What was the legacy of the Crimean War?
What was the impact of the Crimean War? Professor Andrew Lambert explains...
For many years, the Crimean War was remembered as a distant and chaotic conflict of no great importance. But when, in 2014, Vladimir Putin seized the Crimea and then followed that in 2022 with his invasion of Ukraine, he reminded the world that Russian empires have pushed south and west for the past 500 years, subjugating other peoples to enhance their own security.
Russian empires have pushed south and west for the past 500 years
It had been the unprovoked seizure of two Turkish provinces in 1853 that started the first great power conflict in Europe since 1815. British ministers had long anticipated the attack, and supported the victim, so along with France they gave Russia one last chance to avoid war. This was ignored, so the Anglo-French declaration of war came in late March 1854. In the end, Russia was defeated in a war that stretched across four theatres – the Pacific, the Black and White Seas, and the Baltic – with the allies relying on British maritime strategy, combining economic warfare with coastal attacks. The Crimean campaign was intended to destroy Russia’s Black Sea fleet and naval base at Sevastopol, thus preventing them from seizing Constantinople (now Istanbul).
- Read more | A timeline of the Crimean War
The conflict was a clash of cultures: on one side was an autocratic military state built on conscript armies, censorship and internal surveillance, which was defeated by a coalition of progressive western states, relatively inclusive politics and technologically advanced economies. While Russia suppressed news of defeats, incompetence and casualties, Britain’s war was conducted with maximum disclosure through the House of Commons and a free press. An upshot of this resulting war of words was an enduring, if misleading, impression of failure in Britain – widely attributed to amateurish aristocratic leaders – while highlighting the contribution of figures such as Florence Nightingale. It is high time the grotesque caricature of the Crimean War as restricted to a series of blundering military operations outside Sevastopol be laid to rest.
In the 21st century, Russia’s attacks on Georgia and Ukraine have attempted to restore the nation’s control over its old empire, and have revived the aggressive rhetoric of faith and nationalism that shaped decisions back in 1853. Putin’s politics rely on war, anxiety, conquest and the exploitation of the powerful presence of the Crimean War in Russian culture. (Leo Tolstoy’s experiences at Sevastopol, for example, shaped the battle scenes in his epic War and Peace.) As with 1853–56, the events of 2022 have exposed Russia’s economic and technological weaknesses and its dependence on foreign capital, technology and markets.
- Read more | The major innovations of the Crimean War
The Crimean War was won by applying economic pressure, blocking bulky Russian exports and denying the Russians access to international capital markets. Faced with mounting losses, humiliating defeats, bankruptcy and a growing coalition of enemies, the regime realised its survival depended on making peace. I doubt anything has changed.
This article was first published in the January 2023 issue of BBC History Revealed
Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London.
Subscribe to BBC History Magazine and receive a signed copy of 2023 edition Windrush: 75 years of modern Britain by Mike Phillips and Trevor Philips
As a print subscriber you will also get FREE access to HistoryExtra.com worth £34.99