The Crimean War: How It Reshaped Geopolitics

The Ottoman Empire is facing eradication. Tsar Nicholas I of Russia is moving in to give the final blow. But France and Britain intervene, thus beginning the Crimean War.

Feb 4, 2022By Ilyas Benabdeljalil, MA Int'l Relations, BA Political Science

crimean war battle malakoff british soldiers


The rivalry between Russia and the Turkic Peoples goes back to the early Middle Ages when the Kievan Rus’ fought numerous conflicts with neighboring Khanates. The continuous fighting of Russians and Turks would shape the modern map of the Caucasus and Central Asia. As both peoples formed various states, their rivalry reached nearly a permanent state of war in the 18th century. The Ottoman Empire’s expansion came to a brutal halt in the late 16th century. Meanwhile, Russia progressively swallowed large parts of Turkish territory.


By the mid-19th century, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire became only a matter of time. Russia seemed to be all-powerful in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. By the 1850s, Tsar Nicholas I was aiming to give the killing blow to the Sultan. But the fall of the Ottomans by Russian hands would mean total dominion of Saint Petersburg over the Eastern Mediterranean, which was unacceptable for most European Powers.


When Russia declared war on Constantinople, France and Great Britain took the side of the Sultan and intervened in what would be remembered as the Crimean War. This conflict would be the first major disruption of the Congress of Vienna established in 1815 and would change the geopolitical alliances on the European Continent forever.


The Eastern Question: A Prelude to the Crimean War 

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Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, via the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents, Moscow


The Ottoman Empire steadily weakened during the first half of the 19th century. The Serbian Uprising of 1804 saw the emergence of the first autonomous Christian State in the Balkans since the 16th century. Defeat against Russia in 1812 led to significant territorial loss in Romania, and the Greek Rebellion allowed the Kingdom of Greece to gain independence in 1829.

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Additionally, the Ottomans had to sign the Treaty of Adrianople with Russia, which allowed the latter free access to the Mediterranean through the Black Sea Straits. In North Africa, France successfully occupied the Beylik of Algiers, establishing the Colony of Algeria. Moreover, Egypt, Tunisia, and Tripolitania became independent in all but name, establishing direct liaisons with European Powers despite being nominally under Constantinople’s rule.


On the other side, Russia enjoyed unprecedented prestige in Europe. The Eastern Empire was considered one of the main powers that countered Napoleonic France, due notably to the decimation of French armies in the Campaign of 1812. Additionally, the Tsar was a member of the Holy Alliance, which aimed to curb the revolutionary fever on the continent. Russian prestige was solidified during the Springtime of the Peoples in 1848-1849 when Tsar Nicholas I successfully stopped Austrian dissolution and defeated various nationalist factions in the Habsburg Empire.


Saint Petersburg barely hid its intention of expanding into the Ottoman lands. For France and Great Britain, such a prospect was considered extremely dangerous. London feared Russian expansion into British-held India. Meanwhile, France wanted to further develop its influence in Egypt. In addition, both nations desired to expand into the Middle East, which would become nearly impossible in case of Russian success.


A clear collision course was set for a major conflict in the East that would be remembered as the Crimean War, which would reshape European geopolitics.


Causes of the Crimean War: Tsar Nicholas I’s Expansionist Agenda

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President Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte, 1852, via Headstuff


Following the victory in the war for Greek Independence in 1829, the Russian Empire established itself as the sole defender of Christians living in Ottoman territory. This claim was challenged by France in 1851, which was ruled by President and future Emperor Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte. The latter tried to convince Sultan Abdulmejid I to give France the responsibility of protecting Christians. Following Constantinople’s refusal, the French president ordered the deployment of the line ship Charlemagne to the Black Sea as a show of force in 1852.


Finding himself under military pressure, the Sultan agreed to the French terms and broke the agreement made with Russia. Tsar Nicholas I ordered the mobilization of two military corps all along the Danube in Wallachia while entertaining talks with Constantinople. It was the beginning of a back-and-forth diplomatic joust.


Russia demanded that Abdulmejid I allow Saint Petersburg to establish a protectorate over the 12 million Christians living in his territory. At the same time, Russian diplomats courted Britain in the hopes of gaining their support or neutrality in case the talks failed. To that end, the Tsar’s negotiators invoked the close links tying Russia to the Christians of Greece and the Middle East, who were in most cases Orthodox, and thus, closer to the Russian Church.


London, however, chose the side of the Sultan, who then rejected the Russian demands in February 1853. Tsar Nicholas I ordered an invasion through the Danube while French and British navies mobilized their forces. Counting on the support of Austria, Saint Petersburg confidently prepared itself for the Crimean War.


First Hostilities and Last Diplomatic Attempts in the Crimean War

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Battle of Sinop during the Crimean War by Ivan Aivazovsky, 1853


Russia formally declared war on the Ottoman Empire on October 16th, 1853. Russian armies crossed the Danube while the Black Sea Fleet started causing severe damage to Turkish naval infrastructures. The Russian Fleet won the first formal battle of the war in Sinop on November 30th.


Despite the beginning of hostilities, European powers still attempted to find a diplomatic solution to the conflict. France, Great Britain, Austria, and Prussia organized the Vienna Conference, during which representatives of the four nations created a note to be sent to Tsar Nicholas I and Sultan Abdulmejid I with potential peace terms. By late December, the proposals were met with approval by the Tsar but were rejected by the Sultan. The neutral powers modified the proposals to meet Constantinople’s approval, but all of the amendments were firmly rejected by Russia. The contents of both notes is not known to us to this day.


By March 1854, Russian armies occupied South Danubian Principalities. France and Britain sent a joint ultimatum to Saint Petersburg, urging the Tsar to retreat. The envoys were ignored.


On March 28th, 1854, the United Kingdom and France jointly declared war on the Russian Empire. The time of diplomacy was over; all the actors were in play for the Crimean War.


Campaigns In the Danube and the Black Sea

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British soldiers leaving for the Crimean War departing from Trafalgar Square, London, 22 February 1854, 1860, via Universal History Archive


In order to counter potential Russian domination on the Black Sea, French and British commands immediately planned the occupation of the Dardanelles. In the meantime, on the Danube’s Front, a new player threatened to enter the Crimean War: Austria-Hungary.


Despite the strong alliance that tied Vienna to Saint Petersburg, Austria feared potential consequences of Russian dominance in the Balkans. Starting May 1854, Kaiser Franz-Joseph ordered a general mobilization of troops at the Danube, threatening to outflank the Tsar’s army in the region.


French and British troops arrived in June and immediately started harassing Russian divisions. In early July, Tsar Nicholas I was forced to abandon the Siege of Vidin in Bulgaria and was pushed out of Giurgiu in Romania. In addition, the threat of an Austrian offensive from behind the Russian lines forced Saint Petersburg to retreat from the Danube on July 26th, 1854. The allies attempted unsuccessfully to cut off the retreat. From that point onward, Austria occupied the Danube as a peace-keeping force while remaining neutral in the conflict.


Allied forces began operations in the Black Sea in April 1854 with the bombardment of the ports of Odessa and Sevastopol. The Russians chose not to directly engage the enemy, adopting the “fleet in being” tactic, which consists of keeping the fleets mostly anchored at a port to avoid needless and guaranteed damage. No major battle took place, and the French and British gained control of the Black Sea without major losses.


The Beginning of the Crimean Campaign

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Map of the Battle of the Alma on 20th September 1854 during the Crimean War by John Fawkes, via British Battles


The Russian evacuation of Moldavia and Wallachia should have ended the Crimean War. However, the war fever in France and Great Britain was still high among the public. The government of the two allies thus chose to continue the conflict and pursue the Tsar’s armies into Russia’s mainland.


In September 1854, 360 ships sailed from the Bulgarian city of Varna to the Crimean Peninsula. On the 13th, allied troops disembarked in Eupatoria and occupied the town. By the next day, the remainder of the troops landed completely unopposed on different points of the peninsula. Russians were surprised by this turn of event, as incorrect intelligence informed Saint Petersburg that the main invading force would disembark in Katcha, in the vicinity of Sevastopol.


Allied forces in Eupatoria started marching on Sevastopol on September 18th. Two days later, they were confronted by a Russian army led by Alexander Menshikov during the Battle of the Alma, north of the city. The Tsar’s troops lost the day but managed to inflict 3,300 casualties on the enemy while retreating in good order to the south.


The heavy toll on allied forces was blamed on various military errors and even a certain willing self-sabotage, as political objectives contradicted military goals. From that point onward, it would become more and more evident that French and British military leadership wanted to disengage from the war as the geopolitical objectives of the war had already been reached and none of the European Powers wanted to continue antagonizing Saint Petersburg. However, Tsar Nicholas I’s insistence on offering heavy resistance in Crimea and public pressure on Napoleon III and Westminster left little room for possible negotiations without a total allied victory.


The Bloody March to Sevastopol

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Charge of the British light brigade at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War by Richard Caton Woodville Jr, 1894, via Historic-UK


With none of the belligerents willing to make peace, soldiers on both sides prepared for a long and difficult conflict in the Crimean Peninsula. Allied troops suffered greatly from cholera outbreaks that slowed their advance, while Russian forces were progressively cut off from the rest of the country.


In an attempt to break Nicolas I’s will to fight, the allies started marching on Sevastopol. The town was the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet and thus an important strategic point. The city was massively garrisoned, and its commanders managed to organize sorties which were successful in halting the invading forces.


These sorties led to the Battles of Balaclava and Inkerman, which ended in a strategic disaster for both sides. The allies lost important equipment and had to halt their march on Sevastopol. Meanwhile, the Russians lost the manpower to stage any further offensives and were forced to prepare for a long siege.


By mid-October 1854, thanks to the arrival of much-needed reinforcements, equipment, and medical aid, allied forces began surrounding Sevastopol. A long siege ensued. The Russians were well-prepared and continuously repealed enemy assaults. In the meantime, the town’s port was made impregnable from the sea, thanks to the redeployment of Russian marines as land forces and the burning of some large vessels.


The Siege of Sevastopol

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Battle of Malakoff by Adolphe Yvon, 1859, via the Versailles Collection, Paris


At the beginning of the siege, the allies did not attempt to break into the city, choosing instead to bombard the town with artillery pieces. The Russians responded in kind, and a bloody stalemate ensued. From October 1854 to May 1855, no major attempt to break out from the city or to occupy it was made.


In order to stop Russian reinforcements from reaching Sevastopol, allies attempted to open other fronts as soon as late 1854. British and French warships engaged in military operations in the Baltic in order to reach Saint Petersburg directly, while some troops unsuccessfully attempted to occupy the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Pacific. Allies also attempted to occupy main Russian ports on the Sea of Azov but could not disembark despite total sea supremacy, notably due to the infamous Cossack cavalry.


In March 1855, Tsar Nicholas I died from pneumonia. His son, Alexander II, rose to the throne and prepared for a series of major counter-maneuvers.  On the allied side, the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia in Italy joined the war. In May 1855, more than 10,000 fresh troops were sent to Sevastopol, and the siege took a more active turn.


French, British, Turkish, and Piedmontese soldiers inflicted severe defeats on the Russians in the battles of Chernaya and Malakoff. In September 1855, the Tsar’s army finally abandoned the city, leaving it exhausted.


From that point onward, Western powers progressively limited their operations in Russia. In the meantime, the latter launched a successful campaign against the Ottomans in the Caucasus, without any major involvement from the allied powers. The Crimean War was at its end.


Starting February 1856, peace negotiations began in Paris and brought up major changes in the European map of alliances.


The End of the Crimean War: “Woe to the…Neutrals?

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The Congress of Paris by Édouard Louis Dubufe, 1856, via


Following the loss of Sevastopol, Russia had no other choice but to sue for peace. Support for the Crimean War in Britain strongly diminished, especially due to the severe and unexpected casualties. On the French side, Napoleon III opted for an end to the war to avoid further antagonizing Russia, whom the Emperor wanted to turn into an ally.


The Conference of Paris was held from February to March 1856. Russia signed a peace treaty by which it restored all conquered territories to the Ottomans in the Caucasus and retreated from Bessarabia. Additionally, Saint Petersburg and Constantinople agreed to demilitarize the Black Sea, and the Sultan was allowed into the European Concert as the head of a fully independent nation.


In comparison to the military defeats sustained by Russia, these conditions seemed very light, despite the opposition of Britain and Austria. Colonial agreements made between London and Paris would placate the first, while the latter ended being isolated at the negotiation table.


Vienna was a geostrategic foe to France, as both nations competed for influence in Germany. By showing leniency to Russia, Napoleon gained the sympathy of the Tsar, and Austria, which remained neutral in the conflict despite its alliance with Russia, found itself alone, surrounded by two major powers and a rising Prussia to the north.


This treaty completely changed the alliances on the continent. France and Russia would keep on building friendly relations until the establishment of a military alliance in 1894. Austria, however, faced continuous internal turmoil, which pushed it into the Dual Alliance with a unified Germany in 1879. The latter would be the senior partner of the Dual Alliance, easily aligning Vienna with its own geopolitical agenda until 1918.

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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.