100 Years Ago: Imperial Russia’s Use and Abuse of Proxies During the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913

By: Ronald P. Bobroff |Professor, Wake Forest University and Oglethorpe University

The Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 illustrate the difficulties encountered by Imperial Russia in attempting to further its foreign policy through its proxy states, Serbia and Bulgaria, in the pre-war period. The conflicting interests of Belgrade and Sofia, however, quickly made the execution of this regional strategy into a complex diplomatic challenge that continues to hold lessons for great powers a hundred years later.

Balkan_troubles1Since the end of the Cold War, the Balkan Peninsula has seen some of the fiercest armed conflict in Europe. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the separation of Kosovo from Serbia pitted NATO and European Union states in diplomatic struggles against the Russian Federation while the Balkan peoples fought on the ground. The backing Russia gave to the Serbian government constituted another chapter in a long history of engagement in the region. Given the ethnic, religious, and historical links between Serbia and Russia, Moscow has appeared to use Serbia as a proxy that helps Russia maintain influence in a region of strategic and economic interest. But in our time, Russia chose not to take up arms in the wars of southeastern Europe, and looking back one hundred years to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 can aid in explaining why, as well as identify the regional dynamics that will likely continue to shape decision-making on all sides.

A century ago, much as recently, Russia sought to protect its proxy states in the region with its diplomatic might, but refused to commit to an armed intervention on their behalf when such intervention would likely draw Moscow into a larger war in which it saw little reason to hope for success, and worked assiduously to deter competition in the Turkish Straits. Ultimately, Russia would not sacrifice its own vital interests or jeopardize its security for the sake of its proxy states.

The Balkan Wars took place in the context of uncertainty created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the management of which dominated European international relations in the century before the First World War. Known as the Eastern Question, this uncertainty ultimately drew in all of the great powers of Europe – the United Kingdom, France, Austria, and Russia, as well as Prussia/Germany and Piedmont/Italy.

Russia and Austria-Hungary, as it had been reformed from 1867, felt most directly affected by the growing vacuum along their borderlands. Both states sought to expand their influence over peoples and new states on the Balkan Peninsula while limiting the success of the other.

Maintaining influence over events in the Balkans also served another Russian interest – protection of its position at the Turkish Straits. Since the 1820s, Russian rulers had accepted relatively weak Ottoman control over the Straits, backed by international agreements that assured Russian commerce through the Bosporus and Dardanelles while denying non-Ottoman warships passage in times of peace. Russia’s southern trade was comprised largely of exports, which were a crucial source of the foreign currency needed to sustain its modernization efforts. Russia’s mediocre warships on the Black Sea were more than a match for those of the Ottoman navy, but would have been outclassed by outside fleets. If the Sultan were no longer able to hold this waterway, Russia assumed that it would need to take control to ensure its national security and economic vitality. To achieve its goals, Russia not only worked to limit the influence of Austria-Hungary and other interlopers in the region, but also employed proxy states to achieve the same objectives.

One of those proxies was Serbia, the first of the Balkan Slavic states to throw off Ottoman control, although true sovereignty took generations for Serbia to achieve as it moved from autonomy within the Ottoman Empire to full independence. Serbia wobbled between Austrophile and Russophile loyalties until 1903, when a palace coup in Belgrade put a regime quite hostile to Vienna in power. Austro-Hungarian economic sanctions then pushed Belgrade even closer to St. Petersburg. Through 1908, Russia and Austria-Hungary agreed to maintain the status quo in the region as the great powers pushed the Ottoman Empire to reform its rule in its remaining territories on the Balkan Peninsula. But the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09 saw Austria-Hungary annex Bosnia-Herzegovina without considering compensation for Russia or Serbia, with St. Petersburg forced to accept the move under the threat of a German ultimatum. After this humiliation, substantive Russian cooperation with Austria-Hungary ceased, and Serbia became more valuable in Russian eyes.

The second proxy state of note was Bulgaria. Russian victories in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War brought wide autonomy to this Slavic, Orthodox nation. Russia had at first forced the Ottoman Empire to concede a large Bulgaria in the Treaty of San Stefano. The other great powers of Europe feared the influence such a state would give Russia in the region, so they reduced Bulgaria’s size after negotiations at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Tsar Alexander III disliked the policies adopted by the new ruler of Bulgaria, Alexander of Battenberg, especially Bulgaria’s 1885 annexation of Eastern Rumelia, which reduced St. Petersburg’s influence over Sofia. Russia therefore heavy-handedly engineered the prince’s removal in 1886. His replacement, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, however, was even less to Russia’s liking, but St. Petersburg was unable to remove him. Ferdinand aspired even more vehemently than Alexander to gain those lands that Bulgaria had been denied at Berlin, particularly after declaring Bulgaria’s full independence at the start of the Bosnian Crisis in October 1908. Complicating Balkan relations, both Bulgaria and Serbia sought to annex Macedonia, large sections of which had been promised to Bulgaria in the defunct Treaty of San Stefano. The area, which remained under Ottoman control after the Congress of Berlin, contained a mixed but largely Slavic population, which Belgrade and Sofia both claimed was made up primarily of their ethnic brethren.

Russia, in its efforts to contain Austria-Hungary after 1909, hoped to overcome these divisions and see Serbia, Bulgaria, and other Balkan states bound together in a league that would help the Russian government control the pace of events. Getting Belgrade and Sofia to agree took several years, but in March 1912, the Russian Foreign Ministry, with the agreement of the tsar and the encouragement of Pan-Slavs in Russian society, brokered an agreement between the two that was soon joined by Greece and Montenegro. The Russian leadership believed it had at last fashioned a bulwark against the further spread of Austro-Hungarian influence. St. Petersburg hoped that despite its long rivalry with Vienna, the prospect of facing a united Serbia and Bulgaria would deter Austria-Hungary from further advance. Furthermore, St. Petersburg believed it now held the key to developments on the peninsula. The foreign minister, Sergei D. Sazonov, was confident that the Balkan states would take no action without permission from Russia. Balkan armies would do the heavy lifting of containing Austria-Hungary while Russia’s influence and strategic position improved.

The Balkan states, however, had other plans for their new alliance. While the Ottoman Empire languished through the attritive 1911-12 war against Italy for control of Libya, the Balkan League saw an opportunity to push the Ottomans out of Europe and gain land for each member in the process. In two areas, the Balkan allies’ goals specifically challenged Russian interests, forcing St. Petersburg to adopt a course aimed at frustrating its proxies’ aspirations while protecting its own position in the region and in the European great-power system.

In the Serbian case, the clash of interests was over Belgrade’s drive to obtain an outlet to the Adriatic Sea through territory predominantly populated by Albanian people. Austria-Hungary strongly opposed such an expansion of Serbian territory and economic strength, which could only translate into more trouble for the Habsburg monarchy later. Italy too opposed the attempt, wary of another rival on the Adriatic or more obstacles to its own aspirations on the Dalmatian coast.

In the Conference of Great Power Ambassadors that met under the leadership of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, the Austro-Hungarians made their opposition to the Serbian move clear, while the Russians tried hard to support their client state. Serious tension arose between the two great eastern monarchies, both of which significantly strengthened their armed forces as the dispute simmered. Try as it might, the Russian government could find no formula that would allow Serbian egress to the Adriatic, and it ultimately had to negotiate for the most advantageous inland border between Serbia and a newly independent Albania that it could manage. This result was an embarrassment relative to Serbia’s earlier demands, but Austria-Hungary had repeatedly mobilized its army to force Serbia to withdraw, and Russia refused to consider a European war over this question. Russia still needed peace more than any foreseeable advantage offered by Serbian expansion, so it supported only limited Serbian gains.

Bulgarian aspirations appeared even more tangibly threatening to Russian interests. During the First Balkan War, as Serbian forces pushed toward the Adriatic and swept through Macedonia, the Bulgarian army pressed toward the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, the capture of which would have quickly elevated both Bulgaria’s cultural and political stature. In October-November 1912 and then again during a renewed campaign in the spring of 1913, Bulgarian forces appeared close to storming the Chatalja lines, the last obstacle before Constantinople itself. Russia panicked for two reasons. First, for reasons of cultural dominance, the Russian regime feared the prospect of Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand riding into a conquered Constantinople and re-Christianizing the former Hagia Sofia Cathedral. This was not an idle concern – the Russians knew Ferdinand had a Byzantine-style outfit (obtained from a theater company) ready to wear if the opportunity arose. The Tsar of All the Russias, whose old capital, Moscow, was thought of as the Third Rome in nationalist ideology, could brook no competition for glory within the faith. Second, the Russian government feared even more the consequences of a Bulgarian presence on the shores of the Turkish Straits. As noted above, the Russian leadership considered this waterway to be absolutely vital to Russian security, and it would tolerate only weak Ottoman rule as an alternative to direct control. A resurgent Bulgaria interfering in Russian affairs could thus never be allowed.

While the Bulgarians seemed poised for a strike on Constantinople, Russia sought to prevent it. The Russians first tried persuasion, dangling territorial concessions and financial incentives before Sofia. These failed to dissuade, so Russia began to consider more forceful measures, including the dispatch of warships and troops to the area. Warships were prepared, several thousand soldiers were concentrated, and transports found to move them. Remarkable on its own, this mobilization of forces is even more important because it marks the first time since the humiliation of the Russo-Japanese war that Russia prepared to employ armed force to back up its diplomacy. Ultimately, the failure of the Bulgarian army to storm the Chatalja lines meant that Russia did not have to go to war to rein in its proxy. But the danger had not completely passed. With the failure of the winter armistice, in March-April 1913 the Bulgarians renewed their offensive and again pressed toward the Chatalja works. As the prospect of Bulgarian entry into Constantinople loomed once more, the Russians sought to repeat the tactics of the previous autumn. Hampered by a lack of transport ships this time, the Russian foreign ministry widened its diplomatic efforts to restrain Sofia, while also seeking the acquiescence of France and Great Britain to Russian action at Constantinople. The British agreed not to oppose Russia, but the French displayed great discomfort at the prospect of Russia installed in the Ottoman capital. Cholera in the Bulgarian army, however, ended the chances of an advance, obviating the need for direct measures.

The split between Russia and Bulgaria was revealed in full during the Second Balkan War, which began when Bulgaria attacked its former ally, Serbia, in the hopes of dislodging Serbian occupation forces from that part of Macedonian territory which Sofia felt it had been promised in pre-war talks. Bulgaria soon found itself under attack from not only its former allies, but also the Ottoman Empire and Romania, which entered the fray hoping to fulfill its own territorial ambitions. While Russia complained about the possibility of Christian territory in Thrace and Adrianople returning to Muslim control, it quietly relished the humbling of Bulgaria that ensued. Bulgaria’s defeat meant that Russia’s interests at the Straits and Constantinople would no longer be subject to the imminent threat posed during the Bulgarian campaigns in the First Balkan War.

What this review of the Balkan Wars at the start of the twentieth century shows is that Russia was willing to sacrifice the interests of its proxies, Serbia and Bulgaria, when those states exposed Russia to unwelcome risk, setting a pattern of behavior that extended into the late twentieth century. Whether this peril manifested itself in the threat of direct Austro-Hungarian involvement in the war to keep Serbia from gaining a port on the Adriatic, potentially widening the war to include the great powers, or in Bulgarian occupation of Constantinople, which would have undermined Russian strategic interests there and at the Turkish Straits, Russia had little patience for its proxies’ pursuit of their interests at the expense of its own. Russian encouragement and protection of its proxies lasted only so long as they did not compromise their patron’s broader goals.

Author’s BioRonald P. Bobroff is Interim Chair of the History Department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and Associate Professor of History at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. He studies European international and Russian histories, with a concentration on the origins and diplomacy of the First World War, and his current academic focus is on the Franco-Russian alliance. His book, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits was published in 2006.

Πηγή:  Security Studies Journal of the Fletcher School

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