The war in Ukraine will reach a grim anniversary on August 24, when we will be six months away from a conflict whose outcome we still do not see.
Can history offer clues? Vladimir Putin likes to talk about World War II, Russia’s best war, but the closest parallel is probably the Crimean War, which lasted two and a half years, from 1853 to 1856, before the exhausted belligerents work out a peace agreement.
An underperforming Russian army failed to achieve any of its objectives. But the British and French, who forged an alliance with the Turks, met their own frustrations as they fumbled towards what at times seemed Pyrrhic victory. Surprisingly, one of the great legacies of the war was felt in the United States, where a series of unexpected events, linked to the defeat of Russia, helped to end slavery.
Can we learn lessons from the Crimean War today?
Wars end differently than they begin
Carl von Clausewitz wrote, “In wartime, more than anywhere else, things don’t go as planned.” Few expected a war in 1853. When it came, most predictions turned out to be inaccurate, including the belief that the Russian army was invincible, especially when fighting near the motherland .
The Crimean War began for the smallest of reasons, when Russian and French monks argued over who had the right to a key to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. It turned out that this key would open Pandora’s box, leading the Tsar of Russia, Nicholas I, to invade the Ottoman Empire in hopes of winning Constantinople, now Istanbul.
The Ottomans were joined by France and Britain, who sent ships and troops to the Black Sea. A war of attrition ensued, including naval battles as far away as the Baltic and the Pacific.
Badly trained soldiers fight badly
Before the Crimean War, the huge Russian army was feared throughout Europe. But his weakness soon became apparent. With demoralized troops, many young conscripts, or landless serfs, Russia lost most of the fighting and ended the conflict with its military reputation in tatters. Its weapons were vastly inferior to those of the British and French, who had frigates and steam guns that fired accurately over long distances.
Despite these advantages, the victory came at a high price and there were tensions within the alliance. Serious tactical errors prevented the French and British from winning more decisively and each side suffered around 250,000 casualties, most of whom died of disease. This led to a third lesson…
It’s hard to fight an unpopular war
The invention of the camera and the telegraph enabled a new breed of witnesses to cover the Crimean War in detail. There were still tales of bravery – a tasteless memory of the conflict was Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem The Charge of the Light Brigade, which turned into a colossal act of stupidity – a general’s reckless order to attack an impregnable position – in a puddle of Victorian piety.
But the spread of photography and quick dispatches from the front have muted this old-fashioned type of writing, just as cellphones have blunted Putin’s efforts to make his invasion a success, and have drawn attention. watch out for possible war crimes. Working from a wine wagon converted into a mobile darkroom, a British photographer, Roger Fenton, was able to capture the visual history of the war in stunningly clear images. Journalists filed stories from the front, so readers in London and Paris could experience the war from their armchairs. This helped build support when the war was going well, but it also increased the pressure when it was not going.
Even American readers followed the war, thanks to the remarkable reporting of a German journalist based in London, Karl Marx, who wrote 113 articles for the New York Tribune. Marx was a harsh critic of Russia’s military adventure, pointing out its strategic vagueness, incompetence, and utter waste of human life. Denouncing the tsar as an “imperial blunderer”, he poured vitriol that could make Putin wince today: “Only a miracle can get him out of the difficulties that overwhelm him and Russia with its pride, its superficiality and his stupidity.
A vague peace will lead to new problems
The Treaty of Paris ended hostilities in 1856, but left many other concerns unaddressed, including the porous borders of southeastern Europe – the “Eastern Question” would plague rulers until the end of the war. World War I in 1914. After a relatively long peace following the Napoleonic era, the Crimean War sparked new volatility in great power politics. Europe would see a series of nasty little wars before the immense carnage of the 20th century.
Wars have far-reaching consequences
Nicholas I died in 1855. His son, Alexander II, accepted defeat but then did a remarkable thing. In examining the causes of the disaster, he recognized that Russia’s performance was tied to its rigid class structure and heavy reliance on serfs. Accordingly, he abolished serfdom with an Emancipation Proclamation on March 3, 1861.
Coincidentally, it was the day before Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration as President of the United States. Lincoln understood the power of precedent and issued his own Emancipation Proclamation on the first day of 1863.
In other words, a war that had nothing to do with freedom when it started helped make possible one of the greatest enfranchisements in history, on another continent a decade later.
The American purchase of Alaska was another legacy. After Crimea, the young Tsar knew he could not defend this distant frontier and decided to sell it to a nation with the more realistic hope of one day populating it.
In this, and in so many other ways, we continue to live in a world shaped by a small, mostly forgotten war in southeastern Europe.