Michael Emerson, CEPS: Tsar Nicholas I’s Crimean War and Putin’s in Ukraine – Plus ça change

2023-05-15 | Expert publications, Geopolitical analysis

With President Volodymyr Zelensky’s statement on 11 May that more time is needed before Ukraine’s long-awaited counteroffensive can begin, everyone is implicitly being invited also to pause and reflect on what might or should become the outcome of the war. Ukraine’s declared political objective is to regain all of its occupied territories, including Crimea, but the actual outcome will only be revealed first on the field of battle and then in peace negotiations.

Such reflections may include noting the region’s history, and notably the experience of the Crimean War of 170 years ago, with several striking analogies with President Vladimir Putin’s war. Two solitary autocrats, Tsar Nicholas I and Putin, both launched their wars of choice, both claiming their sacred destiny to defend Russia from Western liberalism.

Yet Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive, to be a second stage in the war, also invites comparison with how the Crimean War saw two stages. Its first stage was entirely on the mainland between present-day Ukraine and the Ottoman Constantinople. The French and British allies had the option in mid-1854 to stop after the Tsar’s retreat from trying to take Constantinople, and to declare victory. But instead they made the fateful decision to move on to Crimea and take Sevastopol. History never repeats itself exactly, but it is worth remembering, as Ukraine and its Western allies weigh their strategies for the endgame.

Originally published on CEPS website. Full publication can be downloaded here.