Editor's Note: Juan Molina is not the author's real name. He is using this pseudonym not because he wishes to remain unknown to other Dip players, but because he is a serious academic and does not want this article to come up if his tenure review committee tries Googling him on the internet!
Readers who wish to communicate with the author should send their e-mails to me, and I'll help you get in touch with him.
is a more difficult country to play in Diplomacy than it first appears.
Not only does she have four neighboring opponents compared to the usual
three for the other corner powers, but the dual sea frontage means she
cannot coordinate her four units effectively. Even worse,
Russia is not guaranteed at least one build at the end of 1901.
Russia not building at all in the 1901 adjustment phase is an increasingly
seen occurrence in Diplomacy tournaments as well as PBEM games, and
this trend has started to reduce her overall ranking in recorded game
statistics. What I wish to address at length in this article
is one particular problem: the tendency of German distrust to lead to
no Russian builds in 1901, which is usually followed by a Russian collapse
in the next few turns. Of course, there is no perfect opening
strategy for Russia or any other country in Diplomacy, so solving this
problem may well lead to others; but the solution should at least reduce
the tendency of Russia to suffer an ignominious early elimination.
The primary blame for Russia not building at the end of 1901 lies with Germany and with Russia herself. Numerous articles have been written about how disadvantageous it is for Germany to pick an early fight with Russia by bouncing the northern Russian fleet in Sweden. The reasons seem to be straightforward: Germany should keep her eastern border at peace while she confronts the problem of the western triangle, and Russian friendship is also a key advantage when Germany confronts England, who is her most dangerous long-term adversary. So most conventional and conservative advice (which fits with Bismarck's historical policy of keeping friendly relations with Russia in order to secure German hegemony in central Europe) is to maintain friendly relations with Russia, starting first of all by not bouncing Russia out of Sweden in Fall 1901.
Unfortunately, this sound approach for Germany is under increasing challenge by a more cutthroat approach. The thinking is that Russia's ability to expand on two sea fronts and to fight on both sides of the Finland-to-North Africa empty zone, negating stalemate attempts, makes Russia Germany's most dangerous long-term opponent. Already the logic is suspect here, as articles by Don Turnbull and Ole R. Tuft make it clear that Germany has at least as much if not more to fear from England's potential expansion, but there is something about starting with four units and all that extra board space which tends to trigger Russophobia in many players handling Germany.
Short of an immediate EFG triple alliance, Germany cannot launch a full attack on Russia in Spring 1901 without suffering serious consequences. So instead, Germany fights Russia from the outset by proxy. The first step is to bounce Russia out of Sweden in Fall 1901 (more sneaky and less common is to let Russia into Sweden while playing F Den-Bal, A Kie-Den and Sweden falls in Spring 1902, but this strategy fails against Russia's German attack described below). The second step is to whisper in the ear of Turkey or Austria that Russia is too dangerous (for geographical or personal reasons) to be allowed even the slightest expansion in 1901, and so should therefore be bounced out of Rumania. If successful, the result of such diplomacy is that Russia gets no builds in 1901. Germany can then sit back and throw his units at either England or France, while the neutered Russian bear is brought down by Austrian and Turkish wolves in the south and/or English pirates in the north. Once Sevastopol and St. Petersburg fall, Germany needs only to send a pair of armies towards Warsaw in order to grab his share of the kill. This overall pattern accounts for the substantial majority of early Russian eliminations in Diplomacy.
Russia's share of the blame in this outcome is even more straightforward. The set of opening moves played by the majority of Russian players is the Ukraine System: F StP - Bot, A Mos - Ukr, A War-Gal, and F Sev - Bla. This opening plays right into the hands of Germany's anti-Russian strategy. The Ukraine System is one of many openings in Diplomacy which is tactically well-motivated (and still a good choice in no-press gunboat games) but that is also diplomatically unsound, primarily because it concentrates Russia's units too early. This opening sets off alarm bells in the one country that Russia should not alienate in 1901: Austria. The Austrian player not only sees both of Russia's armies move in his direction, but realizes that one of these armies (probably A Ukr) is headed to Rumania, where it threatens Austria's centers in Budapest and Serbia and also links up with and supports Turkey's potential anti-Austrian moves. Experienced Austrian players will react predictably: either they will ask Turkey to support Austria into Rumania in return for Sevastopol and destruction of Russia's southern fleet, or, if Austria is under pressure from Italy in the west, they will even offer to support Turkey into Rumania themselves. And of course, Austria will ask Germany to bounce Russia out of Sweden. Germany's anti-Russian missives to Austria are thus reinforced by Russia's opening move, and the wonder is that Russia even occasionally gets Rumania out of this sequence, to say nothing of Sweden. Even worse, the Ukraine System leaves only a single unit to guard Russia's northern flank; maybe England might be persuaded to support Russia into Sweden after Fall 1901, but it is much more likely that a Russia with only one or no builds will tempt England to make a standard early attack on St. Petersburg. Enough said.
German friendship is guaranteed from the outset, a much better approach
for Russia is to court diplomatically Austria while opening with A Mos
– StP, keeping his units spread out. This stands a much
better chance of gaining Austrian friendship, while putting more strength
in the important northern sector which is all too likely to be the early
target of an Anglo-German alliance. Nevertheless, I don't
think that this improvement will be sufficient if Germany is hostile
from the outset and has potential allies in England and Turkey.
So you should be able to see where I'm going with regards to opening
moves: the German
anti-Russian strategy, as pursued historically by Kaiser Wilhelm II
and his military planner Helmut von Moltke, was in fact the strategy
that led Germany to total disaster in 1914-1918. It should
also lead Germany to disaster on the Diplomacy board as well, but only
if Russia is able to back up an aggressive anti-German opening with
sound diplomacy. Without sound diplomatic preparation, an
anti-German opening will lead the Tsar to an early execution, as also
happened in history. The diplomatic preparation and
the subsequent on-board moves are the subject of the rest of this article.
Russia's immediate problem in the opening is to secure at least one build by 1901, and the most straightforward way to do so is to secure Sweden by getting Germany's good will. So the first country that Russia should approach in diplomatic negotiations is Germany. And the approach should be as generous and humble as possible, while not tipping Russia's hand. First, Russia guarantees that the Baltic, Prussia, and Silesia will remain inviolable DMZ's (Germany is of course not told that such a guarantee is only as good as the Kaiser's willingness to let Russia have Sweden). Second, no mention at all should be made of Germany's Kiel fleet: requests or demands that Germany open F Kie - Hol rather than F Kie - Den will only alienate the German player. Third, stress that you are perfectly willing to help Germany against England in Scandinavia provided you get at least one build in the north and that in the south you have no hostile intentions towards Austria. Fourth, the crux of the matter: is Germany willing to let Russia's northern fleet into Sweden in Fall 1901?
There are only four outcomes to this question:
The rest of the advice that follows
assumes that you are faced with cases (c) or (d). Because
1901 builds are so essential to Russia due to her wide defensive front,
either case indicates that Germany is most likely pursuing an anti-Russian
strategy, and this calls for immediate retaliation even before
you get bounced out of Sweden. And retaliation begins not
with your opening moves, but with a diplomatic strategy calculated to
make the German player regret he ever messed with his eastern neighbor
in the current game or even in past games.
If you have strong reason to believe that Germany is hostile, Austria must then be your next diplomatic stop, with the aim being to make him an active ally (though not against Germany itself). If Russia is going to open with an anti-German move, he needs relative security on his southern flank, and I simply don't see how this can be accomplished by allying with Turkey. Any experienced Italian player will realize that a Russo-Turkish alliance is bad news for him, and so he will drop whatever he is doing and come to Austria's help. With firm Austro-Italian cooperation, Turkey can be kept out of the key breakthrough spaces of Serbia, Greece, and the Ionian, and without the possibility for western expansion, he has no options left but to ally with Austria against Russia. Unless one of Austria or Italy is too short-sighted to be a strong opponent, Russo-Turkish alliances will usually lead to a temporary stalemate in the south that can only be broken against Russia's interests. For this reason, I believe Austria is a much better choice for an ally, especially given that in any conflict with Germany, you need Austria's neutrality at worst and his good will at best.
Which makes Russia's approach to Austria clear: move him away from Germany's orbit by convincing him that Russia, not Germany, is the key to Austria's long term survival. The greatest advantage of this line of argument is that it is true. Germany cannot help Austria against Turkey; Russia can. Germany has little influence over Italy; Russia, as Italy's valuable eastern counterweight, can make Italy dance to his tune most of the time. So Russia's approach to Austria should be to bend over backwards in order to make Austria feel secure. Open to the Black Sea? Done. Occupy Rumania in Fall 1901 with a fleet, so as not to threaten Austrian centers? Done. Or open to Rumania in Spring 1901, in order to support an Austrian army into Bulgaria? Unless the Turkish player has a penchant for opening F Bla-Ank, A Smy-Arm, you should strongly consider it. Your main objective with Austria is a working alliance against Turkey where he and Italy do most of the work and consequently get most of the Turkish centers (this is necessary, as A/R by themselves have only two fleets–insufficient to outflank Turkey's position). Most Austrian players will find that giving Rumania to Russia and letting Germany go is easily a price worth paying for such an arrangement.
Above all, stress to Austria that you are willing to leave Galicia a DMZ by not moving there in Fall 1901. If Austria is open-minded, he will rejoice at not having to defend the space and being able to use A Vie in order to cover Trieste or Tyrolia while sending his fleet south to Albania. Alas, if Austria is paranoid as so many Austrian players have a right to be, he will think "lying weasel!" and then move into Galicia after agreeing to keep it empty, or, if he is honest, he will ask for a bounce in Galicia. In the latter case, you are better off agreeing, as you do not want him to pass on to Germany that Russia's army in Warsaw is headed elsewhere. Many Austrian players might be tempted to see Russia's accommodating stance as a sign of weakness. In order to avert the danger, you then turn to Russia's hugely important non-neighbor: Italy.
What Russia needs most from Italy is a commitment to the east. If Italy gives any indication of moving to attack France in the opening, squash any thought of that idea by telling France immediately and letting Italy know that you have done so. What you need from Italy is an opening that is aggressively oriented to the east but that is flexible enough to not commit Italy too early. For this reason, you should firmly discourage Italy from sending both armies north in the standard A Rom-Ven and either A Ven-Tyr or A Ven-Tri sequence. Telling him that you do not intend to move to Galicia should be enough to discourage him from such an immediate attack. Make it clear that you intend Austria to be your ally and will not support him in any anti-Austrian ventures, so that he is better off opening with the A Rom-Apu, F Nap-Ion convoy sequence as a prelude to an attack on Turkey.
Most important, however, is Italy's army in Venice. He doesn't need it urgently in the opening; you do. So you need to do everything in your power to persuade Italy to open to the key central space of Tyrolia. Sell the move to him in any way that you can think of, including the possibility of having you or France help him into Munich. Even if A Ven-Tyr bounces (and you can encourage Italy to have an arranged bounce with Austria or Germany if he is the cautious type), he will have drawn off one German or Austrian army and that is exactly what you need. And if A Ven-Tyr succeeds, an Italian army next to Vienna and Trieste is your single best defense against an aggressive Austrian move to Galicia. As to where Italy's gains will come from, you need to point him to the yellow menace and tell him that both you and Austria will be on his side. This should keep him happy.
Little needs be said here. If Germany is your enemy, then Turkey is most likely to play the role of Germany's southern counterweight, just like she did in the 1914-1918 war. Given that you need Austria's good will in any conflict with Germany, the Austrian arch-enemy Turkey will thus have to be the sacrificial lamb. Negotiations with Turkey should be straightforward and you should remain firm: you are willing to ally, but you will protect your southern flank by playing F Sev - Bla (whether or not you are considering an Austrian proposal for F Sev-Rum), and any order of A Smy-Arm will likely see the end of cooperation with Russia.
Regardless of how Turkey opens, you should prod Austria and Italy in the direction of playing their strongest anti-Turkish Spring 1901 moves: A Rom-Apu, F Nap-Ion, A Bud-Ser, F Tri-Alb. This will be your strongest protection against an anti-Russian Turkish opening. After this, you should be patient and avoid making ineffective moves against Turkey, and just wait for the moment that Turkey sends both fleets to fend off the Austro-Italians, after which the Black Sea will be yours and Turkey's position will sooner or later collapse.
is Russia's most difficult problem, given that England needs both
Sweden and St. Petersburg's corner position in order to put together
the necessary stalemate line against the southern powers as well as
to create his own chances for a solo win. As such, England is
likely to try for St. Petersburg at some point in the game.
It's your job to prevent this possibility, and as usual, the humble
and subtle approach is best. Do not bluster or threaten to incite
France against him if he moves north; this will only ensure that he
attacks sooner rather than later. Remember that he too will
be looking for allies, and if you pass on that Germany will probably
bounce you out of Sweden and you will therefore assist him against Germany,
you may be on to a good thing. The usual trick is to let England
know that you will be moving to the Baltic in Fall 1901 and that he
might thus succeed in sneaking into Denmark while Germany naively plays
F Den-Swe. However, since any opening to Silesia or Prussia
on your part will alert Germany, he is equally likely to play to the
Baltic, so you will have to try something more long-term.
The best approach is to let England know you will not be his enemy and will actively help him against the German. This includes the usual promises of not building fleets in StP (north coast) and of letting him permanently keep Norway, promises which Russia should keep as long as Germany is hostile. In addition, Russia should not hesitate to offer England support into Denmark once he's into Sweden. Russia must at all times stress that a well-played Germany will be a hard nut to crack even if England succeeds in eliminating France; the sooner that Germany's vital northern flank in Denmark and the Baltic can be turned, the better for England. There is of course, the possibility that these arguments will fail to persuade England and that he might still lunge for Sweden and St. Petersburg in 1902. The best insurance against such aggressiveness, of course, is France.
France, of course, is Russia's best security against English hostility and is even more vital if there is an Anglo-German alliance, so your approach should be clear. Do not give yourself away by inciting him to open against England (i.e., to the English Channel), as this will only make him suspicious. Instead, tell him that you need a viable France in order to protect yourself and that you therefore have his best interests at heart. Which makes it easy: the moves that keep France safest from his two northern neighbors are the very ones that Russia would like to see. Which means you should urge France to (a) get at least two builds in 1901 by taking both Portugal and Spain, so that his units can immediately head back north instead of mucking around in Iberia in 1902, (b) cover Burgundy with at least one unit in Spring 1901; even if the French move to Bur bounces, it has drawn off Germany's army in Munich and thus filled a vital role as far as Russia is concerned, and (c) build at least one fleet, preferably in Brest, in order to shield himself against a sudden English takeover of the Mid-Atlantic or take advantage of an English northern attack. The standard French Burgundy opening, A Par-Bur, F Bre-Mao, A Mar-Spa, followed by the build of F Brest and any other unit, is ideal for Russia's purposes (the Maginot opening, A Par-Bur, A Mar S A Par-Bur, F Bre-Mao is even better as it guarantees that A Par-Bur succeeds, but urging this opening might make France suspicious and more likely to inform Germany).
The key is to keep France's expansion impulses pointed north and east. The last thing you want to see as Russia is for France to enter an EFG triple alliance where she sends all of her fleets south into the Mediterranean, where they are of no use to you at all and also immobilize Italy, an ally you desperately need. If you suspect this is happening, warn Italy immediately (and tell France and England about it) and then tell England that you will open A Mos-StP and that he will have to pry St. Petersburg from your cold dead fingers, while an unsuspecting Germany might be an easier victim. Give it your best shot.
The moves you choose for Fall 1901, of course, depend on how successful you are with the diplomatic initiatives described above. Suppose that the worst happens: Austria says he's going to Galicia, Turkey refuses to write off the move to Armenia (to say nothing of the Black Sea), Italy doesn't feel like moving to Tyrolia, and England seems uninterested in an anti-German alliance. If this is really the case, you are better off going into defensive hedgehog mode: F StP-Bot, F Sev-Bla, A War-Gal, and A Mos-St.P (this is Richard Sharp's Octopus opening, which is also Russia's best defense if he faces both northern and southern aggression). This is the best way of slowing down both Turkey's southern offensive and the English push to St. Petersburg. In the north, you then move F Bot-Bal, and choose whether to inform England of this depending on your appraisal of the player. In the meantime you can negotiate for Rumania by arguing to Austria that you are not interested in attacking him, and your moves show this, while pointing out to Turkey that an Austro-Italian attack is in the making and that he is aiming his units in the wrong direction.
However, this is all too pessimistic. Chances are that the diplomatic moves outlined above have had at least a partial success. France says he will play safe by moving to Burgundy and will build an insurance fleet in Brest against England. Italy agrees to move to Tyrolia. England is receptive to the offer of Denmark, even if he doesn't yet fully commit himself. Austria agrees to a DMZ in Galicia, whether or not he means it. You now have enough diplomatic capital to make Germany regret he ever considered bouncing you (or any past Russian player) out of Sweden. The opening moves for the Russian fleets are straightforward: F StP.-Bot and F Sev-Bla (F Sev-Rum should only be considered if Russia is sure Turkey won't open to Armenia; such certainty is highly unlikely).
Army Warsaw's move is the bear's bite:A War-Sil.
If this succeeds, two of Germany's home centers are under attack and Russia can also consider negotiating to support either Italy's army in Tyrolia or France's army in Burgundy into Munich. Or Russia can play A Sil-Ber in the Fall, which still costs Germany the neutral center in Holland if he does defend Berlin. However, the problem with A War-Sil is that it might bounce if Germany is on the alert, for example if you've gotten a reputation for opening this way as Russia.
In that case you should strongly consider the alternative, A War-Pru, which still puts pressure on Berlin. Because it is more likely to succeed than A War-Sil, and because it still disarranges Germany's defenses in Fall 1901, A War-Pru should be played as often as A War-Sil, if not more. Even if Germany bounces A War-Pru in the Spring, his Berlin army is out of position and the army in Munich/Ruhr will not be able to both guarantee Munich against French/Italian raids and make sure of taking Holland. A War-Pru also has the slight diplomatic advantage that the Russian army is not adjacent to Galicia, making Austria feel safer.
the German player reacts in surprise or anger to your move, simply shrug
your shoulders and say "You didn't give me a credible commitment
on Sweden, so I had to retaliate by attacking you right off."
Let's be clear: an anti-German opening by Russia is normally a bad
move because it almost guarantees that you will get bounced out of Sweden.
But if you already had good reason to believe that a Swedish bounce
was in the offing, then you have nothing to lose and German players
should learn to expect such retaliation.
leaves the Moscow army as the reserve unit. Where it goes
depends on your feel for your neighbors' intentions. If you
are confident that neither A Vie-Gal nor A Smy-Arm are coming, you can
order A Mos-St.P in order to put additional pressure on Sweden after
moving to Finland in Fall 1901, or even A Mos-Lvn or A Mos-War if you
can be sure England will leave you alone in the north. Otherwise,
you should play A Mos-Ukr, where you can defend whichever of Warsaw
or Sevastopol looks most threatened.
If your diplomacy has been good and Austria and Turkey have played reasonably friendly moves while Germany is caught napping, the board at the end of Spring 1901 might look as follows:
Germany's position is a first turn nightmare, with both Berlin and Munich under attack. He cannot even be sure that a bounce in Sweden will be good for him, as he'll be wondering if Russia's fleet will move to the Baltic while the English North Sea fleet slides into Denmark. Even without an English move to Denmark, Germany will be tempted to cover his Baltic soft spot, which leaves you with a good Sweden/Baltic guessing game. More importantly, Rumania is almost guaranteed for Russia unless Austria and Turkey cooperate just to bounce you out. Germany might even abandon Berlin in order to make sure of Holland, and of course he may also have to write off Munich provided Italy and France can agree who gets in, with Russia possibly lending support as well. In short, Germany's anti-Russian provocation has been deservedly punished.
Of course, nothing in Diplomacy is guaranteed. Austria and Turkey might, for example, play more aggressively, while Germany might cover himself in Silesia (and you open to Prussia if you suspect this), leaving the issue a lot more confused. In that case the end of Spring 1901 will look like:
Now Russia is under a lot more pressure, but both France and Italy have come through with pro-Russian moves, so Russia can still hold her own and might even make progress by getting a build. Germany still has to play the Sweden/Baltic guessing game. The more uncertain he is (and Russia talking to England makes it worse in a face-to-face game), the more likely that either F Bot-Swe or F Bot-Bal succeeds. Psychology is also useful: a safety-minded German player will play to Sweden in order to make sure of a supply center, while a more risk-taking German player will move to the Baltic to keep Russia out. Take your pick.
Further south, the key will be Russia's reading of Austria. If he played A Vie-Gal in the spring out of paranoia rather than aggression, chances are that the Galicia army will scuttle back to cover Vienna against an Italian move. But if you read Austria as an aggressive player anti-Russian player, then you should give Italy the green light to try for Vienna, and make sure Austria sees this in a face-to-face game. It is highly unlikely that Germany will attack Warsaw or support Austria into Warsaw given the vulnerability of both Munich and Berlin. Either A Ukr or (more likely) A Pru should be sufficient to guard Warsaw (or A Ukr-War, A Pru-War can be played, which also protects the Ukraine soft spot and leaves Warsaw open for a build). In the south, you point out to Turkey that a Lepanto attack by Italy and Austria is in the making, and that if he leaves you alone you will leave him alone. And provided Austria is sane, you convince Austria and Italy that they have much more to gain by uniting their forces against Turkey: you won't help Turkey and will help them provided that Austria does not interfere with your move into Rumania, ie F Sev slides into Rumania, if possible with A Serbia's support, while A Ukr covers Sevastopol and A Pru covers Warsaw if you're still uncertain about Austria.
In the meantime, Germany has to decide which of Berlin, Munich or Holland he wants to make sure of, and may well get only one or even zero builds instead of the usual two if he guesses wrong. Even with the best outcome for him, Germany will find 1901 a lot more stressful, even agonizing, than the quiet life he could have had those two turns if he had guaranteed Sweden for Russia.
A good Russian player should not take an anti-Russian German strategy lying down, and any move which denies Russia a needed build in 1901 is in effect anti-Russian. If Germany fails to make a credible commitment to let Russia into Sweden (and it might well happen that the German could be sincere but still be found untrustworthy due to his shady past), then Russia must react immediately. The first part of this reaction is the diplomatic Bear Hug: an Austro-Italian-Russian alliance in the south (aimed primarily against Turkey but also with an eye to Italian raids against Munich and lack of Austrian cooperation with Germany) combined with an English alliance in the north, with France opening to Burgundy regardless of which way she leans, but still pointed northeast. The second part is the Bear Bite: an opening of either A War-Sil or A War-Pru if the Bear Hug has been at least partially successful, with F Sev covering the Black Sea, F Bot going most (but not all) of the time to the Baltic in Fall 1901, and A Mos going to either Ukr or St.P as needed by circumstances. When more Russian players get in the habit of opening in this manner, I predict that German players will become practically religious about promising Sweden to Russian in 1901 and then keeping that promise.
Needless to say, all of the above strategy makes the vital
assumption that the players are roughly equal in ability and are
reasonably open-minded, which is not always the case. If both Austria
and Turkey are blindly hostile to Russia, for example, Russia will
have to change his strategy and may well be better off choosing the
Ukraine system and trying to break Austria and Turkey apart in time
enough to get new builds to defend the north. Also of course, this is
an article on opening strategy. Russia is unlikely to get further
benefits from an alliance with Austria once Germany and Turkey are
both eliminated, and a good Austrian player will keep this long term
problem in mind. Similarly, there is still room for peace with
Germany (e.g. if there is a strong E/F alliance) provided that Germany
yields Sweden and Norway to Russia and refrains from further
anti-Russian moves. In the end there is no guarantee of victory if
Russia reacts against Germany, but if the reaction is properly applied
and also has the good luck of neighbors who are receptive to Russian
proposals, then the finish of a Diplomacy game may well end up
looking more like 1945 than 1917, and that is something a Russian
player should be proud of.
c/o the Editor
If you wish to e-mail feedback on this article to the author, and clicking on the envelope above does not work for you, feel free to use the "Dear DP..." mail interface.