese Eastern Railway, led to an immediate boom in trade, with volumes nearly trebling between 1895 and 1914.
In 1895, Russia established the Russo-Chinese bank, via its embassy in Paris and capitalized by Russia and France. The bank opened an office in Shanghai shortly thereafter. This bank helped finance the Chinese Eastern Railway.
In 1894, before the railways had opened up new possibilities, more than 80 per cent of all customs revenue collected in China was paid by Britain and British companies – whose ships also carried more than four-fifths of China’s total trade.
Better developed trade routes by land throughout this “world island” would reduce the value (and leverage) of the trade routes via the British-controlled seas and ports.
It was obvious that Russia’s rise, and that of the new land routes that would bring produce to Europe, would come at Britain’s expense.
Further, there was tremendous untapped wealth in this world island – wealth that could drastically shift the global balance of power. As Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin told the Duma in 1908:
“Our distant and inhospitable frontier territory is rich in gold, woods, furs, and immense spaces suitable for agriculture.”
It was during this time, in the late 1890s, that Russia began to take steps to woo Persia. At a time when the mountains effectively blocked Russia from Afghanistan (and, hence, India), Persia offered a clear pathway to Britain’s crown jewel of the sub-continent.
By this time, Russia had already built the Trans-Caspian Railway, skirting the northern borders of both Persia and Afghanistan. By 1900, there were those in Russia advocating the development of connecting lines into each of these neighboring countries – and the British knew this.
At the same time that Britain faced these concerns, Russia was undergoing internal turmoil. Strikes in St. Petersburg in 1905 were only a foreshadowing – with the Tsar considering to flee Russia. After the disastrous outcome of the Russo-Japanese War, there were concerns in Russia about the effect on the population if further wars were pursued – a revolution, perhaps. Then, as now, the threats posed by Russia may have been exaggerated in order to secure other agendas.
Nevertheless, if Russia was to develop its “distant and inhospitable frontier territory,” and connect it via rail to trading locations east, west, and south, this would be a damaging blow to Britain.
Britain’s position in the east was limited and dangerously exposed. What was needed was the reorientation of Russia’s focus away from this region altogether.
And with this, perhaps, one will find the root cause for the Great War in Europe – a root cause just waiting for an exploitable event. Onto the stage steps the soon-to-be appointed Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Gray:
In a bold statement given to The Times just a month before his appointment at the end of 1905, he made it clear that there would be much to gain if an understanding could be reached about “our Asiatic possessions.” No British government, he said, would “make it its business to thwart or obstruct Russia’s policy in Europe.” It was “urgently desirable,” therefore, “that Russia’s position and influence” should be expanded in Europe – and diverted, in other words, from Asia.
Britain desired alliance with Russia in order to get Russia focused in Europe, which meant, ultimately, a war in Europe that would consume Russia. When looked through this lens, many subsequent events make sense.
A specific understanding of dates and events is in order: France and Russia had good relations as far back as the 1870s, both with a common enemy: Germany. As late as the Russo-Japanese War, Britain opposed Russia in support of Japan. On 8 April 1904 a series of agreements was signed between Britain and France, known as the Entente Cordiale. Also in 1904, the Franco-Russian Alliance was consummated.
Edward Gray took office as Foreign Secretary on 10 December 1905; therefore, his aforementioned statement was made around the beginning of November. On 31 January 1906, secret military talks began between the British and the French, binding the British Expeditionary Force to the French Army.
France was growing increasingly concerned about the growth of Germany – and remained angered about the defeat in war just three decades before; Britain did not want to see a continental power grow to be its rival. This concern certainly extended to Germany; apparently, it also extended to Russia. Meanwhile, France saw Russia as an ally in its designs regarding Germany.
In the meantime, in August of 1907, Britain and Russia concluded a treaty regarding the division of Persia, Afghanistan and Tibet into “spheres of influence,” ending a further threat to Britain’s sub-continent…just as Edward Gray had desired.
As Sir Charles Hardinge, permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office in London, stressed in 1908, “it is far more essential for us to have a good understanding with Russia in Asia and the Near East, than for us to be on good terms with Germany.”
Russia was seen as a bigger threat to Empire than was Germany. Good for empire, not so good for the British people.
Britain would do all it could to develop and maintain good relations with Russia; this included a favorable disposition toward the issue of the Bosporus. Russia ran with this idea, gaining Austrian support in September 1908 on the issue of the Bosporus Straits in exchange for acquiescence for Russia’s support regarding Austria’s annexation of Bosnia – an agreement that had disastrous consequences, seen by Slavs both within and outside of Russia as a sell-out.
Even in 1910, Sir Edward Gray held firm: there could be no agreement with Germany that might sacrifice good relations with France and Russia. In the meantime, Germany saw the necessity to break the alliance among Britain, France and Russia – to include a meeting between the Kaiser and Tsar Nicolas in 1910. All efforts came to naught.
Meanwhile, British propaganda about the Hun stoked the people to a fever pitch.
Why was there such a hatred of us, wrote Robert Musil in Berlin in September 1914: where did the envy come from that “was no fault of our own?”
Because Britain desired this war, a war designed to both divert and consume Russia.
The Great War came not because of an assassin’s bullet, not because of Germany’s entry into a naval race, not because of a blind bloodlust from the Kaiser. For Britain, Russia was seen as both an ally and a rival; for Britain, the war was an opportunity to use turn that ally against itself, thus eliminating the threat to Britain’s control of trade along the sea routes that had replaced the Silk Roads.
The end of the war came: Germany was forced to accept all blame for the war. Meanwhile, Britain achieved its objective: progress in Russia would grind to a halt, with the revolutions of 1917 ensuring Russia would remain diverted for quite some time.
The cost? Ten million dead from fighting, half-again from disease. Two-hundred billion dollars spent; European economies shattered. Deficits piled high, empires that dominated the globe destroyed.
Britain had won the battle, if one can refer to the Great War as such within the context of containing Russia; it lost the war.
And it took European civilization down with it.