The Batum Subsystem as a Space of the Ottoman Hegemony in Transcaucasia in 1918: Addressing the Issue
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The Batum Subsystem as a Space of the Ottoman Hegemony in Transcaucasia in 1918: Addressing the Issue
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Velikhan Mirzekhanov 
Affiliation: Institute of World History RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Leonty Lannik
Affiliation: Institute of World History RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow

The events and processes that unfolded in the post-imperial spaces during and after the Great War represent a very complex field of research, especially in regions with such a wide ethno-confessional variety as Transcaucasia (also known as the South Caucasus). The revival of ethno-national narratives of the period between 1914—1923 in the historiography of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Middle East projects modern conflicts into the past, distorting the analysis of the political landscape of the region. This makes it necessary to put forward new models for reconstructing the dynamics of transformation of post-imperial spaces, free from political conjuncture and schematic approaches of the nationally oriented historiographical tradition. An example of this is the system of international relations that has not yet attracted the attention of scholars, which was formed on the basis of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk concluded between the Major Powers and Soviet Russia, affecting also the South Caucasus. Its regional effect was marked by attempts to change, restructure, and even deform the system through the Treaty of Batum signed on June 4, 1918, between the Ottoman Empire and the three Transcaucasian states that emerged from the wreckage of the Russian Empire. The peculiarities of the negotiations and parallel military operations that took place in the region in February — May of 1918 not only revealed the existence of several territorial, political, and ethnic conflicts but also aggravated them. The end of the Great War on the Caucasian Front did not bring peace to the region: the struggle was not over, but transformed into a more complex, structurally multi-sided and multi-layered, struggle for hegemony in the Caucasus. Due to the collapse of the Russian Empire and the structural destabilisation of the Ottoman Empire in 1918, the German and British Empires began to play an unprecedented role in it. This requires placing the events and processes in the Caucasus, which are still considered within the framework of civil wars and wars of independence in the region, in a transnational context, which allows assessing differently the role of both the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and the Treaty of Batum in the history of all the countries affected by them. Considering the terms and consequences of these agreements outside the narratives of competing national historiographies makes it possible to clarify the logic of many geopolitical processes not only in 1914—1923 but also in the following decades.

Transcaucasia, the First World War, the Caucasian Front, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Treaty of Batum, the Batum subsystem
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This article is a translation of: Ланник Л. В., Мирзеханов В. С. Батумская подсистема как пространство Османской гегемонии в Закавказье в 1918 году: к постановке вопроса // Новая и Новейшая история. 2021. Вып. 3. C. 5—22. DOI: 10.31857/S013038640014691-8
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1 The Great War on the Eastern and Caucasian Fronts did not end after signing the armistice in Brest-Litovsk, Focșani and Erzincan in December 1917. The subsequent series of peace treaties (in Brest-Litovsk, Bucharest, Berlin, Batum) did not bring any peace to Eastern Europe, although the circumstances of their signing did not imply any uncertainty about the status of the winners and losers. There was no chance to achieve a truly stable situation and reach the end of the armed confrontation — not only because of no respective good faith of the contracting parties, but rather on the contrary: despite the signatory countries’ obvious aspiration towards a sustainable peace the signed agreements were in principle not able to fix the new realities in the region. First, this was excluded against the background of the ongoing and culminating World War I. Second, a number of peace treaties signed back in the first quarter of 1918 were not brought into an integral system and did not raise the most important problem: controlled transformation of the vast space of the disintegrated Romanov empire. Given the close prospect of collapse of other empires, primarily Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, this approach on the part of statesmen of the Major Powers was explainable in its own way, but had no prospects. The pace of the events and the complexity of the conflicts that affected half of the territory of Eurasia excluded consistent implementation of any treaties, even the most beneficial to the winners. The practical task of transforming the post-imperial spaces in the interests of maintaining the integrity of the empires that survived the war was beyond the power of either the Brest treaty compliers or those who were reluctant to consider its lessons when preparing a series of treaties in Versailles.

In addition to social, ethnic and religious conflicts, all the territories of the former Russian Empire became hostages of the confrontation between the two coalitions of the great powers, as well as of the complex struggle within each of them for influence and redistribution of the fruit of the achieved victories. The regional specificity became in this context only a tool and a pretext for the projection of geopolitical clashes onto the local “material”1. This led to an extremely difficult development of events and selection of actors in the regions historically located at the junction of several empires at once. The research tasks set on a regional scale proved to be excessive even for research teams with regard for at least the language problems. The subject of major studies, as will be shown below, was formulated in such a way as to avoid a holistic analysis of processes, for the most part, with consideration of individual components of the conflict only. The process, bound inherently by a single logic, was artificially split into a series of parallel and seemingly unconnected bi- or trilateral confrontation actions delimited by national or chronological frames that were selected based on the political situation of that moment, i.e. through the prism of realities of other decades and consequently, the other centennium.

1. See for more details: Mirzekhanov V. S. Intersection and mutual influence of regional and national history: methodological studies // Electronic scientific and educational Journal “History”. 2020. V. 11. Is. 12 (98). URL: >>> (access date: 15.01.2021).
3 The political situation in Transcaucasia virtually turned out to be most difficult in terms of structure, intensity and figurability of the processes: covering the entire space between the Caucasian Front battle line, reaching by December 1917 the bound of the German-Turkish advance to Persia, the Caspian Sea coast from Enzeli to Petrovsk2, Terek and the Main Caucasian ridge. The extreme heterogeneity of this territory is so obvious that it can be attributed to a single region only with significant reservations.
2. Presently — Bender-Enzeli and Makhachkala
4 As of the beginning of the 20th century, the territories within the limits outlined above had in common the following feature: all of them entirely represented the (post)imperial space of three empires that were at different stages of disintegration: Russian, Ottoman and Persian. This space was a subject of increasingly intense impact of the multifaceted activity of the two empires, British and German, as regards the development of the region and the deformation of the former socio-political structures. During the First World War, these two great powers, which previously had no direct access to the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas, gained unprecedented opportunities to build up their influence in the former zone of the Russian Empire’s apparent dominance, acting simultaneously on both sides of the newly formed fronts. The fragmentation of the post-imperial space, rapidly progressing from the end of 1917, not only increased the number of actors in the regional processes, but also complicated the task of baseline prognostication, up to the impossibility of predicting even the general dynamics in the balance of power. At the same time, the channels of influence and the prospects of intervention on the part of Great Britain and Germany acquired a new dimension, which also became an important factor in all processes of Transcaucasian transformation from the end of 1917, at least until the signing of the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923.
5 Undoubtedly, the “Brest” period proved to be the most complex period in terms of structure and intensity within this epoch of painful breakage of the former imperial structures and borders. It can be dated as a time lapse between December 1917, i.e. the signing of truces at the fronts of the disintegrating Russian army, and December 1918 — the completion of the withdrawal of the German and Ottoman troops from the territories of the former Russian Empire and the commencement of a new stage of the British military presence in the key ports of the region. It was at that period that the direct influence of the Western European powers on setting the fate of the territories between the Black and Caspian Seas and the former Ottoman Empire reached its maximum. This engenders special attention to the given period in the history of the South Caucasus and requires a complex source study and historiographic exploration of this problem.
6 The consideration of the above interval in the history of the explored macro-region dictates the need to select priorities in the reconstruction of the logic of events. National historiographies, with regard for their significant advantages, primarily of evidential nature, turn out to be almost irrelevant even for a regional-scale research, not only because of their ideological bias and politicisation, but also in virtue of the general fragmentarity and insufficient level of generalisation of described events. A number of phenomena that arouse keen interest of specialists from Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan and a number of national republics of the Russian Federation, Abkhazia and South Ossetia are artificially devoid of context and general logic of interaction. The history of the post-imperial space is being replaced by the history in new ethno-national variations without any convincing methodological grounds. The researchers are trying to fit it even into the architecture and tectonics of the international relations of the early 21st century, “solving” the nation-building tasks with the help of the historical material of any epochs, which has been sadly noted by the scholars for decades3.
3. See, for instance: Suny R. G. Constructing Primordialism: Old Histories for New Nations // The Journal of Modern History. 2001. Vol. 73. No. 4. P. 862—896.
7 In many ways, similar shortcomings can be viewed in the approaches and canons of the neoteric Russian and Turkish historiography. As to the Transcaucasus conflict, that is multi-level in terms of logic and scale, they are rooted at the level of priority for a given country — interethnic, inter-confessional (for instance, Turkish studies engaged in polemic with Armenian scholars from different countries) or social (for instance soviet, and often post-soviet discourse), ignoring the other dimensions of analysed processes, even though this leads to a logical and emotional deadlock, as regards a whole number of concepts, claiming to substantiation, towards formation of a current territorial/state structure. In the first place, this concerns the study of the impact of external forces on the region — British and German emissaries — as well as the money flows assigned by them and the role of organisers of local power structures. There are exceptions, both in the Russian and Turkish historiography, that are beyond this general approach, but so far they have not been able to “reverse” the previous historiographic picture. Despite a number of successful research projects and the academic enthusiasm of individual specialists, the transfer of achievements and the dialogue of leading experts from the countries that have played a tremendous role in the past and present of the region is still inadequate in terms of scope and pace.

A representative example of this are discussions concerning the persecution of Armenians and a number of other ethno-confessional communities where the progressive development4 ended by the early 2010s and is even visibly regressing under the influence of the current foreign policy that has frustrated the historicisation of the given problems. A series of independence anniversaries of various Transcaucasian republics and other events of 1918—1921 had also an ambiguous effect. The systemic commercialisation of science is also having a due effect. Unfortunately, even the academic research, in pursuit of the readers’ attention, evidently focuses on sensitive issues rather than analytical issues and filling of the glaring gaps in historiography5.

4. Read about the attempts to organise discussion platforms by one of the most demanded Western-historiography specialists (of Armenian origin) on the history of the region: Suny R. G. “Dialogue on Genocide: Efforts by Armenian and Turkish Scholars to Understand the Deportations and Massacres of Armenians During World War I”. M., 2011. P. 75—114.

5. This can be clearly seen from the title of the updated, and actually the first, extensive biography of Talât Pascha: Kieser H.-L. Talât Pascha. Gründer der modernen Türkei und Architekt des Armeniergenozids. Eine politische Biografie. Zürich, 2020. There is not so far a single large-scale monograph on the history of 1918 German occupation of Georgia, despite a number of documents and materials published in the USSR, Georgia and Germany. This is because there are attempts, among other things, to evade recognition of the very fact of the occupation, replacing it with other military/political terms. Similar works on the history of the German military presence in Finland, Poland, the Baltic States and Ukraine are continually published. See, for instance: Hentilä M., Hentilä S. 1918 — das deutsche Finnland: die Rolle der Deutschen im finnischen Bürgerkrieg / aus dem Finn. von B. Schweitzer. Bad Vilbel, 2018.

The aspect of external imperial influence is of much more concern for the Western European historiography, including German and British specialists; however, often the main success along this path was achieved as early as at the period of the Cold War epoch6. Therefore, modern researchers have to rely on the works that are not free from the realities of the all-round ideological confrontation. In addition, the essays that have been retaining the status of baseline works for decades often contain inaccuracies and factual errors (in dates, sequence of events, positions and titles of actors, etc.)7. For all the success of the “new imperial history” of the 2000s, it should be noted that this trend was not free from the conjuncture of the corresponding period, sometimes concentrating exclusively on criticising the practices of imperial centres or their negative impact on the imperial borderlands. Given all the importance and argumentativeness of these studies, they are far from always being able to describe the imperial authorities’ actions at the geopolitical level; they do not take into account the logic of great-power aspirations, while concentrating on humanitarian and cultural aspects of pressure exerted on the local population, neglecting the harsh patterns of protracted confrontation of the imperial elites. The specific feature of Russian historiography is the long-drawn efforts to overcome the former soviet model of describing “the Civil War and intervention period”; therefore, truly neoteric works on the history of the inter-imperial struggle, the Great Game and the power vacuum in the East during the interwar period appeared relatively recently8.

6. Baumgart W. Deutsche Ostpolitik 1918: von Brest-Litowsk bis zum Ende des Ersten Weltkrieges. Wien; München, 1966. Mainz, 2010; Bihl W. Die Kaukasus-Politik der Mittelmächte. V. I. Ihre Basis in der Orient-Politik und ihre Aktionen 1914—1917; V. II. Die Zeit der versuchten kaukasischen Staatlichkeit (1917—1918). Wien; Köln; Weimar, 1975, 1992; Zürrer W. Kaukasien 1918—1921. Der Kampf der Großmächte um die Landbrücke zwischen Schwarzem und Kaspischem Meer. Düsseldorf, 1978; Idem. Persien zwischen England und Rußland 1918—1925. Großmachteneinflüsse und nationaler Wiederaufstieg am Beispiel des Iran. Bern; Frankfurt a.M.; Las Vegas, 1978; From the Soviet side, it is enough to name: Zavriev D.S. On the Recent History of the North-Eastern Vilayets of Turkey. Tbilisi, 1947; Hejfec A. N. Soviet Russia and the neighboring countries of the East during the Civil War (1918—1920). M., 1964; Pipiya G. N. German imperialism in Transcaucasia in 1910—1918. M., 1978.

7. See, for instance, a version of the February-June 1918 events in Transcaucasia, considered in this article, in a famous work by F. Fisher: Fisher F. A leap to world domination. The policy of military goals of Kaiser's Germany in 1914—1918 / translated from German and commented by L. V. Lannik. M., 2016. P. 572—579.

8. See, for instance: Sergeev E.Yu. The Bolsheviks and the British. Soviet-British relations: from Intervention to Recognition, 1918—1924. St. Petersburg, 2019; Ulunyan A. A. Turkestan bridgehead 1917—1922. The British Intelligence community and the British Government. M., 2019.

The extensive publication of new sources could provide an answer to many open questions or even those that have not yet been raised. The national governments, as early as at the stage of diplomatic recognition, tried to form their own documentary version of the events concerning the formation of the new states9. Certain attempts were often made, at the next stage of historiographic development, to create a corpus of sources on bilateral relations, although, given the large number of competing actors in Transcaucasia, the creation of a full-fledged set of such documentary collections can hardly be expected. Other attempts were made, in the post-soviet period, to publish respective documents and to compile a history of particular republics in 1917—192110. However, these efforts were quite fragmentary and narrowed down to actualisation of a number of local plots.

9. Documents and materials on the foreign policy of Transcaucasia and Georgia. Tiflis, 1919.

10. See: Maryhuba I. Abkhazia: Past and present. Sukhum, 2007; Union of the United Mountaineers of the North Caucasus and Dagestan (1917—1918) and the Mountain Republic (1918—1919). Documents and materials / ed. by H. A. Amirkhanov et al. Makhachkala, 2013.

Of fundamental importance for consideration of the history of the post-imperial space, especially such frontier zones as Transcaucasia, are the practices of local actors and inter-imperial relations. It is the analysis of inter-imperial mutual influence and rivalry that can place the contacts with regional partners and satellites of a particular power in a context that is not traced in reconstruction of only bilateral relations. Therefore, not only the Georgian-, Armenian-, Azerbaijani-German and -Ottoman relations are important within the subject under consideration, but, to a greater extent, the German-Ottoman, German-Soviet and German-Russian ones, as well as similar factors exposing the activities of the British Empire in the area. A selection of sources on the coalition-specific interaction with regional/local actors, which would demonstrate the sophisticated intra-coalition collisions, would be even more demonstrative, but such works and, in general, the works on the coalition strategy during the Great War, are few so far11.

11. The general coalition studies, especially on the history of the Major powers, have not yet been a subject of due development. In addition to the already mentioned work by W. Bihl, one can only welcome the appearance of in-fact the first work devoted to the coalition actions of the Major powers in the Thessaloniki front, in hope that soon similar-subject works will follow in respect of the Caucasian front: Bachinger B. Die Mittelmächte an der Saloniki-Front 1915—1918; Zwischen Zweck, Zwang und Zwist. Paderborn, 2018.

It should be noted that despite certain efforts towards introduction of new sources12, reprint and translation (or at least digitisation) of memoirs13, much of what was once published by the German and British emissaries in the region, as well as by the chieftains of the Ottoman Empire and the new independent states, has long become a bibliographic rarity14. There are still many manuscripts, unclaimed by the researchers, written by the participants of the events in the Caucasus, including those of foreign origin, in Russian archives15. Obviously, a comparatively complete overview of the historiography and the prospects for studying the outlined range of problems can be provided only within the framework of a special monographic study or a series of articles. But even after a brief review, it should be noted that there is a need for “resetting” the concepts and narratives that have developed in historiography.

12. For instance: Friedrich Freiherr Kreß von Kressenstein: Bayerischer General und Orientkenner. Lebenserinnerungen, Tagebücher und Berichte 1914—1946 / hrsg. von W. Baumgart. Paderborn, 2020.

13. See, for instance: Niedermayer O. V. Unter der Glutsonne Irans. Kriegserlebnisse der deutschen Expedition nach Persien und Afghanistan. München, 1925; Blücher W. V. Zeitenwende in Iran. Erlebnisse und Beobachtunge“n. Bieberach, 1949; Bejli F. Mission to Tashkent / translated from English by A. Mikhailov. Moscow, 2013.

14. The list can be very long, for instance: Essad Bey. Blut und Öl im Orient. Leipzig, 1929; Volk H. Öl und Mohammed: “Der Offizier Hindenburgs” im Kaukasus. Breslau, 1938.

15. For instance, the memoirs of 1917—1918 of the chief of staff serving under Halil Paşa and further under Nuri-paşa, once prepared by a German Lieutenant Colonel E. Paraquin for publication and in fact unknown to the researchers: Paraquin E. Erinnerungen aus dem Nahen Orient 1917/18. [s.l., s.a].
13 Proceeding from the source-based and historiographic situation that has developed over a century of political discussions and historical research, it is possible to propose the following working assumption designed to withdraw the study of the given issue from the framework of the canons of a nationally oriented narrative. It is intended to systematise, on a new basis, the accumulated huge corpus of facts and basic versions of the main events in the selected period of the history of the region and to identify the remaining logical gaps or non-disclosure zones in the general fabric of the reconstructed processes in the post-imperial space. The pros and cons of the version proposed below are, naturally, subject to testing and discussion by the international community of specialists. This strategy will make it possible to verify the achievement of the stated goals and the general correctness of the new approach to the sophisticated tangle of events in the outlined macro-region in 1918, and further, in 1914—1923.

The general consistency of the dynamics of international relations, especially in the New and Modern times, has not been questioned for a long time16. Any large-scale agreement within a group of countries gets included into a complex interactive structure to an extent and at a level that sometimes does not at all meet the wishes or assumptions of the creators thereof. At the same time, the so far prevailing tendency in historiography and the theory of international relations is investigation of the factually established and legally formed international political systems the evolution of which can be traced over a long period, usually several decades. However, there are no methodological grounds for fundamental rejection of the analysis of barely outlined or quickly de-escalated systems of international relations that existed only within a short time. The latest research shows that the underestimation of the impact of “failed” systems and subsystems and of the problems generated by them affects not only the development and transformation of the global versions of the world order, in particular the Versailles principles, but also the subsequent attempts to comprehend them17. An example of such “failed system” is the Brest system of international relations that appeared by the beginning of 1918 in Eastern Europe and further in Western Asia in connection with the alleged victory of the Major Powers at the Eastern and Caucasian fronts of the Great War. It was designed to formalise the hegemony of the German Empire and to secure significant expansion of its allies’ sphere of influence through post-imperial spaces, primarily on the territory of the former Russian Empire and also in Romania, Persia, Afghanistan and — with the development of the system — in other states and regions of Eurasia. An indirect proof of its existence and specific perception of this threat by the Entente can be viewed through the terms of the Compiegne Truce that annulled all the treaties concluded by Germany in the East (Article 15)18, which situation should be perceived as a principal rejection by the victorious states of all parameters of reorganisation of the vast region undertaken by the Major Powers.

16. Min'yar-Beloruchev K. V. Interaction of the core and periphery of the system of international relations in the historical aspect // Modern and Contemporary History. 2020. No. 4. P. 5—20.

17. War in time of peace: Paramilitary conflicts after the First World War. 1917—1923. Collection of articles / ed. by R. Gervart, D. Horn M., 2014; Mirzekhanov V. S. Versailles and Turkey: a thorny path to a national state // Electronic scientific and educational journal “History”. 2019. V. 10. Is. 6 (80). URL: >>> (access date: 15.01.2021).

18. Similar principles were laid down in other truces signed earlier by the allies of Germany, including the Mudross truce with the Ottoman Empire signed on October 30, 1918.

The course of events in the most active phase of transformation was influenced by the significant inertia of the previous efforts on the part of both of the warring coalitions. The situation was also affected by the pre-war redistribution of spheres of influence in the region, manifested in a series of difficult compromises between Great Britain, Germany and Russia in 1912—1914, as well as in the peripeteia of formation of various phases of the Young Turks dictatorship. As early as in 1915, it became obvious — after all the warring and competing parties resorted to ethno-confessional mobilisation of the local population (not only Armenians and Aysors, but some of the Kartvelian population) through the formation of the Georgian Legion, as well as through traditional attempts to project the Caliph’s influence onto the mountaineers of the North Caucasus — that the results of the First World War would lead to radical, though not controllable, changes in the alignment of forces within the boundaries of the macro-region located between the two seas — integrated geographically, but extremely heterogeneous in all other respects. The systematic nature of changes that took place throughout the whole of the above territory is also illustrated by the fact that it became obvious by mid-1915 (six months only after the Ottoman Empire entered the war) that Persia’s neutrality could not stop the spread of irreversible processes of destabilisation on its lands. The fierce struggle of various groups that had barely subsided in the country after 1911 was diligently fomented by both coalitions; in that situation Russia and Great Britain acted openly, if not demonstratively, like in the previous decades, while Germany and the Porte tried to use the increasingly considerable discontent with such an obvious humiliation of the Persian sovereignty19. Even the representatives of neutral Sweden who occupied influential positions in the newly created gendarmerie and who became one of the main pro-German forces in Tehran since 1915, could not stay away from the skirmish.

19. See for more details: Gehrke U. Persien in der deutschen Orientpolitik während Ersten Weltkrieges, 2 Bde. Stuttgart, 1960; Istyagin L. G. The German expansion in Iran and Russian-German controversies on the eve of the First World War. M., 1979; Kazem-Zadeh F. Struggle for influence in Persia. Diplomatic confrontation between Russia and England [Russian and Britain in Persia]. M., 2004.

The 1916 campaign just consolidated the prevailing tendencies, since the vast territories of Eastern Anatolia captured by the Russian army faced the prospect of possible loss of Ottoman sovereignty. This ushered in the commencement of the post- or inter-imperial transformation of the enormous territory between Trabzon, Erzincan, Lake Urmia and the Russian-Turkish border established by the Berlin Treaty. In addition, one should note the public sentiments and atmosphere, extremely important and sensitive for the given region, which developed after the sensational surrender of the British troops at Kut El Amara and the triumph of the Major Powers in the Dardanelles (late December 1915 — early January 1916). This tendency was only strengthened by the course of events and in fact throughout the entire campaign of 1917, when the cessation of active hostilities at the Caucasian front, that prevented the catastrophe of the Ottoman army, was largely compensated for by the landmark defeats in Mesopotamia (the fall of Baghdad) and Palestine (the loss of Jerusalem), as well as the increscent degradation of the Turkish troops’ supply system at all theatres of military operations, along with the evident inability to prepare a counteroffensive at least at one of the fronts, even with the German and Austro-Hungarian assistance, more extensive than before. In 1917, the hopes for strengthening the anti-Antante groups in Afghanistan and Persia were dispelled once again20. Until the end of November 1917, there were no hot spots of civil war in the rear of the Caucasian Front and in the North Caucasus, despite the drastic disorganisation of the basic administrative and general economic structures in the imperial Russia. Thus, no prospects for successful Ottoman expansion to the east and northeast could be expected until the news of the Bolshevik revolution.

20. Blücher W. v. Op. cit. P. 62ff.
17 The dynamics, already tangible, of transformation of the region which was already becoming an indisputable post-imperial space after the revolution in Russia, was drastically accelerated by the collapse of the Russian army, its hasty and poorly managed demobilisation and progressive aggravation of the situation in the Transcaucasus. Although the Ottoman military elite did not appreciate immediately and completely the extent of helplessness of the Russian military structures and the incapacity of the authorities governing the region located south of the Caucasus Range, that had already declared its autonomy, the signs of dramatic change in the balance of forces were obvious. The troops and additional forces of the British Empire proved to be as well unable to divert the clashes — for climatic and infrastructural reasons, above all — and took a pause since December 1917, except for the attempts to quickly seize control of the previously Russian zone of influence in Northern Persia.

The new phase of unprecedented destabilisation in the region began in connection with the tangle of events connected with the October Revolution in Russia. The most important consequences of the decisions taken in November-December 1917 in Petrograd and Brest-Litovsk included the withdrawal of Transcaucasia from the control of the central Russian government and the specific terms of demobilisation of the Caucasian front after the Erzincan armistice (signed after the negotiations on December 15—18, 1917)21. The latter had no analogues among all other formations of the Russian army as it was accompanied by bloody interethnic clashes which subsequently resulted in a wave of large-scale militarised violence in the South Caucasus in 1918—1922.22 The further stages of both processes — the separation of Transcaucasia from Russia and the abolition of the former armed forces with unsuccessful attempts to replace them with the national armed formations — guaranteed the specific position of the region in the conditions of the unexpected defeat of the Entente on the Caucasian theatre of military operations. To resort to efficient countermeasures, Russia’s former allies needed strong armed forces (not just the Dunsterville’s British troops sent to Enzeli)23, as well as leverage over the local elites (especially in Baku and Tiflis) and at least several months in order to restructure the forces loyal to the Entente powers, making use of the financial and military support. Great Britain (and even more so, France) did not have all of the sought resources. Actually, the German forces in the region were also extremely weak, being at best comparable to the British potential. Under these conditions, the only major force striving for a subjective foreign policy (i.e. expansion) in the South Caucasus24 was the Ottoman Empire. This predetermined the dynamics of the events and the further stage of transformation of the post-imperial space, at least until the collapse of the Ottoman fronts in Syria and Mesopotamia in the second half of September 1918.

21. Documents and materials on the foreign policy of Transcaucasia and Georgia. P. 13—23; Shahin E. Separation of the Caucasus from Russia in the first post-revolutionary years (1917—1918) // Russian collection. Vol. 28. Civil war and intervention in Russia. M., 2020. P. 59—63.

22. Croissant M. P. The Armenia — Azerbaijan Conflict: Causes and Implications. L., 1998; Muhanov V. M. The Caucasus in the revolutionary era...: on the History of Transcaucasia in 1917 — the first half of 1918. M., 2017.

23. See for more details: Dunsterville. British Imperialism in Baku and Persia 1917—1918. Memoirs / translated by B. Rudenko. Tiflis, 1925.

24. In this case, a term that has become established in modern historiography is used, although this concept is debatable from the geographic point of view.
19 The basic logic of the subsequent processes — albeit not always realised by the main actors of the events — was determined by the fact that, at least in theory, the new structure of the region was set by the Brest Peace Treaty of March 3, 1918 with a number of articles directly affecting the territory of the South Caucasus (just like before the armistice signed in Brest). Due to the numerous gaps and endless negotiations over this “agreement”, unprecedented in the history of diplomacy, it was doomed to numerous complications even in the course of its voluntary implementation by all signatory countries. This guaranteed its permanent revision and editing of its provisions, including through signing a series of new agreements between the Major Powers and the new Caucasian states that emerged on the debris of the Russian Empire. Although they were quite poorly reconciled, they were united at least by the fact of establishment of the German hegemony throughout Eastern Europe and on the territories of the Middle East controlled by the Quadruple Alliance. The interest of the German Empire, Austria-Hungary and Soviet Russia in a lasting peace based on the March-3 Treaty would inevitably lead at least to attempts to build a working, efficient system of international relations which could be logically called the Brest system. Naturally, the weighty prerequisites for its creation did not exclude any opposite tendencies and principally destructive goals as well as relevant actions of particular regional powers. Virtually all of the main actors of the events in the South Caucasus appeared to represent such “anti-Brest” forces, since the Transcaucasian Federation, in the logic of its actions, refused to recognise any agreements signed by the Bolshevik government as binding. The Ottoman Empire, which signed the March 3 Treaty, began to play an extremely negative role in the formation of a stable “Brest order” quite soon, since the impression was, already in mid-February 1918 (when the Turkish offensive resumed), that the power vacuum in the region provided for an opportunity for its complete reorganisation under the dictation of the Porte without regard even for the German dictate, not to mention the claims of the Russian Council of People’s Commissars.
20 The most important sign of future transformation of Transcaucasia into a local subsystem was not only the negotiations in Trebizond, but also the specific manner of their combination with the continued offensive of the Ottoman troops regardless of the course of consultations and discussed agreements. It should be noted that it was here that a certain model was formed, being soon tested during the “Faustschlag” operation, i.e. during the offensive of the German — and further, the Austro-Hungarian — troops, that continued not only before the signing of Brest-Litovsk peace agreement on March 3, but also after it. Germany, which dictated the “final” image of peace with Soviet Russia, underestimated the threat of the Young Turks’ wilful actions in the distant region, since it believed that it could satisfy their ambitions by inviting them to formulate their claims at the last moment before signing the agreement. The result of this improvisation was a clause in the agreement, rather dangerous through its vagueness, on setting the future of the three provinces (sanjaks) received by Russia after the war of 1877—1878, following a plebiscite, which provoked the Ottoman Empire’s attempt to secure due conditions for this popular vote, favourable for the administration. However, the refusal of the Transcaucasian politicians to recognise the Brest-Litovsk Treaty had even more serious consequences, since they did not consider themselves bound by any obligations to the Petrograd government. This logical consequence of the conflict between the Georgian Mensheviks and the Bolsheviks who were gradually establishing a one-party dictatorship in Russia became a real window of opportunity for the Ottoman dictatorship.
21 Its successful development was caused by the gross errors in assessing the balance of power. Although the collapse of the Russian army was obvious, and its demobilisation led to helplessness of Soviet Russia before the offensive of German troops, starting from February 18, such a decisive superiority of the Ottoman divisions was not expected in relation to Transcaucasia. The grave situation of the Sublime Porte’s troops seemed to exclude any major success even against the national corps based on the former units of the Russian army that acted in poor coordination. This position was shared by the politicians in Tiflis who significantly overestimated the ability of the national armed forces to stop the Ottoman expansion and who did not realise the true scale of the Young Turks’ ambitions — the latter got an opportunity to gain easy victories for the first time after many years.
22 Making sure that the signed Brest Peace Treaty did not mean its immediate implementation by Germany, Austria-Hungary and Soviet Russia, and becoming certain of the Transcaucasus’ intention to engage in separate peace negotiations regardless of the terms of the March 3 Treaty, the Young Turks turned to probing the constraints of the dictate. The Trebizond peace conference which opened on March 14 in a city that had just been taken by the Porte’s troops “without breaking the truce”, degenerated into holdouts, non-binding declarations by various politicians and an ultimatum, delivered on April 6, on acceptance of the Turkish conditions of possible peace. The latter was rejected; the Transcaucasian delegation returned to Tiflis.
23 Until that moment, the situation in Transcaucasia was developing without any large-scale participation of the main actors of the Brest reorganisation, who failed to fully realise the danger of formalisation of the uncontrolled subsystem of international relations in the region where they were deprived of significant levers of direct influence. The main strategy of Berlin and Moscow in that region was unanimous acting “by default”: to prevent the situation from getting out of control and to stop its further development without instructions on their part. This meant the intention to minimise the difference between the new structure of Transcaucasia and the balance of forces envisaged in the treaty of March 3, 1918 (although partial agreement with the changes that had already taken place was allowed, including through the use of the proven methodology involving “expression of will” with the desired result).
24 By the end of March, the Ottoman Empire came to realise the opposite goal: the establishment of non-Brest order in Transcaucasia. Owing to the errors in calculations and the belated reaction of the military-political leadership of Germany in its efforts to force the Turks to abandon that purpose, and subsequently to implement, slowly but surely, the new order in the South Caucasus, ill-conceived in Brest and deformed, the protraction time was at least six months, until October 1918. During the protracted “negotiations” in Trebizond, the Porte troops occupied all the territories lost in 1915-1917, including Erzurum, and started occupation of the Kars province. The demand of the Turkish side, for the Transcaucasian politicians to recognise the terms of the Brest Peace, was withdrawn. The Transcaucasian delegation headed by A. I. Chkhenkeli got convinced by early April that the three provinces (Ardahan, Batum, Kars) represented the least “price” for stopping the Ottoman expansion, although the former was ready to bargain further. However, it was extremely difficult to convince the other leaders who remained in Tiflis, especially the Armenian section of the Seym, of the inevitability of territorial losses as compared to the 1878 borders. The negotiations were disrupted, which led to a new round of arrangement of Transcaucasus dictated by the headquarters of the Ottoman troops commander in the Wehib-paşa-controlled region.
25 The latter speeded up the offensive at the Batumi front as soon as on April 8, and on April 15 this important port was seized. On the eve of that, Tiflis declared a war on the Ottoman Empire, unexpectedly requesting Soviet Russia’s help against the Turkish aggression, “against the red flag enemies”. The latter was not able to render it in military terms, at least quickly. Besides, the flirtation between Moscow and Tiflis turned out to be short-lived: the counter claim involved imperative requests for Transcaucasia’s recognition of the Council of People’s Commissars’ power and reorganisation of the Seym and the Cabinet of Ministers. Therefore, just a few days later, a logical reversal followed.

The Turks’ increased military pressure led to the situation when the supporters of the war against them (and therefore, against Germany), anchored by E. P. Gegechkori, were forced to surrender power to A. I. Chkhenkeli who was orientated at the Quadruple Alliance, which immediately resulted in a break with Abkhazia controlled by local Bolsheviks25. It was obvious to both the Germans and the Turks that the weak Transcaucasian Democratic Federal Republic was even less capable of achieving a peace advantageous for itself than the Bolshevik Russia. Meanwhile the leadership of Chkhenkeli in Tiflis, inclined to making a deal with Turkey (as shown by the evocative experience in Trebizond), grew stronger. The fall of the Gegechkori’s cabinet was accompanied by the official secession from Soviet Russia on April 2226. The declaration of independence of the Transcaucasian Federation from Moscow was to become a decisive legal basis for suppressing the Bolshevik activity and for prompt finalisation of the results of the 1914—1918 war on the Caucasian front which was suddenly won by the Turks. The independence of Transcaucasia from Bolshevik Russia was desirable for the Seym leaders; however, it would have resulted in complete abandonment of hope for peace, at least on the Bolsheviks’, i.e. Brest conditions. This was unambiguously demonstrated by the Turkish side, as soon as it received the information on April 23 about the political changes that had taken place in Transcaucasia and about the readiness of the latter to negotiate without delay. The Young Turks planned to organise the return of Tiflis delegates to Trebizond in order to put an end to the evasion from the dictated conditions, just the way it was done with the Bolshevik delegates in Brest on March 1—327. However, since Kars had not yet been captured by the time of the new impulse towards peacefulness of Tiflis, the Turkish generals were not in a hurry to resume the peace conference, but immediately recalled the demand to restore the borders of 1877. Soon Kars was captured by the Turkish troops. In the course of the hostilities, the national split between the troops of the Transcaucasian Federation was demonstrated increasingly.

25. The struggle for October in Abkhazia. Collection of documents and materials 1917—1921 / edited by G. A. Dzidzaria. Suhumi, 1967. P. 61—72.

26. See one of the least censored soviet versions of the events: Stavrovskij A. Transcaucasia after October. M.; Leningrad, 1925. P. 32—48.

27. This is interpreted as a peace initiative of the Ottoman side, which, given the ongoing offensive of the Ottoman army, looks almost like sarcasm: Shahin E. Op. cit. P. 80—82.
27 Moscow, having learned about the course of negotiations on the fate of Transcaucasia and of the commenced Turkish invasion beyond the borders established in Brest, tried to immediately intervene through the diplomatic channels. This provoked the oncoming German efforts to control the unexpected consequences of refusal to recognise the Brest conditions by the breakaway regions of Russia. Germany, obviously, did not favour such independence, but still could not cope with the consequences of the involved complicated system and prevent the emergence of conflicts and, moreover, of horizontal or semi-vertical bonds in the complex hierarchy of the Brest system and its subsystems.
28 The German emissaries, with a significant delay, shortly activated the consultations in Istanbul with a view to agree on the limits of Turkish expansion, which culminated in the conclusion of a secret agreement in Constantinople (Istanbul) on April 27, 1918, prepared by the head of Ottoman General Staff Headquarters, German Major General Hans von Seeckt. The document recorded the success already achieved by the Ottoman army, especially in battles against the Armenians, but precluded the Turks’ expansion towards Tiflis and Baku. On the same days, the German military authorities agreed on the position for the future negotiations under the auspices of Turkey on the fate of Transcaucasia, having developed the instructions for their delegate, military attaché in Istanbul, Major General O. von Lossow who was to act as a representative of the German government, but not of the German General Headquarters, during the First World War. The readiness of the German Empire to recognise the results of the long-awaited Ottoman victories in Transcaucasia was a significant condition for the Porte’s consent to return to the negotiations with the Seym, although the latter would be much more willing to do this without participation of a German delegate, as they did at Trebizond. On April 28, the Porte issued a relevant statement addressed to the defeated side, and a new conference was supposed to be held in Batum that was already controlled by the Turkish army. Meanwhile, the German ambassador to Russia, Count Mirbach who had just arrived in Moscow, brought to the attention of the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs that a German representative would also officially participate in the upcoming conference. Until his death on July 6, 1918, he continued his vain attempts to achieve Soviet Russia’s recognition of the Transcaucasus’ independence.

The Young Turks’ government and the army, continuing the battles with the Armenian formations and advancing on the Tiflis and Erivan fronts, achieved the consent of the Transcaucasian Federation to resume negotiations, that opened in Batum on May 11, 191828. Djemal-paşa was a member of the high-level Turkish delegation29. In fact, the only full-value meeting of the conference took place on its opening day, May 11, when Halil Bey presented the new Turkish demands that exceeded the most depressing expectations of the Georgians and Armenians30. The new territorial claims presented in Batum by the Turkish delegation were much different from the “Brest” borders — the borders of 1877. This prompted the Transcaucasian leaders to involve Germany in the Batum negotiations31. On May 14, the National Council of Georgia, no longer caring about the fate of the other federation members, decided to appeal to the German government with an official request for active participation of a German representative in settlement of the Turkish-Georgian disputes32. The consent was not long in coming. The intervention in the conflict, that was aggravating much faster than it could be judged in Berlin and Spå, had been a subject of discussions as early as in late April33. Von Lossow who was sent to Batum became a liaison between the German General Headquarters and the Foreign Service, which could not but irritate the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs R. von Kühlmann. The assigned mission turned out to be much difficult, as was expected by the Ministry, but not by the German General Headquarters. On May 15, 1918, Lossow informed Berlin of his first and unsuccessful efforts of negotiating with Turkish representatives. Meanwhile the Ottoman forces occupied Alexandropol. On May 19, Lossow invited the Georgian delegation to take the trouble, jointly with the others, to establish a compromise with the Turks34. This was a decisive step towards speeding up the negotiations by several parties at a time.

28. See a Georgian version of the events presented by a member of a huge (45 persons) Transcaucasian multinational delegation: Avalov Z. The independence of Georgia in the international politics of 1918—1921. Memories. Essays. P., 1924. P. 35—53.

29. Subsequently, he persistently argued on the guilt of the Armenians in the Turkish expansion in Transcaucasia, blaming them for the seizure of territories by the Ottoman troops in February-May 1918. His unfinished and posthumously published memoirs cite the reports from Erzurum of a Russian Lieutenant Colonel Tverdokhlebov; however, the accuracy of citation is unlikely to be verified: Djemal Pascha A. Erinnerungen eines türkischen Staatsmannes. München, 1922. P. 359—384.

30. This is also recognized by Turkish historiography: Shahin E. Op. cit. P. 86—87.

31. Lannik L. V. After the Russian Empire. The first German Occupation of 1918. SPb., 2020. P. 383—395.

32. The struggle for the victory of Soviet power in Georgia. Documents and materials (1917—1921) / compiled by S. D. Beridze et al. Tbilisi, 1958. P. 264.

33. See: Baumgart W. Op. cit. P. 177—178.

34. Documents and materials on the foreign policy of Transcaucasia and Georgia. P. 302—307; From the history of foreign intervention in Armenia. Documents and materials / edited by H. A. Badalyan. Erevan, 1970. P. 116—117, 124—125.

Having voiced the Turks’ claims to own the entire region up to the Caspian Sea and Vladikavkaz inclusive, and noting the forthcoming withdrawal of Georgia from the unified Transcaucasian Federation, Lossow formulated a programme of actions35. Realising the need for new instructions in the current situation, he left Batum on May 25, boarding a merchant ship under the Caesar’s flag. However, he set out not for Istanbul, but for Poti where he consummated the mission of formalising the German protectorate over Georgia36. On May 28, in Poti, actually on the ship “Minna Horn”, Lossow signed several bilateral agreements on the terms for Georgia’s involvement in the sphere of German interests (which included loans, the use of railways and the rules for circulation of the German currency)37. Meanwhile, on May 26, 1918, the Turkish delegation (4 hours before receiving the news of the self-dissolution of the Transcaucasian Seym)38 issued an ultimatum demanding to accept, within 72 hours, the territorial conditions securing robust communication between the Turkish and Azerbaijani territories for account of Georgia and Armenia. Having learned about the disintegration of the federation (in fact, on the Georgian initiative), Halil Bey simply redirected the same demands to the separate states — the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic, the Georgian Democratic Republic and the Democratic Republic of Armenia.

35. He requested to send some German military ships and divisions, even though of weak potential, which subsequently was done: Bihl W. Op. cit. V. II. P. 56.

36. In modern Georgian historiography, the subsequent period is called “interaction”, while the term “occupation” is not used at all in relation to the presence of the German troops in Transcaucasia: Chanturia L. Hundert Jahre der ersten Repubik Georgiens und Deutschland // Erster Weltkrieg im östlichen Europa und die russischen Revolutionen 1917 / hrsg. von A. Trunk, N. Panych. Berlin, 2019. P. 29—40.

37. The struggle for the victory of Soviet power in Georgia. P. 275—279.

38. Avalov Z. Op. cit. P. 61—62.
31 The German authorities were firmly convinced that the decisive round in setting the fate of Transcaucasia would follow in Istanbul, at the conference run by them, where they were going to place the Turkish ambitions under control through tough threats to stop the military and financial aid (recalling Seeckt and all other officers, refusing to protect the territorial integrity of the Ottoman empire, etc.). The news that came on May 28—29 — on the final disintegration of Transcaucasia, on signing of a block of German-Georgian agreements by Lossow (from R. von Kühlmann’s point of view — in excess of his powers)39 and on the Turks’ willingness to continue imposing their will in the region even to the obvious displeasure of Germany — devalued all the belated attempts of the German central departments to take control of the situation. Nevertheless, the German consul in Tiflis, Count F.-W. von der Schulenburg (who worked there until 1914) was quick to inform Halil-Bey on June 1 that Germany had already outstripped the Young Turks in their demand to transfer the Georgian railways under Turkish control, and that it would not be possible to revise its agreements with Georgia40. In a short time, the same was stated by the Georgian diplomats who played a double game in anticipation of active intervention of the German Empire and inevitable revision of the Ottoman dictate. As a result, the German and Turkish troops immediately received instructions on how to behave in case of skirmishes at Georgian railway stations, which meant inevitable shootup and casualties in the event of the Allies’ conflict.
39. See: Bihl W. Op. cit. V. II. P. 59—63.

40. Pipiya G. N. Op. cit. P. 42.

It was already impossible to prevent the long-awaited Ottoman (Young Turks’) triumph. The bilateral meetings with Georgian and Armenian delegates took about four days. Georgia’s attempts to bluff with German support were quickly suppressed, since the Ottomans knew fairly well that Germany did not have any real tools of force in the region. On June 4, 1918, the Batum Peace and Friendship Treaties were signed (including between the Porte and the Democratic Republic of Armenia), as well as some supplementary agreements41 that constituted a separate “Transcaucasian Brest” or, at least, the “Transcaucasian version” of the March 3 Treaty. In addition to receiving the three provinces (sanjaks) allegedly having been surrendered to Turkey in Brest, the Ottoman Empire acquired an area of 12.5 thousand square km from Akhaltsikhe to Nakhichevan with the population (before the mass migration) of about 650 thousand people, of which Muslims accounted for about 220 thousand. The total gain, compared with the borders of 1877, was 43.3 thousand square km, which deprived Georgia and Armenia of at least one fifth of their territories within the Russian Transcaucasia. Moreover, this result ensued from the Turks’ refusal to acquire several more districts “ceded” to Georgia and the future Azerbaijan42. On the same day, the Young Turks signed the treaties of friendship (i.e. military assistance) with both the Mountain Republic emissaries and the Azerbaijani delegation, a total of six agreements. Thus, the total number of documents establishing the new order dictated by the Porte for the lands between the Black and Caspian Seas, reached 2043.

41. From the history of foreign intervention in Armenia. P. 154—167, 169—174.

42. Bihl W. Op. cit. V. II. P. 239—240. The text of agreement with Georgia and all supplementary agreements and annexes: Documents and materials on the foreign policy of Transcaucasia and Georgia. P. 343—365.

43. Shahin E. Op. cit. P. 91.
33 The Ottoman Empire, having regained its territories within the borders of in fact 1828, deemed itself too restrained in official requirements and therefore continued to occupy more territories. But even at the peak of the Ottoman triumph, at the time of formalisation of the Batum subsystem of international relations, the problems of implementation of its basic June-4 agreements were so numerous that the viability of the set-up structure of the region caused most serious concerns. The German Empire and Soviet Russia were convinced of the need to stabilise the Brest system44 and to include Transcaucasia in the space of its influence, which required complex compromises between the regional actors and the great powers. The parameters of German-Georgian interaction were still unknown; however, its very existence allowed Georgia to resist the Ottoman expansion, cordoning troop shift across its territory. The conflict in Abkhazia that was a subject of claims on the part of Tiflis, Moscow and the Mountain Republic emissaries was progressing rapidly. Armenia, having lost significant territories, found itself in a state of progressing humanitarian catastrophe. A famous Armenian commander Andranik Ozanyan refused to recognise the Batum treaty, not being hesitant to split from the Yerevan government, and tried to break through to Persia to join the British troops. Azerbaijan and the Mountain Republic, relatively loyal to the Young Turks, did not control even a quarter of the territories they claimed, including the capital cities. All of the major powers claiming control over the region — the German Empire, the British Empire and the Soviet Russia — did not have an opportunity to block the Ottoman activities immediately, but did not conceal the vector of their aspirations towards this direction. The listed factors predetermined not only the rapid collapse of the Batum subsystem, but also the short-lived course of implementation of the agreements of June 4, 1918 dictated by the Young Turks government.
44. Lannik L. V. Op. cit. P. 33—70.


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