Britain and Russia have long been key players on the European stage. Their joint victory in the Napoleonic Wars propelled both to become preeminent powers. Russia’s role in Europe was to be the great Bear of the East whose sheer man power and size made them one of the most formidable Empires on the continent. On the other hand, Britain exerted its power on the continent through domination of the seas and industrialization to exercise its naval superiority in conflicts all over the globe. Both Empires had aspirations that extended beyond their boundaries. Both were fundamentally different. As a result a Cold War of conflicting interests permeated the 19th Century. Only once a power could compete with Russia’s manpower and Britain’s industrial might would the two rivals be pressured to unite and curb the influence of the new European behemoth: a unified German Reich.
The Napoleonic Wars were a shock to the power structure of Europe. The Revolutionary drive for Republican governments all over Europe was the great fear of the conservative powers of Eastern Europe and the more comparatively liberal Britain. The conservative powers of the East included Prussia, the Austrian Empire, and the Russian Empire. Their governments were conservative because the will of the monarch was absolute. The ideas of the French Revolution were completely counter to this form of rule. Although Napoleon ended up making himself monarch, the spirit of the revolution, that the lower classes would overthrow the upper classes scared nobility all over Europe. The primary purpose of the absolute monarch was to maintain order. Monarchs were believed to have been given the divine right to rule and thus were the only ones fit to rule. On the other hand rule by the people was the embodiment of disorder and chaos. The leaders of Europe were terrified.
Although Britain was a parliamentary government, Britain had its own reasons to oppose the Revolution. Britain believed that the French revolution was not legitimate because it was not the place of the people to overthrow a legitimate government. Both being ideologically opposed to the revolution, Britain and Russia were galvanized to ally against Napoleon because his conquests upended their own designs to control Europe.
After years of hardship and thousands of casualties the French beast was subdued. The future of Europe was determined by the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The Congress hoped to ensure a lasting peace on the continent through a balance of power. Britain in the battles of Trafalgar and Waterloo showed their versatility as both the strongest naval power in Europe and powerful army. Despite initial French success, Russia’s defense in depth strategy eventually repulsed the Grande Armée resulting in the turning point of the Grande Armée’s dominance. Britain and Russia being key players in battles and campaigns that turned around the war made them the top two powers to survive the Napoleonic Wars. The Napoleonic Wars expanded the powers of Russia and Britain. Europe was left up for grabs. Uncertainty created much controversy.
The uncertainty of Europe’s future in the aftermath of the war created the first crisis of the Russian-British Cold War. Although Britain was in the midst of forming the largest overseas land empire in history, Britain did not want to commit troops to the European continent. Rather they sought to control Europe through diplomacy and a balance of powers. Britain feared any one power becoming too strong in Europe. Britain did not want its power to be rivaled. Britain used diplomacy and other nations as surrogate nations for achieving Britain’s goal of balance of power on the continent. On the other hand Tsar Alexander of Russia saw himself as the guarantor of security on the continent. Thus he felt he could exert his powers to further those means.
One of the first flashpoints of the British-Russian Cold War was to determine the post-war fate of Poland. Poland had once been a great kingdom, but at the end of the 18th Century it had been partitioned among the Russian Empire, the Prussian Empire, and the Austrian Empire. After the Napoleonic Wars Russia set its sights on acquiring all of Poland. One thing to note about the Congress of Vienna is there were a lot of backroom, informal deals made between participating powers. Prussia and Russia made a private deal with regards to the Polish Question.
Russia wanted to acquire all Polish lands. Russia wanted to set up a Polish Kingdom within its lands that would nominally be its own state, but in reality would be loyal to the Russian Tsar. Poland would be given a certain level of autonomy, but would essentially be a puppet state. In return for guaranteeing all Polish lands, Prussia wanted to acquire all of the German State of Saxony.
Although Prussia and Russia were happy to approve of these concessions, the other parties of the Congress were not. Britain, France, and Austria all felt threatened by Prussia and Russia’s power plays for land. They had to stop it. As a result France, Britain, and Austria all agreed they would go to war if the Russian/Prussian plan went into effect. Russia and Prussia got word of the designs of their opposition. Prussia and Russia blinked. A new deal was structured to maintain the hard won peace in Europe. Russia received most of Polish lands and establish Congress Poland, and autonomous state that accepted Tsar Alexander I of Russia as its ruler. Prussia received 40% of Saxony. It is important to notice Britain’s role in the negotiations. Britain had emerged as the strongest power on the continent after the war, but had been drained of many resources from fighting. In fact none of the countries on Europe were ready to go to war over Poland and Saxony. Britain had to ensure the balance of power in Europe to ensure its own safety. Britain bluffed the Russians and Prussians into believing war was an option.
A recurring problem in the burgeoning Cold War was the Eastern Question. The Eastern Question related to the decline of the once great Ottoman Empire. In the 16th and 17th the Ottoman Empire was one the most powerful Empires in the world. The empire had expanded deep into Europe. The Ottoman Empire was an Islamic Empire that seemed to threaten all of Christendom with its rapid advances from the 1300’s to 1500’s. Eventually the juggernaut was slowed and stopped. Because the Empire failed to modernize, it began to decay, and then began losing ground to the rapidly advancing European powers. Everyone knew the Sick Man Of Europe was destined to fall. The question was a matter of when, how quickly, and who would pick up the pieces when it did finally fall.
Britain and Russia both appointed themselves as guarantors of different aspects of Europe. This sewed the seeds for a lasting Cold War. Russia saw itself as the guarantor of Europe and the primary protector of Christian people’s within the Ottoman lands. Russia was a Slavic Nation. It also practiced Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In the aftermath of the Ottoman overthrow of the Byzantine Empire, Russia saw itself as the Third Rome, and thus the protector of Eastern Orthodox interests. Since many of Ottoman Domains were once Byzantine domains, Russia felt it was be the patriarch to Eastern Orthodox peoples. Furthermore, many of the Christians under Ottoman reign were ethnically Slavic, resulting in Russia believing it had dual faceted connection with the Christian peoples under Ottoman control.
Britain claimed itself the guarantor of the Mediterranean. During the Napoleonic Wars, Britain took control of islands like Malta as staging bases for operations in the Mediterranean. Britain used its powerful navy to patrol and exert control over the Mediterranean. The Mediterranean was crucial for British commerce. The importance of securing the Mediterranean increased with the construction of the Suez Canal in Egypt. The canal linked Britain to its most prized possession, India. Britain gained so many resources from India that protection of trade routes to India was a top priority. Finally Britain also had interests in managing the decay of the Ottoman Empire.
As a result, British and Russian interests were often in conflict in South Eastern Europe. Greece was a crisis point for the two powers. Greece had been under Ottoman control for hundreds of years. In 1821 a revolt broke out against the Ottoman Empire. The revolt was led be people in Greek lands. At first Europe was unhappy with the idea of Greek Revolution. Balance of power was always on the minds of European leaders. They did not want to the decay of the Ottoman Empire to result in chaos. In August of 1822 Britain changed its stance. Britain began supporting the Revolution. One reason for this is although Russia had also denounced the revolution, Britain feared Russia might unilaterally become involved in a war in favor of the revolt. Such a move would either increase Russian territory or allow for the establishment of a pro Russian puppet state. For Britain, this was unacceptable.
The British threw their support to the Greeks. This first came in the form of openly supporting the Greek Revolution. Next the British offered loans to the Greeks to fund the revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Britain formed such strong ties with the participants of Revolution, a pro-British political party was formed among the revolutionaries. This group pushed for a more active British role in the Revolution.
As the war went on, Britain and Russia desired to see an end to the conflict. The two powers always tried to push for balance on the continent. The two along with other members of the Concert of Europe began talks with the Ottoman Sultan. A series of naval engagements ensued between the Ottoman Empire and Egypt against the French, British, and Russians. Negotiations with the Ottoman Empire were on and off based on the fortunes of the naval battles. Eventually Britain and Russia agreed to allow a third party, France to commit an army to the Greek Revolution. With the support of the major European powers, the Greeks were able to liberate themselves of the Ottomans.
In the course of settling the Greek issue, Russia became so frustrated with the Ottomans, they declared war. This began the Russo-Turkish War of 1828-1829. Russia pushed hard from the east on the Ottoman territories in Southeastern Europe. The war furthered the notion that the Ottoman Empire was the Sick Man of Europe. Russia laid siege to many cities in present day Bulgaria and Serbia that were in Ottoman control. The Russians won many of their battles. At no point did the Ottomans seem like a serious threat to Russian advances. Russia began making its way down to the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. The war was over. The Ottomans had to sue for peace.
The Russo-Turkish War profited the Russian Empire immensely. Russia secured autonomy for Serbia under Ottoman control. Serbia was a fellow Slavic, largely Christian nation under Ottoman control. Thus as guarantor of these types of peoples, Russia had seen it as its duty to free the Serbians. Intervention was not entirely altruistic. Such intervention ensured a lasting alliance between the two nations. Russia also expanded its possessions to increase its coastal lands along the Black Sea. Turkey also accepted Russian control of what is now Georgia and some parts of Armenia. Russia also gained the right act as an Eastern Orthodox guardian of the peoples of Wallachia and Moldavia. The provinces remained under Ottoman sovereignty. To counter Russia’s gains, Britain and France pushed for an independent Greek state. This was distinct from earlier proposal of making Greece an autonomous state within Ottoman control. Since Russia had just displayed it could exert its dominance over Southeastern Europe, making Greece an independent nation prevented the need for Russia to further intervene on the Greeks’ behalf. This acted as a counter to Russian gains.
Around the time of the Greek Revolution, British and Russian society were fundamentally different. Britain was the world leader in industrialization. A strong middling class began to arise out of the industrial revolution. Britain’s focus on its naval hegemony was an extension of its commercial interests. Britain had an empire to be commercially strong, and had a navy to protect its trade. Britain needed the best military technology because industrialization was rooted in efficiency.
Russia on the other hand relied on manpower. Thus the Russian military was a reflection of Russian society. Russia was highly agricultural where Britain was more industrial and commercial. Wheat production was a key export to Russia’s economy. Russia relied on serfs to produce and harvest the empire’s wheat. In the same vein, Russia’s military strength relied on its large surplus of people it could employ to fight. Russia was always slow to industrialize and modernize its army. It believed its strength in numbers could overwhelm any opponent on land. Thus with the Russian focus on infantry based superiority, and the British focus on naval based superiority, the two had fundamentally different approaches in dealing with military conflicts.
It is important to note the changing of dynamics in European diplomacy at this time from when the Napoleonic War ended. During the Congress of Vienna, Russia, in partnership with Austria and Prussia established the Holy Alliance. This was meant to protect the conservative principles of an absolute monarch exerting absolute control over the state. Britain and France, having more liberal views of government were being pushed closer and closer to each other.
All powers in Europe but especially Britain and Russia tried to play off each other when it came to the Ottomans. At different times, the powers would see it beneficial to prop the Ottoman Empire. Other times it would be more beneficial to let the Empire decay and either pick up or manage the pieces.
Russia began to see that it could profit from propping up the Ottomans. Russia exported large amounts of grain to the Ottomans. The two were economically linked. The Ottomans realized they were subject to the will of the Russian Empire. An agreement had to be made. The Ottomans gave the Russians free passage from the Black Sea to the Mediterranean in 1833. This agreement left the door open for Russia to have a naval presence in the Mediterranean. Britain could not accept another major power in the Mediterranean. Adding to these fears, the agreement for free passage was supposed to be a secret agreement between the Russian and Ottomans, but was leaked. Before the completion of the Suez Canal the route of exchange to India began in Lebanon. Thus securing the eastern Mediterranean was crucial for Britain.
Maintaining the Ottoman Empire also benefited Russia because if Russia allowed for the Empire to decay a series of problematic situations could arise. One possibility, highlighted by the Greek Revolution, was that all the nationalities under Ottoman control would rise up and try to form their own nations. A series of chaotic revolts occurred in 1848. Many were nationalistic in nature. This left an indelible impression in the minds of Europe’s leaders. Such revolts were to be avoided at all costs.
Russia wanted to prop up the Ottomans to prevent Britain and France from picking up the pieces of the decay. The two had shown their power to intervene in Greece. Britain’s navy allowed for Britain to strike anywhere in the Mediterranean at any time. For the less technologically advanced Russia, transport of troops to fronts was a long, slow task. Thus Russia could not allow the faster moving Britain to take advantage of on any potential decay of the Ottoman Empire.
An agreement known as the Straits Agreement of 1841 helped act as a catalyst for war. In this agreement the major European powers agreed to close free passage through the Turkish Straits connecting the Black Sea and Mediterranean. Because this benefited Britain by essentially keeping the Russian naval threat out of the Mediterranean an exchange was secured. Russia secured a promise from the European powers that no one of nation would hold exclusive sway over the Ottoman Empire. Although this curbed Russian expansion it sewed the seeds for their discontent.
The Cold War between Britain and Russia became a hot war with the onset of the Crimean War.
The Crimean War rose out of disputes as to who was the protector Christian interests in the Holy Land. This issue at hand was who regulated which Christians could visit different Holy Sites. France claimed it was the protector of Christians in the Holy Land. Since an agreement in1774 Russia had secured claims to Christians in the Holy Land. The conflict over who had claims over the Holy Land’s Christians was rooted in a centuries old struggle between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Russia was unhappy with France’s claims to Christian sites in the Holy Land. As a result it sent emissaries to the Ottoman Sultan to dispute France’s claims. To leverage their demands, Russia moved troops to Danubian border provinces within the Ottoman Empire. France and Britain saw this as Russia trying to exert control over the Ottomans. Seeing this as a violation of the Straits Convention, the powers moved to block such control. Russia was not able to achieve its desired diplomatic goals.
To counter the Russian threat the Ottomans moved its own troops to the Danubian border. It also amassed troops in the Caucus region. The Sultan declared war on Russia on October 23, 1853. Nicholas I’s response was to send a Russian fleet to destroy the Ottoman fleet at Sinop. The more advanced Russian fleet demolished the Turkish fleet. Britain and France feared Russia would move to exert control over the Eastern Mediterranean. War was declared. The dream of the Congress of Vienna was shattered.
The Crimean War resulted in a quagmire. No real gains had been made on either side. Although the British, French, Ottoman alliance was successful using its more modern technology to move troops to the battlefield, it was difficult to deal with the size of both the Russia army and territory. The Allies came out slightly ahead in the war. The allies captured the key city of Sebastopol which brought Russia to the table. The experience left a sour taste in the mouths of each belligerent nation’s people and a peace had to be agreed upon.
Russia, having lost the war, was adversely affected by the Treaty of Paris in 1856. Russia lost its claim to special protection of Christians within the Ottoman Empire. On the other hand the Ottomans had to improve how they treated their Christian subjects. Looking to ensure continued Mediterranean hegemony, Britain and France forced Russia to destroy their Black Sea fleet. All prewar boundaries were restored. Finally with the Eastern Question still left unresolved by conflict, the powers again agreed not to intervene in the affairs of the Ottoman Empire. The war made Russia turn inward for a time, but the Cold War did not end.
Within 22 years of the end of the Crimean War, Russia was on the move again. In 1877 a second Russo-Turkish war broke out. Nationalism in the European lands of the Ottomans was threatening to boil over. The provinces of Serbia, Montenegro, and Romania all proclaimed their independence from the Ottoman Empire. Russia, seeing potential allies in the formation of independent Slavic states, helped to foment revolutionary fervor in the Ottoman’s European possessions. Russia also fought the war to make up for the damage of prestige resulting from the loss of the Crimean War. The revolutions with the support of the Russian Empire was too much for the Ottomans to handle. Initially the great powers allowed Russia to prosecute the war. The Ottomans had committed such heinous atrocities against the Christian population of Bulgaria as punishment for the uprisings that Europe largely backed Russia’s intervention.
Eventually European powers stepped in to resolve the Russo-Turkish War. Britain convinced the Russian’s to accept a truce from the Ottomans. Despite their acceptance, Russia continued to move as if it was going to sack the Ottoman capital of Constantinople. Britain again fearing a Russian power grab sent their fleet to the Eastern Mediterranean. Russia understood the lightly veiled threat. A Congress of Berlin was convened in 1878 to settle the war.
Again a balance of power needed to be struck in Europe. The power of the Ottoman Empire was reduced as most of its former Slavic territories either formed independent nations or joined either the Austro-Hungarian or Russian Empire. Russia increased its territorial holdings as a result of its victory. Russia felt though it did not get all it deserved. Russia wanted the creation of an independent Principality of Bulgaria. Russia liked the idea of having a Slavic buffer state in the old Ottoman lands. The Treaty of San Stefano between Russia and the Ottomans at the end of the war established the Principality, but the Congress reversed the Treaty. Bulgaria was to remain under Ottoman influence. Britain feared this new state could one day threaten their access to the Turkish Straits due to their proximity. At the end of the Congress, Russia felt short changed. Russian hatred began to brew against the newly formed Germany because of their instrumental role in mediating the results of the Congress. Britain, to balance Russia’s increased influence in the Balkans was given control of Cyprus, an Eastern Mediterranean island.
The Russian-British Cold War of the 19th Century had many theaters world wide. Across Asia there were many theaters where the rivalry played out. Prior to the Crimean War intrigue was in the Asian air. In the early 19th Century Britain had begun expanding it trading interests in China. Russia due to China’s proximity sent spies to understand Britain’s intentions in the region. The British aware of the Russian presence sent their own spies. The two spied on each other to figure out each other’s intentions. This battle for information was known as the Great Game. There was even some speculation that Russia wanted warm water ports in India. This would mean Russia crossing over Afghanistan and threatening Britain’s crown jewel of India. Rudyard Kipling wrote novel based on all the Russian-British intrigue in Asia. Although there is some controversy as to whether Russian intentions were to move into Afghanistan and India, and whether the British believed it, it is undeniable that at the very least the myth of mutual suspicion was in the air at the time of Kipling’s 1901 novel.
One of the final episodes of the Russian-British Cold War was the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905. Russia again was seeking a warm water port in the east. Russia wanted to expand into Manchuria gain such a port. The Korea Peninsula was a possession of Japan and feared Russia would continue down to the peninsula. War broke out. The war between Russia and Japan foreshadowed the slow war of attrition World War I would turn out to be.
Japan had developed its military and navy proving a difficult enemy for the larger Russian military to defeat. When Russia’s eastern forces could not defeat the Japanese outright, the Russians sent their Baltic Fleet around the globe to aid their eastern counterparts. The Baltic Fleet could have tipped the balance of the war. Britain had entered into an alliance with Japan. To aid their allies, some British ships were dispatched to follow the Baltic Fleet. The whole way to the east the British were informing the Japanese of the Russian fleet movements. When the fleet did arrive to the theater of war Japan knew the Russians were coming. The Japanese were prepared. The Japanese destroyed the Russian fleet. This turned this tide of the war against Russia. The poor performance, troubled economy, and low civilian morale for the war caused revolts in 1905 that would be similar to the revolts that toppled the Russian Empire in 1917.
The Revolution of 1905 almost brought Russia to its knees. Russia could not afford to be in a race for global supremacy anymore. It needed to focus all its efforts on holding its empire together. Russia realized that towards the end of the century Britain was no longer its greatest threat, especially if Russia could not afford to compete over expansion could.
The new emerging rival on the continent was Germany. While Russia and Britain had competed with each other for global expansion, Prussia through a series of wars unified all the German states. Germany was able to combine the industrial might of Britain with the manpower of Russia. France had been steamrolled by the ascendant Prussia in 1871, and realized it needed to better protect itself. The greatest form of protection France could achieve was sandwiching Germany between two competing powers. Thus France sought to form a military alliance with Russia in 1892. This provided the precedent for Britain’s agreement with Russia. The Anglo-Russian Entente was signed in 1907.
Britain also feared that Germany’s navy was beginning to openly rival Britain’s. Germany made it clear its sights were set on empire. Germany’s rapid industrialization allowed for it to outpace Britain’s older industrial complex. With all the German states under its belt, Germany had become one of the most populous European nations. Germany seemed to meld all the best aspects of Russian and British military advantages into their own military. The army was considered the best in Europe. Their commanders were considered the best in Europe. The Prussians/Germans had one a series of wars against European powers like France and Austro-Hungary. By the dawn of the 20th Century, Germany was on a roll. Finally with the formation of the Triple Alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, Germany seemed to have no limits. Britain and Russia began to set aside their differences because the power of an unchecked Germany could overturn the century’s hard fought balance of power. Ultimately, it did.