What Does WWI Have to Do With the (Sinful) Invasion of Ukraine? Quite a Bit

by John Ellis

Towards the end of February (2022), I composed a long Facebook post in which I accused the West of some measure of culpability in the current tragic (and sinful) invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia.[1] In that post, I wrote, “As loathsome as Putin and his actions are, the West is culpable for this tragedy, too. Throughout the last 300+ years, Western colonial powers have repeatedly kicked Russia back down the ladder of progress to help ensure their (our) own uninterrupted luxurious ways of life.”

In the post, I referenced Peter the Great’s attempts at transforming Russia into a modern State and the West’s interference with his efforts. That history is fascinating, but in this article, I’m going to focus on a bit of history from a little over one hundred years ago in support of my contention that the West owns this, at least a little, too. I feel compelled to do so because a good friend of mine left a comment under my Facebook post asking for further examples of how the West has disrespected Russia and taken actions that have led us to this point. Because I’m not on Facebook that much (unless I’m traveling, as I am now), I didn’t see my friend’s request until yesterday. So, here is my much (and unintentionally) delayed answer:

Much more could be said about the historical relationship between Russia and the West, including more nuance about the events I point to in this article, but something happened in 1907 that many people are unaware of and that was a historically necessary condition for World War I. Before looking at 1907, though, it’s helpful to take a look at 1914.

When asked what started WWI, many people will answer that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was the cause of The Great War. Well, yes and no.

History has what’s called necessary and sufficient conditions. While the assassination of Austria’s Archduke was a (possibly) necessary condition, it wasn’t sufficient. Other events had to happen for the world to ignite into war. One of the other necessary conditions (even more necessary) was Czar Nicholas II’s militarily coming to the aid of Serbia. The question is, why did Russia do so?

Well, the history of the Slavic people goes way back to the 900s when Vikings from Norway settled in … you guessed it … Kiev.[2] Nicknamed “the mother of the towns of ancient Russia,” Kiev is the genesis of the Slavic people group. During the so-called Middle Ages, there was a time when Kiev surpassed London and Paris in size and magnificence. It’s an old, proud city that represents the best of the Slavs. And the Slavs are a proud people.

Well, by the 20th century, Russia was seen as the protector of all Slavic peoples and nations (treaties made this view binding, if not shared histories and cultures).

Serbia, while not completely a Slavic nation, was intent on earning her independence from the tottering Austrian-Hungarian empire. Siding with Bosnia, which had been unlawfully annexed by Austria in 1907 (and Bosnia is vitally important in all this), Serbia was intent on forming an independent Slavic nation. Austria-Hungary, on the other hand, had other ideas. Partly out of a desire to keep up with (and impress) big brother Germany and the imposing Kaiser William (Wilhelm) II, Austria turned the assassination of Franz Ferdinand into the pretense to invade and annex Serbia.

Even though intelligence reports warned Ferdinand that the terrorist organization the Black Hand was likely going to make an attempt on his life, he ignored the warnings.[3] We all know what happened next. We also now know that Gabriel Princip, the assassin, had been trained and funded by the Black Hand whose leader … drum roll … “was none other than the chief of Serbian Army Intelligence.”[4]

While that last bit of information throws some historical wrinkles into this, at the time, Austria-Hungary flat out accused the Serbian government of planning the assassination without any evidence. On July 23, 1917, Austria-Hungary delivered the infamous ultimatum to Serbia.[5] Pretty much everyone then and now is in agreement that the ultimatum was deliberately insulting to Serbia and so extreme as to force Serbia to reject it. Serbia was only given 48 hours to respond. This assumed rejection would “force” Austria-Hungary to defend itself by invading Serbia. Except, surprisingly, Serbia didn’t reject it.

Before Serbia’s response, though, Nicholas II realized that he was in a bind. He was duty bound – as the leader of the Slavic people and by treaty – to defend Serbia. Directly appealing to his cousin, the Kaiser, Nicholas implored Germany to force Austria-Hungary to stand down. When William II refused to intervene, Nicholas then asked that Germany demand that Austria-Hungary extend the time period for Serbia to respond beyond 48 hours. This request wasn’t to stave off war; it was to buy Russia time to prepare for war. Just a year earlier, Nicholas II, seeing the possibility for war, commented that he hoped war wouldn’t start until 1917. The Russian army, devastated by the ill-fated war with Japan 1905, wouldn’t be ready to wage war until 1917 at the earliest. Again, though, Germany refused to intervene, and Serbia was forced to respond.

Shocking Austria-Hungary (and disappointing them because they were lusting for war), Serbia capitulated. However, in one of the most consequential deceits in history, Count Bechtold, Austria-Hungary’s Foreign Minister, hid Serbia’s response – hid it from Germany, even. On July 18, after the piling up of deceitful pretense after deceitful pretense, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia immediately began mobilizing her troops. In response, William II demanded that Nicholas II stand down, shortly declaring war on Russia on August 1. Knowing full well that she was not capable of winning, Russia’s decision to defend Serbia launched the world into the war known as World War I.[6]

The question is, though, why did Czar Nicholas II enter a conflict that he knew would engulf Europe in war, and, more importantly, a conflict that he knew Russia couldn’t win? And this brings us back to 1907, and Austria-Hungary’s unlawful annexation of Bosnia.

Before writing what I’m about to write, it needs to be noted that Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Izvolsky’s secret diplomacy with Austria-Hungary and his own personal desires helped create this crisis. None of that, though, justifies what Germany did to Russia.

In the summer of 1907, as already noted, Emperor Franz Joseph annexed Bosnia for no good reason apart from showing big brother Germany that they, too, wore big boy empire pants, violating several treaties in the process. Like what was to happen in 1914, the defender of all Slavic people was forced to step up. And like in 1914, Germany also decided to insert herself, for no legitimate reason, demanding that Russia stand down or be annihilated by the impressive German army. Unlike in 1914, Russia stood down.

Now, none of that is as simple as those last few sentences paint it. For one thing, Germany received no political nor economic nor military gain from backing Austria-Hungary’s unlawful land grab. Germany, with no cost to herself, could’ve easily brought their little brother to heel in accordance with agreed upon treaties. Why did the Kaiser get involved?

Well, because he saw an opportunity to embarrass his cousin the Czar and put Russia back in her place as a lesser player on the world’s political stage. Russia and her Czar were humiliated!

At the time, the British ambassador to Russia, Sir Arthur Nicolson, declared, “In the recent history of Russia there has never previously been a moment when the country has undergone such humiliation and, though Russia has had her troubles and trials both external and internal and has suffered defeats in the field, she has never, for apparently no valid reason, had to submit to the dictation of a foreign power.”[7] Furthermore, “It was in the depths of this humiliation that Russian statesmen, generals, and the Tsar himself had formed their resolve never to withdraw again from a similar challenge. From 1909 onward, the commander of Kiev military district in the Ukraine had standing orders to be ready within forty-eight hours to repel an invasion from the West.”[8]

To be sure, Nicholas II’s pride shares in the blame. But if Kaiser William II hadn’t taken personal pleasure in swatting the Czar and Russia back down to size, history is changed: in 1914, Nicholas is far less likely to engage in a war that was very ill-advised considering his military’s deficiencies and Russia’s overall cultural and economic mood (which was improving up to that point). Without WWI, the German civil war of 1919 wouldn’t have happened that led to the Wiemer Republic. Also, the Treaty of Paris wouldn’t have happened. Both of those events led to Hitler. In Russia, WWI wouldn’t have shattered her militarily and economically. The Oligarchs wouldn’t have forced Nicholas II to abdicate, which threw an already tumultuous nation into utter chaos, leading to 1917.

Playing “what if” with history is problematic, to be sure. Europe was on the brink of war regardless of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. We could play the above “what ifs” out many different directions. For example, what if the “inevitable” European war (and “was it really inevitable?” is an impossible question to answer) had been stalled long enough for Russia to get her military feet back under her? By the time 1914 rolled around, Russia had been experiencing 5 years of unprecedented (including up to the current time) agricultural success. Great weather and plentiful rains were causing Russia’s storehouses to begin to overflow. At the time, a million and a half Russians were on strike, but would that number have shrunk? The daughter and son-in-law of Karl Marx thought so. They committed suicide believing that the Marxist dream in Russia was dead because of the abundant crop yields there. So, I ask again, what would’ve happened if war had been stalled? We’ll never know, of course, but a stronger Russian military would’ve altered the course of any war as well as altering her course domestically. Would Lenin have been emboldened to leave the relative safety of Switzerland and return to Russia if Czar Nicholas II was safely entrenched on the throne?

Again, “what ifs?”

What isn’t a “what if,” though, was Germany’s unnecessary disrespect of Russia in 1907. Straight lines can be drawn through history from that specific “kicking Russia back down the ladder” to now. That’s one example of what I was talking about in my Facebook post.

[1] It’s important to separate Russia from Putin’s Russia. The Russian people are victims of Putin’s despotism and murderous actions, too. In fact, like how I was and remain opposed to economic blockades of places like Cuba, I think we need to consider who’s truly bearing the cost of our current economic blockade of Russia. It’s widely assumed that Putin is the richest man on the planet. Apart from possibly his pride, he’s not suffering; the Russian people are suffering. And because of his immense hubris and complete disdain for anyone not named Putin, the economic blockade most likely only serves as the proverbial “grabbing a tiger by the tail.” Unless the Oligarchs step in and force him to “abdicate,” it’s hard to see a positive ending apart from Ukraine capitulating (which would not be positive, to be clear, but it would avert WW3). And, if the Oligarchs do combine their power to overthrow Putin, we’ve already watched this movie – see 1917. I truly hope that the Western leaders know what they’re doing. However, the meat of this article tells us that leaders are often blinded into shortsightedness by their own pride and hubris.

[2] It should be noted that many Slavs reject that they have a Norse background. However, all the historical evidence to date contradicts their wishes.

[3] Franz Ferdinand had his own plan for the region. A plan that everyone not named Franz Ferdinand hated. But he was stubborn. His plan, while interesting (sort of) in its own right isn’t relevant to this article. I just wanted to point out that there are some nuances to all this I’m glossing over, if not ignoring.

[4] Robert K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra: The Classic Account of the Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (New York: Random House Trade Paperbacks, 1995), 256.

[5] They waited four days after writing the ultimatum before delivering it. “Why the wait?” you ask. Good question. Well, they waited because the French President Poincare was wining and dining with Czar Nicholas II in Russia during the events. They waited until Poincare had left and was far enough away from Russia so that the two nations wouldn’t be able to coordinate a response.

[6] It also didn’t help that Germany vastly underrated France’s military capabilities. And, even worse, failed to see that England would join the war. In fact, Germany’s ambassador to England, Prince Lichnowsky, was mocked when he tried to warn his bosses back home that England wouldn’t watch from the stands.

[7] Nicholas Mansergh, The Coming of the First World War (New York: Longmans & Green, 1949), 239-240.

[8] Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra, 264.

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