Gathering Storm Clouds - Ukraine Crisis 2022 - A Lesson from History

“History seldom repeats itself, but it does often rhyme.” Mark Twain. 

Great Power Competition, an eastern leader with alleged intent to expand empire, one empire in decline, military build-up and response on both sides, diplomatic efforts to negotiate, threats, misunderstanding, fear, an alliance intent on preventing the other side’s western expansion, naval manoeuvres in the Black Sea, tension further north in the Baltic, recent war in the Caucasus and friction in the North-Western Pacific.  One might think that this is a clear description of the situation today in 2022, centred around the future of Ukraine, but it describes the situation of 169 years ago.  In 1853, a similar set of problems beset world leaders of the Great Powers, which led to the Crimean War of 1853-1856. It was a war that turned out to be completely unnecessary and cost all sides a huge amount in resource, finance, reputation and above all, lives, and was characterised by its, ‘notoriously incompetent international butchery’[1].

Today, there may be more factors at play, such as energy supplies and cyber attacks, but we can learn from history.  This might allow world leaders to solve the current impasse more easily than in 1853. If our statesmen/women and leaders of today seek a more permanent settlement in the region and without the need to shed nations' blood and treasure, it would be well worth them revisiting the cause, build up, history and consequences of the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The similarities to today’s international crisis are chillingly similar.

The initial cause of the Crimean War centred around a religious dispute in the Holy Land over who was responsible for guardianship of Christian sites in the then Ottoman controlled region of Palestine (the dispute being whether it was for the French Catholics or Russian Orthodox Churches to be in charge).  After the Russians felt that they had been marginalised, in mid 1853, a confident Emperor Nicholas I occupied the former Ottoman territories of the ‘Danubian Principalities’, (now part of Romania). The comparison today could perhaps be the contested Donbas area of Eastern Ukraine and Russia’s assistance in the occupation of the area. Back in 1853, with the support of a French and British alliance, (who feared Russian expansionism towards the Mediterranean), the Ottoman empire declared war on Russia and engaged the Russians in both modern day Bulgaria (Silistra) and in the Caucasus at Kars (now part of modern-day Turkey, but for this analogy, think nearby of the recent conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia). Although the Ottomans were relatively successful on land, the Russian Navy destroyed a Turkish fleet at the Battle of Sinop. Worried that this would give the Russians the upper hand in the Black Sea region, in early 1854 the French and British alliance ordered their own Task Force to enter the Black Sea (think of the current NATO maritime manoeuvres there today), where they landed at Varna (modern day Bulgaria) just in time to see the Russian occupation force withdraw from Silistra. This possibly could have been the end of the conflict, however, the frustrations of seeing the wasted effort of their deployment and not wanting to be seen to back down, led the alliance to target the Russian naval base and presence at Sevastopol, the main town of the Crimea. It then took a two-year campaign, bloody battles, such as Inkerman, the Alma and Balaklava and a long siege of Sevastopol before the Russians agreed to withdraw, with no side being able to claim a worthwhile victory. 

The analogy does not stop at the Crimea region. In 1854, the largest naval fleet since the Napoleonic Wars, made up of a French-British alliance of new steam powered ships, deployed to the Baltic, (think of today’s deployment of NATO troops to the Baltic States) and carried out a series of naval bombardments of Russian forts in an effort to strangle the Russian economy, which depended on trade with the Baltic States from the then capital, St Petersburg. Finally, thousands of miles away on the other side of the world, a further French-British naval fleet attacked the Russian naval base at Petropavlovsk, Russia’s northern Pacific port on the Kamchatka Peninsula. Although of little strategic significance to either side in the Crimean War, it nevertheless demonstrates again the global nature of the Crimean War, (think of today of tensions a little further south over the future of Taiwan and how China has expressed support for Russia on its Ukraine position). 

This global Crimean War of 1853-1856 did not need to happen and nor does there need to be conflict in Ukraine, the Baltic or the Caucasus today, though the risk of conflict increases by the day. History is littered with brutal conflicts in all of these areas, where the wrong strategic decisions were made, taken out of fear, greed or of misunderstanding the other sides genuine intentions. We should be able to learn much from history that helps us prevent global conflict in regions of tension, but as the German philosopher Georg Hegel famously said, “The only thing that we learn from history is that we learn nothing from history.”   In 2022, it would be refreshing to prove him wrong.





[1] A brief History of the Crimean War, Alexis S. Troubetzkey 2006 p. 208.