The Policies of Nicholas I: Military Instrumentalities

Emperor and Autocrat of All the Russias: Nicholas I

Diplomacy by itself would not always suffice to bring about the international outcomes Petersburg desired. In that event it would be necessary to rely on Russia’s armed forces. The regime of Nicholas I used those forces both to threaten war and to fight it. Of the two courses, the former was considered preferable. The idea was simultaneously to influence events abroad and to avoid a war by threatening to wage one. Indeed, a crude principle of coercive deterrence was the key to Nicholas’s military policy. In the 1830 note in which he had observed that Russia needed no new conquests, the Emperor had gone on to argue that Russia’s “defensive position ought to be so imposing so as to make any aggression impossible.” Nicholas maintained such an enormous army and navy precisely because of the imposing impression he hoped they would make on Russia’s enemies at home and abroad. The mobilizations, maneuvers, naval demonstrations, even parades of the Nicholaevan era were all scenes in a theater of intimidation that Nicholas staged for the benefit of his foes. If matters were adroitly handled, military deployments could be used to communicate Russia’s displeasure (and its overwhelming strength) to its potential adversaries. For that reason, Nicholas often made the deployments with a maximum of publicity and ostentation. Throughout the reign, when Nicholas decreed a concentration of infantry forces on the frontier or a voyage by his men of war, it was usually done to browbeat a foreign government, not to put Russia’s forces in an advantageous position from which to open hostilities.

In the late 1820s, for example, Nicholas tried to use naval demonstrations in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to cow the Turks into bowing to his will over the Greek revolution. When that failed to work, he announced that his forces would occupy the two Danubian principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia in the hope of sending an even stronger and more efficacious signal to Constantinople. The idea, of course, was to scare the Turks into capitulating without inciting them to start a new war with Russia.

Nicholas also relied on military intimidation when confronted by problems of domestic order. After the Polish insurrection of 1831 had been crushed, the Emperor instructed Paskevich, his most trusted commander, to waste no time in constructing a strong citadel on the outskirts of Warsaw. The fort was built not in anticipation of defending the Polish capital against foreign aggression but to frighten and demoralize the Poles out of their rebelliousness. Nicholas wrote of the Warsaw citadel that “from the moment of the erection of its walls all hope of the Poles of ever wrenching themselves free of Russian power will collapse—and then they will tremble!”—a prospect to which he obviously was looking forward with unconcealed glee.

During the crisis of 1833, when Nicholas felt it prudent to support the Sultan against the Egyptian Khedive, he turned again to military intimidation. He organized a menacing demonstration by a Russian flotilla in the Constantinople roadstead, complete with a troop landing. When the revolutions of 1848 broke out in Western, Southern, and Central Europe, Nicholas once more had recourse to his military to threaten, not to fight. The mobilizations Nicholas conducted in that year were designed to dampen any possible enthusiasm on the part of foreign revolutionaries and foreign revolutionary governments for an armed clash with Russia. The Russian military maneuvers of 1848 were decidedly not the prelude to the opening of a counterrevolutionary military crusade. As Nesselrode expressed it: “[L]et the other countries manage as they can, we shall let them alone as long as they do not touch us.” The next year, after Nicholas had reluctantly decided that he would have to help his Austrian ally combat the Hungarian insurrection, he secretly hoped that the very magnitude of the military preparations he made would be enough to terrorize the Hungarians into surrendering before Russia ever had to fire a shot. Paskevich later recalled that “it was decided to assemble 150,000 men so that the Hungarians would see the impossibility of the success of their schemes.”

Military threats were also a feature of the Russian policy that led up to the outbreak of the Crimean War. When the breakdown of negotiations over Russia’s right to “protect” the interests of Christians in the Ottoman Empire resulted in the suspension of diplomatic relations between Petersburg and Constantinople in the spring of 1853, Nicholas once again decided to occupy Wallachia and Moldavia as a means of pressuring the Turks. Intellectual justification for that operation was provided by Paskevich in a memorandum of March, in which he observed that the occupation would probably persuade the Turks to honor their treaty obligations. When the exasperated Turks failed to act as expected and declared war, Nicholas still clung to his original plan. He ordered his troops in those two Balkan provinces not to cross the Danube under any circumstances, evidently reasoning that the Turks (who might be bluffing) could perhaps still be persuaded to back down if Russia avoided giving them any more military provocation.

During his tenure as Emperor of Russia, then, Nicholas rarely deviated from the practice of planning military maneuvers and even initial operations in terms of their value as deterrents or threats, not as preliminaries to actual fighting. Almost the only exception to this pattern came in 1830. In the late summer of that year, almost fatalistically convinced that a general European war could not be prevented, Nicholas ordered four corps onto a war footing. What made that order so uncharacteristic was that Nicholas was adamant about keeping the military preparations secret, so as not to arouse “the suspicions of either our enemies or our allies.” Ordinarily, as we have just seen, Nicholas insisted on making military preparations so obvious and open that neither enemies nor allies could fail to take note of them. It was his way of telegraphing his intentions, inhibiting his adversaries, and signaling his resolve.

Despite all the skill of his diplomacy and military threats, however, war might still come. Nicholas’s efforts to deter or avert it did not always work. Repulsive as he found war to be, Nicholas nonetheless believed that two things were worse: dishonor and general war. Nicholas’s idea of honor will come under discussion later in this chapter. Here we shall consider his ideas about how Russia should try to prosecute a war should it have the misfortune to become involved in one.

In the first place, Nicholas believed that Russia could really afford to fight only localized wars. Russia might of course operate with the assistance of allies, but at all costs it had to avoid entering a war in which a coalition of powerful enemies was arrayed against it. The crisis in the Low Countries of 1830 provides an example of such thinking. When Belgium revolted against the authority of King William of Holland, the latter appealed to Nicholas for military assistance. William’s son was Nicholas’s brother-in-law, and Nicholas regarded William’s cause to be just, but he was at first extremely reluctant to do anything to help. Nicholas thought that if he were to make the first military move in the crisis, he might well find himself at war with France and Britain simultaneously. In any event, if London and Paris were to unite in support of the Belgian rebels, Nicholas was of the opinion that Russia had the power to protest but not much more.

Second, given the nature of Russia’s international objectives, Russia’s purpose could only be to fight limited wars in Clausewitz’s sense. Russia was a conservative power; it sought no great new expanses of territory anywhere in Europe or in Asia. Its purpose in waging war, therefore, could not be to overthrow sovereign states or dynasties. When it waged war, it did so in the interests of preserving the established order, enforcing treaties, repelling invasion, or inflicting reprisals. Regardless of their scale, the wars of Nicholas I were almost always conceptually akin to punitive operations.

It was the Emperor’s desire that such wars be fought and won as quickly as possible. That, obviously, necessitated speedy offensive operations. Nicholas’s voluminous wartime correspondence with his generals in the field is peppered with reprimands for their slowness, indecision, or hesitation. General Ermolov, who was unfortunate enough to be in command in Transcaucasia when the Persians invaded in 1826, was severely condemned by his sovereign for insufficient aggressiveness in his conduct of operations, even though he had only 10,000 troops with which to engage the Persian army, monitor the Turkish frontier, and maintain internal order, all at the same time. When the Tsar removed Ermolov and replaced him with Paskevich, he informed the latter that his duty was to “compel the Persians to a rapid peace.” In 1831 General Dibich was the target of the imperial wrath; Nichlas reproved him for his failure to suppress the Polish insurrection swiftly despite the numerical superiority of his forces over those of the rebels. The reason for his insistence on quick victory was no doubt Nicholas’s appreciation of the rate at which active military operations consumed military power. Money, equipment, and, most important, human lives were sacrificed by any state that went to war. Once expended, such resources were difficult to replenish. Nicholas also realized, just as his eighteenth-century predecessors had, that the typical theaters in which Russia went to war made the attritional effects of campaigning on the Russian army immoderately high. Just as in the past, this was attributable to the influence of climate and terrain factors (in addition to poor logistics and military medicine) on the health and well-being of the troops. During the last four months of the Turkish war of 1828–29 alone, more than 60,000 Russian soldiers perished, almost half of them in military hospitals. Certain military operations during the reign of Nicholas I came down to races against changes in the weather and the seasons. In the midsummer of 1849, for instance, Nicholas committed to paper his ardent wish that “military actions [against the Hungarian rebels] could be conducted as quickly and as decisively as possible so that they might be ended prior to the time of bad weather and bad roads.” If not, the Emperor added, Russia could expect to lose up to one-half of its expeditionary force in Hungary to disease. Here, however, a paradox emerges. Although Nicholas typically exhorted his generals to achieve quick successes (and berated them if they failed to do so), in certain special circumstances he worried that Russia might win a victory so quick and decisive that an unintended and undesired consequence might be the utter collapse of an enemy government. Sometimes the need for quick victory ran counter to Russia’s long-term political interests.

This was a particular worry in the case of Turkey. In 1853, when the Tsar and his advisers considered a possible war with the Ottomans, they paid attention to a bold proposal prepared by Nicholas’s son, the Grand Duke Konstantin, a noted naval officer and reformer in the subsequent reign. Should there be a Turkish war, Konstantin advocated ending it with one decisive naval and amphibious attack on Constantinople. While Konstantin admitted that such an operation would probably cost Russia at least five ships and the lives of several thousand sailors, he insisted that those losses would be small compared with those incurred in a one-to two-year ground campaign “in which the troops [would suffer more] from the hardships of the march, fevers, and cholera than from the enemy himself.” Despite the fact that the plan was endorsed by Prince Paskevich, it was decisively rejected by both the Naval Minister and the Tsar. Nicholas apparently concluded that Konstantin’s plan posed grave risks, whether it failed or succeeded. If it failed, Russia would have squandered military resources without gaining anything. If it succeeded, there was the possibility that the Turkish Empire would simply cave in. Nicholas’s preference was for no war at all, both because he shared his son’s concern for the ruinous effect of the climate of the Balkans on the health of the troops and because “of the indeterminate goal which we may have to appoint for our forces, if we wish of course to avoid the overthrow of the Turkish Empire.” In other words, since Russia could not afford to deliver an annihilating blow against the Turks it might have to protract a conflict with them unnaturally, should one erupt.

A final exception to the rapid war scenario would occur in the unhappy event that Russia found itself faced with the prospect of overland invasion from Central Europe. Yet the plans for such a contingency were extremely rudimentary. The Ministry of War hoped to rely on the shield of the Polish fortresses of Novogeorgievsk, Ivangorod, and Brest to buy the army the five or six months that would be needed for a total mobilization.

In the majority of wars either planned or waged by Russia during the period, however, the operational approach endorsed by the Emperor was consonant with the goal of rapid and limited conflict. Nicholas and his generals were all keenly alive to the problem of supply. Although they realized that shortages of food and ammunition would inevitably plague any Russian army in the field, they were also aware that there was nothing like a total breakdown of logistics to prolong a campaign. As living off the land during a Balkan war was no more realistic for a Russian army of Nicholas’s time than it had been fifty years earlier, the Tsar’s commanders made strenuous (although not always successful) efforts to operate within the bounds of the logistically possible. Sometimes that entailed extravagant preplanning, or even the cooperation of foreign states. For instance, after the failure of the overly ambitious campaign against European Turkey in 1828, Dibich made his logistical preparations for the campaign of 1829 with a great deal more care; thousands of camels were used to haul foodstuffs, ammunition, and other supplies from central Russia to the theater of war. Paskevich’s intricate design for operations on the left bank of the Vistula in the spring of 1831 envisioned supplying the field army from a stockpile of more than 200,000 quarters of grain and forage, to be amassed with Prussian help in the fortress of Thorn. Indeed, Paskevich, whose talents lay more in the field of military administration than in generalship, was widely known for his pithy maxim, “He who does not think of food will get no benefit from victory.”

Operational objectives were similar to those that Russia’s eighteenth-century armies had pursued. Typically the Emperor’s commanders were instructed to catch the enemy in the open, divide him, and then destroy him in a general battle. Nicholas’s generals expended much intellectual energy on elaborate operational plans, which required maneuvers by Russian forces along interior geometrical lines so as to entrap the enemy. Nicholas I himself took the keenest interest in the design of the plans. The sheer volume and geographical detail of the proposals, orders, and suggestions that he sent his generals suggest that he must have devoted many hours to their composition with compass and map.

Yet a general battle might not always be possible. The enemy might act otherwise than had been expected. And when he retreated or fell back on his strong points, the Russian military resorted to its traditional siegecraft. Because Nicholas was almost always desirous of rapid victory, however, he placed strong emphasis on the speediest possible reduction of forts. They were to be taken by mining or by storm—not merely starved out.

A final point about the Nicholaevan approach to the conduct of war was that it was informed by memories of Russia’s military practices in 1812. The great interest of Nicholas and his generals in augmenting the operations of regular forces with partisan raids obviously stemmed from that source. During Paskevich’s Polish campaign of 1831, for instance, light cavalry detachments of Hussars and Cossacks were used to guard the rear of the regular army and to protect Russian lines of communication, while simultaneously attacking those of the enemy. During the Hungarian intervention of 1849, Nicholas himself strongly urged the use of cavalry raids “to seize the initiative from the enemy and strike fear into him.” On the very eve of his death, in a note of February 1, 1855, Nicholas showed his continued fascination with the military paradigm of 1812. Worried that Austria was about to declare war on Russia, thus joining the already formidable Crimean coalition, Nicholas sketched out a plan for the defense of Poland against an anticipated attack of 300,000 Austrian troops. Partisan operations against the enemy’s flank and rear played a prominent role in the plan. In the event of a dire need, the Nicholaevan military establishment was also prepared to fall back on an 1812 scorched earth policy. An example was the August 1853 proposal by Vice Admiral Serebriakov that the 13th Infantry Division be transferred to the eastern shores of the Black Sea in order to devastate all of the lands between the mouth of the Kuban and the valley of Adogum in order to complicate an enemy landing in the territory.


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