Storm in the Crimean teacup

My history of the 1854/6 Crimean War (published in 2007) was influenced by Tolstoy’s insight that statesmen and generals are corks bobbing on the surface of the ocean who come to believe that it is they who are causing the waves to move. That’s also why the energetic activities of the world’s statesmen in connection with the latest developments in the Crimea do not convince me that war is imminent, and here is my take on the situation:

Ukraine: Russian empire-building or decolonisation?
The Ukraine was one of the Soviet Union’s largest and most wealthy republics. Its choice of independence in 1991 was a heavy blow to Russian pride, and President Putin’s current domestic popularity is based on nostalgia for the vanished USSR and its international prestige. Russia is now fomenting pro-Russian sentiment in Ukraine’s province of Crimea. Is Putin’s interference in Crimea an attempt to turn the clock back and re-establish an empire, a new ‘gathering of the Russian lands’? The answer is, paradoxically, that it is more likely to be a further step in the dissolution of the USSR.

The partition of the Ukraine, or rather the dismantling of a composite nation created by the Tsars out of a number of assorted conquests, is relatively simple. President Putin’s focus on separating the Crimean peninsula can be seen as a tacit admission that he accepts the defection of the western Ukraine to Europe where it originally belonged. The Budapest Memorandum failed to allow for this realignment just as the Treaty of Paris, which ended the Crimean war of 1854/6 by guaranteeing the integrity of the Ottoman Empire, failed to allow for legitimate separatist aspirations in that empire’s ill-assorted Balkan provinces. Western powers, particularly the UK and US signatories in Budapest, will come to recognise this.

Different parts of the modern Ukraine have different provenance. As far back as the time of Peter the Great in the early 1700s, before other nation-states in the region were fully formed, the modern Ukraine roughly east of the Dnieper was part of Russia. Peter’s successors pursued a strategy of conquering neighbouring states and absorbing their outlying provinces; they took the Crimea from the Ottoman Empire in 1783 and the western Ukraine from Poland in the 1790s. Although there was a tenuous religious link with the Crimea as the source of Russian Christianity a thousand years ago, the Crimea’s current strong ties to Russia date from much more recent times. It was the legendary and heroic Russian defence of Sevastopol, first against the British and their allies in 1854/6 and then against the Nazis, which guaranteed this Crimean port a status which can be described by that overused but oddly appropriate word ‘iconic’. After both of those sieges, Russia deported large numbers of non-Russian inhabitants on the grounds that they had sympathised with the invaders, and encouraged immigrants to take their place. The construction of the Russian naval bases drew in more Russian workers with the result that the Crimea is more ethnically Russian than any other part of the modern Ukraine.

This is not to say that it is in the interest of the Crimea’s population to be annexed to Russia; they have enviable assets which make their independence highly desirable including a benign climate, tourism, one of the world’s biggest natural harbours, and steady rent and employment income from the Russian bases. The Crimean parliament’s vote to become part of Russia is currently only a declaration of independence. If Western Ukraine were to become independent, and Russia were to show interest in annexing the Crimea, local sentiment can be expected to change.

Dismantling the Ukraine is a logical continuation of the process that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, which was the high-water mark of a quarter-millennium of steady expansion of Russia westward into Europe. Britain and others tried to stop this expansion at its half way point, in the Crimean War of 1854/6. That war was long regarded as an unnecessary and historically irrelevant mistake on Britain’s part; only since the collapse of the Soviet Union have historians understood how much was at stake. A majority of the Great Powers of Europe – Britain, France, Prussia, Austria and Russia – endorsed the action of Britain, France, and Turkey in invading the Crimea, one of the most recently annexed provinces, with a view to triggering wars of liberation there and in Russia’s other peripheral vassal states. It was a three-to-one decision by the ‘Security Council’ of the day – Prussia abstained – and lesser nations like Italy, Spain, and Sweden were queuing up to fight on the allied side against a completely friendless Russia. They were all frightened of Russia’s relentless expansion which had swallowed up an area of western Europe five times the size of France in the previous hundred years. These recent conquests included Finland, parts of the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine west of the Dneiper, the Crimea, and parts of the Caucasus.


Expansion of the Russian Empire 1750-1950

Expansion of the Russian Empire 1750-1950

Britain, committed to free trade, had a national interest in the Black Sea. It wanted to participate in the grain trade of the western Ukraine (‘the breadbasket of Europe’) and was blocked by Russian control of the Danube delta. But it was the divisions within the British establishment that caused the war of liberation to fail. The more reactionary elements did not want to halt the growth of the Russian Empire which they saw as a force for stability in Europe and a bulwark against the emergence of more liberal constitutionalist states. These conservatives controlled the army and were able to direct it against the naval base of Sevastopol in the Crimea on the grounds that, for them, Russia’s only crime was to challenge the Royal Navy for control of the seas. An exhausting and unnecessary siege of the blockaded naval base wore out the allies so that Britain lost the chance of establishing the whole Crimean peninsula as a new Gibraltar on the Black Sea, and of driving the Russians out of Chechnya. Britain might have acquired a reputation in the region as favourable as it has today in South America, which it had helped to liberate from Spain a generation earlier in the interests of free trade.

The spectacular failure of the Great Powers in the Crimean War caused the collapse of the Concert of Europe, the peacekeeping council that had emerged from the Congress of Vienna in 1815. From then on, realpolitik took over and states created opportunistic multilateral treaties which led inevitably to the Great War. Russia continued its expansion under the Soviets as steadily as under the Tsars, and the map shows the result. The Iron Curtain shown is the boundary of the states whose governments were installed by the Red Army, i.e. excluding Yugoslavia and Albania. The continuity of Russia’s expansion across the divide of the Great War, which destroyed the other European empires, is striking.

The fact that this expansion was independent of ideology, first Tsarist religious mania and then Soviet communism, gives a clue that it was driven by something other than ideology, national character, or military prowess. It owed much to geographic determinism and Russia’s origins in the centre of the Eurasian land mass. The logic of expansion suited a predominantly agricultural economy, when land was the main source of taxation and tribute. The break-up of the Russian empire can be seen as a natural consequence of the advance of education and industry and the decline of that agricultural economy. That is why President Putin won’t want to annex any part of the modern Ukraine. The job of emperor is not as easy as it used to be. It is no longer a case, as it was in the Tsar’s, the Bolsheviks’, or Julius Caesar’s day, of taking over a nation of uneducated tribute-paying farmers.
9 March 2014

Hugh Small is the author of The Crimean War: Queen Victoria’s War with the Russian Tsars (Tempus, 2007), a political, social,  and military history of the war.
The book is available on-line from Amazon, in paperback and in Kindle version.

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