Black Sea Steppe

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BLACK SEA STEPPE. The land above the northern coast of the Black Sea, bounded by the Prut River in the west and the Kuban River in the east, was of considerable potential economic and geopolitical value in the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Most of it was steppe land well suited to nomadic pastoralism but also offering abundant, rich black soil (chernozem) for agriculture. The Don and Dnieper rivers had the potential to serve important trade routes, as they had in the distant past, linking the ancient trading towns of the Black Sea coast with the interior of eastern Europe. Hegemony over the Black Sea steppe was also seen as key to determining the political fate of Moldavia and Walachia in the west and the Caucasus in the east. But establishing such hegemony required that two great obstacles be surmounted. Turning the steppe over to large-scale agricultural exploitation required heavy plow technology and greater control over peasant tenant mobility; Russians began acquiring these techniques only from the middle of the seventeenth century. Furthermore, steppe colonization carried very heavy protection costs, because the steppe was long fiercely contested by the Crimean Khanate, the Ottoman Empire, Poland-Lithuania, and Russia.

Under Mengli Giray I (ruled 14681474 and 14761514) the Crimean Khanate, an offshoot of the disintegrating Great Horde, became a major military power claiming sovereignty over most of the Black Sea steppe. The khanate's power was reinforced by Ottoman protection, Mengli Giray I having accepted vassalage to the Ottoman sultan and having recognized Ottoman control over part of Crimea, as an eyalet of Kaffa. Some of his successors chafed at the terms of this vassalage and had to be dethroned, but on balance the khanate continued to perform two crucial services to the Ottoman Empire, at least to the end of the seventeenth century. Crimean Tatar cavalry played an important auxiliary role in Ottoman campaigns in Hungary and the Caucasus, while Crimean Tatar attacks on Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania served what Ottoman writers called the Stratagem of Selim I (ruled 15121520): that is, they could strike at either power, whichever seemed to be ascendant at the moment, while maintaining that the sultan had no responsibility for the attack. The khanate also was of great economic importance to the Ottomans, for Crimean Tatar slave-raiding into Muscovy and Poland-Lithuania provided the empire with cheap labor on an enormous scale.

Polish-Lithuanian colonization of the Ukrainian steppe made considerable inroads in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries because it was driven not merely by geopolitical concerns but especially by magnate entrepreneurs responding to demand on the Baltic market for Ukrainian grain and livestock. But the seventeenth century saw the gradual rollback of Polish-Lithuanian power from most of Ukraine. This process began in the 1620s, when the Polish crown's repeated efforts to vassalize or annex Moldavia provoked the first of a series of Ottoman invasions, which eventually led to Ottoman annexation of Podolia and Ottoman attempts to vassalize the rest of western Ukraine. Because Poland's diet was so intent on minimizing royal expenditures and checking the growth of royal absolutism, the Commonwealth's strategy for the defense of Ukraine relied largely on the private armies of march-lord latifundists and on the Ukrainian Cossacks. This strategy broke down altogether in 1648, when the Ukrainian Cossacks rebelled against latifundist exploitation, the Uniate church, and the diet's refusal to reward Cossack service with registration and the king's bounty. By the end of the century the Commonwealth had lost Kiev and Ukraine east of the Dnieper to Muscovy; its control over the greatly depopulated Cossack Hetmanate of western Ukraine was only nominal; and what little remaining power the Polish crown retained under King John III Sobieski (ruled 16741696) was squandered on futile attempts to seize Moldavian territory in compensation.

Through most of the sixteenth century Muscovy's southern steppe frontier strategy had focused on protecting central Muscovy against Crimean Tatar invasions. The fortified lines and most of the new garrison towns built in this period were in the forest-steppe zone, not on the steppe, while Muscovite diplomacy aimed at splitting the Nogay tribes from the Crimean khans, maintaining friendly relations with the Ottomans, and offering to restrain Don Cossack raids on Ottoman territory in exchange for the sultans' promises to rein in the Crimean khans. The shift to a more aggressive southern strategy began in the mid-1630s, at the moment Polish-Lithuanian control over Ukraine began to slip, encouraging greater Crimean and Ottoman intervention in Ukraine. The construction of the new Belgorod Line (16351658) linking twenty-five southern garrison townsmany of them new and built on the steppemade it possible to move the field army much farther south and to form large military manpower reserves in Kozlov, Belgorod, and other districts. The 1660s1690s saw a series of Muscovite military operations down the Don to blockade or capture Azov and other Ottoman fortresses; these operations had the additional purpose of tightening Moscow's control over the Don Cossack host.

From 1654 to 1681 Muscovite armies mobilized from the Belgorod Line fought in Ukraine. In the Thirteen Years' War (16541667) they secured Kiev and eastern Ukraine as a Muscovite protectorate; in the ensuing period of Ukraine's "Ruin" (16691685) they defeated Ottoman efforts to use the vassal hetmans Petro Doroshenko, Iurii Khmelnytsky, and Gheorghe Duca to consolidate control of western Ukraine and conquer eastern Ukraine. The first significant direct Ottoman-Muscovite military conflict was at Chigirin, where large Ottoman and Muscovite armies fought to a stalemate in 1677 and 1678. The twenty-year Bakhchisaray Armistice (1681) ended this first Russo-Ottoman War on terms generally favorable for Moscow, as it obliged the Tatars and Turks to recognize Kiev and eastern Ukraine as Muscovite possessions. Meanwhile ethnic "herding" raids by Muscovite and eastern Ukrainian forces had so depopulated western Ukraine as to make it impossible for the Turks to consolidate their control of the steppe east of the Bug River. This encouraged the view in Moscow that the Bakhchisaray armistice could be abandoned and the problem of the khanate solved once and for all, especially after Emperor Leopold I (ruled 16581705) offered to bring Muscovy into the Holy League, giving it the mission of keeping the Crimean Tatars occupied while he campaigned against the Turks in Hungary and Poland's king John III Sobieski invaded Moldavia. As part of its price for accepting this mission Moscow got the Poles to permanently cede Kiev, eastern Ukraine, and Zaporozhia in the 1686 Treaty of Eternal Peace.

In 1687 and 1689 the Muscovite generalissimus Vasilii Vasilievich Golitsyn led two huge expeditions against the Perekop isthmus, the gateway into Crimea. Neither succeeded in seizing Perekop, but the expeditions did demonstrate the scale of Muscovy's commitment to the League and established Muscovite garrisons on the Samara River to exercise tighter control over the Zaporozhian Host. In 1695 and 1696 Tsar Peter I honored his commitment to the Holy League by conducting two great sieges of the Ottoman fortress of Azov on the lower Don. The fall of Azov in 1696 significantly weakened the Crimean Khanate's power east of the Kalka river, and the Crimean danger to Muscovy was further reduced (although not entirely eliminated) by the treaties of Karlowitz and Constantinople (1699, 1700), which required that the sultan suppress Crimean raiding activity in order to preserve the inviolability of the Porte's new border with Muscovy. Thereafter Russian campaigns (1711, 17351739, 17681774) focused on the outright conquest of Crimea, the capture of the remaining Ottoman fortresses along the northeastern Black Sea coast, and the rollback of the Ottomans from Moldavia.

See also Cossacks ; Imperial Expansion, Russia ; Khmelnytsky Uprising ; Ottoman Empire ; Russo-Ottoman Wars ; Ukraine.


McNeill, William H. Europe's Steppe Frontier, 15001800. Chicago, 1964.

Rybakov, B. A., ed. Rossiia, Pol'sha i Prichernomor'e v XVXVIII vv. Moscow, 1979.

Brian Davies