When the Crimea recently opted out of rule from Kiev, former Lib-Dem leader Paddy Ashdown penned an article suggesting that Russia had some significant — and rather topical — previous in stirring up Slavic irredentism to very dangerous ends, describing the Sarejevo slaying of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie as political assassination by proxy, in which the Tsar was the ultimate author of this most earth-shattering of crimes.
This viewpoint has some immediate ironies and absurdities that are worth pointing out. Firstly, although the Russians did indeed encourage Serbian expansionism in the years leading up to WWI, there is no evidence of a direct link with the Black Hand, the extremist, deep state organisation in Belgrade that planned the attack in Sarajevo. But more importantly, which position did Britain and France take up in 1914? Rather than talking the Tsar out of his unconditional support for the Serbs, they publicly denied the legitimacy of Austro-Hungary's grievance against them, scorning the credibility of the enquiry which found the breadcrumbs leading back from Princip to the government of Nikola Pašić.
What Ashdown might instead have alluded to was the paranoia about Russia coupled with an exaggerated sense of its capabilities which pervaded Europe at the start of the last century, and how this in fact became one of the key factors contributing to a hardening of block mentalities.
On paper the Russian army was at least 30% larger than that of Germany and Austro-Hungary combined. The at least partly irrational sense of threat that this generated led military thinkers in Berlin to consider the notion of a 'preventative war', so convinced were they that the Tsar meant them ill and that Russian power could only increase. The French had a similarly view of Russian military strength and feared the day when the St Petersburg would no longer need the Entente for their own security, leaving Paris once again alone and exposed to the Prussian invaders that had so humiliated them only recently. For the British the Russian 'threat' impacted on their strategic focus outside Europe on the fringes of the empire. They were drawn into a closer understanding with both the French and Russians precisely in order to safeguard distant 'jewels' like India. So in a sense the Russians did provoke WWI - but not in the way Ashdown lately suggested — the proxy effect was largely psychological.
The calamity of continental war needed a spark to set it off, but the instability of the Balkan region had in a way been pre-prepared by all sides as a causus belli some time before the plot against the Archduke came to fruition. The French, fearing for the loyalty and commitment of their principal ally, had decided that the circumstances that triggered their alliance would have to originate in a area in which the Russians had a strong strategic interest. If Germany invaded France, they reasoned, the Russians might not mobilise in a timely fashion. This sense of foreboding was directly paralleled in Berlin, where it was felt that the armies of Franz Joseph would be disinclined to get out of bed unless the Russian threat against their own alliance played out in the Balkan backyard of the Empire. So, instead of treating the dispute between the Austrians and Serbs as a localised, somebody else's problem sort of shambles (as we do seem to be treating the developments in the Ukraine today), the great powers one hundred years ago had rather deliberately attached this regional powder keg to their detonator. And, the politicians of the day had a sense of honour when it came to following up on treaties and agreements, however vague, that our own lot would probably find hard to comprehend.
In the end perhaps the final irony of the crisis that led to WWI - and thus, albeit indirectly to WWII as well - is that the Russians and Austrians were almost last in declaring war against each other. Meanwhile Germany had invaded France through neutral Belgium, something the French had been planning to do in reverse, but were just not quick enough.
The modern lessons from all this seem to have less to do with whether to appease or confront Russia — or indeed keeping them onside at all costs on the basis of shared geopolitical fears and antagonisms — than about understanding the true nature of its intentions and the threat that it may or may not present to the contemporary world's other power blocks.