How to Defend the Turkish Straits Against the Russians: A century-long ‘Eastern Question’ in British defence planning, 1815–1914

By Gültekin Yıldız, published February 2019


The integrity of the Ottoman Empire was a fundamental concern in nineteenth-century European politics, often referred to as ‘the Eastern Question’. The main military aspect of this question was how Istanbul and the Turkish Straits, namely the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles, could be defended against a probable Russian attack by land, sea or both. The Russian seizure of Adrianople at the end of the Ottoman–Russian War of 1828–9 confirmed European doubts that the Ottomans were no longer able to defend their own capital against their northern rival. Politicians, diplomats, officers and intelligence agents of different countries such as Britain, Austria, Prussia/Germany and France were discussing this scenario in their public and confidential writings. This article aims to analyse the defence plans and intelligence reports produced throughout the long nineteenth century by British government agents who discussed probable scenarios of a Russian assault on the Turkish Straits and Istanbul on tactical, operational and strategic levels. As long as the British grand strategy necessitated naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean, the defence of the Turkish Straits against Russia remained a strategic priority. By 1907 Britain concluded that even if Russia successfully took the Turkish Straits it would not alter the balance of power in the Mediterranean. Russia had also started to follow a new expansionist policy in the Far East and the century long fear of a Russian attack on the Bosphorus and Istanbul lost its context.

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Filed under: Other (Nineteenth C) | Other (Twentieth C) | Mediterranean
Subjects include: Strategy & Diplomacy

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