Russia entered World War I in the three days succeeding July 28, 1914 — beginning with Austria-Hungary's declaration of war against Serbia, a Russian ally. Via St Petersburg, the Russian Empire sent an ultimatum to Vienna warning Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia. Following the invasion of Serbia, Russia began to mobilize its very large reserve army. Consequently, on July 31, the German Empire in Berlin demanded Russian demobilization. There was no response; hence, on the same day, Germany declared war on Russia. In accordance with its war plan, Germany ignored Russia and moved first against France by declaring war on August 3, and by sending its main armies through Belgium to surround Paris. The threat to France caused Britain to declare war on Germany on August 4. The main belligerents had been established. (The Ottoman Empire soon joined the Central Powers and fought Russia along their border.)
Historians researching the causes of World War I have emphasised the role of Germany and Austria-Hungary. Scholarly consensus has typically minimised Russian involvement in the outbreak of this mass conflict. Key elements were Russia's defence of Orthodox Serbia, its pan-Slavic roles, its treaty obligations with France, and its concern with protecting its status as a great power. However, historian Sean McMeekin has emphasised Russian plans to expand its empire southward and to seize Constantinople as an outlet to the Mediterranean Sea.
Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated by Bosnian Serbs on 28 June 1914 due to Austria-Hungary's annexation of the largely Slavic province. Vienna was unable to find evidence that the Serbian state had sponsored this assassination but, one month later, it issued an ultimatum to Serbia, which it knew would be rejected and thus lead to war. Austria-Hungary deemed Serbia to be deserving of punishment for the assassination. Although Russia had no formal treaty obligation to Serbia, it wanted to control the Balkans, and had a long-term perspective toward gaining a military advantage over Germany and Austria-Hungary. Russia had incentive to delay militarization, and the majority of its leaders wanted to avoid war. However, Russia had the support of France and feared that a failure to defend Serbia would lead to the loss of Russian credibility, constituting a major political defeat in its goal of controlling the Balkans. Tsar Nicholas II mobilized Russian forces on 30 July 1914 to threaten Austria-Hungary if it invaded Serbia. Christopher Clark stated: "The Russian general mobilisation [of 30 July] was one of the most momentous decisions of the July crisis". The first general mobilization occurred before the German government had declared a state of impending war.
Germany felt threatened by Russia, responding with its own mobilization and a declaration of war on 1 August 1914. At the outset of hostilities, Russian forces led offensives against both Germany and Austria-Hungary.
Between 1873 and 1887, Russia was allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary in the League of the Three Emperors and then with Germany in the 1887-1890 Reinsurance Treaty. Both collapsed because of the competing interests of Austria-Hungary and Russia in the Balkans. France took advantage of that to agree the 1894 Franco-Russian Alliance, but Britain viewed Russia with deep suspicion because of The Great Game. In 1800, over 3,000 km separated Russia and British India, but by 1902, it was 30 km in some areas with Russian advances into Central Asia. That threatened to bring the two into direct conflict, as did the long-held Russian objective of gaining control of the Bosporus Straits and with it access to the British-dominated Mediterranean Sea.
Defeat in the 1905 Russo-Japanese War and Britain's isolation during the 1899-1902 Second Boer War led both parties to seek allies. The Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 settled disputes in Asia and allowed the establishment of the Triple Entente with France, which was still largely informal. In 1908, Austria-Hungary annexed the former Ottoman province of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Russia responded by creating the Balkan League to prevent further Austrian expansion.
In the 1912-1913 First Balkan War, Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece captured most of the remaining Ottoman possessions in Europe. Disputes over their division resulted in the Second Balkan War in which Bulgaria was comprehensively defeated by its former allies.
Russia's industrial base and railway network had significantly improved since 1905 although from a relatively-low base. In 1913, Nicholas II approved an increase in the Russian Army of over 500,000 men. Although there was no formal alliance between Russia and Serbia, their close bilateral links provided Russia with a route into the crumbling Ottoman Empire, where Germany also had significant interests. Combined with the increase in Russian military strength, both Austria and Germany felt threatened by Serbian expansion. When Austria invaded Serbia on 28 July 1914, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov viewed it as an Austro-German conspiracy to end Russian influence in the Balkans.
On 30 July, Russia declared general mobilisation in support of Serbia. On 1 August, Germany declared war on Russia, followed by Austria-Hungary on the 6th. Russia and the Entente declared war on the Ottoman Empire in November 1914, after Ottoman warships had bombarded the Black Sea port of Odessa in late October. Unlike its Allies, the Russian Empire was one contiguous landmass, but it also considered itself the defender of its fellow Slavs in places like Serbia.
Historians agree on the poor quality of Russia's top leadership. Tsar Nicholas II made all final decisions but was repeatedly given conflicting advice and typically made the wrong choice. He set up a deeply flawed organisational structure that was inadequate for the high pressures and the instant demands of wartime. The British historian David Stevenson, for example, points to the "disastrous consequences of deficient civil-military liaison" in which the civilians and generals were not in contact with each other. The government was entirely unaware of its fatal weaknesses and remained out of touch with public opinion. The foreign minister had to warn Nicholas that "unless he yielded to the popular demand and unsheathed the sword on Serbia's behalf, he would run the risk of revolution and the loss of his throne". Nicholas yielded but lost his throne anyway. Stevenson concludes:
Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov was not a powerful player. According to the historian Thomas Otte, "Sazonov felt too insecure to advance his positions against stronger men.... He tended to yield rather than to press home his own views.... At the critical stages of the July crisis Sazonov was inconsistent and showed an uncertain grasp of international realities. The Tsar fired Sazonov in July 1916 and gave his ministry as an extra portfolio to Prime Minister Stürmer. The French ambassador was aghast, depicting Stürmer as "worse than a mediocrity – a third rate intellect, mean spirit, low character, doubtful honesty, no experience, and no idea of state business."
Serious planning for a future war was practically impossible because of the complex rivalries and priorities given to royalty. The main criteria for high command was linkage to the royalty, rather than expertise. The General Staff had expertise but was often outweighed by the elite Imperial Guards, a favourite bastion of the aristocracy that prized parades over planning large-scale military maneuvers. The grand dukes inevitably gained high commands. At one critical point in 1915, when Grand Duke Nicholas failed badly, the tsar himself took over direct command and control of the entire Army, despite his incompetence. Meanwhile, the tsar allowed the conniving monk Grigori Rasputin to exert enormous influence through his wife, including high-level appointments. The aristocrats finally assassinated him a few weeks before the tsar himself was overthrown. The infantry, artillery, cavalry and logistics services suffered poor communications with one another. The army was made up of peasants, who were ready enough to defend their own villages but showed little national pride. Recruits from Russia's numerous minorities were often persecuted in the barracks.
Russia depended heavily on the French alliance since a two-front war against Germany was winnable but not if Russia was alone. The French ambassador, Maurice Paléologue, hated Germany and saw that when war broke out, France and Russia had to be close allies against Germany. His approach agreed with French President Raymond Poincaré, who trusted him. Unconditional French support to Russia was promised in the unfolding crisis with Germany and Austria. Historians debate whether Palégogue exceeded his instructions but agree that he failed to inform Paris of exactly what was happening, and he did not warn that Russian mobilisation might launch a world war.
On 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated in Sarajevo, and Tsar Nicholas II vacillated as to Russia's course of action. A relatively-new factor influencing Russian policy was the growth of Pan-Slavism, which identified Russia's duty to all Slavs, especially those who practised Eastern Orthodox Christianity. The growth of that impulse shifted attention away from the Ottoman Empire and toward the threat posed to the Slavic people by the Austria-Hungary. Serbia identified itself as the champion of the Pan-Slavic ideal, and Austria-Hungary planned to destroy Serbia for that reason. Nicholas wanted to defend Serbia but not to fight a war with Germany. In a series of letters exchanged with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany (the so-called "Willy and Nicky correspondence"), both cousins proclaimed their desire for peace, and each attempted to get the other to back down. Nicholas desired Russia's mobilization to be only against Austria-Hungary in the hopes of avoiding war with Germany. The Kaiser, however, had pledged to support Austria-Hungary.
On 25 July 1914, Nicholas decided to intervene in the Austro-Serbian conflict, a step toward general war. He put the Russian army on "alert" on 25 July. Although it was not general mobilisation, the German and Austro-Hungarian borders were threatened and looked like military preparation for war. However, the Russian Army had few workable plans and no contingency plans for a partial mobilisation. On 30 July 1914, Nicholas took the fateful step of confirming the order for general mobilisation, despite being very reluctant.
On 28 July, Austria-Hungary formally declared war against Serbia. Count Witte told the French Ambassador, Maurice Paléologue that the Russian point of view considered the war to be madness, Slavic solidarity to be simply nonsense and nothing could be hoped by war.
On 30 July, Russia ordered general mobilization but still maintained that it would not attack if peace talks began. Germany, reacting to the discovery of Russian partial mobilization ordered on 25 July, announced its own pre-mobilization posture, the imminent danger of war. Germany told Russia to demobilize within twelve hours. In Saint Petersburg at 7 p.m., the German ultimatum to Russia expired. The German ambassador to Russia met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov; asked three times if Russia would reconsider; and, with shaking hands, delivered the note accepting Russia's war challenge and declaring war on 1 August. On 6 August, Franz Joseph I of Austria signed the Austro-Hungarian declaration of war against Russia.
At the outbreak of war, each of the European powers began to publish selected, and sometimes misleading, compendia of diplomatic correspondence, seeking to establish justification for their own entry into the war, and to cast blame on other actors. The first of these color books to appear was the German White Book which appeared on 4 August 1914, the same day as Britain's war declaration. The British Blue Book came out two days later, followed by the Russian Orange Book in mid-August.
The outbreak of war on 1 August 1914 found Russia grossly unprepared. The Allies placed their faith in the Russian army, the famous 'Russian steamroller'. Its pre-war regular strength was 1,400,000, mobilization added 3,100,000 reserves and millions more stood ready behind them. In every other respect, however, Russia was unprepared for war. Germany had ten times as many railway track per square kilometer, and Russian soldiers traveled an average of 1,290 kilometres (800 mi) to reach the front, but German soldiers traveled less than a quarter of that distance. Russian heavy industry was still too small to equip the massive armies that the Tsar could raise, and its reserves of munitions were pitifully small. The German army in 1914 was better equipped than any other man for man, the Russian army was severely short on artillery pieces, shells, motorized transports, and even boots.
Before the war, Russian planners had completely neglected the critical logistical issue of how the Allies could ship supplies and munitions to Russia. With the Baltic Sea barred by German U-boats and surface ships and the Dardanelles by the guns of Germany's ally, the Ottoman Empire, Russia initially could receive help only via Archangel, which was frozen solid in winter, or via Vladivostok, which was over 6,400 kilometres (4,000 mi) from the front line. By 1915, a new rail line was begun which gave access to the ice-free port of Murmansk by 1917.
The Russian High Command was greatly weakened by the mutual contempt between War Minister Vladimir Sukhomlinov and the experienced warrior Grand Duke Nicholas, who commanded the armies in the field. However, an immediate attack was ordered against the German province of East Prussia. The Germans mobilized there with great efficiency and completely defeated the two Russian armies that had invaded. The Battle of Tannenberg, where the entire Russian Second Army was annihilated, cast an ominous shadow over the empire's future. The loyal officers lost were the very ones that were needed to protect the dynasty. The Russian armies had some success against both the Austro-Hungarian and the Ottoman Armies, but they were steadily pushed back by the German Army. In September 1914, to relieve pressure on France, the Russians were forced to halt a successful offensive against Austria-Hungary in Galicia to attack German-held Silesia. The main Russian goal was focused on the Balkans and especially taking control of Constantinople. The Ottoman entry into the war opened up new opportunities, but Russia was much too hard-pressed to take advantage of them. Instead, the government incited Britain and France into to the action at Gallipoli, which failed very badly. Russia then incited a rebellion by the Armenians, who were massacred in one of the great atrocities of the war, the Armenian genocide. The combination of poor preparation and poor planning destroyed the morale of Russian troops and set the stage for the collapse of the entire regime in early 1917.
Gradually, a war of attrition set in on the vast Eastern Front; the Russians were facing the combined forces of Germany and Austria-Hungary and suffered staggering losses. General Anton Denikin, retreating from Galicia wrote:
Historians on the origin of the First World War have emphasized the role of Germany and Austria-Hungary. The consensus of scholars includes scant mention of Russia and only brief mentions of Russia's defense of Orthodox Serbia, its pan-Slavic roles, its treaty obligations with France, and its concern for protecting its status as a great power.
However, the historian Sean McMeekin has emphasized Russia's aggressive expansionary goal to the south. He argues that for Russia the war was ultimately about the Ottoman Empire and that the Foreign Ministry and Army were planning a war of aggression from at least 1908 and perhaps even 1895. He emphasizes that the immediate goal was to seize Constantinople and an outlet to the Mediterranean by control of the Straits. Reviewers have generally been negative on McMeekin's revisionist interpretation.
Categories: History of Russia | Foreign relations of the Russian Empire | Politics of the Russian Empire | 20th century in international relations | Entry into World War I by country | 1914 in Europe | 1914 in international relations | July 1914 events