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Confrontation in Central Asia, 1885

Raymond A. Mohl describs how the nineteenth century history of Anglo-Russian conflict in Central Asia is marked by gradual Russian advances and gradual British retreats.

During the last quarter of the nineteenth century the frontiers of Europe were extended around the globe. The quest for colonies and concessions in the underdeveloped areas of the world was the dominant theme of this new imperialism. Britain, Germany and France each established hegemony over large areas of Africa, while in Asia, Russia joined the Great Powers in carving out spheres of influence.

Large portions of Europe and of Asia had gradually been absorbed by Russia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By 1850, the force of imperialism had carried Russian boundaries into Eastern Europe and Finland, across the wide stretches of Siberia to the Pacific coast, into the region of the Caucasus, and in a southerly direction across the Kazahk steppes.

Despite the magnitude of the Russian expansion, a power-vacuum still existed in Central Asia—the area now comprising Turkestan and the northern parts of Afghanistan and Persia. The Russian Government directed its imperialistic designs toward this remote part of the world after the disasters of the Crimean War. It was this region that provided the setting for a long and bitter dispute between Britain and Russia, a dispute carried on several occasions to the verge of war.

The Anglo-Russian dispute in Central Asia revolved around several important and seemingly irreducible issues: the basic problem of imperialistic competition; the delineation of spheres of influence and the creation of a neutral zone, one or both of which would set bounds for the expansion of the two nations; and the security of British India in the face of the steady Russian advance, a problem of grave concern to British officials. The diplomatic threat to India, and the concomitant imperial rivalry in Central Asia, were jointly responsible for the germination of Russophobia in nineteenth-century Britain.

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