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Geopolítica e Política

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Geopolítica e Política

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Crimean Wars

24.11.21 | Álvaro Aragão Athayde

On this Day, in 1853: Russia invaded the Danubian Principalities and set off the Crimean War

02 July

On this Day, in 1853, Russian forces invaded the lower Danubian Principalities under Ottoman suzerainty of Moldavia and Wallachia, setting off the Crimean War which severely undermined Russia’s influence in Central Europe and left Austria diplomatically isolated.

As the Ottoman Empire steadily weakened throughout the 19th century, Russia stood poised to take advantage and soon began a southwards expansion towards the warm water ports of the Black Sea and the lower Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.

But the British and the French, who hoped to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Russian power in Asia, were determined not to allow this to happen. And in 1853, Tsar Nicholas I began a diplomatic offensive to prevent either British or French interference in any conflict with the Ottomans.

The Tsar then dispatched a highly abrasive diplomat, Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Ottoman Sublime Porte, and demanded to exercise protection over the 12 million Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. But the Sultan, strongly supported by the British and the French, rejected the more sweeping demands.

The Danubian campaign

In July 1853, shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov’s diplomacy, the Tsar sent armies under the commands of Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich and General Mikhail Gorchakov across the River Pruth to occupy the Ottoman-controlled Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.

The British and French navy immediatly sent a fleet to the Dardanelles and in October, the Turks declared war on Russia and Ottoman forces under the Ottoman general Omar Pasha crossed the Danube and opened a counter-attacked in the Danubian Principalities, leading to the first military engagements of the war.

Because Russia had assisted Vienna’s efforts in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Tsar Nicholas I, who wanted a free hand in settling its problems with the Ottoman Empire, felt that Austria would side with him.

But the Austrians had begun to fear the Russians more than the Turks. They resisted Russian diplomatic attempts to make them join the war on the their side and maintained a policy of hostile neutrality towards Russia, while supporting the Anglo-French coalition, a stance which deeply angered Nicholas I.

The Crimean War

France and Britain soon entered the war on the side of the Ottoman Empire and Russia eventually withdrew from the Danubian Principalities in late July 1854. The conflict could have ended then, but war fever among the public in both the UK and France had been whipped up by the press in both countries to the degree that politicians found it untenable to propose ending the war at this point.

In September 1854, the allied forces boarded ships and invaded the Crimean Peninsula. The major Black Sea port of Sevastopol fell after eleven months, which prompted Russia, isolated and facing a prospect of invasion, to sue for peace, signed in Paris in March 1856, which severely undermined its influence in Europe.

But while it was Russia that was punished by the Treaty of Paris, in the long run it was Austria that lost the most from the Crimean War despite having barely taken part in it.

Having abandoned its alliance with Russia, Austria was diplomatically isolated following the war. Russia subsequently stood aside as Austria was evicted from the Italian and German states and compelled to give in to Hungarian demands for autonomy.

The old historic constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary was restored in and Austria was refounded in 1867 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.

Kafkadesk Budapest office. Original here.


Crimean War (1853-56)

Map of Crimean War (in Russian) • From Wikipedia
Черное Море = Black Sea • Российская Империя = Russian Empire (green)
Австрийская Империя = Austrian Empire (pink) • Османская Империя = Ottoman Empire (dark grey)



The Geopolitics of Crimea

Russian control has never been uncontested.

Cooperation between Ukraine and Turkey is intensifying. Just a few days ago, the Ukrainian military used Turkish-made drones to strike fighters in Donbass, a disputed region in the eastern part of Ukraine that is supported by Russia. Meanwhile, Turkey and Ukraine announced they would create a facility near Kyiv to maintain, repair and modernize combat drones. Caught literally in the middle is the Crimean Peninsula.

Russia has long claimed Crimea as being in its sphere of influence, using the peninsula to increase its strategic depth, improve its position in the Black Sea and provide a strategic location for sophisticated military bases. In 2014, it dispensed with appearances and straight up annexed the region. Yet, despite Moscow’s influence there, history shows that maintaining permanent control is difficult because doing so brings it directly against Turkish interests.

Expanding to the Sea

To understand Russia’s options in Crimea, we need to examine the geopolitics of the peninsula. Extending off a thin isthmus from mainland Ukraine, Crimea sits in the middle of the Black Sea. It covers approximately 10,000 square miles (26,000 square kilometers) and is home to roughly 2.5 million people, many of whom recently migrated to the area from other parts of Russia. Its subtropical climate produces mild winters compared to the rest of Eastern Europe, its harbors secure against major storms, and its mountains have shielded it from invaders (and are now a great location of air defense installations).


Crimea & Sevastopol


Over the years, Crimea’s natural defenses attracted just about every Eurasian and European power, which would leverage their positions to create favorable maritime security and commercial environments. The Greeks occupied the peninsula as early as the 7th century B.C., creating a hub for cultural and economic exchanges between Eastern Europe, the Eurasian nomadic world and the ancient Greco-Roman world. Centuries later, the eastern part of Crimea and the Kerch Peninsula would be home to a strong Greco-Scythian state known as the Bosporan Kingdom, which controlled one of the most important chokepoints in the region. Along with the southern portion of Crimea, this kingdom became part of the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantium Empire. But only the Crimean south was controlled by the Roman Empire, and the geographic division of the region would influence power struggles there for centuries to come – between the Romans, the Byzantines, the Goths, the Huns, the Khazarians, the Vikings, and so on. Naturally, this dramatically affected the cultural and religious composition of the peninsula, though Catholics and Orthodox Christians would eventually emerge as the two most significant practitioners. (Islam would come a little later.)

By the 1400s, the Mongolian Empire had taken control of much of Eurasia. One of its constituent parts, the Crimean Khanate, ruled the lands from Moldova to the North Caucasus, Crimea and the entire modern Ukrainian coastline. Its rulers repeatedly laid siege to Moscow, even destroying it in 1571. Russia fought back, expanding to the south and southeast with mixed results. By the 18th century, the Russian Empire was eager as ever to destroy the khanate and gain access to the Sea of Azov and eventually to the Black Sea. The khanate, however, was the main source of the Ottomans’ military presence in Eastern and Central Europe. This laid the groundwork for the ensuing Russia-Turkey rivalry over the coming centuries.

As the Russian Empire grew more powerful, it came to understand more intimately the geostrategic importance of Crimea and its role as the main obstacle in its expansion into the Balkans, Caucasus and what we now call Ukraine. Similarly, the Ottomans came to realize their entire strategy in the Black Sea, the Caucasus and the Balkans rested on Crimea. The last chance Turkey and its Crimean allies had to stop Russia’s advance came with the Swedish invasion of Russia. Russia defeated Sweden in the Battle of Poltava in 1709, so Crimea and Istanbul, worried that they would be the next targets of Russian expansionism, preemptively declared war on Russia in 1710. Crimean Khan Devlet II Giray constructed an alliance with Sweden, a small fraction of pro-Turkish Cossacks and the anti-Russian faction of Poles. They defeated Russia at the Battle of Pruth in 1711, and as punishment, the Ottoman Empire, already in control of the Kerch Strait, deprived Russia of access to the Sea of Azov.

Turkey and Russia went to war again over this area in 1768. This time, Crimea, the Ottoman Empire and Poland lost and were immediately absorbed into the Russian Empire. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca in 1774 gave Russia full access to the Black Sea and rights to Russian merchant fleet to pass through the Turkish Straits. Russia annexed Crimea in 1783. The gateways to the Caucasus and the Balkans were opened.


The Black Sea


What Russia Can’t Afford

But Russia’s domination of the Black Sea was never uncontested. By the middle of the 19th century, Russia had penetrated deeply into the Balkans and Caucasus, thanks to its possession of former Ottoman territories and the Crimean Khanate (now southern Ukraine). Moreover, the Russian navy became much stronger than Turkey’s in Sevastopol. European powers found this imbalance in power concerning, so they partnered with the Ottoman Empire to successfully defeat Russia in the Crimean War of 1853-56.

World War I gave the Ottoman Empire another opportunity to retake control of Crimea and Sevastopol from Russia. The peninsula was an important stop for the Germans who were invading Russian territory. Germany needed an ally, a state that could prevent Russia from dominating the Black Sea. The presence in the Black Sea could have allowed Germany to control Russian merchant ships because the main flow of Russian exports went through the straits. On the eve of World War I, more than 60 percent of Russian grain exports went through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles. In other words, Germany needed Turkey. Russia declared war on Turkey, and Moscow ended up controlling Crimea after the Entente lost.

The peninsula was similarly important in World War II, situated as it was on the route to the oil-rich Caucasus. It was also a valuable aviation base. Losing Crimea would mean that the Soviet Union would lose the ability to raid the Romanian oil fields, and the Germans would have been able to strike at targets in the Caucasus. Russia thus bogged down German troops throughout the war and secured the land after its conclusion.

One of the most pivotal decisions on Crimea came in 1954, after Josef Stalin died, when new Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea to Ukraine. But the region still retained importance to the Soviet regime. In the Soviet era, the Black Sea Fleet in Sevastopol was responsible for the Black Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Migration escalated the ethnic tensions, which were often based on a particular group’s attitude toward Russia’s role in Crimea. The future of Sevastopol became a highly contentious issue, too. (Pro-Russian officers threatened to use weapons if the Black Sea Fleet transferred to Ukraine.) Only in 1997 did Ukraine and Russia reach an agreement regarding Sevastopol. Kyiv made multiple concessions, the last of which occurred in 2010, when Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych extended the Russian presence till 2042. In 2014, after the Ukrainian revolution, Russia annexed Crimea and attained full control over the peninsula and Sevastopol. Unfettered control over Sevastopol allowed Russia to establish uninterrupted communication lanes between Russia and Syria during the active phase of the Syrian campaign. Moreover, the Black Sea became the main base of the 5th Operational Squadron, which is operating in the Mediterranean near Syrian shores.

Crimea’s geostrategic position gives Moscow both defensive and offensive advantages. Defensively, it would be next to impossible for an enemy to carry out an assault on Russia’s southern borders without destroying its military assets in Crimea. It has one of the strongest concentrations of military forces in Eurasia along with Kaliningrad. Both regions are key to Russia’s defenses in the west, one in the south and the other in the north.


Russian Military Presence in Crimea, 2014 & 2018


Offensively, Crimea is an important source of power projection in the Black Sea and Eastern Mediterranean. Possession of Crimea and Abkhazia gave Russia the biggest share of the Black Sea coastline of any power in the region. Before this, its coastline was more or less equal to that of Georgia or Romania. More, the fleet in Sevastopol is the main source of Russian defense against NATO warships. In case of military conflict with Ukraine and NATO, Russia could initiate offensive operations using its Crimean assets along the more than 500-kilometer Ukrainian shore on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov to cut western supply lines to Odessa or even to Romania. It could also block NATO warships at the entrance to the Black Sea (i.e., the Bosporus Strait) using Russian warships and air defense systems stationed in Crimea. Moscow could also impose a blockade of Ukraine and even penetrate into its southern regions and support military formations in the Moldovan breakaway region of Trans-Dniester.

For Russia, another benefit of controlling Crimea is that, with a population of more than 2 million ethnic Slavs, the peninsula helped improve Russia’s demographic situation. Its annexation ensured that the population balance in the country, especially relating to non-Slavic groups in the North Caucasus, stayed in Moscow’s favor.

Nearly eight years since Crimea’s annexation, there is still a possibility of further escalation of conflict. Turkey supports the Crimean Tatars on the peninsula, with whom it shares ethnic and religious ties. It also provides military and economic support to Kyiv, acting as a counterweight to Russia. For Ankara, the entire northern Black Sea region with Crimea at the center is key to its security. If Russia were to occupy Odessa, it would amount to a return to the 18th century when Turkey lost key parts of its foothold in the region and a path was opened for Russian expansion into the Caucasus and the Balkans.

Russian influence in Crimea has strengthened, but Russia continues to fight for Crimea in other ways. Crimea remains unrecognized by many states of the world, which creates additional pressure on the introduction of Russia’s foreign trade. Social and economic issues, such as water supply and the development of the region in general, require immediate solutions, large financial investments and effective projects – none of which Russia can really afford right now. But it can’t afford to ignore Crimea either.

Ridvan Bari Urcosta at Geopolical Futures. Original here.