Russian goals in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 6)

Today’s lecture was very much a companion to Tuesday’s (which laid out for us German preferences in the July Crisis), as we fleshed out the other side of the equation that would take the world from an Austro-Serbian war to a general conflict involving the other Great Powers: specifically, Russia.

We worked out Tuesday that Germany’s most-preferred outcome of the July Crisis appears to have been successful localization of an Austro-Serbian war, which would have led to either Serbia’s forcible realignment with the Central Powers or its dismemberment and distribution of its territories to ostensibly grateful nearby states—handing Germany something close to a preventive outcome against Russia (by more or less permanently shutting the latter out of the Balkans and the Straits while bolstering the Dual Monarchy) at no cost. However, given that Austria couldn’t commit not to crush Serbia, which the delay between assassination and ultimatum made hard to believe—to say nothing of word leaking out all over the Continent about the Dual Monarchy’s extensive aims—Russia, it seems, couldn’t commit not to get involved to save Serbia. However, Russia knew that it would be stronger by 1916, and surely seems to have preferred most of all that war be avoided. As such, we worked out this tough preference ranking over outcomes, from top to bottom:

  1. Austria backs down (or just stops in Belgrade, making it a clear punitive operation)
  2. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany stays out
  3. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia intervenes, Germany intervenes
  4. Austria attacks Serbia, Russia doesn’t intervene

Clearly, Russia was able to avoid her worst outcome—losing the Balkans, and the promise of access to the Turkish Straits, to the Central Powers—but nonetheless ended up with her third best: a general war involving the Great Powers. Russia was able to guarantee that Germany didn’t get its best option, but Germany was able to force Russia down to its third, in what looks like a grim series of commitment problems: neither Russia nor Germany could commit not to take advantage of the other’s standing pat (Russia because it couldn’t stand aside and see Serbia crushed, Germany because it now believed that Russia had turned the assertiveness corner and made preventive war necessary), and as a result we saw the beginning of a war that would ultimately drag in France, the UK, Turkey…and a great many others.

Ultimately, we can understand the escalation of the July Crisis as the result of three interlocked decisions for preventive war:

  1. Austria to solve her nationalities problem by ridding itself of growing, nationalist Serbia
  2. Russia to prevent the loss of its position in the Balkans to the Central powers by supporting Austria
  3. Germany to prevent Russia from completing the Great Program of rearmament and strangling the former’s growth as a Great Power

without any one of which the war might’ve looked much, much different than it did.

Still, at this point in the class—with Russia lurching from partial to full mobilization as Germany embarked on a mobilization of its own—the war was still regional. It won’t be until next week, when the French and British dominoes fall, that it starts to become a World War. What was important, pedagogically, was to nail down the logic of commitment problems and how they lead to tragic outcomes, and to force students to spend some time in the heads of decision-makers—which, when you’re trying to understand why a war occurred when and how it did, is no mean task—working out their preferences, available actions, and seeing what we can learn by taking their dilemmas, their choices, and their goals seriously.

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3 thoughts on “Russian goals in the July Crisis (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 6)

  1. Pingback: Public opinion and the outbreak of war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 7) | The Wolf Den

  2. Pingback: A look back on exam day (WWI in Real Time, Exam 1) | The Wolf Den

  3. Pingback: The Russo-Japanese Origins of WWI (War and Peace in East Asia, Lecture 6) | The Wolf Den

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