I've been reading the provocative history of the Crimean War published last year by Professor Orlando Figes. Subtitled The Last Crusade, the book retells a story in which fact and legend merged with astonishing rapidity, certainly in this country. But, as Figes reminds us, the true origins of the war, and its relevance to the turbulent world in which we now live, deserve to be better remembered and better understood.
The Crimean War had multiple origins. Anti-Russian paranoia gripped the British public. The regime of Tsar Nicholas I was viewed as the major threat both to European stability and Britain's Indian Empire.
To counter this, successive British governments supported the Turkish-Ottoman state, whose brutality – inspired in part by its aversion to Christianity – was provoking nationalist revolts in the Balkans and elsewhere. Nicholas naturally championed this Slav-Christian nationalism, and proclaimed (as it were) a crusade against Islamic tyranny.
The British and their French ally won the war, but it was a costly, hollow victory. As Lord
Salisbury, Disraeli's foreign secretary, later admitted, in supporting the Turks Britain had backed "the wrong horse". The Ottoman Empire was beyond redemption; by prolonging its existence Whitehall stoked the embers that ignited in 1914 with such devastating results.
I was reminded of this when, not three weeks ago, my attention was drawn to a series of under-reported events in the Black Sea and the eastern Mediterranean which presage a diplomatic revolution with – perhaps – pivotal consequences for war and peace in the Middle East. This revolution stems from the policies of the present-day
Turkish state presided over by Mr Recep
Erdogan, whose innocuously named Justice and
Development Party now rules in Istanbul.
Although Erdogan would like us to believe that his party is merely within the mainstream of European conservative movements, it is nothing of the sort. It is an Islamist party with ultra-nationalist ambitions, seeking amongst other things to reposition Turkey as the protector of Islam in the Middle East and North Africa. It is quite unashamed about exploiting for this purpose the mythically benign image of Turkey's Ottoman past. Once the enemy of Islamic fundamentalism, Turkey has become its friend. Once the ally of Israel, Turkey has become its enemy.
In Davos (where he stormed out of a public meeting with Shimon Peres), in Cairo (where he damned Israel's legal blockade of Gaza) and in New York (where he called for UN sanctions against the Jewish state) Erdogan has delighted in throwing his weight around. Meanwhile his government has intensified an already well-established pattern of persecution and extra-judicial killings of the Kurdish people.
This alone will guarantee the EU's rejection of Turkey's application for membership (which I once supported).
Erdogan no longer cares. But he may have bitten off more than he can chew. On September 17, in furtherance of a clumsy attempt to exploit the off-shore economic potential of Turkey's occupation of northern Cyprus, Erdogan issued a typically bombastic ultimatum to the Greek Cypriot government, warning it against proceeding with oil and gas exploration off Cyprus's southern coast. This work is being undertaken by Noble Energy, an American company that shares its Cypriot drilling licence with the Israeli Delek corporation.
But it was neither the Israeli nor the American government that came to Cyprus's aid. It was the Russian. Out of the Black Sea and into the Mediterranean sailed two Russian nuclear-powered submarines. Their task (a Russian foreign ministry official explained) is to secure Cypriot sovereignty and defend the island's right to prospect for undersea resources within its territorial seas.
The implications of this need to be carefully pondered. Within Russia popular sentiment has rediscovered the age-old affinity between Russia and Greece, and more generally Russian support for the Orthodox church in the Balkans.
These were major triggers of the Crimean War. Moscow is delighted to be able to re-establish a naval presence in the eastern Mediterranean – another trigger of the conflict.
While relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated, those between Jerusalem and Athens have dramatically improved: apart from collaboration in energy exploration a mutual defence agreement is now in place, and there is talk of Russo-Israeli support for Greece's beleaguered economy. A Whitehall source tells me that Her Majesty's government views this realignment with concern. In this part of the world Britain has backed the wrong horse before. Let's hope it doesn't do so again.