But instead of moving forward, Alexander halted his forces in their tracks and foisted upon the Ottomans the humiliating Treaty of San Stefano. Romania had already gained its independence and this treaty would carve out a massive new Bulgarian/Russian-client state, while effectively pushing Turkey out of the Balkans.
Why did the Russians, flushed with victory, suddenly bring their forces to heel? The answer lay in the realities of 19th century European power politics. The Turks were beaten, but the ever ominous western powers (Britain, France and now, after 1871, united Germany) stood poised to check any Russian advance which threatened their overseas possessions and a dangerous reconfiguration of the European balance of power. In short, the West stood aside to let Russia have its war (a "small victorious war" as some would later call such conflicts) with Turkey, but acquiescence was conditional on Russia's not overplaying its hand.
When the western powers saw the draft hammered out at San Stefano, they were apoplectic. German Chancellor Bismarck oriented his European policy to keeping France isolated and Britain and Russia pacified. For a united Germany, not even a decade old, to have to deal with a potential second Crimea between Britain and Russia was something he was not prepared to allow. And so, Bismarck convened the powers to Berlin for a congress in June, 1878. Bulgaria, which was not invited, would have maximal autonomy (but not independence) from the Ottoman Empire and would be shrunk to half the size desired by Russia at San Stefano. Britain obtained Cyprus, Austria received Bosnia and Russia got token lands in the Caucasus. Turkey was beaten, but not allowed to be completely crushed.
While the faces of the players have changed, the similarity of the situation in which the powers find themselves today when compared with 1878 is palpable. The U.S. has eclipsed Britain, but Angela Merkel's Germany has thrust itself, for better or worse, into the role of mediator and agent of de-escalation with Moscow. As in 1878, the powers are squabbling over a territory torn along lingual, religious and ethnic lines in a conflict stretching back centuries (think 1648 and not 1991, as the official narrative holds).
Poland was partitioned three times and ceased to exist for over a century, but the Poles had a long history of not only independence, but status as a European great power. The Ukrainians no sooner obtained their independence form Poland than they concluded an agreement with Russia, which pressed Sweden and Poland out to become the regional hegemon of Eastern Europe by the middle-18th century. Add the painful legacies of the Russian Civil War, when Ukraine and the Crimea were centers of counter-revolutionary activity, WWII and the Soviet period to economic chaos, corruption and strong-man rule by Leonid Kuchma during most of its twenty years of actual independence and you have a "country" suffering from near schizophrenic disarray. And this before Crimea even enters the equation. Donetsk and Lviv share the same borders, but not much else. The people have not come to terms with what being a Ukrainian means, much less how to go about properly handling past fissures that most countries would never be able to overcome (the Belgians could not form a proper government for over a year because of the enmity between the Flemish and Walloon populations, and that is without everything just mentioned).
And yet, all of the above is completely irrelevant to what is happening in Ukraine and how to handle the situation in a durable fashion as far as the great powers are concerned, if all of the great powers accept their roles and responsibilities. Barack Obama is no Benjamin Disraeli, as is repeatedly demonstrated with his esoteric pronouncements about violations of the Ukrainian constitution and international law. The issue is not American hypocrisy and failed overseas interventions or how none of what is happening in Ukraine as far as the U.S. is concerned has anything to do with peoples or constitutions. The issue is that when one power speaks Russian and the other speaks English without an interpreter, nobody understands each other. The language that must be spoken in Ukraine is that of narrow national interest and power politics. Bismarck could not predict how successful Russia would be against Turkey, but intervened just as things seemed to get out of hand to prevent events from spiraling out of control.
Why is the West so insistent on preserving a quasi-legitimate government in Kiev backed by only half the population while ratcheting up pressure for Russia to accept a volatile border state which may well be flooded with NATO installations and EU investment? Moreover, if the objective is to undermine Putin and the current Russian government, why back a nationalist Ukrainian government borne out of street battles whose first order of business was to shelve a regional Russian-language law and grant ultra-nationalist factions control over the interior ministry and security services? Instead of the attention remaining on the astronomical cost of the Olympics in the subtropics (as Russian opposition leader and former governor Boris Nemtsov calls the Sochi spectacle) and the 2-4 year prison sentences handed down to twenty year olds protesting Putin's inauguration, the West has allowed Putin to paint himself as a protector of Russian identity and a gatherer of historical Russian lands. Where Yeltsin failed in Chechnya in 1994, Putin might well succeed in Ukraine in 2014. As has been reported, the developing situation on Russia's borders has pushed the Moscow government's popularity to its highest level in two years. Not only has the West completely botched the media narrative it wanted, but it now has a broke, unstable government to care for in Kiev without any real plan for what to do next.