Issue 285: 2021 06 24: USA and Russia

24 June 2021

USA and Russia

Allies in the Crimea.

By Neil Tidmarsh

The ‘special relationship’ between the USA and Russia makes them allies in Russia’s fight for the sacred Russian soil of the Crimea and Ukraine.  American soldiers, engineers and medics volunteer to stand side by side with Russian troops.  A military delegation from the USA advises the Russian top brass.  American ships defy an international arms embargo and risk sanctions to smuggle weapons and ammunition to Russia.

What?  Nonsense!  Russia’s occupation of the Crimea and interference in Ukraine were the main reasons why Biden and Putin came away from last week’s meeting in Geneva with little more than an unconvincing handshake.  The Crimea has been a running sore poisoning the relationship between the USA and Russia for the last seven years, a relationship which was already toxic, has always been toxic, will always be toxic, both countries doomed to perpetual opposition, the inevitable prisoners of history, the eternal yin and yang of global geopolitics.  So what is this?  Fake news?  Counter-factual history?  An alternative reality?

No.  Real history, though perhaps news to some.

It should have been no surprise in 2014 when Russia insisted that the Crimea was its own territory.  Russia’s defence of the Crimea 160 years earlier, in the war of 1854, cost tens of thousands of Russian lives and turned it into holy ground which could never be abandoned.  Leo Tolstoy fought in that war and testified to that sentiment in his Sebastopol Sketches.  “Long will Russia bear the imposing traces of this epic of Sebastopol, the hero of which was the Russian people” he wrote.  “The one central, reassuring conviction you have come away with is that it is quite impossible for Sebastopol ever to be taken by the enemy.”

The war began with a squabble between Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests in Jerusalem, which was part of the Turkish sultan’s Ottoman empire.  Tsar Nicholas I of Russia, as the champion of the Orthodox church, responded by invading Turkish possessions around the Black Sea; Napoleon III of France, as the champion of the Roman Catholic church, responded by sending a French force to help the Sultan fight off the Russians.  Great Britain (worried that Russia might annex enough Turkish territory to give it a back door into India, and alarmed by the threat to its naval supremacy posed by the Russian fleet’s destruction of the Turkish fleet, and anxious not to miss out on the potential dismemberment of the ailing Ottoman empire) also piled in on Turkey’s side.  The allies Turkey, France and Britain drove the Russians out of Ottoman territory and followed through by invading Russia’s Crimean peninsula with a view to capturing the important Russian naval base of Sebastopol.

The allies made sure that Russia was isolated in Europe.  But Russia had one important and powerful friend outside Europe – the United States of America.  And this is where the story becomes interesting from a twenty-first century point of view.

Trade deals existed between Russia and the USA in the 1850’s, part of an entente which had wide and enthusiastic support from both populations.  There were even rumours that the two countries had signed a military treaty.  The rumours weren’t true, but the USA nevertheless did what it could to help Russia in the conflict.  George B McClellan, the general who would later command the Northern army at the outbreak of the Civil War, led a US military delegation to Russia to advise the tsar’s army.  American ships carried American arms to Russia in defiance of the allies’ blockade (over 10,000 Colt revolvers were delivered to the Crimea).  American volunteers – over five hundred soldiers and engineers and forty doctors – crossed the Atlantic to serve in the Russian army during the war.

The precise status of these volunteers is unclear.  Were they private citizens?  Were they serving US soldiers?  Were they mercenaries?  At this time, militant American expansionism was spearheaded by armies of so-called ‘filibusters’, ambiguous freebooters who could be officially recognised by the state if they succeeded or officially denied if they failed.  They sound very much like the Russian ‘volunteers’ of enigmatic status (Russian civilians?  Russian troops on vacation?  Russian troops on active but unacknowledged service?) currently in eastern Ukraine, not to mention the ‘little green men’ (unidentifiable soldiers) who secured the Crimea for Russia in 2014, or the activities of the Wagner troops in Africa.

It’s a fascinating situation – the USA helping Russia, of all countries, to fight a war in the Crimea and Ukraine, of all places, against the Western democracies of Britain and France.  Moreover, the USA appears to have anticipated the tactics of hybrid warfare which Russia recently developed in this century’s Crimea and Ukraine conflict and is now deploying in other parts of the world.

They were odd bed-fellows, even in the 1850’s: the democratic republic and the tsar’s despotic monarchy.  But they had two things in common: slavery, and an enemy – Great Britain.  And both things were related.

At this time, the slave-owning Southern states were politically and economically dominant in North America.  They were determined to protect their power against the industrialising North, and that meant expanding their cotton-and-slave based empire southwards into central America and the Caribbean.  Armies of US filibusters were sent south to destabilise the region (the most famous of them, William Walker, seized Nicaragua and made himself its president).  And this brought the USA into conflict with Great Britain, threatening Britain’s interests in the region and its possessions in the West Indies.

Britain’s militant anti-slavery crusade had already put it on a collision course with the USA.  The Royal Navy was doing all it could to disrupt the slave trade, regularly stopping and searching American vessels, which infuriated non-slavers as well as slavers.  The situation reached boiling point over Cuba, a slave state and the USA’s most-prized target in the region.  US president Franklin Pierce offered to buy it off Spain for $120 million, but Great Britain was putting huge diplomatic and economic pressure on Spain to abolish slavery on the island.  So the USA threatened to invade Cuba and take it by force before such liberal measures could be implemented.  But Lord Clarendon, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, made it clear that Britain would be forced to declare war if such an invasion took place.[i]

Russia was equally dependent on its slaves (serfdom wasn’t abolished until 1861), and was equally hostile to Great Britain.  Britain and Russia had been skirmishing for most of the century in Central Asia, with Britain fearful of Russian ambitions to extend its influence south into India, and Russia fearful of British ambitions to extend its influence north out of India.  (This Great Game, played to and fro across the Himalayas, was another embryonic form of hybrid warfare.)

Such was the background to this USA/Russia entente in that first Crimean conflict, so incongruous and paradoxical to 21st century minds.  Were President Biden and President Putin aware of this shared history when they met last week in Switzerland and could barely manage a handshake, separated as they were by the vast obstacle of the more recent Crimean conflict?  Would a valuable history lesson remove that obstacle and help them to achieve a genuine handshake when they next meet?


[i] Just how close Great Britain and the USA came to all-out war at this time is just one of many jaw-dropping revelations in Ben Wilson’s compelling, magnificently panoramic and curiously topical book Heyday: the 1850’s and the Dawn of the Global Age.



Cover page image: Maximilian Dorrbrecker (Chumwa). Creative Commons.




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