Akop Gabrielyan: Russia never hits first, but acts always in response: and here are 8 historical reasons why

It is a generally accepted opinion nowadays that whatever international conflict or tension exists, there is always a track behind it. A Russian track. It is almost unanimously believed that Russia strikes first to exercise its imperialistic expansionism. However, has Russia been historically an international despot, or it is just perceived so? Let us have a quick fact check of the largest international conflicts for the last two centuries and see what they tell us.

1.     The Napoleonic Wars (for Russia, the First Patriotic War of 1812). The first large-scale conflict between the European traditional monarchies, including Russia, and France under Napoleon Bonaparte. Before the Russian Tsar Alexander I joined the third anti-Napoleon coalition in 1805, his father Tsar Pavel I was in alliance with France, following Britain’s protectorate over Malta. The latter caused Pavel’s discontent, who sought to stop the gradual raise of dominance of the British Empire. Years after, when the Russian Empire was weakened by joining the coalition, which was against its geopolitical interests in Europe (as it strengthened the positions of Britain again), Napoleon invaded Russia but could not secure his success due to the famous Russian winter and the Russian guerillas fighting together with the moderate Russian army, headed by the Russian general Kutuzov and other leaders.

2.     The Russian-Persian war: 1826-1828. Historically, Russia has been pushed to play world politics but never really wanted so. In the first half of the 19th century Russia was forced to war against Persia, whose shah Abbas-Mirza, instigated by the British foreign missions, crossed the border of the Russian Empire in 1826 and occupied then-Transcaucasia. Supporting local Christian population, Russian forces promptly overplayed Persian army and British diplomacy, orchestrating the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay, which enriched the Russian Empire with the territories of the Eastern Armenia and the khanates of Erivan (Yerevan) and Nakhijevan.

3.     The Crimean war: 1853-1856. The first direct clash between great powers of the 19th century, the poetically glorified Crimean war of 1853-1856, which confirmed the status of the British Empire as the hegemon of then world order. Not many know that the conflict between Britain, France, Ottoman Empire, Kingdom of Sardinia on the one side, and the Russian Empire and the Kingdom of Greece (to a lesser degree of involvement) on the other, was pushed far beyond initial expectations because the Russian foreign policy interests in Crimea, the Dardanelles and Transcaucasia were severely challenged by the rise of the ‘Eastern Question’ in theory and the Ottoman Empire’s failed diplomacy in practice. The motive of war against Russia was a formal unacceptability of the Russian protection over the Orthodox Christians in the holy places of Palestine, which was fiercely disputed by the French emperor Napoleon III. Pretending to revive the glory of his great nephew Napoleon Bonaparte, Napoleon III sent the French warships to the Black Sea and insisted on Turkey to nullify the previously accepted treaties of the Russian religious protections in the Middle East. Turkey was largely supported by the European empires and decided to test Russia’s diplomatic and military tenacity. Quite interestingly though, the European powers, backing the Ottoman Empire, which was steadily weakening decade after decade, had no illusions about the real causes of the coming war. As the famous English historian A.J.P. Taylor put it, “The Crimean war was fought for the sake of Europe rather than for the Eastern question; it was fought against Russia, not in favour of Turkey…”. Russia had no other choice but to strike back.

4.     The Russian-Turkish war: 1877-1878. Struggling against internal agony for decades, the Ottoman Empire was consistently oppressing its Christian populations. A number of European states, including Russia, declaratively supported anti-Turkish movements of the locals in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Lebanon, Bulgaria, Montenegro, the Western Armenia and other regions. In 1876, Serbia and Montenegro declared liberation war against Turkey. Neither of them could successfully face the Turkish pressure, and asked their big Slavic brother, Russia, to support their endeavours. The Russian foreign office, headed by the famous diplomat Alexander Gorchakov, was persistently attempting to convince the Ottoman leaders to stop the practices of extermination of the Christian populations in the aforementioned regions, and to preserve ceasefire and peace talks with Serbia. It was an effectless attempt, which made Russia step in and support militarily their brothers-in-God Serbs in 1877.

5.     The Great War: 1914-1918. The war that ended many European monarchies, including the Russian Romanov’s family, had also a formal motive and a real cause. The cause to begin the war was deeply rooted in the European diplomacy of alliances that separated great European powers into two volatile camps, the Entante (France, Russia and Britain) and the A-Entente (Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy). For many years, the sides were actively increasing their military expenditures, escaping direct hostilities against each other. Yet again, the Russia’s side was one of the first states that wisely foreseen the aftermaths of possible devastating war and initiated the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907 respectively, which, amoung other important postulates, set the strict rules on peaceful settlement of international disputes. However, the European first catastrophe was inevitable. The formal reason to begin aggressive diplomacy for the European states was an assassination of the Austro-Hungarian prince Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian student nationalist Gavrilo Princip. The Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war against the Kingdom of Serbia, Germany supported Austro-Hungary, Russia backed the Serbs and ought to enter the war, which was desperately tried to be escaped by the Russian political elite until the very last moment, when Germany presented an ultimatum to Russia. Even when the ultimatum was announced, Russian Tsar Nickolas II tried to directly approach his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II to stop the A-Entente military interventions, albeit his appeals remained unanswered.

6.     The World War II (for the USSR, the Great Patriotic War: 1941-1945). Perhaps, the Second World War was the only war in the entire world history, when Russia (actually, the USSR’s) was not doubted of starting it (although, the personality of its leader, Joseph Stalin, remain a matter of hot and intolerable debates even know). On June 22 1941, the German soldiers abruptly invaded the Soviet Union and started the so-called ‘Operation Barbarossa’, aimed at fast conquering the western part of the Soviet Union. Although, many contemporary studies report that the Soviet highest military establishment was aware of the German invasion plans, still, the Republics of the Soviet Union, including the Russian Soviet Federative Republic as a part of the Union, were taken by surprise of the German offense. All the rest were consequences.

7.     The Syrian (Civil) War: 2011 – pres. Just like with other mentioned cases, Russia’s direct military intervention into the conflict in 2015 was a consequence of a series of actions taken against the current Syrian political regime and people of Syria from 2011 to 2015. In Russia, it is still a matter of debate, whether taking active position in the Syrian crisis was a decent move for the Russian diplomacy and its renommée. Perhaps, the Russian involvement could not even happen, should the Syrian rebels, armed by foreign powers, stop seeking to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and his regime, as it was similarly done in Libya against Muammer Kaddafi. It is a widely accepted opinion that Russia stands against the free will of Syrian people to depose Assad from his office. However, not all Syrian people were against the Assad’s regime, including both native Syrians and local minorities like Armenians who fought against ISIL terrorists to preserve their national and cultural heritages in this country. In the light of all this, Russia’s reaction was a direct challenge, taken to test the US foreign military activism, fight against the terrorist groups, and prevent the violent shifts of political regimes.

8.     The Ukrainian Crisis: 2013 – pres. Russia’s support to the former Ukrainian president Victor Yanukovich, control over Crimean peninsula, support to the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts were all a consequence of the events happened at the very beginning of the Ukrainian crisis. When president Yanukovich refused to sign an association agreement with the European Union in November 2013, it caused large anti-regime protests, known also as ‘Euromaidan’, aimed at closing ties with the European Union, and resignation of Yanukovich. The ‘Euromaidan’ was supported by several European powers and the United States, as the manifestation of the free will of Ukrainians. When mass protests were gradually intensifying, causing clashes between protesters and the government forces, including the police, the American side asked Russia to secure Yanukovich would not use army against civilians, which would normalize the situation. This step would have been an opportunity for the Ukrainian opposition to leave occupied administrative buildings voluntarily, and ensure further peaceful dialogue for an association agreement. Under such scenario, the Ukrainian opposition could come to power peacefully, right after Yanukovich’s resign. The latter was envisaged by the compromise deal between Yanukovich and opposition leaders of Ukraine, signed by the former president on February 21, 2014. Russia consented the America’s request. The next day, the revolution unleashed, immediately supported by the European and American side. Russia viewed it as a coup d’état and a direct violation of the agreement reached a day before…

This short piece is not to justify Russia, but to criticize unilateral accusations of only Russia. It is left on a reader’s side, whether to accept this list or not. However, it might be of greater interest for all who express personal desire or professional interest in blaming Russia for all the sins is to take one step back and consider the related situation from a wider angle, suggested by the history itself.

Source – Rethinking Russia

Authors’ points of view published on may not coincide with a position of the Gorchakov Fund.