Battle for the Caucasus: Britain versus Russia, 1918-20 (Part Six)

Lloyd George gave the coup de grace to the Russian Whites in his infamous Guildhall speech of 8 November 1919.

He made the speech without consulting his Cabinet colleagues and it had the effect of a bombshell. As Harold Nicolson wrote the diplomacy of Lloyd George was most of all characterised by its privacy – not only in method but also in aim (Curzon: The Last Phase, 1919-1925, p.56).

In his Guildhall speech Lloyd George said that: “I do not like the outlook in Russia.” Denikin’s march on Moscow had been “checked” and the indication  was one of “prolonged and sanguinary struggle” – a phrase which must have recalled the terrible attritional slaughter that had been recently experienced in France among his audience. 

Lloyd George: Je ne regret rien

The Prime Minister stated that he had no regrets for what Britain had done in Russia and insisted that it had “discharged” its “debt of honour… to the gallant men in Russia who helped us to fight the Germans when the Bolshevist leaders were betraying the Allies.”

He went on:

“We have sent a hundred millions’ worth of material, and of support in every form… We have given them the opportunity, if Russia wished to be liberated, of equipping her sons in order to free themselves. If the Russian people wish for freedom, we can always say that we have gave them the chance… We have held positions of danger in that country until the Russians were prepared to hold them themselves. We cannot, of course, afford to continue so costly an intervention in an interminable civil war. Our troops are out of Russia – frankly I am glad. Russia is a quicksand. Victories are easily won in Russia but you sink in victories. Russia is a dangerous land to intervene in. We discovered it in the Crimea, but true to the instinct which has always saved us, we never went very far from the sea. “

The Prime Minister’s reference to having “never went very far from the sea” was a reminder to his audience that Britain had always primarily been a maritime power and had sensibly got others to to her fighting for her in the interior where armies were easily swallowed up.

Lloyd George dismissed the fear “that the Bolshevist Armies are going to conquer the whole of Russia” on the basis that “the free peasantry of the South have in their hearts a detestation of Bolshevism, and I do not believe that the Bolsheviks will conquer that aversion.”

It was true that during the Civil War the Soviet State had directly requisitioned food from the peasantry – War Communism. The peasantry had tolerated this, presumably because the White enemy of the Bolsheviks in the Civil War had the purpose of restoring the Tsarist system, including landlordism. Russia, far from being proletarianised, was still a pre-capitalist economy, overwhelmingly peasant, two years after the Bolshevik takeover. Peasant farms had been increased from about 16 million to about 25 million by the division of the great landed estates. There was no class war, as yet. The general socialist revolution only began in 1928, after the ending of the NEP, with a new revolution against the bourgeois revolution in landownership Lenin had fostered. In 1919 the peasants had a simple choice between the Bolsheviks, who had given them the land and increased their number, and the Whites, who wished to take away their land.

Was the British Prime Minister so ignorant of the facts or was he just spinning a yarn to support his policy?

Having failed in military intervention Lloyd George said that “other methods must finally be resorted to for restoring peace and good government in that distressed land.”  (The Times 10.11.1919)

In this phrase he signalled he had returned to the idea he had entertained originally, of negotiating with the Bolsheviks and hinted at a return to the Prinkipo peace conference he initiated earlier in the year. Indeed, his whole speech had the air of an “I told you so” about it.

News of the new line in British policy led to a collapse in morale and panic among the Whites in South Russia when Lloyd George’s Guildhall speech was published in the local newspapers.  The British government seemed to be deserting the common struggle against the Bolsheviks and leaving the White Russians to their fate. As one British observer on the spot wrote:

“The effect of Mr. George’s speech was electrical. Until that moment the Volunteers and their supporters had confronted themselves with the idea that they were fighting one of the final phases of the Great War, with England still the first of their Allies. Now they suddenly realised with horror that England considered the War as over and the fighting in Russia merely as a civil conflict. In a couple of days the whole atmosphere in South Russia was changed. Whatever firmness of purposes there had previously been, was now so undermined that the worst became possible. Mr. George’s opinion that the Volunteer cause was doomed helped to make that doom almost certain. I read the Russian newspapers carefully every day, and saw how even the most pro-British of them shook at Mr. George’s blows.” (C.E. Bechhofer, In Denikin’s Russia and the Caucasus, p.129)

The attitude among the Whites towards the British turned sour and became openly hostile. White officers began to say that the British Government’s fundamental intention was to dismember and weaken Russia ‒ not to overcome her Bolshevik enemies. The sapping of morale and spread of defeatism accelerated the decline of the White Russian command and its supply network. (Lauri Kopisto, The British Intervention in South Russia, 1918-20, p.161) 

The Guildhall speech also outraged British officers serving in Russia and the Caucasus.

During the following weeks the Prime Minister continued on the same lines in Parliament, in a bid to soften opposition to his policy. He argued that Russia was a danger to its neighbours in its present state of “unrest and disturbance” and peace would result in less chance of Bolshevik propaganda gaining leverage in the West (Hansard, Col. 471-5, 13.11.1919)

There was opposition in England to the new policy. The Times noted that earlier peace proposals with the Bolsheviks had been conceived by “prominent Jewish financiers in New York whose interest in Trotsky is of old standing” and concluded that the Prime Minister’s speech “makes British policy stink in the nostrils of all patriotic Russians.” The Daily Mail accused Lloyd George of “Shaking hands with murder.” (10.11.1919)

The Times editorial referred to “Lenin’s Proposals for Peace – Texts of the Offers made by the Soviet Government to the Allies” which it printed in the same edition. It laid out both offers – those made to the Bullitt Mission in the Spring and a recent one made to Colonel Malone – which had been revealed to the Daily Herald, a few days before (8.11.19) to show the similarity and constancy of the Soviet proposals. It noted how the Prime Minister had denied knowledge of the offer made to Bullitt but seemed to be gravitating toward them and a new Prinkipo, which The Times vigorously opposed.

The Times showed how the text of the offer made to the Bullitt Mission in the Spring was the same as that made now to Colonel Malone:

“All existing de facto governments on the territory of the former Russian Empire and Finland would remain in full control of the territories they occupied at the moment of the Armistice, the revision of frontiers to take place only by the self-determination of the inhabitants. Each government would agree not to use force against any of the others.” 

But the Soviets had even added a section, emphasising and clarifying their concession, so there could be no mistaking the proposal on the part of the Allies:

“The Russian Soviet Government… and all other Governments that have been set up on the territory of the former Russian Empire, the Allied and Associated Governments… to agree not to upset by force the existing de facto Governments which have been set up on the territory of the former Russian Empire.” (The Times 10.11.1919)

Both “Azerbaidjan” and “Armenia” – which the Soviets had refused to recognise – were specifically mentioned as part of the Soviet offer (but not Menshevik Georgia).

Presumably, Lenin, at this moment of the turning of the tide in favour of the Soviets, in November 1919, was still offering to stay out of Azerbaijan and Armenia, in return for an end of war on Bolshevik Russia and its existing territory. The Allies were given a week to reply.

But whilst Lloyd George had become interested in capitalist trading with the Bolsheviks, instead of undermining them in a Civil War, he could not bring himself to make a formal peace with them. Less than a year later in the summer of 1920 the Soviet Government made a very generous offer to the Poles – more generous than the Allies were contemplating – which was never tested because of the unexpected success of the Polish army. It was probable that Lenin aimed to settle boundaries to consolidate the Soviet state and let Communist propaganda do its work within the states he settled accounts with.

It might be that the Lloyd George did not trust Lenin and anticipated that he would not honour any settlement made – that he had acquired a British attitude to treaty making. However, Britain never put the Bolsheviks to the test so we will never know. All we do know is that Lloyd George did not engage with the Bolsheviks and the territories under question were lost to them anyway for 70 years. 

A week after his Guildhall bombshell, on 17 November 1919, the Prime Minister gave a statement to Parliament on policy with regard to Russia. It identified the contradictions in the situation that prevented unity against the Bolsheviks:

“Let us really face the difficulties… There is Finland, there is Poland, there is the Caucasus, Georgia, Daghestan, Azerbaijan, the Russian Armenians; then you have Koltchak and Petlura, all those forces anti-Bolshevist. Why are they not united, why cannot you get them united? Because their objects in one fundamental respect are incompatible. Denikin and Koltchak are fighting for two great main objects. The first is the destruction of Bolshevism and the restoration of good government in Russia. Upon that he could get complete unanimity amongst all the forces, but the second is that he is fighting for a reunited Russia. Well, it is not for me to say whether that is a policy which suits the British Empire. There was a very great Statesman, a man of great imagination… Lord Beaconsfield, who regarded a great, gigantic, colossal, growing Russia rolling onwards. like a glacier towards Persia and the borders of Afghanistan and India as the greatest menace the British Empire could be confronted with. I am not on that now, except that it has perhaps great relevance to… the consolidation of these nationalities on their own ground…  Georgia, General Denikin says, is part of Russia; it is an essential part of his policy to re-incorporate Azerbaijan, Daghestan, Russian Armenia in Russia, but they do not want it. They are fighting for independence, and one of the conditions they make… is that it is a condition of their uniting in any attack on the Bolshevists that we should guarantee their independence, and not merely that, but that we should guarantee them supplies and cash enabling them to pay their Armies.

What I want to point out is how complicated the whole Russian situation is. It is not a plain, straightforward fight between two rival ideals or two rival systems… The first difficulty is that two rival systems are fighting one another. The second is that one set of anti-Bolshevist forces are fighting for consolidating, reuniting, reknitting together the old powerful Russia that overlay two continents; the other great anti-Bolshevist forces are fighting for local independence, for their nationality.” (Hansard, col 723-5, 17.11.1919)

However, the Prime Minister gave no answers to the problems he described to Parliament. His speech was purely impression with no actual conclusion drawn about what was to be actually done. He just relied on the fact that no one else (aside from Churchill) had any alternative policy, for a general acquiescence to his own.

Churchill’s Last Hurrah

Churchill later gave the following explanation for the inaction of Lloyd George in relation to the Bolsheviks – that he underestimated them:

“The Prime Minister argued that revolutions like diseases run a regular course, that the worst was already over in Russia, that the Bolshevik leaders confronted with the responsibilities of actual government would quit their Communistic theories or that they would quarrel among themselves and fall like Robespierre and St. Just, that others weaker or more moderate would succeed them, and that by successive convulsions a more tolerable regime would be established.” (Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, p.132)

The Prime Minister held the view (or at least asserted it, since sincerity is a thing no one could be sure of with regard to Lloyd George) that Britain, by making war on the French Revolution had actually consolidated and strengthened it. If war had not be waged in 1793 the Jacobin and Girondin would have fallen out among themselves.

But, of course, Britain had already helped strengthen the Russian Revolution by waging a proxy war on it and the Russian people.

Lloyd George now hoped that the West could turn the tables on Bolshevik Russia asserting to his Allies: “The Bolsheviks had talked much of propaganda” but “civilisation might also undertake its peaceful penetration.” (Richard Ullman, Britain and the Russian Civil War, p.318)

However, the Bolsheviks were to be much more successful with regard to the West than the West was in Bolshevik Russia.

The Allied Powers met in December 1919 to attempt to come to a common policy on Russia. The end result of these discussions was the decision to wind up assistance for the remaining White forces and “to leave Bolshevik  Russia, as it were, within a ring fence.” (Richard Ullman, Britain and the Russian Civil War, p.315) Churchill, in opposing this line, concluded to the British Cabinet that the new policy signified “the abandonment of the anti-Bolshevist forces in Russia which we had supported up to now.” (CAB 23/18, 12.12.1919)

Churchill was not finished, however. On 3 January 1920 at Sunderland, in a speech made to Coalition supporters, he warned of “the ghost of the Russian Bear” which “ranges widely over the enormous countries which lead us to the frontiers of India, disturbing Afghanistan, distracting Persia, and creating far to the Southward great agitation and unrest among the millions of our Indian population who have hitherto dwelt in peace and tranquility under British rule.”

Churchill then condemned the “thin-blooded defeatists” who previously had “obstructed victory” in the Great War and now opposed the use of the full power of the British Empire against the “Bolshevists, fanatics who are avowed enemies of the existing civilisation of the world.”

Rounding on the “defeatists” Churchill exclaimed: “Their ideas are essentially cosmopolitan… They consider that one race of men is as good as another” (“cosmopolitan” was code word for Jewish in those days) and “they believe in the international Soviet of the Russian and Polish Jew. We are still putting our confidence in the British Empire.” (The Times 5.1.1920).

Following on this theme, The Morning Post, commenting on Churchill’s speech, declared that “Lenin… is not, in fact, Lenin at all, but a secret organisation directed by Revolutionary Jews to the destruction of the world.” (5.1.1920). It appears that the state that was establishing the Zionist entity in Palestine at that very moment was saturated with anti-Semitic understandings of the world.

Whilst the issue of continued formal intervention seemed to be settled, the question that was still unresolved was the position of the “ring fence” around Russia and whether it would be given sufficient reinforcement by the Allies to withstand the Bolsheviks.

The ever thoughtful Lord Esher wrote the following in his Diary on 19 November:

“What a black chapter in our history is all this Russian business. And we have the experience of the French Revolution behind us. In 1793 we went to war against the French Bolshevists because they cut off Louis the Sixteenths head. The war lasted twenty-one years and we restored the Bourbons. Where are they now? And the principles of the French Revolution minus its trimmings of atrocities spread over the civilised world! Probably this is precisely what will happen to the principles of Lenin and Co. L.G. divines this, being a prophet in his better moods. Cruelties and atrocities are relative things – unfortunately.  (Journals and Letters of Reginald Viscount Esher, Vol. 4, 1916-1930, p.246)

The book on Britain’s battle with Russia for the Caucasus was far from being closed at the end of 1919.

Lord Curzon’s Special Preserve

The  former Chairman of the Eastern Committee, Lord Curzon, became British Foreign Secretary in October 1919, at the height of the Denikin offensive against the Bolsheviks. It was an opportune moment since Curzon’s policy of a cordon sanitaire boxing in Russia was an idea whose time had come upon the defeat of Churchill’s war on the Bolsheviks.

Curzon, despite being a strong anti-Bolshevik, was reluctant to see any Russian government in the Caucasus and was determined that Britain should not finance General Denikin so that the Whites could walk back in when they had defeated the Bolsheviks.

Lord Curzon, as a past Viceroy of India, had the traditional geopolitical orientation of the Indian Office and Empire: Russia was England’s main enemy in the world and its political character at any time was of secondary importance. The primary consideration was Russia itself and how it could be bested by the British Empire in the control of Asia.

Curzon had actually taken charge of the Foreign Office from January 1919 when Balfour had gone to the Paris Conference. Balfour had been an indolent Foreign Secretary and, exhausted, wanted out of the position before a treaty was imposed on the Turks – he had a far-seeing mind. In October 1919 the Prime Minister finally obliged making Curzon Foreign Secretary (see David Gilmour, Curzon, pp.501-6.)

When he took the reins of the Foreign Office from Balfour, Curzon noted how obscure and shambolic British Foreign Policy on the Caucasus had become. In a Memorandum written on 1 October 1919 he went through the existing policy in a series of points to try to get a grip on it himself:

“a. We are pro-Denikin North of the Caucasus. b. We are anti-Denikin South of the Caucasus. c. We are pro-Georgia in so far as she is respectable and orderly. d. We are anti-Georgia in so far as she is Bolshevik and violent e. We are pro-Armenia in so far as we do not want to see them exterminated. f. We are anti-Armenia in so far as we do not mean to assume the responsibility either with supplying them with arms or of guaranteeing an Armenian State or of repatriating them to a larger Armenia. g. Whether we are pro-Azerbaijan or anti-Azerbaijan I have not the least idea. h. As to the Hill State (Daghestan) I suppose it is little more than various groups of bandits who are smashed by Denikin when his troops are in the neighbourhood, and who smash him when he is elsewhere employed.” (FO 112/3864, 1/10/1919)

The Caucasus was a secondary interest of the new Foreign Secretary. Lord Curzon’s pet project was Persia, which he saw as his own special preserve. Curzon’s biographer, the Earl of Ronaldshay, described Curzon’s interest in the country in the following passage:

“On assuming the direction of affairs in London, he had at once turned his gaze eastwards to those lands where his heart always lay… And as he gazed curiously over the constantly changing kaleidoscope of the Near and Middle East, his eyes came to rest finally upon Persia – that magnetic land of mystery and romance whose dusty plateaux and through whose ancient cities, crumbling uncared-for into inert but picturesque decay, he had travelled all but thirty years before. Persia that had provided him with material for the most monumental of all his books; the decrepit descendent of a mighty nation into whose veins he had struggled so hard throughout the seven years of his Viceroyalty to infuse the blood of a new vitality. And, finding himself at last in a position not merely to formulate, but to enforce a policy, he was determined to make a supreme effort to drag her from the slough into which she had fallen, and to make of her what he had always dreamed that, with the benevolent co-operation of Great Britain, she might some day become — a worthy successor to the kingdom of Gyms and a strong link in a chain of friendly States, stretching from the confines of Europe to the frontier of the Indian Empire.

It was ail part of a perfectly definite and logical policy which had taken shape with his first glance at the political map of Asia while still a boy at Eton, and had remained clear-cut in his mind ever since. It rested upon a single and quite simple conception — the creation of a chain of buffer states stretching from the northern confines of India to the Mediterranean sea, to serve as a screen, giving protection against attack to India and the great arterial line of communication between Great Britain at one end and Australia, New Zealand and the Far East at the other. That the source of possible attack had changed, made no difference to the policy; it remained valid whether the potential aggressor was Russia, as it had long been, or Germany, as it had more recently become. And, with this urgent necessity always in mind, he had laid constant stress throughout the war upon the importance of the Eastern theatre.” (Life of Lord Curzon, Vol III, pp.208-9)

Persia had been a British buffer against the expansion of Russia into Central Asia and toward India. The Russians had reached Tashkent in 1865, Samarqand and Bokhara in 1868, Ashgahad in 1881 and Merv in 1884, taking the Tsar’s forces up to the Afghan frontier.

Curzon had been unhappy at Sir Edward Grey’s appeasement of the Tsar in the 1907 Convention that led to the concession of a large part of Persian territory to Russian penetration in the partition of it between the two Imperialisms. However, with the collapse of the Tsarist state Curzon saw no obligation to honour the pre-War Treaty, particularly since Britain now was the sole occupier of Persia.

Northern Persia – what is sometimes called “Southern Azerbaijan” because of its population – had been a killing ground in 1918. Iranian sources suggest that up to 190,000 Moslems were killed by various forces – Armenian Dashnaks trying to incorporate territory into a Great Armenia, attempting to clear the area south of the Aras River as well as British and Russian Imperialists (see Khagani Ismael, The Armenian Question and Turkic-Muslim Genocide, pp.110-8).

After the Great War Persia was prostrate, after being ravaged by war and famine over the previous 3 years and was in no state to dispute its occupation by British forces at that time. Britain occupied all the land and sea to the North, South, East and West of the country so there was little hope of escape from the British embrace in 1919.

A Persian delegation, armed with fantastic territorial claims, turned up at the doors of the Paris Peace Conference, but was refused entry to the proceedings. It was also not considered for Mandatory treatment, like other countries. Persia was earmarked for British “protection” within Lord Curzon’s designs.

So providing an annual subvention of 30 million pounds and bribing the young Shah and his family with a handsome personal subsidy, Curzon secured the services of the Persian Court. He then gained the loyalty of the three main ministers of state with a generous provision of baksheesh through the British-run Bank of Persia, organised by Sir Percy Cox. That helped secure the Anglo-Persian Treaty of 9 August 1919 which put Persia, with its client regime, under British tutelage. 

Lord Curzon believed that Persia should not be allowed “to rot into picturesque decay” and become “a hotbed of misrule, enemy intrigue, financial chaos and political disorder” (Curzon Papers, 112/253, August 1919). All Persia needed to do was “play the game” – by the British rules – to become a functional state, supplying oil to the Royal Navy and keeping out the Russian Bolsheviks. Britain provided financial, political and military advisers to guide the Persians toward “civilization” and in the required direction of travel.

Curzon, of all the British ruling elite, was the most open to officially recognising the Transcaucasian states. His motivation, however, was not that of a democrat or advocate of the rights of nations – which Curzon, being an old Indian Empire man was hardly an advocate of. Curzon’s interest was essentially geopolitical and Indian Empire. He wanted a chain of buffer states in front of the main buffer, in which he had a long term interest – his personal re-creation and fiefdom – Persia.

However, the Foreign Secretary was no match for his Prime Minister. As Churchill later wrote:

“We now come to the Armageddon. In this phase Curzon came into contact with a personality almost exactly the opposite of his own. You could hardly imagine two men so diverse as Curzon and Lloyd George. Temperament, prejudices, environment, upbringing, mental processes were utterly different and markedly antagonistic. There never of course was any comparison in weight and force between the two. The offspring of the Welsh village… had a priceless gift. It was the very gift which the product of Eton and Balliol had always lacked – the one blessing denied him by his fairy godmothers, the one without which all other gifts are so frightfully cheapened. He had the ‘seeing eye.’ He had that deep original instinct which peers through the surfaces of words and things… which follows the hunt two fields before the throng… Put the two men together in any circumstances of equality and the one would eat the other. Lloyd George used Curzon for his purposes, rewarded him handsomely, but never admitted him to the inner chambers of his decision.” (Winston S. Churchill, Great Contemporaries, pp.279-80) 

The Cordon Sanitaire

In July 1919 Curzon managed to secure the appointment of Oliver Wardrop, an expert on Georgia and the Caucasus, as Britain’s High Commissioner in Tiflis. Wardrop was a strong supporter of the independence of the Caucasian states. Colonel Stokes, another supporter of this policy, was appointed representative in Baku.

Up until October the pro-independence sentiments expressed by Wardrop and Stokes were ignored in London. Denikin’s forces were on the offensive and the British were uninterested in such proposals. However, with the turning of the tide and the Lloyd George speech at the Guildhall signalling the abandonment of the Whites the situation dramatically changed. Alimardan Topchubashi, the leader of the Azerbaijani delegation at Paris, noted the change in a report in early November. (Giorgi Mamulia and Ramiz Abutalibov, History of Recognition of Azerbaijan’s De Facto State independence at the Paris Peace Conference, IRS, Spring 2018, pp. 29-30)

Upon becoming Foreign Secretary in October 1919 Curzon appointed the famous writer on geopolitics at the London School of Economics, Sir Halford Mackinder, as British High Commissioner to South Russia. Mackinder gathered intelligence on the Bolsheviks for Curzon and assisted General Denikin and the White Russians forces. Mackinder’s observation of the situation led him to conclude that the military assistance Britain was supplying would not be enough to defeat Bolshevism.

Mackinder’s mission was inspired by an alteration in Allied policy at the end of 1919. The Allied representatives considered the reconciling of Denikin with Azerbaijan and Georgia and organising a joint defence against the Bolsheviks as a priority. 

Mackinder met Denikin in January 1920, after his army was routed by the Soviets. He advised Denikin that he must establish a state in the area he still controlled in Southern Russia. This would involve instituting taxation on the populace, the development of financial institutions and an economy to supply Denikin’s military forces. Mackinder told Denikin that he could not indefinately rely on the continued support of the British Government (Report on the Situation in Southern Russia, No. 656, Documents on British Foreign Policy 1919-39, HMSO, pp.775-86.)

On 29 January 1920, Mackinder presented the British Cabinet with a comprehensive strategy he had written up on H.M.S Centaur on his departure from the Caucasus. It advised refusal to make peace with the Bolsheviks and consistent military, economic and diplomatic support of the Whites, along with the immediate establishment of a ring of buffer states including a White Russian state, Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Dagestan. Prof. Mackinder predicted that if the Bolsheviks gained control of the rim-states, the Russian State would acquire the means to return to the status of a Great Power (CAB 23/20, 29.1.1920).

In his famous 1919 book Democratic Ideals and Reality Mackinder wrote:

“It is a vital necessity that there should be a tier of independent States between Germany and Russia. The Russians are… hopelessly incapable of resisting German penetration on any basis.” (p.118)

Just because Germany had been defeated it did not mean that many in England did not still fear a resurrection. And the fear of a German resurrection was always viewed as being likely through a combination between German Socialism and Russian Communism, which were seen as being one and the same thing, to a great extent.

Halford Mackinder did not just mean the Central/East European interface when he wrote about the necessity of building “a tier of independent States between Germany and Russia”. He meant cordoning off the entire area from the Baltic to the Caspian Seas. And he famously insisted:

“Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland;

Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island;

Who rules the World-Island commands the World.” (p.152)

Prof. Mackinder, analysing things in a geopolitical manner, argued that Russia needed to be dismembered or the Bolsheviks would be capable of rejuvenating the Heartland as a powerful tellurocratic force. 

When Mackinder received no definite support in the British Cabinet and it signalled that negotiations would now be undertaken with the Bolsheviks he resigned as High Commissioner. But his policy of a cordon sanitaire in the Caucasus, and across Europe, was all that was left for Lloyd George and the British Government. It now looked to take it up – although in the same piecemeal way it had waged war on the Bolsheviks.

Britain Swaps Denikin for a Caucasus Shield

On 22 December 1919 at a meeting in London between the British Foreign Minister and the Secretary General of the French Foreign Ministry it was noted that if Denikin suffered a catastrophic defeat the Allies could consider  the recognition of Georgia and Azerbaijan in the Spring of 1920 (CAB 24/95, 22.12.1919).

Two days later Curzon recommended this course in a Memorandum advising the establishment of an anti-Bolshevik bloc of nations, within a federal Transcaucasia, under a British or American mandate. This, it was suggested, could then be extended to a series of states encompassing Transcaucasia, the Don region, Kuban, Terek and the Ukraine, until the region was formed into a great federal state (CAB 24/95, 24.12.1919). Denikin, however, was still seen as an obstacle to such a policy.

Curzon was of the belief that Georgia was more ready for independence than Azerbaijan but he also realised that if Azerbaijan was not given full support both countries would be doomed. Their fates were inextricably linked (It should be noted that Armenia was not included in discussions about independence because the Allies could not agree about the extent of its borders and kept putting a decision off. This issue will be dealt with in a later section).

A final suggestion Curzon made, which he seemed to favour above the others, should be noted for its duplicity. This was that Georgia and Azerbaijan should be recognised de facto temporarily, granting the United Nations the final say on de jure independence at a later date. This would have the advantage of keeping Denikin on board with British plans so that if Bolshevism was defeated within the following years a new Russia could reincorporate Georgia and Azerbaijan into a federal Russian state (CAB 24/95, 24.12.1919 and FO 371/6269).

Although we cannot be certain whether this was the policy that was ultimately intended it looks suspiciously like what was actually done by Britain. And it shows that the Caucasian states were really just pawns in the renewed Great Game with Russia.  

In January 1920 the British government wrestled with the issue of de facto recognition of Georgia and Azerbaijan. The issue of de facto versus de jure independence was dressed up in British diplomatic languages to soothe the sensitivity of not granting full, unqualified freedom:

“1. That in the case of a state such as Azerbaijan, which has had no previous independent existence, de facto recognition is a necessary step to de jure recognition, and 2. de facto recognition involves a qualification to the effect that it is only granted on a specified condition such as e.g. the maintenance of stable Government or the decision of a Conference.” (FO 371/3666, 2.1.1920)

The explanation of Curzon’s points by an official in the Foreign Office, Mr. Kidston, reveals that this was in essence a flexible policy designed to satisfy the Azerbaijanis, whilst providing Britain with the means of adjusting itself to any situation that might emerge – including a Bolshevik takeover. The immediate concession of de jure independence would have surrendered British leverage over the situation in relation to Russia, which was always Britain’s main concern.

The point about Azerbaijan not being ready for de jure recognition because it had “no previous independent existence” was a canard. After all hadn’t Britain just established innovatory states called “Yugoslavia” and “Czechoslovakia” at the very same time, as part of their “tier of independent states between Germany and Russia”? Czechoslovakia was not only given de facto recognition it was granted the status of one of the founding members of the League of Nations on 10 January 1920, when Azerbaijan was conceded only de facto recognition. 

Czechoslovakia was a fledgling state of very doubtful nationality with “no previous independent existence” in which large segments of different peoples were subject to the rule of a minority nationality with no experience of governing. It was, of course, primarily a buffer state. And it was sacrificed to Hitler in 1938, even though his position was militarily weak, when the state that the League had sanctioned was suddenly seen to be internally dysfunctional and deemed undefendable.

The Azerbaijani delegation had conducted itself with great dignity at Paris and presented the Peace Conference with moderate requests, upon being granted an audience with President Wilson. They were based on Wilsonian principles of self-determination and included requested admission to the League of Nations. Whilst other delegations – including the 2 Armenian delegations – advanced ridiculous territorial claims, the Azerbaijanis stuck closely to demographic and geographical reality. Wilson, however, was cold and unsympathetic to them, saying the Conference did not want to break the world into little pieces (despite the principle of self-determination) and the Azerbaijanis should wait for the resolution of the Russian question before they could get a full hearing from the Great War victors. (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, p.266) 

The Azerbaijani National Council had no experience in statecraft and in many ways the Azerbaijani people had been forced into nationhood in order to preserve their continued existence to a great extent. However, the new state had made a good start in establishing democratic institutions – with seats reserved for Armenians – and it became one of only a handful of states in the world to enfranchise women (the first in the region).

Functional institutions of state were founded, foreign relations established and an army began to be organised. The Republic maintained a strict policy of neutrality in the Russian Civil War to the North after British forces left at the end of August 1919. The Azerbaijan Republic was in most respects a model state, fully deserving of independence and capable of making its way in the world (see Audrey L. Altstadt, The Azerbaijani Turks, pp.94-96 and Anar Isgenderli, Realities of Azerbaijan: 1917-1920, pp.174-200, for more details).

From all accounts available from the British military they left Baku and Azerbaijan with regret – it had been one of the most peaceful occupations the British had ever experienced as the Azerbaijanis took them at the word to develop themselves for nationhood.

The British, although having abandoned the Whites, were still sensitive to the charge of betrayal their allies and the effect a recognition of separatists would have on White resistance to the Bolsheviks to the North of the Caucasus. They maintained that although they were withdrawing military aid they were not withdrawing “official support”. That would be withdrawn if Denikin did not accept the de facto independence given to Georgia and Azerbaijan (CAB 24/96, 6.1.1920). Denikin, with little choice in the matter, except extermination and oblivion, duly obliged leaving open a future possibility – conveyed to him by Britain:

“I recognise the independent existence of the de facto governments of the border areas which struggle against Bolshevism. The establishment of mutual relations of these borderlands with Russia shall take place through treaties between the All-Russian Government and the governments of the borderlands. The mediation of the Allied Powers is admissible.” (Firuz Kazemzadeh, The Struggle for Transcaucasia, 1917-1921, p.249)

As Denikin’s armies began to crumble it became imperative to do something to construct a new defence against the Bolsheviks  and time was running out if any new states were to be able to organise themselves for their own defence. Britain, therefore, acted at the last moment.

On January 7 Fatali Khoyski, Azerbaijan’s Foreign Minister, contacted the British, showing them a telegram from Commissar Chicherin demanding an alliance with the Georgians and Azerbaijanis against Denikin. Without British recognition and backing Khoyski told Colonel Stokes it might be better to make terms with the Bolsheviks. This message was communicated by High Commissioner Wardrop to the Foreign Office. (FO 608/271)

On January 10 1920 Lord Curzon sent a telegram to the Foreign Office reporting that on his initiative the British Prime Minister and the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers had decided to recognise the de facto independence of Georgia and Azerbaijan (CAB 29/41, 10.1.1919 and FO 608/271, 10.1.1920). 

The same telegram, however, warned both states that 

“recognition of de facto independence of Georgian and Azerbaijan Governments does not of course involve any decision as to their present or future boundaries, and must not be held to prejudice that question in smallest degree.” (FO 608/271, 10.1.1920). 

Territorial readjustment, in favour of a future presently-undefined Armenia was held as a lever against the Georgians and Azerbaijanis until the end.

Having seen the Bolshevik breaking of its shield above the Caucasus – General Denikin’s forces – Britain began to finally accept the idea of the Georgian and Azerbaijani states constituting a new shield above Persia and Mesopotamia and the British Empire.

On 10 January Georgian and Azerbaijani delegations were summoned to the Allied Conference and faced hostile interrogations from Lloyd George, Curzon, Churchill and Clemenceau who did not conceal their displeasure at the view that they might come to terms with the Bolsheviks rather than fight for the British interest with their countries as battlegrounds (ibid, p.224).

Following the meeting of the Allied Supreme Council on 10 January in Paris the British Delegation explained in a logical sequence of points the reason for the new policy of de facto recognition of Georgia and Azerbaijan:

“Present situation caused by defeat of both Kolchak and Denikin. Bolsheviks, having failed to upset Europe, have made agreement with Mussulman to attack to the East. Owing to collapse of Denikin, Transcaucasia becomes bridge which must be defended by Allies to prevent union of these two hordes. It, including the Caspian and especially Georgia, is the natural barrier separating these two forces.” (DPFPC II, Doc. 77, Appendix 2, p.926)  

The “Mussulman hordes” that were ominously assembling on the Anatolian steppe were the forces of the Turkish resurgence, centred around Mustapha Kemal, hero of Gallipoli. It was Britain’s worst nightmare that they would join the “Bolshevik hordes.” But more of that later.

When Denikin’s forces began to break up, Britain at last, through the League of Nations, decided to give de facto recognition to the Azerbaijani, Armenian and Georgian Governments on 12 January.

Pawns in a Losing Game

The British Section of the Allied Military Council immediately got to work concluding that:

“If it has not been possible to overcome Bolshevism on its own soil, it should be possible to arrest it on certain dangerous route, such as that of the Caucasus.” (DPFPC II, Doc. 77, Appendix 1, p.925) 

It was recognised that due to “the immature condition of their military forces” the Georgians and Azerbaijanis would need to have at least 2 Divisions of European troops to form the core of the defence. It was also imperative to have command of the Caspian. Work needed to start immediately because such a defence would require at least 3 months to implement. 

As the Supreme Council of the Allied Powers was conceding de facto recognition to Georgia and Azerbaijan the British Cabinet and an Interdepartmental Committee held a series of meetings concerned with what to do about the Bolshevik advance toward the Caucasus. Several possible defence lines were considered: A forward line of Constantinople/Batum/Baku/Merv was considered militarily impractical because it would require 7 British Divisions to man it; A more defensive Palestine/ Mosul line was favoured by the War Office. The CIGS, Sir Henry Wilson, insisted he did not have the army to defend the Caucasus line, although losing the Caspian to the Bolsheviks would represent a “first class disaster” (FO 371/3980, 12.1.1920)

As Richard Ullman notes:

“To provide even… two divisions – much less seven – was out of the question, however. The British government’s campaign of repression in Ireland was demanding increasingly large forces… And from India, Mesopotamia (Iraq), and Egypt came insistent requests for military manpower… This meant giving up the Caucasus and even much of Persia, and concentrating on the defence of India and the oil fields of the Persian Gulf.” (Britain and the Russian Civil War, p. 325)

It seems that the British forces required to defend the Azerbaijani democracy were required instead to deal with the more important matter of repressing the Irish democracy and rising peoples elsewhere in Britain’s expanded Empire!

Sir Henry Wilson recorded his thoughts in his Diary that night, as to the military reality of the situation:

“Curzon, who with Lloyd George is in Paris, sends a ridiculous wire about Georgia and Azerbaijan and the necessity of supporting them… We had a meeting at the Foreign Office, and I gave a lecture on a map showing the impossibility of standing on the forward lines in defence of India. I showed that Palestine-Mosul-Khanikin-Burujird was the only possible line, and that we should adjust our policy to that line. It was quite true that Georgia and Azerbaijan would go Bolshevik, in spite of the fact that those fools in Paris only yesterday agreed to acknowledge the “de facto governments” of those countries. It was also true that we should clear out of Persia, in spite of the treaty Curzon had just made with Persia without consulting the War Office.” (Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. 2, p.222)  

In subsequent meetings no commitment to defending the Caucasus with British forces was made and the policy of getting the Georgians, Armenians, Azerbaijanis and Mountaineers to do it themselves had to be adopted.

On 14 January Georgian and Azerbaijani missions were assured by the Supreme Council in Paris that the Allied Powers were obligated to defend the states they had newly recognised from foreign i.e. Bolshevik aggression (Anar Isgenderli, Realities of Azerbaijan: 1917-1920, pp.192-3).

However, when Lloyd George made this pledge he had not consulted with his Cabinet colleagues or military advisers. On 16 January he did and there was a clear division over the issue.

Lord Curzon called for the “organisation of the excellent defensive line of the Caucasus” and an Allied military effort to protect the Transcaucasian Republics and Persia from a Bolshevik invasion. Admiral Beatty, who was keen to retain the oil fields of Baku and Persia for the Royal Navy, supported the Foreign Secretary and demanded that Britain take back the ships given to Denikin, to re-establish direct British naval control of the Caspian from Baku.

Churchill made one last explosive plea for continued support of Denikin and war on the Bolsheviks. He vigorously attacked the current policy which he summarised as:

“to allow Denikin’s armies to be destroyed without making any further effort to help them in the field… to abandon to their fate all our present friends in Russia who have been fighting the Bolsheviks; to adopt two new proteges in the feeble and divided States of Georgia and Azerbaijan; to make new doles of arms, munitions and supplies to them… In other words, having refused to combine any of the large factors in the struggle against the enemy, having allowed them to be smashed up one by one on the grounds that we could not face the expense or run the risk, we are now to try to make a new front out of little weak pawns that are left to us and to lavish vainly on them resources which, applied in time and with a real “will to win” to Kolchak, Denikin, Poland, the Baltic States and Finland, concerted and combined, might well have given us victory instead of the defeat which is now upon us…” (CAB 21/177, 17.1.1999. This paper, although in the Cabinet files, was prevented from being a Cabinet paper and circulation by the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, such was its straight talking.)

Churchill said that attempting to shore up Georgia and Azerbaijan against the Bolsheviks was “like using a piece of putty to stop an earthquake.”

Instead he proposed: “a policy of making war on the Bolsheviks with every available resource and by every possible means”. By this he meant attacking the Bolshevik state on all fronts through every available force.

“We left the problem unsolved in exactly the state we have always left it since last November (1918)… LG is totally unable to offer a solution & simply drifts from one crisis to another.” (Major-General Sir C.E. Callwell, Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson, His Life and Diaries, Vol. 2, p.224)

On 19 January 1920 the Allied Military Council members from Britain, France and Italy all declared they were unprepared to send any military forces to defend the Caucasus against the Bolsheviks.

The final decision made by the Allied Powers was to despatch to Georgia and Azerbaijan unspecified quantities of food and munitions but no military forces. They also agreed to give de facto recognition to an Armenian state, without specifying its territory, which would not have encouraged Georgia or Azerbaijan, who were both victims of expansionary Armenian designs.

It is an inescapable fact that Britain delayed in recognising the independence of the Caucasus Republics until Denekin was effectively beaten. The only explanation for Britain’s belated recognition of Azerbaijan and Georgia is that with Denekin beaten it was necessary to motivate these people to defend themselves against the advance of the Red Army, in order to maintain British influence in Transcaucasia.

The British recognition of the the Caucasian Republics was, therefore, not conceded as a recognition of self-determination. Both Curzon and Lloyd George made it clear to the Allied representatives that Britain was primarily in favour of it, in Lloyd George’s words “on the express condition that the Caucasian States will resist the Bolsheviks and garrison Baku with all their strength.” (HMSO, Documents on British Foreign Policy, Vol II, 19/1/1920)

Assistance to the Republics was, therefore, conditional on them resisting the Red Army. Britain hoped that a Bolshevik advance on Persia, a key location in the defence of the Indian Empire, would be stopped in the Caucasus. Also, they hoped to interpose the Caucasian Republics between the Bolsheviks and Turkey.

Britain had provided substantial and unconditional assistance to the Armenian Dashnaks, pro-Entente Russians and even the Soviets who blocked the way of the Ottoman army in mid-1918, during the Great War. This contrasted sharply with the minimal and conditional help it provided to the Caucasian states to defend themselves against Bolshevism in early 1920. Britain, in mealymouthed fashion, sent a token supply of some surplus and faulty weaponry to the Republics to defend themselves against the Bolsheviks, and Curzon refused them loans. The fear was that if they lost, which they expectation was that they would, any munitions sent would simply fall into the hands of the Bolsheviks, as those supplied to Denikin’s army had.

The outcome of the Russian Civil War decided the fate of the Caucasus nation states rather than any British upholding of the principle of self-determination. British Foreign Policy, in hesitating until the final minute, demoralised the Caucasus nation states and hastened their fall to the Bolsheviks. As a result of the indecision in London the Caucasian Republics were obstructed in their development into independent states and were told to wait on the decision of the Peace Conference at Paris through 1919. Although they were allowed to become nation states in embryo, managing much of their own affairs, they were denied de jure recognition and were unable to secure loans on the international money markets.

It was only when the anti-Bolshevik forces were seen as incapable of winning the Civil War that the British gave de facto recognition to the Republics of the Caucasus. This fact suggests that if Denikin had won the Civil War in Russia there would have been no British recognition for Georgia and Azerbaijan. As Winston Churchill noted, for Britain, they were merely the “little weak pawns that are left to us” in the losing game against Russia.

It was in the winning of the Civil War, rather than the Revolution itself, that the Bolsheviks achieved mastery of Russia.

Lloyd George could neither wage full-blooded war against the Bolsheviks or make peace with them. Instead, he tacked between the two policies as the wind blew one way and another. Britain slid from a half-hearted war with Soviet Russia, using the Whites,  to a half-hearted support for self-determination of the anti-Bolshevik states in the Caucasus. Too little, too late.

Britain’s actions toward Russia were the first steps of a blundering giant in the world it predominated in – an Empire bloated by a Great War victory that could do no good, due to mental and physical incapacity within its impressive stature.

If Britain had not the will and the means, after its Great War, to destroy the Bolshevists, it should have made peace with them and bottled them up – saving the states that lay outside Russia, in the Caucasus and Ukraine, for democracy. It was certainly, as the predominant Power in the world, capable of that, at least.

But the British Prime Minister, acting for the British democracy, took the pressure off the Leninist regime by preventing Churchill getting his way, and gave space for the Soviet Union to develop as a force in the world. This began the chain of events that led to a Second World War in the same generation.

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