After defeat in the Crimean War the resulting Peace of Paris was a harsh one for the defeated Russians to stomach. It shed much of its influence in the near East and removed key naval bases in the Black Sea. But arguably it was a pyric victory for the British; yes, they now reigned supreme in the Mediterranean, but the result of this was to push the Russians from being a defender of the established order to become disrupters to the European ‘balance of power’. They wanted their defeat re-addressed and their chance came against the Turks of the Ottoman Empire in another war to add to a long list of conflicts between the two empires that stretched back to the 18th Century.
The origins of the war lie in the rise of nationalist movements in the Balkans. The fragmenting Ottoman Empire – once so strong that it pushed to the gates of Vienna in central Europe – was beginning to slide into chaos. Their grip on the Balkans region was slipping and the nationalities of this area saw numerous risings (notably in Bulgaria and Serbia). Russia’s participation comes in the form of the long-standing link between themselves as the Slavs of the Balkans: they shared a common culture and a common religion (Orthodox Christianity). The Russian Empire had long acted as a ‘big brother’ to these smaller nationalities, and they spear-headed the grievances of the Balkans against the Ottoman Turks.
The Russians established an alliance of nations from the Balkans; these peoples were more than willing to allow the Russian army to pass through their territory to head southwards to take the fight to the Turks. Progress was slow, due to miscommunication and poor planning, but bit by bit the Russians headed towards Constantinople (the capital of the Ottoman Empire). The shock was so severe that it appeared that the Turks were about to completely collapse, which in turn alerted the other powers of Europe; particularly the British. If the Ottoman Empire collapsed the main beneficiary would be the Russians: they would take over a great network of territory and spread into the near East, thereby upsetting the much sought after ‘balance of power’ and completely negate the Peace of Paris.
A fleet of British battleships was enough to convince the Russians to halt their advance into Ottoman territory and to agree to the Peace of San Stefano in early 1878. It resolved to devolve power to many of the nationalities in the Balkans to stop the full authority of the Turks, although full nationhood was denied (which led to many of the problems that would set off the First World War). For Russia, their reputation was restored: although they did not take as much territory as they may have hoped they have carved out influence in the Mediterranean and in the Balkans. The memory of the Crimean War had been expunged.