Author Archive

July 23, 1914: Austria-Hungary’s Ultimatum to Serbia

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

July 23, 1914: Wladimir Giesl von Gieslingen, Austria-Hungary’s ambassador to Serbia, presented a ten-point ultimatum to the Serbian government, demanding a response within 48 hours. The Austrian government had carefully crafted the ultimatum to be unacceptable, thereby either providing the Austrians with a pretext for war or fatally undermining the authority of any Serbian government craven enough to accept it.

It had been nearly a month since the assassination by Serbian nationalists in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne. The Austrians were caught on the horns of a dilemma. The natural horror at the assassination of the Archduke and his wife had temporarily rallied popular sympathy for Austria. The Austrian Empire was, however, incapable of taking advantage of that fleeting moment, and not simply because the proverbial (and often overstated) incompetence of its bureaucracy.

Of Europe’s five great powers—Britain, France, Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Russia, Austria-Hungary was on the verge of slipping to the next rank to join Italy and the Ottoman Empire. Its population was smaller and its military more impoverished than Europe’s other powers. Most importantly, any confrontation with Serbia immediately raised the possibility of war with Russia, which shared ethnic and religious ties with the Serbs and was engaged in a long-term contest with Austria for influence in the Balkans. The Austrians could not provoke a crisis with Serbia without first assuring themselves of German backing. They had gotten German support, but it took time.

By July 23, rumors of Austria’s plans to issue an ultimatum to the Serbs circulated through Europe’s foreign ministries, though the precise nature of Austrian terms was still unknown.

Liveblogging Russia’s Great War

Wednesday, July 23rd, 2014

Liveblogging the First World War on the Eastern Front

One hundred years ago today, the July Crisis leading to World War I began with Austria-Hungary’s delivery to Serbia of an ultimatum deliberately designed to be unacceptable.

I use that anniversary to begin an experiment: liveblogging Russia’s Great War a century after the fact, tracing the key events and developments as far as possible as they happened, without the benefit of hindsight. While of course I cannot put aside my knowledge of where this story is headed, I will try as much as possible to present events as they appeared to observers at the time, hoping to restore immediacy and suspense to things long past.

Brad DeLong has been doing something similar for World War II, though primarily through the presentation of quotations and excerpts from sources on the war.
My hope is to do things a little differently than that–talking about and explaining moments in the war for an audience of non-specialists.

My goal is somewhat different as well. Western knowledge of the Second World War is highly uneven, but it’s hard to deny that the place of World War II in popular consciousness is far ahead of World War I in the English-speaking world. Certainly the 1914-1918 war looms large in places where it formed a central part of national identity, as in Australia and New Zealand, or where it shaped the culture and politics of a generation, as in Britain. But living memory of the First World War is almost gone and with it much of the most basic knowledge of the events of the war.

So I intend this livable to restore some basic knowledge of the Eastern Front to the Western public. I also want to showcase two forthcoming publication projects, one particular, the other collective. I myself have completed a book on Russia’s military experience in the First World War, forthcoming shortly from the University Press of Kansas.

The other project is a much larger collective work, Russia’s Great War and Revolution, drawing on the efforts of an international team of dozens of editors and over a hundred contributors to present the state of our knowledge of all facets of Russia during the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the subsequent Russian Civil War. The first books in the project, offering a broad and comprehensive look at Russian culture during the war, will be available soon.

Guest Post: Be Polite and Courteous – Like Putin and Shoigu!

Sunday, July 13th, 2014

Guest post from Mark Wilcox

Fresh from completing large-scale unannounced exercises – including near the Russian border with Ukraine – the Central Military District (MD) has embarked on a new campaign: the Year of High Culture and Compliance with Uniform Standards. The goal of this initiative, according to a release from the Press Service of the Central MD, is to “develop and strengthen among servicemembers an image of ‘polite [vezlivye] people.’” The Central MD seems to be taking the lead in realizing the “new image” of the Russian Army (see the Foreign Military Studies Office “OE Watch,” July 2014, page 48).

The target audience for this campaign, which will be the responsibility of commanders assisted by specialists in etiquette, will be primarily new recruits and soldiers new to units. The inculcation of an understanding of “polite people” will include “training and master classes on interpersonal relations.”

How will the authorities in the Central MD keep track of good behavior? Members of the military police will monitor compliance by servicemembers in public areas and military traffic inspectors [avtoinspektory] will keep an eye on troops’ behavior on the roads. Here’s the stick: Violators will be tarred with the label “impolite people,” and can be subject to disciplinary and administrative actions. And the carrot: The Commander of the Central MD will seek nominations of the best soldiers for some unspecified recognition.
How do the troops feel about all this politeness? Judging by this photo, the campaign gets a big thumbs up (which would have been two thumbs up if not for the large automatic weapon the soldier was holding). How could they not love the program when the poster boys for “polite people,” as shown on the t-shirt, are President Putin and Minister of Defense Shoigu?

It seems that this politeness, courtesy and overall good citizenship might extend to activities of the Russian Armed Forces outside the Central MD. Even the Navy and the Air Forces are getting in on the action, judging by dispatches from the Ministry of Defense. For instance, recent naval exercises in the Black Sea were carried out “in strict compliance with the norms of international maritime law, the requirements of intergovernmental agreements on the prevention of incidents at sea and dangerous military activities.” Likewise, an increased number of flights by strategic bombers over the Arctic in 2014 “are carried out in strict accordance with international rules for the use of air space without violating the borders of other states.”

Defense Minister Shoigu’s image-improvement campaign for the Russian Army marches on!

Corrupting Russia’s Youth, pt. I

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Masha Lipman has a great piece in the New Yorker on Russian legislator Roman Khudyakov’s efforts to clean up Russian public culture. Easy availability of pornography in print or on the Internet? Not exactly.

Instead, his problem is with the Russian hundred ruble note (c. $3US). It features a scene from the facade of the Bolshoi Theater in central Moscow, prominently featuring the Greek god Apollo driving a chariot and not-so-prominently Apollo’s male parts flapping in the breeze, as the Greek gods preferred when hanging out around Mt. Olympus. In case you’d like to verify, the bill in question is available here.

Now you might think that the parts in question are microscopic, or (if you know Russian) you might be amused that somebody named KHUdyakov is needling Russian society over the shortcomings of public art. You might wonder whether this is such a big deal: certainly there’s no shortage of nutty legislators around the US. Lipman makes a good point that there’s more to it than that–that Khudyakov’s stand is a prominent part of a generally illiberal and increasingly puritanical position by Putin’s regime.

I personally think Khudyakov needs to probe this issue more deeply to get all the rest of the smut in Russian public art. I’m reminded of my first visit to St. Petersburg. I mused to a Russian friend that photographs of the Bronze Horseman, a famous statue of Peter the Great erected by Catherine the Great and memorialized by a Pushkin poem, were usually taken from a weird angle. You saw Peter from behind, and so never got good look at his face. We moved to get a better view so I could get a picture of the statue with Peter’s face. Then we figured out why people don’t usually take photographs from that angle (and this photograph isn’t mine):BronzeHorseman

Zombie ideas: Russia and a warm-water port

Monday, March 24th, 2014

“Zombie ideas,” as explained by economist John Quiggin, are discredited concepts that simply refuse to die, and continue to walk the earth. It’s a slightly more elaborate version of the more prosaic “factoid,” an oft-repeated claim that’s just not true.

One idea about Crimea, repeated by lots of people who really ought to know better, is that Crimea provides Russia with its only warm-water port or, alternatively, its only warm-water naval base. This can take two forms: the more benign form is just wrong–a bald statement of (non-)fact explaining why Russia cares so much about Crimea. This easily verges, though, into an explanation and justification of Putin’s conduct in Crimea: something like “Putin really had no choice, since Crimea’s warm-water port is just too important.” This last idea actually reared its head in my local paper just this week.

It’s not hard to find lots of people talking about Russia’s only warm-water port. Some of them are just random people expressing opinions, and other are from new media of various kinds, but others come from long-established old media outlets or big organizations with reputations to protect. That includes Greg Astell in Forbes, Katherine Jacobsen for Al Jazeera, Jim Sciutto for CNN and Steve Huntley for the Chicago Sun-Times.

Here are the problem with all of this. First thing to get out of the way: none of the seas around Russia are precisely what you’d call “warm.” The Black Sea might at least be swimmable for a few months in the summer. What we’re really talking about here are ports and naval bases that are ice-free year round.

More seriously, Crimea, and more specifically Sevastopol, do NOT provide Russia its only ice-free port. St. Petersburg and other nearby terminals are on the Baltic, which does freeze, but Novorossiisk on the Black Sea and Murmansk in Russia’s far north DO NOT FREEZE. The Black Sea doesn’t get that cold, and the Gulf Stream keeps the northern part of the Scandinavian peninsula relatively warm. Vladivostok in the Far East likewise is kept open year-round (though that seems to require icebreakers.

Naval bases? Both Murmansk
and Novorossiisk
have them.

Ukraine’s most important port is Odessa and its close neighbors. Though the good people of wikipedia (as of 24 March 2014) claim that Sevastopol is the second largest port in Ukraine, in actual fact its 600,000 ton capacity is dwarfed by other ports in the Crimea (almost 15 million tons combined), which are dwarfed by Odessa (nearly 50 million tons capacity–leaving aside the other ports in its immediate vicinity), which is in turn dwarfed by Russia’s own Novorossiisk’s 152 million ton capacity.

What’s the point of all this? First, Russia has no need for Crimea in order to possess ice-free ports or naval bases, so let’s not make excuses on those grounds for Putin’s conduct. The Russian government is putting out enough disinformation about events in the Crimea. Let’s not make things worse by mouthing myths and factoids as result of reluctance to do a little research.