Crimea 160 years later: Will military failure once again lead to reform?

19 Aug 2015


The renewed intensity of Russian-Ukrainian relations in the past few weeks, symbolised by the increased vocalism of pro-Russia rebels, prompted me to reflect on the history of Crimea and its importance in Russian history.


In 1856, Russia lost the Crimean War to a French, British and Ottoman alliance. Britain and France were attempting to prevent Russia from gaining Ottoman territory and thus power. The war was a humiliating affront for Russia, probably one of the world’s proudest nations. Tsar Nicholas I allegedly died of shock as military loss appeared increasingly inevitable. The Crimean War exposed Russia’s weaknesses, especially military, in relation to neighbouring European powers.


Russian defeat in Crimea was a wake-up call for the nation. Military weakness was not something that Russian tsars regarded lightly, especially given the nation’s history of empire and conquest. The loss prompted a series of introspective reforms in the late nineteenth century, enacted by Nicholas I’s successor, Alexander II. These reforms were wide-ranging, and included the establishment of the zemstvos (elected local governments), new primary and military schools, relaxed censorship and the emancipation of around 20 million serfs in 1861 – which helped Alexander to gain the label ‘Tsar Liberator’. There is still much historiographical debate surrounding the main cause of serf emancipation, but it is undeniable that the Crimean war was a significant influence. Essentially, military humiliation triggered profound social and political reform.


Jump forward 160 years or so, and Russia has been tempted into hostilities in the Crimean region since November 2013. The US and EU protested strongly against any Russian intervention in Ukraine when Putin stationed troops on the Russian-Ukrainian border in October 2014. This position has unsurprisingly prevailed.


It doesn’t seem likely to me that Russia will declare war on Ukraine. However, Putin will continue along his current path, supplying arms to rebels and pushing for independence for Crimea, which he assumes will result in Crimea’s secession into the Russian State. Yet, given that Russia has not achieved many convincing victories in the past year and a half, it is entirely feasible that Putin will fail to achieve his desired result. So, history could repeat itself – Russia could once again fail to acquire territory in Crimea.  


Thus, could military failure lead to reform in Russia, evoking those initiated by Alexander II in the late nineteenth century? Unfortunately, I think not. Russia has come a long way in the past 160 years. The ultimate humiliation of the Cold War did not lead to reform like it did in the nineteenth century; instead the nation became stubbornly attached to existing ideals. Military embarrassment in Crimea is unlikely to spell disaster for Putin’s leadership. The Russian President has entrenched his support and acts with a whiff of arrogant security on the international stage. It seems unlikely that a crisis in Crimea would force a changed approach.


Usually, history repeats itself for all the wrong reasons. For example, the West continues to involve itself in the domestic politics of the Middle East despite warnings offered by both immediate and antiquated history. Yet Russia could benefit from observing its pre-Soviet past and applying lessons to the present day. Regrettably, Putin’s position is so cemented that he can march dogmatically onwards, undeterred by past realities. Reform in Russia is an unlikely outcome, even if the nation fails to achieve its Crimean ambitions. 

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