Ottoman Wars with Russia

In two hard-fought wars between 1768 and 1792, the Ottoman Empire experienced defeats so decisive that it ceased to be a great power. Russia’s rise to power continued, however, as vast new territories were added to its sovereign possessions.

Summary of Event

During 1767-1768, Catherine the Great’s suppression of the rebellion in Poland led Russian forces to pursue fugitives across the border into Ottoman territory. This incursion constituted a casus belli (cause of war). Sultan Mustafa III and his diwan (council of state) had long anticipated Russian aggression. Russian agents had been at work in Moldavia, Wallachia, Albania, and Montenegro. In defiance of the Treaty of Belgrade Belgrade, Treaty of (1739) (1739), Russian border-forts were being constructed along the River Bug. The Ottoman government suspected that Russia’s dismantling of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was secretly aimed at removing any buffer between Russian and Ottoman territory in order to facilitate a coming invasion. The Ottoman grand vizier Muhsinzade Mehmed Paşa opposed war on the grounds that the Ottoman forces were unprepared, but he was overruled: In October, 1768, the sultan declared war. [kw]Ottoman Wars with Russia (Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792)
[kw]Russia, Ottoman Wars with (Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792)
[kw]Wars with Russia, Ottoman (Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792)
Ottoman-Russian Wars (1768-1792)[Ottoman Russian Wars]
Russian-Ottoman Wars (1768-1792)[Russian Ottoman Wars]
Russo-Turkish Wars (1768-1792)
[g]Russia;Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792: Ottoman Wars with Russia[1890]
[g]Ottoman Empire;Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792: Ottoman Wars with Russia[1890]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792: Ottoman Wars with Russia[1890]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Oct., 1768-Jan. 9, 1792: Ottoman Wars with Russia[1890]
Mustafa III
{ayn}Abd al-Hamid I
Muhsinzade Mehmed Pa{scedil}a
Catherine the Great
Joseph II

Catherine was eager for military glory. She quickly mobilized armies to strike into Moldavia, to cross the Perekop Isthmus into the Crimea—whose khan was an Ottoman vassal—to descend the Don to the Sea of Azov, and to invade Mingrelia (Georgia). A new grand vizier, Mehmed Emin Paşa, led an Ottoman army into Moldavia to no purpose, falling back before the Russian advance. With extraordinary rapidity, the Russian commander, Count P. A. Rumyantsev, overran Moldavia, Wallachia, and the Danube forts and was poised to penetrate Bulgaria (1769-1770). When the Ottomans took a stand at Kagul (August 1, 1770), the grand vizier lost one-third of his men in its defense and another third streaming back across the Danube River. He was recalled to Constantinople and executed.

Posing as the protector of Orthodox Ottoman subjects, Catherine sent a fleet into the Mediterranean under the command of Count Aleksey Grigoryevich Orlov. Russian troops landed in the Morea, supposedly to collaborate with local rebels, but former Grand Vizier Muhsinzade Mehmed Paşa expelled them. However, the Russians did better at sea, sinking the Ottoman fleet in Cheshme Bay (June 25-26, 1770), although the Ottomans beat off an invasion of Lesbos.

The year 1771 proved a worse year for the Ottomans. Russian forces ravaged the Crimea from end to end and expelled the Ottoman garrisons in Mingrelia, but the Ottomans held on to Ochakov and Kinburun, at the confluence of the Dnieper and the Bug. By the end of the year, negotiations had begun, first at Fokshani and then at Bucharest. Russia demanded cession of the Crimea, and the sultan and diwan, with their backs to the wall, might have agreed had not the Sheyhülislam and the ulema (the religious establishment) vehemently opposed Muslims being placed under infidel rule. Fear of internal disturbances by these factions compelled the sultan to break off the talks.

Muhsinzade Mehmed Paşa, the savior of the Morea, was brought back as grand vizier in November, 1771. He worked strenuously to reform the military, but Ottoman forces suffered a massive defeat at Kozludjhi (June 20, 1771) at the hands of Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov, and the grand vizier had no alternative but to come to terms. The peace conference assembled at the village of Küçük Kaynarca, Bulgaria.

The Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji Kuchuk Kainarji, Treaty of (1774) (also known as the Treaty of Küçhük Kaynarca; July 21, 1774), one of the most fateful events of Ottoman history, did not involve the territorial losses of Karlowitz, for example, although it might have proved even more punitive but for the fact that Catherine too was feeling the financial drain of continuous campaigning. There was still fallout from the first partition of Poland in 1772, and Russia was in the midst of Pugachev’s Revolt.

By the terms of the treaty, the Khanate of the Crimea became free of outside interference, although the Tatars Crimean Tatars
Tatars were independent only in theory, owing practical subservience to the Russian Empire. At the same time, however, the Tatars’ religious allegiances continued to focus on the sultan-caliph, constituting the earliest recognition that the latter exercised extraterritorial jurisdiction over Muslims who were not his subjects.

In the Sea of Azov, Russia retained not only Azov itself but also Kerç and Yenikale, giving Russia access to the Black Sea. West of the Crimea, Russia also acquired Kinburun. Thus, the Black Sea was no longer what it had been for centuries, a Muslim lake, but was now open to Russian navigation, with Russian consulates established on its shores. There was also to be a permanent Russian ambassador in Constantinople, a source of much future mischief. Elsewhere, the Russians withdrew from the Mediterranean, Wallachia, Moldavia, Bessarabia, and Mingrelia, but in 1774, the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II treacherously occupied upper Moldavia (the Bukovina), and the Ottomans had no choice but to confirm its loss.

As for the Christian population of the Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, it had given the invading Russians overt assistance, but there were to be no reprisals, and assurance was given that these non-Muslim subjects of the Porte would receive justice at the sultan’s hands, with Russia reserving the right to intervene on their behalf, a sinister clause which over time would be extended to all the sultan’s Orthodox subjects. Russian subjects, as Orthodox pilgrims, were to have unrestricted access to the shrines of the Holy Land.

Thus, the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji, while it did not dismember the Ottoman Empire per se, planted the seeds of its future disintegration in the years to come. For the moment, however, Catherine, her appetite still unsatiated, was content to pause. Mustafa III died in January, 1774, and was succeeded by his brother, ՙAbd al-Hamid I, one of the least impressive members of his house.

Between 1774 and 1787, Russian interference in the Crimea led to the last khan’s abdication and Russia’s formal annexation of the khanate, beginning a ruthless policy of settlement and colonization, as well as Russification. Catherine’s dreams of a revived Byzantine Empire, ruled by one of her descendants, were crystallizing in her mind.

Provoked by Russia’s cynical disregard for its treaty obligations, the Porte went to war again in 1787. The Algerine corsair, Hasan Paşa, who as Kapudan Paşa had introduced significant naval reforms, now took both military and naval forces to Ochakov, from which he planned to retake Kinburun, but his forces were defeated by Suvorov, and his fleet was destroyed (October, 1788). Ochakov was captured by the Russians with immense slaughter (December 17, 1788). Elsewhere, all was not well: Sweden had gone to war with Russia over Finland in June, 1788, and although Joseph II, Catherine’s ally, had attacked the Ottomans along the Danube River, his generalship was so appalling that the Austrians were forced to retire in disarray. For a while, the Ottomans reoccupied the Banat, until Joseph abandoned his command. Marshal Loudon, a Seven Years’ War veteran, regained the initiative in Bosnia and Serbia, capturing Belgrade, but Joseph died in 1790. The death of the emperor proved a windfall for the Ottomans, as his successor, Leopold II, saw no advantage to further dismembering the Ottoman Empire and made peace at Sistova (August 4, 1791) on the basis of the 1788 frontiers.

This 1787 cartoon portrays Catherine the Great as a “Christian Amazon” battling Sultan ՙAbd al-Hamid I, while Joseph II cowers behind her and Louis XVI and Charles III stand on the side of the sultan.

(Library of Congress)

The year 1789 proved good for Russia in the field. Bender surrendered on November 3, 1789, and at the end of the following year, Suvorov took the great fortress of Ismāՙīl at the mouth of the Danube River. The road to Constantinople was now open. France, the Ottoman Empire’s traditional ally, was locked in the throes of revolution, but Great Britain, hitherto unconcerned at Russia’s encroachment on Ottoman territory, now sensed a danger to the balance of power, and Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger formed the Triple Alliance Triple Alliance with Prussia and Holland to preserve it. It was partly their pressure that had brought Leopold to Sistova, but further losses were forcing the Ottomans to the negotiating table as well. By the Treaty of Jassy Jassy, Treaty of (1792) (January 9, 1792), the Russian frontier was extended to the Dniester River. The loss of the lands between the Bug and the Dniester Rivers was humiliating to the Ottomans, but for the time being they were spared further Russian aggression by Catherine’s death on November 6, 1796.


In the 1750’s, the Ottoman Empire was still perceived to be a factor to be reckoned with on the European stage, despite setbacks at Karlowitz (1699), Passarowitz (1718), and Belgrade (1739). The wars with Catherine’s Russia revealed, however, that despite its habitual resilience and the occasional heroism of its troops, the Ottoman Empire was a backward, disintegrating regime in need of root-and-branch reform. The fallout from the war of 1787-1792 would arouse Great Britain and, in due course, France to the need to protect the Ottomans from their northern neighbor, culminating in the Crimean War of 1854-1856. Russia may have erred in shifting its attention from the Baltic and its alliance with Prussia to the Black Sea and its Austrian alliance, but there is little doubt that for Catherine, the quintessential despot, her Ottoman triumphs were exhilarating in ways that war with Poland and Sweden were not.

Further Reading

  • Aksan, Virginia H. An Ottoman Statesman in War and Peace: Ahmed Resmi Efendi, 1700-1783. New York: Brill, 1995. Excellent discussion of the 1768-1774 war with Russia.
  • Itzkowitz, Norman, and Max Mote. Mubadele: An Ottoman-Russian Exchange of Ambassadors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. A perceptive discussion of Ottoman-Russian diplomacy.
  • Madariaga, Isabel de. Russia in the Age of Catherine the Great. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. Excellent account of the Russian side of the conflict.
  • Montefiore, S. S. Potemkin: Catherine the Great’s Imperial Partner. New York: Vintage, 2005. A massive biography, with detailed accounts of the southern campaigns.
  • Shaw, Stanford J. History of the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge University Press, 1976. An outstanding account.

Russo-Austrian War Against the Ottoman Empire

Seven Years’ War

Partitioning of Poland

Pugachev’s Revolt

Treaty of Kuchuk Kainarji

Joseph II’s Reforms

Russo-Swedish Wars

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Catherine the Great; Joseph II; Mustafa III; Aleksey Grigoryevich Orlov; Grigori Grigoryevich Orlov; Grigori Aleksandrovich Potemkin; Aleksandr Vasilyevich Suvorov. Ottoman-Russian Wars (1768-1792)[Ottoman Russian Wars]
Russian-Ottoman Wars (1768-1792)[Russian Ottoman Wars]
Russo-Turkish Wars (1768-1792)