After nearly a century of opposition in international affairs, the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 marked the beginning of reconciliation between Great Britain and Russia. This was facilitated by mutual links with France, and led to the formation of the Triple Entente. Here, the foundations for the allegiances which would shape the First World War were laid. This relationship would be severely strained over the coming years, eventually coming to an end with the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. But the course of true diplomatic love never did run smooth between these two great powers.
In the years leading up to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the Russian government was tying itself in knots over Britain’s continued supply of naval equipment to Turkey, the Ottoman enemy in Eastern Europe. Their own naval forces were restricted due to their inability to import warships into the Black Sea and the inferiority of Russian-made ships. Much diplomatic palaver occurred on both sides until May 1914 when the Foreign Minister Sazonov finally demanded why Britain seemed intent on sabotaging their position in the Straits. The First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill was away for most of May, and then refused to intervene with private business anyway. These fruitless negotiations on the topic of naval capacities alarmed German intelligence, fearing a naval alliance. With tensions in Europe almost at boiling point, the German press hysteria surrounding this imagined threat increased fear of the great power of Russia.
With tensions simmering on the continent, it only took one act to spark a chain reaction volatile enough to escalate an altercation between Austria-Hungary and Serbia into a global conflict. Britain’s involvement in the war – although arguably inevitable – can be linked to its ties with Russia. The series of events was (roughly speaking): Austria-Hungary provided Serbia with an ultimatum; Russia entered the war supporting Serbia; France was obliged to support Russia; Germany was obliged to support Austria-Hungary; Germany declared war on France and Russia; Germany violated Belgian neutrality en route to invading France, ultimately drawing Britain into the conflict. The Anglo-Russian alliance was to be tested in the fires of international war. The British and French willingly made concessions to ensure Russia remained in the war; most notably, Russia’s aims changed in 1915 after the Ottoman Empire threw its proverbial hat into the ring. It now set its sights on Constantinople, the heart of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Of course, this came with concessions on the Russian side – Russia would concede Persia, previously declared a neutral buffer zone, to Britain.
As the war progressed, Russia’s fortunes took a downward turn and became increasingly reliant on loans from its allies and its people. Unsurprisingly, both were becoming disgruntled with the way the tide was turning. As the Central Powers started to make ground on the Eastern Front, the Allied governments were increasingly concerned. Opinion in Russia turned on its ruling family after Tsar Nicholas II failed to successfully lead his troops to victory and left the ineffective (and German) Tsarina Alexandra to govern in his place. A seemingly unwinnable war effort, mass inflation, famine, an unpopular Tsar, his more unpopular Tsarina and attempts to repress the masses all culminated to provide a fertile ground for unrest. Ultimately, this all led to an event which – apart from changing the course of Russian and European history – would pave the way for the downward spiral of Anglo-Russian relations.
The February Revolution of 1917 was not welcome news to Allied ears, particularly due to the closely linked families of the King and the Tsar. Despite the unrest, none had predicted such a dramatic upheaval. Nonetheless, Britain recognised the newly-instated Provisional Government after a few days. Though they were committed to the war, a Russian commander hinted that the other powers should reconsider strategy as Russia was in no state to launch a serious offensive. However, a note was sent a month later reassuring that they would not seek a separate peace treaty. The morale of British policy-makers plummeted as they heard of the increasingly chaotic and deteriorating situation within Russia. Russia’s defection or exit would be catastrophic for the Allies, and its compromised state already jeopardised any chance of a victory against the Turks or Austrians. The Provisional Government made a grave mistake remaining in the war; the country and its people were war-weary to the point of unrest. Furthermore, they were unable to fulfil any of the promises of the February Revolution while they remained in the war. Their mandate to rule was flimsy, and the continued war to please foreign allies did not please the people they claimed to represent. Ultimately, the Provisional Government was unable to withstand the pressures of ruling the tumultuous country and maintaining a war it was incapable of winning. It is thus no surprise that the October Revolution saw the swift change of power to Lenin and the Bolsheviks.
If the British government had thought the February Revolution was bad, this latest development was a veritable disaster. Though there were German forces in Russian territory and they would lose considerable financial support from their allies, the Bolshevik leadership were hasty to exit the war. Not only did they need to secure their own authority internally, but they were ideologically opposed to the colonial imperialism which the Allies embodied. This led to the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk on 3 March 1918 between the newly formed Soviet government and the Central Powers, who were now free to concentrate their efforts on the Western Front. This was a huge blow to the Allies; the Eastern Front was lost, as was Russia’s vast manpower and resources. Until the end of the war, the Allies’ greatest concern was that Russia – and these assets – should not fall to the Germans. But by now, Russia was in a state of civil war.
Talks began between the Allied nations about intervention in Russia. The British wished to send Japanese and other Allied troops to Russia, nominally to support the Czech Legion already stationed there and to counter any German initiatives. President Woodrow Wilson suspected the British wanted to crush the revolution and re-establish a pro-Tsarist, pro-Allied regime but gave his reluctant consent for limited action. Ultimately, the British and French could not divert many troops from the Western Front, so a primarily Japanese force arrived in Vladivostok in August 1918. The Japanese remained principally on the Pacific Coast, so later the Americans deployed troops to rescue the Czechoslovaks and the British sent troops to Siberia in October, though they both played a minimal role in active conflict.
Following the end of the First World War, the Russian Civil War raged on. This was a great concern for Britain; none of Europe’s leaders welcomed the prospect of a successful popular revolution, as any copycat uprisings would fall on the fertile ground of post-war disorder. Thus, despite the threat of Russia falling to the Central Powers no longer a concern, foreign involvement continued. The British had the added concern of a Bolshevik spread eastwards posing a threat to their precious Empire, particularly Persia and India. The British, alongside other world powers, supported the various White armies. Attacks and strategies between these armies were badly coordinated and foreign powers were only willing to lend support when presented with demonstrable White successes. During the period of intervention, Britain sent fleets to Murmansk and Archangel in the north – referred to as the North Russian Intervention – and the Caucasus in the south, with some small number of troops still supporting the Czech Legion. Military action in Russia became increasingly unpopular in Britain, with domestic and international war fatigue mounting. Their support in the form of equipment and troops was barely making a dent against the Bolsheviks and there were more pressing matters closer to home. The decision to withdraw all troops from Russia was taken at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919.
The events of the First World War and the Civil War did much to support the creation of the independent Soviet identity propagated later in the 1920s. There was abundant evidence of ‘capitalist imperialist’ attempts to destroy Communism for the Party to claim they were under constant threat from scheming capitalists; Stalin referred to the events of the Civil War as the three Entente Campaigns (три похода Антанты). What is more, they used Allied intervention to explain the lengthy duration of the combat, thus putting the blame for the Russian people’s suffering squarely on the foreign enemies of the state, rather than the Bolsheviks. Thus ended Russia’s friendly – albeit shaky – relations with Britain, making way for a period of suspicion and tension in international relations that was by no means exclusive to Britain and the USSR.