The Crimean War of 1853-56 and How It Affected the Diplomatic Scene of Europe

The Crimean War, which lasted from October 1853 to February 1856, was a military conflict between the Russian Empire on the one hand and an alliance between the Ottoman Empire, France, Britain, and the kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia on the other. It is worth noting that the Kingdom of Greece also played a peripheral role in this conflict. The war took its name from the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea, in the territory of which it was conducted. The catalyst for the outbreak of the war was the dispute over the rights of the Christian minorities in Palestine, which was part of the Ottoman Empire. The French promoted the rights of Roman Catholics, while Russia promoted those of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Also, the Russian Emperor, Nicholas, demanded the Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire be placed under his protection. However, the real causes of the war involved the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the expansion of the Russian Empire south-eastwards. The Czar was attempting to expand his influence over the Middle East and the eastern Mediterranean at the expense of the declining Ottomans. The British and French, in turn, saw Nicholas’ power grab as a danger to their trade routes, and were determined to stop him. The subject of this article will be how the diplomatic scene of Europe changed because of this war. A brief reference will be made to the events of the war too.

The stand of the 93rd (Highlanders) British Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.
The stand of the 93rd (Highlanders) British Regiment of Foot at the Battle of Balaklava in 1854.

The Status Quo Before the War

In early 1853, Europe was still in the aftermath of the revolutions of 1848. Napoleon III sought to maintain the French as a leading power in Europe and in the eastern Mediterranean. The German states, which were not yet unified, were trying to recover from their defeat by Denmark in the first Schleswig war (1848-1852) and and deciding whether to come under the protection of Austria or Prussia. For its part, Austria was attempting to maintain stability in central Europe by keeping equal distances from Russia and Western Europe. In the Italian Peninsula, the process of unification had already begun. The kingdom of Sardinia-Piedmont, with Count Cavour as its Prime Minister, were looking for allies to this direction (more here).


In addition, the Ottoman Empire had been in decline since the 1820s. Russia wanted to take advantage of the situation and expand its influence. Keeping this in mind, it aimed to annex Danubian principalities from the Ottoman Empire and to become the protective power of all the Christian subjects of the Sultan of the Ottomans. Britain and France see these actions as a threat to their interests in the Middle East, but Russia does not expect them to react intensively. Instead it expects Austria to remain neutral. It is noteworthy that in 1849, the Russians had actively helped the Austrians to suppress the Hungarian revolution (more here). As the situation between the European powers is intense, the issue of the Holy Land in Palestine becomes the cause for the outbreak of hostilities (Brain, n.d.).

Map of the Crimea and the Black Sea, 1854.
Map of the Crimea and the Black Sea, 1854.

Military Events of the War

Supported by Britain, the Turks stood against the Russians, who occupied the Danubian principalities (modern Romania) in July 1853. On October 4, the Turks declared war on Russia, because the Russian fleet destroyed a Turkish squadron at Sinope. Then, the British and French fleets entered the Black Sea on January 3, 1854, to protect Turkish transports. On March 28, Britain and France declared war on Russia too. To satisfy Austria and avoid having that country also enter the war, Russia evacuated the Danubian principalities. Austria occupied them in August 1854.


In September 1854, the allies landed troops in Crimea and began a siege of the Russian fortress of Sevastopol. Major engagements were fought at the Alma River, Balaklava, and at Inkerman. On January 26, 1855, Sardinia-Piedmont entered the war against Russia. Cavour hoped to ally with France in order to have a potential ally in his effort to unify Italy. On September 11, 1855, after a successful French assault on Malakhov, a major strongpoint in the Russian defenses, the Russians blew up the forts, sank the ships, and evacuated Sevastopol.


As said above, Greece played a peripheral role in this war. When Russia attacked the Ottoman Empire in 1853, Greece saw an opportunity to annex Ottoman areas that had large Greek Christian majorities. So, the Greeks invaded Thessaly and Epirus and supported Russia, but the Russian government decided it was too dangerous to help Greece expand its territory into the Ottoman Empire. To block further Greek moves, the British and French occupied the main Greek port at Piraeus and effectively neutralized the Greek army. Greece was not invited to the peace negotiations and made no gains out of the war (Figes, 2010).

The Allied landing in the Crimea, September 1854.
The Allied landing in the Crimea, September 1854.

The End of The War

Despite being allies with Russia, the Austrians threated to join the war on the allied side and the Russians finally surrendered. The Treaty of Paris was signed in March 30, 1856 and the war was ended. Russia agreed to give back southern Bessarabia, at the mouth of the Danube, the Black Sea was demilitarized, and the Danube River was opened to the shipping of all nations. However, tensions between the Russians and the Turks continued for decades (History, 2009).


Conclusion and Aftermath

The war did not settle the relations of the powers in Eastern Europe, but it did change the alliances between them. The new Russian emperor Alexander II, who succeeded Nicholas I in March 1855, realized that he must radically reform the Russian state in order to compete successfully with the other European powers. Austria, having sided with Great Britain and France, was no longer allied with Russia and lost its support in central European affairs. Austria became dependent on Britain and France, which led to its defeat in two successive wars in 1859 and 1866 by Italy and Prussia. One could even argue that this dependence was the starting point of a chain of events that led to the Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867 (more here) and the decay of the Austrian prestige abroad. Metternich would certainly be very disappointed. The kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia found in Napoleon III and France the powerful ally it was looking for, to proceed with the unification of Italy. The French even helped the Italians militarily in their war against Austria in 1859. In this indirect way, the Crimean War of 1853-56 contributed to the unification of Italy and Germany (more here). Finally, the Greeks, although they did not take part in the war, lost the favor of the British and the French, because they tried to support Russia.


References


Image Sources

Beeger, M. and Faure, A. (1854). The Allied landing in the Crimea, September 1854. [Coloured Lithograph]. National Army Museum, Study collection. Retrieved from: https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1979-07-145-1

Gibb, R. (1881). 'The Thin Red Line', 25 October 1854. [Oil Painting]. National Army Museum, Study collection. Retrieved from: https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1956-02-721-1

Unknown. Map of the Crimea and the Black Sea, 1854. [Map]. National Army Museum. Retrieved on March 26, 2022 from: https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/crimean-war


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Miltos Spiratos

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