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31 August 2016

Crimea. 160 years of “imminent confrontation” between Russia and Europe

Russia makes itself an object of the European “deterrence” policy in taking unprovoked first steps to expand its possessions in Europe

Nearly one hundred and sixty years passed between the Crimean War (1853-1856) and the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, with the subsequent warfare in the east of Ukraine. The long decades that separate these events hamper the delineation of a number of historical parallels, which nevertheless deserve unbiased assessment.

It is believed that the first Crimean War exposed the full extent of the backwardness of Russian society in economic, political as well as military and technological respects. It triggered changes which subsequently took shape in the abolition of serfdom, and the institution of ambitious reforms. It also largely set the country on a new path. However, this interpretation seems one-sided: apart from the reforms and a certain “Europeanisation”, the first Crimean War left Russia with something else – something that led it straight into the second war. I’m talking about the overt shift in the intellectual and political perspective of the national élite.

Having faced a situation in which hostilities of varying intensity broke out along the entire perimeter of the empire (apart from the famous Battle of Sevastopol, clashes also occurred in various other places: near Sinop and along the entire Caucasian coastline of the Black Sea; in the Danube estuary and the Sea of Azov; Kronstadt and the Solovetsky Islands were bombed by enemy squadrons; the battle most remote from the capitals was the attempted assault of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatsky by Allied squadrons), for the first time, the Russian “political class” thought not so much about the fact that the country was part of the “concert of superpowers” as it did about the probability that the country could become the victim of a “strategic siege”, and face an orchestrated deterrence policy.

In my opinion, this tenet defined Russian intellectual tradition for the period “from Fyodor Tyutchev to Vladimir Putin”. Prior to the first Crimean War, confrontation with the West had never been seen by Saint Petersburg as something Russia was inherently doomed to. And certainly very few people supposed that attempts would be made to “deter” the empire.

This was primarily due to the fact that for many centuries, Russia had contributed to the common European policy and had been one of the larger participants in the great European conflicts. Even the first great war waged by European Russia – the Great Northern War (1700-1721) – was a complex military-and-political endeavor. In this war, Russia was backed by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Denmark-Norway, Prussia, Saxony, Hanover and several smaller German principalities. Together with Sweden, Austria, France and Spain, Russia fought in the Seven Years’ War against Prussia and Great Britain (before it “defected” and switched sides in 1761). Then of course, there are the Napoleonic Wars, in which the Russian Empire fought against post-revolutionary France in alignment with Great Britain and the majority of the great continental powers. Russia was not in opposition to “Europe”, but a natural constituent part of it, in all the confrontations of the 18th and first half of the 19th centuries.

Moreover, no one in Russia developed any complexes about the fact that the country was not able to achieve its geopolitical ambitions. As a result of the Great Northern War, Russia expanded by encompassing Karelia, Estland, Livonia and Courland. It then obtained East Prussia in the aftermath of the Seven Years’ War, and subsequently partitioned Poland. Novorossiya, the ill-fated Crimea and the extensive Danube lands were annexed by Russia in the second half of the 18th century. The Napoleonic Wars further extended Russian borders and Finland was eventually incorporated into the Russian Empire. If we consider that “Europe” spent a century and a half fending off Russia and trying to limit its territorial appetite, we would have to admit that this was the most mediocre and ineffective political policy ever pursued by the European states.

Meanwhile, the specifics of the first Crimean War included the fact that Russia’s idiotic policy resulted in its involvement in the first conflict in its modern history in which the Russian Empire ended up having not a single European ally (let me remind you that the reasons for the conflict were the Russian attempt to occupy Moldavia and Wallachia, and the showcase dispute between Russia and France over custody of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem). Humiliating defeat in this war generated the shock which resulted in the development of the mainstream “political science”, which propagated delusional fabrications about “imminent confrontation” between Russia and Europe; the “moral” Orthodox world and the “immoral” Catholic world; Russian continental might and “naval” England. The Russo-Turkish War for the “liberation” of the Balkans (mediocre in terms of results) was waged in the 1870s against this backdrop. Attempts were also made to enlarge the possessions of the Russian Empire in the South Caucasus. Russia even reached the border of the British protectorate in the Hindu Kush as a result of the entire Central Asian Campaign of the 1870s-1880s. However, in the end the Russian Empire claimed the most useless part of the Caucasus.

Let us note that the first Crimean War began when the 1848 revolutions were suppressed not without Russia’s participation, and the new configuration of political forces emerged. Turkey was in decline and the leading superpowers were deeply immersed in their own problems. In other words, nobody was threatening Russia, nobody was stopping its gradual deterioration while it was put to sleep by unquiet slumbers about its uniqueness.

Later on, Russia came to its senses and the country returned to its former status, having reestablished itself as a European superpower actively participating in European policy, despite Slavophile and anti-European intellectual endeavors. Such was its status not only during World War I, but also World War II, when the Soviet Union ultimately destroyed the Nazi regime in a broad coalition with the UK, France and the USA, having previously enacted Poland’s partition, in alliance with Fascist Germany. And even after World War II, when discussions about the deterrence of the Soviet Union were much more well-grounded, such Western policy did not prevent the USSR from establishing control of Eastern Europe as well as imposing satellite regimes from Cuba to Mozambique, Angola to Vietnam. No matter the attitude to the Soviet Union’s foreign policy, it was active foreign policy stemming from a feeling of strength possessed by one of the two superpowers.

Actually, the developments in Russia in recent years are strikingly similar to those of the days of the Crimean War. On the one hand, the country is gradually “sinking” into economic turmoil (in the days of Nikolai it was impossible to provide military supplies to Crimea, whereas Putin could probably rule for the next fifteen years on the prospects of  the modern highway between Moscow and Saint Petersburg eventually being built). And, as in the late 19th/early 20th century, Russia is unlikely to undergo modernization without European technologies and capital. On the other hand, anti-Western rhetoric is gaining momentum against the backdrop of the pursuit of messianism and “Russian Orthodox bigotry”, which was also observed in 1848-1853, although Russia was not and is not in fact threatened by the West. And the second Crimean War (which includes hostilities in eastern Ukraine) has repeated the “success” of the war from one hundred and sixty years ago in at least one other respect: it has become the first war in many decades in which Russia has got involved in yet another conflict in Europe without a single European ally.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Russia makes itself an object of the European “deterrence” policy in taking unprovoked first steps to expand its possessions in Europe, which is understandable and predictable. What is less clear is why (or for what purpose) the theory - that it is Europe itself which is trying to besiege and neutralize Russia - is born in the debris of the imagination of Russian ideologists, and why it precedes these desperate moves. Politically, as we can see, subsequent developments have forced Russia to follow a realistic political course to a greater or lesser extent, and to strive to “return” to Europe, although the intellectual virus of isolationism and anti-Western sentiment seems to be burning deeper and infecting not only the ”highly-educated” classes, but also the majority of Russian society. It will perhaps be more difficult to eradicate this virus within the next few decades compared to the second half of the 19th century, despite the fact that the development of social and political reforms is unrolling faster now than in those days. But despite this, recovery from this ailment which has fallen upon us again, seems inevitable.

One more point. If we were to follow the historical parallels directly, there is one more important “stop” between the first Crimean War and the ultimate return of Russia to the entente cordiale, and it is an important one for those who believe that the place of our European allies can be taken by Asian ones. Let me remind you of the 1898 Convention for the Lease of the Liaotung Peninsula (signed between Russia and China) and the brilliant “turn towards the East” which ended, as is well-known, in the Battle of Tsushima. We can only hope that ultimately, contemporary Russia does not deserve the repetition of such a historical “squiggle”…

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