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A shift in the Russo-Ottoman balance of power in the Black Sea region: The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji of 1774

Viktorija Jakjimovska

In 2014, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation, the long-forgotten Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji [Küçük Kaynarca] of 1774 (45 CTS 349) came back in vogue. The treaty has long been regarded as a momentous shift of Russian over Ottoman power in the region of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, which carried profound implications for the status of the Crimea and for Russo-Ottoman relations throughout the nineteenth century.

The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji ended the Russo-Turkish War of 1768–1774. During the eighteenth century, there was an ongoing tension between Russia and Turkey, which frequently erupted into hostilities (1710–1713; 1735–1739; 1768–1774; 1787–1792). The contention mainly revolved around the control over the north coast of the Black Sea and the Caucasus, and the freedom of navigation on the Black Sea. In 1768, a renewal of hostilities was prompted by tensions resulting from the increased Russian interference in the affairs of Poland. In the years that followed, major military successes in the Danubian Principalities, the Caucasus, and Çeşme secured a victorious outcome for Russia. The lengthy peace negotiations from 1772 to 1774 eventually led to a treaty of peace signed on 21 July 1774. Additionally, the parties concluded three related treaties that reconfirmed and elaborated the provisions of the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji.

The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji was regarded as a hallmark of the Russo-Ottoman relations of the eighteenth century. It replaced previous treaties between the parties and installed new arrangements of great strategic, political, and religious importance. Three dominant issues run through the treaty provisions: the status of the Crimean Khanate, trade and navigational affairs, and the rights and protection of Christian subjects in the Ottoman Empire. The preparatory documents reveal that the debate during the negotiations centred on the power relations in the Black Sea region while the parties were mostly silent on the question on the rights of Christian minorities until the conclusion of the treaty.

The new peace arrangements put Crimea under the Russian sphere of influence. On a textual reading, the treaty provided the Crimean Khanate to be ‘free’ and ‘perfectly’ independent in its internal affairs notwithstanding the religious supremacy of the Ottoman Porte over the Tatars (Art. 3). However, reading Article 3 against the immediate context and the entire treaty makes it clear that such ‘independence’ was to a certain degree limited. In 1772, during the peace negotiations with the Ottoman Empire, Russia made a formal agreement with the Crimean Khan Sahib II Giray on the basis of ‘alliance, friendship and mutual trust’. One of its primary purposes was to ‘restore’ the ancient independence of the Crimean Khanate, the sovereignty of which was to be guaranteed by the Russian Empire. The content of the agreement was later embodied in a Declaration of Independence of 1772 issued by the Tatar and Nogay notables of Crimea.

This inference is further confirmed by the confluence of several treaty provisions that allowed for overall control over the Crimean peninsula. First, the cession of the strategic Crimean fortresses of Kerch and Yenikale to Russia (Art. 19) enabled free navigation of the Russian fleet from the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. Second, the acquisition of the castle of Kinburn, another detached port on the Black Sea situated at the mouth of the river Dnieper, served to control Ochakov, the only remaining Turkish fortress on the territory of the Crimean Khanate (Art. 18). It seems clear, therefore, that such arrangements expanded the power and consequences of the treaty. In 1783, Russia annexed Crimea to the Russian Empire, and Turkey acquiesced to this annexation by the Treaty of Jassy of 1792 (51 CTS 279). In this way, Crimea—the formerly known bridgehead for Ottoman attacks against Russia—now had Sevastopol to serve as the strategic point for Russian power in the East.

The treaty opened the Black Sea to Russian merchant and navy ships. Until 1774, the Black Sea and the Straits were of exclusive use to the Ottoman ships (see Art. 3 of the Treaty of Belgrade of 1739 [35 CTS 425]). Article 11 of the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji now allowed the right of merchant ships of both parties to navigate freely on the seas which washed the shores of both empires, and bestowed such privileges and advantages upon Russian subjects as were enjoyed by the most favoured nations in the Ottoman Empire. While the provision explicitly refers to ‘merchant’ ships, the ‘most-favoured-nation’ treatment granted the Russian navy the right to navigate freely on the Black Sea up to the Bosphorus, and in the Mediterranean Sea up to the Dardanelles. The final provision, however, excluded navigation of the Russian navy and large merchant ships in the Straits. The substance of the ‘most-favoured-nation’ clause was later fleshed out in the Explanatory Convention of 1779 (47 CTS 103) and the Treaty of Commerce of 1783 (48 CTS 333), which was largely based on the French capitulations with the Ottoman Empire of 1740 (36 CTS 41).

The greatest riddle of the treaty was the right of Russia to accord protection to the Christian subjects living within the Ottoman Empire. The provisions regarding the position of the Ottoman Christians originated during the Russo-Ottoman War and were prompted by tactical considerations—the aspiration of Russia to rally the support of its co-religionists in certain Ottoman provinces. In the final draft, the Russian Empire managed to include seven important provisions, inter alia: (a) the Danubian principalities and the islands of the Archipelago were restored to the Ottoman Empire under certain conditions (Arts. 16 and 17); (b) pardon and amnesty were granted in relation to all Christian subjects within the Ottoman Empire who fought against the Ottomans (Arts. 1 and 23), and provision was made for the exchange of prisoners of war, including those subjects of the Ottoman Empire who fought alongside Russia (Art. 25); and (c) the right to build and remonstrate on behalf of a ‘public church of Greco-Russian confession’ (Art. 14) was granted, as well as a Turkish obligation to protect the Christian church and the law thereof (Art. 7). The language of Articles 7 and 14 left substantial leeway to extensive interpretation upon which Russia would gradually acquire other privileges. Throughout the nineteenth century, these provisions were often invoked as a pretext for Russian intervention on behalf of the Christian subjects in the Ottoman Empire.

The Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji opened the first chapter of the history of the so-called ‘Eastern Question’. Subsequently, the parties concluded, inter se, several treaties consistent with the basic features of the Treaty of 1774 (eg, the Treaty of Jassy of 9 January 1792 [51 CTS 279], the Treaty of Bucharest of 28 May 1812 [62 CTS 25], the Convention of Ackerman of 1826 [76 CTS 411], and the Treaty of Adrianople of 1829 [80 CTS 83]). The system of treaties built upon the foundation of the 1774 peace settlement was finally cancelled and superseded by the Treaty of Paris of 1856 (114 CTS 421).

Additional treaties related to the Treaty of Kuçuk Kainardji

Boundary Convention between Russia and Turkey, signed 15 April 1775 (46 CTS 41).

Explanatory Convention between Russia and Turkey, signed at Constantinople, 10 March 1779 (47 CTS 103).

Treaty of Peace and Amity between Russia and Turkey, signed at Constantinople, 8 January 1784 (49 CTS 11).


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