Russia’s War on the Eastern Front of 1914: Precedents for the Current Ukraine Conflict

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The Imperial Russian Army’s invasion of Ukrainian-populated lands in the First World War has precedents for the present war in Ukraine, in particular the strategic objectives, operational failures and atrocities committed.

In the summer of 1914, at the First World War’s outset, the Imperial Russian Army launched powerful offensives into Central Europe. The primary thrust was in the south of the theatre of operations, where four Russian armies invaded Habsburg eastern Galicia, a region which covered today’s western Ukraine.

While commentators on the current war in Ukraine have frequently turned to Soviet history for longer-term insights, casting back further to the Imperial Russian Army’s invasion and objectives in Ukrainian-populated lands early in the First World War reveals overlooked but striking precedents and parallels. In 1914, Tsar Nicholas II intended to create a ‘Great Russia to the Carpathians’, claiming Ukraine – like Vladimir Putin today – as ‘primordial’ Russian land. Similarly to the modern Russian military, the Tsar’s army had, over the previous decade, undergone modernisation at huge expense, and was widely predicted to flatten all opposition. Yet in battle, these expectations foundered: contact with a determined enemy exposed the Russian army’s operational shortcomings, and the campaign soon degenerated into a bloody attritional struggle.

Professor Alexander Watson discusses the strategic objectives, operational failures and abundant accompanying war atrocities of the Galician campaign of 1914 as a forgotten precedent for war in our own times.


Alexander Watson is Professor of History at Goldsmiths, University of London. Alexander is a specialist on the First World War, both on its combat operations and on its wider societal impact as a ‘total war’. He has written three books. His most recent major work is The Fortress: The Great Siege of Przemysl (London: Allen Lane, 2019), which explores the Imperial Russian Army’s invasion of lands that today cover western Ukraine and southern Poland, and which recounts the story of the longest siege of the First World War. Alexander’s books have won the British Army Military Book of the Year, the US Society for Military History’s Distinguished Book Award (twice), the Fraenkel Prize, the Wolfson History Prize and the Guggenheim-Lehrman Prize in Military History. His books have been named 2020 Financial Times and 2019 BBC History Magazine ‘Books of the Year’ and the 2014 Sunday Times ‘History Book of the Year’.

Chair: Nicolai Eberholst, , Historian of the Great War"

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