chapter  1
Russian Foreign Policy Under the Last Tsar
Pages 20

As Russia entered the twentieth century, it was faced with foreign policy challenges on a number of fronts. Expansion towards the Far East, not least via the construction of the Trans-Siberian Railway in the late nineteenth century, had brought it into competition with other great powers in vying for trade and influence, and into confrontation with Japan. At the same time, Russian interests in the Balkans were sustained, and unrest within the Empire was spreading. The late Russian Empire was faced, therefore, with a diverse set of

challenges. On the one hand there was a need to protect old interests and to remain strong in the interplay with the Great Powers. On the other hand there was a desire to expand its influence, and increasingly to maintain domestic stability as the tide of revolution built within Russia. The situation of the Russian Empire in the early years of the twentieth

century needs some contextualization. In the 1870s the Russian Empire had entered into an alliance system with Germany and Austria-Hungary. The brainchild of Count Otto von Bismarck, the alliance was designed to bring Russia and Austria-Hungary into an alliance system that would prevent their coming to blows as a result of a clash of interests in the Balkans, while at the same time reassuring Russia that Germany did not pose a threat to Russia and keeping Russia from forging an alliance with the French or British. Bismarck’s alliance system was complicated, ridden with contradictions, and proved ultimately unworkable with Russia as a partner. In 1890 the alliance between Russia and Germany ceased. Isolated, the

Russian Empire sought for a new partnership to counter a potential threat from Germany or Austria. It was as a result of this that the Russian Empire was to forge an alliance with France in 1893-94. The Franco-Russian Alliance was not only an important step in finding a new international partner, it led to an influx of capital which the Russian Empire was able to use to equip its army and develop its industrial and rail capacity. Tsar Alexander III saw the Franco-Russian alliance as a basis for dealing

with a German threat. Officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were to have an intention to

use the alliance as a basis for launching an assault on Germany. While he never took his plan to fruition, the fact that France could be counted on to support Russia in conflict with Germany and Austria nonetheless stood as a factor in late imperial Russian foreign policy considerations. In 1893 construction on the Trans-Siberian Railway commenced. This

brought Russia to a point where it was able to open up trade with the Far East, which brought the Russian Empire into a relatively strong position in the Far East and led to its having an increasing involvement in the region. Russia played an active role in the settlement of the 1894-95 Sino-Japanese War. While Japan had been victorious, Russia stripped the Japanese of most of their gains, seizing territory for itself and gaining control of the Chinese and Korean economies as a result of extending Russian financing. Japan was snubbed, but sought to ensure that Russia did not encroach further on its interests. The maintenance of Russian pressure on British interests in Central Asia

and the Far East led to a somewhat fraught relationship with Great Britain. Russia challenged the security of British India by impinging on British influence in Persia, Afghanistan and the Far East, while also competing for trade. The opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway had given Russia an edge in the Chinese market, and Russian gains after the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 made it a major player in the region. When the Great Powers joined to suppress the Boxer Rebellion in China in 1901, Russia became the steward of the settlement, thus gaining more sway in the Far East. As Russia gained dominance and began on a collision course with Japan, Britain took steps to forge alliances with the Japanese in 1902 and to send an expedition to Tibet in 1903. Conflict in Afghanistan remained, but had been largely settled by border agreements in the 1890s, but as Britain fought a war in South Africa at the turn of the century, the Tsar was keen to point out that Russian pressure on routes to India could well determine the outcome of the British military campaign against the Boers. The closest-fought area, though, was Persia, where in 1900 both Russia and Britain had opened embassies. While the British had given assurances to support the Shah, the Russian Empire secured dominance in road and rail building. The British were concerned that they were not only losing important ground to Russia in Persia, but also to keep Russia from gaining access to a warmwater port on the Persian Gulf, and to limit Russian agitation amongst indigenous tribes in Khorana that could lead to the Shah’s power being challenged. Many of the British concerns about the Russians centred on the security of India. While there was no outright conflict in the early twentieth century between Britain and Russia, the relationship was shaky and the British were clearly wary of the Russian Empire and what they saw as its expansionist tendencies. All of these aspects of Russia’s situation in the world at the beginning of

the twentieth century would come to bear on the challenges and events that some would be resolved

without resort to war, others saw Russia embroiled in conflict, not least in the First World War. It is rather simplistic to see the Russian Empire as on a path to war

in 1914. Nonetheless, it is difficult to escape 1914 as a product of Russian foreign policy in the early years of the twentieth century. Sustained Russian involvement in the Balkans, particularly the support for Serbia, led to Russian interests colliding with those of both the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires. Even so, it was not with Russia’s most likely imperial rivals that the Russian Empire first found itself at war in the early years of the twentieth century. It was with Japan that Russia was to fight its first conflict of the twentieth century.