Thursday, 14 March 2013

Imagine Crimea: finding the great war's origins in the 1850's

Hello history friends, I hope you're enjoying the WW1 Special of WDF! A recent essay I recieved from listener Rafael Antonio Cabrero laments on the situation Europe and the near east was in in the 1850's. It reads a lot like my episode on the Crimean War itself, so check that out after reading this if you feel in the mood through this website:

or organically if you have already downloaded it. Anyway, please take the time to read this and give me feedback where you can. Rafael would love to hear from you! Here is the essay:

The Crimean War marked the death knell of the first phase of the post-Napoleonic European international order. The Congress of Vienna established an informal mechanism, the Concert of Europe, where the Great Powers (Great Britain, Prussia, Austria, Russia and later France) pledged themselves to consult and work together to maintain the peace in Europe. The great revolutionary upheavals of the mid- 19th Century frayed the Concert of Europe, but the Crimean War killed this political arrangement for good.

A long view of the Crimean War sets up the geopolitical and diplomatic scene for the Great War. I submit nonetheless a few geopolitical and diplomatic issues that affected the various statesmen’s calculations in the crisis that led to the Crimean War and their future capabilities in the world stage when peace was restored in 1856.

1.       Russia
One point we need to bear in mind that historically Russia has had two major strategic goals. The first was the search, since the times of Peter the Great, for an ice-free port for the Russian fleet. The Black Sea and its access to the Mediterranean is the obvious candidate and has been central to Russian foreign policy even today. This wish to maintain a secure access to warm water ports is still seen today in the decade-long dispute with newly-independent Ukraine to maintain an extraterritorial base in Sebastopol , its involvement in the current Syrian Civil War as it maintains a major Mediterranean naval base, and its meddling in Georgian Abkhazia as it juts into the Black Sea.

The problem with Russia is geography. There are two natural (and one man-made) choke points in the Mediterranean Basin, Gibraltar in the West and the Dardanelles in the East, with the Suez being the third, man-made one. Russia sits atop the Black Sea, but Turkey controls the narrow point of the Dardanelles. So, although the Black Sea is ice-free year-round, it is a limited inland sea whose only exit is the choke point in the east of the Dardanelles.

Turkey’s 19th Century weakness put Russia in a good strategic position to explode into the Dardanelles and the Mediterranean. This threatened British interests in the Mediterranean and its communication lines with India and of course, led to conflict in 1853. Once Russia was stymied after the Crimean War, her search for an alternative to the Black Sea as a viable ice-free port to the world would eventually lead to the Russo-Japanese War a half-century later.

The second great driver in Russian foreign policy in the 19th Century was an attempt to take Constantinople for Orthodoxy. Although Istanbul (not Constantinople—had to go there!), had been under Turkish control for half a century, the Czars had been looking to take Constantinople from the Turks and restore the traditional Byzantine capital back to Orthodox Christianity. This has been a long-term goal since the Russians established themselves as a Black Sea power in the 18th Century and one could argue that Russia’s later pan-Slavic tendencies arise from this initial aspiration to be the protector of Constantinople.

As an added bonus, controlling Constantinople would also help on the first imperative as controlling the city would also mean controlling the door from the Black Sea into the Mediterranean. Of course, those pesky Brits would make sure that wouldn’t be happening anytime soon (or would they?).

2.       Turkey
A quick point on the maximum extent of the Ottoman’s easternmost extension, the farthest east the Ottoman Empire reached was Western Persia. India was controlled by the Mughals, a Mongol descendants group which did share some ethnic elements with the Ottomans. Nonetheless, it was not under the Ottoman Sultans but the Mughal Rajs.

Turkey’s slow disintegration was the great geostrategic challenge of 19th Century Europe. In a sense, the Turkey’s disintegration in the Balkans follows similar lines to Yugoslavia’s own disintegration a century later. The problem, contrary to the 20th Century 19th Century Europe did not have security mechanisms to take over from Turkey once it left or was pushed out from the Balkans and two Great Powers would potentially be rubbing against each other, the Austrians and the Russians. Turkey’s disappearance from the Balkan’s geopolitical map eventually pushed to World War I which started surprise, surprise in Sarajevo, capital of the formerly Ottoman, Austrian owned, but Serbian-desired Bosnia-Herzegovina.

3.       The Bosporus and  Dardanelles
Although not a Great Power (or a sovereign country), the Bosporus and Dardanelles are especially important and deserve its own analysis. Their importance lies on the fact that it is the transit point between the Mediterranean and Black Seas. The reason the British propped up the Ottoman Empire was to avoid the Russian Empire controlling Constantinople and its fleet spilling over into the Mediterranean, posing a direct threat to its naval routes to India and its interests in the region. The importance of the Bosporus and Dardanelles staying off unfriendly (in British eyes) hands grew even larger after the Crimean War, with the establishment of the Anglo-Egyptian condominium and the Suez as well as the establishment of a base in Cyprus.

In fact, and very a propos with the Super Mega Podcast Event When Diplomacy Fails Takes Word War I, one of the reasons for the fiasco on the Dardanelles campaign during the Great War was to knock of Turkey off the war and remove the Dardanelles from enemy hands. Although the economic and commercial angles are important, we cannot overlook the strategic importance of the Dardanelle, even to this day. While Russia does have a warm water access in the Black Sea, it is constrained by the requirements of the Montreux Convention, despite their efforts to change its requirements to allow a bigger role for the Russians in the Dardanelles.

4.       France
France’s political adventurism during the reign of Napoleon III that would come to roost a decade later in the Franco-Prussian War started in the Crimea. In an effort to protect the Catholics who were going to fisticuffs with the Orthodox Christians over the Church of the Nativity, do a bull in a china shop routine and extract a treaty from the Turks establishing French protection over Christians in the Ottoman Empire followed by a warship when the Russians called foul. So in the end, the French go to war with the British (who were not very happy with Napoleon III’s little naval adventurism) as an ally. So by the time things got really bad for France with Prussia a decade later, Napoleon would not be able to count on Russia as a counterbalance.

5.       Great Britain
I submit that Britain’s Splendid Isolation began after the Crimean War. The appalling conditions in the Crimea, and the incompetence of British commissioned officers turned the country inward. This did not mean that the Britain was completely free from conflict with other European Powers, but these were mostly in the colonial sphere.
Britain’s desire to keep Europe at an arm’s length proved to be, now with 20/20 hindsight, unfortunate as shirked its traditional role of counterbalance to the strongest Continental Power to maintain the peace at a moment of geopolitical revolution. Even after the appearance of Germany and Italy in the European map and the terminal decline of the Ottoman Empire disrupts the security environment in Europe, Britain had a Crimean War mentality at a time when it was falling toward the abyss of World War I.

6.       Austria
Poor  Austria! I think probably the most nervous of all the Great Powers in the lead-up to, and during the Crimean War, was Austria. Sure, the recent Hungarian revolution and Russia’s support was all fine and dandy, but I submit to you, if you were the Austrian Emperor, seeing the Turkish Empire having its Slavic provinces sliced off by the Russians would have kept you up at odd hours of the night. After all nationalism was on the rise and the Austrian Empire was a patchwork of ethnic group and nationalities that had been in ferment for a while.
 Russia’s expansion into Slavic lands in Eastern Europe meant it would have a presented a dilemma. It is true that the Talk episode was correct in pointing out that Russia and Austria were supposed to be allies, but her security and continued existence looked like it would be secured with a neutral Austria quietly hoping on an Anglo-French victory. An even bigger Russia right across the border, threatening its rights of passage in the Danube was more potent motivator in Vienna than a continued alliance with Saint Petersburg. In the end, it was a losing proposition for Austria either way

Austria is probably the great loser in this whole war, which is sad for a country that avoided getting involved in the Crimea. Russia was mad with Austria and wouldn’t lift a finger when the Franco-Sardinian alliance and the Prussians came a-knocking a few years later demanding their pound of Austrian flesh.

On a side note, listening to the Austro-Prussian War podcast, I was not aware of the attempt by the Austrians to form an alliance with Prussia and form a united front to deter the Russians from getting too close to their territory and interests. You learn something new all the time!