The 1853-1856 Crimean War and Deep Contradictions in the International Order

The Crimean War (1853-1856) was triggered by the deep contradictions in the international order that resulted from the increased influence of the Russian Empire in the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Caucasus. The deterioration of relations between Russia and England and between France and Turkey arose from Russia’s increased projection of power in the Ottoman Empire.

Russia wanted control over the Black Sea straits and to increase its influence in the Balkans. This desire was met with resistance from England and France, who themselves wanted to increase their leverage in those areas.

The strongest states of the European continent were looking eastward toward India, the path which passed through Asia Minor. England not only wanted to force Russia out of the eastern markets but also to limit its presence in the Black Sea – in Crimea and the Caucasus.

Russian, Turkish, and English interests also clashed in Circassia, partially comprising the present-day semi-autonomous Russian republics of Adygea, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachaevo-Cherkessia in the northwestern Caucasus. Transport routes connecting the Black, Azov, and Caspian seas passed through Circassia and connected with the South Caucasus.

In the 16th -19th centuries the Ottoman and Russian empires relentlessly competed for political and economic influence among the Circassian people making the “Circassian Question” a significant site of diplomatic and military rivalry.

During the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire and some European countries attempted to incite local rebellions in Circassia. The Anglo-French and Ottoman leadership assigned an important role to the peoples of the North Caucasus. While the allies (France, England, and the Ottoman Empire) were preparing for military operations, they presumed that the anti-Russian movement would commence in the Black Sea coastal areas of Circassia at the first sight of their navy, and attacks from the sea and the rear would cause Russia to lose positions in the North Caucasus.

Russia’s growing influence in the straits worried the English, as, from the British perspective, any strengthening of Russia’s positions in the Bosphorus and Dardanelles could undermine British power globally. Political and economic circles in England thought of driving the Russians out of the Caucasus, thereby allowing them to increase their influence in the region, their goal.

Before the Crimean War, the allies had not yet decided whether Crimea or the Caucasus should be the main theater of military operations. The commanders of the Ottoman army were foreign officers, mainly English and French, who planned both scenarios equally. Crimea was chosen as the main site for operations, a decision the French were key in, as they didn’t have great interests in the Caucasus.

Despite the decision to attack Crimea, Britain did not abandon ongoing operations in Circassia and Western Georgia. In 1850, British scouts had already obtained maps of Russian fortifications in coastal areas of the Black Sea. Several communications were received about “European travelers” wandering around and observing Russian fortifications with binoculars, accompanied by Circassian mountain dwellers. Agents of the allied countries were also supplying weapons to local mountaineers.

Britain had a great interest in the Caucasus because the English capital was rapidly entering the Black Sea basin. English diplomacy supported the “Circassian Question”, i.e., they supported the Circassians against Russia. The consolidation of Russian power in the Caucasus was a blow to British interests in the region because Russia had wound up near the Ottoman Empire, which could not but worry England.

Discontent in the Ottoman Empire and some European countries over the 1829 Treaty of Adrianople stemmed from concern that the treaty excessively increased Russia’s influence in the Ottoman Empire, especially in the Black Sea straits. Russia had achieved its goal of influencing the straits through the treaty, but the destruction of the Ottoman Empire was not in its interests.

“This peace reinforced Russia’s dominant influence in the East,” said Karl Nesselrode, Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. “Our Government’s goal was to reinforce Russia’s exceptional influence in the Bosphorus, and in fact achieving this goal was reconcilable with Turkey’s existence as a political organism, which had to work, however, under our direction.”[1]

In the 1840s European monarchs continued to struggle for influence in the Near East. And in this, the Ottoman Empire, which was in a difficult economic and political situation, was becoming important. In the 1840s, the Ottoman Empire had weakened and had difficulty maintaining its vast dominion after it lost considerable territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus over a mere 20 years.

At the beginning of the summer of 1844, Tsar Nicholas I visited England, where he famously stated, “Turkey is a dying man. We may endeavor to keep him alive, but we shall not succeed. He will, he must die.”

Nicholas I, wanted to ally himself with England at the moment of the Ottoman Empire’s demise and attempted to disrupt the Anglo-French alliance. The Tsar stated that France had excessive ambitions: it wants territories in Africa, the Mediterranean Sea basin, and the East.

A year later, at the end of 1845, Nicholas I presented his ideas about the Ottoman Empire’s future to Klemens von Metternich, Foreign Minister of the Austrian Empire. He stated that in the event of the Ottoman Empire’s downfall he would not surrender Constantinople to anyone. If anyone tried to send an army there, the Tsar would arrive ahead of them. And if anyone should enter the city, they would stay there.

In January 1853, Nicholas I hinted to British Ambassador George Hamilton Seymour about the break-up of the “sick man” Turkey. According to the Tsar’s proposal, Great Britain would take control of Cyprus, Syria, Crete, and possibly the regions between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers of ancient Mesopotamia, including Iraq, Kuwait, and parts of Turkey.

This proposal was however not beneficial to Britain at all. If Russians gained control over the Black Sea straits then Russia would become invulnerable and could take over the Ottoman Empire much more easily and it would only be a matter of time before Russia extended its influence into Iran, with its routes to India. “Therefore, giving Turkey to the Tsar meant giving him India, and losing India would turn England into a secondary power,” writes historian, Yevgeny Tarle.[2]

Russia could easily push the British out of the Near East by conquering Asia Minor, the Caucasus, and the Balkan Peninsula. Despite internal disagreements among the governing circles in England, they all agreed that Turkey’s break-up and absorption into Russia must be averted.

Struggle for the Key

Rivalries between France, Russia, and the Ottoman Empire were also complicated because of the clarification of the rights of Catholic and Orthodox pilgrims in Jerusalem and Bethlehem.[3] Although religious issues and the protection of their coreligionists were important for both Russia and France, they were merely a pretext and demonstrated the profound geopolitical antagonism between superpowers.

Previously all denominational disagreements were clarified with the Ottoman Empire. This time France decided to reinforce its positions in the Near East and declared that Catholics had advantages. In its turn, Russia presented its demands.

Both countries relied on documents signed almost 100 years ago–France, on a treaty signed with the Ottoman Empire in 1740; and the Russian Empire, on the Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca signed in 1774. France demanded that the keys to the Church of the Nativity, which at that time was held by the Orthodox Church, should be handed over to the Catholic community. Russia, naturally, was against this.

The Turks tried to dodge this issue by making promises to both the Russians and the French. Soon after a French battleship approached Constantinople, the keys to the Church of the Nativity were handed over to the French at the end of 1852. This move by the Turks severely angered and insulted the Russians, and Russia mobilized an army at the border of Moldavia and Wallachia.

Before that deployment, a large Russian delegation, headed by Minister of the Navy Alexander Menshikov, arrives in Constantinople. He conveys Russia’s demand to Ottoman Sultan Abdulmejid to immediately recognize the rights of the Greek Church in the Holy Land. Nicholas I also demands the recognition of Russia’s right to protect Christians in the Ottoman Empire. “Before his departure, Menshikov was made to understand that the Winter Palace wouldn’t be angry if his diplomatic efforts ended in a Russo-Turkish war.”[4]

Menshikov brazenly refused to meet the Ottoman Minister of Foreign Affairs because he had taken the side of the French. To please him and the Russians, the Sultan fired the minister, who was succeeded by Rifat Pasha. As some diplomats said, if Russia’s demands were met, Nicholas I would become the second Sultan of the Ottoman Empire; and the Sultan was almost ready to meet the demands of the Russian Tsar.

Russia’s decisive actions in the Ottoman Empire deeply worried Britain. Not only did Britain not want the expansion of Russian influence in Turkey, but it was against the break-up of the Ottoman Empire, something the Russian Tsar had already hinted at. The British Ambassador in Constantinople, Stratford Canning, persuaded the Sultan that England would support him if he showed tougher resistance to Russia. The Sultan acceded to Russia’s demands regarding the shrines but refused to formalize it with an international treaty.

Moreover, the Sultan fired Rifat Pasha and appointed Resid Pasha, who had a close relationship with the British Ambassador in Constantinople. This decision was followed by Russia’s announcement on cutting diplomatic ties with Turkey. Although the Sultan recognized the rights of the Orthodox community in Jerusalem, Russia declared that the Tsar had to protect the rights of all Christians. On June 21, 1853, the Russian army crossed the Prut River and invaded Moldavia and Wallachia.

Meanwhile, after finding out about the Russo-Turkish negotiations, the French fleet approached the Aegean Sea. Napoleon III had decided to wage war against Russia.

The policy of Austria and Prussia towards the Eastern crisis is noteworthy. Austria was fluctuating between allying with Russia, England, and France, trying to buy time and understand which alliance would be more advantageous. Prussia was weak and wasn’t seeking to take an anti-Russian stance. Nicholas I, was mostly concerned about the possible alliance between England and France.

The Ambassador of Russia in Paris, Nikolai Kiselev sent optimistic reports to the Tsar, stating that a union between France and England was impossible. Russian ambassadors in Europe often conveyed to the Tsar what was desirable instead of what was true. This had fatal consequences for the Russian Empire.

In October 1853, the Ottoman Empire declared war on the Russian Empire, and a month later in November, the Russian Navy, led by Admiral Pavel Nakhimov, decisively defeated the Ottoman fleet in Sinop Bay and destroyed its coastal fortifications. Another Russo-Turkish war begins.

Europe Declares War

The barrage of the Russian Navy in Sinop received a widespread reaction in Europe. In December, Emperor Napoleon III informed the British ambassador in Paris that he intended to send the French Navy to the Black Sea.

This was not unexpected; in early 1853, when Nicholas I was secretly discussing the prospect of splitting up the Ottoman Empire with the British, France and Britain agreed to coordinate all their actions related to the Eastern question.

After the Sinop operation, anti-Russian sentiment emerged in Britain and the press criticized England’s political elite for being “forgiving” towards the Russians. In January 1854 the Anglo-French fleet entered the Black Sea.

A few weeks later Napoleon III wrote an open letter to Nicholas I in a French newspaper, writing, “The thunder of the cannonade in Sinop has insulted the national pride of France and England”.[5] Napoleon III demanded the withdrawal of the Russian army from Moldavia and Wallachia.

Only after this would the allied ships leave the Black Sea. Soon Nicholas I’s reply was published in a Petersburg newspaper. The rhetorical communication between Europe’s influential emperors was not aimed at peace, and both countries cut their diplomatic ties.

The War

The theater of the Crimean War expanded from the Black Sea to the Caucasus, Baltic Sea, and the Far East. Each direction had its geopolitical significance, which later impacted negotiations. The Ottoman Army dealt its first blow to St. Nicholas Garrison on the shore of the Black Sea near the Ottoman border almost destroying it.

The Ottoman Army headed towards Alexandropol The clash near the village of Bayandur ended with victory for the Turks, but they decided to withdraw to Kars. Led by ethnic Armenian General Barsegh Behbutov, the Russian Army chased and heavily defeated them on the outskirts of Kars, near the village of Basgedikler.

Ottoman Forces suffered around 6000 casualties. England and France realized that the Ottoman Empire would not withstand Russia’s attacks without their support and in March 1854, France and England declared war on Russia.

At the very beginning of the war, the allies took advantage of their superiority in numbers and the technological backwardness of the Russian Army, successfully carrying out a land operation in Crimea and besieging Sevastopol, the main naval base of the Russian fleet in the Black Sea, in September 1854.

Attempts to break the siege were unsuccessful. The allies continuously shelled Sevastopol’s fortifications and the city, inflicting great human losses. A year later, in September 1855, the garrison in Sevastopol withdrew.

The Turbulent Caucasus

Reactions to the military operations in Crimea soon spread towards the East and created a threat for Russia in the Caucasus. Although Russia had conquered the Caucasus several decades before, its positions there were still not strong, facing difficulties with transportation routes passing through mountainous terrain, making it impossible to supply large numbers of troops with ammunition and heavy armament. Security at the rear was also disrupted by the prolonged war against the indigenous mountain people of the North Caucasus.

In March 1855, the fleet of the allies approached the port of Novorossiysk and heavily shelled the city. The fort’s garrison prevented the landing of Anglo-French forces. In May, the allies captured the city of Kerch, after which defending the coastal cities of Novorossiysk and Anapa became impossible, and the Russians left both cities. Thus, after intense battles lasting around two years, the Russian Empire lost significant territories of the Black Sea.

At the beginning of 1855, the Russian military leadership decided to recommence military operations on the Caucasian front. If they were successful, pressure on Sevastopol would decrease significantly. Prolonged fighting had considerably drained the Ottoman army.

In May, the Russian Army, led by General Nikolay Muravyov, crossed the Russian-Turkish border in two columns and moved towards Kars. As Turks outnumbered Russians, Muravyov did not attack the well-fortified fortress city of Kars. A loss would undermine Russian power in Transcaucasia––something Persia would take advantage of, and the Russians couldn’t fight on two fronts. At the end of August, the Ottomans sent help to the defenders of Kars, but the Russians crushed the unit and forced them to flee.

The situation at the besieged fortress-city was getting worse by the day. There were food shortages, and many were ill. Turkish and English officers constantly struggled against desertion.

At the end of September, the Russians attempted to capture the fortress by storm. The units of Generals Ivan Bazin and Yakov Baklanov had significant success but did not receive help and were forced to withdraw. The assault failed, with around 6000 Russian casualties.

After this failure, Muravyov abandoned the idea of a storm and proceeded to a long siege. After about two months the situation in Kars became dire. Famine and disease ravaged the fortress’ defenders. In November, English General William Fenwick Williams, one of the commanders in Kars, sent envoys to Muravyov to discuss the terms for the surrender of the fortress. The historian, Tarle, writes that Muravyov received Williams with great respect and military honors.

“I am a decent and honest man, I cannot lie. I will not boast about the abundance of our food, nor will I hide from you the disastrous state of the Kars garrison. The army is extremely emaciated. Because of deprivations, we lose 150 men in a day. We do not expect help from anywhere, and have only three days’ worth of bread left,” said Williams to Muravyov.[6]

The fort’s garrison surrendered on the following day. All foreign mercenaries were freed and allowed to leave the Ottoman Empire. The capture of Kars was a great military success for Russia and contributed to the end of the war in 1856. Furthermore, as we shall find out later, Kars considerably strengthened Russia’s negotiating positions.

The Negotiations

The Austrian Empire was the first to officially initiate proceedings to end the war. In December 1855, Austria’s Ambassador in St. Petersburg met with Russia’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Nesselrode and presented five terms to him, which, if fulfilled, would establish peace. If the suggestions were not accepted, the Austrian Empire threatened to side with the allies and declare war on the Russian Empire.

According to these terms, the Black Sea would be declared neutral territory, the Russian Empire would give up the protectorate of Moldavia and Wallachia, and the Danube would become freely navigable. The Russian Empire accepted that Ottoman Christians had to be protected collectively.

Tsar Alexander II finally accepted the terms. During the war, the size of the Russian army had increased by almost two and a half times its previous numbers. In 1855 alone, 900,000 men were drafted bringing the size of the army to 2.3 million.

A focus on military operations happened to the detriment of agriculture, and starting in 1853, the wheat harvest began to decrease. Russia’s southern regions were significantly damaged by the constant movement of troops, military operations, and additional taxes and duties collected to meet the needs of the military.

Furthermore, Russia was also at war on its southern front – in the North Caucasus, where North Caucasian peoples led by Dagestani Sheikh Imam Shamil began a rebellion.

In Paris

In February 1856, European representatives arrived in Paris, where on March 30, a peace treaty was signed. With the Treaty of Paris, Russia surrendered the fortress of Bomarsund in the Åland Islands and agreed to the freedom of navigation on the Danube. Russia also renounced the protectorates of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia, and surrendered its territories at the mouth of the Danube River and part of Southern Bessarabia to the Moldavians. All the Russian territories lost in the war – Sevastopol, Balaklava, Kerch, and Yeni-Kale – were returned to Russia.

Article III of the treaty stated that Russia would return the city of Kars to the Sultan, as well as the other parts of the Ottoman Territory of which Russian troops were in possession. Article XXX stated that the Russians and the Ottomans would “retain their dominion in Asia in full, in the composition which they legally possessed before the breakup.

To prevent all local disputes the borders shall be verified, and, if necessary, rectified, so that neither party suffers the loss of land. For this purpose, a Mixed Commission, composed of two Russian Commissioners, two Ottoman Commissioners, one English Commissioner, and one French Commissioner, shall be sent to the spot immediately after the re-establishment of diplomatic relations between the Court of Russia and the Sublime Porte. Its labors shall be completed within eight months after the exchange of the Ratifications of the present Treaty.”[7]

The Paris Treaty declared the Black Sea neutral territory, which would be open for international trade for ships of all countries. There would be free trade in all the ports of the Black Sea, under the supervision of only medical, police, and customs authorities. With a separate treaty signed with the Ottoman Empire, Turkey would prohibit the crossing of military ships through the straits other than those belonging to the countries of the Black Sea basin. This condition could only change if Turkey was involved in a war.

According to Soviet historiography, Russia was defeated in the Crimean war because of its economic, military, and industrial backwardness. In recent years, some experts think that the Russian Empire’s isolation led to its defeat. The Russian Empire faced opponents alone and had no allies, moreover was completely blockaded, gradually weakening its economic capacity and resistance.

Russians surrendered Kars to the Turks for the second time in 1856 through the Paris Treaty, receiving in return concessions in other more important areas for them. The Crimean War did not resolve the geopolitical rivalries of the involved parties. The fight for influence in the Black Sea region continues.

Mikael Yalanuzyan


1- А. Зайончковский, Восточная война, С.-П., 1908г., стр. 260:
2- Евгений Тарле, Крымская война, М.-Л. 1941-1944:
3- As it is well-known, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem belongs to the Orthodox, Armenian Apostolic, and Roman Catholic churches of Jerusalem.
4- История дипломатии, т. 1, М. 1959г., стр. 647։
5- История дипломатии, т. 1, М. 1959г., стр. 653։
6- Евгений Тарле, Крымская война, М.-Л. 1941-1944, стр. 494:
7- Հայաստանը միջազգային դիվանագիտության և սովետական արտաքին քաղաքականության փաստաթղթերում (1828-1923), Երևան, 1972թ., էջ 82-83:
8- Сборник договоров России с другими государствами, 1856-1917, М., 1952г., стр. 38-39:

P.S Please note that the sources are mainly Russian, and for complete objectivity, it is necessary to compare them with French and English sources. I see analogies between the Crimean war of that time and what is happening today in Ukraine, especially in terms of the mediocrity of Russian politics and the bloodthirstiness of the Russian establishment. Art-A-Tsolum

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