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Foreign Policy of Nicholas I (1825-55)

Russian dominance proved illusory. While Nicholas was attempting to maintain the status quo in Europe, he adopted an aggressive policy toward the Ottoman Empire. Russia's backwardness and inherent weakness were revealed in the middle of the century in the Crimean War. Nicholas I was following the traditional Russian policy of resolving the so-called Eastern Question by seeking to partition the Ottoman Empire and establish a protectorate over the Orthodox population of the Balkans, still largely under Ottoman control in the 1820s.

In foreign policy, Nicholas I acted as the protector of ruling legitimism and guardian against revolution. His offers to suppress revolution on the European continent, accepted in some instances, earned him the label of gendarme of Europe. In 1830, after a popular uprising had occurred in France, the Poles in Russian Poland revolted. Nicholas crushed the rebellion, abrogated the Polish constitution, and reduced Poland to the status of a Russian province. In 1848, when a series of revolutions convulsed Europe, Nicholas was in the forefront of reaction. In 1849 he intervened on behalf of the Habsburgs and helped suppress an uprising in Hungary, and he also urged Prussia not to accept a liberal constitution. Having helped conservative forces repel the specter of revolution, Nicholas I seemed to dominate Europe.

A steadfast faith in autocratic methods and the exaggerated fear of revolutionary principles were shown in foreign as well as in home affairs. Like Alexander in the last period of his reign, Nicholas considered himself the supreme guardian of European order, and was ever on the watch to oppose revolution in all its forms. Unfortunately for the peace of the world his habitual policy of maintaining the existing state of things was frequently obscured and disturbed by his desire to maintain and increase his own and his country's prestige, influence and territory. By the Persian War, which broke out in 1826, in consequence of frontier disputes, he annexed the provinces of Erivan and Nakhichevan, and during the whole of his reign the conquest of the Caucasus was systematically carried on.

He was generally in strained relations with France, especially in the time of Louis Philippe, who became king not by the grace of God but by the will of the people. During the revolutionary ferment of 1848-49 he urged the Prussian king to refuse the imperial crown, co-operated with the Austrian emperor in suppressing the Hungarian insurrection, and compelled the Prussians to withdraw their support from the insurgents in Schleswig-Holstein.

With regard also to the Ottoman empire his policy cannot be said to have been strictly conservative. As protector of Orthodox Christians he espoused the cause of the the rayahs in Greece, Servia and Rumania. Under an Ottoman threat of war he obtained in 1826 the Convention of Akerman, by which the autonomy of Moldavia, Walachia and Servia was confirmed, free passage of the straits was secured for merchant ships and disputed territory on the Asiatic frontier was annexed, and in July 1827 he signed with England and France the treaty of London for the solution of the Greek question by the mediation of the Powers. As the Sultan rejected the mediation, his fleet was destroyed by the combined squadrons of the three Powers at Navarino; and as this "untoward event" did not suffice to overcome his resistance, a Russian army crossed the Danube and after two hard-fought campaigns advanced to Adrianople. Here, on the i4th of September 1829, was signed a treaty by which the Porte ceded to Russia the islands at the mouth of the Danube and several districts on the Asiatic frontier, granted full liberty to Russian navigation and commerce in the Black Sea, and guaranteed the autonomous rights previously accorded to Moldavia, Walachia and Servia. By the 10th article of the treaty, moreover, Turkey acceded to the protocol of the 22nd of March 1829, by which the Powers had agreed to the erection of Greece into a tributary principality. This attempt of Russia to secure the sole prestige of liberating Greece was, however, frustrated by the action of the other Powers in putting forward the principle of the independence of the new Greek state, with a further extension of frontiers.

The result of the war was to make Russia supreme at Constantinople; and before long an opportunity of further increasing her influence was created by Mehemet Ali, the ambitious pasha of Egypt, who in November 1831 began a war with his sovereign in Syria, gained a series of victories over the Turkish forces in Asia Minor and threatened Constantinople. Sultan Madmud II, after appealing in vain to Great Britain for active assistance turned in despair to Russia. Nicholas immediately sent his Black Sea fleet into the Bosphorus, landed on the Asiatic shore a force of 10,000 men, and advanced another large force towards the Turkish frontier in Bessarabia, Under pressure from Trvatyof England and France the Egyptians retreated and the Russian forces were withdrawn.

The Tsar had meanwhile (July 8, 1833) concluded with the Sultan the treaty of Unkiar-Skelessi, which constituted ostensibly a defensive and offensive alliance between the two Powers and established virtually a Russian protectorate over Turkey. In a secret article of the treaty the Sultan undertook in the event of a casus foederis [Latin for "case of the alliance" - a diplomatic term, it describes a situation in which the terms of an alliance come into play, such as one nation being attacked by another], and in consideration of being relieved of his obligations under the articles of the public treaty, to close the Dardanelles to the warships of all nations "au besoin," [ a French phrase, used in commercial law, "In case of need"] which meant in effect that in the event of Russia being threatened with an attack from the Mediterranean he would close the Dardanelles against ihc invader. The major European parties mistakenly believed that the treaty contained a secret clause granting Russia the right to send warships through the Bosporus and Dardanelles straits. England and France protested energetically and the treaty remained a dead letter, but the question came up again in 1840, after Mahmud's renewed attempt to crush Mehemet Ali had ended in the utter defeat of the Turks by Ibrahim at Nezib (June 24, 1839). This time Mehemet Ali was supported by the French government, which aimed at establishing predominant influence in Egypt, but he was successfully opposed by a coalition of Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia, which checkmated the aggressive designs of France by the convention of London (July 15, 1840). In this way the development of Russian policy with regard to Turkey was checked for some years. By the London Straits Convention of 1841, they affirmed Ottoman control over the straits and forbade any power, including Russia, to send warships through the straits.

The project of confirming and extending the Russian protectorate over the Orthodox Christians was revived in 1853 when Napoleon III obtained for the Roman Catholics certain privileges with regard to the Holy Places in Palestine. At the same time Austria intervened in Montenegrin affairs and induced the Sultan to withdraw his troops from the principality. In these two incidents the tsar perceived a diminution of Russian prestige and influence in Turkey, and Prince Menshikov was sent on a special mission to Constantinople to obtain reparation in the form of a treaty which should guarantee the rights of the Orthodox Church with regard to the Holy Places and confirm the protectorate of Russia over the Orthodox rayahs, established by the treaties of Kainarji, Bucharest and Adrianople. Based on his role in suppressing the revolutions of 1848 and his mistaken belief that he had British diplomatic support, Nicholas moved against the Ottomans, who declared war on Russia in 1853. Fearing the results of an Ottoman defeat by Russia, in 1854 Britain and France joined what became known as the Crimean War on the Ottoman side. Austria offered the Ottomans diplomatic support, and Prussia remained neutral, leaving Russia without allies on the continent.

The European allies landed in Crimea and laid siege to the well-fortified Russian base at Sevastopol'. After a year's siege the base fell, exposing Russia's inability to defend a major fortification on its own soil. The Crimean War was terminated by the taking of Sevastopol (September 1855) and the treaty of Paris Crimea (March 30, 1856). By that important document Russia reluctantly consented to a strict limitation of her armaments in the Black Sea, to withdrawal fiom the mouths of the Danube by the retrocession of Bessarabia which she had annexed in 1812, and finally to a renunciation of all special rights of intervention between the Sultan and his Christian subjects.

Nicholas did not live to experience this humiliation. He had died at St Petersburg on the 2nd of March 1855 and had been succeeded by his eldest son, Alexander II.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:15:38 ZULU