Gregory Bienstock 1939

Four Hundred Years of Russian Foreign Policy

Source: The Nineteenth Century and After, June 1939. Scanned and prepared for the Marxist Internet Archive by Paul Flewers.

The foreign and internal policies of a country tend to act and react upon each other. The internal development of a state must exercise a great influence upon its relations with other states, and it is equally certain that profound changes in foreign policy must also lead to changes in the internal structure of the state. It is on that account impossible to describe the foreign policy of a state without also considering developments in its internal policy. It would, however, not be right to represent foreign policy alone in its relation to internal policy. It would seem that the development of the outward relationships of any state is defined by certain relatively immutable factors, partly of a geographical, partly of an historical character. It is important to follow this line of development, without, of course, exaggerating its ‘immutability’. Every hypothesis is useful provided that in employing it one keeps its conditional nature in mind. It would, for example, be dangerous to trace the foreign policy of Bolshevism exclusively to the ‘immutable’ tendencies in the development of Russia’s foreign relations. But it is impossible, on the other hand, to understand this policy if it is regarded merely as issuing from the internal policy of revolutionary Russia. In what follows an attempt is made to set forth what is relatively immutable in Russian policy. This obliges us to go back several centuries.

The fifteenth century was one of decisive importance in Russian policy. Up to then Muscovy had felt herself to be merely the most westerly province of the great Mongol Empire extending from the Pacific to the upper course of the Volga. But in the fifteenth century began the decay of the Golden Horde, to whose sphere of power the Muscovite Principality belonged. Hand in hand with this decay went the emancipation of Muscovy from Mongol suzerainty. The struggle against the Mongols promoted the development of a national consciousness which until then had hardly existed. For the first time the question arises of the meaning and content of Muscovite foreign policy – a question which in the fifteenth, and still more clearly in the sixteenth, century was answered in a purely Maximalist fashion. Moscow is represented in the official publicity of the time as the ‘Third Rome’, destined, after the fall of the Western and Eastern Roman Empires, to embody the true Christendom. Here already the Messianic motive is superimposed on the ancient Muscovite policy.

Besides this Messianic motive, however, furnishing its material background, is the elementary geographical fact that Muscovy was situated in an intermediate region where Asiatic and European influences met and mingled. Muscovy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries was, on the one hand, the extreme Western spur of the Eurasiatic Mongol Empire and, on the other, the most easterly territory of the European Germanic-Slav cultural sphere. In Central and Eastern Europe, Muscovy was sometimes regarded as an outpost of Mongol Asia. At the same time, however, the Pope and the Kaiser attempted to enlist the Russian princedoms, and especially Muscovy, into the Crusade against Islam.

Russian princes, such as Alexander Nevsky, employed Tartar-Mongolian auxiliaries in their struggles against Sweden and the Knights of the Teutonic Order advancing from the West. On the other hand, the idea of using European forces in taking action against Asia had already emerged in the time of Ivan III (1462-1505).

By the sixteenth century the foreign political programme of the Muscovite Czars appears to have been relatively settled. The aim of their policy was to unite all Russian races under Muscovite sovereignty and to abolish the remains of Mongol domination in the Russian plain – an expansion policy, therefore, in two directions – to the West and to the East.

Apart from this, however, a further objective may be observed – a breaking through to the sea, both to the Baltic and the Black Sea. This motive of rounding off and consolidating their continental dominions is firmly anchored in Russian foreign policy. The first Russian state was founded in the ninth century in the Valley of the Dnieper by the Scandinavian Varangians. The dominant idea in this foundation was the conquest of the great river way from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Moscow, too, owes her rise to her geographical position at the junction of the upper courses of the Volga, Oka and Dnieper. The statecraft of Muscovy has been directed since its beginnings to the domination of the connections between three seas – the Baltic, the Black Sea and the Caspian.

The foreign policy of Ivan IV (1530-1584) swung between the three directions – east, west and south. He succeeded in bringing the whole course of the Volga as far as the Caspian Sea under his sway by the conquest of the two Tartar czardoms of Kazan and Astrakhan. Public opinion pressed Ivan to continue the policy of abolishing Tartar domination by conquering the Khanate of Crimea, which would give him a firmer foothold on the Black Sea. War against the Crimea, however, would have involved him of necessity in a conflict with the strongest power in the Eastern Europe of that time, namely, Turkey. For this Muscovy’s strength was insufficient. In order to go to war with the Turks adaptation to European military technique would first be necessary, and this involved direct contact with Europe. Ivan turned to the West, against the Knights of the German Order and later against their protector, Poland.

Ivan’s war against Poland ended in catastrophe. Russia was thrown back from the Baltic for more than a century, the people’s strength was exhausted, a powerful revolution was approaching.

While Ivan IV was harnessing all the forces of the nation in order to advance against the West, an opposing tendency gradually became apparent. The Russian masses, ground down by merciless military recruiting and the pressure of taxation, fled, mainly in a southerly and easterly direction. The colonisation of the ‘New Russia’, the fertile steppes between the Oka and the Black Sea, began. At the same time the first Russian adventurers and conquerors crossed the Ural Mountains and started the subjugation of Siberia under Russian domination.

A hundred years after the death of Ivan IV, on the accession of Peter the Great (1682), Russia was facing approximately the same problems of foreign policy as had been left behind by the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries: the union under the sway of Moscow of the West Russian peoples living within the Polish-Lithuanian state; attainment of an outlet to the sea; domination of the connections between the Baltic, the Caspian and the Black Sea. The eighteenth century was an epoch of uninterrupted Russian advance to the West and South. Under Peter, Russia annexed a considerable portion of the Baltic Coast and became the leading power in Northern Europe and on the Baltic.

The wall which up to now had separated Russia from Europe collapsed, the ‘window on to Europe’ was flung wide open. Russia became a sea-power, and thereby a European Great Power. The breath of ocean transformed Muscovy into Russia, into a European Great Power with European interests and aspirations. But this Europeanised Russia, which now took active part in European combinations and intrigues, remained at the same time an Asiatic state. The same Peter the Great, who employed the whole strength of the nation in order to fling open the ‘window on to Europe’, never for a moment forgot that Russia had another face – turned towards Asia. In the last years of the great Northern War (1700-21) Peter displayed great interest in exploring the waterways to India. He also, after a victorious war with Persia, annexed the whole of the western shores of the Caspian Sea. Thereby Russia gained not only a base for the development of her trade with South-west Asia, but also a point of departure for all her later conquests in Middle Asia, which took place in the nineteenth century and led to the creation of a huge sub-tropical colonial empire.

At the end of the eighteenth century, under Catharine II (1762-1796), Russia in Europe had attained her ‘natural frontiers’. The whole of the valley of the Dnieper was conquered, the West Russian territories were torn from the Polish state, and, in alliance with Prussia and Austria, this state itself was destroyed. The last remnants of Mongol dominion in South Russia were dissolved and the northern shore of the Black Sea was incorporated in the Russian Empire. It was here, at the Black Sea, that Russia and Turkey met. Here was the starting point for those power struggles for the domination of the Black Sea and the lower course of the Donau [1] between Russia and Turkey which were fought out in the first half of the nineteenth century.

Relations with Europe, in the eighteenth as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were decided by the inherent aims of Russian foreign policy. The Habsburg monarchy appeared as the natural ally of Russia. In approaching the Habsburgs the axiom was obviously applied: alliance with the further to fight the nearer. Ivan IV wished to have the Romish-German Emperor as ally in his struggles against Poland. In the seventeenth century the Romanoffs and the Habsburgs had a common enemy in Turkey. Friendship with the Habsburgs thus became a traditional part of Russian foreign policy.

Beside the Austrian friendship all other relationships sank into the background. Relations with England were friendly as a whole, and on Russia’s side a political entente had actually been sought since the sixteenth century. This, however, had been skilfully avoided by England. Relations with France, on the other hand, were from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century inimical. France was, on principle, supporting Russia’s three most dangerous neighbours – Sweden, Poland and Turkey.

The primitive nature of Russian policy towards Europe can be explained by the fact that at this time Russia had no actual European interests, and this accounts for her desire to remain at a distance from the complicated game of European politics. About the middle of the eighteenth century Russia had a great surprise, namely, the alliance of her traditional Habsburg friend with her traditional enemy, France (renversement des alliances). Russia, against her will, became a member of the Austro-French coalition against Prussia, and thus also against England, which was a direct contradiction of Russian policy since Ivan IV.

Russian foreign policy, however, had already begun to take a more conscious attitude towards the European game. Her relationship to the Habsburgs ceased to be the axis of her policy. During the Seven Years’ War of the Coalition she learned to know the complicated mainsprings of European politics. Above all she acquired a greater understanding of English and French policy, and the struggle of these two powers for supremacy in Europe. Catharine II dissolved the Russian partnership in the anti-Prussian coalition from the feeling that this partnership had no importance from the point of view of Russian interests. On the other hand, approach was made to the two German powers at the point of immediate significance for Russia, namely, the dissolution of the Polish heritage.

Since the great French Revolution and the beginning of the last French offensive, both against the Continent and against England, Russia’s relations with the two Western European Powers, France and England, were of decisive significance in the formation of Russian foreign policy. The St Petersburg Cabinet swung between an alliance with England against France’s attempts at hegemony, and a continental hegemony in alliance with France with the object of completely eliminating English influence from the Continent and undermining the British Colonial Empire. Catharine II and Paul I dreamed of conquering India. Paul I, at the end of his brief reign (1796-1801), had made a formal alliance with Napoleon and set apart an army of Cossacks for a campaign against India. In the archives of the Russian Foreign Office is said to be a letter from Napoleon of 2 February 1808, in which he proposed to the Czar Alexander I to send a Franco-Russian army to conquer India.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century the Russian Empire, together with Great Britain, represented the rock against which Napoleon’s dream of continental domination was shattered. Already at the beginning of the nineteenth century Europe, or rather the continental mass of Europe, had proved itself too weak to prevail against the two European wing powers, Russia and England, with their extra-European reserves.

With the destruction of the Napoleonic domination and the annexation of the Grand Duchy of Warsaw, Russia had attained her maximum expansion in the West. By the annexation of Finland the Gulf of Finland became a Russian inland sea, and the Gulf of Bothnia also entered the Russian sphere of influence. It is true that the remainder of the West Russian territory, Galicia, remained ‘unredeemed’.

The western territorial boundaries of the Russian Empire, however, in no way represented the boundaries of her political influence. In the first half of the nineteenth century Russia was without question by far the strongest military power in Europe. The disunion of Germany, the struggle between Prussia and Austria for ascendancy in Central Europe, the weakening of France – all these factors augmented the influence of the Czars in European politics. Nicholas I became in fact the arbitrator of Central Europe. Russia’s territorial aspirations, however, were no longer concerned with Europe.

The movement of Russia towards the South led inevitably to conflict with Turkey, who dominated the connections between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. Russian policy aimed at settling the ‘Straits Question’ in a manner favourable to Russia. This method of solution, however, would have meant the appearance of Russia in the eastern Mediterranean. England set herself against the extension of Russia’s sphere of power in this direction, and succeeded in forming a coalition against it with France, Sardinia and Turkey. After her defeat in the Crimean War, Russia, it is true, remained a Great Power, but suffered a weakening of her influence in the Black Sea and the Balkans, and was forced to renounce her aspirations to dominate the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles.

After the Treaty of Paris (1856) the Eurasiatic line of Russian foreign policy faced south. West of this line, on the Russian frontier between the Baltic and the Black Sea, her policy was defensive and aimed at maintaining the European status quo. On the Eurasian line, however, between the lower course of the Donau and the valley of the Amur, between the Carpathians and the great Hingan Range (Manchuria), the foreign political energies of the Czarist Empire were concentrated. To understand Russian foreign policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries it is necessary to know the internal connection between the separate sectors of this politico-strategic line. In general it may be said that the basic tendency of Russian expansion points to the South – to the ‘warm waters’, the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. The sum of foreign political energy was divided in different periods irregularly over different sectors of this line. There were periods in which it was concentrated more on one segment, in other periods on another, but the continuity between the different sectors remained unbroken.

The great Eurasian line of Russian foreign policy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries may be divided fundamentally into three principal sectors: the Near Eastern, including the whole of the Black Sea and the Dardanelles; the Central Asiatic sector, and, finally, the Far Eastern sphere. The western sector of Russian foreign policy was at the same time the most ancient, and developed directly out of the struggles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for the domination of the Dnieper Valley and the northern shores of the Black Sea.

Here, however, in the western sector of her foreign policy, Russia met with the opposition of Europe under the leadership of England (Crimean War, 1853-56). Twenty-two years after the Peace of Paris in 1856 which closed the Crimean War, during the Berlin Congress of 1878, this European front against the Russian advance to the Bosphorus appeared once more. On this occasion, too, it was British foreign policy which organised the resistance to Russia’s advance to the ‘warm seas’. The Russian offensive on the western sector of the Eurasiatic line was quiescent for more than a quarter of a century after the, for Russia, somewhat ineffectual war against Turkey of 1877-78. It was resumed after the unfortunate outcome of the Russo-Japanese War.

Russian advances on the Central Asiatic sector also had a long previous history. The conquest of West Turkestan, the key position of all Central Asia, from both sides at once, namely, from the West, from the Caspian Sea, and from the North via the valley of the Irtysch, was already under consideration by Peter the Great. The fulfilment of this plan, however, was delayed for a century and a half. The conquest of West Turkestan and, in general, of Middle Asia to the north of Hindukusch and Pamir, fell into the sixties and seventies and eighties of the nineteenth century, after the Caucasus and the Transcaspian had, following long-drawn-out struggles with the mountain peoples, been occupied by Russian troops. The conquest of Middle Asia was completed by the annexation of the Mery Oasis in present-day Southern Turkmenistan, on the watershed between the Caspian Sea and the Arabian Gulf. The building of the Transcaspian railway in 1885-88 secured the strategic and economic connections between the Empire and her newly-conquered provinces.

Russian expansion on the Central Asiatic Continent between 1860 and 1885 can be regarded as a direct consequence of England’s opposition, during the Crimean War and the Berlin Congress, to her advance on the western sector of the Eurasiatic line. The foreign political energy of Russia, barred at the Black Sea, sought other outlets.

Here, however, on the Central Asiatic sector, Russian expansion once more came against British opposition. England answered Russia’s penetration of Middle Asia by announcing her protectorate of Afghanistan and Baluchistan. In 1885 a border scrap on the Afghan frontier nearly ended in war between England and Russia. Ten years later a frontier agreement was made between Russia and Afghanistan which to some extent put a stop to Russian expansion in Middle Asia. From now on Afghanistan acted as a buffer state between India and the Czarist Empire and in this way the zone of conflict between the two World Empires was narrowed. In the meantime the centre of gravity of the Russian foreign policy was already shifting towards the Pacific.

At the end of the seventeenth century the Russian government was obliged to renounce in favour of China all further penetration into the valley of the Amur (Treaty of Nertschinsk, 1689). It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that the Russian advance in the Amur Valley began once more, and led in 1860 to the annexation of the whole left bank of the Amur and the coastal territory (Treaty of Peking; Founding of Vladivostok, 1860). Thus Russia achieved a firm foothold on the Sea of Japan.

After the Treaty of Peking, however, a break of at least three decades occurred in Russian expansion in the Far East. Russian foreign political activity was concentrated in this period partly in the western sector (Russo-Turkish War, 1877-88), and partly on the Central Asiatic sector (conquest of Turkestan). Not until the end of the nineteenth century did Russia once more press her advance along the shores of the Pacific. At this time it seemed to the statesmen in St Petersburg that the prospects for expansion in a far easterly direction were more favourable than in the other two sectors of Russian foreign policy. For towards the end of the 1890s Russian activity on the western sector was obstructed by the so-called Eastern Triple Alliance between Great Britain, Austria-Hungary and Italy, a new edition of the coalition created by English diplomacy during the Crimean War and the Berlin Congress, while in Central Asia Russian expansion also came against firm opposition.

In 1897 Russia concluded with the Habsburg monarchy an agreement on the delimitation of mutual spheres of influence in the Balkans, which amounted to a renunciation by Russia of an active policy in the Donau Valley and the Black Sea territory. The Czarist Empire sought to cover her rear in Europe while pursuing the path of ruthless expansion in the Far East. In this period also the Franco-Russian Alliance (since 1891) signified, above all for Russia, protection against German aggression, and thus the security of her western frontiers. That this alliance was also aimed at Britain became evident at the end of the Sino-Japanese War and during the Boer War. [2]


1. That is, the River Danube – MIA.

2. The article was followed by the words: ‘To be concluded.’ However, the next article by Bienstock in The Nineteenth Century and After was ‘Stalin’s Renversement Des Alliances’ in the issue for October 1939. One might hazard that Bienstock reworked his account of the development of Russian foreign policy to give some historical background to the topical drama of the Molotov – Ribbentrop Pact – MIA.