The Treaty of Kars: some background

A sequel to the post on the Treaty of Kars centenary (1921-2021).

In much of the XIX century, Britain and France propped up the weak Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against Russian expansion. With the rise of the Entente Cordiale, the three countries agreed on an amicable solution of the “Eastern question.” By the end of 1915, Russia had occupied four provinces – including a large section of Western Armenia – in the northeast of the Ottoman Empire. Britain, France and Italy agreed to let the Russians keep those provinces after the war.

However, the Russian Empire crumbled in 1917; the Ottomans retook the Russian-occupied areas and advanced further; under the 1918 Brest-Litovsk treaty with the Bolsheviks, the Ottomans annexed the areas under their military control. Then the Ottoman Empire surrendered to the Entente at the end of October 1918. With the help of the British, the newly independent republics of Georgia and Armenia were able to take control over some Ottoman-occupied areas in the South Caucasus by mid-1919.

About that time, the Turkish War of Independence began. The Bolsheviks were still busy repelling the Whites so lacked the military resources to deploy in the Caucasus. However, they decided to turn the tables on Great Britain and adopt its erstwhile policy in the Near East – by supporting the Kemalists against the Allies.

It was probably Georgy Chicherin’s idea – the Bolsheviks were lucky to have that man as their Foreign Affairs commissar in the first decade of their rule. Working to win formal recognition from Britain and re-establish some trade ties, Chicherin insisted that Moscow provide as much assistance as possible to Turkish nationalists, to push back the Allies. The Moscow-Ankara link was a disaster to the newly independent Georgia and especially Armenia. They were left on their own to fight off advancing Turkish forces. Defeated, Armenia was on the verge of collapse when Soviet troops occupied it in the fall of 1920, “saving” it from the Turks.

Bülent Gökay’s 1994 article, The Turkish Independence War and Bolshevik Russia: Some New Aspects in the Light of Soviet Documents (JStor), summed up his research at the newly opened Russian archives. According to Gökay, Turkish historians had underestimated the extent of Bolshevik support and assistance to the Kemalists, both for ideological reasons and for want of reliable sources. In the 1990s, the extent of Soviet investment in the Nationalist cause became clearer when at least some Soviet archives became accessible to historians.

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