World War I Centennial: Russians Plot Attack on Constantinople (In a Few Years)

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Scientific American

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere. With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in August, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 105th installment in the series. 

February 8th to 21st: Russians Plot Attack on Constantinople (In a Few Years)

In the years leading up to 1914, Europe’s Great Powers became embroiled in an arms race driven by French and Russian fears of German strength on land and British fears of German ambitions at sea. While there were occasional moments of sanity moderating the pace, these always seemed to be offset by new rivalries around the European periphery, including the naval contest between Russia and Turkey in the Black Sea. In February 1914, the Russian Council of Ministers agreed on a naval buildup in preparation for an attack on Constantinople and the Turkish straits (pictured above)—but not until 1917.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Sazonov had set the meeting three months earlier, when Russian interests seemed threatened by the appointment of a German officer, Liman von Sanders, to command the Turkish First Army Corps protecting Constantinople. The Russians applied diplomatic pressure, supported to varying degrees by France and Britain, and the Germans eventually caved. In December 1913, the Liman von Sanders Affair was resolved by some diplomatic sleight of hand (von Sanders was basically “kicked upstairs” through a manipulation of seniority in the German and Turkish armies).

But the damage was done: Although they didn’t want war, Sazonov and his colleagues were increasingly paranoid that another Great Power would wrest control of Constantinople and the Turkish straits, threatening Russian foreign trade and security. Germany wasn’t the only problem. The Russians weren’t too thrilled about the British naval mission to Constantinople, or the construction of two dreadnoughts, the Reshad V and Sultan Osman I, for the Turkish navy by the British arms manufacturers Vickers and Armstrong (Russia and Britain might be on the same side when it came to containing Germany, but the Brits didn’t want the Russians gaining access to the Mediterranean and had no intention of giving up lucrative arms sales). In fact, the Russians believed the delivery of these massive ships, beginning in mid-1914, would totally change the balance of power in the Black Sea, making an amphibious assault on Constantinople impossible.

Per the current plan, adopted in August 1913, Russia would mount an invasion of Constantinople with 128,000 troops within 15 days of mobilization (M+15). The provisional plan called for mining the Bosporus and then landing an army corps in Constantinople to secure the straits from landward; it also required commandeering 115 civilian ships for transport duty. But the new British-built Turkish warships would outgun the biggest Russian warships, leaving the unarmed troop transports at their mercy.

On January 13, 1914, a war council decided that while Russia land forces were ready for war, the Black Sea fleet couldn’t carry out an amphibious assault on Constantinople anytime soon. According to Sazonov, he and his colleagues “considered an offensive against Constantinople inevitable, should European war break out,” but also admitted “We did not posses the means to take swift and decisive action, and that years would elapse before we were in a position to execute the plans we had in view.”

That didn’t mean it was off the table—quite the opposite. It was imperative to expand the Black Sea fleet, as “The formidable symptoms of Turkey’s approaching disintegration, which Germany had foreseen, and was ready to take advantage of—obliged Russia to consider the measures to which she might at any time have to resort in defense of her own safety” (here Sazonov conveniently ignored the fact that Russia’s own policies were contributing to Turkish instability). The removal of the moderate premier Kokovtsev on February 13, at the behest of the court intriguer Rasputin, only served to encourage a more aggressive stance among the remaining ministers.

At a second conference from February 8 to 21, 1914, Sazonov emphasized that “should events result in the Straits slipping from Turkey’s control, Russia could not permit any other Power to establish itself on their shores. Russia might thus be compelled to seize possession of them.” The Council of Ministers duly agreed on a naval buildup including four new dreadnoughts, two new light cruisers, and a number of smaller vessels including submarines, minesweepers, and destroyers for the Black Sea fleet. The program would also boost the land forces available for an amphibious assault, extend military railways in the Caucasus for a flank attack from the east, and improve coastal defenses.

Most important, the date for the amphibious assault was moved up from fifteen days after mobilization (M+15) to just five (M+5)—a clear indication that the Russians envisaged an offensive plan centering on a “first strike” to seize Constantinople before any of the other Great Powers could act. The ministers agreed with the assessment of Yakov Zhilinsky, the chief of general staff, that “the struggle for Constantinople would hardly be possible without a general European war,” which they still hoped to avoid; the only question was if another Power forced Russia’s hand by going for Constantinople first.

The Tsar approved the plan and the Russian Duma voted 100 million rubles to fund the fleet expansion with the March 1914 Naval Program. But crucially the buildup would take at least three years; the first of the new dreadnoughts wouldn’t be ready before 1915 at the earliest. Ironically the plans for a naval buildup in the Black Sea, like the Great Military Program approved by the Tsar in November 1913, succeeded in alarming Russia’s rivals without adding appreciably to Russian security.

It also cast yet another gloomy shadow across an increasingly anxious continent. Far from the Black Sea, on February 18th the Russian ambassador to Britain, Count Alexander Benckendorff, wrote that “absolutely no one wants war or adventure but over the last few months the feeling that war is inevitable has... grown in all classes."

See the previous installment or all entries.

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