“All the assumptions on which… this policy [was]
based turned out to be wrong…. British domestic
opinion would prove hard to persuade that seeking
the return… of a fortress on the Black Sea merited
the risk of a war with Russia.”
William Hague on the Anglo-Russian Crisis (1791)
Oxford historian, Mark Almond, recalls the lessons from history once taught by Foreign Secretary, William Hague, in his study of Pitt the Younger’s mishandling of what he called the “Ochakov fiasco” in 1791.
The current imbroglio over Crimea may be America’s first crisis with Russia in the Black Sea, but it is not Britain’s. Even the Crimean War (1854-56) was not Britain’s first face-off with Russia. More than two hundred years ago as the French Revolution convulsed Western Europe (rather as the Arab Spring has sent shock waves across the Mediterranean), Catherine the Great expanded her hold on the Black Sea coast by seizing Ochakov, not far from the new city of Odessa. Under the supervision of the exiled French Duc de Richelieu who acted as governor, the Tsarina’s architects would soon erect as a naval base to match Sevastopol across the Black Sea in the Crimea which she had already annexed in 1783.
With her major rival, France, apparently rendered impotent by revolution since 1789, William Pitt’s Britain seemed the only superpower – at least to itself. Whitehall was as convinced in 1791 as the White House seems to be today that a combination of global reach via the Royal Navy with the City of London’s financial hegemony would both cause the Tsarina to back off and the other European states to fall into line behind Britain’s demand that Russia retreat from its southern Ukrainian conquests from the waning Ottoman Empire.
Convinced of that the West could cow the East with its combination of advanced military technology and commercial wealth even in a theatre so far from its sources of power and so close to Catherine’s, William Pitt turned the Ochakov issue into a first-rate crisis by demanding Russia withdraw or else.
But when push came to shove, the British government’s assumption that everyone in Europe would fall into line behind its bellicose approach proved as illusory as the sanctions-first strategy-later approach of David Cameron’s government today. The echoes of today’s crisis are obvious – except it seems to the author of an excellent biography of the Younger Pitt described as a “fiasco”.
Britain’s Foreign Secretary, William Hague, set out a succinct account of Britain’s over-reach in 1791 back in 2002 when he was in the political wilderness. His diplomacy, albeit as the junior partner of the USA, suggests that he has forgotten everything about what lessons might be derived from Whitehall’s past performance in the great game for influence in the Black Sea region.
The EU summit in Brussels on 6th March, 2014, should have had painful echoes of Pitt’s brutal learning curve in 1791. Don’t trust the private assurances of “allies” that they will cut off their noses to spite Russia’s face, nor believe over-optimistic British diplomats telling you that everyone is on board and the Russians are too militarily weak and economically backward to face up to a Western challenge in their own backyard.
Looking back two centuries later, Hague described how the Old Etonian prime minister of the day presumed that his European partners would fall into line behind London’s publicly-proclaimed policy to sanction Russia for its occupation of Ukraine’s Black Sea coast. But Europe’s capitals were far from firmly resolved to incur Catherine the Great’s wrath:
“While Prussia joined in pressing the British demands, the Dutch were unwilling to risk a war, the Swedes demanded a subsidy, the Spanish were not prepared to help and the Austrians became markedly less cooperative and were actually playing a double game with the Russians.”
Pitt’s majority in the House of Commons sank because he could not persuade MPs why they should risk a war “for a faraway fortress of which they had never before heard.” Because the Russians had not harmed a hair on a British head in 1791, public opinion like Parliament could not get its mind around the need for military threats. Pitt complained that emotions were not running high enough to overrun his MPs scepticism about war in the Black Sea. Raison d’état did not cut much ice in Britain: “They can be embarked in a war from motives of passion, but they cannot be made to comprehend a case in which the most valuable interests of the country are at stake.” Maybe, but the mercantilist elite which provided so many MPs then had a very good understanding of self-interest and could be ruthless about asserting Britain’s interests when they made pounds-and-pence sense. What they could not be won over to was a war for alleged strategic interests well beyond their commercial reach and in fact against a major trading partner like Russia.
Rather as phone intercepts have embarrassed Victoria Nuland – “F*ck the EU” – and Catherine Ashton over the apparently pro-opposition “snipers” in Kiev, so in 1791 the Russian acquisition of British establishment inside information from Robert Adair, an ally of Pitt’s bête-noire Charles James Fox, revealed to Catherine II’s government that – surprise, surprise – the British had been making contradictory promises to Austria and Turkey to keep them both on board – so both drifted away from London on the news.
Pitt had to back down, but, in a lesson for the blundering Bullingdon Club bully in 10 Downing Street today, a colleague noted, “He hoped means might be found to manage matters so as not to have the appearance of giving up the point.”
Diplomacy is often best when it provides a smokescreen for a retreating from a foolish policy. Maybe if William Hague could act like his hero Pitt, he could persuade the White House to declare Vladimir Putin’s permission of a referendum on the future of Crimea to be a triumph of Western ideals to spread democracy and so a sign of Russia’s climb-down! But don’t expect too much: Hague like his American patrons has approached real-time crises with an open mouth, so thinking first before shooting the West in the foot would require reflecting on his own experience as well as remembering the history which appears under his name.