RUSSO-TURKISH WARrussian calculations for war
the war's campaigns
One of nine wars in which the principal combatants were imperial Russia and Ottoman Turkey, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 to 1878 erupted over the status and rights of Orthodox Slavs in the Balkans. After the Crimean War (1853–1856), the Treaty of Paris had made protection of Balkan Christians a collective responsibility of the European Great Powers. Subsequently, St. Petersburg supported friendly contacts between Russians and the Orthodox and Slavic peoples of the Balkans. During the late 1860s and early 1870s, Russia also assumed an increasingly assertive formal role in advocating and defending the interests of Slavic nationalists, especially in Serbia and Bulgaria. These policies both accorded with rising Pan-Slav sentiment in Russia and afforded some political leverage against Turkey and the Great Powers. When peasant uprisings in Bosnia-Herzegovina during 1875 and in Bulgaria during 1876 elicited harsh Turkish countermeasures, Pan-Slavists in Russia pressed for direct intervention. Even as Chancellor Alexander M. Gorchakov, the tsarist foreign minister, worked for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis, Russian volunteers and contributions flowed to the anti-Turkish cause in Serbia. However, the collapse of Russian-led Serbian forces during the summer of 1876 caused Russia to impose an armistice on Turkey in October, backed by a partial Russian mobilization in November. During December, emissaries of the major European powers met at Constantinople to broker a compromise program of administrative reforms for the Balkans. When Turkey rejected this compromise in early 1877, diplomacy had reached a dead end. In the absence of other guarantors for the defense of Balkan Slavs, Russia assumed that role on behalf of the European powers. In anticipation of possible war between Russia and Turkey, the Budapest Convention (January 1877) between Austria-Hungary and Russia provided for Austrian neutrality in exchange for Russian acquiescence to the Austrian occupation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Following a second Russian partial mobilization, a convention with Romania prior to the actual Russian declaration of war against Turkey on 24 April 1877 provided for passage of Russian troops through Romania in exchange for Russian assurances of Romanian territorial integrity.
Tsar Alexander II of Russia would later blame the rising tide of domestic Pan-Slav sentiment for his decision to go to war. The situation, however, was actually more complex. On the one hand Russia was not ready for war; on the other hand Russia was now presented with the opportunity to expand its influence in the Balkans while unilaterally resolving the "Eastern Question" (the fate of the Ottoman Empire and its holdings) on terms favorable to Russia, including unfettered access to the Turkish Straits. Hard realities suggested that Russia was in no position to go to war in 1877: the era of the Great Reforms with their emphasis on domestic preoccupations was still under way, the precarious state of the ruble and the imperial treasury afforded little financial flexibility, the army was still undergoing reorganization and rearmament, and Russian naval forces were practically nonexistent on the Black Sea. Accordingly, Gorchakov and Mikhail Reutern, the finance minister, preached moderation and accommodation within the framework of existing international processes and agreements. Others, including most notably Dmitri A. Milyutin, the war minister, held that the time was now ripe to revise the Crimean settlement and realize Russian interest by force of arms. The tsar vacillated in the face of conflicting counsel and the momentum of events, but over the winter of 1876 to 1877, he would clearly opt for war.
The sirenlike promise inherent in Russian war planning played a prominent role in the tsar's calculations. Through Milyutin, General Nikolai N. Obruchev of the Russian General Staff proposed a lightning land campaign aimed directly at Constantinople, the Ottoman heart. Obruchev would mobilize 250,000 troops in Bessarabia, march across Romania to force a crossing of the Danube south of Bucharest, erect defensive cordons facing east and west to cover a race for the Balkan divide, and then press Russian forces through the mountains to threaten the Turkish capital directly. A secondary theater in the Caucasus would tie down additional Turkish forces. With an intent to achieve the war's objectives within roughly two months after the onset of hostilities, the plan envisioned a rapid conclusion to forestall Great Power interference.
The realities of execution, however, precluded full implementation of Obruchev's plan. First, two partial mobilizations failed to provide adequate military manpower for all the war's phases, circumstances, and locales. Second, wet spring weather and a poor Romanian transportation network slowed the initial Russian movement into the Balkans. Third, the widespread assimilation of breech-loading shoulder weaponry accorded superiority to defensive tactics over the offensive. Fourth, distances and terrain aggravated supply shortages that stemmed from an inadequate Russian logistics system. Finally, lapses in Russian leadership both sapped resolve at key moments and let fleeting advantages escape the grasp of rapidly advancing Russian detachments. As a result the war dragged on for forty-seven weeks.
In loose accordance with Obruchev's concept, the Russians deployed forces for offensives in the two major theaters of war. The decisive Balkan campaign against Turkey unfolded over three distinct phases: the initial Russian advance across Romania and into northern Bulgaria (24 April to 17 July 1877); operations in northern Bulgaria, including a series of costly assaults and a siege against Turkish positions at Plevna (present-day Pleven) (18 July to 24 December 1877); and trans-Balkan operations against Adrianople and Constantinople (25 December 1877 to 3 March 1878). In contrast, the campaign in the Caucasus was essentially an economy of force effort. During the first phase (24 April to 21 June 1877), four Russian detachments initially advanced against Turkish strongholds at Batumi, Ardahan, Kars, and Bayazid. The second phase involved the unanticipated containment of a Turkish counteroffensive and a subsequent Russian reinforcement (22 June to 1 October 1877). The third phase (2 October 1877 to 3 March 1878) witnessed a renewed Russian offensive to capture Kars, followed by a Russian advance as far west as Erzurum.
Despite bad weather and an agonizingly slow buildup, the Russian offensive in the Balkan theater at first promised to make good on Obruchev's original plan. Four Russian corps (260,000 troops) under Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich marched across Romania, and by late June General Mikhail I. Dragomirov had wrested a suitable bridgehead across the Danube. In mid-July, as follow-on Russian forces assembled in northern Bulgaria, General Joseph V. Gurko's 12,000-man advance-guard detachment even briefly penetrated the Balkan passes. The Russian high command suddenly grew cautious, however, calling a halt to await reinforcements and the full deployment of blocking detachments to cover the now-extended Russian flanks. This pause permitted 16,000 Turkish troops (subsequently reinforced to 40,000) under Osman Nuri Pasha to occupy strong defensive positions at Plevna, a key road junction one day's traverse south of the Danube that guarded access to the north Balkan slope. After three bloody and unsuccessful assaults (20 July, 30 July, and 11–12 September) on Plevna, the Russians settled down to a siege-style investment operation that forced Osman's capitulation on 10 December 1877.
With Plevna behind them, the Russians regained the initiative and pressed three strong detachments through the Balkan passes during the height of winter. On 4 January 1878 Gurko occupied Sofia. That same day converging Russian columns under Generals Mikhail D. Skobelev, Nikolai I. Sviatopolk-Mirsky, and Fedor F. Radetsky met at Shipka-Sheinovo to launch a battle of encirclement that crushed Vessil Pasha's 30,000-man army. Gurko then marched to Philippopolis (present-day Plovdiv), where in mid-January he routed a second Turkish army under Suleiman Pasha, thus opening the way to Adrianople. With Turkish defenses south of the Balkans now broken, and with the Ottoman government asking for terms, Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolayevich drove the Russian advance to the outskirts of Constantinople. The seizure of the Turkish capital, however, was now out of the question, because on 15 February a British fleet had steamed into the Sea of Marmara to signify possible Great Power intercession on the Turkish side. Russian and Turkish emissaries entered into peace negotiations at San Stefano.
In the Caucasus, meanwhile, the tempo of Russian operations mimicked those in the Balkan theater. Grand Duke Michael Nikolayevich had opened the campaign with 100,000 troops split into four detachments to assault four widely separated Turkish objectives. Although Bayazid and Ardahan fell in quick succession, Russian advances beyond Bayazid and against Kars and Batumi stalled, thanks to Turkish defensive skills and insufficient Russian manpower. Under pressure of a Turkish counter-offensive, the Russian operational pause over the
summer of 1877 soon turned into a partial Russian withdrawal. By fall, however, the arrival of fresh troops and a new chief of staff, General Obruchev, sparked a renewed Russian offensive. In early October, Obruchev devised a plan to turn the Turkish covering army at Kars out of its position, followed by an advance to besiege the fortress itself. On 17–18 November, after several feints, the Russians took Kars by storm. Subsequently, General Vasily A. Heimann's detachment advanced to besiege Erzurum, but the Turks held out until conclusion of the Treaty of San Stefano on 3 March 1878.
British naval power might have saved Constantinople, but it could not prevent the immediate imposition of harsh Russian peace terms. Although Russia did not press its demands for special rights with regard to the Turkish Straits, the treaty provided for a large and autonomous Bulgaria under substantial Russian influence. Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania were to attain full independence, while Russia received substantial Turkish territory in Transcaucasia and Asia Minor, along with southern Bessarabia from Romania in exchange for Dobruja. England and Austria-Hungary objected to these terms and obliged Russia to discuss their revision at a general conference of the European powers during the summer of 1878. Because Russia was now diplomatically isolated and verging on financial and military exhaustion, there was no realistic possibility for resistance. The resulting Congress of Berlin between 13 June and 13 July 1878 substantially amended the Treaty of San Stefano, especially by diminishing and dividing Bulgaria and by permitting Austria-Hungary to occupy and govern Bosnia-Herzegovina. These and other adjustments pleased almost no one, with the result that the seeds of future conflict were sown. In Russia especially, the Congress of Berlin was viewed as a severe defeat, despite its formal recognition of many Russian gains. Russia has supported Prussia against France in 1870–1871, and now sentiment within Russian governing circles held that Bismarck's united Germany had failed to reciprocate at the Congress of Berlin. Meanwhile, Russian distrust for Austria-Hungary, born during the earlier Crimean War, became more intractable.
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Bruce W. Menning