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Russo-Turkish War // Anglo-Russian Crisis

Britain and Austria-Hungary objected adamantly to the Treaty of San Stefano ending the Russo-Turkish War because of the strong position in which it left the victorious Russians.  Therefore, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Britain, and Russia began meeting on June 13, 1878, at the Congress of Berlin to resolve the conflict, and on July 13 signed the Treaty of Berlin, which modified the original war settlement.  Under the terms of the new accord, Russia’s naval strength was checked, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) remained a player in European politics, and Bosnia and Herzegovina were occupied by Austria-Hungary.  The revised treaty was a substantial and humiliating reversal of fortune for Russia.  It provoked more discontent in the Balkans, which continued to fester with bitter ethnic and national power struggles.

Meanwhile, a diplomatic-military crisis between Russia and Britain developed in Afghanistan.  Throughout the nineteenth century, the country had provided an uneasy buffer zone between the expansionist empires of Russia to the north and Britain to the south from its base in India.  In the 1860s, the Russians began advancing slowly into Turkestan, on the northern border of Afghanistan, which put British officials in India on alert.  When Benjamin Disraeli became prime minister of Britain in 1874, he advocated a more aggressive policy in the region in order to protect British interests in India. 

With Britain upset about Russian gains in the Treaty of San Stefano, the June 8 issue of Harper’s Weekly reported that the United States had sold two ironclad steamships to Russia.  The article insisted, “In making these purchases in time of peace neither any treaties nor the laws of the country were violated.”  Rumors of Russians buying war materiel in the United States “has naturally caused considerable excitement in England.”  The story quoted a British government official stating his confidence that the United States would not violate the Washington Treaty of 1871. 

During the American Civil War, the Union had been angered over British shipyard construction of vessels that were later armed by the Confederacy and used against the Union Navy.  The dispute (called the “Alabama claims” after the most successful of the ships) was finally resolved by the Washington Treaty and subsequent arbitration, after which Britain paid the United States a large indemnity.

Editor George William Curtis voiced more concern about the sale of American ships to Russia than the Harper’s Weekly reporter had.  In his commentary in the same issue, Curtis argued that the duties of neutrality exist in peacetime as well as wartime.  To bolster his case, the editor cited Caleb Cushing, U.S. counsel at the Alabama claims arbitration, and excerpts from the Washington Treaty of 1871 and the U.S. Neutrality Law of 1818.  Although Curtis affirmed that selling the ships did not violate neutrality, the laws and treaties could be easily circumvented if the vessels were armed elsewhere.  While believing that the United States would abide by strict neutrality if Britain and Russia went to war, he warned that Russia might have an advantage in being able to buy American ships.

The signing of the Treaty of Berlin in July 1878 further escalated tensions between Russia and Britain, as did continued Russian movement southward toward Afghanistan.  After the Afghan ruler refused to let a British envoy enter the country, while welcoming the presence of a leading Russian general in the nation’s capital, Britain attacked Afghanistan on November 21, 1878.  Like Russia a century later, the British found Afghanistan easy to invade, but difficult to hold.  After two years of fighting, they did not occupy the country, but installed a sympathetic ruler who acceded to their foreign policy demands.  Another diplomatic crisis flared in 1885, after which more definite borders for Afghanistan were established, but the standoff between Britain and Russia continued for years afterward.

Harper's Weekly References

1)  June 8, 1878, p. 448
illustration, “Russian Cruisers”

2)  June 8, 1878, p. 450, c. 1-2
article, “Russian Cruisers”

3)  June 8, 1878, p. 446, c. 3-4
editorial, “Our Neutral Duties”

Sources Consulted

“Anglo-Russian Crisis 1877-1878.”

“Second Anglo-Afghan War 1878-1880.”

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Russo-Turkish War // Anglo-Russian Crisis





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