10 Most Important Russo-Turkish Wars
Last weekend RCH delivered the 10 Most Important Battles in Ottoman History, sans those fought against (and with) the Russians, due to the fact that the two empires were such bitter rivals. From the late 16th century to the end of World War I - a span of roughly 350 years - the Russians and the Turks fought each other in contests for imperial dominance over the Balkans, the Black Sea, the Caucasus, and the straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles.
Today, the Balkans are a hodgepodge of independent nation-states, the Black Sea and the Caucasus are dominated by Russia, and the straits of the Bosporus and Dardanelles are colloquially referred to as the “Turkish straits.” So the 350-year rivalry went unresolved. To complicate matters, the predecessor state of the Ottoman Empire’s main power base, Turkey, allied itself with the enemy of the Russian Empire’s predecessor state, the Soviet Union, and the countries remained locked down in a Cold War for another half century after their empires collapsed.
Today, both countries are governed by strongmen with aspirations of reviving their countries’ old empires. Vladimir Putin, the leader of the Russian Federation, and Recep Erdoğan, the leader of Turkey, are close geopolitical associates, and the two of them work closely with a third strongman, Ayatollah Khomeini, who governs the predecessor state of the Persian Empire (a rival contemporary of both the Russian and Ottoman empires), Iran.
Turkey’s slide into despotism has been marked internationally by a willingness to part ways with the values held by members of NATO (its Cold War ally) and the European Union, and closer working relationships with Russia and Iran. This slide may be overblown by analysts. Turkey has, since its founding in 1923, always been a bit more authoritarian than its Western allies, and Turkey’s democracy has been marred by coups and counter-coups throughout its short history as a republic. Russia, for its part, became the main ethnic and territorial base of a superpower, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War before scrambling to rebuild itself after the U.S.S.R.’s collapse in 1991. Democracy has never been able to gain a solid foothold in the land of the Russians.
Below are the 10 Most Important Wars fought between the Russian and Ottoman empires over the past 400 years. Behold:
10. Russo-Turkish War of 1568-70. The first war between the upstart Russian Empire and the long-established Ottoman Empire served as a sign of things to come. The Ottomans had plans to build a canal through a region that was recently conquered by Ivan the Terrible and incorporated into the Russian Empire he was busy establishing. The Ottomans thought so little of this upstart and his army that they proceeded with their plans to build the canal by bringing a small army with the engineering corps to deal with the nuisance. The Ottoman plan was to build the canal while its army dealt with the pest. To make a long story short, the Ottoman army froze to death and its navy was wiped out in a storm, but only after both units received a bloody beating at the hands of the Russian military.
9. Russo-Turkish War of 1676-81. Fresh off its acquisition of the right half of what is now Ukraine, the Ottomans sought to continue their expansion into Slavic territories, but did so using proxies. A local khan with ties to Polish and Russian aristocrats, as well as ties to Crimea (a vassal of the Ottomans), used his network to try and seize all of Ukraine for himself in the name of Istanbul. The Ottomans were happy to let this local arrangement play out, due to the fact that blood and treasure was being spilt and spent by proxies, and the Russians had to expend considerable resources to put down Istanbul’s proxy. No borders changed hands, but Russian resentment of Ottoman interference in domestic affairs boiled over five years later.
8. Russo-Turkish War of 1686-1700. Part of the larger anti-Ottoman, joint-European effort, the Russian Empire joined with Venice, Austria, and Poland-Lithuania to push the Ottomans out of Hungary, Poland, and parts of the Balkans. While the Ottomans lost out big time, the Russians gained immensely, and not just at the expense of the Turks. In order to join an alliance against the Ottomans, Russia secured Kievan Ukraine from Poland-Lithuania and managed to save its strength, by letting its Western allies do most of the fighting against the Ottomans, for an upcoming war for supremacy in the Baltics against Sweden (which it won). Russia also got the fortresses of Azov and Taganrog from the Ottomans, as well as two regionally important commercial cities, Pavlovsk and Mius.
7. Russo-Turkish War of 1710-11. This short-lived war, also known as the Pruth River Campaign, took place after Sweden, a regional rival of Russia’s in the 15th and 16th centuries, was crushed by Moscow in the Battle of Poltava (1709). The king of Sweden, Charles XII, was wounded in the battle and barely escaped with his life to an Ottoman fortress in what is now Moldova. The Russians followed the Swedish king and his fleeing army to the fortress and demanded that the Ottomans hand him over. Istanbul declined to do so. The Russians, led by Peter the Great, attacked and were smashed by the larger, better-equipped Ottoman army. The Ottomans got Azoz back, and a guarantee from Russia that Charles XII would get safe passage back to Sweden. The Russians were further forced to pledge that they would no longer interfere in the internal affairs of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, an ally (at the time) of the Ottomans.
6. Russo-Turkish War of 1735-39. One of the more complicated wars between the two powers, the Austro-Russo-Turkish War of 1737-39 was actually a war fought between Russia and the Ottomans over Persian territory before the Austrians got in on the act. The Ottoman and Russian empires had made a habit out of picking the Persian empire apart in the early 18th century, due to the latter’s decline, but Russia began signing treaties with the Persians while the Ottomans kept picking away. Eventually, the Russians allied with the Persians against the Ottomans and opened up a front along the Black Sea. The entrance of Russia into the war against Persia forced the Ottomans to sue for peace with the Persians, but the two powers continued to fight, militarily and diplomatically. Austria entered the war on the side of Russia, but the Ottomans had alliances with Prussia, Poland, and Sweden, and the latter was an especially dangerous threat to Russia. The Ottomans made quick work of the Austrian armies, but the Russians advanced steadily onto Ottoman lands. Plagues and bad logistics forced the Russians to retreat from the advances they had made, and Swedish threats along Russia’s northern borders forced Moscow to make a hasty peace with the Ottomans.
5. Russo-Turkish War of 1768-74. This war marked the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire. Russia gained substantial territory at the expense of the Turks, and the idea of a Christian Europe at odds with a Muslim Sultanate began to take shape more fully as ideas about Europe became more widespread. The Ottomans were supposed to win this war due to the fact that Russia was strained from the just-concluded Seven Years’ War and was facing violent rebellion in Poland. In addition, the Ottoman naval fleet in the Black Sea was at full strength and the Ottoman military was believed at the time to be the most technologically advanced in the world (as well as one of the largest). The Russians crushed the Turks, and attempts by the U.K., France, and Austria to limit Russian power through diplomacy proved fruitless. The Russians continued crushing the Turks in the Mediterranean, the Caucasus, and Crimea. By the time Moscow was finished with the Ottomans, the “Eastern Question” was abuzz in Europe and wouldn’t end until the conclusion of World War I.
4. Russo-Turkish War of 1787-92. Humiliated after their defeat 13 years earlier, the Ottomans demanded that the Russians give back Crimea and some other important Black Sea ports. The Russians, along with their new allies Austria, instead declared war on the Ottoman Empire and proceeded to clean the Turks’ clock. The Russians marched right up to the gates of Istanbul and claimed that they wanted to make it Christian again, but an Ottoman alliance with Prussia forced Moscow to think twice about sacking the Ottoman capital and a peace treaty forcing Istanbul to recognize Russian sovereignty over Crimea and Ukraine was signed instead. Meanwhile, Russian propaganda continued to flow into Greece and the protests against Ottoman rule there were becoming violent.
3. Russo-Turkish War of 1806-12. Known as the Ottoman front during the Napoleonic Wars, this Russo-Turkish War did not go as planned for Istanbul. Russia was just too powerful for the Turks, even though it was backpedalling from its war against revolutionary France. The Russians, who were getting a beating from the French, still managed to have enough strength to take a bit more land from the Ottoman Empire. The Ottoman navy was soundly defeated in the Black Sea, too, marking the end of Ottoman dominance over its seas. Russian gains in the Caucasus were given back to Ottomans in the ensuing treaty, though, because of preparations for Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. Were it not for France’s impending invasion, the Ottomans could have lost much more territory than they did in the war.
2. Crimean War 1853-56. The Ottoman Empire managed one last victory over its hated rival in the Crimean War. Istanbul was so weak at this time that France, the U.K., and Russia were fighting among themselves over how Christians should be treated in Ottoman lands. The Russians sought to use Ottoman treatment of Christians as an excuse to carve up more land for Mother Russia, while the Western powers sought to limit Russian expansion into the Holy Lands. Seeing a chance to regain some of its prominence, the Ottoman Empire joined forces with the British and French and three sides forced Russia to sue for peace after a brutal three-year campaign in Russian territory. It was the last victory the Turks would have over the Russians, though the Ottomans did not gain any new territory, the Russians were prohibited from maintaining a naval fleet in the Black Sea.
1. World War I 1914-18. World War I marked the downfall of not only the Ottoman Empire but the Russian Empire as well. Both were destroyed. The Republic of Turkey replaced the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia and the Turkish Straits, and the Soviet Union replaced Russia as the largest polity, by territory, in the world.
The Russo-Turkish Wars were a big deal, and they often involved international alliances and intrigue. The shadows of these old empires can be found in the present-day countries of Iraq, Syria, Belarus, Poland, Germany, Israel, Lebanon, Ukraine, Moldova, Hungary, Egypt, Jordan, Georgia, Armenia, Austria, Spain, Greece, Italy, Serbia, and Azerbaijan.
The alliances they built and the wars they fought against Great Powers - Sweden, the United Kingdom, France, and Iran (Persia) - made waves throughout the world.
When observing international affairs today, and watching the strongmen of Turkey and Russia pal around and collude against Western interests, it would be wise to remember the history of these two leaders’ societies. The past several decades have been tumultuous for the Ottoman and Russian empires, and while they longer appear on world maps, these empires are still very much alive in the minds of some.