After Gavrila Princip committed the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne, Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, the possibility of preventing the war remained, and neither Austria nor Germany considered this war inevitable.
Three weeks elapsed between the day the Archduke was assassinated and the day Austria-Hungary announced an ultimatum to Serbia. The alarm that arose after this event soon subsided, and the Austrian government hastened to assure St. Petersburg that it did not intend to undertake any military action. The fact that Germany had not thought to fight at the beginning of July is also evidenced by the fact that a week after the assassination of the Archduke, Kaiser Wilhelm II went on a summer "vacation" to the Norwegian fjords. There was a political calm, which is typical for the summer season. Ministers, members of parliament, high-ranking government and military officials went on vacation. The tragedy in Sarajevo did not particularly disturb anyone in Russia either: the majority of politicians were immersed in the problems of domestic life. Everything was spoiled by an event that happened in mid-July. In those days, taking advantage of the parliamentary holidays, President of the French Republic Raymond Poincaré and Prime Minister and, at the same time, Foreign Minister Rene Viviani paid an official visit to Nicholas II, arriving in Russia aboard a French battleship. The meeting took place on July 7-10 (20-23) at the Tsar's summer residence in Peterhof. In the early morning of July 7 (20), the French guests moved from the battleship, anchored in Kronstadt, to the royal yacht, which brought them to Peterhof. After three days of negotiations, banquets and receptions, interspersed with visits to the traditional summer maneuvers of the guards regiments and units of the St. Petersburg Military District, the French visitors returned to their battleship and departed for Scandinavia. However, despite the political lull, this meeting did not go unnoticed by the intelligence services of the Central Powers. Such a visit clearly testified: Russia and France are preparing something, and this is something being prepared against them.
It must be admitted frankly that Nikolai did not want war and did his best to prevent it from starting. In contrast, the highest diplomatic and military ranks were in favor of military action and tried to exert the strongest pressure on Nicholas. As soon as a telegram arrived from Belgrade on July 24 (11), 1914, stating that Austria-Hungary had presented an ultimatum to Serbia, Sazonov joyfully exclaimed: "Yes, this is a European war." On the same day, at breakfast at the French ambassador, at which the British ambassador was also present, Sazonov called on the allies to take decisive action. And at three o'clock in the afternoon, he demanded to convene a meeting of the Council of Ministers, at which he raised the issue of demonstrative military preparations. At this meeting, it was decided to mobilize four districts against Austria: Odessa, Kiev, Moscow and Kazan, as well as the Black Sea, and, strangely, the Baltic fleet. The latter was already a threat not so much to Austria-Hungary, which has access only to the Adriatic, as against Germany, the sea border with which it ran along the Baltic. In addition, the Council of Ministers proposed to introduce from July 26 (13) on the entire territory of the country "a provision on the preparatory period for the war."
On July 25 (12), Austria-Hungary announced that it refused to extend the deadline for Serbia's response. The latter, in her reply, on the advice of Russia, expressed her readiness to satisfy the Austrian requirements by 90%. Only the requirement for officials and military personnel to enter the country was rejected. Serbia was also ready to transfer the case to the Hague International Tribunal or to the consideration of the great powers. However, at 6:30 pm that day, the Austrian envoy in Belgrade notified the Serbian government that its response to the ultimatum was unsatisfactory, and he, along with the entire staff of the mission, was leaving Belgrade. But even at this stage, the possibilities for a peaceful settlement were not exhausted. However, through Sazonov's efforts to Berlin (and for some reason not to Vienna), it was reported that on July 29 (16), the mobilization of four military districts would be announced. Sazonov did his best to hurt Germany as much as possible, which was bound by allied obligations to Austria.
- What were the alternatives? Some will ask. After all, it was impossible to leave the Serbs in trouble.
- That's right, you can't. But the steps taken by Sazonov led precisely to the fact that Serbia, which has no sea or land connection with Russia, found itself face to face with the enraged Austria-Hungary. The mobilization of the four districts could not help Serbia in any way. Moreover, the notification of its beginning made Austria's steps even more decisive. It seems that Sazonov wanted more than the Austrians themselves to declare war on Serbia by Austria. On the contrary, in their diplomatic steps, Austria-Hungary and Germany argued that Austria is not looking for territorial acquisitions in Serbia and does not threaten its integrity. Its sole purpose is to ensure its own peace of mind and public safety.
The German ambassador, trying to somehow level the situation, visited Sazonov and asked if Russia would be satisfied with Austria's promise not to violate the integrity of Serbia. Sazonov gave the following written answer: "If Austria, realizing that the Austro-Serbian conflict has acquired a European character, declares its readiness to exclude from its ultimatum items that violate the sovereign rights of Serbia, Russia undertakes to stop its military preparations." This answer was tougher than the position of England and Italy, which provided for the possibility of adopting these points. This circumstance indicates that the Russian ministers at that time decided to go to war, completely disregarding the opinion of the emperor.
The generals hastened to mobilize with the greatest noise. On the morning of July 31 (18), advertisements printed on red paper appeared in St. Petersburg, calling for mobilization. The agitated German ambassador tried to get explanations and concessions from Sazonov. At 12 o'clock in the morning, Pourtales visited Sazonov and conveyed to him, on behalf of his government, a statement that if Russia did not begin demobilization at 12 noon, the German government would issue an order for mobilization.
As soon as the mobilization was canceled, the war would not have begun.
However, instead of declaring mobilization after the expiration of the term, as Germany would have done if it really wanted war, the German Foreign Ministry several times demanded that Pourtales seek a meeting with Sazonov. Sazonov, on the other hand, deliberately postponed the meeting with the German ambassador in order to force Germany to take a hostile step first. Finally, at seven o'clock, the Foreign Minister arrived at the ministry building. Soon the German ambassador was already entering his office. In great excitement, he asked if the Russian government would agree to respond favorably to yesterday's German note. At that moment, it depended only on Sazonov whether or not there should be a war. Sazonov could not help but know the consequences of his answer. He knew that there were still three years left before the full implementation of our military program, while Germany completed its program in January. He knew that the war would hit foreign trade, blocking our export routes. He also could not help but know that most of the Russian manufacturers are against the war, and that the sovereign himself and the imperial family are against the war. If he had said yes, there would have been peace on the planet. Russian volunteers through Bulgaria and Greece would have got to Serbia. Russia would help her with weapons. And at this time, conferences would be convened, which, in the end, could extinguish the Austro-Serbian conflict, and Serbia would not be occupied for three years. But Sazonov said his "no". But it wasn't over yet. Pourtales asked again if Russia could give Germany a favorable response. Sazonov again firmly refused. But then it was not difficult to guess what was in the pocket of the German ambassador. If he asks the same question a second time, it is clear that if the answer is negative, there will be something terrible. But Pourtales asked this question for the third time, giving Sazonov one last chance. Who is he this Sazonov, so that for the people, for the thought, for the tsar and for the government to make such a decision? If history put him before the need to give an immediate answer, he should have remembered the interests of Russia, whether she wants to fight in order to work off Anglo-French loans with the blood of Russian soldiers. And all the same, Sazonov repeated his "no" for the third time. After the third refusal, Pourtales took from his pocket a note from the German embassy, which contained a declaration of war.