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Vol. 1 No. 1 | Winter 2014
100 Years Ago:...

100 Years Ago:

Imperial Russia's Use and Abuse of Proxies During the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913

Ronald Bobroff | 20 December 2013

Since the end of the Cold War, the Balkan Peninsula has seen some of the fiercest armed conflict in Europe. The breakup of Yugoslavia and the separation of Kosovo from Serbia pitted NATO and European Union states in diplomatic struggles against the Russian Federation while the Balkan peoples fought on the ground. The backing Russia gave to the Serbian government constituted another chapter in a long history of engagement in the region. Given the ethnic, religious, and historical links between Serbia and Russia, Moscow has appeared to use Serbia as a proxy that helps Russia maintain influence in a region of strategic and economic interest. But in our time, Russia chose not to take up arms in the wars of southeastern Europe, and looking back one hundred years to the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913 can aid in explaining why, as well as identify the regional dynamics that will likely continue to shape decision-making on all sides.


A century ago, much as recently, Russia sought to protect its proxy states in the region with its diplomatic might, but refused to commit to an armed intervention on their behalf when such intervention would likely draw Moscow into a larger war in which it saw little reason to hope for success, and worked assiduously to deter competition in the Turkish Straits. Ultimately, Russia would not sacrifice its own vital interests or jeopardize its security for the sake of its proxy states.


The Balkan Wars took place in the context of uncertainty created by the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the management of which dominated European international relations in the century before the First World War. Known as the Eastern Question, this uncertainty ultimately drew in all of the great powers of Europe – the United Kingdom, France, Austria, and Russia, as well as Prussia/Germany and Piedmont/Italy.

Russia and Austria-Hungary, as it had been reformed from 1867, felt most directly affected by the growing vacuum along their borderlands. Both states sought to expand their influence over peoples and new states on the Balkan Peninsula while limiting the success of the other.


Maintaining influence over events in the Balkans also served another Russian interest – protection of its position at the Turkish Straits. Since the 1820s, Russian rulers had accepted relatively weak Ottoman control over the Straits, backed by international agreements that assured Russian commerce through the Bosporus and Dardanelles while denying non-Ottoman warships passage in times of peace. Russia’s southern trade was comprised largely of exports, which were a crucial source of the foreign currency needed to sustain its modernization efforts. Russia’s mediocre warships on the Black Sea were more than a match for those of the Ottoman navy, but would have been outclassed by outside fleets. If the Sultan were no longer able to hold this waterway, Russia assumed that it would need to take control to ensure its national security and economic vitality. To achieve its goals, Russia not only worked to limit the influence of Austria-Hungary and other interlopers in the region, but also employed proxy states to achieve the same objectives.


One of those proxies was Serbia, the first of the Balkan Slavic states to throw off Ottoman control, although true sovereignty took generations for Serbia to achieve as it moved from autonomy within the Ottoman Empire to full independence. Serbia wobbled between Austrophile and Russophile loyalties until 1903, when a palace coup in Belgrade put a regime quite hostile to Vienna in power. Austro-Hungarian economic sanctions then pushed Belgrade even closer to St. Petersburg. Through 1908, Russia and Austria-Hungary agreed to maintain the status quo in the region as the great powers pushed the Ottoman Empire to reform its rule in its remaining territories on the Balkan Peninsula. But the Bosnian Crisis of 1908-09 saw Austria-Hungary annex Bosnia-Herzegovina without considering compensation for Russia or Serbia, with St. Petersburg forced to accept the move under the threat of a German ultimatum. After this humiliation, substantive Russian cooperation with Austria-Hungary ceased, and Serbia became more valuable in Russian eyes.


The second proxy state of note was Bulgaria. Russian victories in the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War brought wide autonomy to this Slavic, Orthodox nation. Russia had at first forced the Ottoman Empire to concede a large Bulgaria in the Treaty of San Stefano. The other great powers of Europe feared the influence such a state would give Russia in the region, so they reduced Bulgaria’s size after negotiations at the 1878 Congress of Berlin. Tsar Alexander III disliked the policies adopted by the new ruler of Bulgaria, Alexander of Battenberg, especially Bulgaria’s 1885 annexation of Eastern Rumelia, which reduced St. Petersburg’s influence over Sofia. Russia therefore heavy-handedly engineered the prince’s removal in 1886. His replacement, Ferdinand of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, however, was even less to Russia’s liking, but St. Petersburg was unable to remove him. Ferdinand aspired even more vehemently than Alexander to gain those lands that Bulgaria had been denied at Berlin, particularly after declaring Bulgaria’s full independence at the start of the Bosnian Crisis in October 1908. Complicating Balkan relations, both Bulgaria and Serbia sought to annex Macedonia, large sections of which had been promised to Bulgaria in the defunct Treaty of San Stefano. The area, which remained under Ottoman control after the Congress of Berlin, contained a mixed but largely Slavic population, which Belgrade and Sofia both claimed was made up primarily of their ethnic brethren.


Russia, in its efforts to contain Austria-Hungary after 1909, hoped to overcome these divisions and see Serbia, Bulgaria, and other Balkan states bound together in a league that would help the Russian government control the pace of events. Getting Belgrade and Sofia to agree took several years, but in March 1912, the Russian Foreign Ministry, with the agreement of the tsar and the encouragement of Pan-Slavs in Russian society, brokered an agreement between the two that was soon joined by Greece and Montenegro. The Russian leadership believed it had at last fashioned a bulwark against the further spread of Austro-Hungarian influence. St. Petersburg hoped that despite its long rivalry with Vienna, the prospect of facing a united Serbia and Bulgaria would deter Austria-Hungary from further advance. Furthermore, St. Petersburg believed it now held the key to developments on the peninsula. The foreign minister, Sergei D. Sazonov, was confident that the Balkan states would take no action without permission from Russia. Balkan armies would do the heavy lifting of containing Austria-Hungary while Russia’s influence and strategic position improved.


The Balkan states, however, had other plans for their new alliance. While the Ottoman Empire languished through the attritive 1911-12 war against Italy for control of Libya, the Balkan League saw an opportunity to push the Ottomans out of Europe and gain land for each member in the process. In two areas, the Balkan allies’ goals specifically challenged Russian interests, forcing St. Petersburg to adopt a course aimed at frustrating its proxies’ aspirations while protecting its own position in the region and in the European great-power system.


In the Serbian case, the clash of interests was over Belgrade’s drive to obtain an outlet to the Adriatic Sea through territory predominantly populated by Albanian people. Austria-Hungary strongly opposed such an expansion of Serbian territory and economic strength, which could only translate into more trouble for the Habsburg monarchy later. Italy too opposed the attempt, wary of another rival on the Adriatic or more obstacles to its own aspirations on the Dalmatian coast.


In the Conference of Great Power Ambassadors that met under the leadership of British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey, the Austro-Hungarians made their opposition to the Serbian move clear, while the Russians tried hard to support their client state. Serious tension arose between the two great eastern monarchies, both of which significantly strengthened their armed forces as the dispute simmered. Try as it might, the Russian government could find no formula that would allow Serbian egress to the Adriatic, and it ultimately had to negotiate for the most advantageous inland border between Serbia and a newly independent Albania that it could manage. This result was an embarrassment relative to Serbia’s earlier demands, but Austria-Hungary had repeatedly mobilized its army to force Serbia to withdraw, and Russia refused to consider a European war over this question. Russia still needed peace more than any foreseeable advantage offered by Serbian expansion, so it supported only limited Serbian gains.


Bulgarian aspirations appeared even more tangibly threatening to Russian interests. During the First Balkan War, as Serbian forces pushed toward the Adriatic and swept through Macedonia, the Bulgarian army pressed toward the Ottoman capital of Constantinople, the capture of which would have quickly elevated both Bulgaria’s cultural and political stature. In October-November 1912 and then again during a renewed campaign in the spring of 1913, Bulgarian forces appeared close to storming the Chatalja lines, the last obstacle before Constantinople itself. Russia panicked for two reasons. First, for reasons of cultural dominance, the Russian regime feared the prospect of Bulgarian Tsar Ferdinand riding into a conquered Constantinople and re-Christianizing the former Hagia Sofia Cathedral. This was not an idle concern – the Russians knew Ferdinand had a Byzantine-style outfit (obtained from a theater company) ready to wear if the opportunity arose. The Tsar of All the Russias, whose old capital, Moscow, was thought of as the Third Rome in nationalist ideology, could brook no competition for glory within the faith. Second, the Russian government feared even more the consequences of a Bulgarian presence on the shores of the Turkish Straits. As noted above, the Russian leadership considered this waterway to be absolutely vital to Russian security, and it would tolerate only weak Ottoman rule as an alternative to direct control. A resurgent Bulgaria interfering in Russian affairs could thus never be allowed.


While the Bulgarians seemed poised for a strike on Constantinople, Russia sought to prevent it. The Russians first tried persuasion, dangling territorial concessions and financial incentives before Sofia. These failed to dissuade, so Russia began to consider more forceful measures, including the dispatch of warships and troops to the area. Warships were prepared, several thousand soldiers were concentrated, and transports found to move them. Remarkable on its own, this mobilization of forces is even more important because it marks the first time since the humiliation of the Russo-Japanese war that Russia prepared to employ armed force to back up its diplomacy. Ultimately, the failure of the Bulgarian army to storm the Chatalja lines meant that Russia did not have to go to war to rein in its proxy. But the danger had not completely passed. With the failure of the winter armistice, in March-April 1913 the Bulgarians renewed their offensive and again pressed toward the Chatalja works. As the prospect of Bulgarian entry into Constantinople loomed once more, the Russians sought to repeat the tactics of the previous autumn. Hampered by a lack of transport ships this time, the Russian foreign ministry widened its diplomatic efforts to restrain Sofia, while also seeking the acquiescence of France and Great Britain to Russian action at Constantinople. The British agreed not to oppose Russia, but the French displayed great discomfort at the prospect of Russia installed in the Ottoman capital. Cholera in the Bulgarian army, however, ended the chances of an advance, obviating the need for direct measures.


The split between Russia and Bulgaria was revealed in full during the Second Balkan War, which began when Bulgaria attacked its former ally, Serbia, in the hopes of dislodging Serbian occupation forces from that part of Macedonian territory which Sofia felt it had been promised in pre-war talks. Bulgaria soon found itself under attack from not only its former allies, but also the Ottoman Empire and Romania, which entered the fray hoping to fulfill its own territorial ambitions. While Russia complained about the possibility of Christian territory in Thrace and Adrianople returning to Muslim control, it quietly relished the humbling of Bulgaria that ensued. Bulgaria’s defeat meant that Russia’s interests at the Straits and Constantinople would no longer be subject to the imminent threat posed during the Bulgarian campaigns in the First Balkan War.


What this review of the Balkan Wars at the start of the twentieth century shows is that Russia was willing to sacrifice the interests of its proxies, Serbia and Bulgaria, when those states exposed Russia to unwelcome risk, setting a pattern of behavior that extended into the late twentieth century. Whether this peril manifested itself in the threat of direct Austro-Hungarian involvement in the war to keep Serbia from gaining a port on the Adriatic, potentially widening the war to include the great powers, or in Bulgarian occupation of Constantinople, which would have undermined Russian strategic interests there and at the Turkish Straits, Russia had little patience for its proxies’ pursuit of their interests at the expense of its own. Russian encouragement and protection of its proxies lasted only so long as they did not compromise their patron’s broader goals.

Ronald P. Bobroff 


Ronald P. Bobroff is Interim Chair of the History Department at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, NC, and Associate Professor of History at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, GA. He studies European international and Russian histories, with a concentration on the origins and diplomacy of the First World War, and his current academic focus is on the Franco-Russian alliance. His book, Roads to Glory: Late Imperial Russia and the Turkish Straits was published in 2006.

The Cold War's...

The Cold War's Hangover

Andrew Mumford | 20 December 2013

I have often thought of starting my students with an exam question that states: “The Cold War was a series of proxy wars that were occasionally overshadowed by moments of nuclear crisis. Discuss.” So ingrained were proxy wars into the behavior of Cold War superpowers within, and often beyond, their ‘spheres of influence’, that in many ways we can perceive the real ‘front line’ of the Cold War not as the Iron Curtain that fractiously divided the European continent, but rather the so-called Third World of Africa and Asia.


Yet despite being historically ubiquitous, proxy wars are chronically under-analyzed. They have fallen into the hinterland of Cold War history, without any substantive conceptual debate about their meaning, form, or consequence. In my recent book I define proxy wars as the indirect engagement in a conflict by third parties wishing to influence its strategic outcome. Understanding the parameters of proxy wars is a vitally important task as it wrestles the concept away from a Cold War narrative that helped describe modes of superpower competition, and helps reshape it as a form of conflict pertinent to the dynamics of contemporary, and future warfare. The scope for using proxies, and the appeal they hold for states, still rests on an intrinsic set of assumptions based on interest formation, ideological premises, and perceptions of risk.


The American legacy of proxy warfare, especially during the Cold War period, is checkered to say the least. America’s last major proxy war undertaking – involving the support for the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s – should give us pause for thought. The same can be said of the earlier case of Angola, when both the United States and the Soviet Union vicariously vied for political control of a country tearing itself apart in a civil war, with detrimental long-term consequences.

This article will offer a brief foray into the proxy war past of the United States and is designed to serve as a reminder of the potentially deleterious consequences of deciding to arm your enemy’s enemy. Unforeseen future ‘blowback’, such as Stinger missiles leaving Afghanistan after 1989 to be used against America, is something that Donald Rumsfeld would perhaps have called a ‘known unknown.’ As we await the fall-out from the decision by the United States and the European Union (EU) to lift the arms embargo on rebels in Syria opposed to President Bashar al-Assad, or assess the lasting influence of Iranian influence over levels of violence inside Iraq, we should take on board the cautionary tales of proxy wars from the recent past in order to make more sense of the dangerous ‘known unknowns’ that they all inevitably bring.


Soviet and Cuban Proxies in Angola During the 1970s


This most bloody of African civil wars, which lasted from Angola’s independence from Portugal in 1974, until a peace deal was signed in 2002, provided a tragic footnote to Cold War superpower proxy intervention in the Third World, one that cost the lives of half a million people.


Three main groups vied for the control of post-colonial Angola, and each attracted external support as a means of achieving their goals. The Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) received significant backing from the Soviet Union, Castro’s regime in Cuba, and like-minded socialist parties in Europe. The Front for the National Liberation of Angola (FNLA) was backed by neighboring Zaire and had been receiving money from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a number of years prior to decolonization. Finally, the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA) was a breakaway group of the FNLA whose strident anti-Western agenda was aided by allies in China.


Once the Portuguese withdrawal had been fully undertaken by late 1974, the three major factions began scrambling for power. Holden Roberto’s FNLA received a massive increase in covert CIA funding, a move that was mirrored by the Soviet’s in favor of Agostinho Neto’s MPLA. Emboldened by superior numbers (the FNLA containing around 10,000-20,000 fighters compared to the MPLAs 6,000-8,000) and a $300,000 donation in January 1975 from the 40 Committee (an American government secret intelligence unit that sponsored covert operations), the FNLA stepped up attacks on rival factions in an effort to consolidate power. Not wishing to be outflanked in a proxy war, the Soviet Union responded by expanding the amount of arms it was distributing to the MPLA. The first Soviet arms shipments arrived in Angola shortly after the visit to the country by the chair of the Soviet Committee on Afro-Asian Solidarity in February 1975. Between April and June of that year, the port of Luanda received arms deliveries from at least 12 Soviet, East German, Yugoslav and Bulgarian flagged ships. In April 1975 alone, around 100,000 tons of arms were airlifted into Angola by the Soviets in an effort to bolster the MPLA war effort.


The following month was an important one for the dynamic of this particular proxy war. In May 1975, Fidel Castro deployed the first batch of Cuban military advisers to Angola. Totaling 230, these advisors worked alongside the MPLA – a type of assistance that Neto (head of MPLA) had requested from Moscow but had been flatly refused. What emerged here was a clear demonstration from the Kremlin of their belief that any more visible signs of intervention would compromise their Angolan proxy war strategy. Yet the Soviets retained a desire to maximize their influence over the conflict in line with a perceived strategic interest, hence the permission for the MPLA to utilize Cuban ‘advisors’ who could then be directed from Moscow as a surrogate training force. Throughout 1975, the number of Cuban ‘advisors’ expanded in Angola to such an extent that by January 1976 they numbered approximately 12,000.


Capitalizing upon this proxy assistance, the MPLA made the most of its manpower advantage over the FNLA, who did not receive advisors, but instead accepted CIA-sourced money to the tune of $32 million and weaponry worth $16 million. By early 1976 the MPLA had made significant gains in the civil war to such an extent that by March of that year, they were in control of sufficient amounts of the country to declare themselves the government of the new People’s Republic of Angola. The Soviet’s proxy war strategy had seemingly paid off. When asked why the Americans were backing the FNLA, CIA Director William Colby replied in realpolitik terms: ‘Because the Soviets are backing the MPLA is the simplest answer.’ Such an understanding reveals just how the adoption of proxy war strategies can create flash points, which in this context affected the wider geopolitics of the Cold War. Henry Kissinger himself was compelled to admit at the time that the process of détente between the superpowers could not ‘survive any more Angolas.’ Proxy wars were draining the superpowers’ resolve for maintaining co-operative relations. The following decade witnessed another such conflict in which the superpowers became embroiled. This time the battleground was Afghanistan.



The American Proxy War in Afghanistan During the 1980s


The rationale for the Reagan administration’s indirect intervention in Afghanistan finds echoes in that of Obama’s recent decision regarding Syria. Charles Cogan, the then CIA station chief in Afghanistan, justified their involvement in these plain terms: ‘we took the means to wage war, and put them in the hands of people who could do so, for the purposes for which we agreed.’ The ‘means to wage war’ Cogan referred to involved training 50,000 rebel fighters and providing them with $3 billion worth of funding in order to repel the invading Soviet forces who were tasked with reinforcing the crumbling communist regime in Kabul. Some of this money went towards purchasing surface-to-air Stinger missiles, designed to nullify the Soviet air monopoly – one of their most potent military advantages since the invasion was launched in December 1979. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that the Syrian rebels have been most vocal in their desire to receive anti-aircraft missiles above all other weaponry as a way of similarly invalidating the potency of Assad’s air force on rebel-held areas.


The cautionary tale from the Afghan case is acute. The Stinger missiles provided by the U.S. to the Afghan mujahedeen found themselves used in conflicts much further afield after the Soviets withdrew in 1989. The use of Stinger missiles by non-state actors with whom no direct Stinger sales have been made, have been reported in Bosnia, Iran, Kashmir, Tunisia, and the Palestinian territories in the years after the Soviet withdrawal. Washington was so concerned about the proliferation of Stinger usage that President George H. W. Bush authorized a $65million ‘buy back’ program to help the CIA retrieve as many of the missiles as possible. The results of this initiative were negligible, with only a small fraction of the Stingers recovered, leaving somewhere between 300-600 unaccounted for. The effects of this particular proxy war decision long outlasted both the original conflict it was designed to influence, and unwittingly crossed over the borders of the country they were intentioned for. This is a lesson the proponents of indirect intervention in Syria today would be well minded to heed.


The Soviet–Afghan war killed 1.3 million people, with 5.5 million more turned into refugees – one third of the nation’s pre-war population. The jihadist diaspora that was created at the end of the Afghan war ignited a new wave of Islamic fundamentalism in the region and beyond. One of the most significant consequences of the United States ignoring Afghanistan after 1989 was the eventual development of an Afghan sanctuary for international jihadi militants. By the mid-1990s the Taliban had won control of large swathes of the country. As a result, Afghanistan was established as a safe haven for Islamic fundamentalism, compounded by the fact that the U.S. had no clear policy formulated to deal with the issue. Although the American proxy intervention in Afghanistan may have helped win a war, it unwittingly sowed the seeds for the start of another one, which was made startlingly clear on September 11th, 2001.



Modern Echoes of Past Mistakes: The Consequences of Proxy Wars


Many historical examples of Cold War-era proxy wars, including Angola and Afghanistan, broadly reveal a threefold set of consequences that are worth reflecting on today. First is the danger of long-term dependence. If a proxy client triumphs in the war they may owe their status to the decisive amounts of military and financial aid from their benefactor. This reliance may not necessarily end once a potential victory has been secured. On-going financial support will inevitably be needed to rebuild infrastructure. With the prospect of a large nation-building effort on its hands, any proxy client is going to receive offers of help that could spill over into outright dependence if indirect influence over politics continues once the war is over.


The second major consequence of proxy wars is the elongation or intensification of the violence. There is often an assumption on behalf of interventionist powers that the adoption of a proxy war strategy is the quickest way to bring a war to a swift end by indirectly allowing one side to gain an advantage in terms of manpower, training or weaponry. But the understanding that proxy interventions actually prematurely end an existing conflict belies evidence that on the whole they actually prolong such conflicts largely because a weak warring faction is boosted to the point of creating stalemate. The Angolan civil war is a testimony to that. A flood of weapons or surrogate forces into an existing warzone gives one or other of the parties involved further motivation and support to fight on, rather than collapse or seek negotiation.


Finally, it is worth considering how proxy interventions create the conditions for conflict over-spill and ‘blowback’. To a large degree, proxy wars are based on a desire to achieve ‘plausible deniability’ and a crude political assumption that ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend.’ Yet this policy runs the severe risk of creating unintended, counter-productive consequences once the war is over. Such ‘blowback’ can be high profile or subtle in its manifestation. The complicated relationship between the CIA and their expedient anti-Soviet allies, including nascent jihadist movements like Al-Qaeda, stands as a cautionary tale, warning of the dangers of sustaining a short-term strategic partner with weapons and money. Sometimes the ghosts of proxy wars past do not haunt the corridors of power until decades later.

Andrew Mumford


Andrew Mumford was a 2012/13 Visiting Fellow at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library in London and is an Associate Editor of Political Studies. He has been a Research Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Terrorism at Pennsylvania State University. His book Proxy Warfare was published by Polity in 2013. He can be contacted at

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