Reasons Behind Russia Entering the War in 1914
There were no clear signs that the tsarist government wanted war in
1914. Russia’s experience ten years earlier against Japan had made it
wary of putting itself at risk again, and its foreign policy after
1905 had been essentially defensive. It had joined France and Britain
in the Triple Entente as a means of guarding itself against the
alliance of the Central Powers, Germany and Austria-Hungary. However,
the events that followed the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand
in June 1914 by Serbian nationalists made it virtually impossible for
Russia to avoid being drawn into a European conflict.
By tradition, Russia was the protector of the Slav peoples of the
Balkans. With the decline of the Ottoman Empire (an old enemy) in the
19th century, Austria-Hungary was seen by Russia as the new threat.
Sazonov, the tsar’s foreign secretary in 1914 described the link
between the commitment to defend Slav nationalism in the Balkans and
Russia’s long-standing strategic interests:
“Russia’s historical mission - the emancipation of Christian peoples
of the Balkan peninsula from the Turkish yoke – was almost fulfilled
by the beginning of the 20th Century. Although these younger countries
no longer needed the guardianship of Russia, they were not strong
enough to dispense with her help in the event of any attempt upon
their national existence by warlike Teutonism (Germanic expansionism).
Serbia in particular was exposed to this danger , having become the
object of the decorously concealed covetousness of Austrian diplomacy.
Russia’s sole and unchanging object was to see that those Balkan
peoples should not fall under the influence of powers hostile to her.
The ultimate aim of Russian policy was to obtain free access to the
Mediterranean, and to be in a position to defend her Black sea coasts
against the threat of the irruption of hostile naval forces through
A month after Franz Ferdinand’s murder, Austria-Hungary, with a
blank-check from Germany, declared war on Serbia. Russia still
expected to be able to oblige the Austrians to withdraw without having
to go to war itself. It hoped that if it mobilized this would act as a
deterrent to Austria. This was not unrealistic. Despite Russia’s
defeat by Japan, its armies were still regarded as formidable. Germans
often spoke of the ‘Russian Steamroller’, a reference to the immense
reserves of manpower on which it was calculated that Russia could
It was at this stage that the great length of its western frontier
became a critical consideration. Russia had two basic mobilization
schemes, partial and full. ‘Partial’ involved plans for a campaign in
the south-west in defence of its Slav...