One hundred sixty-eight years ago today, France and Britain declared war on Russia, a conflict waged on the Crimean peninsula for three years. The causes of the war reflect a rapidly changing set of empires across eastern Europe, especially the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire, exacerbated by struggles among competing religions.
In the 13th century, Genghis Khan and his Mongolian armies, called the Golden Horde, swept through Asia and into parts of eastern Europe, establishing a thriving empire. About 1400, Crimean Tatars defeated the Golden Horde to establish the Crimean Khanate (khan meaning ruler or chief) as a vassal state of the Ottoman empire. The reign lasted from 1441 to 1783, when Russia annexed the territory following a war with Turkey.
Over time, European nations had established new maritime trade routes that avoided the virtual monopoly exercised by Ottoman. The slow degradation of the Ottoman empire created a vacuum in the region, which Russia sought to fill. Increased Russian expansionism threatened the balance of power interest Britain and France relied upon and made more fragile by the loss of Ottoman buffer zones in eastern Europe.
The tenuous balance of power was supported and enforced by the Holy Alliance, a coalition of powers among Austria, Prussia, and Russia created after the defeat of Napoleon and signed into effect in 1815. Britain and France viewed Russian expansionism with alarm. As the Ottoman rule continued its slide, the size of the vacuum increased and by 1854, their patience and restraint had been exhausted.
Russian ground forces and its navy were vanquished in the three year conflict as they were poorly trained and supplied for what passed as modern warfare at the time. Under the Treaty of Paris (1856), Russia agreed to refrain from deploying warships in the Black Sea. Now, the setbacks to the Russian empire created fears that it would lose further territorial advantages and decided to sell Alaska to the US in 1867.
Following the Russian Revolution of 1917, Crimea became an autonomous republic within the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). It was later downgraded to the Crimean Oblast (region) when its entire Tatar population was deported to Siberia, an act designated as genocide by Ukraine and three other nations. In 1954, under Nikita Khrushchev, Crimea was transferred to the Ukraine SSR.
When the USSR dissolved in 1991, Ukraine declared itself independent. Throughout the long, tortured relationship that existed between Russia and Europe, it had always focused upon securing a warm water port on the Black Sea. To this end and with collateral claims of ethnographic identity, Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. In February of this year, Russia invaded Ukraine, offering similar rationales updated to allege that Ukraine was under the control of neo-Nazis.
In December 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan to prop up its communist government against the Muslim mujahedeen as a southern border buffer state and gateway to India. Ten years later, Russia withdrew in failure of its objectives.
The outcome in Ukraine is not as yet settled.