Russia and Ottoman Empire Relationship

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Russia’s foreign relations have historically been driven by its needs and goals. From 1547 to 1917, the czars focused on acquiring land and modernizing the country. In doing so, they formed relationships with Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. While Russia admired and emulated Western Europe, it also competed with European powers for control over the collapsing Ottoman Empire. This period saw Russia’s emergence as a powerful nation through territorial expansion and warfare with neighboring countries.

Ivan the Terrible expanded his empire by engaging with both Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire. His main objective was to acquire a port that would grant him access to the Baltic Sea. In order to achieve this, Ivan engaged in a lengthy war against Sweden, Poland-Lithuania, and Livonia. In the southern region, Ivan partially succeeded in his initial conflict against the Muslim Tatars in 1568. These Tatars were officially under the protection and rule of the Ottomans, who provided some assistance during the war. Beyond the fact that both Western European countries and the Ottoman Empire were seen as hostile potential threats, there was little distinction from a religious perspective in the minds of Russians.

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The Russians adhered firmly to the Orthodox faith, and Ivan the Terrible had asserted his right to the title of Czar by claiming lineage from a Byzantine ancestor. Both the Islamic Ottomans and the Catholic Europeans were regarded with animosity. The church hierarchy, tainted by corruption and a lust for power, had played a significant role in causing the division between the Eastern and Western churches. This division denied the opportunity for brotherly love to thrive among groups of people who all considered Christ as their Lord. Nevertheless, the political elites were not willing to let religious beliefs hinder their pursuit of self-interest. Religion, however, certainly had an impact on everyday citizens.

Ivan the Terrible’s harsh and authoritarian reign ended in 1584, leading to political turmoil in Russia. Eventually, order was reinstated with the ascension of Michael Romanov as czar. Following his rule, his son Peter took over, implementing reforms that would significantly impact Russia’s perception of Western Europe. Peter acknowledged that his nation was lagging behind European counterparts in areas such as knowledge, technology, trade, and governance. Exercising his uncontested authority as czar, he enlisted foreign advisers to assist him in modernizing, westernizing, and educating his populace.

Although Peter had a deep admiration for Europe, his reforms had a lasting impact on Russia, despite facing opposition from traditionalist nobles. However, Peter’s appreciation did not result in forming friendly relations with Western European countries. He viewed these nations as his competitors and adversaries, and it can be argued that through his modernization efforts, Peter aimed to surpass them in their own sphere. He engaged in a lengthy war against Sweden and ultimately triumphed, acquiring ports on the Baltic Sea that facilitated increased trade with Western Europe.

Meanwhile, Peter continued Russia’s expansion efforts by exploiting the Ottoman Empire. However, his failed conflict from 1710-11 nearly resulted in his capture. Nevertheless, both Peter and Europe recognized that the Ottoman Empire was steadily declining and irreversible. In contrast to Europe, the Ottomans were technologically outdated, militarily weak, politically unstable, and struggling to control their vast empire. Catherine II, Peter’s successor, saw this as an opportunity to take advantage of the situation.

Catherine the Great oversaw the initial major Russo-Turkish war from 1768 to 1774. This conflict resulted in the Treaty of Kucuk Kainarji, granting Russia control over the northern coastline of the Black Sea, a crucial trade route. The treaty also authorized Russia to protect Christian residents within the Ottoman Empire, though this authority lacked clarity. Exploiting this influence, Russia supported uprisings in regions such as Hungary and Greece to destabilize the Ottoman Empire. However, France’s revolution and Napoleon’s ascent to power greatly affected Russia’s global relationships.

In 1798, Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt posed a threat to British influence in the Middle East and Asia. As a result, an unlikely alliance was formed between Russia, Turkey, and Britain. However, when Napoleon was compelled to retreat to France, the once hostile relationship between Russia and the Ottomans resumed. Prior to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812, Czar Alexander I reached a peace treaty with the Turks by consenting to relinquish substantial portions of land.

After experiencing a brutal and costly conflict, Napoleon was compelled to withdraw with substantial losses as a result of the severe Russian winter. Russia, in its pursuit to ultimately overthrow Napoleon and depose him from his position of power, established alliances with England and Austria. During this era, Russia emerged as a prominent force in Europe. Throughout the subsequent century, Russia’s approach towards Europe and the Ottoman Empire remained largely unaltered. Despite encountering resistance from Britain and France, Russia consistently battled to extend its dominance over the Turks while acquiring additional land in the Balkans and Black Sea region.

In 1828-1829, Russia gained significant territory in the Black Sea from a war. Later, in 1853, a conflict over religious rights to holy sites in Ottoman territory sparked the Crimean War. During this war, Britain and France defeated Russia in the Crimea, securing a break from Russian expansion for the Turks. As World War I approached, Germany sought favor with the Ottomans and became their supporter against Russia when the war began, replacing France and England.

As the German threat emerged, France and England became allies with Russia, forming mutual defense agreements in 1904 and 1907, respectively. They would fight together in the war. Simultaneously, Western Europe’s influence had been growing among Russian nobles and influential individuals over the past century. Though Alexander I and his successors introduced reforms and aimed to westernize the country, these reforms were specific, focusing on material modernization to strengthen Russia and social modernization to benefit the nobility.

Despite the czars’ opposition to ideological modernization, concepts such as France’s “liberty, equality, fraternity” and England’s constitutional rights were put aside, allowing the serfs to remain as slaves. Nevertheless, these revolutionary notions managed to permeate Russian society. Among the aristocracy, European ideologies like socialism and anarchism sparked curiosity and gradually gained endorsement, despite being highly debated in Western Europe at the time.

Some ideas originating from Western Europe would later contribute to the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, leading to Russia becoming a communist state. This marked the culmination of a substantial duration in Russia’s foreign relations, characterized by two main objectives: expansion and modernization. To achieve expansion, Russia frequently engaged in territorial wars against its southern neighbor, the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, to modernize, Russia adopted the technology and customs of Western Europe.

Despite Russia’s openness to Western European ideas, it continued to engage in power competition with individual European nations under the czars. England and France emerged as its primary rivals as they sought to capitalize on the power vacuum left by the crumbling Ottoman Empire. In general, Russia’s foreign relations were mainly shaped by its own policies and desires, without any intention of territorial expansion. The only exceptions to this were instances such as Polish interference during the Time of Troubles between Ivan the Terrible and Michael Romanov, and the threat posed by Napoleon and France in the early 1800s.

Despite the significant impact on Russia’s foreign relations, including a brief alliance with the Turks, overall Russia took the lead in its international interactions. While acquiring land from the Turks was challenging, the Russians did not view the Ottoman Empire as a major adversary, unlike their perception of Western Europe. Unlike France’s Napoleon who posed a serious offensive threat to Russia in 1812, the Turks lacked the strength for such a campaign.

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Russia and Ottoman Empire Relationship. (2017, Apr 02). Retrieved from

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