Ankara to Black Sea

Turkey and Russia's Age-Old Struggle for Regional Supremacy

A game of Diplomacy, May 2014.
Diplomacy. (Gideon Rose)

The Ottoman Empire’s loss of Crimea to the Russian Empire in 1783 was a turning point in both civilizations’ histories. For the Ottomans, it was the first permanent loss of a major Muslim territory to a Christian power, in this case Catherine the Great’s Russia, which, like President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, had intervened in a Crimean civil war and eventually annexed the peninsula. For the Russians, it was the beginning of their country’s transformation into a global power; through the Black Sea, Russia could sail on the West.

From 1783 onward, Moscow used its sea presence to bedevil the Ottomans, winning more territory through considerable bloodshed and destruction. Moscow rapidly expanded its naval operations from the Black Sea into the Aegean and Mediterranean seas. As it did, European powers rushed to head off Russia at the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. The competition led to another war in Crimea, the Crimean War of 1853-56. This one was the result of British and French unwillingness to let Russia fully dominate the Black Sea at the expense of the Ottoman Empire, which also wanted influence in the area. The war was less a local skirmish than a preview of the world wars to come.

On paper, Russia lost the battle and the Ottomans won. In truth, though, it was French and British forces that had really won the war on behalf of the Ottomans. Even so, the Ottoman imperial administrators misinterpreted the victory, and feeling superiority, became lethargic. Russians, meanwhile, used the Crimean defeat as an opportunity to undertake a number of important reforms. In the end, the reforms did not prevent the demise of the Tsarist regime, but they did afford it a slower decline than the one that shook the Ottomans. Thus, by the late nineteenth century, Russia was ready to dominate the Ottoman Empire in the Caucasus, the Balkans, and the Black Sea once more.

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