Crimean war redux, with Putin as Czar
In 2010, Orlando Figes, a distinguished British scholar specializing in Russian history, published a book titled Crimea: The Last Crusade. With the world focused on Crimea and Russia’s interventions there, the story of the 1853-56 Crimean War reminds us that there is nothing new under the sun – and that history can be as useful in helping us to understand the present and predict the future as it is in explaining the past.
The Crimean War pitted the Russians, under the leadership of Czar Nicholas I, against Britain, France and the tottering Ottoman Empire, which came together to prevent Russian expansion into the entire Black Sea region. Before it was over, the war resulted in the deaths of more than 800,000 people, 250,000 of them Russians buried in mass graves around Sevastopol.
“It left the Russians with a deep sense of resentment of the West, a feeling of betrayal that the other Christian states had sided with the Turks, and with frustrated ambitions in the Balkans,” wrote Prof. Figes. As for Nicholas I, “the man more than anyone responsible for the Crimean War, he was partly driven by inflated pride and arrogance … partly by a sense of how a great power such as Russia should behave toward its weaker neighbours, and partly by gross miscalculation about how the other powers would respond to his actions.”
But more than anything, he believed he was fighting a crusade on behalf of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire.
Although Prof. Figes’s book was published four years ago, its second-last paragraph contains an eerie premonition of things to come.
“Memories of the Crimean War continue to stir profound feelings of Russian pride and resentment of the West. In 2006, a conference on the conflict was organized by the Centre of National Glory of Russia with the support of Vladimir Putin’s presidential administration. The conclusion of the conference … was that the war should not be seen as a defeat for Russia, but as a moral and religious victory [and that] Russians should honour the authoritarian example of Nicholas I for standing up against the West in defence of his country’s interests. … Today, on Mr. Putin’s orders, Nicholas’s portrait hangs in the antechamber of the presidential office in the Kremlin.”
Mr. Putin’s rationale for the current intervention in the Crimea is to “protect” the large numbers of ethnic Russians living there – a rationale similar to that advanced by Nicholas I in the early stages of the Crimean War. It is a rationale that could easily be extended to justify similar interventions in the Baltic states, for instance.
In interpreting the motives behind Russian expansionism, there is also merit in heeding Prof. Figes’s warning to historians – equally applicable to Western politicians – not to underestimate the role of religious motivation in modern political conflicts. Mr. Putin’s personal support of the Eastern Orthodox Church, whose adherents face persecution in Muslim states on Russia’s southern border, could provide a rationale for Russian interventions there, as well – just as Nicholas I “believed that he was fighting a religious war, a crusade, to fulfill Russia’s mission to defend the Christians of the Ottoman Empire.”
To what extent Mr. Putin sees himself following in the czar’s footsteps is an intriguing question. Perhaps the same pride, arrogance, resentment and sense of mission are there – but not “the gross miscalculation of how other powers would respond to his actions.” In that respect, the Russian President appears to have calculated correctly that neither the United States nor the rest of Europe will mount much more than rhetorical protests and mild economic sanctions against Russian expansion in the Black Sea region.
That will only encourage Moscow’s dreams of restoring not the hegemony of the former Soviet Union, but the territorial aims and glories of the old Russian Empire once pursued by Nicholas I.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on March 18, 2014