by Michael Haskew

By the time Imperial Russia and Great Britain concluded the Anglo-Russian Convention on August 31, 1907, effectively establishing the alliance known as the Triple Entente, the Russian Empire was in the midst of decades of upheaval. With Czar Nicholas II on the throne, the Romanov family ruled; however, its firm grip on power in the vast country had begun to erode.

As early as the mid-19th century, Russia had been a participant in an alliance with the unified German nation-state and Austria-Hungary called the League of the Three Emperors. By 1890, due to Russia’s growing ties with France and divergent political interests in the Balkans, Turkey, and elsewhere in the Near East, that coalition had fallen apart.

Forming the Franco-Russian Alliance

Four years later, Russia and France concluded the Franco-Russian Alliance to provide both nations with an additional measure of security against the rising influence of Germany and its allies Austria-Hungary and Italy, signatories to the protocols that had previously established the Triple Alliance in Central Europe. While France had fought Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56, the nation had later suffered serious losses of both territory and prestige in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. French and Russian diplomats initiated discussions as both sought reassurance against possible German expansion. In the process, Russian concerns over German influence in the East were addressed, and the empire gained a more active role in European politics and diplomacy.

Russia also found common ground with another old adversary, Great Britain. Although the two nations had both fought Napoleonic France, they had battled one another in the Crimean War. However, the German threat brought the nations together at the negotiating table. Great Britain sought to protect its far-flung empire, particularly in light of German assertions that it intended to build a great navy that would rival the preeminence of the British Royal Navy on a global scale.

The Pervasive Air Of Unrest Persisted Throughout the Turn of the Century

Meanwhile, the Russian Empire struggled with internal unrest and the implications of its humiliating defeat at the hands of the Japan in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. Although Russia possessed the greatest resource of manpower in Europe along with vast natural resources, it was in many ways the most backward of the European powers. An oppressive economic system fostered resentment among the poor and peasant classes, while the apparently powerful Russian armed forces had been roughly handled by the Japanese in the world’s first military defeat of a traditional European power by an Asian nation.

In 1905, the military defeat, burgeoning class consciousness and disaffection, and the inherent difficulties of retaining stability within the multicultural empire erupted in civil disturbances, military mutinies, and labor strife. The Revolution of 1905 resulted in the establishment of the Duma, or legislative assembly, in St. Petersburg, the introduction of political parties, and the Constitution of 1906, in which the Czar relinquished some direct control of the Russian government and agreed to share aspects of power with the Duma.

Still, a pervasive air of unrest persisted. For Russia, the Triple Entente offered an opportunity to strengthen diplomatic and economic ties with France and Great Britain while countering the Triple Alliance and safeguarding its interests in the Balkans, where traditional rival Austria-Hungary was seeking stronger ties. Contemporary with the formation of the Triple Entente, Russia’s guaranteed the sovereignty of the tiny Balkan nation of Serbia. This alliance, aimed directly at Austria-Hungary, became the tripwire for the outbreak of World War I.