…Some answers might lie in the Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula which Vladimir Putin has just grabbed for Russia, but where in 1850s a British-led coalition scored a rather battered win over Russia, partly due to the new rifles.
That may now be called the First Crimean War and today it is mainly remembered for the nursing of Florence Nightingale and the suicidal charge of the Light Brigade. Yet despite the 160-year gap, there are interesting parallels between the two Crimean conflicts. Just as Putin claims he only stepped in to protect Russians in the Crimea from fascist Ukrainians, the tsar of Russia then claimed to be acting only to protect Orthodox Christians from the Muslim Ottomans who controlled the Black Sea coast.
Russian Bear Hug
In both cases the ostensible reasons covered something more basic: Russia’s determination to extend its influence and the determination of European (now Western) powers to resist this. Caught between them was a hapless local state, Ukraine now, Ottoman then. And where the earlier crisis brought together a curious British-French-Turkish-Sardinian (yes, really) coalition, we may yet see a curious coalition come together against Russia now. India, like most of the world, will be an anxious observer, but it was deeply linked to the earlier war, and may even have been partly its cause.
Through the 19th century Russia and Britain fought over Asia. This has been called the Great Game, since it was mostly covert and done through spies, with Crimea being the rare time it actually came to battle. The Game’s big prize was India, where after decades of battling both Indian and other European powers, the British were now in control and extracting considerable riches.
For the Russians India was a rich, warm target far more tempting than the bleak and chilly interiors of Asia that lay between them. And geography suggested a short-cut, sidestepping the barrier of the Himalayas. If they could control the Black Sea, then the Bosphorus gave them a sea road which was only guarded by the tottering Ottoman regime.
And if they could gain that, then the whole eastern Mediterranean was in their grasp and so the approach to Arabia and India. The British knew this and worried about Russia much as we do about China today….