Russia-Turkey: the era of confrontation
Previous article by the author «Russia and Turkey: a retrospective of dialogue - Relationship Based on Understanding» refers to the period 16-18 century. As is well known, 18th century and onwards, Russian – Ottoman relations were characterized by ever-increasing territorial rivalries, vicious geopolitics and decades of bloody wars that exhausted the resources of both empires. Russia having modernized itself during and after the reign of Peter I the Great, emerged victorious from most of these wars which ultimately led to the famous Treaty of Küçük Kaynarca in 1774. From this treaty, Russia gained Kabardia in the Caucasus, unlimited sovereignty over the Port of Azov, the Port of Kerch, the Port of Enikale and a portion of the Yedisan region which included the port of Kherson.
Ottomans were also forced to recognize Crimea as a politically independent state (which would later be annexed by Catherine the Great regardless). Perhaps most importantly, centuries-old Russian aspiration to access to ‘warm waters’ had become a reality as Russian merchant vessels were to have unrestricted access to the Straits with this treaty. Ottomans never really recovered from this and continued to shrink in the following years, as its Balkan states claimed independence with the Russian support – hence Nicholas I referring to the empire as "sick man ... gravely ill" (Sick man of Europe). The relations at that point were one-sided. A decaying empire too far behind its European counterparts was constantly being beaten by Russia and the newly founded states that were galvanized by her.
The Romanov Dynasty knew about Constantinople and its importance. Indeed, conquering the capital of the old Eastern Roman Empire which was also the cradle of Orthodox Christian civilization would be a great achievement in itself. Not only Russia’s ‘‘Third Rome’’ claims would have more solid ground but also, she could easily become a superpower through it – tilting the balance of powers in her favor. Although it seemed possible in theory considering the state of the Ottoman Empire, such a drastic change to the geopolitical landscape in the region was a quite risky undertaking.
On June 28th, 1914, the assassination of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz-Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist sparked the onset of World War I. There ensued an epidemic of armed conflict and tragedy, as Vienna declared war on Belgrade, Russia on Austria-Hungary, Berlin on Saint Petersburg, and France on Germany. By October, the Ottoman Empire too had caught the war fever and declared war on the Entente. Subsequently, Russia launched a successful campaign in the Caucasus, pressing onward into eastern Anatolia and seizing the city of Erzurum. The plan to conquer Constantinople was set in motion. However, the battles on multiple fronts had depleted the resources of the Russian Empire. Russo-Japanese War, a century-long conflict with the Ottomans and now the pressing march of the highly industrialized German army had left the empire in a sorry state.
The Russian casualties inflicted in the war exceeded those sustained by any other nation in any other conflict in world history. Famine was widespread, and inflation had reached astronomical levels. The already fragile Russian economy was completely disrupted by the expensive war effort. What followed was two revolutions and a civil war. The provisional government formed in the February Revolution was overthrown by the second, almost bloodless Bolshevik Revolution, also called the October Revolution (per the Julian calendar). The Russian Civil War ended in 1923 with the execution of the Romanovs and Lenin’s Red Army claiming victory.
With the Bolsheviks in power, the Soviet Union openly renounced any prior agreements the Russian Empire had with other countries regarding Istanbul and the Straits that had been kept private (Constantinople Agreement). The newly founded Soviet Union fashioned itself an "anti-imperialist attraction center" for "oppressed nations around the globe’’. Strikingly similar developments happened in the Ottoman Empire. Having been on the losing side of the war, in August 1920, the Ottoman Empire was subjected to the Treaty of Sevres, which partitioned its remaining territories among France, Britain, Italy, Greece, and Armenia. However, the Turkish nationalists, under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk opposed this treaty the Sultan had signed. Despite great odds, Ataturk’s army fought on many fronts against the combined strength of allied powers and emerged victorious.
To be continued …