On this Day, in 1853, Russian forces invaded the lower Danubian Principalities under Ottoman suzerainty of Moldavia and Wallachia, setting off the Crimean War which severely undermined Russia’s influence in Central Europe and left Austria diplomatically isolated.
As the Ottoman Empire steadily weakened throughout the 19th century, Russia stood poised to take advantage and soon began a southwards expansion towards the warm water ports of the Black Sea and the lower Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.
But the British and the French, who hoped to maintain the Ottoman Empire as a bulwark against the expansion of Russian power in Asia, were determined not to allow this to happen. And in 1853, Tsar Nicholas I began a diplomatic offensive to prevent either British or French interference in any conflict with the Ottomans.
The Tsar then dispatched a highly abrasive diplomat, Prince Menshikov, on a special mission to the Ottoman Sublime Porte, and demanded to exercise protection over the 12 million Orthodox subjects of the Ottoman Empire. But the Sultan, strongly supported by the British and the French, rejected the more sweeping demands.
The Danubian campaign
In July 1853, shortly after he learned of the failure of Menshikov’s diplomacy, the Tsar sent armies under the commands of Field Marshal Ivan Paskevich and General Mikhail Gorchakov across the River Pruth to occupy the Ottoman-controlled Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia.
The British and French navy immediatly sent a fleet to the Dardanelles and in October, the Turks declared war on Russia and Ottoman forces under the Ottoman general Omar Pasha crossed the Danube and opened a counter-attacked in the Danubian Principalities, leading to the first military engagements of the war.
Because Russia had assisted Vienna’s efforts in suppressing the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, Tsar Nicholas I, who wanted a free hand in settling its problems with the Ottoman Empire, felt that Austria would side with him.
But the Austrians had begun to fear the Russians more than the Turks. They resisted Russian diplomatic attempts to make them join the war on the their side and maintained a policy of hostile neutrality towards Russia, while supporting the Anglo-French coalition, a stance which deeply angered Nicholas I.
The Crimean War
France and Britain soon entered the war on the side of the Ottoman Empire and Russia eventually withdrew from the Danubian Principalities in late July 1854. The conflict could have ended then, but war fever among the public in both the UK and France had been whipped up by the press in both countries to the degree that politicians found it untenable to propose ending the war at this point.
In September 1854, the allied forces boarded ships and invaded the Crimean Peninsula. The major Black Sea port of Sevastopol fell after eleven months, which prompted Russia, isolated and facing a prospect of invasion, to sue for peace, signed in Paris in March 1856, which severely undermined its influence in Europe.
But while it was Russia that was punished by the Treaty of Paris, in the long run it was Austria that lost the most from the Crimean War despite having barely taken part in it.
Having abandoned its alliance with Russia, Austria was diplomatically isolated following the war. Russia subsequently stood aside as Austria was evicted from the Italian and German states and compelled to give in to Hungarian demands for autonomy.
The old historic constitution of the Kingdom of Hungary was restored in and Austria was refounded in 1867 as the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.