Russian Foreign Policy in the Eighteenth Century

Russian foreign policy developed in three main phases between the assumption of autocratic powers by Peter the Great in 1689 and the death of Catherine the Great in 1796. In the first phase (1689–1725), Russia emerged as a major European power under Peter the Great. This had been fully accomplished by the time of his death in 1725 and was due more to military struggle and consolidation than to diplomacy. The second phase, between 1725 and 1762, saw Russia increasingly involved in the mainstream of European diplomacy; this was a period of experimentation and growing contacts with the West. The third phase demonstrated Russia's increased diplomatic importance and, at the same time, produced extensive military conquests. This was the peak of Russia's influence on the Europe of the ancien régime and it occurred during the reign of Catherine the Great (1762–96).

The dramatic rise of Russia as a major military power at the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth was due to the combination of the decline of Russia's main rivals with the emergence of a great leader at exactly the right time.

In the seventeenth century Russia had been hemmed in by three important powers: Sweden in the north and the Baltic, Poland across Eastern Europe, and the Ottoman Empire in the south and the Black Sea. All three had passed the peak of their military capacity by the end of the century. Sweden had benefited territorially from the Treaty of Westphalia (1648) but her new German possessions had brought her into conflict with Brandenburg. The victory of the latter at the Battle of Fehrbellin (1675) destroyed the myth of Sweden's military invincibility. When Charles XII came to the Swedish throne in 1697, determined to restore Sweden's reputation by military conquest, he inherited a kingdom already in decline. The final burst of Swedish militarism between 1699 and 1721 was spectacular but doomed to failure. Poland had dominated the Ukraine and much of Eastern Europe in the early seventeenth century, but was severely weakened by a series of wars with Sweden, Brandenburg and Turkey after 1650, suffering serious devastation and heavy population losses. Poland also experienced internal problems; ever since the end of the Jagellon line in 1572 Poland had possessed an elective rather than an hereditary monarchy. Although this could produce rulers of outstanding calibre like John Sobieski (1674–96), the general result was the replacement of a powerful monarchy by a divided oligarchy. The Ottoman Empire was another state faced with the double problem of military decline and domestic crisis. The deteriorating quality of the Sultanate between 1566 and 1695 was accompanied by the gradual contraction of Turkish frontiers and serious military defeats at St Gothard (1664), Khoczim (1673), Lemberg (1675), Vienna (1683), Mohacs (1687) and Zenta (1697).

Generally, the position in North–Eastern and South–Eastern Europe by the end of the seventeenth century was highly volatile, with tiring combatants struggling for an elusive supremacy. Brandenburg sought to displace Sweden as the major power of the Baltic, Sweden tried to gain territory at the expense of Poland, and the Ottoman Empire sought to defend itself against Austria. As yet there was no definite result in any sphere, and the situation was favourable to an emergent power from outside the traditional web of conflict. Furthermore, there was little prospect of decisive intervention by any western power because of the struggles in Central and Western Europe generally known as the War of the League of Augsburg (1688–97) and the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13).

Peter the Great (1682–1725) took full advantage of the situation in Eastern Europe and managed to manipulate the traditional rivalries in the area to the benefit of Russia. His main intention was to give Russia outlets in the Baltic Sea and Black Sea, thus providing her with direct access to the West. The opportunity came in the Baltic with the outbreak of the Great Northern War in 1699. Sweden was confronted by a coalition of Denmark, Saxony and Poland, which Russia proceeded to join in 1700. The first two years of the war were catastrophic for the anti–Swedish coalition; Charles XII defeated the Danes and smashed the Russian army at Narva (1700). By 1709, however, it had become clear that Swedish successes had been transitory, a final burst of military effort. The Russians defeated the Swedes at Poltava and proved to the world that the ‘Star of the North’ was setting. The Treaty of Nystadt (1721) confirmed Russian possession of all of Sweden's Baltic states between Finland and Poland, notably Karelia, Ingria, Esthonia and Livonia.

The reason for this Russian victory and Swedish decline can be considered as the consequences, partly of the mistakes of Charles XII, and partly of the patient leadership of Peter the Great.

Charles XII committed Sweden to the type of war which the limited resources of that country could not sustain. It has been estimated that Sweden's losses between 1700 and 1721 amounted to 30 per cent of her male population (a higher proportion than the losses suffered by France during the Napoleonic Wars1). She also experienced bankruptcy several times, a situation which Charles XII refused to recognize. As a military tactician, Charles XII showed a degree of brilliance which Peter the Great lacked, and his victory at Narva in 1700 is a classic example of a surprise attack with inferior numbers. His overall war strategy, however, was inappropriate. He left Peter the Great a free hand to conquer Sweden's Baltic territories while he himself turned to deal with Poland (1700–7). When Charles returned to Russia in 1707 (in the autumn!) he possessed no clear plan and allowed his army to be drawn southwards by the retreating Russians, instead of pushing northwards to re–establish Swedish control over the Baltic coastline. The very location of the Battle of Poltava, which Charles lost in 1709, shows the extent of his folly. It is deep in the Ukraine, over six hundred miles from the Baltic Sea.

Peter the Great's policy was carefully planned and took full advantage of Charles XII's erratic behaviour. The defeat of the Russians at Narva convinced Peter of the necessity of careful military reconstruction, based upon the more efficient aspects of Swedish organization. He observed: ‘I know the Swedes will long continue to be victorious, but in time they will teach us to beat them.’2 He consolidated Russia's hold on the Baltic coastline during Charles XII's absence in Poland between 1700 and 1707. On Charles's return Peter avoided direct confrontation, knowing that the Swedes would still be likely to win a pitched battle, and resorted to scorched earth tactics. He knew how to make the most of all of Russia's resources and of her space and weather. His retreat deep into the Ukraine stretched the Swedish lines of communication to breaking point, and the Swedish armies were depleted by hunger and frostbite. (The winter of 1708–9 was one of the coldest in modern history and birds were reported dropping dead from the sky.) He was prepared to wait almost two years before turning to face the Swedes; and when he did so, at Poltava, the issue was not in doubt. 40,000 Russians, with ample artillery, defeated 22,000 Swedes, who had only four guns. Peter was able to follow up this victory by reconstructing the Northern Coalition against Sweden, and by defeating the Swedish fleet at Cape Hango in 1714.

Against the Ottoman Empire Peter encountered less success in his search for outlets to the sea. In 1696 he captured Azov on the River Don, but his army was surrounded by a greatly superior force of Turks at the Pruth in 1711. By the Treaty of the Pruth in 1711 Peter was obliged to surrender Azov and to defer the prospect of putting a Russian fleet in the Black Sea. Peter's failure against the Turks is, at first sight, surprising, in view of the extent of Ottoman decline in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The reason is, however, that Peter probably considered Russia to be primarily a northern power and that her deadliest enemy was therefore Sweden. He decided to concentrate Russia's resources on the destruction of Swedish supremacy in the Baltic and was, therefore, unable to make the most of Turkey's difficulties. On the whole, he preferred to leave the Ottoman Empire alone; the war of 1710–11 was not his doing—it was provoked by the Turks under strong pressure from Charles XII.

Nor was the reign a notable success in the field of diplomacy. Peter was a great military leader but, as is so common, he lacked diplomatic finesse. He failed to come to grips with a particularly complex phase of international relations in the West after 1713. In 1717 he attempted to secure an alliance between France and Russia, only to find that the Regency preferred the Triple Alliance with Britain and the Netherlands (1717). France compromised by drawing up the Treaty of Amsterdam (1717) between France, Russia and Prussia, but this was evidently of secondary importance to the Triple Alliance and carried no military obligations. For the rest of his reign Peter failed to gain full acceptance by the other major powers for Russia as an integral part of the European state system. It was almost as if many statesmen were waiting to see what would happen to Russia after Peter died. Could she maintain her position as a major power?

During the period between 1725 and 1762 Russia was notoriously unstable. Short reigns, palace coups and the revival of the nobility all helped to undermine many of the internal reforms of Peter the Great. But the period was by no means a disastrous one in Russia's external relations. There was much more stability in her domestic affairs, largely because of the continuity of leadership. Russian foreign policy was, for the most part, directed less by rulers than by ministers. Two of these, Ostermann and Bestuzhev, dominated the years between 1725 and 1762. Between them they maintained Russia's established policies of weakening Sweden and Turkey, while at the same time becoming more involved in active diplomacy with the rest of Europe.

Russia's struggle with Turkey and Sweden was on a less spectacular scale than during the reign of Peter the Great. Sweden had ceased to be Russia's major threat, and Russia had not yet rear-ranged her military resources to deliver a crushing blow on Turkey. Nevertheless, two wars were fought during the period. The first was with Turkey (1736–9), provoked partly by active anti-Russian diplomacy by France with Sultan Mahmoud I. This war ended in only partial success for Russia. Russia gained Azov by the Treaty of Belgrade (1739), but her ships were still denied access to the Black Sea. The Russo-Swedish War (1741–3) was also precipitated by French diplomacy; Sweden was persuaded to take advantage of the instability in Russia at the beginning of the reign of Elizabeth. Russia inflicted several defeats on Sweden, and by the Treaty of Abo (1743), the province of Kymmenegard was added to the Baltic gains which Russia had already made at the expense of Sweden.

Of far great significance than the wars with Turkey and Sweden, however, were Russia's contacts with the rest of Europe. These took various forms and produced a variety of results, ranging from obvious success to arguable failure.

The first major link was with Austria. Peter the Great's attempts to form an alliance with France were reversed by his successor. In 1726 Ostermann negotiated the Austro–Russian Alliance, which became the basis of Russian foreign policy until 1762. He considered that Austria was, for Russia, a more natural ally than France, and that French military power had probably been overestimated by Peter the Great. The result of the Austrian alliance was a period of sustained anti–Russian diplomacy by France, but, as has been seen, Russia overcame those countries which France attempted to use as her instruments.

Ostermann used the Austrian alliance to Russia's advantage in 1733 and, at the same time, opened up another area for Russian influence and diplomacy. Peter the Great's contacts with the West had been established by the military defeat of Sweden. His successors concentrated on continental links now that the Baltic had been won, and one of the objectives was Russian domination of Poland. In 1733 the Polish king, Augustus II, died, and because of the system of elective monarchy there were two rival candidates for the throne. France pressed the claim of Louis XV's father–in–law, Stanislaus Leszczynski, while Ostermann supported Augustus III and sent Russian troops. Austria joined the War of the Polish Succession (1733–5) on Russia's side and absorbed much of the shock of French military intervention. Of the three major powers participating in the war, Russia clearly gained most. France did not mobilize all her resources, as Cardinal Fleury was anxious to end the war as quickly as possible. Austria gained no territory from the war and had to bear the main impact of the fighting. Russia secured the election of her candidate to the Polish throne, and this was to be the basis of her future domination of Poland. Russia also confirmed her reputation as a major military power with a far–reaching strike capacity by sending troops as far west as the Netherlands for the first time in her history.

Ostermann was replaced as Russia's Foreign Minister by Bestuzhev in 1741. Under Bestuzhev's leadership Russian foreign policy entered a staunchly anti– Prussian phase. When Prussia attacked Austrian Silesia in 1740 Bestuzhev was clearly in favour of supporting Austria. He argued that Prussia was potentially a deadly enemy of Russia and that she would threaten Russia's influence in two areas, the Baltic and Poland. In pursuit of a policy which would contain Prussia, Bestuzhev renewed the alliance with Austria in 1746, and eventually committed troops to support Austria in the War of the Austrian Succession. The anti– Prussian emphasis of Russia's foreign policy was maintained after the Treaty of Aix–la–Chapelle (1748) and was one of the three basic enmities not reversed by the Diplomatic Revolution, the other two being Austria's hostility towards Prussia and Britain's towards France. The Empress Elizabeth (1741–62) was strongly opposed to Frederick the Great of Prussia and even broke off relations with Britain in 1756 on hearing that Britain and Prussia had formed the Treaty of Westminster. Russia then proceeded to confirm the link with Austria by the Convention of St Petersburg in 1757, finding herself on the same side as France, who had broken with Prussia and had already allied with Austria in 1756.

Russia now entered a prolonged and bitter struggle with Prussia. The Seven Years’ War (1756–63) was a major test of Russia's military strength and saw a mixture of successes, like the Battles of Gross Jägersdorf (1757) and Kunersdorf (1759), and reverses, like the Battle of Zorndorf (1758). On the whole, Russian armies posed a greater threat to the survival of Prussia than did those of either France or Austria. It is possible that Frederick the Great might have been worn down had not the Empress Elizabeth died in 1762, to be succeeded by her son, Peter III. It was in 1762 that the unpredictable happened and Russia experienced her own diplomatic revolution, six years after those of the other powers; this effectively brought about the end of the Seven Years’ War. Peter III, a noted Prussophile, promptly withdrew Russian troops from Prussian territory. This was followed by an agreement between Russia and Prussia which reversed the previous policy of maintaining a close alliance between Russia and Austria. Russian foreign policy had, therefore, turned and taken a leap into the unknown. This was not a calculated risk; it was the whim of a mentally unstable Tsar obsessed by his hero worship for the King of Prussia.

Because of her early withdrawal from the Seven Years’ War, Russia could expect no territorial gain and, like France, was unmentioned in the Treaty of Hubertusburg (1763). She had spent enormous sums in maintaining the struggle against Prussia and had suffered heavy casualties. Peter III's armistice of 1762 had probably deprived Russia of any spoils of victory and it raised several questions. Why had Russia been involved so heavily in the war in the first place? Could it be that her entry into the diplomatic system of Europe was beginning to misfire? Had Russia been exploited by the other powers?

According to Catherine the Great (1762–96) she had. On coming to the throne after the deposition of Peter III in 1762, Catherine made an immediate decision to pursue a more opportunist foreign policy and to use other states as she believed they had previously used Russia. Her views were amply expressed by Panin, who now headed the Department of Foreign Affairs: ‘We will change the system whereby we are dependent on them [other powers] and in its stead we will set up one which will permit us to act without hindrance in our own affairs.’3 Panin and Catherine did not, however, intend to pursue a more defensive or pacific role. On the contrary, Russia was about to enter the most militant and successful phase of her foreign policy. Diplomacy became more subtle and Russia's military conquest in Europe was more extensive than at any other stage in her imperial history.

What happened during Catherine's reign was so complex that an outline of the main components of Russian foreign policy needs to be provided; these interacted with each other. First, Catherine intended to extract maximum benefit from any country with which Russia was allied and would have no hesitation in reversing any alliance which had ceased to be useful. Hence she made an alliance with Prussia in 1764 and reverted to one with Austria in 1781. Second, Russia was to be supreme arbiter of diplomacy in Europe. Catherine managed to achieve momentary success here in influencing the peace settlement which concluded the War of the Bavarian Succession in 1779. Third, Catherine aimed to gain control over Poland, initially by increasing the extent of Russian political influence, eventually by partition and direct Russian rule over the eastern provinces of Poland. Fourth, she intended to destroy the Ottoman Empire in the south and to provide Russia with direct access to the eastern Mediterranean. Fifth, Catherine cast Russia in an ideological role. During the era of the French Revolution, from 1789 onwards, Catherine emphasized the commitment of Russia to destroying radical forces which challenged the ancien régime, although her hatred of republicanism did not prevent her from using the French situation to Russia's advantage in her dealings with Prussia and Austria after 1790.

Catherine did not share Peter III's admiration for Frederick the Great and all things Prussian. But she did respect the military power which Prussia had displayed against enormous odds in the Seven Years’ War and considered that Prussia would be a more dangerous enemy than Austria. She therefore recognized Peter III's desertion of Austria in 1762 and drew up an alliance with Frederick in 1764.

This alliance was tested in 1768, when the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia. Frederick refused to give military assistance, but at least Catherine could rely on Prussian neutrality while Russia prosecuted the war with great military success. The Turkish fleet was annihilated at the Battle of Chesme (1770); but the Treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji (1774) was less generous to Russia than might have been expected. The reason was that Catherine was persuaded to seek territorial satisfaction at the expense of Poland, since the destruction of Turkish power in the Balkans might well precipitate a European crisis and result in another general war.

This suggestion had been put forward by Frederick the Great, who also sought to round off Prussia in Eastern Europe by incorporating West Prussia. Catherine initially opposed partition, since Russian policy was based on keeping Poland intact as a Russian–dominated buffer state. By 1772, however, she decided that this was no longer possible, and she agreed, with Prussia and Austria, to the First Partition. Russia received the lion's share, including White Russia and Livonia. Catherine may have been forced by Frederick the Great to adopt an expedient which she had originally opposed, but she was quick to turn the situation to her advantage and to extend Russia's boundaries to the River Dvina.

By the late 1770s Catherine had come to the conclusion that Prussia no longer constituted a major threat to Russia; Frederick had not succeeded in extending Prussia's military capacity since the Seven Years’ War, whereas Russia had become significantly more powerful. It was, therefore, no longer necessary to cultivate the good will of Frederick the Great, whose unreliability as an ally was already notorious. The break came in 1778, the opening year of the War of the Bavarian Succession between Prussia and Austria. Prussia called for Russian assistance but Catherine refused to become involved militarily. Instead, she acted as mediator in the eventual settlement of the Peace of Teschen (1779) and set a precedent at the same time for Russian involvement in the internal affairs of Germany. More important, Catherine formed an alliance with Austria in 1781, thus reversing the policy of the previous nineteen years of her reign.

Why did she do this? The reason was partly that she sensed a desire in Austria for a more active and successful involvement in South–East Europe. Joseph II, who came to the Austrian throne in 1780, was determined to imitate the aggressive foreign policies of Frederick the Great and Catherine the Great, but it was clear to anyone who could read the signs that he lacked their stealth and could easily be duped. Catherine now had further designs for Russia against Turkey; Austria was more likely to be useful to their accomplishment than Prussia. In her so called ‘Greek Project’ Catherine intended to destroy the Ottoman Empire and restore the Byzantine Empire, which would be ruled by Catherine's grandson, Constantine. Austria would be rewarded by some territorial gain for her participation in the scheme, and a treaty was drawn up to divide the European provinces of Turkey between Russia and Austria. Catherine even succeeded in provoking Turkey into declaring war on Russia and therefore contrived to give the appearance of Russia as the aggrieved power. In the Russo– Turkish War (1787–92) the Austrian armies fared badly against the Turks, and Joseph II failed to gain any territory in the Balkans. Russia, on the other hand, took full advantage of the diversion offered by Austria in South–East Europe and proceeded to consolidate her hold on the Black Sea coastline. Catherine was unable to carry out the ultimate purpose of the Greek Project—the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire— because Joseph II's successor, Leopold II, pulled Austria out of the war in 1790. Nevertheless, by the Treaty of Jassy between Russia and Turkey (1792) Russia gained the coastline between the Rivers Dniester and Bug, and her hold on the Crimean Peninsula was fully recognized. Austria had, therefore, been successfully exploited and, unlike Prussia, had not made counter–demands.

At the same time that she was involved in drawing up plans for the future partition of South–East Europe, Catherine faced a problem of a different kind: how was Russia to regard the events occurring in France after 1789? Catherine's reaction to the French Revolution showed a mixture of ideology and pragmatism. Although she professed to be influenced by some of the progressive ideas of the Enlightenment, she was utterly repelled by the internal changes in France, sensing the fundamental threats which they posed to the security of absolutism in the states of the ancien Régime. Yet Russia took no military action against France during Catherine's reign. Catherine encouraged Prussia and Austria to issue the Declaration of Pillnitz against the French revolutionaries in 1791 and welcomed the news that Prussia and Austria were at war with France in 1792. But her own policy was largely opportunist, and she observed in a frank moment: ‘I rack my brains to engage the courts of Vienna and Berlin in the affairs of France in order to keep my hands free.’4 Among the advantages gained by Russia during this period was the acquisition of most of Poland in the Second Partition (1793) and the Third Partition (1795); Prussia and Austria were too preoccupied to challenge Russia's claim to the major share of the spoils.

When Catherine died in 1796 Russia was still at peace, but only just. The Empress who for so long been had the principal spokesman for autocracy in Europe, was now forced to reconsider her objections to using force. Prussia and Austria had both done badly against France, and Catherine hoped to redress the balance by sending Russian troops to Italy. Her death, however, postponed Russian intervention until 1798, when her successor, Paul, took Russia into the First Coalition against France. It also marked an important transition; originality and finesse went out of Russian foreign policy, to be replaced by a grim struggle for survival.

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