The Batum Subsystem as a Space of the Ottoman Hegemony in Transcaucasia in 1918: Addressing the Issue

Title (other)Батумская подсистема как пространство Османской гегемонии в Закавказье в 1918 г.: к постановке вопроса
Publication type Article
Status Published
Affiliation: Institute of World History RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Affiliation: Institute of World History RAS
Address: Russian Federation, Moscow
Journal nameISTORIYA

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.

KeywordsTranscaucasia, the First World War, the Caucasian Front, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, the Treaty of Batum, the Batum subsystem
AcknowledgmentThis 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
Publication date17.05.2021
Number of characters59462
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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.

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