In Spring 1901, Russia has four units. This is often pointed to, especially b relative novices, in defense of the proposition that Russia is the strongest countr on the board at, the beginning of a Diplomacy game. However, as old hands (and Old Farts) know, Russia's four units have abbut the same tactical strength a the three units of other starting Powers, since the four are spread over so many fronts.
The challenge for Russia is to manage its borders with other nations in such way as to maximize the usefulness of its extra starting unit while minimizing the possibility of attack. Many Russian players have failed in this mission. Why? Because they overcommit to the South, and consequently lose in the North.
Russian strategy often consists of committing everything South, in a campaign with one of Austria or Turkey against the other one. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this policy, its adherents often fail to realize that the biggest threat to Russis is from England and/or Germany, not from the East. I realize this seems counter-intuitive — after all, most Diplomacy analysts consider Russia an Eastern Power rather than a Western Power. But Russia's unique position on both sides of the stalemate line necessitates strong Russian action in both Scandinavia and the Balkans. All too often Russia will make headway in the South, maybe taking Vienna and Budapest, or Constantinople and Ankara, while England and Germany pour into St.Petersburg, the Baltic, and Bothnia. Russia rarely goes very far in such a situation.
The solution to this dilemma lies, as usual, in negotiation. Russia must make friends with someone in the North right away, preferably Germany. The Kaiser holds the keys to Sweden for Russia, and shares the common border around Prussia and Silesia. England can sometimes prove to be a good ally, but the Norway and St.Petersburg question usually makes such an alliance shaky. The paradoxical thing about winning friends in the North is that it usually requires committing more than just the St.Petersburg fleet up there. That fleet can put pressure on Denmark or Norway, but somebody has to guard St.Petersburg!
So, here's my proposal for Russian growth and success:
Deployment of forces on a variety of fronts is always an issue in Diplomacy, even when you are playing a Power that often has only one important front (e.g. Turkey). However, in Russia's case the choices about unit deployment become critical, not simply tangential, to success. There is almost always some sort of threat from the North — and many Russian players greatly underestimate the importance of that threat.
A caveat. It has been suggested (in Rod Walker's Gamer's Guide) that Russia can afford to lose St.Petersburg if they are content to be a southern power with three centers. This is especially true when St.Petersburg is occupied by a foreign fleet. St.Petersburg is on the other side of the stalemate line — its occupation does not necessarily mean doom. However, this can be exacerbated by many fleets entering the Gulf of Bothnia and Baltic. In addition, while it is true that Russia can often survive intact after total defeat in the North, this often shuts down their expansion to a snail's pace. The Balkans are always slow going — if Russia does not get a lot of centers soon thereafter, they will likely face a threat in Prussia and Silesia or the Gulf of Bothnia and Livonia without enough units to mount an effective defense.
Just remember: playing Russia is like playing England and Turkey at the same time. You need a southern strategy and a northern one.
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