Russian–Ottoman Wars

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Wars between the Russian and Ottoman empires over opposing expansionist policies.

During the nineteenth century, Russia's approach to the Ottoman Empire was governed by several distinct but interrelated considerations. In terms of military strategy, the Black Sea provided access to the rich Ukrainian plain, which became regarded as Russia's "soft underbelly," and entry into the Black Sea was possible only through the Turkish Straits, the gateway to and from the Mediterranean. Hence, control of the straits became an important Russian objective. As the European powers awakened to Russian ambitions, Russia modified its quest for annexation of Ottoman territory and attempted to establish protectorates in such regions as the principalities (Wallachia and Moldavia) and Bulgaria. Other Slavic nationalities struggling against Ottoman control also represented a political interest. Economically, trade in and beyond the Black Sea became an important concern, especially after the fertile lands along the northern shore were opened to cultivation. Reinforcing these interests, Russia's role as protector of Greek Orthodoxy in the Ottoman Empire added yet another dimension to the quest for dominance in the Black Sea region.

Europe's preoccupation with Napoléon Bonaparte early in the century enabled Russia to consolidate its position in the Black Sea area. The Treaty of Bucharest (1812) ended a six-year war by ceding to Russia Bessarabia and territory in the western Caucasus and extending privileges in the principalities. In 1829 Tsar Nicholas I (r. 18251855) used the Greek War of Independence as reason to declare a war against the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans lost and in the Treaty of Adrianople (1829) ceded to Russia the mouth of the Danube and additional territory in the Caucasus. The treaty also conferred autonomy upon the principalities, placed them under Russian protection, and, for the first time, guaranteed Russian merchant ships free passage through the straits.

In 1833 Russia and the Ottoman Empire signed the Treaty of Hunkar-Iskelesi, one of only two treaties of mutual assistance entered into by the two states. (The first, directed against Napoléon, had been signed in 1805.) This unusual treaty resulted not from a war but from Russian assistance to Sultan
Mahmud II, whose reign (18081839) was being threatened by Muhammad Ali, the rebellious pasha of Egypt. Once the Russian troops arrived, at the Sultan's invitation, they were, for the first and only time, in control of the straits area and Istanbul. They left later in the year after Mahmud II signed the Treaty of Hunkar-Iskelesi, which closed the straits to warships of all foreign nations. The establishment of a Russian protectorate over the Ottoman Empire proved unacceptable to Great Britain and Austria. The ensuing Treaty of London (1840), which sent Muhammad Ali back to Egypt, and the Straits Convention (1841) made the independence and territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire a common concern of Europe's great powers acting in concert.

As an outgrowth of Tsar Nicholas I's inability to resolve the Eastern (i.e., Ottoman) question to his satisfaction, the Crimean War (18541855) pitted Russia against the Ottoman Empire, which was allied with Great Britain, France, and the Kingdom of Sardinia. Russia capitulated after the allied troops landed in the Crimea and Tsar Nicholas died. Under the terms of the Treaty of Paris (1856) the Ottoman Empire regained the mouth of the Danube and southern Bessarabia and agreed to the demilitarization of the Black Sea; the principalities became a protectorate of the victorious European allies; and an international commission was established to assure free navigation on the Danube. Russia also abandoned its claim to the protectorate of the Greek Orthodox Church in the Ottoman Empire. In 1871, using the diplomatic upheaval caused by the Franco-Prussian War, Russia unilaterally renounced the Treaty of Paris.

The war of 1877 to 1878 grew out of the local disturbances in the Balkans. The Turks' brutal suppression of the Balkans, followed by the declaration of war on the Ottoman Empire by Serbia and Montenegro (1876), provided Russia with a pretext to intervene on their behalf. The defeat of the forces of Sultan Abdülhamit II (r. 18761909) prompted harsh terms in the 1878 Treaty of San Stefano. The last armed confrontation between the two empires occurred during World War I. The Russians had made some headway in the Transcaucasus, but the Communists, who had seized power in 1917, took Russia out of the war and renounced all imperial claims to Ottoman territory.

see also bucharest, treaty of (1812); hunkar-iskelesi, treaty of (1833); san stefano, treaty of (1878); straits convention.


Anderson, M. S. The Eastern Question, 17741923: A Study in International Relations. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1966.

Jelavich, Barbara. A Century of Russian Foreign Policy, 18141914. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1964.

Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Vol. 1: Empire of the Gazis: The Rise and Decline of the Ottoman Empire, 12801808. New York and Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

oles m. smolansky
updated by eric hooglund