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"A Cautionary Tale" For The Ukraine War

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Hugh Curran
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There are some fascinating similarities between the Crimean War of the 1850s and the Ukraine War of 2022. According to Norman Rich, author of "The Crimean War" its main purpose was the containment of an expanding Russia as European powers had become fearful of Russia's extension of power under Tsarist rule. One of the questions Rich addressed was why peace efforts failed at the very time that European powers were opposed to another war.

As a result of the Napoleonic Wars, the major European powers decided that the "primary objective of their diplomacy must be the preservation of international peace and stability" Their collaboration became known as the "Concert of Europe" which supported peace efforts for the following four decades. But from October, 1853 to February, 1856 a war was fought by the British, French and Ottoman Turks against Russia. It was a blood drenched war that brought such luminaries as Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy to the world's attentions and made famous Tennyson's poem: "The Charge of the Light Brigade", adapted from Dublin born, William Howard Russell's article about this disastrous charge that resulted in the death of 300 out of 600 men. Besides W.H. Russell another Irish war correspondent: J.C. Mc Coan, wrote articles about the "great confusion of purpose" and the "incompetent international butchery" that took place in the Crimea.

Sixty thousand British, French and Ottoman Turks died in the ensuing three-year conflict, while up to 500,000 Russians lost their lives, many due to cholera, typhus, dysentery and malaria. It was in this harsh medical climate that Florence Nightingale gained widespread attention for setting up a hospital while bringing a number of trained nurses, including a substantial contingent of "Sisters of Mercy" from Ireland. They were there to heal wounded soldiers by establishing strict rules for cleanliness at a time when germ theory had not been understood. Before the nurses arrived 16,000 British soldiers died and, after the establishment of the hospital, only 2000. Nightingale noted in her journals that there was an 80% reduction of mortality among wounded soldiers under the care of her nurses. Her efforts resulted in widespread recognition of the need for professionally trained nurses in caring for injured soldiers.

A young Russian officer, Leo Tolstoy, served in combat in Crimea and became embittered by the suffering and death of young men. Based on his experiences Tolstoy wrote: "Tales of Sebastopol" and later his famous book: "War and Peace" and still later numerous books and articles on "Nonviolence" which inspired Mohandas Gandhi to found "Tolstoy Farm", his first ashram in South Africa.

According to some historians, the cause of the 19th century Crimean War was that France and Britain had become fearful of Russia's attempt to expand its influence into the Ottoman Turkish Empire. Russia's vast territories stretched across the continent to Siberia and Alaska and coastal North America. The Russian Tsar, Nicholas II believed the Ottoman Empire was in imminent danger of collapse and expressed his intention to protect the Orthodox Churches and the Holy Places of Jerusalem which were under the Sultan's rule. The Tsar's diplomatic mission to Constantinople in 1852, led by Prince Menshikov, had been told "to demand a formal Turkish Guarantee of existing rights and privileges of the Orthodox Church. The British Ambassador to the Ottoman Court, Stratford Canning, was a "mediator and mentor to the Ottoman Court" and advised against any accommodation with the Tsar. He was convinced that the Russian demands would allow the Russians to gain control of the Ottoman Empire.

Reinforcing this view was Lord John Russell who stated that: "He [the Tsar] must be resisted in any way possible". Other aristocrats such as the Duke of Argyll wrote that "the seating of the Russian Empire on the throne of Constantinople would give Russia an overbearing weight in Europe". Lord Palmerston, who became Prime Minister had a desire to enhance British prestige", and, as a result, became a major factor in the drama that ignited the conflict with Russia.

The Ottoman government agreed with Britain and France that there was a need to mount a campaign against Russia. Attempts at brokering a peace were blocked several times by British leaders, while the Habsburg Empire with its base in Austria, supported peace efforts. Prince Metternich, a proponent of peace, warned against a "European war provoked by Oriental causes" and expressed the "need to maintain treaties" since "we are called to the task of restoring peace". Yet there was a problem with the vacillating nature of Tsar Nicholas 1 and his "sudden hatreds [and] exaggerated sense of honor and pride", mixed with "severe bouts of depression".

In England the issues came to a head in December 1852, after Napoleon III established a new imperial government in a coup d'etat against the Second Republic. He sent an ambassador to the Ottoman Empire with instructions to assert France's right to protect Christian sites in Jerusalem and the Holy Land. The Ottoman Empire agreed to this condition. A Four Point Peace Agreement was put forward in 1854 to cease hostilities but they were repudiated by the Tsar unless guaranteed protection was given to the Holy Places and the Orthodox churches.

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I posted two op ed articles: TO REPEAT: I am a lecturer in Peace & Reconciliation Studies at the University of Maine. I was born in Ireland and immigrated to Canada where I lived for 16 years. I now live in Maine where I have been on the (more...)

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