We are all familiar with the story of the Sykes-Picot Agreement, the agreement between Britain and France for carving up and dividing large portions of the Ottoman Empire after the war. There is one Entente power not formally included in this common narrative, despite being involved in some of the heaviest and most successful military campaigns in Anatolia, Persia, and Mesopotamia.
Let’s rectify this…
The Russian Origins of the First World War, by Sean McMeekin
On 4 March 1915, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov delivered to his ambassadors in Paris and London a message that came directly from Tsar Nicholas II: a formal sovereign demand for postwar control of Constantinople and the Straits. That the Russian’s had their eyes on this prize was no surprise – this had long been an objective for the Russians. Despite this…
Sazonov’s historic aide-mémoire does, however, seem to have offended French and British sensibilities in its deeply inappropriate timing.
It was delivered right in the middle of the bloody Dardanelles campaign, a campaign for which Russia was contributing, as of yet, nothing. Despite this lack of contribution, the British Cabinet formally endorsed Russia’s claim on 12 March.
The author, McMeekin, is surprised by this approval – it is one of many examples he offers through which he concludes that the British diplomats were dupes and the Russians were brilliant. As I have mentioned, this seems unlikely to me – and even in this case there is a reasonable alternative interpretation.
As Peter Frankopan offered, Britain wanted Russia focused on Europe so it would not focus on Britain’s Asia. Had Britain turned down the Tsar’s demands, there was concern that Germanophiles in Russia would convince the Tsar that Britain never intended to support Russia’s claims in Asia Minor.
In the meantime, what was Britain’s formal endorsement actually worth? Had Britain been successful in the Dardanelles campaign (aka Gallipoli), she would have controlled the Straits. Postwar, what would any promises be worth, once there would have been one hundred moving pieces on the map to be sorted out – with possession being nine-tenths of the law and all that.
And if Britain failed to secure Constantinople and the Straits – well, she would owe Russia exactly nothing. So, Britain’s endorsement of the Tsar’s demands would keep Russia fighting in Germany and leave Britain free to secure (or not) Asia Minor…and keep Russia out of one of the key passageways of the east.
The famous Sykes-Picot Agreement was negotiated in the period January – May 1916. It was negotiated during the time when Britain suffered perhaps its two most humiliating defeats in the Ottoman territories: Gallipoli and Kut.
The Gallipoli campaign began as a naval assault in February 1915. In April, British forces landed on the peninsula. The battle lasted until January 1916, ending with a British evacuation. Casualties on the Allied side numbered almost 190,000, including 27,000 from France. This does not include over 100,000 evacuated due to sickness.
The British first took Kut, in today’s Iraq, in September 1915. In December 1915, the Turks began a siege of the city. In April 1916, the British surrendered, but not before some 23,000 British and Indian soldiers died in trying to retake it. Some 8,000 British soldiers survived the siege and were taken into captivity.
Meanwhile, Russia was achieving meaningful successes in Anatolia. The Russians began their campaign in January, taking Erzurum, moving along the Black Sea and taking Rize and Trabzon. Further successes were to follow; as these came after the Sykes-Picot Agreement was ratified, these are not germane to the current topic.
So, Britain was failing, Russia was advancing; Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire with France, Russia was not involved?
In fact, Sazonov was fully involved behind the scenes (I seem to recall David Fromkin mentioning Sazonov’s involvement in his book “A Peace to End All Peace,” but not to this depth), placing certain demands especially regarding the regions that were to be found in the zones that divided Russian claims from French. As this was the issue, Britain could stay relatively neutral in the discussion; meanwhile, France, wanting to keep Russia content and therefore engaged against Germany, gave in.
While willing to concede English pretentions about a new “Arab Caliphate,” Zionism, and to cede Palestine to French or English control (with protections for traditional Russian prerogatives over Orthodox holy sites), Russia’s leaders agreed unanimously that the French zone must not include Urmia province or the Taurus mountains.
Without control of the important mountain passes, Sazonov would not sign on to any such agreement. Sazonov further wrote:
Russia will annex the provinces of Erzerum, Trabzon, Van and Bitlis up to a point along the Black Sea coast to the west of Trabzon.
He made further claims to the south and west – all at the expense of the French. Without active British support – it wasn’t their fight and they wanted to keep Russia engaged – the French finally gave in.
And with this, the Sykes-Picot Agreement came to be. We regularly think of this agreement when considering the issues in the Middle East today – those artificial straight lines drawn by the French and the British in the middle of the desert. As they exercised control over these regions for many years after the war, their involvement is easy to remember.
The Russians never ended up in a position to exercise control over these regions in Anatolia (despite continuing successes in the theater even into 1917, their own revolution got in the way of imperial ambitions). For this reason, no one lays blame on them for the mess in the region today (well, at least not for reasons tied to World War I).
But it doesn’t mean that the Russians didn’t try!