Ottoman-Russian War

The Ottoman Empire launched a failed attack against a Russian army that was attempting to secure a passage to the Black Sea. However, with the military support of the Tatars, long-time enemies of the Russians, the Ottomans were able to temporarily halt the Russian move southward and also secure the Ottoman’s eastern borders against Russian invasion for more than two hundred years.

Summary of Event

The reign of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1566) had seen the Ottoman Empire expand into Eastern Europe, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Russian steppes. After Süleyman’s conquests, the Turks found themselves threatened by the military powers of Austria, Persia, and Russia at their borders. To combat this, the Turks formed alliances with buffer states, providing the Ottoman Empire with breathing space from their enemies. To protect them from the Russians, the Turks brokered alliances with the Tatars in the Crimean Peninsula and southern Russia, and with Kazan in the region between the Caspian and Black Seas. These alliances allowed the Ottomans to focus their military strength in eastern Europe and Persia. Ottoman-Russian War (c. 1568-1571)[Ottoman Russian War (c. 1568-1571)]
Ivan the Terrible
Sokollu, Mehmed Paşa
Devlet I Giray
Selim II
Sokollu, Mehmed Paşa
Devlet I Giray
Selim II

The aggressive reign of Ivan the Terrible in Russia made the Ottomans’ north border less secure. Ivan sought to eliminate the threats to his capital, Moscow, and open new avenues of conquest and trade. He set his sights on three khanates, or kingdoms, that were successors to the former Golden Horde: Kazan Kazan , Astrakhan Astrakhan , and the Crimea Crimea . Ivan’s first attack on Kazan drew a response from the Tatars in Crimea. After defeating the Tatar invasion, Ivan renewed his attack and defeated the Kazan rulers in 1552, sweeping to the Caspian Sea. From there, he took Astrakhan in 1556 and granted it a degree of independence. The leaders of Astrakhan, though, sought to renew their alliance with the Tatars and Ottomans, forcing Ivan to retake the city and extend his control as far south as the Terek River at the northern reaches of the Caucasus Mountains. From the Terek, the Russians could move south into the Caucasus and threaten the Ottomans, or east into Central Asia to conquer the Muslims allied with the Ottomans. Ivan’s move south also threatened the Tatars in the Crimea.

Around 1568, the Turkish general, Grand Vizier Mehmed Paşa Sokollu, came up with a daring plan to sweep the Russians back across the steppes. Instead of crossing the dangerous Caucasus Mountains, he would take an Ottoman army across the Black Sea and up the Don River to where it flowed closest to the Volga River. The Ottomans hoped to build a canal between the Don and Volga, connecting both rivers and allowing the Turks to float their ships into the Caspian Sea.

Mehmed was depending on the Ottomans’ allies, particularly the Tatars, to provide support for the advance. The Tatars were old enemies of the Russians, who wanted the Crimea because of its many warm-water ports in the Black Sea and its close proximity to the Bosporus Strait, controlled by the Ottomans.

The Ottoman navy was able to transport its troops across the Black Sea and onto the Don River. While the navy conducted a blockade of the Russian port of Azov, the Ottoman army under Mehmed moved swiftly forward into the Volga region and toward Astrakhan. The Turks began building the canal but never finished. The Ottoman army reached Astrakhan and laid siege to the city, but the Russian commander outmaneuvered the Ottomans, escaped from Astrakhan and attacked the Turks who were building the canal. The Russian attack on the rear only worsened the supply troubles for the Ottoman army. Unable to continue the battle or defeat the Russian army before them, the Ottomans were forced to retreat, their invasion plans ruined and the Russians secure in the Volga River region.

After Mehmed’s failed attack, the Ottomans realized they could not mount an offensive into the endless steppes of Russia. Instead, they would come to rely on their Tatar allies to continue the war even as the Turks negotiated peace. In 1570, the Ottomans signed a peace agreement with the Russians that officially ended the war. The conflict continued, however, as the Ottomans financed a proxy war against the Russians by providing troops and guns to the Tatars in the Crimea, trying to convince the Tatar khan to attack to the north.

The Tatars did move against the Russians two years later. On April 5, 1571, Tatar khan Devlet I Giray began to attack northward from the Crimea. He had been prodded by Ottoman sultan Selim II and had the support of the Ottoman Janissaries and cannon. The Tatar khan caught Ivan and his army out of position and swept into the city of Tula, just south of Moscow. The Tatars captured and burned Tula to the ground and continued to the north. On May 24, the Tatars pushed aside the Russian armies that were formed to defend Moscow, captured the city, and burned it to the ground as Ivan retreated to the city of Vologda, a fair distance from his capital. The Tatars did not remain in the city. Instead, their invasion became a massive raid in which they took captive 100,000 Russians who were then sold into slavery. Their trek back to the Crimea was marked by destruction of the countryside and towns, leaving a burned path from Moscow to the Black Sea.

The Tatars’ military victories were followed by a diplomatic offensive. The Tatar khan sent ambassadors to Moscow, and on June 15, 1571, they demanded that the Russians surrender their conquests of Kazan and Astrakhan. The Tatars ridiculed Ivan for fleeing Moscow and for the incompetence of the Russian military in preventing the destruction of the capital city. Ivan delayed his reply, at first agreeing to surrender Astrakhan but refusing to turn over Kazan, which was closer to Moscow. Ivan had delayed just as the Russians were involved in fighting in the north against Lithuania and Poland for control of the Balkans. Once those wars were complete, he believed he could redirect his military toward the Tatars.

The khan and his main ally, the Ottomans, however, sought immediate advantage. Selim II feared that the Russians might move east against the Turk provinces of Moldavia and Transylvania. Only if the Tatars permanently weakened the Russians and controlled the Volga River region would the Ottomans be safe from Russian attack.

On July 26, 1572, the Tatars moved north again. The Russians had been forewarned of the possibility of a Tatar invasion and had their armies prepared to meet the enemy from the south. At the village of Molodi near Moscow, the Tatars were defeated. The Tatar leader had been captured by the Russians and most of the Tatar army had been wiped out. The Tatar khan was forced to flee back to the Crimea, never again to launch a meaningful attack against the Russians through the remainder of Ivan’s reign. The war between the Tatars and Russians did, however, divert Ivan from attacking the Ottomans. While the Tatars attacked toward Moscow, the Ottomans were able to acquire greater control over their provinces of Moldavia and Walachia.


The advance of the Russian military into the Caucasus region was a threat to the northern borders of the Ottoman Empire. The advance sparked the brief Ottoman-Russian War, which saw a Turkish army advance into the Don steppe to halt the Russian movement south. Even though the initial attack failed to reach the Caspian, which had been the attack’s objective, it did temporarily stop the Russian southward movement. The Ottomans were able to strengthen their alliance with the Tatars in the Crimean Peninsula and build new alliances on Russia’s western borders, serving to block Russia and prevent its advance to the south and west.

Further Reading

  • Imber, Colin. The Ottoman Empire, 1300-1650. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. This brief work examines the Ottoman Turks as they battled the Byzantine Empire, conquered Constantinople, then built their own empire by sweeping into eastern Europe. The book focuses mainly on the rise of the Ottomans, leaving out the empire’s subsequent decline and fall.
  • Kinross, Lord. The Ottoman Centuries. New York: Quill, 1992. A sweeping story of the Ottoman Empire, this book describes the various sultans, their contributions to the Ottoman system, and their roles in the rise or fall of the empire. It also describes the social system and its evolution.
  • Martin, Janet. Medieval Russia. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996. This wide-ranging book describes the Russian struggle to establish a state and the leaders of the Rurik Dynasty, including Ivan the Great and Ivan the Terrible. It discusses how the Ruriks fought and destroyed the Golden Horde, which had ruled the Russian people for centuries.
  • Payne, Robert, and Nikita Romanoff. Ivan the Terrible. New York: Thomas Crowell, 1975. An in-depth work on the rule of Ivan the Terrible, this book describes the internal turmoil faced by the Russian ruler and the external threats from his neighbors. It also details his battles with the Lithuanians to the north and the Ottomans and their Tatar allies to the south.

1480-1502: Destruction of the Golden Horde

1499-c. 1600: Russo-Polish Wars

1520-1566: Reign of Süleyman

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War

1594-1600: King Michael’s Uprising