Russia 1725-1763
Foreign Policy
Foreign Policy

Catherine the Great (1763-1796) : Foreign Policy

When Catherine the Great eliminated her husband, Czar Peter III., in a palace coup, she began an energetic rule. The SEVEN YEARS WAR, in which Russia at first had been an Austrian ally, was still going on; yet her late husband had switched sides and Prussia's king Frederick the Great had, using the Russian army, defeated the Austrians one last time. In 1763 a peace on the basis of the status quo ante was signed. In 1764 Russia and Prussia signed an official alliance.
In the first year she interfered in the succession of the DUCHY OF COURLAND, which nominally was subject to Poland, but largely independent; she placed her favourite, Ernst Johann Biron, on the throne. Courland was little more than a Russian protectorate.
The Polish constitution with its Liberum Veto invited foreign intervention. The Russian ambassador in Poland was an influential figure; by bribing a number of Polish magnates, he influenced decisions of the Sejm, up to when it came to the election of kings. In 1764, STANISLAS PONIATOVSKI, another one of Catherine's many favourites, was elected King of Poland.
Here in Poland, Russian interests collided with those of France. French diplomcy intrigued against Russia at the court in Istanbul; the Ottoman Empire declared war on Russia in 1768 (the RUSSO-TURKISH WAR, 1768-1774). Russian forces were victorious; Russia gained sovereignty over the SAPOROZHE COSSACKS, the port cities of AZOV, KERCH and the coastal stretch between Bug and Dnjepr. The Crimean Khanate was proclaimed independent (from the Ottoman Empire, that is). Russia claimed to be the protector of the christian orthodox peoples living in the Ottoman Empire, a claim which repeatedly lead to conflicts during the coming century.
In 1768 Russia and China signed the TREATY OF KYACHTA, enhancing Russo-Chinese trade.
With France in an economic crisis, Catherine II. suggested to Austria's Maria Theresia and Prussia's Frederick the Great to take advantage of Poland's weakness (1772) : the FIRST POLISH PARTITION was undertaken, Russia taking only minor fringe regions of marginal importance.
In 1779 Russian diplomates mediated in the negotiations concluding the WAR OF BAVARIAN SUCCESSION at Teschen. In 1781 a secret Austro-Russian Alliance was signed, directed against the Ottoman Empire.
In 1783 Russia annexed the CRIMEAN KHANATE. In 1787-1791, Russia fought another RUSSO-TURKISH WAR; in 1792, the Ottoman Empire ceded the JEDISAN and recognized the Russian annexion of the Crimean Khanate.
Until 1772 Sweden had been in a situation similar to that of Poland, with a strong parliament and a weak executive. Here also the Russian ambassador, by the means of bribing parliamentarians, used to influence politics - until King Gustavus III. staged a coup d'etat in 1772. King Gustavus III., seeing an opportunity to regain territory lost by Charles XII., declared war, the SECOND RUSSO-SWEDISH WAR (1788-1790). The Finnish nobility (Swedish speaking) was discontent with Gustavus' absolute rule and attracted by Catherine's favourable treatment of the nobility, and in the ANJALA CONSPIRACY Finnish nobles offered the crown of the Grand Duchy of Finland to Empress Catharina (1788). The war was mainly fought on sea and which ended in a Swedish victory at the second battle of Svensksund; Finland, for the time being, remained Swedish.
Catherine was very concerned about the ongoing revolution in France. As there were reformers in Poland wishing to modernize the Polish Kingdom after the French model, Catherine, together with the Prussian (1793, 1795) and Austrian (1795) administration, proceeded with the SECOND and THIRD POLISH PARTITION. Here again a Polish faction of nobles, the CONFEDERATION OF TARGOVICE - seeing her privileges threatened by the reformist Polish government and longing for the status nobles enjoyed in Russia, had invited Catherine to interfere in Polish politics. By 1795 Poland had disappeared from the map, Russia gaining the old Grand Duchy of Lithuania as well as Polish Livonia and Courland.

Library of Congress, Country Studies : Russia
Biography : Tsarina Catherine the Great, from Dr. Pavlac's Women's History Site at King's College; extensive biography from Ursula's History Web focusses on her wedding, rise to power, on her reforms; little on her foreign policy
DOCUMENTS Treaty of London, March 25th 1793 (Anglo-Russian Alliance), from Napoleon Series
Russian Medal : Peace with Sweden, 1790, from Napoleonic Medals
REFERENCE Simon Dixon, The Modernisation of Russia 1676-1825, Cambridge : UP 1999
Melvin K. Wren, The Course of Russian History, Prospect Heights 1994, Chapter 11 : Catherine the Great, pp.181-206

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First posted in 2000, last revised on August 24th 2006

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