Contemporary wars since 2014 possess many parallels to the 19th-century Crimean War that was fought by Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire against a globally expanding Tsarist Russian empire. The trick is to closely compare and contrast the two conflicts, past and present. The 19th-century Crimean War was sparked for three essential reasons:

  1. Civil strife in the Holy Lands was sparked by French Catholic and Russian Orthodox disputes with the Ottoman Empire over control of sacred sites in the Holy Land.

  2. Ottoman opposition to Russia’s efforts to protect Orthodox Christians in the Holy Lands, Greece, and in the Danubian principalities, which Tsarist Russia then occupied in July 1853.

  3. British efforts to contain Tsarist Russia’s growing naval power.

And although the 19th century Crimean War leads one to think that the war was only fought in Crimea, in fact, it was a war that was also fought on a number of fronts that included modern-day Crimea and Ukraine, plus the Danubian Principalities (what is now Moldova and Romania), the northern Caucasus, Georgia, the Baltic Seas, the Gulf of Finland, and the Far East.

In addition to fighting for control of Crimea, the British and French fleets, for example, attacked the Russian naval bases at Kronstadt and in the Gulf of Finland. In the Far East, in the relatively minor siege of Petropavlovsk, for example, the Anglo-French allies fought the Russian Siberian flotilla to prevent it from attacking British and French trade with Alaska.

From this perspective, this 19th-century historical conflict forewarns the possibility that the present wars being fought in the Black Sea region and in Gaza between the Israelis and Palestinians could continue to expand beyond those regions—but in very different systemic geopolitical and geostrategic circumstances. Unlike today, in which the conflict over Ukraine essentially represents a proxy war between the US/NATO and Europeans versus the Russian Federation, it was the British and French, plus Sardinia, in aligning with the Ottomans, who prosecuted the war against Tsarist Russia directly in a major power conflict. And now, it is Israel, backed by the US, that is prosecuting its war against Hamas, backed by Iran (which is more indirectly backed by Russia and China), which further enlarges the number of regional actors involved.

And although Tsarist Russia lost the 1853–56 Crimean War and was forced to demilitarise the Black Sea, give up all its territories conquered in the Caucasus, retreat from Bessarabia, and relinquish rights to the Holy Lands, the 19th-century Crimea analogy does not necessarily imply that the Russian Federation will lose again. This is because the nature of the alliances and geostrategic circumstances, military-technological capabilities, social-cultural resilience, and leadership qualities are all very different.

On the one hand, the Russians did not give up Crimea very easily and caused significant British losses, as depicted in the poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade” by Alfred Lord Tennyson. On the other hand, the Russian loss of the Crimean War forced the country to modernise its economic and military capabilities in the late 19th century. This fact indicates that the present Russian leadership under Vladimir Putin could prove even more adamant not to lose Crimea and other regions.

The US was neutral in the 19th century Crimean War

In today’s conflict over Ukraine between the US, Europeans and NATO versus the Russian Federation, the US is playing the role of 19th century Great Britain, as the insular hegemonic core power, versus Tsarist Russia, while Europe is playing the role of 19th century France in a geostrategic sense. In many ways, Britain’s hopes to weaken Tsarist Russian global naval capabilities and to contain Russia’s threat to 19th century Europe parallels contemporary American concerns with respect to Russian military-nuclear pressures on Ukraine and European members of NATO. US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated in April 2022, “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

By contrast with the early 21st century, however, the 19th century Crimea conflict took place at a time when the Americans, as a rising semi-peripheral insular state, were neutral, if not pro-Tsarist. The US sought to maintain trade relations with Tsarist Russia, and the American arms manufacturer Colt, for example, supplied the Tsar with weaponry. In addition, Russian warships were built at New York shipyards, angering Great Britain.

And later, in 1863, during the American Civil War, Washington even threatened an alliance with Tsarist Russia to counter British military pressures and support for the Southern states. President Lincoln invited the entire Russian fleet to spend the winter-to-spring of 1863 in New York and San Francisco, in part to protect the North vs. Great Britain but also to prevent the Tsarist navy from being blockaded in the Black Sea if war over the region broke out again.

How radically US-Russian relations have changed since the mid-19th century—before they began to deteriorate in the late 19th century, even before the 1917 Leninist revolution!

The 21st century Crimean War

By contrast with the mid-19th century, in the contemporary situation, US-Russian relations have deteriorated sharply since the Yeltsin administration—after the US failure to forge a new European security architecture that could have included an independent, non-nuclear, neutral Ukraine and involved closer political-military cooperation between the US/NATO, Europe, and Russia through the Partnership for Peace, for example.

Now, however, most US-Russian arms accords are defunct, including the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE). And Russia recently suspended participation in the nuclear START treaty that governs ICBMs, but that does not cover tactical nuclear weaponry, cyber warfare, or hypersonic weaponry.

US-NATO-EU-Russian-Chinese disputes augmented with the expansion of NATO, particularly after the 1999 NATO air war against the Russian ally Serbia “over” Kosovo, followed by the promise of NATO membership to Georgia and Ukraine in 2008. The present conflict then started in the Black Sea after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014 in fear of losing its naval base lease at Sevastopol. The Russian annexation of Crimea then began to augment geopolitical tensions throughout Central and Northern Europe, with Finland and Sweden seeking NATO membership. Most eastern European states have boosted arms purchases, with the US and now the EU seeking ways to boost arms sales.

As Moscow feared both NATO and EU expansion into the Black Sea region, it is not surprising that the Russian annexation of Crimea took place just as Ukraine and the EU had reached an Association Accord in 2014 and while the EuroMaidan movement sought to expel the Russian fleet from its lease at Sevastopol and then potentially bring Ukraine into NATO.

The failure of (or really the US, French, and German refusal to fully pursue) the Normandy accords between Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine to resolve the dispute over the Donbass in eastern Ukraine ultimately led to direct Russian military intervention against Ukraine in February 2022—much as had been forewarned by then-former US ambassador to Moscow and present CIA director William Burns in 2008—when the US announced its support for the possible future membership of Ukraine and Georgia in NATO at the 2008 Bucharest summit despite French and German opposition.

The wider Middle East

With regard to the wider Middle East, the Israel-UAE Abraham accords (seen as countering Iran) plus efforts to draw Saudi Arabia into closer ties with Israel, but without settling the Palestinian question, worked to provoke conflict between Iranian-backed Hamas and Israel in October 2023 in the wider Middle East. This conflict exploded in part because of disputes between Israel and Palestinian Islamicist movements, backed strongly by Iran, over the disputed sites in the Holy Land, such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in addition to Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

This front thus far includes Hamas in Gaza, but also the West Bank (Israel vs. Islamic Jihad) and southern Lebanon (Israel vs. Hezbollah). This is not to overlook the Houthis in Yemen who have fired missiles at shipping vessels in the Red Sea and at Israel (and previously at oil refineries in Saudi Arabia and the UAE airport), plus Iranian-backed militias in Iraq and Syria who frequently attack US troops, plus Israel’s fears of Syrian efforts to supply Hezbollah. These attacks appear to be an effort to stretch US military capabilities into the Red Sea region—at the risk of the US being drawn into war with Iran, particularly given Israeli fears that Iran could soon develop a nuclear weapons capability.

As Saudi Arabia did not agree to the Abrahamic accords that linked the UAE and Israel, in part because the accords had ignored the 2002 Saudi/Arab peace plan, and although Saudi Arabia did bargain, but not very precisely, for some form of resolution to the Palestinian question in exchange for normalisation of relations with Israel, it is not surprising that Hamas, backed by Iran, engaged in war on October 7 versus Israel (an action of revanche expected by Tel Aviv).

As Fatah, Hamas, and Saudi Arabia had failed to reach an accord in the months before the outbreak of the October 7 Hamas-Israel war, that war exploded just as it appeared that Israel and Saudi Arabia were on the verge of signing an agreement to normalise relations that excluded Hamas and Iran.

The Biden administration's efforts to support the normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia were thus seen by Tehran as a step towards its isolation and "encirclement,” just after China had brokered the Iran-Saudi rapprochement. In essence, Russia, China, and Iran have been moving closer together to counter their perception of a US-NATO-Europe-Israel “encirclement” that is increasingly tied to the US-Japanese alliance and the new AUKUS pact of Australia, the UK, and the US, plus the Abrahamic accords between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, and Sudan.

Turkey as a Pivot State?

These conflicts in the Black Sea region and between Israel and Palestine add to the numerous post-Cold War pressures that surround Turkey following the Soviet collapse, particularly with respect to the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits. These conflicts make it more difficult for Ankara, as a NATO member, to try to balance itself between the US-NATO-EU-Israel alliance and the Russia-China-Iran "axis."

Turkey thus finds itself caught between a Russian military buildup in Crimea after the latter’s annexation by Putin in 2014, plus the full-scale war between Ukraine and Russia since 2022, in addition to the ongoing so-called “global war on terrorism” in Syria and Iraq, plus the 2023 Gaza War. Given Erdogan’s pro-Islamicist ideology and given Israel’s brutal war against Hamas that has involved the collective punishment of Palestinians, it will prove very difficult for Turkey to be seen as siding with the US and Israel.

Other conflicts impacting Turkey include Turkey vs. Greece over Cyprus and islands (with Greece backed by France and the EU); conflict in a divided Libya with Turkey backing the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA); conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan (the latter backed by Turkey) over Nagorno Karabakh; Russia's intervention in the northern Caucasus; plus ongoing tensions with Afghanistan under the Taliban; China’s repression of Turkic Uighurs in Xinjiang Province; and Turkey vs. Syrian Kurds in collaboration with Syria despite tensions involving the influx of millions of Syrian refugees into Turkey.

Washington, at least since the 2003 war with Iraq, in which the US intervention was seen as potentially supporting Kurdish independence movements, has feared that Turkey could reject NATO entirely given disputes over the purchase of S400 missiles from Russia as well as the purchase of a major Russian-built nuclear power1 plant, in addition to policy disputes with Washington over how to deal with Iran, Israel, Syria, Ukraine, Russia, and others.

These conflicts force Ankara into a precarious balancing act as the US, NATO, Israel, Russia, China, and Iran will all seek to draw Ankara closer to their respective positions with respect to each of these conflicts. The longer the Ukraine, and particularly the Gaza, conflicts continue, the more alienated Arab-Islamic countries in general, including Turkey, will become from the US. If Ankara cannot sustain a balance, it could shift closer to China, Russia, and Iran and thereby risk the further polarisation of the global alliance systems, which would in turn augment the chance of wider regional, if not major, wars.

The past merges with the present

In the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was firmly on the side of the British and French against Russia during the 1953–56 Crimean War. The French and British opted to invade Crimea in 1854—even after Russia had evacuated Wallachia and Moldavia (now Moldova and Romania) in late July 1854.

The occupation of Wallachia and Moldavia by Russia, ostensibly to protect the Christian community from Turkish rule, had represented the initial cause of the war. Once the Russians left, it should have been feasible to negotiate a peace treaty—except for the fact that Great Britain wanted to significantly weaken Russian naval power, which was later protected by the Americans, as previously mentioned!

Despite the fact that the Ottoman Empire joined the Concert of Europe after the Crimean War, Ottoman allegiance nevertheless shifted step by step away from Britain and France and towards Imperial Germany before World War I—in large part as the latter boosted its military political and economic ties with Turkey as promised by the Berlin-Baghdad-Basra railroad in Germany’s rivalry with Britain’s control over the Suez Canal since 1882. This is not to overlook the fact that the British, French, and Russians all opposed Ottoman human rights abuses against the Armenians in the late 19th century, pressing the Ottoman Empire closer to Imperial Germany.

In contemporary circumstances, given the fact that the political-economic-military rise of China in many ways parallels the rise of Imperial Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it is the infrastructure provided by the Chinese-led Belt and Road Initiative that plays a role similar to the Imperial German Berlin-Baghdad-Basra railroad. Much like Imperial Germany, China generally does not interfere in human rights issues that impact domestic sovereignty, although it does interfere in the policies of states that recognise Taiwan.

Will history repeat itself?

Will history repeat itself? Will the new Crimean War widen into a larger conflict that could draw the US, Europeans, Russia, and China into a direct major power war?

Will the Turkish pivot state increasingly flip away from the US and NATO—in large part due to Turkish tensions with Greece backed by the EU, US backing for Israel’s brutal campaign against Hamas involving the collective punishment of the Palestinians in Gaza, general disputes between Ankara and Washington over ways to deal with Iran, Russia, and Israel, among other disputes, plus perceived US support for Kurdish independence? Will these factors or others lead Ankara to align itself more closely with China, Russia, and Iran?

Or will Ankara be able to sustain its balancing act, sustain its close ties to the US and NATO, and thus play a major role in providing a physical barrier to Russian-Chinese-Iranian influence?

What is certain is that the longer the Russia-Ukraine and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts persist, the more difficult it will prove for Ankara to sustain its present balance despite its effort to mediate the Russia-Ukraine conflict in 2022. At that time, the real possibility of a peace settlement, mediated by Turkey and the UN, may have been disrupted2 by the US and UK. Ankara has also promised to help mediate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet it appears the latter can only come to an end once Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu steps down and concerted3 international steps4 are taken to find a solution.

Karl Marx’s calls for an all-European war vs. Russia revisited

During the Crimean War, Karl Marx5 had urged an all-European war against Russia in the hope of turning the latter into "a giant without arms, without eyes, with no other recourse than trying to crush her opponents under the weight of her clumsy torso, thrown here and there at random, wherever a hostile battle cry was heard.” As previously argued, the less poetic US/NATO goal appears very similar—in that the US wants to see “Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.”

Yet there are even greater risks today in pursuing Marx’s anti-Russian position that now parallels the strategies urged by hardline elements in Kyiv—even after the Ukrainian offensive has failed to make significant gains against Putin’s seizure of eastern Ukrainian territories and the Donbass region. Ukrainian hardliners want to continue to pursue a more offensive6 approach, particularly in the hope of regaining Crimea from Russian control.

This hardline Ukrainian strategy stands against a more defensive approach, as urged by Washington. The latter would seek to prevent Russia from making further territorial gains. At the same time, such a defensive approach7 needs to be accompanied by engaged diplomacy that leads to a negotiated settlement8—an option that Kyiv and Washington have not yet fully considered.

Here are reasons why Karl Marx’s anti-Russian stance is even more dangerous today:

  1. Karl Marx did not live in the nuclear age. The RAND Corporation has warned that the use of tactical nuclear weaponry9 by Russia cannot be ruled out. Such weaponry could be used if Moscow believes itself to be confronted with an “existential threat,” most likely involving the loss of control over Crimea. It appears dubious that Moscow will make significant territorial concessions, as was the case after its defeat in the 19th-century Crimean War.

  2. Although defeated in the 19th-century Crimean War, Tsarist Russia was able to rebuild and modernise itself, eliminating serfdom. The Tsarist empire did not break up until 1917, near the end of World War I, after it had aligned with Great Britain and France against Imperial Germany. While the eventual break-up of the Russian Federation cannot be ruled out, if Russia did collapse sometime in the future, it would create new conflicts throughout Eurasia and most likely further strengthen the hand of China.

  3. Tsarist Russia in the 19th and early 20th centuries did not have a rising China ally as a life line that could prevent it from potentially disaggregating. So far, as Moscow has become Beijing’s junior partner, China-Russia cooperation in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and the expanding number of BRICS countries appear to be boosting the Russian economy. Russian defence and energy backing, plus consumer trade, is furthermore essential to permitting China to pursue its own goals of merging with Taiwan so as to control the Sea Lines of Communication in the Indo-Pacific—if Beijing eventually decides to act against Taipei.

These major differences with the 19th Crimean War scenario forewarn the possibility of widening conflicts, possibly leading to a major power war, if the US, with the help of third powers and the UN Security Council as mediators, does not soon engage in full-fledged diplomacy to find options that could lead to a resolution of the conflicts in the Black Sea, the wider Middle East10 , and the South and East China Sea11—among other regions in conflict.


1 Turkey / Russia Ships RPV For Akkuyu-3 Nuclear Plant.
2 Did the west deliberately prolong the Ukraine War?.
3 Resolving the Gaza crisis.
4 Ibid.
5 Karl Marx and NATO.
6 Ukraine risks losing swathes of territory regained from Russia earlier.
7 U.S. and Ukraine Search for a New Strategy After Failed Counteroffensive.
8 What’s Next for Ukraine: The Outlines of a Peaceful Settlement.
9 Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict, by Samuel Charap, Miranda Priebe, 2023.
10 Resolving the Gaza crisis.
11 It’s time to rethink US-China relations.