Now that the war is over and most of the Armenian occupation is being dismantled in favour of an Azeri reconstruction of the region some afterthoughts are in order in the aftermath.
One thing that has dominated reports from Karabakh over the last week has been the revelations of the Armenian vandalism inflicted on the formerly occupied territories. The Azeri cities, settlements and villages of Fuzuli, Jabrayil, Zangilan and Aghdam are now seen for the first time by the outside world, in their state of ruin, destroyed by the occupiers and left to decay for a generation. They are ghost towns resembling the abandoned Chernobyl – although parts of Aghdam look more like Hiroshima. Homes, monuments, cultural and religious buildings, and even cemeteries in these areas, and in the great Azeri cultural centre of Shusha, were razed to the ground (Armenian Prime Minister Pashinyan even admitted in a speech: “Shushi was an unfortunate, colourless city. Did we need Shushi? If we needed it, why was it left in that condition?”)
The retreating Armenian settlers/colonists were also seen conducting a “scorched earth” policy in the areas they were leaving. Settlers/colonists are often noted for destroying their occupation infrastructure when they are overcome by local majorities which they can no longer keep down. The settler mentality is a racist one of superiority in which the most humble colonist believes himself a higher form of civilization than those he understands he is destined to replace on a territory. When his world is shattered by a resurgence of those he dispossesses he takes all that he sees as his work, no matter how mundane – even toilet bowls! Of course, the destruction of settlements, houses, schools and livestock is environmental crime. Most of the settlers “achievements” are, in fact, the result of theft from the precious resources of the local environment, which has been illegally taken from the original inhabitants. So this is also a war crime and reparations should be justly demanded from the former occupiers. By signing the armistice the Armenian government has formally accepted its responsibilities as prime participant in this criminality, removing the pretence of a free-standing separatist pseudo-state being the culprits.
According to the prescribed schedule of the armistice, Armenia withdrew its occupation forces from the Aghdam district on November 20. Two major stages therefore remain: withdrawal of Armenian forces from the Kelbajar and Lachin districts. President Aliyev at a meeting with Russian ministers on a ‘shuttle visit’ to Baku, expressed his satisfaction with the mechanisms for implementing the agreement and the role of Vladimir Putin in helping to localise the conflict, stabilise the situation and beginning the peace process.
It was certainly possible that a total defeat of Armenia could have been inflicted by Azerbaijani army. This was, of course, possible in purely military terms. By the sixth week of the war the Armenian forces had lost nearly all their military equipment (150 tanks, 60 armoured vehicles, 80 artillery pieces, 50 rocket launchers and 30 air defence units) and 20,000 men were in the process of being surrounded by Azeri forces. The Former Deputy Chief of Staff Levon Stepanyan told Sputnik Armenia that over 10,000 of their soldiers had deserted. Being wiped out from the air by the pinpoint accuracy of the drones was sapping the will of even the most fanatic to fight. All the limited counter-attacks had failed with high cost and the only means of striking back were random missile attacks on Azerbaijani civilian centres. Mikayel Minasyan, former Armenian Ambassador put the dead and missing at around 4750 soldiers.
However, although the war was going well for Azerbaijan, if it had continued on until the total military defeat of the Armenians, the victory at Shusha would probably have been seen, afterwards, as the high point. Undoubtedly, casualties would have been much higher for the Azeris if the war had continued. If Stepanakert had resisted there would have been a Sarajevo type siege situation that would have damaged Azerbaijan internationally, more and more as long as the resistance held out. This might have even provoked Russian intervention on “humanitarian” grounds. As such, the result would have been the same as the war ended with the same positions. If the war had stopped before the fall of Stepanakert the Armenians would have scored a moral victory within an overall defeat, despite any casualties they would have suffered and inflicted on Azeri forces.
If there had been no Russian intervention and Stepanakert had fallen to Azerbaijan after a fight, the scene would have been portrayed as a massacre in the West, despite any evidence to the contrary about the city being the military hub of the occupation. Streams of Armenian refugees struggling across high ground in winter conditions would have invited comparisons with the experiences of Azerbaijani civilians during 1992-3. And the Armenian lobby would have ruthlessly exploited them in a much more successful manner than the forgotten people of 1992-4.
Furthermore, Azerbaijani forces would then have had to fight to liberate the occupied territories closer to the border with Armenia. This presented all sorts of risk including Armenian hit and run guerrilla resistance within the occupied territories themselves and increased use of artillery bombardments, from positions within Armenian territory. These Azerbaijan could not counter without direct attacks on Armenia, which would almost certainly have invited Moscow’s intervention on CSTO treaty grounds.
There were also other dangers that were developing in the war. Azerbaijan shot down a Russian helicopter along the border with Armenia, mistaking it for an Armenian flight. Armenia began using Iskender missiles just before the armistice. These had the potential of causing great numbers of civilian casualties in Azerbaijani cities. In short, what should have been a limited conflict, and which Azerbaijan attempted to keep as such, had the potential to get out of hand and spiral out of control. Russia would not allow this in what it saw as its backyard for reasons of hegemony and prestige.
It seems to have been the case that around mid-October President Putin, using telephone conversations with Prime Minister Pashinyan and President Aliyev, put forward the proposal that the war be ended with an agreement for the return of the Azeribaijani IDPs to Shusha. According to the Russian President the Armenians rejected this agreement as being too damaging to the security of the occupation. The inference is that this was acceptable to Azerbaijan, although the actual status of Shusha is unclear. Now Shusha is a liberated part of Azerbaijan, with no question over its status.
The rapid Russian peace deal, when it came, had the advantage of taking the Armenian opposition to Pashinyan by surprise and making it incapable of organising further resistance in Karabakh. There were certainly elements in Yerevan who would have taken the Armenian state down in resisting to the bitter end. It has always been a trait of Armenian nationalism to recklessly sacrifice its people for the sake of territory and there were undoubtedly those who would have taken this road. The Armenian Prime Minister had deceived his people into believing the war to be going well. When they suddenly found out the real truth Pashinyan had already signed the armistice/surrender and the Russians were in. And the Armenians could not afford to defy Moscow, which had them in its pocket militarily and financially, by then continuing the war.
The present writer has little doubt that the war was halted at the right time. Any sooner, during the three ceasefires that failed to hold, would have produced a too limited victory that would have produced a third war. Any later, in pursuit of complete victory could well have produced serious problems that would have threatened the actual victory itself, or tarnished it in various ways that threatened it. Enduring victories are better than total victories that prove temporary.
A lengthy and more costly war that dragged on, by producing further Armenian resistance, in whatever limited form, would have made the most important task facing Azerbaijan – the reconstruction of the occupied territories – very difficult. For a start, greater resources would have had to have been devoted to further military operations and future defence. Even with the armistice defence will still be a priority with new de facto borders having to be strengthened and monitored for infiltration of armed gangs from Armenia aiming to terrorise returned Azerbaijanis into leaving again. Shusha will have to be built up as a fortress guarding the territories from its strategic vantage point.
The reconstruction of liberated Karabakh and the surrounding provinces is the most important project that faces Azerbaijan now. This difficult and costly process will have to be conducted under stable conditions to be successful.
The presence of Russian forces, however small, on sovereign Azerbaijan territory is obviously an affront. Some have suggested that it has limited the victory too much. However, the placing of the Nagorno Karabakh rump in quarantine, fenced in by Russian forces is probably an advantage in reality – in the short-time, anyway. If the effort of the first 5 years of reconstruction is successful and Karabakh is rejuvenated, with the return of substantial numbers of Azerbaijanis, reconstructing their settlements and infrastructure, then the rump of Nagorno Karabakh can be tackled in 5, 10, 15 or 20 years, when Azerbaijan is ready to deal with it. Six months notice is required to be given to the Russian peacekeepers according to the armistice. If Azeris are not persuaded to return in substantial numbers to Karabakh and surrounding provinces, because they have put down too many roots in exile in Baku or other places over three decades, for instance, then the country will not be ready to absorb the remaining territory.
In an ideal world the war would have been confined to Azerbaijan recovering its territories from Armenian occupation and this would have been achieved completely. But the world is not an ideal place and many people who act as if it were are sadly disappointed when it proves to be a brutal and arbitrary place. Many who oppose Russian interference would prefer Western interference. But what has the West actually done for Azerbaijan and what can we expect of it now? Certainly in many Western countries the Armenian narrative predominates and democracies are very attuned to elections with political representatives responsive to well organised and long established Armenian lobbies. The Azeri diaspora which has been mobilised for the first time, in response to the Armenian provocations that caused the war, is in an early stage of development, but it has made its mark and will not allow the Armenians to have their own way in the future, as they have been accustomed to.
Russia, although a historic ally of Armenia and having a sizeable Armenian lobby, looks after its affairs without reference to the influence of interest groups. This can be seen in the course of the war when Putin came under pressure to aid the expectant Armenians. Only 7 years ago the Chief of the Russian Federation’s large military base in Armenia stated that: “If the leadership of Azerbaijan decides to use force to restore jurisdiction over Nagorno-Karabakh, the base can enter armed conflict per Russia’s CSTO obligations.”
President Putin would have judged the relative merits and problems of taking such a decision. He would have looked at the relative records of Armenia and Azerbaijan as neighbours of Russia and the qualities and dependability of their leaderships. Armenia’s leadership had changed in the intervening period to Russia’s detriment. Putin had put up with Pashinyan but once the new Armenian Prime Minister played fast and loose with Moscow relations and then provoked a war that upset the Russian strategy of balancing of forces in the Southern Caucasus, he was not going to be saved, despite his expectations. Putin would have weighed up the geopolitical factors in assisting Russia’s ally Armenia. He decided not to, until he judged he was merely saving them from disaster. International Law was used to justify the lack of intervention. A new balance of power had emerged with the victories of the Azerbaijanis and it was within this that Putin decided to work.
To judge it correct to intervene Putin would have had to see an acute threat to Russia’s vital interests that could not be eliminated by any means short of force, or that one of Moscow’s post-Soviet neighbours might escape to join a hostile alliance. Putin would also have had to hold a reasonable hope that military intervention would have yielded a reduction in the threat to Russia’s vital interests. None of these conditions applied to Pashinyan’s war with Azerbaijan and Baku’s military response. What then was the point of rolling back Azerbaijan and losing Baku, perhaps to the West?
Unlike the Western characterising of Moscow, Russia’s primary strategic interest is not to acquire more territories, but to prevent the emergence of hostile major powers or regional hegemonies on Russian borders and to ensure that Russia is surrounded by friendly states.
“Azerbaijan is the type of country with which Putin seems to feel comfortable—a stable autocracy whose cautious ruler pursues consistent and predictable policies. Azerbaijan causes few headaches for Russia and demands only that its transactional approach be reciprocated. President Ilham Aliyev began his rule only three years after Putin took over Russia; his father Heydar Aliyev had ruled Azerbaijan for a decade before that, not counting the Soviet period, when he also ruled the country as his own fiefdom. Heydar Aliyev’s time in the senior-most ranks of the Soviet state, Communist Party, and security services nomenklatura made his attitude very different from other post-Soviet rulers, some of whom had been minor provincial apparatchiki in Soviet times and saw Moscow as the source of all power. Heydar Aliyev treated Russia’s post-Soviet rulers without the fealty or fear that some of his contemporaries showed.
Ilham Aliyev does not have the experience or ability of his father, but he has inherited that legacy of autonomous sovereignty… Azerbaijan and Russia have enjoyed a functional, transactional relationship that is cordial, neighborly, and devoid of emotion. To some extent, Azerbaijan grew ideologically closer to Russia in the wake of the Ukraine crisis, as both countries saw themselves as attacked and undermined by a fifth column of Western-supported civil society and nongovernmental organizations. In 2014, the chief of Azerbaijan’s presidential apparatus—usually considered closest to Russia in the Azerbaijani leadership—published a long, scathing article outlining that worldview.”
What this shows is that Azerbaijan was extremely fortunate it had a leader of the background and character of Ilham Aliyev, and it was doubly lucky that Armenia had got a leader of the character of Nikol Pashinyan. In such things are wars won and history made.
The simple rule of thumb is that Russia rewards good neighbours and it punishes bad neighbours. It really is that simple.
Putin has stated that Azerbaijan has recovered its legally recognised sovereign territories. He has described Karabakh as an integral part of Azerbaijan in a TV interview this week. He has also defended the right of Turkish military involvement within Azerbaijan and in the ceasefire headquarters in Karabakh.
Putin made the comment that any attempt by Armenians to overturn the agreement signed with Russia would be “suicidal”. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov warned Armenia that “any attempts to question this agreement both domestically and internationally are unacceptable.” This was followed by a visit of the heavyweights of the Russian government, including Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu, to Yerevan to impress on the Armenians what they would be up against if they attempted to slide out of the agreement. The Russians know the Armenian form very well.
Putin has put Armenia firmly in its place, as the Moscow Timesreported on 21 November:
“Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan called on Saturday for greater military cooperation with Russia, a day after Azerbaijani troops began moving into disputed territory previously held by Armenian separatist forces.”
The thorough defeat it suffered in the war, it appears, has chastened Armenia and its wayward leader. The opposition has also buckled under Moscow’s pressure, which had the effect of making them see sense. Yerevan is firmly back in the Moscow orbit, waiting for any scraps Putin may throw it from his table. The future of Pashinyan is in doubt but what is not in doubt is Armenia’s dependence on Russia. And it is completely Yerevan’s fault. What must the Armenian diaspora in California be thinking now?
Russia conquered Transcaucasia in the 1820s. From then until the Tsarist collapse in 1917 it ruled the region. After a brief Turkish foray into the area, which helped establish Azerbaijan in Baku the British occupied the whole region after it won the Great War. It appeared that Britain had won not only the Great War but also the Great Game with Russia, but appearances were deceptive. Britain had no longer the will to pursue its Imperial work in the way it had before the Great War and it began to blunder, underestimating the Bolshevik ability to revive the Russian state. The British could have prevented a Russian return to the Southern Caucasus if it had made an early functional settlement with Ottoman Turkey. But Lloyd George pursued a punitive policy against the Turks, in conjunction with the Greeks and Armenians. This policy allowed the Russians back into the Caucasus. Turkey recognized Russia as the hegemon in the Southern Caucasus in 1920. That was when Russia was Bolshevik. It did so when it was under great pressure from the West. Britain had abandoned the region in the previous year.
In 1920 Turkey and Russia arranged things in the Southern Caucasus to keep the Western Imperialists out. In 2020 the same relationship has arranged things with a similar concern about meddling from the West – France and the U.S. in particular. The Russian/Turkish supervisory role is vital for stability. If it persists Armenian aggression will be severely curtailed and the conflict over Karabakh has the potential to be managed toward a functional settlement. No other eventuality presents that possibility.
Peaceful co-existence in Karabakh is, for the foreseeable future, only possible through separation and confinement of the Armenians behind Russian bayonets, quarantining the rump of Nagorno-Karabakh which the Armenians seized, homogenised and expanded to destruction. Under present conditions Armenian nationalism, with its narrow, self-seeking and indeed, self-destructive, orientation will persist (perhaps until it manages to wipe out the Armenian people completely).
What we have in Karabakh, is a conflict between two nationalities. Finding an accommodation between what are effectively two nations sharing the same territory involves discovering a way these historic peoples can share this land in peaceful co-existence. The previous Armenian regime attempted to solve the nationalities issue by removing one of them entirely. It failed.
For the next 5 years, at least, the Armenian population of two-thirds of the former Nagorno Karabakh will be isolated from their Azerbaijani neighbours. It would be very unfortunate if they would remain a ringed off homogeneous enclave within the Azerbaijani state, permanently guarded by Russian forces. That would maintain a “siege mentality” which would certainly not be conducive to the building of future good relations between the two peoples of Karabakh, or between Armenia and Azerbaijan. There needs to be development of mutual trust and interest within Karabakh itself, as well as between Armenia and Azerbaijan to address the totality of relations in the conflict. An historic and comprehensive agreement with functional governmental arrangements for reconciliation, within an all-embracing settlement, is imperative for an enduring peace.
One final thing worth saying: This has proved to be one of the best wars in history. International Law and justice has been served by the ending of an illegal and malignant occupation that has poisoned relations in the region for a generation. The good guys have won and their victory has been clean and magnanimous to the defeated enemy. Bloodshed and destruction was minimised and confined to the military forces of the enemy by the way in which the victorious Azerbaijanis fought. No wars are good but this was one which deserves to secure an enduring peace for all.
President Aliyev’s statementof 22 November
“A promising new situation has emerged in the region. I am confident that positive trends will continue to grow. In any case, Azerbaijan is ready for this and today we will discuss in detail our vision of how we think the region will develop. Of course, the trilateral statement is an important step towards establishing a strong and lasting peace in our region. I would like to emphasize the personal role of the President of the Russian Federation Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, who very actively and effectively participated in the development of the text of the agreement, and the fact that the agreement is being successfully implemented is largely due to the fact that this text also contains the signature of the President of the Russian Federation.
I would also like to note the important role played by the President of Turkey Mr Recep Tayyip Erdogan in strengthening security measures in the region. In general, I think that the format of cooperation both in terms of the peacekeeping mission and in terms of the long-term cooperation in the region is acquiring new outlines today. I think that this meets the fundamental interests of the countries of the region because countries of our region should certainly play a leading role, including the matters of strengthening security. What was agreed in the trilateral statement suggests that, with goodwill and a constructive approach, it is possible to resolve issues that previously seemed insoluble.
We are well aware of all the vicissitudes of the settlement process. But I am glad that we have managed to reach the decisions that will allow both the people of Azerbaijan and the people of Armenia the opportunity to live in peace, to try to heal the wounds of war, to try to think about the future, about a common future, a safe future for us, for our neighbors, and thus contribute to the strengthening of security in our region.
We are also glad that other members of the Minsk Group who did not directly participate in the elaboration of provisions of the statement have also expressed their attitude, a positive attitude towards the text of the statement, albeit with a slight delay.
Of course, we had the right to expect a more prompt reaction from them, but apparently there were certain factors that did not allow them to develop a position. But as they say, it is better late than never. I know that a meeting of representatives of the OSCE Minsk Group was held in Moscow. I think that their positive approach to the statement will also play an important role in strengthening security measures and long-term peace.
I would also like to note that I fully share the position of the President of the Russian Federation who expressed hope not to hear the phrase “Nagorno-Karabakh conflict” again. I also hope I will never hear it again. And when we talk about Nagorno-Karabakh, we will only hear news related to the development, elimination of the consequences of the war and reconciliation of the countries that were once at war with each other.”
President of the Republic of Azerbaijan Ilham Aliyev at the meeting with Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Russian Federation Sergey Lavrov.
Despite the ceasefire of last weekend the Karabakh war has continued much as it did over the previous fortnight. The Azerbaijani army has maintained its steady advance, but now out of the plain and into the settlements of Nagorno-Karabakh proper (i.e. the highlands). It has secured Hadrut, whose fall was a great moral blow to the Armenian occupation. Hadrut’s strategic location and its capture meant that Armenian forces defending the Fizuli and Jebrail regions risked being surrounded and were forced to leave their positions.
The battle for the city of Fuzuli, the citadel of the plains of Karabakh, was an important moment in the latest conflict, with the Azerbaijani Army crushing the resistance of the occupying army. Armenian soldiers raised white flags in increasing numbers. The road to the center of Nagorno-Karabakh – the cities of Shusha and Stetanakert/Khankendi – were now open for the Azerbaijani forces.
This next phase will presumably involve an increasingly difficult fight for Azerbaijani forces against the occupation. The Armenians have had a long period to build defensive positions and should be able to put up more robust resistance in such terrain. However, the precision technology available to the Azeri forces is making advance much more possible than observers ever anticipated and the defensive advantages possessed by the Armenians are being nullified by the UAVs. There is an air of disbelief among the Armenian supporters at the defeats being suffered and territory lost. Battles rage around the Aghdere-Aghdam districts and information suggests that Shusha, the old Azerbaijani cultural centre, could perhaps fall at any moment – a major symbolic blow to the Armenian occupation.
A week ago the Azerbaijanis, despite doing so well on the battlefield, seemed ready to accept a ceasefire and there was considerable disappointment that their army had been stopped in its tracks by the talks in Moscow. On the other hand, Armenia’s PM, Nikol Pashinyan, seemed to be begging for a ceasefire, to provide a much needed breathing-space within which its military forces could be re-organized for renewed defence of its retreating positions. It appears that Pashinyan may actually have approached the President of Azerbaijan through intermediaries to secure a halt to the Azeri advance.
And then Armenia shattered the ceasefire with a ballistic missile attack on Azerbaijan’s second city of Ganje that destroyed apartment blocks and claimed around a dozen lives. This made the ceasefire impossible for the Azeris and their army, after beating off some Armenian counter-attacks arranged under cover of the ceasefire. The Azeris promptly resumed the offensive, capturing more territory and clearing the borderline with Iran of occupation forces close to the Araxes River.
During the week there was an Armenian missile attack on Nakhchivan that thankfully resulted in no loss of life. Further Armenian missiles landed in Iran and Daghestan, showing the inaccuracy of their firing. On Saturday morning the Armenians repeated their missile attacks on Ganje with even greater devastation and loss of life to the Azerbaijani civilians. Whole blocks were demolished by 2 missiles and a number of small children, along with their families, killed. The tactic is always the same: missile launching in the early hours of the morning as civilians sleep soundly in their beds, to register maximum terror among the civil populace and high casualties.
Sixty Azerbaijani civilians have now been killed and 270 more have been injured since the outbreak of hostilities on September 27. Among the dead civilians are six children. As a result of the shelling of civilian areas by the occupying country’s armed forces, 1,700 houses and 90 multi-apartment buildings, have also been severely damaged. There have been no fatalities or any damage in Armenia, because the war is being fought entirely on the territory of Azerbaijan.
Matthew Bryza, the U.S. interlocutor in the Minsk talks, suggested that these reckless actions were evidence of increasing Armenian desperation, intended to draw Baku into attacking Armenia proper and provoking a possible Russian rescue of Armenia. The indiscriminate killing of women and small children far from the battlefield certainly raised levels of anger to unprecedented levels among the Azerbaijani populace. So far, however, the Azeris have mourned their dead and continued the war on the battlefield, refusing to be diverted from the main task in hand.
Bryza also speculated that Prime Minister Pashinyan had lost control over his military and seemed to be defying Putin – after initially welcoming the prospect of a ceasefire. Putin had forced Pashinyan to drop his novel demand that the independence of “Artsakh” be respected by Baku in talks – something the Azeris could never accept. Pashinyan had found himself in a bind with having to suffer further defeats on the battlefield or submit to Putin’s terms of reference.
So there was strange behaviour indeed in Erivan, suggesting that there were growing divisions within the Armenian command. Perhaps the ceasefire was seen as a defeat which could not be sold to the Armenian public, after all the forceful rhetoric, belligerence and intransigence that had characterised the policy of the Armenian government over the previous year. Undoubtedly, territory had been lost and the notion of the “invincibility” of the Armenian army, carefully cultivated since the 1990s, had been severely damaged in the picking of this latest fight with Baku.
One of the reasons for Armenia’s defeats has been its under-estimation of the substance of Azerbaijan. The Armenians are fond of portraying Azerbaijan as a mere appendage of Turkey, when they are not describing the Azeris as a “fake nation” created upon the whim of Joe Stalin. They may have had their notions confirmed by the chaos and faction fighting that reigned in Azerbaijan at the fall of the Soviet Union. That contrasted with the nationalist certainty that characterised Armenia and its instinctive reflexes that began exercising a renewed appetite for expansion into Karabakh and other areas.
The Armenians believed that as long as their back was protected against Turkey (who they could continue to provoke in safety through their Genocide lobbying) they were more than able to deal with the Azerbaijanis.
However the Armenian success in the new world of nationalism that the fall of the Soviet Union ushered in, that perfectly suited its proclivities, led to the building of castles built on sand. Soon, the forceful acquisition of Karabakh, with its attendant ethnic cleansing and poisoning of neighbourly relations sowed the seeds of future problems. Armenia, isolated by pariah status, totally dependent on Russia and Iran’s goodwill, saw its economy melt down and its population leave in increasing numbers. Even its paradise of “Artsakh” proved unattractive to all but the most hardy of its frontiersmen. And all the while Azerbaijan, released from the burden of defending it, built up a solid economy and a professional army designed to fight a new war to recover its occupied territory at the right moment. And Pashinyan provided it with that moment by his reckless and provocative actions through 2019-20.
Alexander Baunov, writing for the Moscow Carnegie Centre, has penned a thoughtful article about “Why Russia is Biding its Time on Nagorno-Karabakh”. It aims to explain why Putin, having seen his ceasefire plan fail, has decided against any intervention for now, to prop up the Armenians.
Baunov first makes an important point in relation to Moscow/Baku relations: Azerbaijan has been a model independent state, keeping fully in line with Russia’s World War II narrative and determined to establish friendly relations with its former rulers:
“Unlike other former Soviet republics with frozen conflicts (Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova), Azerbaijan has not been an enemy state for Russia. It has never had a government that turned anti-Russian rhetoric into a key foreign policy commodity, or proclaimed emancipation from Russia its main aim… Azerbaijan has cooperated with NATO and provided symbolic contingents of its troops to NATO operations, but it has never voiced any official ambition to join the alliance. Among the former Soviet states, Azerbaijan has always been an example of how to follow a foreign policy that is entirely independent from Russia, while maintaining a good relationship with Moscow and Putin. This example is also important for Russia itself, as it shows that good relations with Moscow don’t have to come at the cost of submission or signing up for Russia-led integration projects, and independence from Moscow doesn’t necessarily entail falling out with Russia or a demonstrative rapprochement with its enemies. “
“So Russia may have reasons to help Armenia, but it has no reason at all to punish Azerbaijan. Neither the Russian government nor the public have cause to blithely deploy the country’s military force against Azerbaijan.”
The author then turns his attention to Armenia, which while it may be an ally of Russia, is by no means a friend:
“Armenia is an important Russian ally. But the Kremlin has been apprehensive of the current Armenian government ever since it came to power, as it is the result of regime change brought about by street protests: a color revolution, which the Kremlin views as a deadly sin.”
“Pashinyan welcomes the activity of Western NGOs, including those funded by the U.S. philanthropist George Soros, who has been accused by ultraconservatives of financing color revolutions. As far as the Kremlin is concerned, allowing these NGOs to operate freely is nothing short of a security breach. The current Armenian government’s second deadly sin in the eyes of the Kremlin is the prosecution of former president Robert Kocharyan.“
“Russia’s reticence where Armenia is concerned is also linked to the fact that, regardless of Putin’s role, Russian diplomats—both in the 1990s and now—feel that Yerevan wasted time when it could have resolved its territorial dispute peacefully. Moscow understands that the military victory of Armenia, a small and poor country, over richer and more populous Azerbaijan was down to chance as much as anything else.”
Many Western accounts have tried to paint the Karabakh conflict as an incident in a supposed geopolitical struggle between Russia and Turkey, with Armenia and Azerbaijan being mere proxies. This is a hopeless delusion – perhaps wishful thinking on the part of the West. And this Western misapprehension has been echoed among the Russia worshipping analysts who are inclined to a flamboyant Russian nationalism. Mr. Putin, however, is first and foremost a practical statesman rather than an adventurous Russian nationalist.
The truth of the matter is that:
“Armenia may be Russia’s ally, but Azerbaijan is not its enemy, and nor is Turkey, which is backing Azerbaijan. If the attacker were Georgia, for example, which is backed by the United States, things would be a lot more simple. It would also be simpler if it were Ukraine or Moldova trying to restore its territorial integrity in such a manner.”
“Russia’s partnership with Turkey, despite its tensions and periodic clashes, allows Russia to remain in Syria and go about its business in Libya without sustaining major losses. But most importantly, it helps to create a situation in which regional conflicts can be solved without U.S. involvement—something Russia values highly. Squeezing the United States out of regional conflicts is more important for Russia than stopping other regional powers from gaining a bigger role in them.”
“Being free to act without Western interference is also important for Turkey, and for this reason, it is reconciled to Russia’s presence in conflicts that Ankara considers important. Putin and his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan are united by their joint resistance to the West and their shared ambition of a greater role in global affairs. This anti-Western platform is more important than the shared Christian platform on which Armenia is pinning its hopes.”
The author speculates that while Putin will be prepared to allow Armenia to lose in Karabakh, he will not allow it to lose Karabakh entirely – in order that Russia can save face. This is a moot point and remains to be seen. If that were the case a form of partition would need to be imposed by Russia, and the question arises about how the Russians will assist the Armenians in stopping the Azerbaijani army?
He also thinks such a settlement would enable Armenia to free itself of Russia. But I cannot see how that would be an aim of Mr. Putin. Surely he will either have to apply force to re-freeze the conflict with redrawn frontlines managed by Russia or allow Armenia to suffer defeat, short of collapse.
Before Pashinyan unbalanced Armenia Russia had managed to successfully play off Yerevan and Baku to maintain its hegemony in the region. There was a strong suspicion that it was not in Moscow’s interest to resolve the Karabakh conflict but rather to prolong it, so that both Armenia and Azerbaijan would continue to require Moscow’s goodwill, keeping them both firmly in the sphere of influence of Moscow. It was well known that Moscow sold weapons to Baku and offered them at cheaper prices to Yerevan, or even provided them free. But much of this weaponry has now shown itself to be inferior. When contrasted with the precision technology Azerbaijan has purchased from Turkey and Israel and used to good effect, it has been revealed to be the weaponry of the last war, rather than the present one.
An Armenian defeat short of collapse would undoubtedly see the end of Mr. Pashinyan. And that would enable the restoration of a pro-Moscow regime in Yerevan. The war defeat would also demonstrate the impotence of the toxic Armenian diaspora in California, despite all their aggression and bluster. That would also be very good for Russia. There has always been a tension between the diaspora who would prefer a western re-orientation on the part of Armenia and the leaders before Pashinyan who knew that Russia was Armenia’s effective maker and breaker. This conflict would be resolved and Yerevan, defeated in war and surrounded by hostility, would be entirely dependent on Moscow, particularly in relation to any continued Armenian presence in Karabakh. Some Armenian bloggers are now even suggesting that Yerevan becomes an official part of Russia, having bungled its independent existence.
That may be Mr. Putin’s ideal outcome – if he can manage the Armenian defeat in a controlled way that does not risk Yerevan plunging the region into a wider war for its aggressive territorial ambitions. That would be a disaster that would not be welcome in either Moscow or Tehran.
Finally, something needs to be said about the young men and women whose photos appear every day on social media and who have been lost by their grieving families and country. It is a tragedy that these young lives are lost and they will never have the chance to enjoy the pleasures of life and the love of their family and friends. Azerbaijan went into this war with great reluctance, and rightfully so. It may have been easier to have continued in the situation where the great injustice that had been done to the country was pointed out but few died in trying to rectify it. But it wasn’t to be. By its actions in the 1990s Armenian nationalism made this war almost inevitable one day. What was done to Azerbaijan – the occupation of nearly a fifth of its sovereign territory and the ethnic cleansing of 800,000 people, along with the massacres of innocents in places like Khojaly – was too much for a people’s self respect. And the bungling Mr Pashinyan just pushed them too far, one time too many.
There are difficult decisions for all concerned in the coming weeks. The management of the conflict toward a peaceful and functional settlement that reflects the new balance of power on the battlefield, which reduces the possibility of future war, is in the interests of everyone.
This week I gave an Interview with CBC Azerbaijan on the present Karabakh conflict. I stated my position clearly:
“I believe the current outbreak of hostilities to be entirely the responsibility of the Armenian Government of Mr Pashinyan. It has resulted from a series of provocations that have given Azerbaijan little option but to remove the threat to the peace and security of its citizens coming from the occupation forces in Karabakh. These have included the deliberate targeting of the Azerbaijani populace in artillery barrages, sabotage of the negotiation process and other activities in contravention of International Law in the occupied area. The Azerbaijan Government has entered into hostilities with the utmost reluctance but has been forced into the military option as the only solution available for eradicating the threats mounting against its citizens by the aggressive activities of Mr Pashinyan.” (Dr. Patrick Walsh, author of ‘Great Britain and Russia in the Caucasus: Ottoman Turks, Armenians and Azerbaijanis caught up in Geopolitics, War and Revolution.’)
I need to explain why I have come to that conclusion in more detail. So this article is a follow up to the previous pieces I have published on this website, including ‘Armenia Unbalanced’ written a couple of months ago, which predicted where things were heading.
Basically, it is indisputable that the Pashinyan government in Erivan sabotaged the long-standing peace negotiations over Karabakh, that whilst going largely nowhere, still held out hope of a peaceful settlement of the conflict for Azerbaijan. The government in Baku, despite the occupation of its territory, was loath to plunge itself into another costly war without exhausting all possibilities of a peaceful resolution of the conflict on the principles of International Law, that were firmly on its side. The government in Baku knew that the Azerbaijani army had been developed into something that was unrecognisable from the forces that lost Karabakh in the 1990s. But it wished to give peace a chance, even though it was a very slim chance indeed in the hands of the Minsk group.
One of the first manifestations of a new belligerent attitude under the Pashinyan government occurred in 2019. Last year, David Tonoyan, Armenia’s Defence Minister, dropped a bomb shell when he announced the intention of “new war for new territories”. This was meant as a threat to Azerbaijan that if it attempted to regain Karabakh by force it would face an Armenian advance into the country that would expand the Armenian occupied zone further into Azerbaijan’s territory. Such a thing would be catastrophic for any government in Baku. It must have concentrated minds in Baku on the fact that 26 years after the ceasefire the state was still vulnerable to Armenian expansionism. Tonoyan stated that an expansionist policy would be advantageous to Yerevan because it “would rid Armenia of this trench condition, the constant defensive state, and will… shift the military action to the territory of the enemy.”
If this was a bluff it was a very dangerous and provocative bluff indeed. The proclivity of Armenian nationalism toward expansion of territory toward the Magna Armenia dream of the Great War period was well known and had endured despite the catastrophe of a century ago. Combined with the constant Armenian military probing of the border it would have woken Baku out of any lethargy that might have set in from a false sense of security it had in the increasing capacity of the Azerbaijani military forces in relation to Armenia’s declining population and economy.
In March 2020 the occupation forces in Karabakh held illegal elections within an emergency situation brought about by the spread of the Covid virus. These elections were not recognised as legitimate by most of the world and were an affront to International Law. Many countries stated their opposition to this affront. Two months later in May it was announced that the capital of the secessionists was to be moved from Stepanakert to the historic Azerbaijani centre of Karabakh, Shusha. Shusha holds deep symbolic value for Azerbaijanis and represented a further calculated provocation to their sensitivities.
In July 2020 Armenian forces instituted a serious escalation of hostilities at Tovuz on the Armenian/Azerbaijan border. It was significant that military engagements occurred along the actual border between the Republic of Armenia and Azerbaijan, 300km from the front lines between Azerbaijan and Armenian-occupied Karabakh. Azerbaijan had no interest in fighting in this location and it would only have been to its disadvantage to have engaged in hostilities there. Azerbaijan, with no territorial claims against Armenia proper and having little to gain in any offensive operations was taken aback by the Armenian offensive action. It was the next stretch of territory that Baku was intent on demilitarizing as part of the de-escalation plan the Azeri military was following as part of peace negotiations. It is also an important strategic region for Azerbaijan with its gas and oil pipeline supply to Europe running adjacent in the hinterland, toward the border with Georgia, as the new link of the Southern Gas Corridor. Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign Minister, later confirmed that it was Armenia’s decision to attempt to push up to a position within 15km of the Azerbaijani export pipeline that ignited the conflict at Tovuz.
The lack of a robust response from Azerbaijan to the Armenian probing at Tovuz in July seems to have given Pashinyan and the Armenians the belief that they could go further. Large demonstrations in Baku accused the Aliev government of inaction and called for a response. The pressure was from the Azerbaijani populace on the government, to respond with greater military resolution, rather than the government in Baku manipulating nationalist passions to disperse opposition. A further Armenian provocation was going to be very problematic for the government in Baku.
However, further provocations followed. During September there were reports of Lebanese Armenians (who were affected by the explosion in Beirut and the meltdown of the economy) being brought to Karabakh as colonists to bolster its declining population. This is illegal under International Law governing occupied territories and again caused consternation in Azerbaijan with its large number of IDPs, demanding the right to return and now seeing their homes occupied by foreign settlers. Illegal settlements of Lebanese and Syrian Armenians are taking place in the occupied territory of Azerbaijan in Zangilan, in Qubadli, in Lachin, in Kelbajar, in five villages in Agdam and in one village in Fizuli. These illegal settlements are replacing the displaced Azerbaijanis who were ethnically cleansed by Armenian terror squads.
At around the same time the wife of President Pashinyan paid a high profile visit to the occupied territories of Karabakh. She was pictured in full military dress, in various battle poses, firing an assault rifle in the direction of Azerbaijani lines. This extraordinary media event was presumably meant to signal a personal devotion to a military solution on the part of the Armenian Premier and a final rejection of the possibility of a negotiated settlement.
There were also reports and pictures of squads of PKK operatives journeying to Karabakh to engage in training and perhaps offensive operations on Azerbaijan territory. Perhaps this was fake news – meant to draw Turkey into the conflict and encourage Mr Putin to become saviour of Armenia. But it also raised the temperature in Azerbaijan. Furthermore, the capture of an Armenian sabotage unit on the Azerbaijan side of the line of contact amplified such fears of offensive operations threatening Muslim villages across the line of contact.
The Armenian Government also put its diplomatic effort into raising the stakes. Yerevan obstructed a special session of the UN General Assembly arranged to discuss a collaborative response to the Covid pandemic. The Armenians did this purely because this important event had been proposed by the Chair of the Non-aligned movement and Azerbaijan President, Ilham Aliev. The proposal was backed by 130 countries and Armenia was the only country to oppose the session. Armenian nationalist interests was felt to be important enough to trump the interests of humanity in general. And that, of course, is a very Armenian attitude.
Pashinyan also began insisting publicly that Nagorno Karabakh be given official existence and recognition in the negotiating process between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This radical proposal was obviously unacceptable to Azerbaijan, and indeed contrary to International Law, which does not recognise such an entity in the first place, let alone giving it legitimacy by admission to formal talks. If this unprecedented move on the part of the Armenian Prime Minister was designed to subvert the peace process Pashinyan was undoubtedly successful. When President Aliev heard this his confidence in progress at the negotiating table would have been shattered.
This led to Svante E. Cornell, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy, and one of its co-founders, state that the OSCE Minsk Group was hopelessly outdated as a mechanism for resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. He said:
“Our Institute has for years pointed to the absurd situation where competent but mid-level diplomats in three countries that do not agree on much are tasked with the resolution of a conflict that has gone on for thirty years and which involves interests of major powers. The fact that the main power that intervenes in the conflict for it own purposes, Russia, is also the most active co-chair of the Minsk Group is patently absurd and ensures there can be no progress. In effect, both France and the US have mostly allowed Russia, and particularly Foreign Minister Lavrov, to take the lead on the conflict while everyone knows that Russia is not interested in a solution. The Minsk Group has become at best an excuse for inaction, by showing that there is a ‘process’ in place. But in reality there is no such process.”
“This has undermined Azerbaijan’s approach to seek to resolve the conflict through the process of international diplomacy. If diplomacy proves incapable, it leaves Azerbaijan with two options: simply accept the loss of territory, or to seek other ways to restore its territorial integrity. Second, the escalated involvement of great powers, particularly Turkey and Russia, on opposing sides of several conflicts including Syria and Libya, has directly affected the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan because the regional powers now see the conflict in the perspective of their broader rivalry. This provides both advantages and disadvantages for Azerbaijan – greater Turkish support, but also greater risk of confrontation with Russia. Finally, it is also clear that the transition of power in Armenia did not, as Azerbaijan hoped, lead to a more compromise-oriented government intended on resolving the conflict, but to a more assertive Armenia that seeks not only to stall negotiations, as was the case before, but to fundamentally change the negotiation process by rejecting Madrid principles, demanding changes to the composition of negotiations, resettling Middle East Armenians into the occupied territories, and so on, while also threatening “new wars and new territories”. We can debate the reasons behind all these changes but they all have led to a very unstable situation that could no longer be contained,” (https://www.azernews.az/karabakh/169871.html?fbclid=IwAR1C2XfxQ0oU1r_NuAS_7AchIW1FlvyA4QWnUyBQOvR3XyuoR5KnImFMgKI)
All the provocations from Erivan and occupied Karabakh, plus deliberate statements by PM Pashinyan that “Karabakh is Armenia” and inaction by the Minsk group, closed off any hope there had been in the decades long and stalled peace process. So what then?
All the while the Azerbaijanis were receiving little sympathy in the West – despite International Law being firmly on their side. Biased and ignorant reporting from the BBC and the British press in general seemed to show the old favouritism toward Armenia of the Christian West – despite the Armenians being very much in the wrong. President Macron’s statements in favour of the Karabakh separatists were particularly despicable.
As Thomas Goltz, who has long experience in the Caucasus, has recently said, the Armenians have dominated the narrative in the West. Karabakh is often termed “an enclave” of “ethnic Armenians” giving it an emotional value (of poor Christians) being surrounded by hostile (Muslim) forces. In fact, Karabakh is populated entirely of Armenians because the substantial non-Armenian populace was ethnically cleansed from it in the late 1980s/early 1990s. There are approaching 1 million displaced people from Karabakh, adjacent Azerbaijani provinces and Erivan, and Karabakh is actually a sovereign part of Azerbaijan.
Karabagh is also routinely described as “disputed territory” in the Western media as if the claims of both parties are equal under International Law, when they are not. International Law and practically every country in the world recognises Karabakh as being part of Azerbaijan and being under the sovereignty of the government in Baku.
As such the Armenians, aided by the Western media, have successfully taken the debate away from its fundamentals of International Law where 4 UN Resolutions of 1993 clearly and unambiguously describe Karabakh as being an integral part of Azerbaijan and subject to the sovereignty of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Armenia is militarily occupying internationally recognised Azerbaijani territory in violation of UNSC Resolutions 822, 853, 874, and 884, which were even supported by Russia.
The following extract is from an article in ‘The Oriental Review’, ‘Russian Strategic Calculations In The Nagorno-Karabakh Crisis, written by Andrew Korybko, the geopolitics writer:
“Russia is very well aware that Armenia is the aggressor, just like it’s always been. That’s why it isn’t considering activating the CSTO’s mutual defense clause. Russia, like the rest of its UNSC counterparts, regards Nagorno-Karabakh as Armenian-occupied Azerbaijani territory according to international law. It doesn’t want to get dragged into a war in support of its ally’s expansionist policy. Russia would have nothing to gain from doing so and everything to lose, including its strategic relations with Azerbaijan and possibly even Turkey too.The best possible strategy at this time is for Russia to put immense pressure on Armenia behind the ceases to agree to another ceasefire as soon as possible, provided of course that the Azerbaijani side is willing to go along with this as well for whatever its reasons may be. Regrettably, however, Russian influence over Armenia has shrunk since Pashinyan’s rise to power as a result of the so-called “Velvet Revolution”, which was really a Color Revolution against the country’s legitimate government.”
The most interesting sections of this article are the comments supplied to the writer by another (anonymous) political analyst, an expert on the geopolitics of the Caucasus. Escobar calls him “Mr. C.” I have included the comments about the Karabakh conflict made by Mr. C below. I believe them to be basically accurate:
“For decades, the equation remained the same and the variables in the equation remained the same, more or less. This was the case notwithstanding the fact that Armenia is an unstable democracy in transition and Azerbaijan had much more continuity at the top… Azerbaijan lost territory right at the beginning of the restoration of its statehood, when it was basically a failed state run by armchair nationalist amateurs [before Heydar Aliyev, Ilham’s father, came to power]. And Armenia was a mess, too but less so when you take into consideration that it had strong Russian support and Azerbaijan had no one. Back in the day, Turkey was still a secular state with a military that looked West and took its NATO membership seriously. Since then, Azerbaijan has built up its economy and increased its population. So it kept getting stronger. But its military was still underperforming.”
“Basically, in the past few months you’ve seen incremental increases in the intensity of near daily ceasefire violations (the near-daily violations are nothing new: they’ve been going on for years). So this blew up in July and there was a shooting war for a few days. Then everyone calmed down again.”
“The Azerbaijani side thought (the coming to power of Pashinyan) indicated Armenia was ready for compromise (this all started when Armenia had a sort of revolution, with the new PM coming in with a popular mandate to clean house domestically). For whatever reason, it ended up not happening.”
“(During the July hostilities at Tovuz) Armenia asked for CSTO protection and got bitch slapped, hard and in public; second, Armenia threatened to bomb the oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan (there are several, they all run parallel, and they supply not just Georgia and Turkey but now the Balkans and Italy). With regards to the latter, Azerbaijan basically said: if you do that, we’ll bomb your nuclear reactor.”
“Armenia’s sabre rattling got more aggressive… and throughout the summer, the quality of the Turkish-Azerbaijani military exercises increased (both prior to July events and subsequently). The Azerbaijani military got a lot better. Also, since the fourth quarter of 2019 the President of Azerbaijan has been getting rid of the (perceived) pro-Russian elements in positions of power.”
“(President Erdogan may have informed President Putin) ‘We’ll go into Armenia directly if a) Azerbaijan starts to lose, b) Russia goes in or accepts CSTO to be invoked or something along those lines, or c) Armenia goes after the pipelines. All are reasonable red lines for the Turks, especially when you factor in the fact that they don’t like the Armenians very much and that they consider the Azerbaijanis brothers’.”
“The peace talks are going nowhere because Armenia is refusing to budge (to withdraw from occupying Nagorno-Karabakh plus 7 surrounding regions in phases or all at once, with the usual guarantees for civilians, even settlers – note that when they went in in the early 1990s they cleansed those lands of literally all Azerbaijanis, something like between 700,000 and 1 million people). Aliyev was under the impression that Pashinyan was willing to compromise and began preparing his people and then looked like someone with egg on his face when it didn’t happen. Turkey has made it crystal clear it will support Azerbaijan unconditionally, and has matched those words with deeds.”
“In such circumstances, Russia got outplayed – in the sense that they had been able to play off Armenia against Azerbaijan and vice versa, quite successfully, helping to mediate talks that went nowhere, preserving the status quo that effectively favored Armenia.”
“(The point of the war from the Azerbaijani side is) either to conquer as much as possible before the “international community” [in this case, the UNSC] calls for / demands a ceasefire or to do so as an impetus for re-starting talks that actually lead to progress. In either scenario, Azerbaijan will end up with gains and Armenia with losses. How much and under what circumstances (the status and question of Nagorno-Karabakh is distinct from the status and question of the Armenian occupied territories around Nagorno-Karabakh) is unknown: i.e. on the field of battle or the negotiating table or a combo of both. However this turns out, at a minimum Azerbaijan will get to keep what it liberated in battle. This will be the new starting point. And I suspect that Azerbaijan will do no harm to the Armenian civilians that stay. They’ll be model liberators. And they’ll take time to bring back Azerbaijani civilians (refugees/IDPs) to their homes, especially in areas that would become mixed as a result of return.”
“(Moscow cannot do not much under these circumstances) except to go into Azerbaijan proper, which they won’t do (there’s no land border between Russia and Armenia; so although Russia has a military base in Armenia with one or more thousand troops, they can’t just supply Armenia with guns and troops at will, given the geography)… The EU and Russia may find common cause to limit Azerbaijani gains (in large part because Erdogan is no one’s favourite guy, not just because of this but because of the Eastern Med, Syria, Libya).”
Now, it is all to play for in Karabakh. It seems that the Armenian Prime Minister has over-played his hand. Pashinyan has successfully unfrozen “the frozen conflict”.
‘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.
For most of the 19th Century Great Britain and Tsarist Russia confronted each other in a geopolitical struggle known as the Great Game. During this period Britain supported the Ottoman Empire as a giant buffer state against Russian expansion toward the Mediterranean. But in 1907 the Great Game against Russia was suddenly suspended in the interests of a drastic alteration in Britain’s Balance of Power policy that identified Germany as the main threat to British global predominance. An unlikely alliance was established between the two former deadly enemies which had momentous consequences for Tsarist Russia and the world.
The primary consequence of this revolution in British Foreign Policy was the Great War of 1914, waged by Britain, Russia and France on Germany and the Ottoman Empire. In the course of this catastrophic global war the Tsarist State collapsed, throwing much of Eurasia into flux, and letting loose new forces into the world. The Russian Revolution and Bolshevik coup, along with universalistic slogans encouraging “self-determination” trumpeted by the Allied Powers, provoked nationalism and new nations, in areas where such notions had been weakly developed previously, like Transcaucasia.
Within this turmoil the new nations of Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia emerged out of the Russian Empire and took their first steps toward independence in a situation of great instability and uncertainty. The Armenians, the most nationalistic and militarized people in the region who had collaborated in the attempt to destroy the Ottoman State, were now employed by the badly-stretched Entente to reconstruct a new Allied front in the Caucasus replacing the Russian lines that had melted away. And this was to have tragic consequences for the local Muslim population.
At the end of 1918 Britain finally won its Great War on Germany and the Ottoman Empire, whilst seeing its former enemy, Russia, descend into chaos. Britain had seemingly won not only the Great War but the Great Game against Russia and occupied its territory in the Caucasus, with the power to determine the region’s future for the first time. Or so it seemed.
The collapse of the Russian State resulted in the Caucasus becoming one of the centres of a new conflict as Britain supported regime change in Moscow by promoting and facilitating civil war in Russia. The new Transcaucasian states of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan had been provided with a vacuum in which to be born and develop as nations and the British occupation was availed of for this development. But the freedom of action of these new nations was short lived after Britain, lacking the will to sustain its occupation for various reasons, abruptly began a withdrawal.
This study, for the first time, places the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Armenian question in its full geopolitical context of the Great War, Russian State politics and Revolution, and the changing Foreign Policy of Great Britain. Without this context full understanding of these world-historic events is impossible.
Available from Manzara-verlag. Euro 24.50. Click link below for website
The Prime Minister of the Republic of Armenia, Nikol Pashinyan, has been addressing a Conference in Yerevan to celebrate the lost Treaty of Sevres. He made a statement at that conference praising the lost Treaty of August 1920 and indicated that he would like to see it revived from the dead, presumably to carve up the Turkish Republic in favour of Armenia. The statement reveals much about the twisted mind of Armenian nationalism.
The Armenian Prime Minister began:
“The Treaty of Sevres is a historical fact. It remains so to this day. What is the benefit that we can draw from that document? Why is it still in the focus of our attention?
First, the Treaty of Sevres came in the aftermath of World War I – one of the most dramatic chapters in human history – almost two years after its end. Just as the Treaty of Versailles established peace in Europe, in the same way, the Treaty of Sevres was meant to bring peace to the former Western Asian territories of the Ottoman Empire. It put an end to the war-driven sufferings and deprivations experienced by the peoples of our region. It heralded the end of the ‘cursed years.’
Like the Treaty of Versailles, the Treaty of Sevres shaped a new system of interstate relations in the region. It introduced new principles and values, which should have established not only lasting peace, but also justice in Western Asia.”
This is a quite extraordinary statement on a number of counts. First of all, the idea that “the Treaty of Versailles established peace in Europe” is just ridiculous. Most historians would suggest it led, indirectly or directly, to the Second World War, within a generation, and the deaths of over 50 million people. A century before Versailles, the Treaty of Vienna, after the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, preserved the peace in Europe for nearly a hundred years. Versailles made sure that “the war to end all wars” created an even more catastrophic world war soon after.
The Treaty of Versailles was a dictated peace, imposed on the vanquished in Europe. Its sister, the Treaty of Sevres, was the version meant for Asia Minor and the Middle East. It was superseded by the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. As a publication of Chatham House noted in 1942 of Lausanne:
“All things considered, a contributor to the History of the Peace Conference of Paris is probably justified in predicting that the Treaty inaugurated a more lasting settlement than any other that followed the War. It was not imposed but negotiated, and in that fact lie hopeful prospects for its permanence.” (G.M. Galthorne-Hardy, A Short History of International Affairs, 1920-1939, p.115)
Having seen the disaster of Versailles the British came to acknowledge that the Treaty of Lausanne was a fortunate development in replacing the Treaty that they had originally attempted to impose on the Turks at Sevres.
The Treaty of Lausanne still stands today, one of the most successful peace treaties in world history. But the Armenians would have preferred the diktat it replaced, which Mustafa Kemal buried in the dust. Why? Because it would have given them more territory and that is all that matters to an Armenian. The peace, stability and security of the rest of the world can “go hang”.
Armenian PM Pashinyan continues in praise of Sevres:
“The Treaty was anchored on the most advanced ideas of the time. It specifically highlighted the principle of self-determination and equality of peoples. It put an end to the centuries-old subjugation imposed by empires, bringing freedom and independence to the peoples of the region. Moreover, by granting peoples the right to establish nation-states in their historical territories, it created favorable conditions for peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the region, promoted and further developed the region’s cultural and ethnic diversity.”
Few if any historians would agree with his view that Sevres “was anchored on the most advanced ideas of the time… the principle of self-determination and equality of peoples” that “put an end to the centuries-old subjugation imposed by empires, bringing freedom and independence to the peoples of the region.”
It certainly paid lip-service to these slogans that had been trumpeted across the world in order to recruit other peoples in the service of the Great War on Germany and the Ottomans, but which were never applied by the Imperialists themselves in their own empires (Ireland, India, Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon, Egypt etc. etc.) Sevres was at heart an Imperialist reordering of the region that paid little attention to local conditions or the views of its peoples. The Imperialists drew the maps in London and Paris and made their lines in the sand in negotiation only with each other, attempting to pass off the less valuable and more dangerous tracts of land, including “Armenia”, to the Americans.
Sèvres had little to do with democracy or self-determination. Where were the plebiscites for example? And it made nations of peoples who had never demanded to be nations before 1914 and who had lived lives of general contentment before the West decided that their places of habitation should form another battlefield in their world war and be reordered afterwards to suit Imperialist interests.
Perhaps Pashinyan is of the belief that “favorable conditions for peaceful coexistence of Muslims and Christians in the region” could have been produced by the continued presence, over decades, of British, French, Italian and Greek armies. But I doubt that the rest of humanity would agree with him and his definition of “peaceful coexistence” – which seems to be more on the lines of Western Powers keeping Muslims down by armed force, in the interests of Armenia, than anything else.
Pashinyan argues that another good feature of Sevres was that it
“… was the first international document to recognize and enshrine Armenia’s independence. The Republic of Armenia acted as an equal party to the Treaty. Centuries after the loss of independence, the Armenian authorities for the first time signed an international treaty along with the world’s great powers. The Republic of Armenia was recognized as a full member of the international community, an equal subject of international law within the limits set out in the Treaty. Being a party to the Treaty, Armenia and its people were recognized as key contributors to the victory of the Allies in World War I and the establishment of peace. The Treaty highlighted and properly assessed the role of the Armenian people in international relations and in the post-war global governance.”
Well Armenia might have imagined it was an equal party to those it had enlisted in its cause but it was brought down to earth soon afterwards when none of its equal allies defended the Treaty, or afterwards defended Armenia against the Bolsheviks. By then Armenia had been thanked for its services to the cause in throwing in its lot to destroy the Ottoman State, and providing good moral propaganda for the taking away of Ottoman territory by the Imperialists. Lloyd George had grown tired of the ridiculous territorial claims and lies of the Armenians and decided they were of no further use, and good riddance to them indeed. It is all in the British archives if Pashinyan cares to read about it.
What was this “post-war global governance” that Armenia formed a part of? The League of Nations, which after recognising Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia did little or nothing to defend them from the Red Army? The same body that Britain gave up on and used as an instrument in the inter-war years and which failed miserably to do its main job and keep the peace of the world?
The Armenian PM concludes with the following:
“… in its Article 89, the Treaty of Sevres reaffirmed our nation’s indisputable historical association with the Armenian Highland, wherein the Armenian people had originated, lived, developed their statehood and culture for millenia… The establishment of the independent Armenian statehood in its ancestral homeland was the fair solution of the Armenian Question. Historical justice was being restored. Favorable conditions were created for reinstating our people’s economic and demographic potential and ensuring its natural development.”
Unfortunately for the Armenians the world does not see itself through Armenian eyes. The Imperialist Powers went across the world over centuries, uprooting and removing countless peoples from their ancestral homelands”, destroying ancient cultures with impunity. The Armenians inhabited an area, as a minority, which was of little interest to the West but of more strategic value to Russia. And that is why the Bolsheviks walked in and saved the Armenians from complete disaster a little after Sevres.
The Treaty of Sevres was actually a disaster for the Armenians. More than anything else it motivated the Turks to fight. It produced the alliance between Ankara and Moscow that put paid to “Armenia”. It convinced the United States that Congress had been right to let its idealist President draw his little maps of Great Armenia to occupy his decline, whilst America took care not to drink from a poisoned chalice. And Britain ditched it all, along with Lloyd George, in favour of something that recognised reality, at Lausanne.
For some reason the Armenian mind can see none of this. It is so self-absorbed and self-contained, without understanding of the rest of humanity, unless it can do something for Armenia. Only such a mentality could see anything positive in the Treaty of Sevres.
Update: At the time of writing Mr Pashinyan’s bringing of the Treaty of Sevres onto the political agenda was thought to have little political implication. However, after 4 weeks of war and the defeats of Armenian forces in occupied Karabakh the implication is clearer. An Armenian observer, Jirair Libaridian (who was, from 1991 to 1997, senior adviser to the former President of Armenia, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, and was closely involved in the negotiations over Karabakh) insightfully pointed out:
“Last month Armenia made the Sevres Treaty an important part of the country’s foreign policy. For Turkey that became the most important part. I don’t know if our leaders did so knowingly, but the statements by the President and Prime Minister of Armenia were equivalent to a declaration of at least diplomatic war against Turkey. And that, against the Turkey with a dangerous leader such as Erdogan. By adopting the Treaty of Sevres as an instrument of foreign policy Armenia placed the demand of territories from Turkey on its agenda. This was possibly the last step that will, in the eyes of our opponents and the international community, define the Karabagh problem as a question of territorial expansion, setting aside the right of self-determination of our people in Artsakh as the basis of our policy. And that revanchist approach depends so much on the sympathy of that same international community to see its demands satisfied. That which is considered “the solution to the Armenian Question” by some is regarded by the international community as inane, at the least. Is it not time to stop harming our chances of resolving the real problems we face with what we say and do for internal consumption?”
To understand the point of this article we need to revisit something that George Curzon (later Lord) said in the British Parliament. At the time Curzon was Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and he said it in the course of defending traditional British policy with regard to the Ottoman Empire, on behalf of Lord Salisbury’s Government:
“We were not prepared at any moment to go to war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to plunge Europe into a Continental war for the sake of Armenia. We were not prepared to jeopardise the interests of this country and I will go further and say the interests of the Armenians themselves, in pursuit of… what might, in the last resort, have turned out to be a perilous, if not a fatal philanthropy. [Loud Cheers.]” 
James Bryce both personified what Curzon called “fatal philanthropy” and did much to realise such a thing in reality, in relation to the Armenians.
Firstly, in discussing this issue we should say something about the importance of James Bryce. Bryce was a tremendously gifted all-rounder: a Historian, jurist, and statesman. He was Regius Professor of civil law at Oxford University, 1870-1893. In his political career he was elected as a Liberal MP in 1880 and from 1885 to 1907 he was Under-Secretary for Foreign Affairs; he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (1892); and President of the Board of Trade (1894–95). He became Chief Secretary for Ireland (1905-6), British Ambassador to the United States (1907–13) and the President of British Academy (1913-17) during the Great War. He was also involved in the establishment of the League of Nations, and served at the International Court at The Hague.
He was author of a large amount of publications including most ntably The Holy Roman Empire (1864), Transcaucasia and Ararat (1877), The American Commonwealth (1888), Modern Democracy (1921) and many other works, including a large output of pamphlets of a propagandist nature during the Great War.
Bryce’s background is instructive regarding the formation of his “fatal philanthropy”. Bryce was born in Belfast 1838, a city in the North East of Ireland that was strongly Unionist and pro-British. Justin McCarthy, the 19th Century Irish historian, noted the following about him in his pen-portraits of British politicians:
“I may say also that James Bryce is not first and above all other things a public man and a politician. He does not seem to have thought of a Parliamentary career until after he had won for himself a high and commanding position as a writer of history. Bryce is by birth an Irishman and belongs to that northern province of Ireland which is peopled to a large extent by Scottish immigrants… James Bryce has always been an Irish Nationalist since he came into public life, and has shown himself, whether in or out of political office, a steady and consistent supporter of the demand for Irish Home Rule. Indeed, I should be well inclined to believe that a desire to render some personal service in promoting the just claims of Ireland for a better system of government must have had much influence over Bryce’s decision to accept a seat in the House of Commons.”
Bryce was from an Ulster/Scottish Protestant (Presbyterian) family. Unusually for a Protestant in Ireland, he was in favour of Irish Home Rule (autonomy). In British politics he was a Gladstonian Liberal with a strongly Christian moralistic view of world.
Bryce was also a noted mountain climber, and it is said, the first European to climb Mount Ararat in 1876. There he believed he found evidence of the remains of Noah’s Ark.
So, almost everything in his background would have endeared Bryce to the Armenian cause. He became the first president of the Anglo-Armenian society, in 1893.
Bryce’s connection with the Armenians begins with his travels to Ararat and the publication of ‘Transcaucasia and Ararat’ in 1877. In this book, written during the 1877 Russian/Ottoman war, Bryce made clear he desired the expulsion of the Ottomans from eastern Anatolia and the creation of nations from the peoples of the Ottoman territories. He described the Turks as lazy and lacking intelligence and the Ottomans as a dying government. Conversely, he suggested that the Armenians were the most industrious and clever race in the region – the highest form of civilisation there.
However, Bryce noted a number of things that made the construction of nations out of the peoples of the Ottoman Empire problematic. Firstly: “They have no patriotism, in our sense of the word, for they have neither a historic past… nor a country they can call exclusively their own…” Secondly: “Religion is everything… and… is not a fusing but a separating, alienating, repellent force.”
Bryce also admitted that the Armenians were a scattered people surrounded by a great Moslem majority within the Ottoman territories. He described them as timid and lacking in national spirit with “no political aspiration.” However, Bryce felt affronted as a Christian that the Armenians should be ruled by what he considered to be their inferiors within humankind. He seems, like other British Liberals, to believe that an Islamic state should not exist in the world, in principle.
Bryce made clear his desire that England should somehow take what he saw as a special people in hand and lead them to nationhood:
“England may save the Sultan from foreign invaders, she may aid him to supress internal revolts; but she will not thereby arrest that sure and steady process of decay which makes his government more and more powerless for anything but evil. She may delay, but she cannot prevent, the arrival, after another era of silent oppression, varied by insurrections and massacres, of a day when the Turkish Empire will fall to pieces, and its spoils be shared by powerful neighbours or revengeful subjects… Further delay… may wreck the chance that yet remains of relieving these unhappy peoples from their load of misery, as well as of regaining and strengthening the legitimate influence of England in the East.”
This passage shows how Bryce blended the humanitarian concerns of Liberalism in with Imperialist expansionism. This was an early manifestation of an Imperial ethical foreign policy.
Despite the fact that Russia was much more likely to support the Armenians than Britain Bryce ruled out the possibility of this because he believed the Tsar would not tolerate an Armenian state and the Russians were not civilised themselves, for such a task.
Bryce’s book was a best-seller and went to 4 editions. It was republished in 1896, with a new chapter. In this update Bryce argued that in the 2 decades since the first edition Russian expansion in the region, the effects of Protestant missionary activity in the Ottoman Empire and the British assertion of the right of interference had greatly encouraged the Armenians into a more nationalist spirit. Although Bryce, as a good Liberal, condemned the violence of Dashnak activity in the 1890s, he went along with their political objectives and in many respects surpassed them.
Bryce suggested that the problem the Armenians faced was that international pressure had not been maintained on the Ottoman Government since the Treaty of Berlin and that the situation had stabilised, leaving the civilised Christian Armenians stuck under uncivilised Moslem rule. He was loathed to criticise his own government for this inaction, although it was evident that Britain, in its traditional policy of checking Russian expansion, was the main culprit in this. British Liberals, like Bryce, took their own Empire as the highest form of civilisation and progress in the world and were loathed to criticise it.
In an article published in ‘The Century’ periodical around this time Bryce described the Turks as “worse than savages,” who would only respond to “fear”. He lamented that the “speedy extinction of the Turkish power by natural causes” was not a foreseeable prospect.
In 1897 Bryce published ‘Impressions of South Africa.’ The 19th Century historian, Justin McCarthy, writing after the British conquest of South Africa, made a comment of interest on this work:
“The warning which Bryce gave, and gave in vain, to the English Government and the English majority, was a warning against the credulous acceptation of one-sided testimony, against the fond belief that the proclamation of Imperialism carried with it the right to intervene in the affairs of every foreign State, and against the theory that troops and gold mines warrant any enterprise.”
And yet the very opposite position characterised Bryce’s position with regard to British intervention in the Ottoman Empire. The only logical explanation for this is that Bryce baulked at intervening against the devout fundamentalist Christian Boers while he had no such compunction about military force being applied against Muslims.
The American connection is a very important aspect of Bryce and something that really gave his “fatal philanthropy” political traction. Bryce had wrote The American Commonwealth, published in 1888, an examination of the constitutional system of the US. This became the standard text on the subject in the US. Americans loved it because here was a famed British intellectual flattering their political system. It seemed to confer an extra legitimacy upon it and the achievements of the founding fathers. It helped establish Bryce with both a high standing in the US and with a degree of leverage which did not go unnoticed in London.
Bryce’s links with academics and politicians in the US led to his appointment in 1907 as British Ambassador in Washington DC, a post he held for seven years. During his tenure he greatly improved UK-US relationships. Britain, at this point, was making provision for the development of its Anglo-Saxon offspring and the real probability that it would become the major force in the world. Britain needed, above all, influence over this coming force, if it could not prevent its emergence. Whilst as Ambassador Bryce developed a strong affinity with Woodrow Wilson, another Ulster-Scots Presbyterian, who entered the White House in 1913. These factors added to Bryce’s growing political leverage in the US.
This was a very important period in British/US relations. Britain was re-orientating its Foreign Policy, preparing and making covert plans for war on Germany and the Ottoman Empire. Bryce was sent from the British Cabinet to sweeten the US. It was a very unusual appointment in the sense that members of the British executive are never made into Ambassadors. It indicates the importance in which Britain viewed the US during this period that Bryce was removed from the British Cabinet and sent to Washington. On his return he was made a Viscount of the Empire for his services, becoming Lord Bryce.
The key to understanding Lord Bryce’s desire to provide his services to the Imperial State as a propagandist during the Great War lies in his general attitude to war. In a letter to James Ford Rhodes, on August 1st, 1914, Bryce reacted to the European war describing it as “the most tremendous and horrible calamity that has ever befallen mankind.”
Bryce, as a Gladstonian Liberal, initially opposed the Great War and felt he had to justify his subsequent support for it. Liberalism suffered a great moral collapse during July/August 1914 in the face of the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey’s, revelations of the secret arrangements and contingencies he had made for war against Germany with France and Russia on the eve of the conflict. The Liberal opponents of entering the war within Grey’s Party were faced with the dilemma of choosing whether to support the war in the face of the Liberal Imperialist fait accompli of waging a war, with or without their Liberal base, because the Liberal Government had already secured the support of the Opposition front benches for its war. Liberal support was secured by the Germany entry into Belgium.
To justify his support for the war Bryce, like other Liberals, had to present the Great War as being about something it was not in order to justify his own support for it. So he joined the moral campaign against England’s enemies and produced propaganda describing the war in fundamentalist Christian terms as a great struggle of good over evil in which there were no grounds for staying out of the conflict. In such a conflict propaganda was essential to fight the good fight and triumph over evil.
In entering the European war the Liberals helped Britain state its aims in the grandest universalistic terms that were idealistic in the extreme. These aims were not only idealistic and unachievable but they were also quite fraudulent. The objective of the Liberal propaganda, on behalf of the British State, was to show to the world that Britain was fighting a good war against an evil that had to be vanquished. The war was proclaimed as being for “civilisation against the Barbarian”, for “democracy” against “Prussianism”. And it was also supposedly a “war for small nations” for “poor little Belgium.” However, this moral veneer disguised the real character of the war. It had been planned for nearly a decade to cut down a rising commercial competitor in the long-standing tradition of the British Balance of Power policy.
So Lord Bryce and his fellow Liberals helped promote a great moral campaign against England’s enemies. This involved utilising their own talents for moral outrage in the production of propaganda. Bryce presented the Great War as a new type of war. In the great amount of war propaganda Bryce produced in favour of it he described England’s participation in the War as self-less, wholly honourable and moral – to rid the world of the great evils of the Prussian German and then the Ottoman Turk. In such a moral conflict propaganda was essential and the Blue Book and propaganda about the Armenians should be viewed within this context.
Bryce’s general war propaganda was designed to impress neutral nations into the conflict so that the War could be extended across the earth by Britain. This was because the Triple Entente proved incapable of winning it without widening it and Liberals like Bryce were reluctant to support military Conscription in England, even for such a moral war. So they concentrated their efforts on encouraging others to do England’s fighting, and conquering for it. A particular target was America, which was seen as a great democracy, as opposed to the Tsarist autocracy which embarrassed British Liberals as an ally.
Bryce’s war propaganda contains so many falsehoods and untruths that anything he wrote during the Great War must come under suspicion. Certainly there is substantial evidence of him exaggerating the enemy’s conduct of the war and minimising, or totally denying, the activities of his own government and its allies.
Early in 1915, the British government, through its Attorney General, asked Bryce to oversee a Royal Commission to investigate the atrocity reports that had appeared in the British press regarding the Germans in Belgium. Bryce was perfect for this role, being one of the best known historians of the time, with a background in human rights. He had collaborated with Roger Casement, to expose the exploitation of Indian peoples on the Amazon by a rubber company, establishing an international reputation as a result of his work.
The German atrocity propaganda was so successful that the secret British Department of State, Wellington House, commissioned Bryce to construct a similar case against the Ottomans. Attention to the Armenians became a war issue in Britain after 6th October 1915 when Lord Bryce made his second speech in the House of Lords about the forced removals and alleged massacres in the central and eastern Anatolia.
This new publication, in 1916, was a ‘report’ issued under the title ‘The Treatment Of Armenians In The Ottoman Empire, 1915-1916’, which became known as “The Blue Book.” It was a collaboration between Arnold Toynbee, a noted young historian and member of the Charles F. Masterman Propaganda Bureau and Viscount Bryce. Bryce, though probably not a member of Wellington House himself, was the important link between the Propaganda Bureau and the US.
Bryce became the organiser of, and figurehead for, the Blue Book rather than the author or writer. In contrast to his earlier anti-Turkish work on behalf of the Armenians the Blue Book was not a private enterprise on Bryce’s part but a government project. Most material used in “The Blue Book” was supplied to Lord Bryce by the U.S. Ambassador in Istanbul, Henry Morgenthau, who, not knowing Turkish, relied heavily on his Armenian secretaries. Accounts were gathered mainly from Armenian sources, or people sympathetic to the Armenians, often at second or third-hand, with the help of Morgenthau, who had never left the Ottoman capital for Anatolia. The same “witnesses” appeared under multiple pseudonyms. Bryce forwarded this information to Toynbee to be included in the report. Bryce wrote the introduction to give it a high intellectual standing in the US.
The validity of the data could not be verified, even by the official authors. The Blue Book was characterised by the use of anonymous American missionary sources described as ‘American traveller’ etc. who had an interest in defaming the Muslims. There were 150 documents attributed to “impeccable sources”, 59 of Missionary origin and 52 from individual Armenians or newspapers. The identity of the sources of information was only discovered in unrelated files in the British archives. A quarter of the sources identified were unknown even to the writer, Toynbee. No physical record of the original information/writings has been found. 
The accuracy and reliability of the accounts were secondary considerations, however. The point of the Blue Book was the production of propaganda. The British historian Trevor Wilson notes that in compiling atrocity propaganda Bryce was confronted with a dilemma. If he was scrupulous in establishing the validity of accounts, as a historian should be, and failed, he would be conveying the impression that the allegations were unfounded. He was, therefore, forced into using information that was suspect and unproven, in order to maintain the moral war.
A letter, dated 11th May 1916 and written by Arnold Toynbee to Lord Bryce gives some indication of how the propaganda was constructed to create distance between the propagandists and the British Government it was being written for:
“If you were to send these documents with an introductory note to Sir Edward Grey and say that they have been prepared under your supervision, that they are trustworthy, then your letter would be published by the Foreign Office as an official document, and the documents would constitute an appendix to your letter. The problem of publication would thus be solved. While giving the book an official character, it would free the Foreign Secretary from the obligation to take upon himself the probing of the accuracy of every matter mentioned in these documents.”
The Blue Book was issued by the British Government and presented formally in Parliament by Bryce as an official publication in order to lend it more authenticity and credibility. Toynbee considered it as “the biggest asset of His Majesty’s Government to solve the Turkish problem in a radical manner, and to have it accepted by the public”
The British Government chose well in the man to provide the Blue Book’s figurehead. The Washington Post said “No man in Europe commands a more sympathetic audience in America than Viscount Bryce.” Herbert Asquith and Stanley Baldwin, both former Prime Ministers, in a joint memorial, presented in 1924 to the then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, stated that “The Blue Book” was “widely used for Allied propaganda in 1916-17, and had an important influence upon American opinion and the ultimate decision of President Woodrow Wilson to enter the war”. 
Sir Roger Casement, Bryce’s former colleague in investigating atrocities in South America, took a different view of Bryce’s war work. He condemned Bryce for selling himself as a hireling propagandist. According to Casement, Lord Bryce, had presided over a government body “directed to one end only”:
“the blackening of the character of those with whom England was at war… given out to the world of neutral peoples as the pronouncement of an impartial court seeking only to discover and reveal the truth.”
Casement particularly criticised Bryce’s methods of reporting atrocities. He noted that in relation to the reporting of Belgian atrocities in the Congo he had investigated these reports “on the spot at some little pain and danger to myself” whilst Bryce had “inspected with a very long telescope.”
Casement continued with a point that is very relevant to any estimation of the validity of the Blue Book:
“I have investigated more bona fide atrocities at close hand than possibly any other living man. But unlike Lord Bryce, I investigated them on the spot, from the lips of those who had suffered, in the very places where the very crimes were perpetuated, where the evidence could be sifted and the accusation brought by the victim could be rebutted by the accused; and in each case my finding was confirmed by the Courts of Justice of the very States whose citizens I had indicted.”
Casement added: “It is only necessary to turn to James Bryce the historian to convict James Bryce the partisan…”
Casement wrote the above about Bryce’s work on the German atrocities but the criticism stands equally against the companion work directed at the Ottomans. Sir Roger was incapable of commenting directly on the Blue Book since he had been hanged by the British in 1916 as a traitor, for doing in Ireland what Bryce and other British Liberals had supported the Armenian revolutionaries in doing within the Ottoman Empire. Casement had followed through on the principles of small nations on which the war was supposedly being fought by Britain and advertised by Bryce. But Casement was found to be a traitor whilst the Armenians and others who went into insurrection were lauded as patriots in England.
A comparison between Bryce’s attitude and actions with regard to Ireland and Armenia are interesting and expose the hypocrisy at the heart of British Liberalism.
With regard to Ireland: Bryce had been Chief Secretary for Ireland, championing Irish Home Rule before he was a member of the government. But when in office he failed to provide the country with even this small measure of autonomy. It took a hung parliament, when British government was paralysed and dependent on Irish MPs to stay in office, for the Liberal Government to produce a Bill for Irish Home Rule in 1912, and that was suspended and never actually implemented. The Irish had to fight for their freedom after the war, after voting overwhelmingly for it in 1918.
On the island of Ireland 80% of the people wanted some form of independence from Britain. That was shown during the 1918 General Election. The Protestant Colonial element of 20% who wanted to stay part of the UK was concentrated locally in the north-east corner of the island. The Liberals failed in government to provide Ireland even with a regional parliament within the UK and Bryce defended this denial afterwards, when a clear democratic basis obviously existed for it. Such a policy could have been carried through peacefully in the bulk of the island by Britain if it had had the courage of its Liberal convictions.
However, with regard to the Armenians Bryce said that they should be a nation even though he himself admitted there was no demographic basis for such a development. In the area the Armenians sought for a state no where did they constitute a majority. They represented less than 20% of the population in the “Magna Armenia” they claimed in 1918/9 and probably much less. Still, Bryce aimed to create a nation when he knew the Armenians were a scattered people, lacking a democratic basis for nationhood. Only through war and great ethnic cleansing of the majority Muslim population, and perhaps what is now called “genocide” could an Armenian state of any size be constituted and maintained within Ottoman territory.
The fact cannot be avoided that Liberals like Bryce bear great responsibility for the catastrophe suffered by the Armenians because they encouraged dangerous notions of unrealisable nationalism among the revolutionaries. They also encouraged Armenians to believe England would assist them militarily to realise their ambitions and produced propaganda that provoked great antagonism between Muslim and Armenian.
However, Bryce and the other Liberals were merely the moralistic wing of the British Imperial State. They were not its substance. Their role within the Imperial State was to encourage others to fight in a war that was not in reality what it was pretended to be. The War was really a Balance of Power war to destroy a commercial competitor and accumulate territory for the British Empire at the expense of the Ottomans and the Muslim world. Within such a war the Armenians only mattered for England as cannon-fodder and useful propaganda material for the British.
As Sir Roger Casement wrote in November 1915:
“The English, having called up the storm for their own ends, left their victims to the deluge. And now, when the waves have subsided, again for their own ends, their paid and ennobled beach combers go out to scavenge amid the wreakage cast up on distant shores, in the hope of finding enough to soil the honour of those they ran away from… Lord Bryce’s name will be associated not with that Holy Roman Empire he sought to recall by scholarly research, but with that unholy Empire he sought to sustain in the greatest of its crimes by lending the weight of a great name, and prostituting great attainments to an official campaign of slander, defamation and calumny conducted on a scale unparalleled in any war…”
The Armenians found this out at their cost after the Russian collapse and paid a terrible price for the great fraud perpetuated against them, as did others around the world, for the “fatal philanthropy” of British Liberalism.
 See Viscount Bryce, Essays and Addresses in Wartime for a collection of his speeches of a propagandist nature. These contain many untruths. See Dr. Pat Walsh, The Armenian Insurrection and the Great War, pp. 201-4, for a discussion on this aspect.
 Gary S. Messinger, British Propaganda and the State in the First World War, p. 81.
 See M.L. Sanders, Historical Journal, XVIII, 1975, Wellington House and British Propaganda during the First World War. Unfortunately documents of the Office of War Propaganda remain sealed by Britain.
 For more on this see also Dr. Pat Walsh, Britain’s Great War on Turkey – An Irish Perspective, pp. 192-208
 See Heath Lowry, The Story behind Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story
 See Justin McCarthy, The Turk in America, pp.235-9, for a full discussion about the Bryce Report and authenticity of sources.
 Lord Bryce’s investigation into alleged German atrocities in Belgium, Journal of Contemporary History, July 1979, p.381
This is another in the TAFSO (New York based Turkish-American Security Foundation) interview series; German Political Scientist, Dr. Christian Johannes Henrich. It is of specific interest in relation to information concerning the Swiss Historian Professor Hans-Lukas Kieser whose book on Talaat Pasha I recently reviewed.
Dr. Henrich studied Political Science, Sociology and Economics in Siegen, Bonn, Innsbruck and Bursa with his dissertation being in Political Science and International Relations. His dissertation was titled: “Die türkische Außenpolitik 2002-2012 – Die Türkei zwischen regionalem Hegemonieanspruch und Nullproblempolitik am Beispiel der türkisch-armenischen Beziehungen” (En. “Turkish Foreign Policy 2002-2012 – Turkey between Claim of Regional Hegemony and Zero Problem Policy on the Example of the Turkish-Armenian Relations”). Dr. Henrich is currently The Director of the Research Center for Southeast Europe and Caucuses (SOEK), a habilitation student and lecturer at University of Vechta for Political Science, and a lecturer at FOM University of Applied Science for Business Administration, Economics and Sociology.
How did you become interested in the so-called Armenian genocide issue and begin researching on the matter?
It started with finding a topic for my master thesis. I wanted to work on something exciting that people do not know that much about in Germany. I knew the term “genocide of the Armenians” from the collective memory in Germany but had no detailed knowledge on it. I started asking my Turkish friends how they dealt with “their Holocaust”. I discovered that nobody in my circle of friends recognized it. I asked religious and more secular, left, right and apolitical, educated and uneducated Turks. No one accepted the term genocide. Compared to the perception of the Holocaust in Germany, this is a phenomenon. In Germany, only a few extremely right-wing neo-Nazis deny the genocide of Europe’s Jews. This broad social consensus in Turkey, of not accepting the term genocide, aroused my curiosity.
In your opinion, why do the Armenians allege that they have been subjected to a so-called genocide in 1915?
In my view, the allegations of genocide have been an issue in the Armenian diaspora from the very start. I lived in Turkey for three years, including a year in Istanbul in an Armenian neighborhood. Neither my Armenian neighbors nor the representative of the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople, nor the people in the Armenian Community in Hatay supported these allegations. The voices I heard here coincided with the attestation of the first Armenian Prime Minister Hovhannes Katchaznouni, who acquitted the Turks at a Dashnak Party Conference in 1923 and made references to Armenian massacres against the Muslim civilian population.
In my view, governments and parliaments of other countries should stay away from this topic. And Turkey and Armenia should first discuss these open questions unconditionally and openly with the support of scientists. The topic is being used by the Armenian Disapora and some western politicians to stir up resentments against Turkey. There is structural anti-Islamic racism in western countries, which is cherished and cared for by various people.
There is significant evidence in the Turkish Ottoman Archives to suggest that Armenian gangs have perpetrated unprecedented massacres and massive atrocities against the Turkish and other Muslim peoples in Turkey and in Caucuses in 1915-1923. Why, in your opinion, does the Christian World choose to ignore these atrocities perpetrated by Armenians?
As previously mentioned, the former Dashnak fighter and latter Prime Minister of Armenia (Katchaznouni) confirmed the outrages against Turks, Kurds and Arabs in Eastern Anatolia. He bases it on blind trust in Russia. However, these parts of the story are hidden. You will hardly find a book by a western author that mentions the Muslim victims through Armenian and Russian massacres. Professor Justin McCarthy is an important exception here.
Following a lecture by the Swiss Historian Professor Hans-Lukas Kieser at the University of Bonn, I asked why he did not mention the Muslim victims of this conflict in his text. His answer was short – that it had not been the subject of his research. I find this to be grossly unscientific because I cannot research on a conflict by not examining both sides of it. I could enumerate numerous Western scientists who lack any scientific ethics on this question and conducted only targeted research.
In 2016, German Parliament moved to recognize the so-called Armenian Genocide. What are your opinions on this subject?
When the term genocide was recognized by the German Bundestag in 2016, I quit the CDU after 21 years. I had previously tried several times to visit and inform the CDU parliamentary group in Berlin. Then MP, Erika Steinbach, wrote to me that they did not have to hear my opinion and that they were already sufficiently informed. I think it is fundamentally wrong for historical issues to be decided in the Bundestag. Especially when it comes to a different country. Politicians are not scientists! Politicians do not try to find out the truth but pursue power politics.
When the German Air Force bombed Belgrade in 1999 as part of the NATO Allied Force mission and waged the first war of aggression since World War II, the Bundestag decided with the votes of the CDU / CSU, SPD, FDP and Greens that it was not an aggressive war. Nevertheless, according to most international lawyers, it was a war of aggression contrary to international law and thus a violation of our German constitution.
What value should a politically motivated parliamentary decision have in scientific questions? And if the Bundestag really wants to send a signal, then we should first recognize and deal with the genocide of Herero and Nama by the German Wehrmacht between 1904 and 1908 in what is now Namibia (formerly German South West Africa). But that is not just a German problem. Look at other countries that recognize genocide too: The Netherlands did not recognize the 1947 genocide in Rawagede in Indonesia, the Belgians in the Congo between 1888 and 1908, and the French in Algeria in 1945.
A few years ago I obtained a copy of Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’. It is certainly a very interesting read, particularly because it looks at something that Western histories neglect about the Great War – the role of Czarist Russia. Czarist Russia, of course, collapsed in its waging of this war. Because it does not fit the narrative constructed by the Anglo-French accounts of the war its role has been handily forgotten. But Russia was the lynch-pin of the Triple Entente’s war on Germany and the position which the Ottoman Empire found itself in during the latter part of 1914 is incomprehensible without taking account of Russia.
Tsar Nicholas II offered his country and its population up to Britain in its Great War of 1914 to destroy Germany and break up the Ottoman Empire. He did so as an autocrat within an autocratic system in which the mass of the population only demanded stability in which to live their lives, from the “Little Father”. In waging that War, in which Russia was bled to collapse in return for substantial British finance to continue fighting to the bitter end, the Tsar sealed the fate of himself, his dynasty and his State. The Tsar had been warned for a long time before about the dangerous road he was taking by his most able and impressive minister, Count Witte, who Nicholas dismissed in 1903. He received one final warning of great substance from Pyotr Durnovo, Count Witte’s old Interior Minister, who had effectively suppressed the 1905 Revolution for the Tsar. But Tsar Nicholas persisted and he took Russia to the abyss.
Of course, when autocratic Russia collapsed her place in the Great War was taken by democratic America and the Imperialist war on Germany became something else, for both the remaining parties to the Entente and their historians. A democratic gloss could be put on the subsequent war with the Czar out of the way – although on the downside restrictions were imposed in the carving up of the spoils amongst the remaining Imperialists (Britain, France, etc.) by the great democracy (the U.S.).
Germans Guilty, Russia more Guilty!
Sean McMeekin wrote another book, a few years before his Russia book, called ‘The Berlin-Baghdad Express’. In this previous book the author put forward the view that the Great War represented an attempt by the Germans and Turks at world domination. ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ represented a modern manifestation of John Buchan’s Wellington House propaganda popularised in his novel ‘Greenmantle’ (the sequel to ‘The 39 Steps’).
McMeekin certainly deserves credit for identifying the Berlin-Baghdad Railway as a major cause of the Great War. If one reads British publications of the time that impression is inescapable – although it has escaped the grasp of most academics.
However, when writing a review of the ‘The Berlin to Baghdad Express’ for Athol Books’ Church and State magazine it became apparent to me that his account of the importance of the Railway was precisely the opposite of mine. McMeekin saw the Railway as the chief instrument of the German/Islamic bid for world power that made it necessary for Britain to make war in 1914. I saw it as the thing that connected the German commercial rise to the Ottoman Empire that marked both states out for destruction in the British Imperial mind.
To hold McMeekin’s position one must accept the Anglophile view of the world – that it is perfectly natural to cut competitors down to size because they represent potential challengers to England’s world supremacy. And of course this was Britain’s view in 1914 expressed in a thousand publications by its thinking class.
However, if one sees this as an unnatural state of affairs the world then looks to be a different place entirely.
Sean McMeekin, however, has changed his view in his newer book. Having delved into the Russian State archives he makes the bold statement: “I contend in this book that the current consensus about the First World War cannot survive serious scrutiny. The war of 1914 was Russia’s war even more than it was Germany’s.” (p.5)
Presumably if the war was not Germany’s it certainly was not Turkey’s either.
McMeekin states that “the current consensus about the First World War” still blames it on the Germans. And having previously gone along with the “current consensus” McMeekin has now decided that it can no longer stand in the light of what he has discovered.
McMeekin blames the “current consensus” on Fritz Fischer who “taught several generations of historians to pay serious attention only to German war aims.” (p.3) Fischer’s book, ‘Griff nach der Weltmacht,’ was published in Germany in 1961. It was issued in Britain under the title Germany’s Aims in the First World War in 1967. Fischer argued that Germany had a set of annexationist war aims similar to those of Hitler and a policy of deliberately provoking war in July 1914.
But surely there is a similar narrative older than that of Fischer’s – the guilty German. Isn’t Fischer merely a product of the ideas and world that John Buchan et al helped create and which the German succumbed to when being pulverized by force in two world wars? (I should say that East Germany succumbed to a different narrative in 1945, with a great deal of enthusiasm, but that narrative is now dead and need not be considered).
Russian War Aims
Having broken free of Fischer’s influence, McMeekin comes across some important facts in his book. One of them is the following: “Russia’s war was fought not for Serbia, but to achieve control of Constantinople and the Straits… control of the Straits was Russia’s first strategic priority.” (p.239)
A few years ago when I was writing ‘Britain’s Great War on Turkey’ it occurred to me to ask the question: why Russia was fighting in the Great War at all. That is a question that is not asked very often in the West. McMeekin notes: “As for what Russia’s leaders hoped to accomplish by going to war in 1914, most histories of the conflict have little to say, beyond vague mutterings about Serbia and Slavic honor, treaty obligations to France, and concern for Russia’s status as a great power.” (p.2)
It is indeed taken for granted that Russia should want to fight Germany because it was part of an alliance that did its duty against her. But that explains very little.
It might be pretended that Russia had territorial desires in Eastern Europe in relation to the Austro-Hungarian State. However, McMeekin correctly points out: “Austrian Galicia clearly mattered to Russia’s leaders but nowhere near as much as the Straits. For Russia, the war of 1914 was always, ultimately, about Turkey.” (p.101)
Galicia mattered because the salient that was Russian Poland felt exposed by having East Prussia to the North and Austrian Western Galicia (Cracow etc.) to the South. It was one of those extensions of Empire that often felt vulnerable in the Imperial view unless territory around it was added to protect it. But then more territory had to be added to protect the new territorial acquisition and so on, in infinitum. That was how Empires had almost a mind of their own in their growth.
McMeekin correctly points out that although Anglo-French efforts to carve up Ottoman territory dominate accounts of the demise of the Ottoman State the role of Russia is almost forgotten – due to the collapse of the Czarist State in 1917 before a sharing out of the spoils amongst the victors could be accomplished.
He also usefully notes that the Great War is seen in very different terms in Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Egypt than it is in the West:
“From the perspective of present-day residents of these places, the First World War appears not as a kind of senseless civil war between European nations which have now long since learned to live in peace but more like a deliberate plot to disrupt and dismantle the last great Islamic power on earth, Ottoman Turkey. What were the Italian and Balkan wars fought by the Turks in 1911-1913, after all, but a kind of opening act for the world war of 1914, in which great powers threw in with the smaller ones already fighting to dismember the Ottoman Empire?” (p.4)
There is certainly a case for arguing that what began in Libya in 1911 and continued into the Balkans in 1912 had great implications for what subsequently happened from 1914 on, when the direct participation of Britain produced a qualitative escalation in throwing the region into the melting-pot of history – a melting-pot from which it still struggles to emerge.
Russia’s Strategic Imperatives
McMeekin’s chapter ‘The strategic imperative in 1914’ describes Russia’s intentions towards the Ottoman Empire.
The Balkan Wars had the effect of convincing Russia that the dismembering of Ottoman Turkey was a realistic possibility not only because of the defeats suffered by the Ottoman army at the hands of the Bulgarians, Greeks and Serbs but also because of the reluctance of Austria to intervene in the conflict. McMeekin argues that the Russians realised that the only power standing between their dream of occupying Constantinople and turning it into ‘Czargrad’ was Germany.
McMeekin comments that the two major fears of Russia at this time were the worry of a “Crimean coalition” emerging against them or another ‘Congress of Berlin’ being organised to cheat them of the spoils they might win on the battlefield, to deprive them of Constantinople when they had won it.
McMeekin, however, fails to mention the pertinent fact of the all-important 1907 agreement between the Russians and Britain. This altered everything. Firstly, it meant that there would be no “Crimean coalition” organised against Russia to frustrate their intentions in the Black Sea toward Constantinople because both the French and British were now the allies of the Czar. Also, the logic of this agreement implied Russian help against Germany in return for an ending of the Anglo-French block on a Russian move down to Istanbul.
McMeekin notes that during the First Balkans War a discussion took place in Russia about whether to wait for a general European war to take place in order to seize Constantinople or to seize an opportunity presented by the Ottoman collapse in the Balkans. Sazanov, the Czar’s Foreign Minister, argued in a memorandum, for a Russian intervention to seize Constantinople, before the Bulgarians got there. Conquering Constantinople would, he argued, give Russia a “global position which is the natural crown of her efforts and sacrifices over two centuries of our history.” He was opposed, however, by Yuri Danilov, the chief architect of Russia’s war plan 19, who suggested that “the shortest and safest operational route to Constantinople runs through Vienna… and Berlin.” (p. 26)
McMeekin explains that the Russian desire to come down to Constantinople was not just a romantic dream about worshipping again in St Sophia it also had a strong economic impulse:
“Because of the centuries-old Russian interest in ‘Tsargrad’ as the ‘Second Rome’ of Orthodox Christian dreams, the Straits obsession of Russian policymakers like Sazanov in the early 20th century has sometimes been mistakenly assumed to be romantic. In fact, Russia’s designs on the Straits, unlike her shadowy pan Slavic pretensions in the Balkans, were a matter of cold, hard national interest… In economic terms, the importance of the Straits of Russia was stark and true. Although calculations differed on the exact figure, something approaching half of Russia’s burgeoning export trade was, by 1914, routed via the Black Sea, Bosphorus, and Dardanelles to world markets. When, in summer 1912, the Porte had briefly closed the straits to shipping during the Italian Turkish war, Russia’s vulnerability had been painfully exposed: the volume of Black Sea exports dropped by one third for the calendar year 1912, and revenue likewise dipped 30%, from £77 million Sterling to 57 million. Heavy industry in the Ukraine, dependent on supplies imported directly through the Straits near the Black Sea, had nearly ground to a halt… To understand the overriding importance of the Straits question for Petersburg, however, we must go beyond numbers. Russia’s principal Black Sea export was grain. Over 20,000,000 tonnes were shipped in both 1911 and 1912, of which nearly 90% was exported through the Bosphorus to world markets: the health of her entire agricultural economy now depended on unfettered Straits access. Stimulating grain production was, moreover, the key to Stolypin’s social reforms, which envisaged the creation of a stable class of successful peasant producers who would serve as a bulwark against anarchic social revolution… “ (pp.29-30)
The Russian Predicament
Sean McMeekin makes an interesting point about the pressure that suddenly appeared on Russia in late 1913 with regard to their objective of capturing Constantinople. After the Balkans Wars the Ottomans began to strengthen the Straits defences by appointing Liman von Sanders and other German officers as advisers as well as purchasing coastal defence guns from Italy. However, most worrying of all was the naval alliance Turkey had with Britain and the two dreadnoughts that were being built by the Royal Navy, which would immediately make obsolete Russia’s entire Black Sea Fleet. This was because by the terms of the Berlin Treaty of 1878 Russia was not allowed to send warships through the Straits, even in peacetime, which meant she could not import dreadnoughts into the Black Sea. This stipulation was largely a British insistence because England did not want Russia to be able to send its fleet into the Mediterranean. However, what it meant in 1914 was that as the Turks improved their defences in the Black Sea and around Constantinople in the light of the Russian and Slavic threat the window of opportunity for a Russian amphibious attack on the Ottoman capital was rapidly closing.
When the Russians complained to the British government that they were helping to strengthen the defences of a potential enemy against their ally, Edward Grey and Winston Churchill washed their hands of the problem claiming they were laissez-faire liberals and the British government could not legally interfere with private business contracts.
Interestingly, as McMeekin notes, when in 1908 Izvolski demanded that Britain relax its insistence against Russian naval access to the Mediterranean Edward Grey made a counter offer to Russia that the Straits be open to warships of all countries. Grey knew that this proposal was even more repugnant to the Russians than maintenance of the status quo as it would open Russia’s southern coastline to attack from any rival naval power, particularly Britain. And so the Russians declined and settled for the status quo.
The main immediate cause of the Great War (along with the French desire to have Alsace/Lorraine) was the Russian desire for the Straits. Yet, the only person blocking this was Sir Edward Grey (aside from the Ottomans). The blocking, therefore, of Grey, and its unblocking, contingent on services rendered by the Czar in relation to England’s Germany problem, was actually the pivotal factor in the Great War on Germany and Ottoman Turkey.
McMeekin reveals that things came to a head at a meeting of the Russian Council of Ministers in January 1914. Sazanov had, a week earlier, proposed to the Czar that the time was now right to provoke a European war in alliance with England and France so that Constantinople could be stormed. The idea was to use the Liman von Sanders appointment as a cause for war. McMeekin reveals that there was almost unanimous enthusiasm for provoking a European war over the Liman affair. However, whilst there was near certainty amongst the Ministers that Russia would be joined by England and France in such a war there were lingering doubts about whether London would stay out of the conflict if it was provoked at that point on such an issue. The Russian naval command warned that a unilateral amphibious assault would also be beyond them at that moment. It was determined, therefore, to resort to war only if “the active participation of both France and England in joint measures were assured.” (p.32)
The following month a joint army/navy meeting was convened that aimed to make a unilateral attack on Constantinople a possibility and a large subsidy was allocated to fund a Russian offensive against the Ottoman capital. However, there was general acceptance that such an operation could only be guaranteed success in conjunction with France and England in the context of a European war.
Although McMeekin has come across a significant fact here he does not choose to develop it. The leverage that England had cultivated over Russia through the Entente is evident in the predicament Russia found herself in, in relation to Britain, and her heart’s desire at Constantinople.
McMeekin passes by Grey’s and Churchill’s laissez-faire dismissal of Russia’s complaints about British private companies contributing to the defence of the Straits without noting that the Royal Navy – the senior agency of the British State – was the primary contributor to the Ottoman defences.
A British double game
The obvious question – which McMeekin does not ask – is why Britain was contributing to the defences of the Straits when it understood for centuries that Constantinople was the heart’s desire of its new ally?
The reason is connected to the fact that Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been traditionally opposed to military conscription. Therefore, it would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. It needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in the English press as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.
The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had no real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something substantial had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.
But at the same time leverage had to be maintained and the hand had to be kept in at the Ottoman capital. The Young Turks had entered into a naval agreement with Britain in which British dockyards took orders for Turkish battleships, under the supervision of Winston Churchill and the Admiralty, and a British naval mission was established at Constantinople. By 1914 the size of this naval mission was as large as the German military mission there, and they were looked on as a counter-balance to each other by the Turks. If it was said that Turkey had a military alliance with Germany in 1914 it could be equally said that she had a naval alliance with England.
The Turkish Government gave both England and France extraordinary positions of influence in its capital – positions that no other country with concern for its sovereignty would offer. They entrusted to Britain the most vital components of the defence of Constantinople – the re-organisation of their navy under Rear-Admiral Gamble and Admiral Limpus and an English Naval Mission, and the modernisation of the arsenal at the Golden Horn (Turkey’s centre of munitions) by Armstrong and Vickers. Admiral Limpus offered advice to the Turkish Admiralty on such matters as the location of mine fields in the Straits and mine laying techniques as well as torpedo lines.
It is not surprising that the British took on this constructive work, even though their longer term ambition was to destroy the Ottoman Empire. From the British interest it countered German influence at Constantinople, gave the English a unique, inside knowledge of the defences of the Turkish capital and controlling influence over the Turkish Navy – and made sure that the Russians, French and Germans did not possess such influence or information themselves. And when the English naval mission left those in charge of it were the first to suggest to Winston Churchill that Constantinople should be attacked, and how it should be, with all the inside information they had obtained.
But the naval mission also had a vital role to play in relation to England’s ally, Russia by keeping the Czar out of Constantinople until his steamroller was started, pointed westward and heading toward Berlin.
The war against Germany got underway in August 1914 but unfortunately for Russia Turkey remained neutral.
The opportunity of finding a cause of war against Turkey developed after the Royal Navy forced two German ships (Goeben and Breslau) trapped in the Mediterranean into neutral Constantinople in early August. The German crews faced with the prospect of destruction if they re-entered the Aegean handed the ships over to the Turks. The Turks accepted them in place of the two battleships owed to them by Britain that Churchill had seized before war had even been declared on Germany.
Churchill proceeded to lay a blockade on the Dardanelles to prevent the ships coming out. This in itself was an act of war against Turkey. Then he organised a series of meetings in the first days of September to discuss a pre-emptive strike on Constantinople – to “Copenhagen” the city, as Nelson had done in destroying the Danish fleet in its port in neutral Denmark in 1801 before declaration of war. But the British Cabinet decided that diplomatic niceties had to be persevered with, particularly as things went badly in France and another enemy, at this juncture, would be better put off for the present.
McMeekin, although he doesn’t probably intend to, vindicates Enver’s policy when he sees things from the point of view of Russian aggression toward the Ottoman capital:
“Paradoxically, the arrival of the two German warships in Constantinople – at least after they had been transformed into ‘Turkish’ ships by Said Halim’s fictitious sale – likely delayed the onset of hostilities between Turkey and Russia for months. The reason should not be difficult to grasp… This made offensive operations supremely difficult, and rendered any kind of amphibious operation in the Bosphorous… well-nigh impossible. Had the Goeben not made it through the Allied Mediterranean screen against heavy odds the Russians might themselves have forced the issue.” (p.106)
This is a very good argument for what the Turks actually did in relation to the German battleships. If the Turks had refused entry to the battleships they would have been destroyed by the Royal Navy outside the Straits and this would have put an end to any hope of German protection in the event of a British war Russian attack on Istanbul. Whilst the German battleships were anchored in the Straits the Turks realised that they were open to attack by the Royal Navy. It was only through their conversion into ships of the Turkish Navy (replacing the two battleships which Churchill had earlier seized) that two birds were killed with one stone.
Firstly, the delicate problem of neutrality was solved. Secondly, the defence of Constantinople against Russian attack was secured. The combination of these two factors meant the preservation of Turkish neutrality in the Great War – at least in the short-term. This was an important achievement because in August 1914 it was not clear how long the war would last or whether the attention of the major combatants would just move elsewhere according to the passage of events in Europe. It therefore held out the possibility that the Ottoman Empire might survive the war that was meant to bring about its demise.
McMeekin argues that whilst “publicly, Girs (the Russian Ambassador at Istanbul), along with his British and French counterparts Louis Mallet and Morris Bompard, made a great show of desiring Ottoman neutrality… there is little chance the Russian diplomat was ever sincere about this.” (p.106) And McMeekin quotes a memorandum of Girs to his Foreign Office that states; “We need a strong boss ruling over Constantinople, and since we cannot let any other power assume this role, we must take her for ourselves. For us to accomplish this without waging war on Turkey would, of course, be impossible.” (p.98)
McMeekin does not say this was also the British position – through the implication that England was allied with Russia. It is unlikely that it will be found in any British archives.
But if England needed Russia against Germany and Russia had Constantinople as her price for assistance how can it be any other way than Britain required a war with Turkey. (There are other reasons why England wanted war on the Ottomans. Two of them were Mesopotamia and Palestine)
The Ottoman Cabinet, in order to preserve the Empire in the face of the war that was threatening its existence, did much ducking and diving and playing for time between September and October 1914.
On 5 August 1914 Enver made an offer to the Russians of demobilising the Turkish army in eastern Anatolia and dismissing the German military mission in Istanbul so that the Russians could reinforce their fronts against Germany and Austria. McMeekin comments,
“Here we have a precious glimpse into Russia’s real war aims. Given even the hypothetical chance of a rapprochement with Turkey, which would free up troops from the Caucasus to reinforce the European fronts, the architect of Russia’s mobilisation on those very fronts said no, absolutely not, because these fronts were no more important than the Caucasian one, even if the latter was still inactive. Sooner or later, Russia and Turkey would be at war, and the last thing Stavka (Russian command centre) wanted to do was deprive Tiflis command (Caucasus) of the troops it needed to fight.” (p.108)
The occasion for the Russian and British declarations of war was an obscure incident in the Black Sea where the two formerly German ships engaged Russian ships that were attempting to lay mines on the approaches to Constantinople to complete a blockade which the British had instituted at the other end of the Straits. The ships then engaged Russian ships at the port of Odessa where operations were taking place to prevent the Turks from being able to reinforce their Eastern provinces via the Black Sea – something that was indispensable to Ottoman forces due to the lack of a road network toward Eastern Anatolia.
The Czar’s declaration of war on Turkey explicitly mentioned the Russian objective with regard to Constantinople. The war would provide the opportunity to “open up Russia’s path towards the realisation of the historic task of her ancestors along the shores of Black Sea.” It was to be a holy war too waged for “the Christian faith” against the “Turkish hordes”. (p.114)
Origins of the Gallipoli Assault
The problem for the Russians in relation to seizing Constantinople after the war had been declared on Turkey was that they did not have sufficient resources to accomplish this by themselves. The dreadnought-class Goeben had cancelled out any previous advantage Russia had in the Black Sea and made an amphibious assault on Istanbul very difficult. Also, Russian forces were only holding their own against the Germans and Austrians on the eastern front (Russia’s western front) and this made the diversion of Russian forces very difficult to accomplish.
The Russians, therefore, found themselves reliant on the British to realise their dream because it was only Britain which had the naval forces and sufficient military reserves to attack the Ottoman capital from the Aegean (French forces were also bottled up defending their homeland against the Germans).
When Grey met a Russian delegation in November 1914, a few days after the declarations of war on Turkey, his main fear was that Russia might divert troops into Persia. Before the war the British and Russians had divided up spheres of influence in Persia and England did not want the war to spread into the country as British troops moved into conquer Mesopotamia. Grey told the Russians that they should concentrate their efforts on the eastern front and that the question of Constantinople and that they need not worry – the Straits would be settled “in accordance with their interests”. On the same day the British Prime Minister, Asquith, made a public speech in which he stated that Turkey’s entry into the war had spelt “the death knell” for the Ottoman Empire. Less than a week later King George V told Benckendorff, the Russian Ambassador in London, that “as concerns Constantinople, it is clear that must be yours.” (p.123)
These were the first formal indications to the Russians that the British had ended their century’s long opposition to the Czar having Constantinople.
Sir Edward Grey then gave a pledge from the British Foreign Office that a settlement of the Constantinople issue “would be reached after defeat of Germany irrespective of whether Turkish rule is actually overthrown in the course of the hostilities now being conducted.” (p.124) McMeekin comments: “In effect, Britain’s Foreign Secretary had promised Russia Constantinople and the Straits, whether or not she contributed in any way to a military campaign that might conquer them.” (p.124)
McMeekin states: “
We should pause for a moment here to consider the enormity of diplomatic revolution wrought by the end of November 1914. In the Crimean War, British troops had bled and died to prevent Russia from dismembering the Ottoman Empire. Following the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78, Disraeli’s government had dispatched the British Mediterranean Fleet to deny Constantinople to the Russians… the maintenance of some kind of Ottoman buffer against the Russian threat had endured as a cardinal aim of British foreign policy right up to 1914, as illustrated by British fears of Russian incursions into Persia ostensibly justified by the Turkish threat there. And yet here were British statesmen openly advocating the total dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire so that Russia might have naval access to the Mediterranean – the urgent prevention of which had been a full-on British cassus belli as recently as 36 years ago.” (pp.124-5)
That is the background to the French and British assault on the Straits in March 1915 and the subsequent landings at Gallipoli later on. It struck me in writing ‘Britain‘s Great War on Turkey’ that there was more to it than that and McMeekin comes up with exactly the same understanding that I reached. The British and French, in attempting to capture Constantinople, were actually intending to hold it as a kind of hostage to prevent the Russians from ever making peace with Germany or Turkey. The Russian steamroller could be guaranteed against Germany by holding the Czar’s greatest prize in readiness for him in return for the continued commitment of his armies on the eastern front:
“The Dardanelles campaign represented the logical culmination of this pattern. With both Paris and London on perennial alert that Petrograd might cut a separate peace with Berlin, a Straits campaign had a compelling strategic logic for the Western allies, even if Petrograd stood to reap the principle reward. Certainly, the thinking went, the Russians would not waver in their commitment to the war while her alliance partners were endeavouring to win her Constantinople. At a minimum, such an amphibious campaign, launched to aid Russia, would improve Russian fighting morale. If it succeeded, it would open Russia’s year-round warm-water Black Sea ports for Western arms (and maybe also food) shipments.” (p.128)
Dividing the Ottoman spoils
In March 1915 the Czar decided that the time had come to get his French and British allies to formally agree to the partitioning of the Ottoman Empire. Sazanov coupled the Czar’s demands for Constantinople with a threat to the allies that if they did not agree he would resign and bring Sergei Witte (who was regarded as sympathetic to the Germans) into the government in order to cut a separate peace with Germany.
Grey used Sazanov’s threat to convince the British Cabinet to cut a deal with the Russians on Constantinople and finally give concrete form to the reversal of British foreign policy of a century. On 12 March 1915 the British Cabinet adopted the position of endorsing Russia’s Imperial claim to Constantinople and the Straits.
(For some reason or other McMeekin does not discuss or detail the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915 that then took place between the Triple Entente. I have included this as an Appendix)
In early 1916 flesh was put on the bones of the Constantinople agreement through the Sykes-Picot agreement for the dividing up of the Ottoman spoils after the war. And McMeekin suggests that the real inspiration to this agreement from the British side was Kitchener’s fear that Russia would re-emerge as Britain’s primary antagonist after the world war was over. The idea, therefore, was to create a French buffer zone in between the old Great Game antagonists. Britain agreed to give France Syria, Lebanon, and Cilicia in exchange for French recognition of British primacy in Mesopotamia up as far as Mosul and the ports of Acre and Haifa as well as the whole of Arabia.
The final agreement that emerged gave Russia direct control over Constantinople and the area around the Straits. The Czar also received ‘Turkish Armenia,’ ‘Kurdistan’ and ‘Persian Azerbaijan’. France obtained Cilicia as far East as the Taurus Mountains and South to Beirut. The French also obtained an area of indirect control in compassing modern-day Syria and Northern Iraq. Most of the areas south of this, including the bulk of Mesopotamia became areas of direct and indirect British control.
Russia and the Armenians
McMeekin describes the relationship between the Russian State and the Armenian inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire from the time of the Armenian risings of 1894-6:
“Most commentators concede that Armenian Revolutionary groups deliberately aimed to enlist outside powers in their cause by staging provocations… and that outside powers did indeed take the Armenian side in 1895-6, even if none intervened in any effective way… the essential truth about Russian imperial foreign policy should not be surprising, considering the evidence of the Russo Ottoman war of 1877-78 and the First World War. However, the same policy was consistently followed in peacetime years in between these conflicts, with predictable – and revealing – upswings in the intensity of military planning during each successive Armenian crisis. It was precisely in order to piggyback on the Armenian uprisings of 1895-6 that Russia first began serious logistical research into the possibility of staging an amphibious operation at the Bosphorus… in the wake of internal Ottoman turmoil with unruly Christian minorities, Russian operational planning for seizing Constantinople was accelerated. These plans expressly specified that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (pp.145-6)
The quotations McMeekin uses are from a Russian General Staff memorandum produced just after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The Russians saw the democratising of the Ottoman State as a sign of weakness and as an opportunity to be exploited. McMeekin discusses this earlier in his book:
“The fall of the last true Ottoman Sultan produced a kind of manic glee in the Russian General Staff, where wargaming for the occupation of Constantinople – which had largely ceased following the sinking of the Russian Baltic and Pacific fleets in the Russo Japanese war – now resumed with a vengeance. The mood at the time was well captured in a General Staff memorandum of October 1910 that outlines plans for seizing Constantinople: first the rail and telegraph lines to Adrianople and Ankara would be cut by ‘agents from the Christian population’, whereupon Russia-friendly Christians in the city would burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul – which predominantly Muslim district was, conveniently for Russian purposes, blanketed ‘almost without interruption with wooden houses’… The Christians of Pera would then rise, in coordination with a Russian amphibious landing. Once Russia’s Black Sea Fleet had secured the Straits, it would herald the annihilation of Turkish Dominion on the Balkan Peninsula.” (p.17)
That was a very inflammatory programme considering the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems that was to take place in the Balkans during the following years. And one way or another it was going to result in tragedy for the communities of the Ottoman Empire when it was attempted. (The subsequent Balkan Wars of 1912-13 did not fully realise the Russian programme of inter-ethnic mayhem in the Ottoman capital because the Bulgarians were halted short of Constantinople. However, similar events as those hoped for were to occur in Eastern Anatolia from 1915.)
McMeekin describes the complicated situation that existed in eastern Anatolia in the period just prior to the Great War:
“In a real sense, the whole disputed area of eastern Anatolia… where the Ottoman and Russian empires intersected with Persia, was on a permanent war footing long before 1914. Most Kurdish tribal chiefs were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. Like nearly everyone else, they bought primarily Russian weapons. Christian townsmen, too, bought arms from the Russians… the great Kurdish tribal chiefs… generally had the rule of the roost, unless they were directly confronted by Ottoman or Russian troops, in which case they would simply flee to friendlier marauding pastures. The story of eastern Anatolia in this tense and dangerous time, then, was about far more than Turks and Armenians. One could claim that Kurdish nomads were consistently hostile to the Christian population, but for other generalisations about which groups were on which ‘side’ are hazardous… At times, armed Armenian groups inside the Ottoman Empire might even join forces with Turkish troops to pursue Kurdish chieftains who would wrong their people… Complicating the regional picture immeasurably were the opportunistic Russians, willing to work with anyone who might extend their influence. In the classic divide and conquer style Chorister’s Bridge (St Petersburg) cultivated close relations with Kurdish tribal chiefs and their Christian victims alike. Both groups were often at loggerheads with the Ottoman government, Russia’s primary antagonist… By thus promoting general mayhem, Kurdish nomads were the ideal Imperial tool. And the Russians were not loath to use them, sending arms, money, and even trade missions to Ottoman and Persian Kurds. So serious was Russia’s commitment that Kurdish language institutes were founded in Petersburg… Russian diplomats had to be careful with the Kurds. Periodic tribal skirmishes with Ottoman troops were one thing: summoning armies of 50,000 men was something else entirely, not least because their first target after routing Ottoman troops would almost certainly be Armenians and other Russia friendly Christians… The ideal scenario was simply to promote enough regional chaos to give Russia a pretext for intervening, with no single ethnic or religious group emerging to dominate the others.” (pp.147-9)
This was the complex milieu that Russian and Anglo-French invasion and blockade imposed itself upon in 1915. It was something that could be easily set ablaze but not so easily controlled or extinguished.
Russia’s great Armenian Reform Campaign of 1913 was ironically conducted, according to McMeekin, as Ottoman troops and Dashnaks (Armenian revolutionary bands) combined to see off Kurdish raiders who were attacking Armenian villages. The Reform Campaign which made some unrealistic demands on the Ottomans in relation to imposing law and order without shedding blood culminated in the threat of Russian intervention in Ottoman territory if another ‘Armenian massacre’ occurred.
In late 1913/early 1914 a Kurdish rising occurred in Bitlis led by Mullah Selim. Tens of thousands of Kurds took to the field with the object of imposing Sharia Law in the area (to ‘put it up to’ the ‘impious’ C.U.P/Young Turks). When Ottoman troops were sent to disperse the Kurds Mullah Selim was given refuge by the Russian Consulate (where he remained until Russia declared war on the Turks in November 1914).
Perhaps in recognition of the Ottomans efforts at maintaining some measure of security, the Armenian Revolutionary Federation vowed support for the Ottoman Government against the Russians at their conference in August 1914 at Erzurum and the Dashnaks even sent a delegation to discourage Armenians from enrolling in the Czarist armies. But Russia was determined to make the Armenians into their fifth column.
Despite the Dashnak proclamation of loyalty to the Ottoman State, tens of thousands of Armenians deserted the Ottoman army and went over to the Russians even before war was declared on Turkey. In August 1914 (more than two months before war was declared on Turkey) the Russian Caucasian army asked for an extra 25,000 rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition to arm the Armenian bands being organised along the Ottoman frontier and began to smuggle arms into Ottoman territories so that Armenians could fight behind Ottoman lines when the time was right:
“The Russian army, then, actively sought to arm Ottoman Armenians even before Turkey entered the war, with the full co-operation of the Dashnaks, General Andranik, and Armenian leaders in Tiflis. So, too, was the Russian Foreign Office involved, and at the very highest level… Russia’s Foreign Minister recommended that Tiflis command begin arming Ottoman ‘Armenians and Assyrian Christians’ so that they could strike a blow for Russia as soon as Turkey entered the war. Crucially, Sazanov stipulated that the Armenians were ‘not to undertake anything without our instructions’, because ‘if they launched an uprising that was not supported by us, this would inflict an irreparable blow to our prestige’. (p.156)
McMeekin also reveals that whilst the Russian army command favoured an arming of the Kurds, Sazanov saw things in religious terms and insisted that Russia act simply as a Christian power against the Moslems. McMeekin comments:
“The Armenians were to be encouraged to achieve an essential foreign policy goal for Petrograd: the overthrow of Ottoman rule in eastern Anatolia. The Russians would offer all assistance to the Armenians in this endeavour… but they would do so only so long as they… acted in full obeisance to Russia’s instructions, so that Russia could reap the strategic benefit. Considering the human consequences… Sazanov’s carelessness about ends and means is almost breathtaking.” (p.156)
The question of ‘genocide’
McMeekin’s argument is that the Russians were always incapable of following through on their promises and this was the main reason for the disaster that befell the Armenians:
“The root of the Armenian catastrophe is not so much in the fact of treachery and collaboration, which was rampant among other groups on both sides, but rather in the gap between Russia’s enormous Imperial ambitions and her limited means for achieving them. The reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at the Porte that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had essentially declared proprietary interest, if not yet a formal protectorate. Likewise, the Dardanelles campaign and the diplomacy surrounding it – if not also the previous 500 years of history – made perfectly clear that Russia aimed to conquer Constantinople and the Straits. Any group inside Turkey rumoured to be aiding and abetting the Russians near either of these fronts would not simply be suspected of disloyalty, but likely relocated for reasons of urgent military necessity, as were the Ottoman Greeks from the Gallipoli peninsular in April to May 1915. That Armenians were eventually targeted in the same way is not the least bit surprising, considering how much the Ottomans stood to lose from defeat to the Russians.” (p.158)
Two events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings and what happened at Van. (Earlier in his book McMeekin blames the Russians for failing to aid the British at Gallipoli and therefore contributing to the disaster there.) McMeekin describes the events at Van to illustrate how Russian ambitions and their failure to realise them in time provoked the disaster that befell Armenian and Moslem alike:
“The rebellion at Van provides a perfect illustration of the Armenian tragedy… violent clashes between the Dashnaks and government forces in Van were reported as early as September 1914. On 24 September 1914, the Ottoman Third Army reported evidence that the Russians were smuggling weapons and ammunition across the border… all winter, the frontier areas passed with activity, as Armenian deserters, fleeing Van, crossed over to the Russians… February-March 1915 saw the first reports of significant rebel activity in Van, Bitlis, and Erzurum, including the cutting of telegraph wires, the detonation of bombs, attacks on Turkish army and police barracks, and… the ‘pillaging and destroying of Moslem villages’… On or about 13th to 14th of April 1915, the Turk’s worst nightmare came to pass, when partisans expelled government forces from Van erecting barricades around the city… the fighting was merciless, with Armenians despatching Moslems caught inside the town even while the Turks and Kurds were massacring Armenian civilians outside its walls… The first advance guard of Cossacks rode into town on 18 May 1915 – almost 5 weeks after the rebellion began. By this time, the city was in ruins, with it’s Armenian quarter bombed out by Ottoman artillery and the Moslem neighbourhoods raised to the ground by Armenian partisans. Tens of thousands of Armenians, Kurds and Turks alike had perished, the vast majority of them civilians… scarcely had the town’s reconstruction under Russian occupation begun before it was retaken by the Ottoman army in August 1915… the short lived and ultimately futile Armenian rebellion at Van had set in motion that whole terrible series of events about which historians still argue today.” (pp. 169-70)
Sean McMeekin concludes:
“By 18th of May 1915, when the first advance Cossack regiments of the Caucasian army finally made it as far as Van, Ottoman Armenians had already begun dying in droves for Russia’s hollow promises – as they would in even greater numbers after her half-hearted invasion of eastern Turkey swung into reverse that summer. One can hardly blame the Dashnaks and Hunchaks for arming themselves in self defence. Their error lay in expecting the Russian cavalry to arrive in time to protect them once the inevitably brutal counter-attack against their rebellion commenced. These revolutionaries, and the Ottoman Armenian civilians they claimed to represent, fell victim to Russia’s peculiar mixture of imperial greed and impotence, as the would-be liberatees of an army unable – or rather willing – to liberate them.” (p.174)
It is certainly the case that the Czarist State proved incapable of realising its dream and collapsed in pursuing it. And it is certainly the case that in instigating the Armenians to rebellion in order to provoke the collapse of the Ottoman State Russia led them on to disaster. The Armenians were used by England in a propagandist manner and by Russia as cannon-fodder as a means of destabilizing the Ottoman Empire and disrupting Turkish resistance behind the lines. There were, obviously, Armenian revolutionaries who are willing to participate in this process but its main effect was to make the ordinary Armenians’ position impossible within the Ottoman Empire. It was made impossible for them to remain a loyal community and a functional part of the Empire, which they had been for centuries.
Justin McCarthy’s book ‘Death and Exile – the ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922’ describes the internal situation in eastern Anatolia as the Great War began.
The last decades of the Ottoman Empire had seen a significant extension of Ottoman power in Eastern Anatolia. Law and order had been established through renewed Ottoman military power in the region. However, when the Great War began these military forces withdrew and civil order began to end. Ottoman troops were withdrawn from garrisons in eastern and central Anatolia and sent to fight the Russians on the Caucasian border. Only a minimum of the gendarmerie remained to control the Kurdish tribes in the area remained. In theory, Kurdish tribesmen should have been conscripted into the Ottoman army but the Ottomans find this was more trouble than it was worth. The Ottomans would have had to employ considerable men and military forces to subdue the tribes in the middle of a war situation. The Kurdish tribesmen were not loyal or compliant citizens and they began to attack and pillage local villages, Christian and Moslem alike, when this Ottoman state apparatus was absent.
In the same areas in preparation for war Armenian revolutionaries had stored vast stockpiles of weapons, largely provided or paid for by the Russian army. When the war was declared, the Armenian revolutionaries mobilised and were joined by substantial numbers of Armenian deserters from the Ottoman army. Great internal migrations began to take place with Armenians and Moslems who lived in mixed villages migrating to purely Armenian or purely Moslem villagers and populations even began to cross Russian and Ottoman lines for safety.
Armenian revolts and attacks on Ottoman forces in various districts of the East were in full swing by May 1915. There were three sides in the battles and massacres. On one side were the settled Moslems (Turks Kurds and others) and the Ottoman military forces. On the other side were Armenians (and other native Christians) and the Russian army. On the third side were tribal Kurds, an essentially neutral force that pursued its own agenda, both attacking and cooperating with the Russian and Ottoman forces as the need arose. From the first, the war was distinguished by attacks on civilian populations from all sides. The innocent and peaceful on all sides were forced to fight in order to survive.
McCarthy details the extensive attacks that took place by Armenian bands on Moslem villagers and reproduces accounts of the killing, pillaging and rape that occurred before the relocations. He acknowledges that similar things happened to the Armenians. He stresses that the most dangerous situation for all communities occurred when state forces of either side, Ottoman or Russian, withdrew from an area and security began to break down. The Russian army tended to have a controlling influence on local Armenians but when they withdrew from an area the local Moslems became very vulnerable to massacre.
McCarthy says the following about the relocations: “
The decision to force the Armenians to leave was sound in purely military terms, but it caused hardship and great mortality among them, and these were deplorable. Nevertheless, it did have the desired effect: Armenian Revolutionary attacks dwindled in areas still occupied by the Ottoman government… In the end, the Armenian deportations did reveal the Ottoman state as a failure in its ability to protect its own citizens – the most important aspect of any state. It was the weakness of the Ottoman state that forced it to choose between two groups of its citizens. The blame for the deaths of Armenians in the convoys must be shared by the Ottomans – shared with the Armenian revolutionaries and their supporters and with the Russians.” (pp.195-6)
Prof. McCarthy notes that the Ottoman relocations were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare behind the lines at the time. The British had used similar measures only a decade previously in South Africa to deal with Boer resistance. Tens of thousands of relocated civilians had died in British concentration camps. The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.
Prof. McCarthy produces figures (p.229) to show that the Moslem population of Eastern Anatolia declined by about one million people during the decade to 1922. He states that the exact number of deaths can never be accurately known (on all sides). But there is strong reason to believe that the number of Moslems (Turks and Kurds) and Armenian Christians who perished were comparable in the general mayhem that occurred.
The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany. However, a much better analogy would be that which happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of Russia. This is much closer to the events which McMeekin describes than what happened to the Jews between 1943 and 1945.
In the hinterland of war between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its raw elemental condition and ordinary people struggled to survive in the circumstances. In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect on the patchwork that was Eastern Anatolia. The Russians and British raised some people’s expectations so that they were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and in turn those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and as a consequence all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of the Armenians took place.
Essentially the responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed happily and peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy this multinational Empire. It was not in the Turkish interest that the Armenians should rebel and resort to war but it was very much in the Russian and British interests that they should do so. That both powers were ultimately unable to complete the task they set themselves left the Armenians in a situation not unlike that of the unfortunate East Prussians in 1945 (although it is not politic to show any sympathy for them).
Michael Reynolds’s book, Shattering Empires – The Clash and Collapse of the Ottoman and Russian Empires, 1908-1918, makes some interesting points in relation to the context of the Armenian relocations:
“At the same time as the Van rebellion was unfolding, the Russians were entering from the East, the British pushing on Baghdad from the South, and, most ominously, the British and French were storming ashore at Gallipoli. The simultaneous attacks stretched the wobbling Ottoman army to breaking point. As the Unionists debated how to handle the Van uprising, an Ottoman colonel pointed to Russia’s expulsion of Moslems into Ottoman territory and urged a reciprocal expulsion of the rebels and their families either into Russian territory or into the interior of Anatolia… Small scale deportations of Armenians had begun in February, but it was the combination of the Van uprising and the landings at Gallipoli that triggered the decision to deport the Armenians en masse…
The decision to define whole populations as suspect and to uproot, expel, and relocate them was not particular to the Ottomans or Unionists. The manipulation of borderland populations was hoary imperial practice. In the 19th century, however, two things changed. The first was that, beginning in Europe, state institutions began to employ sciences such as statistics, sociology, and ethnography to vastly increase their capacity to identify, classify, and control population groups. The second was that these institutions, including armies, came to imagine ethnicity to be a key predictor of political behaviour. Armies anxiously trained ethnographers to advise on how to manage and exploit the ethnic identities of friendly or hostile populations alike. By the beginning of the 20th century, forced population exchange was emerging as an almost routine practice, one that many regarded as logical and even salutary… During World War I, Russia forcibly relocated not just Moslems from the border region in the Caucasus but also Germans and Jews by the hundreds of thousands on its Western front… Ottoman military officers referenced the Russian precedent in the Caucasus during the debate on how to respond to the uprising at Van…
The destruction of the Armenians… must be understood as part of a nascent programme of ethnic homogenisation that involved the resettlement of a multitude of other population groups, including Moslem Kurds, Albanians, Circassians, and others in small, dispersed numbers so as to break up clan and tribal ties and facilitate assimilation… These measures were aimed at the long-term Turkification of Anatolia. This larger programme, in turn, was a direct response to the global order’s adoption of the national idea. If the legitimacy, and security, of state borders was dependent on the degree of correspondence to ethnographic lines, the Unionists would ensure that the latter conform to the former. They would reshape the square peg of Anatolia to fit the round hole the global order favoured…
It is no coincidence that nearly half of the Unionist leadership came from the Balkan and Aegean borderlands, i.e. those territories that had witnessed repeated violent expulsions and massacres of Moslems and the establishment of nation states. Significantly, these men fostered no fantasies of irredentist in the Balkans. They nurtured no illusions about the relative power of the Ottoman state. Difficult though it must have been for them, they recognised that their homelands had been lost for good… Experience had taught them that the global community of states accorded no legitimacy to pluralistic and weak empires. As long as Anatolia remained ethnically pluralistic it would be vulnerable to subversion and partition. The homogenisation of Anatolia was the surest solution to the dilemma they faced.” (pp. 147-9)
The logical implication of this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signaled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies that undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilize the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.
I have not seen any evidence that the Ottoman State actively pursued a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic.
In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multi-ethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.
What happened to the Armenians in 1915 was qualitatively different from what had ever happened to that community before. And that can only be seen as being so because the Ottoman Empire was being assailed from without and within and being dissolved in the name of Western ‘progress’.
Sean McMeekin has an interesting section on Russian plans for the government of the Armenians. He relates that, despite the assistance given by Armenian revolutionaries to the Czarist forces, the Russians began to have doubts about how far they should trust the Armenians with any measure of autonomy:
“Armenian partisans, despite playing a certain useful role for the Russians at Van and Bitlis in 1915, had longsince worn out their welcome at Tiflis’s command, which kept hearing about the atrocities they were committing against Moslems. ‘The Armenians,’ General Pechkov wrote on 29 June 1916, ‘have shown themselves to be a very cruel people. It appears they have massacred the Kurds without pity.’ The report spoke of rampant ‘lawlessness and looting’ by Armenian volunteer units, which were now disbanded by direct order of Grand Duke Nicholas himself. Another decree from Tiflis’s command imposed ‘strict censorship on Armenian publications’… In a letter dispatched from Tiflis on 27th of June 1916, Sazanov reminded Grand Duke Nicholas that Russia had pushed for greater Armenian autonomy – under Ottoman rule – during the reform campaign of 1913-14. But now the Armenians were under Russians suzerainty, things looked different… Sazanov noted that ‘the Armenians nowhere constitute a majority’ in the area he called Greater Armenia – particularly after the deportations of 1915. Armenians now comprised, even in the areas of their greatest concentration, at most 25% of the population. In view of this fact, for Russia to grant Armenian autonomy ‘would mean unjustly enslaving the majority to the minority.’ Tensions between Christians and Moslems would explode yet again, this time in Russia’s face instead of Turkey’s. An enduring peace would only be possible, Sazanov argued, if the Czarist government could rule ‘ on the basis of its own laws, its own system of justice, and with complete impartiality towards all national elements in the land’… The only concession Russia’s Foreign Minister was willing to grant Armenians was to allow them to use their own language and to run their own churches and schools… Grand Duke Nicholas agreed to all of these stipulations.” (pp. 211-2)
I think this confirms the view that it was the attempted destruction of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire with its delicate balance of order between the patchwork of peoples that inhabited it that led to disaster for Balkan Moslems and Jews, Anatolian Greeks and Armenians and many more besides. It was possible that a Russian victory and the reincorporation of these peoples in another multi-ethnic state might have preserved the balance in a new form leading to some kind of stability. But that is the stuff of counterfactual conjecture. The Russian Revolution saved the Ottomans in the East and closed off this possibility for good.
Sean McMeekin has now written two books attributing blame for the Great War. The first argued for the guilt of the Germans and Ottomans. The second blames the Russians. Perhaps another would make him ‘third time lucky’ but it is also unlikely.
Appendix: Correspondence between the partners of the Triple Entente for the secret Constantinople Agreement of March 1915 (as later revealed by the Bolsheviks):
Aide-mémoire from Russian Foreign Minister to British and French ambassadors at Petrograd, 19 February / 4 March 1915
“The course of recent events leads His Majesty Emperor Nicholas to think that the question of Constantinople and of the Straits must be definitely solved, according to the time-honoured aspirations of Russia.
“Every solution will be inadequate and precarious if the city of Constantinople, the western bank of the Bosphorus, of the Sea of Marmara and of the Dardanelles, as well as southern Thrace to the Enez-Midye line, should henceforth not be incorporated into the Russian Empire.
“Similarly, and by strategic necessity, that part of the Asiatic shore that lies between the Bosphorus, the Sakarya River and a point to be determined on the Gulf of Izmit, and the islands of the Sea of Marmara, the Imbros Islands and the Tenedos Islands must be incorporated into the (Russian) Empire
“The special interests of France and Great Britain in the above region will be scrupulously respected.
“The Imperial Government entertains the hope that the above consideration will be sympathetically received by the two Allied Governments. The said Allied Governments are assured similar understandings on the part of the Imperial Government for the realization of plans which they may frame with reference to other regions of the Ottoman Empire or elsewhere.”
British aide-mémoire to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915
“Subject to the war being carried on and brought to a successful conclusion, and to desiderata of Great Britain and France in the Ottoman Empire and elsewhere being realised, as indicated in the Russian communication herein referred to, His Majesty’s Government will agree to the Russian Government’s aide-mémoire relative to Constantinople and the Straits, the text of which was communicated to His Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador by his Excellency M. Sazonof on February 19 / March 4 instant.”
British Memorandum to the Russian Government, 27 February / 12 March 1915
“His Majesty’s Ambassador has been instructed to make the following observations with reference to the aide-mémoire which this Embassy had the honour of addressing to the Imperial Government on February 27 / March 12, 1915.
“The claim made by the Imperial Government in their aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915, considerably exceeds the desiderata which were foreshadowed by M. Sazonof as probable a few weeks ago. Before His Majesty’s Government have had time to take into consideration what their own desiderata elsewhere would be in the final terms of peace, Russia is asking for a definite promise that her wishes shall be satisfied with regard to what is in fact the richest prize of the entire war. Sir Edward Grey accordingly hopes that M. Sazonov will realise that it is not in the power of His Majesty’s Government to give a greater proof of friendship than that which is afforded by the terms of the above-mentioned aide-mémoire.
“That document involves a complete reversal of the traditional policy of His Majesty’s Government, and is in direct opposition to the opinions and sentiments at one time universally held in England and which have still by no means died out. Sir Edward Grey therefore trusts that the recent general assurances given to M. Sazanov have been most loyally and amply fulfilled. In presenting the aide-mémoire now, His Majesty’s Government believe and hope that a lasting friendship between Russia and Great Britain will be assured as soon as the proposed settlement is realised.
“From the British aide-mémoire it follows that the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government, however important they may be to British interests in other parts of the world, will contain no condition which could impair Russia’s control over the territories described in the Russian aide-mémoire of February 19 / March 4, 1915.
“In a view of the fact that the Constantinople will always remain a trade entrepot for South-Eastern Europe and Asia Minor, His Majesty’s Government will ask that Russia shall, when she comes into possession of it, arrange for a free port for goods in transit to and from non-Russian territory. His Majesty’s Government will also ask that there shall be commercial freedom for merchant-ships passing through the Straits, as M. Sazanov has already promised.
“Except in so far as the naval and military operations on which His Majesty’s Government are now engaged in the Dardanelles may contribute to the common cause of the Allies, it is now clear that these operations, however successful, cannot be of any advantage to His Majesty’s Government in the final terms of peace. Russia alone will, if the war is successful, gather the direct fruits of these operations. Russia should therefore, in the opinion of His Majesty’s Government, not now put difficulties in the way of any Power which may, on reasonable terms, offer to co-operate with the Allies. The only Power likely to participate in the operations in the Straits is Greece. Admiral Carden has asked the Admiralty to send him more destroyers but they have none to spare. The assistance of a Greek flotilla, if it could have been secured, would thus have been of inestimable value to His Majesty’s Government.
“To induce the neutral Balkan States to join the Allies was one of the main objects which His Majesty’s Government had in view when they undertook the operations in the Dardanelles. His Majesty’s Government hope that Russia will spare no pains to calm apprehensions of Bulgaria and Roumania as to Russia’s possession of the Straits and Constantinople being to their disadvantage. His Majesty’s Government also hope that Russia will do everything in her power to render the co-operation of these two States an attractive prospect to them.
“Sir E. Grey points out that it will obviously be necessary to take into consideration the whole question of the future interests of France and Great Britain in what is now Asiatic Turkey; and, in formulating the desiderata of His Majesty’s Government with regard to the Ottoman Empire, he must consult the French as well as the Russian Government. As soon¸ however, as it becomes known that Russia is to have Constantinople at the conclusion of the war, Sir E. Grey will wish to state that throughout the negotiations, His Majesty’s Government have stipulated that the Mussulman Holy Places and Arabia shall under all circumstances remain under independent Mussulman dominion.
“Sir E. Grey is as yet unable to make any definite proposal on any point of the British desiderata; but one of the points of the latter will be the revision of the Persian portion of the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907 so as to recognize the present neutral sphere as a British sphere.
“Until the Allies are in a position to give to the Balkan States, and especially to Bulgaria and Roumania, some satisfactory assurance as to their prospects and general position with regard to the territories contiguous to their frontiers to the possession of which they are known to aspire; and until a more advanced stage of the agreement as to the French and British desiderata in the final peace terms is reached, Sir E. Grey points out that it is most desirable that the understanding now arrived at between the Russian, French, and British Governments should remain secret.”
French Ambassador in Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 1/14 March 1915
“I should be grateful to Your Excellency for informing His Imperial Majesty that the Government of the French Republic, having studied the conditions of the peace to be imposed on Turkey, would like to annex Syria together with the region of the Gulf of Alexandretta and Cilicia up to the Taurus (mountain) range. I should be happy to inform my government, without delay¸ of the Imperial Government’s consent.”
Russian Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs to Russian Foreign Minister, 2/15 March 1915
“The French Ambassador has told me that it is his impression that Syria “includes Palestine”. I deemed it useful to remind him that there is in Jerusalem an independent governor.”
Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 3/16 March 1915
“After arrival at General Headquarters, the French Ambassador informed me of the contents of Declassee’s telegram which asks for consent by Russia to the annexation of Syria and Cilicia by France. Paleologue explains that in his opinion the French Government refers also to Palestine when speaking of Syria. However, since in this telegram there is no question of Palestine, it would be desirable to elucidate whether the explanation of the Ambassador really corresponds to the view of the French Government. This question appears important to us; for, if the Imperial Government should be prepared largely to satisfy France’s desires concerning Syria and Cilicia proper, it is indispensible to study the question with closer attention, if the Holy Places are involved.”
Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in Paris, 5/18 March 1915
“On 23 February, the Ambassador of France declared to me, in the name of his Government, that France was prepared to consider in the most benevolent manner the realization of our desires relative to Constantinople and the Straits, which I explained to you in my telegram No. 937 and for which I charged you to express my gratitude to M. Delcasse. In these earlier conversations with you Delcasse had assured us several times that we could count on the sympathy of France and had simply pleaded the necessity of elucidating the attitudes of England, from whom he feared objections, before he could himself give more formal assurances in the sense already indicated.
“Now, today, the British Government has expressed to us in writing its full accord in the matter of the annexation by Russia of the Straits and Constantinople within the boundaries fixed by us; it has simply formulated one reservation concerning the safeguard of its economic interests and an equally benevolent attitude on our part toward the political aspirations of England in other areas.
“Insofar as it concerns me personally, the assurance received from Delcasse is amply sufficient, because of the complete confidence that he inspires in me; but the Imperial Government would desire the French Government to issue more precise declarations like [those of the] British Government regarding its assent to the complete realization of our desires.”
Russian Foreign Minister to Russian Ambassador in London, 7/20 March 1915
“Referring to the memorandum of the British Embassy here of 12 March¸ will you please express to Grey the profound gratitude of the Imperial Government for the complete and definitive approval of Great Britain to a solution of the question of the Straits and Constantinople that satisfies Russia’s desires. The Imperial Government appreciates fully the sentiments of the British Government and is convinced that the sincere recognition of their respective interests will guarantee in perpetuity firm friendship between Russia and Great Britain. Having already given assurances respecting the commercial regime in the Straits and Constantinople, the Imperial Government sees no objection to confirming its assent to the establishment (1) of free transit through Constantinople for all goods not deriving from or destined for Russia and (2) free passage through the Straits for merchant vessels.
“With a view to facilitating the capture of the Dardanelles undertaken by the Allies, the Imperial Government will endeavour to obtain the intervention on reasonable terms of those states whose help is considered useful by Great Britain and France.
“The Imperial Government completely shares the view of the British Government on the maintenance of the Muslim Holy Places under an independent Muslim government. It is necessary to elucidate at once whether [those places] will remain under the suzerainty of Turkey, the Sultan retaining the title of Caliph, or it is contemplated to create new independent states, in order to permit the Imperial Government to formulate its views in full knowledge of the case. For its parts the Imperial Government desires that the Caliphate should be separated from Turkey. In any case, the freedom of pilgrimage must be completely secured.
“The Imperial Government confirms its assent to the inclusion of the neutral zone of Persia in the English sphere of influence. At the same time, however, [the Imperial Government] regards it as equitable to stipulate that the districts adjoining the cities of Isfahan and Yazd, forming with them an inseparable whole, should be reserved for Russia in view of the interests that Russia possesses there; a part of the neutral zone which now forms a wedge between the Russian and Afghan frontiers and touches Russia’s frontier at Zulfiqar, must also be included in the Russian sphere of influence.
“Railway construction in the neutral zone constitutes for the Imperial Government a question of capital significance that will require further amicable discussion.
“The Imperial Government expects that in the future its full liberty of action will be recognized in the sphere of influence thus delimited and that in particular it will enjoy the right preferentially [to develop] its financial and economic policy.
“Finally, the Imperial Government considers it desirable simultaneously to solve the question of northern Afghanistan adjoining Russian in conformity with the wishes expressed on the subject by the Imperial Government in the course of negotiations last year.”
Note verbale from French Ambassador at Petrograd to Russian Foreign Minister, 28 March / 10 April 1915
“The Government of the Republic will give its agreement to the Russian aide-mémoire addressed by M. Isvolsky to M. Delcasse on 6 March last relating to Constantinople and the Straits, on condition that war shall be prosecuted until victory and that France and Great Britain realise their plans in the Orient as elsewhere, as it is stated in the Russian aide-mémoire.”
A Talk given by Dr. Patrick Walsh at the London School of Economics on February 15th 2013
The events that occurred in Eastern Anatolia in 1915 should be located in a broader context than simply that of Turk against Armenian. Both Turks and Armenians were, after all, actors in a much wider drama that was unfolding in the world and any judgement about their actions can only be made with the knowledge that they were caught up in circumstances that were not of their choosing and were largely beyond their control.
Even Atatürk was an actor in this great drama imposed from outside by the Imperialist Powers – although he succeeded in assuming a leading role in it and writing a different ending to the script that was intended for the Turks by its authors.
The context of what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is left out of consideration in most discussions. An event can only be understood in relation to other events in history within the context of cause and effect. If other events are extracted then historical understanding is impossible. But it seems that this is the objective of people who wish to replace historical understanding with legal argument in deciding about such events.
Geoffrey Robertson QC wishes for historians to stop discussing the Armenian tragedy altogether. He recently declared in Yerevan that: “The historians have completed their mission, now it is the time for judges, who will demand proper punishment for guilt and compensation for the Genocide victims. It is no longer a subject of historians but judges.” And in the ‘New Statesman’ of 10th December 2009 Robertson made it clear that the case, for him, is already closed: “… genocide is a matter for legal judgment, not a matter for historians, and there is no dispute about the Armenian genocide among legal scholars.”
Robertson is an advocate of ‘International Law.’ At the end of the day law is policy. It is, in effect, the foreign policy of the big states in the world. By reducing the event of ‘genocide’ to law one is making it into a subjective judgement of the big states and a weapon of foreign policy to gain leverage on other states. The nature of an event and whether or not it constitutes ‘genocide’ is therefore rendered incapable of being measured in any objective way. In such circumstances it is reduced to a mere slogan.
I do not share Robertson’s faith in International Law. It seems to me to be applied only when it suits the Western Powers and forgotten about when it does not. It is overwhelmingly used to keep the ‘lesser states’ of Africa and Asia in order and to subvert their sovereignty and independence when the West sees it in its interest to do so.
International Law is applied to the ‘lesser states’ by the ‘superior’ states who appear to be above it themselves. In many ways it is the old ‘civilizing’ mission of Imperialism in a new guise of ‘ethical foreign policy’.
Something that is so partially and inconsistently applied cannot be taken seriously as having moral credibility. And if you take this kind of law seriously at all it is surely debased through its arbitrary application. So I prefer to trust in the historians.
What constitutes ‘genocide’ has, therefore, become a subjective matter – indeed, a matter for policy about whether it would be in the interests of the dominant states in the world whether some event should be termed ‘genocide’ or not for political advantage. And it is being ruled out as a matter of historical fact or a subject for historical investigation.
Reorientation of British Foreign Policy
First of all, let us make no mistake about the single most important event that made what happened in Eastern Anatolia a possibility – the 1907 agreement between England and Russia that prepared the way for the Great War of destruction on Germany and the Ottoman Empire.
For England the war on Ottoman Turkey, which resulted in the Armenian massacres, came about from a revolutionary change of policy at the start of the 20th century. England had acted as an ally of the Ottoman Empire for most of the century before the Great War when Britain was determined to preserve the Ottoman State as a giant buffer zone between its Indian Empire and the expanding Russian Empire. It was part of what was known as the ‘Great Game’ in England that ‘the Russians should not have Constantinople’ and the warm water port and access to the Mediterranean that this would have given them.
What completely changed British relations with Ottoman Turkey was the emergence of Germany as a serious commercial rival around the end of the 19th century. Britain had since 1688 practiced a ‘Balance of Power’ policy with regard to Europe. For centuries it had built its empire by keeping Europe divided and by giving military assistance to the lesser powers against any power that might be emerging on the continent. Then, whilst Europe was preoccupied with war England was able to get on with its business of conquering the rest of the world. It had the great advantage of being an island and therefore it could meddle with Europe and then retire from the continental battlefield and let others continue the fighting when enough had been gained. Its chief weapon of war, its Senior Service, was the Royal Navy, which established and controlled the world market for it. When the continent of Europe was at war the Royal Navy took over markets established elsewhere by the other European powers and in this way the British Empire went from strength to strength, both economically and in terms of expansion.
During the 19th century Britain’s traditional enemy in Europe had been France and her traditional rival in Asia was Russia. However, in the early years of the 20th century England gradually came to the conclusion that Germany was the coming power to be opposed. Therefore, it was decided to overturn the foreign policy of a century and to establish alliances with England’s traditional enemies, France and Russia, so that Germany could be encircled and then when war came about Britain would join the conflict and destroy Germany as a commercial rival. The alliance that Britain entered into with Russia in 1907, therefore, was the single most important event that made a British war on Ottoman Turkey inevitable.
This is where Russia came into the equation. As I have said, Britain was an island nation and it was primarily a sea power. It did not have a large army and it had been opposed to military conscription. It would have been impossible for Britain to have defeated Germany by itself. Therefore, it needed the large French army and the even larger Russian Army to do most of the fighting on the continent for it. The Russian Army was particularly important and it was described in England as a ‘steamroller’ that would roll all the way to Berlin, crushing German resistance by its sheer weight of numbers.
The problem for Britain was that the Russians (unlike the French who wanted to recapture Alsace/Lorraine after their loss to the Germans in 1871) had little real reason to fight Germany. Therefore, something had to be promised to the Czar for his help in destroying Germany. That something was his heart’s desire, Constantinople.
That fact should always be borne in mind when people suggest that Turkey brought the war on itself. The fact of the matter was that in order to defeat Germany Britain had to promise Constantinople to Russia and in order for the Russians to get Constantinople there had to be a war on Turkey.
Turkish historians are not alone in having overlooked the role of the famous British statesman, Maurice Hankey in these events. Hankey conducted extensive spying operations on behalf of Royal Naval Intelligence in the summer of 1907 based on the contingency that Britain would soon be at war with Germany and Turkey.
Hankey and his colleagues scrutinized the harbours and naval defences of the Ottoman Empire from Syria, through to Smyrna and Istanbul, up to Trabzon on the Black Sea. He surveyed, in particular, the coastal defences of the Dardanelles with an amphibious landing at Gallipoli in mind, to follow up a report of the Committee of Imperial Defence entitled ‘The Possibility of a Joint Naval and Military Attack upon the Dardanelles’ which had been produced in December 1906. And it was Hankey as Secretary to the CID who first proposed to the British War Cabinet in December 1914 that the pre-war plans should be put into operation as soon as possible.
The alliance with Russia was obviously the main factor that spelled trouble for the Ottoman Empire. But it was not the only factor that encouraged Britain to overturn her traditional foreign policy.
Britain began to show an increasingly aggressive attitude in relation to Istanbul as Germany showed interest in the Ottoman Empire. What worried Britain about the German involvement with the Ottoman Empire was that it was not the parasitic relationship of the other Imperialist powers. The German objective seems to have been to rejuvenate and modernize the Ottoman Empire, partly through the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, in exchange for commercial rights there. England and Russia had seen the Ottoman Empire as the ‘sick man of Europe’ and they had been waiting around for his death but now they looked on as Germany threatened to revive the ‘sick man’, and dash their dreams of conquest.
This great reorientation of British foreign policy had serious consequences for not only the Ottoman Turks but also for the Armenians. Prior to 1907 it was the Russians alone who wished to exploit the Armenians for political ends and the Armenians always had to consider the likelihood that if they rose in revolt Britain would restrain the Russians from taking advantage of the situation – and any uprising would be crushed without foreign help. The Russians complained that they were stopped in assisting the Armenians because of the Cyprus Convention of 1878 between Britain and the Ottoman Sultan. This guaranteed a British war on Russia if the Czar moved into Ottoman territory in return for Cyprus being occupied by Britain.
But this all changed in 1907. Under the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1907 England and Russia agreed an immediate partition of Persia between them and envisaged a future partition of the Ottoman Empire in which the eastern provinces would go to Russia and Mesopotamia would go to Great Britain. Later, once Russia had shown its commitment to the war on Germany, in the secret Constantinople agreement of March 1915, the Ottoman capital which the British described as ‘the greatest prize of the war’ was awarded formally to the Czar.
Russian annexation of the eastern Ottoman provinces became the common program of Great Britain and Russia alike. (The fact must be emphasized that there has never been any Russian population in these provinces and that the Armenians constituted Russia’s only ground for intervention and eventual annexation.)
The pre-War Armenian revolts illustrate this point very well. In 1894-6 The Armenian nationalists believed they had got signals that the intervention of the Great Powers would take place if they could provoke the Ottomans into a harsh reaction. They attempted to do this but found that Britain had not changed its position at this point and Russia, therefore, could not act. In 1909 in Adana there were further raised expectations of foreign intervention amongst Armenian groups. However, Britain needed the preservation of the Ottoman Empire until Russia was prepared to advance against Germany in a European war. The result was disaster for the Armenians after they had initiated killings in the hope of foreign intervention only to be left to face the consequences of their actions from their neighbours, alone.
By 1914-5 England was in alliance with the Czar and all restraint was removed from Russia and the Armenian nationalists. Mayhem and mutual killings were instigated in the Ottoman Empire by the Entente Powers to bring about its collapse and to facilitate the absorption of its parts into the empires of Britain, France and Russia. In a general war situation which threatened the very existence of the State in which the Armenians lived and which forced them to choose between it and their deliverance by the Great Powers catastrophe for either them or for local Moslems was always going to be the most likely outcome.
Position of the Armenians
As I have said, the context is all-important. The Russians and the other Entente Powers had every interest in stirring up Armenian rebellion to further their war effort while the Ottomans had every interest in preserving good relations with the Armenians. Sean McMeekin’s book ‘The Russian origins of the First World War’ describes a 1908 Russian General Staff memorandum expressly specifying that ‘agents from the Christian population’ would cut off rail lines to Constantinople… whereupon native Christians would ‘burn down all the wooden bridges spanning the Golden Horn and set fire to Stamboul’. McMeekin comments: “A more explicit blueprint for using Armenians (and other Ottoman Christians) as a fifth column for an invading Russian army could scarcely be imagined.” (p.146)
Intention is a very important element in judging the nature of an event. The Ottomans had no objective interest in creating an Armenian ‘genocide’. Their interest lay in maintaining the Armenians as a loyal and functional community within the Ottoman State and the C.U.P. would undoubtedly have preferred it if the Armenians had remained that way.
The breakdown in Ottoman State infrastructure and authority caused by the British blockade and by the invading Allied armies was the major factor in turning the position of Armenians and other Christian groups from one of mainstays of the commercial infrastructure of the Ottoman Empire and “the loyal community” into a problematic element within it. And since the objective of the Allies was the destruction of the commercial life of the Ottoman State through invasion and blockade what future, indeed, had the Armenians in it?
Lately I came across a speech by T.P. O’Connor made in the House of Commons during the debate on the Treaty of Lausanne. O’Connor was one of the last remaining pro-Imperialist Irish MPs left in the British Parliament after the Irish Party had been smashed by Sinn Fein in the 1918 General Election. He made an impassioned plea on behalf of the establishment of an Armenian state in Anatolia, which, he said, had been abandoned in the Treaty signed by the British Empire with the resurgent Turks.
The bulk of O’Connor’s speech is taken up with quotations expressing British support for the Armenians during the war and detailing the betrayal of the Armenians by the Entente after it. However O’Connor also credits the Armenians with having played a vital role in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, despite attempts by the Turks to gain their loyalty. It is interesting in relation to the matter of context. O’Connor said:
“Let us trace what happened to the Armenians during the War. Turkey was in a tight place. She made every effort to obtain the support, or at least the quiescence, of the Armenians. She offered them autonomy when assembled at a National Congress in 1914. She applied the condition that the Armenians should join Turkey in carrying on the War against the Allies. The offer of autonomy was, of course, very attractive, but the Armenians declined to accept it…Not only did the Armenians refuse this insidious offer, but they actually sent 200,000 Armenian soldiers to fight the battle of Russia, then one of our Allies, and it was their splendid resistance, when The Russian army broke down, to the Turks in the Caucasus which helped us finally to win the War. I believe I am right in saying that nearly 200,000 Armenian soldiers lost their lives fighting for the Allies during the War. If it makes no appeal to our humanity, I think that enormous sacrifice in face of immense temptations gives the Armenians a supreme right to our gratitude…” (House of Commons Debates, 28 March 1923)
As O’Connor states whilst the Ottomans attempted to retain the loyalty and service of the Armenians with concessions the Entente Powers sought to use them in their destruction of the Ottoman State. And when the Armenians were no longer useful and Atatürk had established Turkey as a power to be reckoned with, the Entente just left them high and dry.
Unfortunately for the Armenians, they, like other peoples in strategically important areas during 1914-18 found themselves being used as pawns in a new ‘Great Game.’ After being encouraged to insurgency and to try to form themselves into a national entity (that was never a practicality given their dispersion across Ottoman territories) they were quickly discarded and forgotten when their interests no longer coincided with those of their Great Power sponsors.
Edward Frederick Knight, the famous journalist from ‘The Times’ of London wrote in 1910: “Armenia is now but a geographical expression, and ancient Armenia has been partitioned between Turkey, Russia, and Persia. The Armenians in Turkish Armenia are vastly outnumbered by the Moslem population; and the creation of an independent Armenian principality, desired by a section of the revolutionists, was obviously an impracticable scheme. The more sensible Armenians realised that the only alternative for the rule of Turkey was that of Russia, and the experience of their brethren across the border had proved to them that, of the two, the rule of Turkey was to be preferred; for under it they enjoyed a measure of racial autonomy and various privileges — much restricted… which the Russian Government, ever bent on the Russianisation of the nationalities subject to it, would certainly have denied to them.” (‘The Awakening of Turkey’, p.80)
The Armenian nationalists relied upon external forces as the only means of creating an Armenian state within Ottoman territories. This was because they were a relatively small minority in Eastern Anatolia, constituting only about 1 in 6 of the population of the Ottoman lands they claimed. Only through outside help from a Great Power and extensive ethnic cleansing of their Moslem neighbours could they achieve their nationalist objective.
The two main uses that Britain had for the Armenians were: firstly, to encourage American participation in the war and secondly, to cultivate and construct a case against the Ottomans in order to justify the incorporation of Moslem lands into the British Empire after the war.
These were the primary interests of Britain in them and not their well-being or that they should be governed well. That can be seen in the way Britain failed to press the Armenian case after they had acquired Mesopotamia and Palestine and how they put the Blue Book (Lord Bryce and Arnold Toynbee’s account of the ‘Treatment of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire’) back on the shelf, perhaps for use on a future day.
After the Great War Britain had it in her power to bring about an Armenian state and to try those it had accused and detained in connection with the deaths of Armenians. But, despite attempting many things in the world that were immensely more difficult at the time it decided not to follow through with these two measures, as if it did not take the claims it made against the Turks as seriously as it pretended to, during the war.
Genocide and extermination
The Armenians did not possess land or resources required by the Ottoman Turks for any colonial programme. The major area in which they lived was mainly of interest to the Ottomans because it contained substantial numbers of Turkish and Kurdish Moslems. This can be compared with cases in other places in the world where natives were in possession of territory which Britain and the other Imperial powers required for their empires. I am thinking of North America and Australia, particularly.
The policy of extermination of ‘inferior’ races that Britain carried out in the name of progress was openly proclaimed by Charles Dilke and many other important Imperial writers in the 19th Century. Dilke stated frankly and proudly in his immensely popular book ‘Greater Britain’ that the Anglo-Saxon race was the most effective genocidal force in world history: “The English everywhere attempt to introduce civilisation, or to modify that which exists, in a rough-and-ready manner which invariably ends in failure or ends in the destruction of the native race… A gradual extinction of the inferior races is not only a law of nature, but a blessing to mankind… The Anglo-Saxon is the only extirpating race on earth. Up to the commencement of the now inevitable destruction of the Red Indians of Central North America, of the Maoris, and of the Australians by the English Colonists, no numerous race had ever been blotted out by an invader.” (p.223.)
The word ‘extirpation’ is a much stronger word than the word ‘genocide.’ ‘Extirpation’ means the intentional and planned, total and utter destruction of a race. ‘Genocide,’ according to Article II of the 1948 Convention is a much wider legal concept under which practically all of the European nations could be charged for their activities between 1941 and 1946, when various peoples settled accounts with each other and vast amounts of ethnic cleansing and killing were done. But there does not seem to be any will to engage in such a process.
In effect, the word ‘genocide’ has meant the partial destruction of a people since ‘extirpated’ people no longer exist to commemorate their destruction.
Nothing like the ‘extirpation’ practiced by European colonialism is applicable to the Ottoman State in relation to the Armenians or any other minority within the territory of the Empire. In fact, the Ottomans were criticized by British writers for their easy-going tolerance of races which, it was suggested, was leading to the demise of their empire. The British Social Darwinists were, in particular, appalled at the way the Ottomans had inter-married and incorporated other races into the governing of their empire and had blended aspects of their cultures into the Ottoman mix. In those days of Empire the British believed in a distinct racial hierarchy and saw ‘race-mixing’ as an abomination and fatal to the ‘racial stock.’
‘Nationalism and War in the Near East’ by George Young, ‘A Diplomatist,’ edited by Lord Courtney of Penwith, and published by Oxford University Press in 1915 (at the time of the Armenian relocations) is a good example of this argument. The British and Ottoman Empires were seen as having entirely different notions of race and governing. It was argued that the British Empire was successful because it was founded on the principle of racial and religious distinction and hierarchy whereas the Ottomans played ‘fast and loose’ with these categories to the extent that, in the English biological view, they contravened the ‘laws of nature’, leading to an inevitable Ottoman extinction.
Arnold Toynbee in his famous work ‘Study of History’ argued that the Anglo-Saxon inclination toward ruthless extermination of other races was due to the inspiration that the savage Old Testament of the Christian Bible had on Protestant powers like England and America. He noted that Catholic Imperial powers, like Spain and Portugal, tended to try to convert subject races to Catholicism before inter-breeding with them. England rejected such a policy in the name of racial superiority and the preservation of a master race of Empire.
Such ideas, that were prevalent in the Anglo-Saxon notion of ‘progress,’ would have been seen as inexplicable to the Ottoman Turk.
A few years ago the British historian, A.J.P. Taylor reviewing a book about the Irish Famine of 1847/8 for the New Statesman (12.11.62), under the title ‘Genocide’ compared Ireland under British rule to one giant concentration camp, like Belsen. This analogy provoked a hostile reaction in England. However, the Liberal Government were simply doing in their policy what Dilke later praised by allowing the potato blight to get rid of the ‘human waste’ through famine. And in the same century Britain took to clearing an awful lot of territory in the world of its ‘human waste’ to create great waste spaces that the superior form of humanity – the Anglo-Saxon could colonize.
The long-term tendency of British policy in Ireland was genocidal from Elizabethan times. Of course, it was a failed genocide because it could not be sustained long enough to be fully effective. But there was nothing of this type of activity evident in Ottoman policy toward their minorities.
The point I am making is that if there was a racially genocidal spirit at hand in 1915 it was to be found on the opposing side to the Turks – amongst the Anglo-Saxons who had obliterated races across the world in the name of ‘progress’ and ‘civilisation’ and the creation of new great white settler nations, in the continents of America and Australasia.
Hitler may or may not have uttered the notorious question; “Who remembers the Armenians?” But the Armenians are remembered today to a much greater degree than the many races that perished as a result of the expansion of England across the globe. These races are now footnotes in history while the Armenians have had hundreds of books dedicated to them.
It was not those who killed the Armenians who inspired Hitler. The race he admired most and who he tried to emulate in the world was the Anglo-Saxon (The evidence for this is laid out most comprehensively in a book by the Armenian born Manuel Sarkisyanz entitled ‘Hitler’s English Inspirers’.)
After the war, when Atatürk had triumphed over the British, he was very generous to the enemy. But let us speak plainly here. Those who sailed into Gallipoli were representatives of the great genocidal nations of the world. The Turks surely would have seen what these ‘extirpating’ nations had done across the world to native peoples they had conquered and could have expected the same to be done to them. Those who invaded from the East had been responsible for the clearing of more than a million Caucasian Moslems within living memory. And I have read many British accounts from the period that speculated about what would happen if the Turks ‘disappeared’ without any concern for what would happen to the inhabitants of the State in such an event.
So who knows what might have happened to the Turks if the Czarist State had not collapsed in 1917 and Atatürk had not seen off the British and their allies in 1922.
The use of the word ‘genocide’ with regard to what happened to the Armenians during the Great War is an attempt to connect Turkey with Nazi Germany and what it did to the Jews. However, a much better analogy would be what happened on the Eastern Front during the Second World War when different groups of people became destabilized by the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. Here terrible things were done as state authority began to collapse, society began to return to its elements and people struggled for mere survival in the circumstances.
In 1915 the Russian and British invasions of the Ottoman Empire had a similar effect. The Russians and British invasions raised expectations so that some were willing to exact retribution on people they had grievances against and, in turn, those people exacted revenge on them. No one quite knew under whose authority they would exist when the war was over and therefore all restraint was removed on behaviour. It was under these circumstances and in this context that the relocation of Armenians took place and the mass killings of both Christian and Moslem peoples.
The problem of Nationalism
Attributing intention – as opposed to discovering actual intention – seems to take a large part in deciding what constitutes a ‘genocide’ these days and this seems to count more than actual deeds in determining what is ‘genocide’.
The cultivation of nationalism was a British Liberal tactic used to break up multi-national Empires of rival powers in the nineteenth century. It worked by sowing the seeds and cultivating the harvest of nationalism in them – whilst denying and repressing it closer to home. In this way Britain sought to undermine enemies or states it saw as rivals by destabilizing them through their ‘national’ minorities – whilst doing everything to repress and subdue minorities within their own Empire, of course – as they did in Ireland.
So the clearance of Armenians from Eastern Anatolia should have been seen, from the British perspective, as a ‘progressive’ development, since it was the culmination of the general process that England encouraged with regard to the Ottoman territories and elsewhere in the world. The responsibility for what happened to the Armenians and the other minorities that existed relatively peacefully within the Ottoman Empire for centuries must be placed, therefore, primarily at the hands of those who attempted to destabilize and ultimately destroy the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.
The importation of nationalism into the Ottoman Empire for the purposes of weakening it and gaining leverage for the Great Powers there is very much at the root of what happened to the Armenians.
Nationalism was a most unsuitable thing to promote in the region covered by the Ottoman Empire where a great patch-work of peoples were inter-mingled and were inter-dependent. Its promotion in the region by the Entente powers was as disastrous for the many Moslem communities of the Balkans and the Caucasus, who were driven from their homes of centuries, as it was for Christians caught up in the inevitable consequences of the simplifying process it ultimately encouraged.
The catastrophic effect of the Balkan Wars on the Ottoman Empire are often absent from Western accounts of this period. These, beginning in the time of Gladstone, sought to focus on Ottoman ‘atrocities’ against subject peoples, particularly Christians, and ignored the widespread ethnic cleansing and genocide that was practised on Moslems by the Balkan Christians and against each other once the Ottoman State began to disintegrate and after when the Turks had gone.
The Ottoman Empire had been a tolerant multi-ethnic Empire for hundreds of years, in which different races and religions had lived side-by-side in comparative peace and harmony. For instance, alone out of all the states in Europe at the time, the Ottomans accepted the entry and settlement of Jewish refugees fleeing from persecution so that these people could contribute their talents to the commercial life of the Empire.
As a result, the Ottoman Empire became the most successful example of collaboration between different peoples in history. This collaboration was sometimes accomplished through bribery, corruption, dealing, trade-offs and the occasional massacre (that encouraged the settlement of disputes between the various peoples before they became full scale wars). But from the fourteenth to the nineteenth centuries peoples of diverse races and religions intermingled contentedly and successfully under Ottoman administrations and even the Balkans became a relatively peaceful area.
If there was antagonism between Christian and Moslem in the region it was primarily the result of the Russian Imperial expansionism of the previous three centuries which had seen Tatars, Circassians and Abazians driven from their lands into the Ottoman territories. Armenians took the place of Moslems in the Erivan Khanate in what is modern day Armenia. During the 19th Century the vast ethnic cleansing of Moslems in the Caucuses by Russia and in the Balkan Wars (1912/13) by the emerging Christian nations set off a wave of inter-ethnic violence and population movements that set a pattern for the history of these regions during the 20th Century.
Raphael Lemkin, who Geoffrey Robertson describes as ‘the legal architect’ of the UN Genocide Convention, interestingly attempted to categorize the phases of Genocide: “Genocide has two phases: one, the destruction of the national pattern of the oppressed group; the other, the imposition of the national pattern of the oppressor.” (‘Axis Rule’, p.78)
The Ottomans never attempted anything like this in relation to the subject races of the Empire. The Millet system did not even encourage assimilation and provided for the maximum expression of each community’s ‘national pattern’ – in great contrast to British Imperialism. It would not be going too far to suggest that there is a connection between what happened to the Armenian community in Anatolia in 1915 and what was done to the Moslems of the former regions of Ottoman Empire that were conquered by Christian powers in the years before and during the Great War.
If the Balkan Wars had one great effect on the Ottoman Empire and its Moslem inhabitants it was to begin to shatter the long-held faith in multi-ethnic communities existing together in mutual benefit that had characterised of the Empire for centuries. And the influx of large numbers of Moslem refugees amongst the Christian communities within the Ottoman Empire must surely have had serious consequences for public order as soon as Anatolia itself was threatened by the Western powers and state authority removed. They would have feared the worse for themselves and their families and be determined it would not happen again.
There would inevitably have been a gradual loss of faith in the multi-ethnic principles of the Ottoman Empire after the experience of the Balkan Wars. We know that some deputies in Istanbul called for a clean break with the Empire’s Imperial past advocating a withdrawal from territories that were not predominantly Turkish and a future reliance on the Moslem people of the Anatolian heartland as the one and only trusted basis of the nation. Such sentiment began to be expressed in publications that took the Western view that the Ottoman Empire, not being based on national principles, would collapse like a house of cards. This development is sometimes called ‘Turkification’ by those wishing to attach the label of ‘genocide’ to what happened in Eastern Anatolia.
In the course of thinking about this issue I read the QC Geoffrey Robinson’s Opinion; ‘Was there an Armenian Genocide?’ Robinson knows that intent is very important in legal matters and tries to suggest that the Young Turks “developed the kind of race supremacy theories that are particularly associated with a build-up to genocide. For example, the racist idea that Turanian nationality was a badge of superiority… public sub-humanising of minority groups… extreme nationalist fervour, demanding a ‘warrior nation’ to prevent the decay of the Turkish race…” (p.15)
Robinson is more accurately describing the characteristics and ideology of British Imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth century than he is the attitudes of the Ottomans to the peoples they governed. For instance, Karl Pearson, a Professor of Mathematics at this (London) University gave a famous lecture in 1907 about the ‘superiority of the Aryan race’ and the only ‘healthy’ option facing it: “that he should go and completely drive out the inferior race. That is what the white man has done in North America… The Australian nation is another case of a great civilisation supplanting a lower race.” (National Eugenics, Robert Boyle Lecture, 1907)
Robinson can present no evidence of a significant racialist body of writings that inspired and justified a programme of genocide like that of the English Social Darwinists in the late 19th Century. It is also clear that the Ottoman State did not actively pursue a policy of religious homogeneity in 1915. Events from then to 1923 certainly resulted in the heterogeneous Ottoman State giving way to the largely homogeneous Turkish Republic. But this was due to circumstance more than anything else.
In 1915 the Ottoman Empire was collapsing under the weight of problems that came to it from Europe and the C.U.P. looked for solutions to its predicament in that direction too. It had been a multi-ethnic state based on a healthy disregard for any notions of racial hierarchy. But what was being imposed upon it from the West, in the name of ‘progress’, was the requirement that society should be based on the nation state rather than a multiethnic/religious combination, with as much racial homogeneity as possible.
If some Ottomans began to lose faith in the multi-ethnic character of their Empire this was a consequence of a process instigated by Liberal Britain and Tsarist Russia in order to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. If a small minority of writers succumbed to British Social Darwinist ideas of ‘progress and civilisation’ then were they not merely coming up to the benchmark set and propagated successfully by British Imperialism? However, the continuation of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire did not require a genocidal policy on the part of the Ottomans but the establishment of a nationalist Armenian state in Anatolia did.
This was because, unlike the Greeks and Bulgarians in the old Balkan provinces of Ottoman Europe who possessed majorities and many of the elements of nationhood, in none of the eastern provinces did the Armenians constitute a majority of the population. So whilst it was comparatively easy for Greeks and Bulgarians, once Western ideas of nationalism had reached them, to enlarge the autonomy of their own community institutions into territorial independence, any attempt to transfer Armenian autonomy from a religious to a territorial basis was quite another matter. The population of the modern eastern provinces was such that a restoration of the old Armenian Kingdom was impossible without overcoming six centuries of history through the construction of a homogeneous Armenian State. That would, of necessity, have involved the ethnic cleansing of large numbers of Turks and Kurds and almost certainly have required a policy of genocide against them to achieve a functional and stable Armenia (At the 1919 Paris Peace Conference the area claimed for an Armenian State was gigantic and included territory as far west as Sivas and Adana).
The Ottoman State was an established functional entity built upon the peace and stability of six centuries whereas an Armenian State in the region would have been inevitably a violent revolutionary affair. These types of constructions are rarely good for any minorities that might find them obstructing the necessary process of ‘nation building’. Turks, Kurds and other non-Armenian groups in the new state would have more than likely been exterminated or been driven out.
The question of intention is also relevant. There are instances in which population movements involving slaughter were planned and done intentionally. For instance, the area bombing of Germany during WWII by the RAF had the intention of killing the German workforce. It was planned and refined with the intention of maximising working class casualties within dense population areas. Nagasaki & Hiroshima also come to mind.
There were also huge population movements conducted by the British in Malaya and Kenya during uprisings, about which little was known until recently. The Harvard professor, Caroline Elkins reveals in her book, ‘Britain’s Gulag: the Brutal End of Empire in Kenya, that the British detained almost the entire population of Kikuyu, one and a half million people, in camps and fortified villages. Thousands were beaten to death or died from malnutrition, typhoid, tuberculosis and dysentery. In many of the concentration camps, which were authorised at the highest level, almost all the children died. In the camps the inmates were tortured or used as slave labour and above the gates were slogans reminiscent of Auschwitz, such as “Labour and freedom.” The British did not bother with body counts, most victims were buried in unmarked graves and files were destroyed to cover up official direction. But tens of thousands died in the camps and during the relocations. Undoubtedly, the intention was to teach the support populations a lesson they would not forget in a hurry. And this was in the last half century, after the crimes of the Nazis had been exposed and people hung at Nuremburg.
It is not at all a convincing argument to suggest that the Ottomans had any intention or plan to wipe out the Armenians. There was a complete absence of such an ideal in Ottoman literature and the appliance of the basic historical principle of cause and effect suggests that the relocations were a practical response to an emergency situation, however badly they might have arguably been handled.
The Ottoman Response in Context
In the spring of 1915 three events precipitated and provoked the Armenian relocations: the Gallipoli landings by the British, a large ambush in Zeytun by Armenian insurgents which resulted in the deaths of 500 Ottoman soldiers on the main supply route into Syria and the Armenian rebellion at Van, which resulted in a massacre of Moslems. In April, Lord Bryce (of Blue Book fame) and the ‘Friends of Armenia’ in London made a widely publicised appeal for funds to equip Armenian volunteers fighting behind Turkish lines.
Any State will protect itself, if attacked, and these three events, which took place right across Ottoman Turkey, with the Russians on the advance into Anatolia, placed the State on an emergency footing of the highest order. Population movement was the primary defensive measure taken by the Ottoman State in relation to these events and the position of the Armenians. And most of the deaths occurred incidentally to this emergency measure.
The Russian reform campaign of 1913-14 had left little doubt at Istanbul that Russia aimed to annex Turkey’s six eastern provinces over which she had declared a proprietary interest – which was the usual preliminary to an Imperial power declaring a formal protectorate and annexing a region.
In the period between the outbreak of war in Europe and before the declarations of war on the Ottoman Empire the Russians had began arming the Armenians in preparation for invasion. The invading Russian armies brought with them Armenian groups armed with Allied weapons whose main purpose was to kill Turks and Kurds – which they proceeded to do. British and Russian agents circulated amongst the Armenians behind Turkish lines and provided them with weapons and money to enable them to create general disorder. In the Armenian capture of the city of Van and the general massacre of Moslems that followed Ottoman soldiers were diverted and prevented from reaching the front to fight the invading Russian forces. All these factors influenced the Ottomans to relocate the Armenian population from the area.
And along with the Armenian relocation there was also a relocation of up to 800,000 Moslems from the war-zone. But when the Ottoman authorities moved various peoples out of the war zones they became prey to other groups with scores to settle, such as the Kurds on the Armenians. Moslem civilians faced similar problems as they fled the attacking Russian armies only to be harassed by armed Armenian bands. And I have seen figures of up to 500,000 Moslems killed by Armenians, with extensive lists of names and modes of death recorded by the Ottoman authorities.
Even before 1915 Eastern Anatolia resembled a powder-keg. The Kurdish tribes were exceedingly well armed and virtually sovereign in the areas they roamed. They and the Christian townsmen, bought arms from the Russians and frequent skirmishes occurred between different groups. The Russians flirted with using the Kurds as well as the Armenians as instigators of chaos in the region prior to the war. Order was only maintained by an Ottoman presence between the various elements. If that presence were removed, as it inevitably would in war-time, it was predictable as to what would occur.
‘Relocations’ were the standard military response to guerrilla warfare waged behind the lines at the time. A decade and a half before the Turks relocated the Armenians the British ‘relocated’ Boer and African civilians away from the war-zone in the Transvaal – into concentration camps. This was not a defensive act conducted in response to encirclement, invasion and rebellion – as was the case in Anatolia in 1915 – but was done in the course of an aggressive expansionism aimed at neutralising a population resisting conquest.
The United States also conducted ‘relocations’ with regard to the native Americans putting them into reservations. And this was after multiple genocides were carried out over centuries on the American continent to establish the United States.
Britain conducted its ‘relocations’ and confinements in stable conditions, controlling the seas around Africa, under no pressure of blockade, with plentiful availability of food supplies, in a localised conflict fought in a gentlemanly way by their opponents. And yet they still managed to kill tens of thousands of Boer and African women and children in the process. It was called “methods of barbarism” at the time but I have never seen it called ‘genocide.’
The Armenians were not imprisoned by the Ottomans but resettled away from the war-zone. It is probable that the majority survived the forced migration into Syria and Armenians away from the war-zone in Istanbul, Izmir and Edirne were largely left alone. Therefore, the character of the Ottoman actions suggests they were more of a defensive emergency war measure than an aggressive colonial or extirpating campaign, practiced by the Imperial Powers.
The difference between what the British did in South Africa and what the Ottomans attempted to do in eastern Anatolia in 1915 was that the Ottomans were confronted by a much stronger enemy and assault on their state. The Armenian relocations were conducted in a situation of external invasion, blockade, starvation, inter-community killing and the general lawlessness of a collapsing state apparatus.
There was also a more recent example of relocations for the Ottomans to consider. In January 1915 the Russians and Armenians responded to an Ottoman offensive by massacring upwards of 50,000 Moslems in Kars and Ardahan. This was followed by extensive relocations of Moslems who were behind the Russian lines and in the potential war-zone.
Prof. Cicek’s book, ‘The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians’ shows that the Ottomans did not have the intention of destroying the Armenian population in the course of moving those out of the front-line fighting areas and military security zones: he shows that there were attempts to care for them in various ways. The Decree for the locations issued by the Ottoman Government insisted that those who were being moved should be cared for, protected and adequately fed and preparations were made to this effect. However, the war conditions imposed on the region by the Entente invasions and blockade ensured that such conditions could not be adequately met.
The whole relocation exercise was conducted under the watchful gaze of missionaries and diplomats sympathetic to the Armenians. The atrocity stories employed by the British propaganda departments are largely based on their (mainly) hearsay reports. To compare this with the Holocaust, where defenceless, peaceable Jews were relocated into Labour and Extermination Camps, with no foreign diplomats or missionaries to intercede for them, is quite unjustified.
The Christian Missions themselves have some responsibility for what happened to the Armenians. The Ottoman State was subject to a growing tide of missionary activity, particularly from the Anglo-sphere, before the Great War. The mainly Protestant missionaries offered educational opportunities to Christians and a support base for emigrants. Moslems were impervious to conversion: it was the Christians that were susceptible. This missionary work, which the tolerant Ottomans unwisely permitted, broke up the homogenous Armenian community (and other Christian traditions too). In this situation, Nationalism gradually replaced Religion as a cohesive force in the Armenian communities. The missionaries also engendered dissatisfaction with the existing Ottoman arrangements. The Christian missions had extra-territorial status and they acted in conjunction with their own governments and under their protection, outside the normal Ottoman governing system. All these factors tended toward the development of Armenian communities that were antagonistic toward their neighbours and undermined the existing social relationships that had preserved the peace for centuries.
There is a great double-standard at work here. Britain always wants to judge what happens elsewhere in the world in moral terms, quite apart from context. It judges what other countries do on grounds of high moral principle, but takes a very pragmatic view of its own conduct in the world.
That is why Turkey finds itself in the dock for the Armenian ‘genocide’ but Britain never seems to face any charges about its conduct in the world.
Hunger Wars and Starvation Blockades
The British blockade of the Ottoman Empire, which began even before the formal declaration of war, was carried out with the intention of starving Ottoman citizens to force them into surrender and encouraging a general collapse of Ottoman society into anarchy. A similar blockade was organised against neutral Greece to encourage regime change and her enlistment in the Allied ranks.
A significant component in the large numbers of deaths in Anatolia was the conditions brought about by the general lack of food in the region. This was largely caused by the military encirclement of the Ottoman Empire and the Royal Navy blockade organised in the seas around it.
It is difficult to ascertain exact statistics on the modes of deaths of victims in the Armenian tragedy. However, the effects of malnutrition and associated diseases are bound to have played a very large part. We are fairly certain that hundreds of thousands died in Syria and Lebanon during this period as British forces prevented food from being supplied from Egypt and Entente warships blockaded the coasts. Turkish soldiers in Mesopotamia and Palestine starved to death in their tens of thousands and the death toll from Typhus reached fifty per cent of the population at times. According to a recent study by Edward Erickson seven times as many Turkish soldiers died from illness than from wounds received in battle. In Eastern Anatolia where there was an absence of roads and railways transportation of food and medical supplies would have been very difficult, even if they were available.
Thousands of people moving around as refugees from the invading armies of Britain and Russia and the Royal Navy blockade, in chaotic conditions, with the transportation system collapsing, with bandits preying on them under the collapse of order, with the general shortage of food and with primitive sanitation conditions leading to famine, hunger and disease, inevitably resulted in a general reverse to a state of nature in much of the outlying areas of the Empire, particularly in Eastern Anatolia, the war zone between Russia and the Turks.
I have seen it argued that it was the neglect and incompetence of Ottoman authorities that were responsible for such high levels of deaths amongst its own soldiers, prisoners of war and the civilian populations within the blockaded area. However, it must be remembered that Germany suffered nearly a million deaths in some estimates from the starvation blockade organised against it by the Royal Navy. Germany was a highly organised society with great skills of improvisation that helped it to hold out against blockade for four years. However, it too failed and was ground down by the irresistible force of the Royal Navy.
Hunger and famine have been significant methods of British warfare for centuries. In the seventeenth century they were used by Crown forces to suppress Irish resistance in Ulster. In the nineteenth century during the Irish famine (which the Ottoman Sultan tried to alleviate with aid) at least a million of the population were left to die and more than a million forced out as a useful policy for weakening Ireland for conquest. The same was true of the famines in India presided over by Lord Curzon and others, not to mention what happened in Persia under the British occupation of 1917-19 (Dr. Mohammad Gholi Majd in ‘The Great Famine and Genocide in Persia, 1917-1919’ estimates that as much as 40% or 10 million of the population of Persia was wiped out because of starvation and the associated diseases when the British seized the country’s food supplies for its armies of occupation.)
Taking these considerations into account I cannot see how the Ottomans can be held wholly responsible for what happened in Eastern Anatolia. Those organising the invasions and blockade must surely have been aware of the effects of their war policy on the general population within the encircled area. It was designed to kill large numbers, regardless of race or religion, encourage the spread of disease, weaken the population and produce general disorder and conflict within the Ottoman State. And it accomplished all of these objectives.
Before the war considerable effort had been put into calculating the effects of blockading Germany on its civilian population. It had been openly speculated in the British press that not only would it lead to mass starvation, disease and social revolution but, in true Social Darwinist fashion, it would also weaken the German racial stock. It would be foolish to believe that any other eventuality would have been entertained in relation to the appliance of blockade to the much less developed state apparatus in the Ottoman lands.
The logical implication of all this is that if what happened to the Armenians in 1915 is to be described as ‘genocide’ we must look much wider for those responsible than just within the C.U.P. and Ottoman authorities directly responsible for relocating the Armenians. Firstly, there was the responsibility of the Anglo-French and Russian invasion forces whose arrival in May 1915 signalled that the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was a distinct probability. Secondly, there was the exportation from Europe of Social Darwinist ideas of race homogeneity as the ideal type for societies. This undermined the old heterogeneous Ottoman attitude toward race that had promoted ‘live and let live’ in the Empire. Thirdly, there was the promotion of nationalism from Europe in order to destabilise the Ottoman State and make multi-ethnic units impossible.
If the deaths of Armenians are seen as ‘genocide’ the powers that were most responsible for it were Britain and Russia (and to a lesser degree France). In the interests of destroying Germany and conquering the Ottoman territories they made the Ottoman State an impossible place for Armenians to live in the space of a few months after they had lived in it peacefully for centuries. If we are to talk of an Armenian ‘genocide’ and insist on an official apology we must put these countries in the dock first because without their actions it would never have happened.
Some Athol Books publications:
The Great War And The Forced Migration Of Armenians
by Prof. Dr. Kemal Çiçek
Forgotten Aspects Of Britain’s Great War On Turkey. 1914-24
by Dr. Pat Walsh
Remembering Gallipoli, President McAleese’s Great War Crusade
by Dr. Pat Walsh
Britain’s Great War, Pope Benedict’s Lost Peace: How Britain Blocked The Pope’s Peace Efforts Between 1915 And 1918 by Dr. Pat Walsh
The Rise And Fall Of Imperial Ireland. Redmondism In The Context Of Britain’s War Of Conquest Of South Africa And Its Great War On Germany, 1899-1916 by Dr. Pat Walsh
The Politics Of Pre-War Europe: The Catholic Bulletin on Peace, War And Neutrality, 1937-1939. Introduction: by Dr. Pat Walsh
Preposterous Paradoxes of Ambassador Morgenthau by Şükrü Server Aya