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What Positions Did World Powers Take in the Greek War of Independence?

Signing of the London Protocol, fresco of the frieze of the Trophy Hall of the Greek Parliament
Signing of the London Protocol, fresco of the frieze of the Trophy Hall of the Greek Parliament. Credit: Ludwig Michael von Schwanthaler, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

The Greek Revolution, also known as the Greek War of Independence, which lasted approximately from 1821 to 1830, was a foundational event in the history of modern Greece. This war, which is also known simply as “the Revolution” amongst Greeks, marked the struggle of this ancient nation for liberation from Ottoman rule.

The conflict, as it was expected, attracted the attention of major European powers of the time, particularly Britain, France and Russia, the stances of which evolved throughout the course of the war.

Initially, these nations maintained positions of neutrality or even direct or indirect opposition, influenced by various geopolitical and strategic considerations. However, as the conflict progressed, their positions shifted towards active support for the Greek cause. This shift was mainly driven by a complex network of reasons, including those of ideological sympathy, diplomatic maneuvering, and international rivalry and interests.

Russia’s stance towards the Greek War of Independence

The stance of Russia during the Greek War of Independence was characterized by a strong sense of ideological and cultural sympathy towards the Greek cause. The shared Orthodox Christian faith as well as traditional bonds between Russia and the Greeks that date back to the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire created a sense of solidarity amongst the Greeks and high-ranking Russian officials.

This sympathy was further reinforced by the widespread influence of philhellenism within Russian society, which boosted the movement of support for the Greek cause in the Russian communities. This sentiment was clearly reflected in the enthusiastic reactions towards the Greek revolution from various sectors of the Russian population, especially clerics and scholars, who viewed the Greek struggle as a noble cause deserving of support.

The portrait of Tsar Alexander I
Alexander I ruled Russia from 1801 until his death on December 1, 1825. Credit: G. Dawe, 1826, Peterhof, Wikimedia Commons Public Domain

The official Russian government, however, remained a reactionary conservative power. It found itself in the middle of a truly complex diplomatic crossroads due to the conflict. Tsar Alexander I refused to openly declare war on the Ottoman Empire following the Greek revolt.

This was not easy, and it came despite the strong public sentiment in favor of the Greeks among Russians. The Tsar had to think about the fact that the Greek War of Independence would have significant implications for the broader region from the northern Balkans to the Eastern Mediterranean. This has historically been a region that Russia was always interested in, and thus, the Tsar had to maneuver through these challenges carefully, trying not to damage his empire’s interests.

Three years after the start of the Greek War of Independence, Tsar Alexander I made a proposal in an attempt to balance Russia’s stance. He asked the other major European powers to consider the option of the establishment of three autonomous Greek principalities in the broader region. These would not obtain independence, but rather remain subservient to the Ottoman Empire. Thus, this showed the world that Russia was ready for some form of Greek autonomy.

After the death of Tsar Alexander I and the subsequent coronation of Tsar Nicholas I in September 1826, the new Russian leader tried to use the Greek revolt to Russia’s advantage and appeared to be on a war footing against the Ottoman Empire in the late 1820s. This is what led to Russia’s participation in the Battle of Navarino. Nonetheless, he never asked for the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire. On the contrary, he was against the total collapse of it.

A portrait of Tsar Nicholas I of Russia
Tsar Nicholas I was coronated in 1826. Credit: Georg von Bothmann, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Despite this apparent ideological sympathy due to historical and religious bonds, the Russian military adopted a very cautious approach throughout this decade. No official Russian unit fought to support the Greeks, as the Russian Empire focused on more strategic considerations, seeing the bigger picture. The Russians also had to take into consideration the potential impact that this revolt could have on the ethnic composition of the Ottoman Empire, which had been an arch-rival for years.

Nevertheless, saying that Russia did not support the Greeks would be a historical mistake. Russia provided assistance to the Greeks both prior to and during the war. Primarily, the Russians provided significant material assistance and relief to Greek refugees who fled to Russian cities like Odessa and Kishinev after the uprising began.

Additionally, specially established committees under Russian officials distributed funds that were being gathered from private donations and public sources across Russia to support the thousands of displaced Greeks. Furthermore, prominent Greeks like the cleric Konstantinos Oikonomos played a crucial role in mediating between Russian officials and the communities of Greek war refugees.

Part of the portrait of Ioannis Kapodistrias
Ioannis Kapodistrias was Russia’s Foreign Minister and Greece’s first ruler. Credit: National Historical Museum of Athens, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Oikonomos, for example, advised the Ober-procurator of the Russian Holy Synod and helped distribute aid to Greeks who were displaced after the Chios massacre in 1822. Another major personality that needs to be mentioned here was Ioannis Kapodistrias, a former Russian foreign minister, who became the first head of state of independent Greece.

The involvement of Russia actually culminated with its participation, alongside Britain and France, in the battle of Navarino, where the Christian forces defeated the Ottomans. This battle was the beginning of the end for the Turks, as it ultimately became the major contributor to the establishment of an independent Greek state a couple of years later.

Britain’s role in the Greek War of Independence

The stance of the British Empire during the Greek War of Independence underwent a significant transformation throughout the various stages of the war. Initially, the British government actually maintained a pro-Ottoman position. This was primarily driven by geopolitical concerns and the desire to protect its mercantile interests in the region. As is understandable, every disruption to the status quo is normally seen by the established world order as a nuance rather than a welcoming event.

Britain primarily feared that due to Russia’s underlying sympathy towards the Greek cause, an eventuality of direct or indirect Russian control over Greece could threaten Britain’s access to India and disrupt lucrative trade routes in the Aegean Sea and Levant. Additionally, the then British-held Ionian Islands were also a factor that played a crucial role in Britain’s cautious approach, as there were concerns about the war spilling over into British territories and dragging Britain into the war.

The portrait of George Canning
George Canning served as Foreign Secretary and briefly as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom during the Greek Revolution. His statue now adorns a central square in Athens. Credit: Thomas Lawrence – Art UK, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Despite the official stance of the British government, however, there was considerable public sympathy for the Greek cause within the United Kingdom. Philhellenism, which is a movement that supported the Greeks, had a strong influence on British society, particularly among the Philosophical Radicals, the Whigs, and the Evangelicals. These influential groups actively supported the Greek revolution and did so through financial assistance and advocacy in favor of the Greek positions within the British elite. The London Greek Committee played also a crucial role in mobilizing valuable support and shaping public opinion even more in favor of the Greeks.

As the years went by and the conflict prolonged, the official position of Britain began to shift. The realization, on behalf of the British political elite, that a protracted war could leave room for greater Russian involvement in the Aegean and the Mediterranean, made Britain change gear. This fundamental aspect of the geopolitical reality of the time, along with a couple of other issues, such as the intervention of Egypt in support of the Turks and the fear of the Morea (Peloponnese) being resettled with Muslims, prompted Britain to reconsider its support for the Ottoman Empire.

Major diplomatic efforts to mediate peace deals were attempted. However, they all proved unsuccessful. This encouraged Britain to consider recognizing an outright Greek independence as a means to pressuring the Ottomans into negotiations. Such a fundamental shift on behalf of the British culminated in the UK forming an alliance with Russia and France, which directly intervened against the Ottomans. This Christian bloc resulted in the decisive Battle of Navarino in 1827 and paved the way for the final recognition of Greek independence through the London Protocol of 1830.

The French and their approach to the Greek War of Independence

The stance of France in the Greek War of Independence evolved from initially being stuck to neutrality to active military and diplomatic support for the Greek cause. Even though there was widespread sympathy among the French public and intellectual circles, the official French government initially maintained a policy of clear neutrality. This stance was also influenced by broader strategic interests that the French had in preserving the established balance of power in Europe and the Eastern Mediterranean. There were also concerns among senior political and military circles in Paris that provoking a conflict with the Ottoman Empire could potentially benefit France’s rivals, such as Britain and Russia.

The portrait of Louis XVIII
Louis XVIII had been restored to the throne in 1814 following Napoleon’s initial abdication and continued to reign in France until his death on September 16, 1824. Credit: Francois Gerard, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain

Nonetheless, and in a similar way to that of the British, French policy began to shift as the war progressed. French Philhellenes played a significant role, mainly in supporting the Greek struggle, both through direct participation in the fighting and by providing crucial military expertise to Greek fighters, who needed the additional training if they had any hopes of success against the organized Ottoman military.

Charles Nicolas Fabvier, in particular, was instrumental in organizing the modern Greek regular army. French ships took part and fought for the Greeks in the pivotal Battle of Navarino in 1827. It was a decisive moment in securing the coveted Greek independence.

In 1828, in particular, France, along with Britain and Russia, formally decided and committed to mediating the question of full Greek independence through the Treaty of London. This marked a fundamentally significant shift towards active support for the Greek cause on behalf of the French, who only a few years prior were vowing to neutrality.

Subsequently, French authorities decided a French expeditionary corps was to be dispatched to Greece to assist the Greek fighters in clearing the country of remaining Ottoman garrisons. This military intervention, alongside the multiple diplomatic efforts, played a pivotal role in the eventual recognition of Greek independence from the three main European powers. The engagement of France in Greece also reflected the broader strategy of Paris of expanding its influence in the Eastern Mediterranean. In this way, the French hoped to counterbalance British maritime interests in the region.

The role of the big powers of Europe, England, France and Russia

The Greek War of Independence was a conflict that saw a remarkable evolution in the stances of Russia, Britain, and France alike. From primarily initial positions of neutrality or even opposition, these major European powers gradually shifted towards more active support for the Greek cause to an all-in military engagement against the Ottomans. This gradual but fundamental transformation was driven by a complex geopolitical triangle of ideological sympathy, strategic interests, and international diplomacy.

The involvement of these three powers, through military intervention, diplomatic efforts, and, finally, the Treaty of London, was crucial in shaping and finalizing the outcome of the war and the establishment of Greece as a fully sovereign and independent state.

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