The Impact of Crimean History: The Danger of Playing One Upski with Putin


2014-03-11 by Kenneth Maxwell

The Crimea has seen international conflict before.

The Crimean War between 1853 and 1856 was a disaster for all the parties involved causing over 300.000 deaths, 80,000 killed, 40.000 wounded and over 100.000 who died of disease. The British army alone lost 2,755 men killed in action, 2,019 wounded, and over 16,000 to disease.

The Crimean War was a conflict that involved an alliance of the Ottoman Empire with France. Great Britain and Sardinia, against an expansionist Russia. It was the result of fatal blundering by inept leaders who were also responding to an aroused public opinion feed by news quickly accessible over the new telegraph cables, first laid to the Black Sea by the French 1854 and by the British in 1855. News reached London thereafter in a day.

Siege of Sevastopol by Franz Roubaud. Credit: Wikipedia
Siege of Sevastopol by Franz Roubaud. Credit: Wikipedia

The Crimean War was the first conflict to be recorded by the new invention of photography.

But the war most notable for multiple logistical, tactical, and medical failures on all sides.

Russia wanted a warm water port on the Black Sea and was pushing south into the territory long ruled by the Ottoman Turks. Russia claimed to defend the Orthodox Christians under Muslim rule. But France also claimed the right to protect the Catholic Christians under Ottoman rule. But this was an excuse for conflicting geostrategic and financial objectives in the Back Sea and Eastern Mediterranean.

Russia lost in the medium term. So did the Ottomans.

The struggle produced memorable moments.

The Russians held out in the fortress of Sevastopol for over a year. The battle of Balaclava went down in history for the disastrous charge of the British light cavalry brigade into Russian artillery, memorialized in a famous poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

The French commander, General Pierre Bosquel, said of the charge of the light brigade, where 278 out of the 700 British cavalrymen were killed or wounded: “C’est manifique, mas n’est pas la guerre.”

The consequences of the war were manifold.

In the Baltic, Immanuel Nobel, father of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize, helped Russia by adapting industrial explosives, nitroglycerin and gunpowder, for use in naval mines. On the battlefields in the Crimea, Florence Nightingale, and the Jamaican nurse Mary Seacole, revolutionized the treatment of wounded solders .

Russia did expand eventually to incorporate the Crimean peninsula and established its Black Sea Fleet.

In 1954 Soviet leader Nikita Khushehev decided that the Crimea would be part of Ukraine, not anticipating of course the break up of the Soviet Union.

Putin certainly knows the history and it is clear his advisers do as well. As to Obama that is another story.

And the Russians not only remember the history but negotiated the naval treaty because of that history.

For Europe and the US to play one upski without a clear strategic end in sight will only play to Putin’s advantage.

Putin plays chess; and the Western leaders?

Editor’s Note: For a look at the dangers of one-upski in the current crisis in Crimea see the following: