What: Russia’s encroachment on the Ottoman Empire’s territories, marking the beginning of the final Russian-Turkish war and loss of Turkish control over the Balkans.
Where: Balkans, south-eastern Europe
When: 24 April 1877 – 3 March 1878
The mid-1800s was a time of rising nationalism throughout the world, and the populations within the territories ruled by the Ottoman Empire were certainly no exception. By the 1870s, the Balkan region was rife with nationalist and separatist sentiment, resulting in numerous uprisings and suppressions in areas such as Albania, Bulgaria, Herzegovina and Crete.
Although it had largely been successful in navigating the complex power politics within Europe until then, managing the ever-changing alliances with and betrayals from both large and smaller European powers, the Ottomans were subject to increasingly widespread discontent from both the populations that it governed and the continent as a whole.
Imperial Russia was, at the time, one of those most discontented with the Ottoman Empire, having suffered the loss of some territories in the Crimean War, around two decades earlier, at the hands of the Turkish, British and French coalition. That loss, along with demands to protect Christian populations living within Ottoman lands, had spurred Moscow into planning yet another advance against its rival.
After reaching an agreement with Austria-Hungary on 15 January 1877, securing the latter’s neutrality in the event of a war, as well as signing a treaty with Romania to allow Russian troops to pass through its territory on the condition of respecting its sovereignty, Russia judged that the time was right to finally declare war. Russian troops entered Romania on 24 April 1877, accompanied by 120,000 Romanian troops, beginning the invasion of what was then formally Ottoman territory.
On 10 May, Romania declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire, as Russian and Romanian forces captured key Ottoman sites in that country and in Bulgaria. Despite Istanbul ordering its renowned Commander, Osman Nuri Pasha, to march Ottoman forces into Bulgaria in an attempt to stop the Russian advance, he and his army were besieged in the town and fortress of Pleven, as the Bulgarians themselves began joining the war against the Ottomans.
Five months later, the Siege of Pleven was broken and Osman Pasha surrendered to the military coalition, which grew even stronger as Serbia joined the war effort and soon took large swathes of Ottoman territory.
Britain then pressured Russia into accepting a truce on 31 January 1878 to end the war, as a complete Russian victory and foothold was against London’s interests. Turkish forces were continuously pushed back further towards Istanbul, until the British Royal Navy sent battleships to intimidate Moscow, resulting in the signing of a peace treaty on 3 March 1878 at the village of San Stefano.
With that agreement, the Ottoman Empire accepted independence for Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, as well as autonomy for Bosnia and Herzegovina and parts of Bulgaria, effectively ending around five centuries of rule in the Balkans.
What happened next?
With the end of the war and the Ottoman Empire’s forced acceptance of its previous territories in the Balkans and parts of eastern Anatolia, where another front with Russia was fought, the geopolitical dynamics of the region were forever changed and a new era of history began.
It was, in many ways, the beginning of the physical collapse of the Ottoman Empire, as the new and current system of nation-states took hold of the region. Other European powers were still rising and solidifying their colonial rule over parts of Asia and Africa, but they would meet the same reality of nation-states in the next century during decolonisation – it was just the Ottomans who were the first to experience it.
With that new era came a host of other issues, such as the radicalisation of ethnic identities (including the Turkish nationalist identity), the mass movements and migration of populations such as the swap between Turkiye and Greece, and the inevitable ethnic and religious cleansings as was seen in the Balkans during the break-up of Yugoslavia.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.