Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Russo-Ottoman War of 1768–74/1181–8

Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky. Battle of Chios on 24 June, 1770 (1848)

The belief of Ottoman political solidity was nowhere in evidence at the end of the Russo-Ottoman war of 1768–74/1181–8, which the government in Istanbul had begun because it considered the impending first partition of Poland an intolerable disruption of the ‘balance of power’ in eastern Europe. Possibly the military successes obtained against Tsar Peter in 1711/1122–3, and later in 1737–9/1149–52 against the Austrians, had misled high-level Ottoman officials in respect of the limits of their own armies. As yet the real might of Russia under Catherine II was not appreciated. This is all the more probable since, in the war of 1768–74/1181–8, an important element of the tsarina’s success was the appearance of the Russian navy in the eastern Mediterranean; their overwhelming victory before Çeşme was partly due to British support and partly to the element of surprise. 

However, the major battles were fought not on the sea but on land, and it was the Ottoman defeats on the bords of the Dniestr (1769/1182–3), the Larga (1770/ 1183–4) and the Kagul (1770/1183–4), as well as the Russian conquest of the Crimea, that encouraged Catherine II to proffer major demands before she was willing to make peace. Apart from the right of navigation on the Black Sea, and the ‘independence’ of the Crimea, Russian diplomats also demanded, and obtained, control of a broad sweep of hitherto sparsely inhabited territory on the Black Sea coast. With the foundation of Odessa, and the establishment of commercial wheat-growing, this region was to become a major asset to the Russian Empire. 

The tsarina’s demand for the right to have her ships sail the Black Sea was motivated both by commercial and by political considerations. In the second half of the eighteenth century, men-of-war were constructed differently from ships used for trade; but it was still possible to adapt vessels originally built for commercial purposes for use in warfare. These considerations were important for Catherine II and her ministers. Whatever Russian diplomats claimed to the contrary at certain stages of the negotiations, Russian ships in the Black Sea always implied a military threat to the Ottoman heartlands.

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