Third Russo-Turkish War

Russia and Turkey renewed their historical rivalry in the Balkan region, fighting their third war during the nineteenth century. Russian victories initially led to its influence in the area, but the leading powers of Europe opposed Russian expansion and forced it, through the Congress of Berlin, to relinquish some territorial and strategic advantages won on the battlefield and in diplomatic agreements.

Summary of Event

The Balkan region of southeastern Europe is made up of numerous groups of different ethnic, religious, and national backgrounds. The area, part of the Ottoman Empire (Turkey) for several centuries, had periodically erupted in violence, sometimes leading to harsh Turkish suppression. Two neighboring empires, Austria and Russia, had used these conditions to advance their own territorial and strategic interests in the area. The Crimean War (1854-1856) between Russia and Turkey had been a recent example. Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)[Russo Turkish War (1877-1878)]
Russia;and Turkey[Turkey]
Turkey;and Russia[Russia]
Ottoman Empire;and Third Russo-Turkish War[Third Russo Turkish War]
[kw]Third Russo-Turkish War (Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878)
[kw]Russo-Turkish War, Third (Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878)
[kw]Turkish War, Third Russo- (Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878)
[kw]War, Third Russo-Turkish (Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878)
Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878)[Russo Turkish War (1877-1878)]
Russia;and Turkey[Turkey]
Turkey;and Russia[Russia]
Ottoman Empire;and Third Russo-Turkish War[Third Russo Turkish War]
[g]Russia;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
[g]Ottoman Empire;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
[g]Turkey;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
[c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
[c]Diplomacy and international relations;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
[c]Expansion and land acquisition;Apr. 24, 1877-Jan. 31, 1878: Third Russo-Turkish War[4950]
Skobelev, Mikhail Dmitriyevich
Gourko, Joseph Vladimirovich
Abdülhamid II
Süleyman Paşa
Osman Nori Paşa

A series of Balkan revolts and minor wars against Turkish rule had begun in 1875 and continued into 1876. Austria and Russia, along with Germany and Britain, demanded on several occasions that Turkey make reforms to cope with the grievances and aspirations of the repressed areas. Sultan Abdülhamid II Abdülhamid II often rejected these proposals. Seeing no diplomatic resolution to the crisis after months of broken promises, and eager to extend its influence in the region, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire in April 24, 1877.

The Russian strategy was to cross Romania Romania;and Bulgaria[Bulgaria]
Bulgaria;and Romania[Romania] , enter Bulgaria, and continue southward with the goal of forcing the Turkish government in Constantinople to surrender or make concessions. During the conflict that lasted less than one year, Russia also had limited military support from several small Balkan principalities: Serbia Serbia , Montenegro, and Romania. Three periods characterize the conflict: Russian invasion and initial success (April-June), increased Turkish resistance and Russia’s campaign against Plevna (July-December), and final Russian victory (December, 1877-January, 1878).

Russian troops entered Romania in April and crossed the Danube River into Bulgarian territory in late June. The Turks failed to block the advancing Russians, who captured Svistov and Nikopol in July. Turkish forces under Osman Osman Nori Paşa Nori Paşa retreated to Plevna (Pleven), arriving before the Russians moved to capture this strategic location. Turkish defenses withstood initial Russian attacks on the town in late July. Two subsequent attacks against Plevna in August and September also failed, with large Russian casualties.

In the face of Turkish resistance, Russian commanders considered withdrawing from the region but in mid-September adopted a plan for a siege of Plevna. This lasted until the Turkish garrison of 43,000 surrendered in December, 1877. Russia suffered approximately 38,000 casualties during the Plevna operations, while Turkish figures are lower. During the siege, Russian czar Alexander II stayed with the attacking forces, determined to conquer this strategically important point in the Ottoman Empire.

The mountainous terrain in Bulgaria Bulgaria created difficulties for the Russian advance, especially because Turkish troops held several key mountain passes of the Balkan mountain chain through which the Russians had to move to reach the open plains to the south. Shipka Pass was an especially important objective, and General Josif Gurko’s cavalry command successfully took the pass in mid-July against Turks commanded by Süleyman Süleyman Paşa Paşa. Several major engagements occurred there between July, 1877, and January, 1878, as Turkish forces attempted but failed to recapture this vital position and slow the Russian advance southward. At the conclusion of the fourth battle of Shipka Pass, 32,000 Turkish troops surrendered. The battles at Plevna and Shipka Pass are among the most famous military engagements of the war.

Other notable military outcomes include the Battle of Lovcha (September, 1877), when Russian troops successfully attacked and captured this strategic location. Another was at Gorni-Duybnik, when Gurko’s forces captured the Turkish fortress in late October. During the Balkan campaigns, General Mikhail Dmitriyevich Skobelev Skobelev, Mikhail Dmitriyevich commanded large numbers of Russian troops, and he became famous for his dashing and daring leadership at Plevna, Lovcha, and other places.

With Plevna’s surrender in mid-December, sizeable Russian troops were available for the final push southward. They won a major battle against Süleyman Paşa at Plovdiv (Philippopolis) in January, 1878. About the same time, Gurko’s forces captured the important Bulgarian city of Sofia. Skobelev’s forces occupied Adrianople on January 22, not far from Constantinople. Facing imminent collapse and the possible capture of its capital city, the Turkish authorities requested an armistice. The combatants signed a cease-fire at Adrianople on January 31, 1878.

Russia’s Cossack Imperial Guard advancing into Turkey.

(Francis R. Niglutsch)

Another theater of military operations was fought along the east coast of the Black Sea to the south of the Caucasus Mountains. Russian forces crossed the border in June and attacked Turkish defensive positions in late summer and early fall. The conflict ebbed and flowed throughout the region before the fortress at Kars, a primary Russian objective, surrendered in November, 1877. Approximately seventeen thousand Turks surrendered there. Portions of the captured territories in the region were included as Russian annexations in the eventual peace settlement.

Russia’s decisive victory over the Ottoman Empire in this relatively short conflict determined the conditions in the Treaty of San Stefano San Stefano, Treaty of (1878) (March 3, 1878), which provided advantages to Russia and its allies. Notable features of the treaty included the creation of a large Bulgarian state and greater autonomy for Balkan states such as Serbia Serbia , Romania, and Montenegro. Russian influence increased significantly in the area, thereby upsetting the balance of power in the unstable region.

In response to these significant geographic changes and strategic shifts, several European powers (notably Great Britain, Austria, and Germany) attempted to counter and limit Russia’s success. Facing diplomatic and possible military opposition, the Russian government agreed to reconsider the San Stefano treaty. The Congress of Berlin (1878) extensively revised that agreement, permitting the creation of a small Bulgarian state as well as allowing Turkish authority to continue in much of southeastern Europe.

Comparing the two major combatants, the Turkish armament was equal to or better than that of the Russians, especially in the quality and accuracy of rifles and artillery. The top leadership on both sides, who were often members of the nobility or other privileged classes, usually is portrayed as marginal at best, permitting field commanders such as Skobelev, Skobelev, Mikhail Dmitriyevich Joseph Vladimirovich Gourko Gourko, Joseph Vladimirovich , and Osman Osman Nori Paşa Nori Paşa to earn their reputations on the battlefield. The Russian strategy and tactics, while uneven, generally outclassed that of Turkey, which did not always utilize its forces effectively. The large geographic area involved in the Balkan and Caucasus campaigns was a serious challenge for the Turks, giving the Russians more opportunity to maneuver to outflank and defeat their rivals. Enlisted men on both sides fought bravely while coping with the great hardships of battle conditions, inadequate supplies, and the harsh winter of 1877-1878.


The Russo-Turkish conflict of 1877-1878 showed that significant and historic changes were occurring in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean. The Ottoman Empire, a major state in the region during several centuries, steadily lost power and authority during the nineteenth century. Russia’s success against the Turks showed that the balance of power in the region had shifted in its favor. Only French and British military assistance to Turkey in the Crimean War blocked Russia’s advance, but the two European powers were not willing to aid the Turks in the 1870’s as they had done two decades earlier.

In a broader context, the leading European powers were concerned that Balkan instability and growing Austro-Russian competition might trigger a future expanded conflict in the region. Consequently, the Berlin agreement sought to restore a balance of power in the area and provide some benefits to both Austria and to Russia to try to satisfy them. However, in relinquishing the benefits of a hard fought war and the Treaty of San Stefano, San Stefano, Treaty of (1878) Russia reacted negatively to the Berlin settlement as a serious diplomatic and psychological blow to its strategic and political interests. While the Berlin treaty temporarily stabilized conditions in the Balkans, it continued to be a region of competition and instability. The situation deteriorated after 1900, and World War I began in the region in 1914.

Further Reading

  • Crampton, R. J. A Concise History of Bulgaria. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Discusses the emergence of Bulgarian nationalism and independence efforts during the ninenteenth century.
  • Furneaux, Rupert. The Breakfast War: The 143 Day Siege of Plevna in 1877. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1958. Colorful account of the long siege, including an account of the presence of newspaper correspondents in the region.
  • Glenny, Misha. The Balkans: Nationalism, War, and the Great Powers, 1804-1999. New York: Penguin Books, 1999. Extensive description of the politics and competition of this complicated and unstable region.
  • Menning, Bruce W. Bayonets Before Bullets: The Imperial Russian Army, 1861-1914. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Detailed assessment of the Russian military’s capabilities and effectiveness in the 1877-1878 war, along with analysis of strategy and key battles.
  • Stavrianos, L. S. The Balkans Since 1453. New York: New York University Press, 2000. Includes four chapters on the diplomatic and military events of the 1870’s.
  • Stojanovic, Mihailo D. The Great Powers and the Balkans, 1875-1878. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1968. Focuses on diplomatic maneuvering in the region.
  • Sumner, B. H. Russia and the Balkans, 1870-1880. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1962. Covers both diplomacy and military events of the period.

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