Russia's war in Ukraine echoes its Crimean War of the 1850s Russia had a more powerful army. It didn't think the West would intervene. The invasion was poorly planned. We're not talking about Russia's current war, but about Russia's Crimean War in the 1850s.

How Russia's current war in Ukraine echoes its Crimean War of the 1850s

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Here's a widely held view of Russia's war - Russia had a more powerful army, rolled in and expected a quick victory. It didn't think Western powers would intervene. Yet a poorly planned military campaign led to a fight much tougher than expected. We are not talking about the current war in Ukraine; we are talking about Russia's losing war in Crimea in the 1850s. NPR's Greg Myre looks at the parallels.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Even if you're not familiar with the Crimean War, you do know some of the monumental figures who emerged from it, like Florence Nightingale and Leo Tolstoy. But this isn't just history; that long-ago war is still relevant today. When Russia battled the Ottoman Empire in 1853, the fight was over some of the same territory that's central to today's conflict. A year into that war, The Economist magazine - the same one that's still going strong - wrote a scathing piece about Russia and its leader, Czar Nicholas I.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) That vast state is, in great measure, composed of spoils, which she has torn from surrounding nations. Her frontier provinces are filled with injured, discontented, hostile populations.

MYRE: Sounds much like Ukraine today, where Russian President Vladimir Putin is waging war.

ORLANDO FIGES: Oh, there are very distinct parallels. And I think that Putin has probably overstretched himself in the same way that Nicholas I did.

MYRE: Orlando Figes is a British historian and the author of "The Crimean War: A History."

FIGES: Nicholas, who wants to counteract the influence of liberal democracy in Europe, came up with a slogan - Orthodoxy, autocracy, nationalism. And that might just as well stand for Putin's ideology. This is a war backed by the Orthodox Church. He is an autocrat who sees himself as a bulwark against liberal principles coming from the West.

MYRE: Another historian, Vladislav Zubok, has a similar take.

VLADISLAV ZUBOK: It's a classic case when history does - definitely rhymes. Several things were similar and resonate with us today.

MYRE: Zubok, a Russian who teaches at the London School of Economics, notes that Russia had a huge army but planned poorly for the Crimean War.

ZUBOK: Very quickly after the outbreak of the war, it turned out that Russia was so weak that it couldn't even properly supply the troops on its own territory.

MYRE: Much like today, where Russia has suffered recurring logistics failures. Nicholas I also thought Western powers would not interfere with his war against the Ottoman Empire, which he called the sick man of Europe. Zubok says the czar was stunned when Britain and France joined the Ottomans to support them in their fight against Russia.

ZUBOK: He could not imagine that the leading powers of Europe would turn against him.

MYRE: Britain and France aren't fighting in the current war, but British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and French President Emmanuel Macron were among five European leaders who recently took trains to Kyiv to express solidarity with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

ANGELA STENT: Putin did not believe that the Europeans and the United States would together push back against what Russia was doing and come and support Ukraine.

MYRE: Professor Angela Stent of Georgetown University has met many times with Putin and is the author of "Putin's World."

STENT: He also didn't believe that Europe and the United States would agree on these very tough sanctions. So he was wrong on a number of counts.

MYRE: Of course, the Crimean War was also filled with folly. One disastrous British military operation was immortalized by Britain's Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his epic poem "The Charge Of The Light Brigade."


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Forward the Light Brigade. Was there a man dismayed? Not tho' the soldier knew someone had blundered. Theirs not to make reply. Theirs not to reason why. Theirs but to do and die. Into the Valley of Death rode the 600.

MYRE: Tennyson wasn't alone in turning tragedy into art. A young Russian artillery officer, Leo Tolstoy, drew on his experience when he later wrote "War And Peace." And British nurse Florence Nightingale became one of the most famous women in the world, ushering in a new era of military medicine and more sanitary ways of caring for wounded troops. The war did, however, further damage the reputation of Nicholas I. He died in 1855, while the fighting still raged. His 30-year rule left Russia isolated, impoverished and badly in need of reforms. Once more, here's historian Vladislav Zubok.

ZUBOK: He definitely provoked the Crimean War by his arrogance, by his wrong assumptions about Europe and other powers. And he essentially blundered his way into this war.

MYRE: Russia ultimately lost the Crimean War and was forced to accept humiliating terms. Russia pledged not to place warships in the Black Sea, where it desperately wanted to project naval power. Today Russia is projecting naval power in the Black Sea. In an escalating crisis, Russian warships are blockading the southern coast of Ukraine, keeping the country from exporting its abundant grain to the world. Again, Angela Stent.

STENT: I think this is, again, a historical continuity - Russia trying to dominate the Black Sea. The goals haven't changed that much.

MYRE: Russia has long portrayed itself as a leading military power. Putin recently compared himself to Peter the Great, the ruler who expanded Russian territory through conquest in the early 1700s. Volodymyr Viatrovych is a prominent Ukrainian historian.

VOLODYMYR VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) This is, of course, an imperial war. Russia today acts like an empire. It's intending to expand. They're trying to take land that they perceived as having belonged to them in the past.

MYRE: Viatrovych is also a member of Ukraine's Parliament and part of the armed forces that helped defend Kyiv in the early days of the war. While Russia has had many military triumphs, he says its overall record is decidedly mixed.

VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) If you look throughout the course of history, not only in the 20th century but also in the 19th, Russia has lost more wars than it's won.

MYRE: He says Russian military weakness is again on display, this time in Ukraine.

VIATROVYCH: (Through interpreter) Russia has really built this myth of being a global superpower. But what we've seen since the invasion of Ukraine, they're demonstrating that they're not a superpower.

MYRE: Russia's current leader loves invoking his country's historical conquest. It's less clear whether he's learned from its defeats.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Kyiv.

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