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  • Writer's pictureThe Paladins

Fragments from a War Diary, Part #135

The Crimean peninsula is one of the most naturally defensible pieces of territory in the world. A jagged piece of rock sticking out from the Ukrainian mainland that juts out to the east almost to meet the Russian mainland and creating a narrow strait, known as the Strait of Kerch, that separates the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov and to the northeast of there Russia’s inland waterways, the recent Russian wars with Ukraine have not been the only occasion on history that it has been fought over because in the context of the geopolitics of the Black Sea region Crimea is hugely important. It has the principal deepwater port in the Black Sea and any party with control over Crimea has the principal military vantage point for the entire Black Sea region.

The United Kingdom, at the time the world’s dominant naval and military power, in 1853 found herself going to war with the Russian Empire over the Crimean peninsula in a region in which she had no obvious strategic interest but in which nevertheless she considered it imperative, for geopolitical reasons, to intervene: much as is the case today. Just as in 1853, the issue motivating western support for Ukraine against the Russian invasion is to maintain the balance of power against an over-aggressive Russian Federation that seeks to absorb the territories of foreign countries and thereby disrupt the delicate patchwork of independent states that comprise the European polity. In 1853, the Russian Empire used the pretext of a dispute about the rights of Christian minorities in the Ottoman Empire’s territory of Palestine to begin an invasion of territories in southeastern Europe held by the Ottoman Empire, pushing past through southwest Ukraine and Moldova and down through Romania and Bulgaria and thereby threatening the Sublime Porte in Istanbul. The United Kingdom could not tolerate this act of aggression on the part of Russia so she decided to undermine Russian naval capacity necessary to support Russian imperial aggression in southeastern Europe. To do this, Her Majesty’s Government decided to invade Crimea and thereby paralyse the Russian navy stationed there.

The French, who supported the British invasion of Crimea with their own naval fleet, blockaded the entry to the Black Sea and both navies blockaded the Russian imperial capital of St Petersburg. The British Army then proceeded with a ground invasion of Crimea from sea. The invasion was notoriously hard going, and it took some three years for the British Army to achieve victory against a dug-in local army amidst the most difficult of conditions including the treacherous winters associated with the north Black Sea coast. The Russian Black Sea port of Sevastopol fell after eleven months of a brutal siege and there were countless battles with over 600,000 dead: an astonishing casualty rate for what is actually a relatively small peninsula of land by the standards of the region. The war achieved its strategic goals for the time being, which was repulsion of the Russian Imperial Army from the doorsteps of Istanbul and its retreat back from the territories now in Romania and Bulgaria, and the balance of power was restored. However the British Army had no particular interest in keeping Crimea once they had occupied it, and then promptly retreated.

The Treaty of Paris in March 1856 formally ended the Crimean War, which had proven very unpopular with both French and British publics due to the vast loss of life and the fact that it was one of the first modern wars in which war reporting took place and news from the Crimean front appeared in newspapers in daily despatches. Aside from Russian withdrawal from territories in southeastern Europe, the war banned the Russian Navy from the use of Sevastopol as a port and thereby affirmed Anglo-French dominance of the Black Sea, which served as a stabilising influence on the balance of power between Russia and the Sublime Porte until World War One. The principal benefit of the Crimean War from the Anglo-French perspective, however, was the diminution of the Russian Empire as an economic and military force as the war had resulted in a massive drain on the Russian territory and with the benefit of hindsight it may have been one of the principal reasons why anti-imperial foment arose in Russia in the subsequent decades, why Russia was ill-prepared for World War One and why Russia subsequently became ripe for Marxist revolution. So the consequences were significant.

Why is this story significant for today’s purposes? Perhaps the principal lesson we should draw from the Crimean war of 1853 to 1856 is that any invasion of Crimea to repel Russian occupation that takes place from sea would be incredibly difficult and in all likelihood out of the question. Although it is a beautiful place, the Crimean peninsula’s geography is harsh and rugged and nobody today has the stomach for an eleven-month siege of Sevastopol. An invasion from sea using land troops would be out of the question given modern warfare technology; the result would be a wholesale massacre of the invading Ukrainian troops. Even with total domination of the Black Sea - something which might conceivably be possible by western navies if they are prepared to act sufficiently aggressively and to disregard any Turkish objections to the use of the Straits of Bosphorus as a military waterway - a land invasion of Crimea would be exceptionally tough.

The Crimean War of 1853 to 1856 saw an innovation that the Russians would later extend throughout their empire: the use of railway lines as a source of logistics. In the Crimean War the Russian Imperial Army transported troops and logistical supplies to the Crimean front using trains, the first time this had been done since the invention of the steam engine in Britain in 1804. Now Russia is hurrying to build a new railway line, sufficient to carry military supplies, from Donetsk through Melitopol to Simferopol in Crimea, presumably to be able to serve as a logistics supply route to repulse any Ukrainian attempt to invade Crimea from the sea. It is notoriously hard to blow up railway lines, as the buckled parts of the railway can be easily replaced. That is why the Soviets designed a pan-Soviet railway system to be used for military purposes. Any attempt to liberate Crimea from the sea is therefore most unlikely to succeed in the course of the current war in Ukraine. Rather than entertain these ideas, we should heed caution from the lessons of history, and focus instead upon the question of whether territorial gains can be achieved along the Dnieper River front line and in the Donbas region. Invasion of Crimea from the sea appears, at least to my untrained eye, to be a fantasy.


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