One of the more momentous wars in the 19th century was fought mostly in the Crimean Peninsula in the southern portion of Ukraine. Since time immemorial this constricted space has proven to be the location of ferocious conflict, and it remains so to this day. In the middle of the 1850’s, though, it served as the location where an allied force made up of French, British, Turkish, and eventually Piedmont-Sardinian soldiers fought and died in a war that ended at least officially in Russian defeat. To this day, the causes of the war remain shrouded in mystery, as the efforts of Russia to profit from the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the mistrust towards Nicholas I that was felt by the British and the goals of Sardinia-Piedmont and France to profit diplomatically and politically by the conflict made a mess of rational calculations. When one combines the political and diplomatic schisms and machinations involved in the prelude to the war with the absolute horror of the conditions of the war for its soldiers and the sheer incompetence with which it was fought, it is hard to see the Crimean war as more than a debacle, even if ordinary soldiers fought with tenacity despite the failures of their political and military leadership. Nonetheless, it may be seen that the war as a whole involved winning at a losing game.
It may be said that everyone involved in the Crimean war ended up winning in some fashion at a losing game, although the suffering for the hundreds of thousands of people, civilian and military, who died as a result of the war would seem to argue against viewing it as a mere game. Although Turkey won the war, thank in large part to the efforts of European allies, Turkey was unable to recover its earlier strength and later found itself defeated in a series of wars that led to the independence of its Balkan nations, the loss of peripheral territories to imperialists, and eventually, after the catastrophe of World War I, to the destruction of the Ottoman Empire as a whole, and all of that has not ended Turkey’s problematic position relative to its Kurdish population or the historical grievances of neighbors like the Armenians. Furthermore, the Crimean Tartar population itself suffered horribly, not only in the war, but in the hostile actions taken towards the population by Alexander II as well as later Russian rulers, who saw the population as a potential (and frequently actual) fifth-column in the face of foreign pressure. Even the Ukrainian government has, in light of Russia’s seizure of the area, had reason to find the Crimean Tartar population as the harbinger of trouble and internal dissention.
Russia itself found the Crimean War, despite its immense losses in terms of population and prestige, to also be the opportunity to win at a losing game. The death of Nicholas I allowed his son Alexander II to make a peace that did not prove to be crippling to the Russians. Within a few years, though, the end of serfdom demonstrated lasting social changes that resulted from Russia’s military defeat, and the resulting mistrust of Britain, France, and Austria had momentous consequences, including the refusal of Russia to help Austria in its hour of need in 1867, as well as the close ties between Russia and the Union during the American Civil War and the eventual sale of Alaska to the United States in 1867 which furthered America’s imperial aims and helped frustrate British ones. And it was not too long until in the period of 1878 that saw Russia again support Balkan peoples in a successful effort to wrest control of the Balkans from its long period of Ottoman domination in a year that saw the Ottomans lose control of areas as diverse as Cyprus, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Montenegro, all of which would find themselves to be the theaters of future conflict with neighbors over identity and territory.
On the diplomatic front, France and Piedmont-Sardinia similarly found themselves to be winning at a losing game, using the expense of blood and treasure in a largely fruitless war to seek diplomatic prestige for themselves and their nations. France’s Napoleon III saw his success in the Crimean War as allowing him to have a massive amount of influence in the affairs of the world that would later lead him to intervene in Mexico during the American Civil War to general disaster and still later to end his own rule through the further disaster of the Franco-Prussian War, in which France’s loss of Alsace-Lorraine proved to be a lasting resentment between French and German that continues to influence diplomacy to the present day in the French support of the European project. For Piedmont-Sardinia, the war allowed the chance for the nation to state its grievances against Austrian rule of various Italian states in a public fashion, and later on the state would unify Italian rule under its dynasty, which would rule over Italy for another 80 years before the monarchy was abolished in the aftermath of the disaster of World War II, although to this day many northern Italians remain dissatisfied about the troublesome integration of Italy and the costs to themselves.
As a whole, it can be said that depending on how one looks at the war, everyone who fought in it lost. Russia’s defeat in the war did not change its approach to using massive amounts of uneducated peasants to fight and die, its general approach to war in Crimea, as well as in the Russo-Japanese War and both World Wars. Turkey did not use its temporary alliance with Western populations as a spur to cultural reformation, and populations in the Ottoman Empire would find that their release from Ottoman domination did not make their own lives any easier, for the most part. The frustration of Russian imperialistic aims ended up causing trouble for the Ottoman Empire, the British Empire, the French Empire, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as for the smaller peoples who themselves had imperial aims in some other peoples in areas like Transylvania, the Middle East, and the Balkans, a problem that remains present to this day. Crimea might not have been worth the bones of a single Pomeranian grenadier, but hundreds of thousands of people fought and died in an area and over conflicts that still remain unsolved. It is not only a past losing game that we are playing, but one that remains to the present.