Russia vs. Ottoman Empire: A Centuries-Old Rivalry

From the 16th century to World War I, Russia and the Ottoman Empire constantly collided. This past rivalry is a fabric of legends.

Apr 6, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science
mustafa kemal ottoman empire ivan iv terrible russia

 

Turks and Russians have been interacting for centuries, going back to the early medieval era. Turkic people wandered in the steppe for more than a millennium; their origins go as far as the era of the great Göktürk Khanates that ruled on Eastern Siberia. But the greatest chapter of their history would happen at the time of the Ottoman Empire.

 

Turks arrived in Anatolia in the 11th century with the Seljuks and fought restlessly against the dying Eastern Roman Empire. In the late 13th century, the Turkish tribes of the region united under the banner of the Ottoman clan and took Constantinople in 1453, definitively ending more than two millennia of Roman history. The Ottoman Empire ruled supreme over the passes between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean from that point onward.

 

For Russia, this coincided with the end of Mongol rule. Under the banner of the Princes of Moscow, Russian principalities put an end to centuries of domination of the Mongol Golden Horde. An era of conquest in every direction ensued in order to gain more natural borders and access to the sea. The theater was set for one of history’s greatest rivalries, as both powers’ interests collided.

 

The 1st Contacts Between Russia & the Ottoman Empire in the 15th Century 

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Ivan IV the Terrible, Tsar of Russia by Viktor Vasnetsov, 1897, via history.co.uk

 

Following the fall of Constantinople, Ottoman rulers mainly focused on strengthening their hold on the Balkans and the Aegean Sea. The thirty years that ensued were marked by campaigns against Christian powers of the region such as Serbia, Hungary, and Venice. By 1480, Turkish domination over the Aegean was complete, and the Sultans turned their gaze to Central Europe and the Middle East.

 

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Led by Selim I, the Ottomans overwhelmed the Mamluk rulers of Egypt in 1517 and became the predominant power in the Muslim World. In 1520, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent rose to the throne and expanded into Europe, taking Belgrade in 1521, thus ruling over all Orthodox Christians living in Southeastern Europe. From that point onwards, the Turkish Empire expanded further North, gaining hegemony over the Crimean Tatars and reaching the walls of Habsburg Vienna.

 

As Muslims proliferated through the Balkans, a new center of Orthodoxy emerged in Moscow. The princes broke away from Mongol domination in the 1480s. By the time of Ivan IV, Moscow managed to unite all of the Russian principalities under its banner. Ivan’s rule allowed Russia to expand beyond the Ural Mountains into Kazan and Astrakhan and towards the Baltic.

 

Ivan IV’s expansionism was marked by a particular brutality towards anyone who stood in his way. His cruelty did not spare any: Muslims, Catholics, and even fellow Orthodox Christians were subjugated to massive killings, deportations, and massacres. As Turkic populations of Kazan and Astrakhan fled their homes, taking refuge in the Caucasus and Anatolia, Constantinople took a closer interest in the happenings in the north. The first conflict erupted between 1568 and 1570, ending in an unexpected Russian victory, which halted Ottoman influence over the region between the Don River and the Volga. This was the starting point of a centuries-long rivalry.

 

The Ukrainian Chessboard: A Century of Proxy-Warfare

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Zaporozhian Cossacks of Ukraine Writing a Letter to the Turkish Sultan by Ilya (Elias) Repin, 1878-91, via infoukes.com

 

The Crimean Khanate, a Tatar Vassal State of the Sultan, had a long history of harassing the Russian tsardom. Led by Deviet Girey Khan, the Tatars were halted only 50 kilometers south of Moscow at the Battle of Molodi in 1572. This event would set the tone for the next century, as Russians and Ottomans continuously harassed each other over domination in Ukraine through their respective local vassals.

 

During the 17th century, Russia and the Ottoman Empire progressively overran Polish possessions in modern-day Ukraine. In 1667, Moscow conquered numerous towns such as Kyiv and Smolensk and gained key positions on the Dnieper River. A mere decade later, the Ottomans took Southern and Central Ukraine from the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

 

The fragile Zaporozhian Sich, a semi-autonomous State of various Ukrainian Cossack chieftains, lingered between the two major powerhouses. This confederacy was closer to the Russians by faith but was tied by strong trade relations to the Ottomans through Crimea. Thus, Ukraine became the perfect ground for a game of influence between the two powers.

 

From 1676 to 1681, Moscow and Constantinople played a bloody chess game in Ukraine, which led to direct confrontations on some occasions. Those proxy wars eventually ended in a stalemate at the Treaty of Bakhchisarai, which instituted the Dnieper as a natural border between Russian and Ottoman-controlled territories, while the Ukrainian Steppe was kept as a neutral territory between the two powers. However, this truce ended as a new Russian Tsar rose to power.

 

Russia & the Ottoman Empire at the Dawn of the 18th Century 

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Peter I the Great, Tsar and Emperor of Russia, attributed to Jean-Marc Nattier, via The Culture Trip

 

In 1682, the 10-year-old Peter I rose to the Russian Throne. The young boy would grow into one of the most revered rulers of Russia and strongly modernize the country.

 

Hostilities between Russians and Ottomans resumed as soon as 1686. Moscow joined Austria, Poland, and Venice in a coalition against the Sultan. However, the tsar’s participation would be kept to a minimum, as he faced other issues at home. By 1699, Russia signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans, which granted the Russians the Fortress of Azov.

 

As Moscow was making peace in the South, a new threat arose from the North. The Swedish Empire, led by the young king Charles XII, declared war on Denmark, Poland, and Russia in what is known today as the Great Northern War. The Swedes won multiple battles and forced the Danes and Poles to their knees. However, Peter I resisted and conquered a vital piece of Swedish territory on the Baltic, where he established his new capital: Saint Petersburg.

 

In the meantime, a large army led by Charles XII himself was trapped in Ukraine and was severely defeated at the Battle of Poltava in 1709. The Swedish monarch was forced to flee and take refuge in the Ottoman Empire, persuading Sultan Ahmed III to declare war on Russia in 1710. The Turks successfully defeated the tsar’s armies during what was known today as the Pruth Campaign and regained the Fortress of Azov.

 

However, in the years that followed, Peter decisively defeated Charles, earning himself the epithet “The Great.” In the following years, Russia and the Ottomans took large parts of Persian territory in the Caucasus, opening a new gambit between the two major powers.

 

The Struggle Over Southern Ukraine & Crimea 

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Ukrainian Cossacks (left) and Crimean Tatars (right) painting by Carlo Bossoli, 19th century, via hurriyetdailynews.com

 

From the 1730s to the end of the 18th century, Russians and Ottomans fought three wars for dominance over the southern steppe of Ukraine and the Crimean peninsula. For the Russians, the main goal was to gain total control over the Dnieper River, totally annex the unruly Zaporozhian Cossacks, and get access to the Black Sea. It was the start of the southern expansion policy, whose aim was to grant Russia access to the “Hot Waters” – a policy that is still relevant today in Russian geopolitics.

 

The first conflict was officially due to the raids of Crimean Tatars on the Zaporozhian Cossacks of southern Ukraine. As the first were vassals of the Ottomans, Constantinople was deemed responsible by Saint Petersburg for the continuous border incidents. Cossacks and Tatars continuously raided each other for decades and were a major thorn in the side of both great powers.

 

In 1735, Russia successfully marched south with the help of Austria. However, this confrontation ended with an Ottoman victory in the Balkans and a stalemate on the Black Sea. In 1739, Vienna had to cede important territories to the Sultan, while Russia barely managed to regain the Fortress of Azov.

 

The Ottoman Empire imposed a tight blockade on Russian merchants in the following years. Saint Petersburg responded by launching various raids into Ottoman territory through their Ukrainian vassals. In 1764, under the rule of the freshly-crowned Catherine II, Russia annexed the Zaporozhian Cossacks. A new war that would definitely change the balance between the two powers was brewing.

 

The Reign of Catherine II: The Turning Point in the Russian-Ottoman Rivalry

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Catherine II, Empress of Russia by Fyodor Rokotov, via Saint Petersburg

 

Catherine II made her ambitions clear as soon as she ascended the throne: Russia had to conquer the northern shore of the Black Sea. The Ottoman sultan of the era, Mustafa III, was no less of a war-hawk than the empress and had ambitions of his own in Ukraine.

 

In 1768, Constantinople openly supported an anti-Russian insurrection in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. A series of major border incidents between Turks and Saint Petersburg followed. By September, the Sultan formally declared war on Russia, and a six-year conflict ensued.

 

By the start of the war, the tide seemed to favor the Ottomans. The Turkish Empire had a bigger army and dominated the seas. However, Catherine had a shrewd diplomatic mind and a great deal of talented officers at her disposal. Playing on the thin equilibrium between European powers, she managed to isolate the Polish opposition of the Bar Confederation and their French allies and promptly defeated them in 1772. In the meantime, officers such as Admiral Alexei Orlov and General Alexander Suvorov inflicted unexpected and disastrous defeats on the Ottoman forces. By 1774, the Turkish naval and land forces were totally annihilated, and Russian-backed revolts plagued nearly every corner of the Sultan’s realm.

 

This war allowed Russia to gain access to the Black Sea and dominion over Crimea, which broke the reputation of the Ottoman Army. A few years later, an Austrian and Russian coalition further weakened the Turkish Empire, and by 1791, Russia had full control over the northern shore of the Black Sea and Northern Caucasus.

 

Russian-Ottoman Rivalry in the 19th Century

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The Russian army crosses the Danube into Ottoman Bulgaria in June 1877 by Nikolay Dmitriev-Orenburgsky, 1883, via novinite.com

 

At the beginning of the new century, Russians and Ottomans seemed to have briefly put their differences aside as they faced the might of the French Napoleonic Armies. However, as early as 1806, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople were at each other’s throats again. This conflict could have ended in disaster for the Russians if not for a decisive campaign led by Field Marshal Kutuzov in 1811. The Turks were forced to admit Russian hegemony over Bessarabia.

 

Ten years later, Greece rose up against the Sultan. An international coalition led by Britain, France, and Russia coerced Constantinople into recognizing Greek independence. In the aftermath of this conflict, Russia gained access to the Black Sea coast and became the protector of Christians living in the Ottoman Empire.

 

Russian domination over the East resulted in a monopoly on grain exports, badly needed in the West. This led France and the UK to side with the Ottomans during the Crimean War. During this conflict, Russia was pushed out of the Danube and trapped in Crimea. Constantinople managed to regain some of its lost territories in the Balkans and the Caucasus. But the Russian threat was still looming on the declining Ottoman Empire. In order to save the Empire from decline, Sultans Abdulaziz, Murad V, and Abdulhamid II supported industrialization and army reforms. They also allowed the rise of a new form of nationalism, which led to strong discrimination towards the non-Turkish populations.

 

In the 1870s, the Balkans rose in revolt. In 1876, Russia intervened on the rebels’ side and crushed every Ottoman force on its path. In a matter of months, the tsar’s armies were on the doorstep of Constantinople. Only the threat of a British intervention stopped Saint Petersburg from giving the killing blow. The consequences of this conflict were the independence of Montenegro, Romania, and Bulgaria, and giving Cyprus to Great Britain. Feeling betrayed by London, the Sultan turned towards Germany. The last stage of the Russian-Ottoman rivalry had begun.

 

Russian-Ottoman Rivalry at the Dawn of the 20th Century

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Russian soldiers with nine Ottoman Empire’s banners captured after the fall of Erzurum, 1916, via hurriyetdailynews.com

 

As Russia’s ambitions in the Balkans became clear, the Ottoman Empire found solid allies in Germany and Austria-Hungary. Constantinople was very aware of French and British agendas in North Africa and the Middle East. By the 1900s, Algeria and Tunisia were already in French hands, Libya was independent in all but name, and the British were the unnamed lawmakers in Egypt despite nominal Ottoman rule. In addition, the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and the Levant were on the verge of open rebellion, as the local populations mistrusted the nationalist behaviors of the central governments.

 

On the other side of the Black Sea, Russia was on a direct collision course with Austria-Hungary over the Balkans. In addition, Tsar Nicholas II wanted to expand in the Caucasus and get his own piece of the Middle East. However, the Romanovs hold on power was growing weaker following the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the Revolution which ensued.

 

In June 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian nationalist. What followed was an avalanche of war and tragedy: Vienna declared war on Belgrade, Russia on Austria-Hungary, Berlin on Saint Petersburg, and France on Germany. By October, the war fever reached the Ottoman Empire, which in turn declared war on the Entente.

 

In the years that followed, the Russians led a successful campaign in the Caucasus, pushing all the way into eastern Anatolia and occupying Erzurum. According to the Sazanov-Paléologue and Constantinople Agreements signed in 1915 and 1916, Saint Petersburg was close to getting the highest prize of all: Constantinople, as well as total control over the Caucasus. But history had yet another turn.

 

The Fall of Empires: The End of the Rivalry Between Russia & the Ottoman Empire

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Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, Public Domain, via ThoughtCo

 

In February 1917, a revolution took down tsarist rule in Russia. From that point onwards, Russian armies were defeated on every front. In Anatolia, Ottoman armies regained lost lands all the way to the Southern Caucasus. In addition, Russia was shocked to its core by the October Revolution, which saw the Bolsheviks rise to power led by Vladimir Lenin.

 

In March 1918, Russia signed the peace Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers and ceded numerous territories. The Ottoman Empire got important gains in the Southern Caucasus but did not enjoy them for long.

 

In October 1918, the Turkish armies were totally defeated by the allies, and by the 31st, the Ottoman Empire signed the Armistice of Mudros. In August 1920, the Empire was subjected to the Treaty of Sevres, which divided the remaining Ottoman territories between France, Britain, Italy, Greece, and Armenia. However, Turkish nationalists, led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, opposed this deal and declared the emergence of an independent Republic of Turkey, and pushed all foreign armies out of the country.

 

Following its defeat, Russia fell into a bloody civil war which ended with the emergence of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, better known as the USSR. In the next few decades, the USSR and Turkey found themselves on opposite sides of the Cold War. Ankara went as far as to host American missiles in the 1950s. However, the two nations never came to direct confrontation.

 

Nowadays, Russia and Turkey enjoy a somewhat friendly relationship. President Putin was the first world leader to support President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during the failed coup d’état attempt of 2016. However, Moscow and Ankara are on opposing sides on several geopolitical and economic matters, and their rivalry could be reignited at any moment…



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By Ilyas BenabdeljalilMA Int'l Relations, BA Political ScienceIlyas holds a BA in Political Science and an MA in International Relations. He studied economy, sociology, public policy, and history and worked as a researcher for think tanks and consulting firms. It is his strong passion for political and military history that brought him to TheCollector. Nowadays, he is preparing for a PhD program in International Cooperation and Public Policy.