It may surprise some people to know that the end of the month marks the 160th anniversary of the Crimean war. Florence Nightingale, Mary Seacole and the Charge of the light Brigade. Well, so what? Well, for one thing, tensions in the area are escalating again, and we are facing a re-run – and scarily the root causes of this tension is damn near identical to the kick off in March 1854.
So, for the previous couple of centuries, Russia was expanding its empire Southwards with the main purpose of gaining a toehold on ports in warmer waters such as the Black sea – so it could both trade and run a navy all year (It’s northern ports had a tendency to freeze much of the year) . This reached a pinnacle when Russia conquered both the Cossacks and the Tartars, thus gaining control of the Ukraine – and the Crimea into the bargain, with its main port, Sevastopol so crucial to Russian needs (both then and now) .
So, With the Ukraine in Russian hands, it’s role as a buffer state between the Ottoman empire and the Russian Empire was no more, making a conflict of sorts inevitable. Now, bring the French into this mess. You see, Europe at the time was divided into a number of powerful empires, Russia, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian and Prussian all head their main Power bases in Europe, whereas France, Spain. Portugal and Britain depended on overseas empires.
The French, Napoleon III, seeking to keep in with Catholic money sought to keep Catholic rights over the Christian sites in the Holy land (Part of the Muslim Ottoman Empire.) as well as being the defacto protector of Christians in the empire as a whole. Trouble was, the Russians were, thanks to treaties a century earlier, already in control of Christians and sites for the Orthodox Church. Well, Napoleon was pretty upset, and sent its technologically advanced warship , Charlemagne , to cruise the Black sea . The threat was taken in by the Ottomans, who immediately gave the control over to France.
Not surprisingly, this pissed the Russians off, and alongside a diplomatic offensive, invaded the states along the Danube, thus raising the tension. Britain and France sent fleets out to the Dardanelles, hoping to make the Russians back off. Britain, despite Tzar Nicolas trying to court British support. To British and French eyes, a strong Ottoman Empire held the Russians from expanding eastwards, thus protecting their Asian interests.
War was the inevitable conclusion from all these tensions, and at its conclusion, Sevastopol ended up given to the Russians as a concession on the treaties that followed, however they were not allowed to develop any naval presence there, this was reversed after the Franco-Prussian war in 1871 and Sevastopol began to be the home of the Russian Black sea fleet.
So, can we fast forward to 2014 now, and the state of play with the world powers. Russia to begin with. Despite a couple of rebrands, Russia still maintains much of its empire of those times – and has had a friendly agreement in place to keep its bases in Sevastapol. Europe, however has seen the old order ripped up and thrown away, Britain and France have lost pretty much all of their empires, Austro-hungary, Prussia and the Ottoman empire have long been consigned to the History books. America has replaced Europe as a main power since world war 2. Enter a new European power – the EU . This has been expanding in influence, membership and scope for years, and several former members of the Russian Empire are long-standing Members. Now, Ukraine is seeking to become a member of this empire, extending European influence eastwards further. Russia had no such issues with Poland joining , it has little strategic value. So, why is Ukraine’s potential membership causing this new tension?
Well, Ukraine takes the Crimea with it – the home of the Black sea fleet. that little power-base in the Black Sea that it fought so hard to keep 160 yrs earlier will fall under the influence of a different power. That, to Putin is unthinkable. And, despite stopthewar trying to couch this in terms of America, the States actually has little to do with this. If you look at the situation from the Russian view, and with the knowledge of the history, Russia has little choice but try to keep hold of the Crimea – it is of as much vital strategic importance now as it was then. It is an issue between the EU and Russia, two old enemies, fighting over a vital stretch of land.
So, the next few days and months are going to be vital, not just for the Crimeans & Ukrainians, but Europe as a whole. This is a real test of European unity, and Britain needs to be at the forefront of this, just as it was in 1856.