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Putin’s War in Ukraine Is Brutal (It Looks Like the Crimean War)

Ukraine TOS-1A
TOS-1A. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

As the Russian army struggles to hold on to the Crimean peninsula, we all ask where it is all leading. Most answers are mere speculation, for there are simply too many of what Donald Rumsfeld called “unknown unknowns.” But history may offer some insights. After all, this is not the first time Russia sought to hold onto those lands and the West mounted a military response. We’ve been there before. During the Crimean War of 1853-1856, Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey confronted tsarist Russia over these same lands. Even though that war is scarcely remembered today, there are striking parallels between that conflict and the present. These earlier events can be divided into three phases.

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First, in its nineteenth century war over Crimea, Russia suffered from an unbridgeable technological gap. Nicholas I decked out his troops in fancy uniforms and declared Russia’s army unbeatable, a claim supported by the memory of Russia’s victory over Napoleon earlier in the century. Nicholas hated Europe but was ignorant of its strengths. When a Moscow professor wrote that “We can expect nothing from the West but blind hatred and malice,” Nicholas reportedly wrote in the margin: “This is the whole point.” He was a deep-dyed expansionist, but Russia’s railroads were woefully inadequate, its telegraph system undeveloped, its field commanders had no spy balloons, and its soldiers lacked the percussion handguns with rifled barrels that were standard for the French and British forces.

Even though they were hopelessly outgunned and their generals outmaneuvered, Nicholas’ soldiers fought on, with a will that is absent among their counterparts today. Unlike Putin, Nicholas I was remorseful, yet his war dragged on for a year after the tsar’s death. This slow finale utterly discredited Russia’s military and the bribe-taking and corrupt officer corps that embodied it. Had Britain, France, and Ottoman Turkey struck a premature treaty with Russia, Nicholas’ tyranny would have survived and the old order would have remained intact.

Second, the humiliating defeat and Russia’s faltering economy gave rise to the threat of domestic unrest. Nicholas’ thirty-eight year old son, Alexander II, had no choice but to launch what became known as the “Epoch of Great Reforms.”  Defending his remarkable programs, the young tsar declared that “It is better to abolish serfdom from above than to wait until it begins to abolish itself from below.” He and his like-minded staff set about instituting westernizing reforms in areas as diverse as the courts and judiciary, banking, local government, and the military itself.

The capstone of Alexander II’s reforms was the abolition of serfdom. This system had condemned ninety percent of Russia’s population to a fate akin to slavery. Emancipation gave peasants the use of land and kept peasant life intact but prevented them from migrating to the cities. For all the inadequacies of its reform, Russia managed to end serfdom two years before the United States emancipated its far less numerous slaves and without the estimated 750,000 deaths of the American Civil War.

Third, for all their prudence and, in some cases, brilliance, the Great Reforms did not last. Within a decade Russia succumbed once more to imperialist fantasies. The immediate cause of the breakdown of the nineteenth century reforms were Polish subjects of the tsar who wanted to enjoy the same rights as Russians. Alexander II had abolished serfdom in Poland but was not about to accede to the Poles’ demand for decentralization and self-government. Others of the tsar’s subject peoples decided that they, too, wanted to gain more control over their destinies. By the end of the nineteenth century calls for autonomy and self-government were heard from Finland to Central Asia. Alexander II’s successors down to the Revolution of 1917 responded with brutal clampdowns.

The Polish crisis not only left the Great Reforms dead or dying, but it unleashed a tide of Russian chauvinism that would lead to the breakup of the tsarist empire. After Alexander II was assassinated in 1881, he was succeeded by his son, Alexander III. Cultural and political imperialism, not decentralization and self-government, became the order of the day. In the end, the great cause of reform in tsarist Russia was defeated by the fantasy of a centralized and homogeneous empire. After 1917 Lenin and the Communists also embraced it, and used their newly formed Red Army to impose it on the populace.   


How significant are the similarities between the Crimean War of 1853-1855 and the present conflict in Ukraine? And what lessons can be drawn from Russia’s failure in its nineteenth century war in Crimea, from the Great Reforms, and from the country’s reversion to autocracy?  

In both conflicts Russia was motivated by imperial ideology. And in both cases Britain and France teamed up, joined today by the active participation of the U.S. and other European states. In both cases the Turks opposed Russia. True, their involvement in the 1850s did not thwart the tsar in the Crimean theater itself.  But today’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones have knocked out scores of Russian fighters, and their inventor, Selcuk Bayraktar, plans to erect a factory in Ukraine to build more.

Without Russia’s resounding defeat in 1855, it is inconceivable that the Era of Great Reforms would have followed. The same may be true today. To unleash a period of fundamental change, the same conditions that prevailed in 1856 must be present: the defeat of Russian forces in the field; the death of the tsar/leader and the discrediting of his advisors; and the fear of popular unrest within Russia itself. While Putin’s fate remains uncertain, all the other conditions are emerging today. And as in the 1850s, nothing would more surely derail future reforms in Russia or prolong the imperial ideology than for Putin somehow to survive his war, and for the core of his circle to remain intact. Russia’s defeat and the discrediting of its ideology are absolutely essential for Russia to come to its senses and launch reforms.

If and when that happens, Russia’s new reformers will need the West’s support and patience. What it certainly will not want will be ham-handed efforts to shape its reforms from abroad or to take advantage of its temporary weakness. If Russia’s new reformers seek advice or help from other countries, let them ask for it and, preferably, pay for it. Both the U.S. government and American foundations will do well to practice self-restraint this time, as they certainly did not after 1991.

The most sensitive issues that will arise in post-Putin Russia will be the same ones that dominated reformist thinking back in 1856: the definition of Russia’s national borders and the degree of decentralization and self-government to be allowed within them. How widely will the elective principle be applied across the Russian state? Will it be applied only to safely “Russian” provinces? Or will it applied also to the many unassimilated ethnic groups that exist even in the nominally Russian core? If post-Putin reformers fail to address this core issue, their reforms in all other areas will be doomed.

Russia may emerge from the present crisis with different borders than at present, and with ethnic or geographic regions and jurisdictions within them that are largely self-governing. In this connection, it is worth recalling that Boris Yeltsin called for the regions of the USSR “to grab as much sovereignty as you can swallow,” and for the election of regional governors and mayors who would be responsible to locally elected councils, as well as to Moscow. But Putin reversed all this. In the end, however, the Russians themselves must decide these issues.

What can be done to prevent Russia’s discredited chauvinists from reemerging a decade from now, on the heels of a post-Putin era of reforms? Very little indeed, other than to make sure that the reforms are certifiably the work of Russians themselves and not some kind of foreign “project.” Responding positively to requests for new ties with the post-Putin government will help, as will new links in education, culture, the economy, and security. But neither these nor other measures will obviate the need for America, in President Reagan’s words, to “trust but verify.”


What might follow a Russian defeat? Here we confront a fundamental difference between the two eras: Nicholas, broken by failure, conveniently died in 1855, clearing the way for a change of Russia’s leadership. Had he not died it is likely that he would have been overthrown. But Putin is still alive and intent on clinging to power. But he lacks the resources to hold onto whatever Ukrainian territory he seizes. Should he divert funds to that purpose he will likely face revolt at home. In short, even if Putin wins (which is daily less likely) he loses.

In both of its wars over Crimea, Russia’s troubles trace to overconfidence. But today, unlike in 1853, some members of Russia’s officer corps and many influential publicists still believe they could prevail if the national leadership were not holding them back. Unlike in 1853, this could lead to a declaration of all-out war, an expanded draft, and even to the use of nuclear weapons. This can occur with or without Putin. But leaders of a military coup would face the same constraints as Putin does today. Only the use of nuclear weapons is likely to change this. But even before that point is reached, unrest at home is likely to grow to such a degree as to threaten outright revolution. In short, a military takeover will likely foment and ever more fundamental upheaval within the Russian polity and demands for sweeping reforms.

What is the likelihood that such an upheaval would lead to a twenty-first century version of the Great Reforms? There are reasons for doubt. The war against Ukraine has exposed deep strata of corruption in Russia. Whole sectors of Russia’s economy are riddled with fraud, peculation and outright criminality.

Besides this, Putin quashed all opposition. His security forces brought down Evgeni Roizman, the reformist and anti-war former mayor of Ekaterinburg; attempted to poison Aleksei Navalny and then jailed him without access to his lawyer; and murdered Boris Nemtsov, the former vice-premier and founder of an independent political party. Putin’s first “mobilization” or draft led to the emigration of some 370,000 highly educated younger Russians, the very group from which new ranks of reformists might emerge.

Acknowledging all the factors, there exist important forces that might bring a new Russian reformism into being. Russia’s military leadership is itself conflicted. On one side is an aggressive war party; on the other side are large numbers of officers who are appalled by developments in Ukraine and believe that zealots and amateurs are destroying the great traditions of Suvorov and Kutuzov. If they have their way, they would cut their losses, withdraw from the war, and begin the laborious task of rebuilding Russia’s disgraced army.

Whichever faction wins, some kind of reform era is all but inevitable. Putin, who once prided himself as being young and virile, is now seventy. Millions of young Russians today are well educated and widely travelled. They admire the developed countries of Europe, Asia, and America, and consider the great power fantasies of Putin and his ilk to be just that, and a guaranty of backwardness. Worse, they view Putin and his generation as roadblocks blocking their own advancement. If they sense the dawning of reform, many of the men and women who fled abroad will return. And unlike the era of the Great Reforms, change-oriented members of their generation are spread across the entire economy and not confined to the civil service, intelligentsia, and officer corp.


These considerations auger well for a possible new era of reform in Russia, but most of them fall into the category of “known unknowns.” But suppose for a moment that all turns out for the best and Putin’s successors turn out to be genuine reformists. What then? Will such a reform era survive and endure into Russia’s future? 

If Moscow’s fate in Ukraine/Crimea today follows the course of tsarist Russia’s humiliating failure in 1853-1856, Russians will find themselves pondering the same questions their forefathers faced. Their success or failure will depend on their ability to solve the age-old conundrum of apportioning powers between the center and periphery, and between state and society. Only the Russians themselves can craft a solution to this Rubik’s Cube. But America and its European partners, if asked, should share their experience. Instead of demanding instant change in countless spheres, as happened after the collapse of the USSR in 1991, they would do well to focus on this core issue, offering their insights, while leaving it to the Russians themselves to adopt, adapt, or ignore their counsel.

Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. 

Written By

Frederick Starr is Chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. 



  1. 403Forbidden

    January 2, 2023 at 8:22 am

    Crimean war (of Florence nightingale fame) of the 19th century was the handiwork of western colonial powers, and again today, the Crimean crisis is still the handiwork of western political, military and intelligence or CIA shenanigans.

    The highly vulgar militarized foreign policy of Washington is most directly responsible for crises in Europe, Middle East and Asia.

    In the corridors of power in the babylon-on-the-potomac, any nations or territories not aligned with the strategic priority of uncle Sam are considered prime or fertile ground for unrests, conflicts, clashes and color revolutions.

    It is crystal clear who has today replaced the fascist powers that were defeated by the Red Army in 1945.

    Today, the global fascismo tide is totally irresistible and unstoppable, except by nations willing to use nuclear weaponry.

    It’s time to restart nuclear testing (underground tests) to send an unambiguous signal to the rampaging global fascismo forces.

    It’s also time to assemble nuke arsenals in space.

    The MAD strategy of yesterday is obsolete and no longer a guarantee for national safety due to many technical & technological advances made by the world’s mega ultra superpower.

    From warhead upgrading programs (especially the superfuzed type) to advances in ballistic missile defense to current or newfound successes in hypersonics to tomorrow’s greatly heralded LGM-35 super duper ooper rocket called ‘Sentinel’, the mega ultra power is now able to do or perform decapitation strikes.

    The only defense is space-based nukes which can strike their targets in half the time needed by surface-based ones, assuming if they are still unsurvivable in the first place.

  2. TheDon

    January 2, 2023 at 8:53 am

    No need to escalate further.
    The EU is not building up.
    They are opening boarders and building economy.
    Embrace it. A much brighter future than continuing war or trying to control another nation.

  3. Prabhakar Sonparote

    January 2, 2023 at 8:56 am

    Excellent analysis and very objective views.

  4. Eric-ji

    January 2, 2023 at 9:03 am

    Really the only possibility? “To unleash a period of fundamental change, the same conditions that prevailed in 1856 must be present: the defeat of Russian forces in the field; the death of the tsar/leader and the discrediting of his advisors; and the fear of popular unrest within Russia itself.”

    We’ll see, won’t we?

  5. Jim

    January 2, 2023 at 11:32 am

    A House of Cards, upon a glance, looks stable, but any jostling and the house falls… all @ once.

    Because a house of cards can seem stable, but in fact is fragile… it has to be defended with uncommon zeal.

    The truth is stable & durable and can withstand scrutiny, close inspection.

    Lies are a delicate tissue… much like a House of Cards…

    The Ukraine Project is a house of cards.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    January 2, 2023 at 11:51 am

    Cultures change at glacial speeds.

    The fact that this is a war of independence, not a contest between great powers, makes this war very different from the Crimean War of 1853-1856. The Russian army despite a 3 to 1 advantage, is being defeated by Ukrainians trying to escape the corrupt authoritarian Russian culture, which sees this as rebellion. Nor can the corrupt authoritarian Russian culture, represented by the vile poisoner dictator Putin, offer a future of success that membership in the 1st World can, and that much of Russia’s former empire already enjoys.

    In conclusion, this is the last hurrah of the corrupt authoritarian Russian culture. Which has refused to accept the loss of power and prestige the disintegration of its empire (the Warsaw Pact & the Soviet Union) 30 years ago represents. It will be a humiliating defeat, that destroys the Russian military for decades, and discredits the entire Russian establishment.

  7. David Chang

    January 2, 2023 at 11:55 am

    God bless people in the world.

    “Military chaplain serves exhausted troops on Ukraine’s frontline
    Bakhmut (Ukraine) (AFP) –
    Mark Kupchenenko lives alone in a large abandoned house in the war-hit Ukrainian town of Bakhmut, apart from the troops he serves. “So as not to get too close,” he says.

    Every day, the 26-year-old military chaplain visits the frontline army positions to try to bring succour to the troops.

    Officially, his job is to maintain “the very high morale” of soldiers serving at one of the most dangerous points on Ukraine’s eastern front.

    The reality he describes is very different.

    The soldiers fighting in Bakhmut are subjected to “incredible moral fatigue” as well as the mental variety, says Kupchenenko.

    In this unending war of attrition, he says, some fighters see themselves reduced to pieces of “meat, good only for sending to their death.

    “These are fighters who do not rotate — that is, they constantly fight actively at the front without rest.

    “They miss their relatives, they don’t see them for a long time.”

    Some, he says, have “panic attacks, when a person’s hands shake, when he becomes restless, when he cannot force himself to go on a mission”.

    Rest, given the conditions at the front, is as good as impossible.

    Some “feel abandoned,” he says. “They have the feeling nobody needs them.

    ‘Human shields’
    Before joining up, the young priest was a prison chaplain, and he has also worked with Covid sufferers and sick children.

    Those previous jobs helped prepare him for the trials of his current work in the grisly conditions at Bakhmut, the scene of months of fierce fighting since the start of the Russian invasion last February.

    “I communicate, pray, speak about the word of God, I answer difficult questions that arise for soldiers in such conditions. And there are many,” he says.

    For more than six months, Russian forces and paramilitaries from the Russian Wagner group — whose founder has called the fight for the city the “Bakhmut meat grinder” — have fought, so far in vain, to capture it.

    Both sides have suffered heavy casualties amid the destruction of much of the city, most of whose pre-war population of some 70,000 has left.

    “My role as chaplain is to remind them why they are here.”

    They may well be there because they were ordered to the front by their superiors, he says. But that does not change the importance of their role.

    “They are primarily here because they are a human shield between the enemy and our families, our people.”

    Without them, says Kupchenenko, “the Orcs would be in our homes, they would rape, cut, kill, destroy”.

    Ukrainians often refer to the Russian troop as orcs, a reference to the savage, goblin-like monsters from J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Lord of the Rings”.

    Of the troops he serves, he says: “They are giving their souls for us, for their people, their families. I cannot guarantee them that they will return.

    “But I tell them that if we believe sufficiently in God then He will receive us into his Kingdom.”

    “The Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (ASEEES) has made “decolonization” — which it describes as “a profoundly political act of re-evaluating long-established and often internalized hierarchies, of relinquishing and taking back power” — the theme of its 2023 conference.”

    After Ukraine and Russia soldiers lose their ability to fight within heavy shockwave and insufficient supplies, political scholars still believe that they can find an answer to the war with the science they worshiping, so these scholars don’t admit socialism warfare initiated by Putin. And they don’t believe the socialism warfare is what Democratic Party say: We can change the world.

    God bless America.

  8. Randall Bunn

    January 2, 2023 at 12:58 pm

    Russia doesn’t have free elections neither does America. Russia has criminality throughout its government so does America. Might I say Hunter and 10% to the big guy? If I were Russia I wouldn’t take any advice from us.

  9. Fred Adams

    January 2, 2023 at 1:42 pm

    This is an interesting article, the points made are well worth considering and are somewhat persuasive. Can Russia, or any modern state, achieve a true freedom-based reform after the death/abdication/imprisonment of its tyrannical leader(s) ?

    How pervasively do the reins of power penetrate Russian society? If only the driver is replaced, the temptation to power of his successor will be great, and the skids well greased. If the reins and the harness are destroyed, the driver doesn’t matter, but there will be anarchy.

    It is as impossible to force a self-directed republicanism on a subject society as it is to push a rope. Reform must come from within. In contradiction to Alexander IIIs belief that it is better for it to come from the top than the bottom, real reform must be created by the people of Russia.

    So, does the Russian man on the street prefer to live in a neo-imperialist, totalitarian state like Putin’s, or can he be happy and satisfied with a functioning representative government and a free market system, to live within the rational borders of Russia? Quo vadis, Russia?

    Can the world live with a Russia that has abdicates its control over Siberia ? It is a sparsely populated area that without Russian hegemony might be ripe for a Chi-com takeover. The natural resources of Siberia are vast, but difficult to exploit due to transportation and climate problems. A prosperous and free Russian might overcome these difficulties.

  10. Maarek

    January 2, 2023 at 3:14 pm

    But today’s Turkish-made Bayraktar TB-2 drones have knocked out scores of Russian fighters. (C)


    Everything you need to know about the author’s competence

  11. Mark Williams

    January 2, 2023 at 4:32 pm

    Frederick Starr ate my hamster!

    (you need to be a Briton of a certain age to get that reference)

  12. Commentar

    January 2, 2023 at 5:15 pm

    The war in Ukraine, fomented by the great USA and its sidekick NATO is B-R-U-T-A-L, but will be ain’t nothing compared to what Washington is secretly hatching for north-east Asia.

    Washington, or DoD, is planning new military exercises near Korea employing nuclear assets, presumably stealth bombers and/or submarines.

    A famed Brit psychic has predicted a submarine incident in east Asia will occur in 2023, most likely a collision or perhaps some kind of bust-up between a prc sub and an amerkian sub.

    The collision will likely lead to a cascading blame game with a military confrontation and an all-out trade sanctions conflict to follow.

    Meanwhile, he has also predicted food shortages in 2023, with food rationing coming into force for some poor nations around the world.

    Ukraine war brutal ? You’ve not experienced the worst yet.
    Thanks to Biden, DoD and NATO.

    HAVE A NICE 2023.

  13. The Al U Know

    January 2, 2023 at 6:38 pm

    “EU does not have the same opportunities to provide state support as the US, does not want to compete with them on the basis of providing such assistance to companies and continues to discuss problems related to the Law on Reducing Inflation (IRA),”
    -Josep Borrel, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy

    Or so I hear.

    Politico is also reporting Borrel is worried about corruption in the EU and the probe meant to expose it.

    Then you understand why they can’t help Ukraine the way optimists without action would want. Borrel states that European stockpiles are “depleted”. Leakage? Irresponsibility?

    They can’t run roughshod the way France and more importantly former hegemony Great Britain did over Russia in their heyday.

    Luckily the house of the World’s Banker and Arsenal of Democracy, the USA, is in order. Cough, Primaries…presidential election spectacle…over the course of a whole year…Cough.

  14. Mon Djak

    January 2, 2023 at 6:42 pm

    Britain and France, the fathers of the Armenian genocide and the enemies of Europe.

  15. Paddy Manning

    January 2, 2023 at 9:02 pm

    Good article but let’s take it further.
    Lenin’s brother assainated Alexander III.
    Russia has lost Putin’s brutal genocidal war agZinst Ukraine and the “Russian Federation” is now doomed. There will be a series of savage internal wars, massacres and displacements as ethnic groups take their independence. Belarus will, like Ukraine, move west after the execution of it’ls current tyrant.
    Once more Russkibots can rage but the can’t change the facts. Russia is a loser.

  16. Scittfs

    January 2, 2023 at 10:36 pm

    This is Europe’s war. They did nothing as Putin telegraphed his intentions towards Ukraine. Tucker Carlson, the Great Putin supported, said the invasion would never happen, and when it did, began tearing down Zelensky and Ukraine. Ridiculous.

    Puti’s a warmonger and a bully. He alone is responsible for more than 200,000 deaths, both Russian and Ukrainian.

    He alone can instantly end this war. If he won’t, I hope Nature takes him. Soon.

  17. Partner

    January 3, 2023 at 5:28 am

    I read all the comments. And I can say that in the minds of most commentators there is chaos and misunderstanding of the ongoing events, which are discussed in the article. And the author simply wanted to say the following: reforms in Russia are possible (if they are possible at all) provided that Putin is removed from power. And only so. It is even possible to defeat Russia on the battlefield, but if Putin by some miracle remains in power, then no reforms are possible in principle. Moreover, in this case, Russia will turn into a reactionary power with nuclear weapons. Conclusion: not only the victory of Ukraine on the battlefield is important, but also the removal of Putin from power.

  18. David Chang

    January 3, 2023 at 9:24 am


    God bless people in the world.

    People in Russia should obey Ten Commandments, not worship democracy.

    Lenin instigate the murder of Russia king for Democracy Russia. He also teach people to reform or change the politics, so people who worship Democracy make Communist Party to rule people in Russia. Therefore, people in Russia should confess and repent to God, and must stop believing socialism, evolution, and liberation theology.

    God bless America.

  19. Wharfplank

    January 3, 2023 at 12:15 pm

    Hopefully Putin will succumb to his condition, leaving fate to “events”.

  20. aldol11

    January 3, 2023 at 4:33 pm

    good job Fred

  21. Thomas

    January 3, 2023 at 6:28 pm

    This analysis is missing a couple of crucial details about the west. First the west is broke and is on the brink of all their currencies collapsing. How can you fight a war against a metro giant when you are for all intents and purposes broke. Secondly the west is killing their own coal and oil industries in favor of wind and solar. Again how do you fight a war when you have no power to produce anything? Let’s not forget the Russia is a nuclear power. What’s to say they take out 3 or 4 cities in Ukraine because they have had enough of the west meddling in their business and threatening their borders. There are certain parallels that can’t be drawn to past conflicts.

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