What Putin Really Wants in Ukraine
Russia Seeks to Stop NATO’s Expansion, Not to Annex More Territory
RUSSIAN policy in the question of Constantinople and the Straits occupies an important place in the argument of those historians who are inclined to ascribe to the former Empire of the Tsars a rather heavy share of responsibility for the outbreak of the war.
Their thesis (the latest and probably the fullest version of which will be found in Professor Sidney B. Fay's "The Origins of the World War") runs along the following lines. The decline of Turkey stimulated the desire of Russia to fulfil her "historic mission" on the shores of the Bosphorus. Isvolsky's failures to secure the opening of the Dardanelles by diplomatic methods, and especially his defeat in 1909, convinced Isvolsky himself and his successor at the Russian Foreign Office, M. Sazonov, that this could be achieved only in connection with a general European war and that such a conflict was "inevitable." Sazonov was under the strong influence of the militarists and the Pan-Slavs. His purpose was (we are told by Professor Fay) more far-reaching than those of Isvolsky: while the latter was merely trying to open the Straits for Russian warships, Sazonov was planning to obtain possession of the Straits and control Constantinople. That is why he was so alarmed by the Liman von Sanders Mission. He urged strong measures against Germany, but failed, thanks to the concessions made by the Government of Berlin and to the restraining influence of Count Kokovtzov. The spring of 1914 was spent in strengthening the ties of the Entente. In July 1914," with the restraining hand of Kokovtzov removed, Sazonov believed that this Entente solidarity was virtually assured, when the murder of the Archduke and the Austrian ultimatum caused the 'European complications' by means of which he calculated that Russia could finally achieve her 'historic mission.'"[i]
This simple historical scheme, which at first sight explains so well the motives and purpose of Russia's Balkan policy before the war and her attitude in July 1914, is not, perhaps, so firmly established as its proponents want us to believe. From certain documents published recently by the Soviet Government[ii] it appears that the idea of a military operation against Constantinople and of the "historic mission" in general was not as popular among Russian military leaders (the Grand Duke Nicholas, General Alexeev, General Danilov) as is usually supposed, and that there were men of considerable weight at the Foreign Office, for instance, Prince Kudashev -- representative of the Foreign Office at the Headquarters, and later on Ambassador to Peking -- who openly maintained that Russia was not "morally and physically" ready for the annexation of the Straits. So the theory of militarist influence should not be accepted without adequate proof.
Let us now turn to another link in the argument which we are dissecting, the attitude of Sazonov at the Conference of December 31, 1913 (January 13, 1914), which, the reader will remember, was called to discuss the situation created by the appointment of Liman von Sanders as commander of the Turkish troops in Constantinople, which appointment had become known a month or so earlier. Professor Fay traces the history of the negotiations and describes the Conference, at which Sazonov proposed certain measures of repression which could be brought against Turkey.[iii] He takes advantage of this opportunity to draw a vivid picture of the supposed struggle between the "wise, peace-loving, and conciliatory" Count Kokovtzov and the "aggressive" Minister of Foreign Affairs. "This Conference," he says, "reveals sharply the contrast between Kokovtzov's moderate, conciliatory, and restraining influence on the one hand, and, on the other, the dangerous policy of military pressure urged by Sazonov and the military and naval officials. Kokovtzov, as Minister of Finance, looked at the affairs more from a business man's point of view than from that of a politician. . . . He was not blinded by the diplomatist's shibboleths about Pan-Slav interests, Russia's 'prestige,' and her 'historic mission.' . . . When he bluntly put the question, Is a war with Germany desirable? the other members of the Conference were forced to agree with him that it was not. It was therefore an incalculable misfortune for Russia and the world that, a few days after the Conference, M. Kokovtzov followed Count Witte into political retirement, and left the field free to M. Sazonov and the Russian Pan-Slavs and militarists." And Professor Fay dismisses the question with the following remark: "It is interesting to speculate on how the course of history might have been changed, if Kokovtzov had replaced Isvolsky at Paris, or if he had still been able as Premier to exert a restraining influence at St. Petersburg in July, 1914. With his sweet reasonableness, his fine character, and his friendly personal relations with the Kaiser and the Berlin authorities, he might have been able to prevent the over-hasty steps which helped cause the World War. It was Russia's misfortune that she discarded real statesmen like Count Witte and M. Kokovtzov in favor of prestige diplomats like Isvolsky and Sazonov."
The importance of these quotations will be made clear, I hope, from what follows. It seems that the statement made by Professor Fay as to the complete disagreement between Kokovtzov and Sazonov is based solely on the minutes of the conference. But the reader who approaches the question from a different point of view may find it difficult to discover in the minutes sufficient evidence to warrant Professor Fay's conclusions. Nor can they be accepted without challenge by any one who has a first-hand knowledge, however limited, of the members of the former Russian Government and of the general attitude of the government circles of St. Petersburg. I ventured, therefore, to write to Count Kokovtzov, who is now residing in Paris, and was fortunate enough to secure his consent for the publication of his reply. It is dated April 23, 1929, and runs as follows:
"I have read very carefully the passages in the book of Professor Fay marked by you, and I may tell you without hesitation, and giving you complete freedom in using my statement at your discretion, that I do not share his conclusion that my retirement from the Government was used by S. D. Sazonov in order to enforce a more rigorous policy in the conduct of Russia's foreign affairs.
"The personal relationship between men who, by the force of circumstances, have to work together on the solution of political problems, especially at critical moments of their development, should be judged, generally speaking, not so much by an analysis of personal feelings and hypotheses which do not admit of an impartial investigation, as by an examination of external, concrete manifestations supported by well-established facts.
"Approaching the problem from this point of view, I may say that even now, fifteen years after my withdrawal from the active service of my country, I still feel perfectly sure that during the term of almost three years when I was the President of the Council of Ministers, no divergency of opinion on any question of importance arose between myself and the former Minister of Foreign Affairs, M. Sazonov. Under the laws of the former Russian Empire the jurisdiction of the President of the Council of Ministers in questions of international policy was very indefinite. The conduct of Russia's foreign policy was entirely in the hands of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. He took his orders directly from the Emperor who himself decided all vital questions. In spite of this, M. Sazonov never made the slightest attempt to prevent me from taking an active part in the direction of the most important and responsible problems of Russian foreign policy and on many occasions was the first to suggest our collaboration in the discussion of such problems. A number of questions were submitted for the approval of the Emperor after I had examined them jointly with the Minister of Foreign Affairs, and not unfrequently Sazonov himself asked my opinion without my having to bring the matter to his attention.
"The vast realm of Russian policy in the Balkans between September 1911 and December 1913 was invariably the subject of our concerted efforts and not a single decision dealing with these problems was reached without my opinion being given and brought to the attention of the Emperor. I cannot recollect a single instance of disagreement between Sazonov and myself and all the outbursts of public opinion of Russia, or rather of St. Petersburg, during the Balkan war of 1912, outbursts which manifested themselves in the well-known demonstrations of the Pan-Slavonic Society which claimed 'A cross on St. Sophia' and 'Scutari -- for Montenegro,' were directed against myself as much as against Sazonov, because we were both taking decisive measures to pacify the Balkans and were endeavoring to preserve the peace of Europe through a timely mediation of the Great Powers.
"In particular, the negotiations on the question of the appointment of General Liman von Sanders as inspector of the Turkish Army and Commander of the Second Army Corps stationed at Constantinople, and the protest of Russia against this appointment, was entrusted to me by the Emperor, on the initiative of Sazonov, without my even knowing that this problem had arisen: in October 1913 I happened to be abroad and learned about the appointment of Liman von Sanders only in Berlin from a telegram of the Minister of the Imperial Household.
"I had to take upon myself all the burden and responsibility of asking explanations from the Emperor of Germany and I prepared the report for the Russian Emperor on the negotiations which took place between the Russian and the German Government. Sazonov merely added the statement that he was in complete agreement with my views, and all the negotiations in December 1913 and January 1914 which resulted in the winding up of this incident were conducted by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a matter of routine on the basis of the explanations I had obtained in Berlin.
"As to the report of the Emperor made by Sazonov in December 1913, and the conference (over which I presided) called to give effect to the decisions resulting from the report, and especially as to the personal attitude of Sazonov in the question of the Straits and Turkey, the point of view of Professor Fay seems hardly justified.
"During the whole of our collaboration in the Government, at first under the presidency of Stolypin and then later when I succeeded him, until the very day of my resignation, Sazonov never was in favor of an aggressive policy of Russia against Turkey. His fundamental point of view, that a weak Turkey is advantageous to Russia and that Russia should not hasten her collapse, is clearly stated in his report and recurs over and over again in his declarations. His point of view was open to only one criticism: in exposing his argument to the Emperor, he discussed the Turkish problem as something disparate and independent, outside the realm of general European politics where grave complications are apt to arise most unexpectedly and from innumerable causes. He believed, as it appears from his report, that the interests of Russia in the Turkish question might be safeguarded by reaching an agreement with France and England on terms favorable to Russia; and he was certainly remote from the idea of starting by a careless step a world-wide cataclysm.
"He was perfectly aware of our military unpreparedness and on this particular question we were in complete agreement. He was a constant witness of my arguments with the Minister of War over the question of the organization of national defense, arguments in which I was usually supported by the State Controller. I never kept secret from Sazonov the information which I possessed in addition to the information at the disposal of the Council of Ministers, and we invariably agreed that the opinions of the Minister of War were far too optimistic and were due to his complete ignorance of the actual conditions.
"Indeed, when Sazonov presented his report to the Emperor, it could not occur to him that his views would one day become public and would be submitted to the critical examination of outsiders; his sole purpose was to draw the attention of the Emperor to one of the routine problems of his department. At the same time he approached the question in a much more critical spirit than was usual at that time, that is, he expressed the desire that his conclusions should be submitted to the examination of the departments concerned. That is how the idea of the discussion of his report in a conference under my chairmanship came into being. The report itself was far from suggesting a solution of the Turkish problem by aggressive methods. It was limited to an outline of measures to be taken in case of the collapse of Turkey and laid emphasis upon the necessity of being ready for such an emergency by increasing the influence of Russia in the course of events which might occur without her consent or without her being in any way involved in bringing them into being. If Sazonov did not mention in his report that the measures he proposed (which were utterly inadequate and hardly practicable under the prevailing conditions) might become the source of a world crisis, it was simply because the whole of his report was in the nature of an academic discussion of future preparations, and was absolutely remote from the idea of directing Russia along the path of immediate and aggressive policy in the Turkish question.
"I may also add that, contrary to the conclusions of Professor Fay, Sazonov was not at that time, in January 1914, under the influence of our Ministry of War and of the Admiralty. He was not under the influence of the Ministry of War because, as I have pointed out, he was well aware of our unpreparedness; as for the Admiralty, it never showed the least aggressiveness in its policy and was conspicuous for its extreme caution. I am in an exceptionally good position to bear witness to this particular matter because until the very day of my retirement from the Government (January 30/February 12, 1914) I worked in close collaboration with Admiral Grigorovich on all questions of our naval defense and their influence on our general policy.
"But, as a matter of fact, the exposition of Professor Fay himself shows clearly enough that neither the Ministry of War nor the Admiralty displayed any aggressiveness during the discussion of the report of Sazonov by the Conference. They did not lend their support either to the idea of an expedition against Constantinople, or to the proposed occupation of Trebizond and Bayazid.
"As to my own part in the conference, I still retain, in spite of the fifteen years which have elapsed and the complete absence of any contemporary records at my disposal, a very vivid and detailed memory of the discussion.
"My part consisted not so much in trying to prove that the measures suggested by the Minister of Foreign Affairs were inacceptable in principle and at the same time impracticable, as in arguing the two following propositions: (1) the complete improbability that the point of view of the report would be accepted by France and especially by England; and (2) the close connection of this problem with the general problem of European peace and the danger of even raising it. I had an opportunity of explaining my views, which, as a matter of fact were already well-known to the members of the conference, with much more detail than appears from the written records which have been preserved. And if I succeeded in winning the consent of my colleagues with very little trouble and certainly with less effort than I had to use in a number of infinitely smaller problems, it is because no member of the conference, and certainly not Sazonov, was contemplating the starting of a world war, and none of them would even admit the possibility of any step on our part which would disturb the peace of the Balkans, only just reëstablished.
"One should not forget that by that time my personal influence, as head of the government, was not too strong. A short period of a mere four weeks intervened before I was to withdraw from the position of President of the Council of Ministers and Minister of Finance. And this was known to myself as well as to the members of the conference.
"I should like to add that it seems extremely doubtful that my resignation from the Government was received by Sazonov with a feeling of relief, as the removal of a limitation on his freedom of action; and I believe it still more doubtful that he was pleased by it and was even seeking it. I have excellent proofs, on the contrary, that he looked upon my retirement with considerable regret, and Sazonov himself repeatedly spoke in this sense to me and to our common friends.
"Professor Fay is right, however, in what he says about my proposed appointment as Ambassador to Paris, which never took place. I have reasons to believe that my appointment would have met with the approval of the French Government. The Emperor gave his consent to my nomination and spoke with me about it in very flattering terms. Sazonov did not show any hostility to my proposed appointment, but rather a lack of interest; and, perhaps taking into account the protests of Isvolsky against his transfer to another embassy, let the matter drop."
The statement of Count Kokovtzov is so lucid that it hardly needs any comment. I should like, however, to emphasize that it represents a complete refutation of Professor Fay's theory. To begin with, it appears that Professor Fay attaches too much importance to the declaration made to the Conference by the Minister of War, General Sukhomlinov, and the Chief of the General Staff, General Zhilinsky. After reporting their statements to the effect that Russia was ready for a war against Germany and Austria, Professor Fay remarks: "This categorical statement of the Russian militarists disposes of the argument that Russia did not want war in 1914 because they did not think her preparations were sufficient."[iv] We are told, however, by Count Kokovtzov that he and Sazonov "were perfectly aware" of Russia's military unpreparedness, that he had at his disposal information other than that of the Council of Ministers, and that he and Sazonov "invariably agreed that the opinions of the Minister of War were far too optimistic and were due to his complete ignorance of the actual conditions." The statement of Count Kokovtzov is fully corroborated by what we know from other sources of the position of Sukhomlinov in the Government. His correspondence with his intimate friend, General Yanvushkevich, Chief of Staff of the Grand Duke Nicholas, covering the first year of the war, was published by the Soviet Government in 1922-1923.[v] It contains ample proof that the Minister of War did not enjoy the confidence of his colleagues. His influence was due exclusively to the friendship of the Emperor. And in spite of this and the powerful support of Rasputin, he was imprisoned and sent for trial long before the downfall of the Empire. Sazonov, fortunately, has put on record his opinion of his former colleague: "It was very difficult to make him [Sukhomlinov] work, but to get him to speak the truth was wellnigh impossible."[vi] Is it reasonable to assume that Sukhomlinov's statement of Russia's preparedness for war presents sufficient ground for "disposing of the agrument that Russia did not want war" because her preparation was not sufficient? As for General Zhilinsky, he was merely a subordinate officer and he left the General Staff soon after the conference. In short, Professor Fay's evidence on this important point seems inadequate. And then, of course, the foreign policy of Russia was in the hands of Sazonov and Kokovtzov rather than in those of Sukhomlinov.[vii]
As to the nature of the relationship which existed between Count Kokovtzov and Sazonov, the statement of the former Prime Minister of Russia is so explicit that it seems hardly necessary to add anything to it. Count Kokovtzov makes it perfectly clear that he never had to use a "restraining hand" because there always existed the closest collaboration between himself and the Minister of Foreign Affairs; that in spite of the vagueness of the jurisdiction of the Prime Minister in questions of international policy, Sazonov always consulted him on all important matters and especially on Balkans affairs; that he does not recollect "a single instance of disagreement" between Sazonov and himself on any such question. It seems therefore that speculations as to what would have happened to the world had Kokovtzov remained at the head of the Russian Government or had he been appointed Ambassador to Paris are due to a misunderstanding.
It did not escape the attention of the reader, I am sure, that Count Kokovtzov's evidence, unlike that of most of the European statesmen who have written on the responsibility for the war, is not given in self-defense. An apology, however sincere and convincing, is always apt to create a presumption that the plea is not an exact and impartial exposition of the facts and that the author, sometimes unwittingly, puts the emphasis where it should not be. Count Kokovtzov is in the fortunate position of a man who has no excuse to make because no accusations have been brought against him. On the contrary, he is one of the very few modern European statesmen who have earned from an American historian the qualifications of "wise, peace-loving, conciliatory." The whole of this reputation he is willing to risk by declaring his solidarity (in the question of the Straits!) with the traditional villain of the revisionist school, Sazonov.[viii] His evidence is not to be taken lightly.
But if we accept his evidence -- and I do not think we have any choice -- what is going to happen to the elaborate theory of Sazonov's aggressive and militaristic policy, which is the very foundation of the accusations brought against Russia? Shall we call Sazonov "wise, peace-loving and conciliatory?" Or shall we condemn Count Kokovtzov and class him, too, among the militarists and the Pan-Slavs? In that case, what about his "sweet reasonableness, his firm character," and so forth? I see no way out of the dilemma unless we frankly admit that the attitude of the members of the Russian Government in the question of the Straits is not correctly pictured by Professor Fay. It may be that he found in the minutes of the Conference merely what he expected to find there.[ix] Unfortunately the question is an extremely important one -- a vital link, indeed, in the argument that lays responsibility in Russia.
[i] Fay, "The Origins of the World War," New York, 1928. Vol. I, pp. 542-545.
[ii] Cf. the author's "A Page of Diplomatic History: Russian Military Leaders and the Problem of Constantinople during the War," in Political Science Quarterly, March 1929.
[iii] The full English text of the minutes of the Conference will be found in F. Stieve, " Isvolsky and the World War," London, 1926, pp. 219 sqq.
[iv] Fay, op. cit., vol. I, p. 534-535.
[v] Krasni Arkhiv (Red Archives), Vols. I-III, Moscow-Petrograd, 1922-1923.
[vi] Sazonov, "Fateful Years," New York, 1928, p. 286.
[vii] Sukhomlinov, though undoubtedly one of the most discredited representatives of Imperial Russia, still is quoted with confidence in some quarters. See Alfred von Wegerer, "The Russian Mobilization of 1914," in Political Science Quarterly, June 1928, pp. 204 sqq.
[viii] M. Sazonov died in December 1927. Count Kokovtzov cannot be suspected, therefore, of trying to do his former colleague a service.
[ix] Incidently Count Kokovtzov's letter seems to justify a prediction made recently by M. Pierre Renouvin: "I believe that in trying to load a preponderance of responsibility upon the St. Petersburg government certain historians fall into an error which a more exact estimate of the facts will not fail to reveal." (FOREIGN AFFAIRS, April 1929, p. 397.)