‘Great Britain against Russia in the Caucasus’ is about how the geopolitical relationship between Imperial Britain and Tsarist Russia had a transformative effect on the destinies of Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis. From the Great War of August 1914, the course of history for these empires and peoples of Transcaucasia, was irrevocably altered and set on a new course.
The Russian movement south across the Caucasus during the early 19th Century had a profound effect on the peoples of Transcaucasia, as well as the Ottoman Empire. The struggle between Great Britain and Russia known as “The Great Game” that then ensued, added a new geopolitical dimension to the region stretching from the European Ottoman provinces to Southern Iran. However, at the moment when this great geopolitical struggle reached its pinnacle it was then seemingly suspended, by mutual agreement of the two empires, in response to an alteration in Britain’s Balance of Power policy. And the effect was utterly cataclysmic.
It was the over-riding of “The Great Game” by the reactivation of the British Balance of Power policy, signalled in the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, that led on to the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey. This catastrophic event was to have the most fundamental and transforming effect on the peoples of Transcaucasia, when the Tsarist state succumbed to Revolution in the waging of it.
After the Great War of 1914 nothing was ever the same again for Britain, Russia, Ottoman Turkey, the Armenians and the people of Azerbaijan. The miscalculated War produced Revolution in Russia, and other places, and the idealistic catch-cries of the new world provoked nation-building in the most improbable of places. Without the alteration of the British Balance of Power, the suspension of “The Great Game” and the consequent Great War, the map of the region may have remained rolled up and unaltered for generations.
At the end of 1918, as a result of its Great War victory, the British Empire had gained control of a vast land area stretching eastward from Istanbul into Anatolia, the Caucasus and Transcaspia. Behind this area a great belt of land, running east from Palestine, through Mesopotamia/Iraq and into Persia lay in England’s hands, to do what it wished with. In front of this Britain was supplying and supporting various military forces that were disintegrating the Russian state through civil war. The Great War of 1914 had not only succeeded in destroying Germany, and the Hapsburg and Ottoman Empires, but it had also seemingly won Britain the Great Game of a century of geopolitical rivalry with Russia.
Yet in the moment of triumph of Imperial Britain, and in less than two years, Russia was back in the Caucasus and Transcaspia and it was pressing down on British Persia. And Russia was no longer Tsarist Russia but Bolshevik Russia.
This extraordinary turn of events is not explained to any satisfactory degree in the history books of the Anglosphere. Consequently, accounts are bemused by England’s behaviour in 1919, which is only understandable within its geopolitical context. Why the great statesmen of England did what they did deserves more attention and explanation. The history of Ottoman Turkey and Transcaucasia is really inexplicable without trying to understand their calculations and effect on events.
Winston Churchill, who features strongly in this story, once called Russia “a riddle, inside a mystery, wrapped in an enigma.” But Russia is hardly an enigma. For the most part of two centuries it has controlled the Caucasus and unless someone prevented it from doing so, it remained in authority over the region. The peoples of the Caucasus were simply too many and too divided to resist the power of the Russian advance. Only two internal collapses of the Russian State, in 1917 and 1990, provided the space for new states to be born and to thereafter function with a degree of independence.
Britain is much more an enigma in relation to the Caucasus than Russia actually is. Of course, the Caucasus is hardly in Britain’s backyard, but neither are the great expanses of the world she conquered and controlled for centuries elsewhere. But Britain, despite its immense power, had a fundamental problem with the region. That was because British power was sea power and the Caucasus were too continental for Britain’s main weapon of war, the Royal Navy, to be employed there to any great effect. Lord Salisbury once warned the Armenians that his navy could never traverse the Taurus Mountains to assist their objectives. Neither could it climb over the mountains of the Caucasus. What was needed were soldiers and that is what Britain lacked.
During the Great War Britain had built an army larger than it had ever accumulated in its history. Soldiers were available to Britain: in Persia, Turkey and among the Moslem peoples of the Caucasus, who were opposed to Russian domination and would have willingly fought against it. And there lay the key to a successful defence of the Caucasus against the Russians if the will was there to make it a reality. In 1918-19 it seemed that the foundations of a very advantageous situation were there for Imperial Britain. There was even Russian state collapse during the previous year to assist it. And then…?
Where there is a will there is a way. But in 1919 Britain’s will failed and there was no way. Imperial Britain, seemingly at the height of her power, having won its greatest of wars, baulked at the situation that confronted it, and the Imperial retreat began, unexpectedly, in the moment of victory. The Caucasus region and its peoples, who had been encouraged to form buffer-states and given a brief taste of independent existence, fell back into Russian hands – now Bolshevik hands – for nearly three quarters of a century. And the locals were left to make the best of it.
To understand Great Britain’s failure, we need to understand the British Imperial mind and its view of the Caucasus.
Much of the world is credulous about Britain. That is hardly surprising, since Britain imposed itself upon the world in three great worldwide wars, conquered a large part of it in the course of these, established successful and powerful colonies as a result, and made the English language the default language for the writing of history, among other things. That historical process of forceful action, sustained over centuries, has produced conditioned reflexes which have inhibited thought and produced a great deal of innocent credulity.
Any attempt to write the history of this period without considering the primary role of Great Britain in shaping the destiny of the peoples of the Southern Caucasus and Anatolia, is really “Hamlet without the Prince”.
To explain all this, it is necessary to examine the fundamentals of the mindset of Imperial Britain, which came to determine things in Anatolia and Transcaucasia during 1917-21. So, the early British interventions in Persia, the Great Game against Tsarist Russia, the importance of the Indian Empire and the Balance of Power policy are all surveyed. The consequence of this and the course of the Great War that followed was that Britain had a divided mind when it assumed the mastery of the Caucasus in 1918, which meant that it did not know what to do as clearly as the Bolsheviks did.
Lengthy quotations from significant actors and commentators are sometimes included – something that is unfamiliar in academia. This is done because the reader is required to step into another world, the world before the Great War changed the world forever, to understand why people acted as they did, and things were done as they had been done prior to the interregnum.
The thing about the period just after the Great War was that although a new world had dawned – not least of all because the New World (America) had been drawn into the War – the people who presided over this new world had minds that had been formed in the period of the old world, before the cataclysm. They could not act how they would have acted in the old world and had to adjust for a new world that was unfamiliar and which they had no experience of in practice. History, the basis of past understandings and consequent actions, could not help them. So, without bearings, they blundered.
The very act of fighting the Great War had also changed the minds that had considered issues in an entirely different light before the fighting had begun and had went on, and on, and on.
The context of the story is the geopolitics of Great Britain versus Russia. But it is also about the battleground on which the issue between them was fought. It is Ottoman Turkey, Armenia, Azerbaijan and their peoples, who, after all, did most of the fighting and dying. So, the internal politics and struggles between the various elements present in the region are an important aspect of this history.
The sudden but temporary confluence of interests between Bolshevik Russia and the new development of Republican Turkey, brought about by Lloyd George’s disastrous policy of using the Greeks and Armenians as catspaws to impose a punitive settlement on the Turks, is crucial in understanding what then happened. And the critical role of the Armenians in acting as a source of internal destabilisation, due to their relationship with the Western Imperial Powers, as perceived patrons, is given the significance it is due.
All this determined the result of the battle for the Caucasus that Bolshevik Russia quite unexpectedly won over Imperial Britain from a dire position only a few months previous.From the early nineteenth century Russia was the great constant in the affairs of the Caucasus and Britain was the great potential variable. That is probably why Great Britain’s influence has been overlooked by historians. It is the role of variables to change things. The wider geopolitical interests of Britain were what destabilised Transcaucasia, set it on a new course, and led to the historic events which this book is about. But when the battle was over it was Russia which held the field, alongside the new Turkish state born out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire.