Peter the Great 1702-25 – Russian Army at War III

Peter could consequently select from a range of options, or he could elect some sort of synthetic plan which combined the best of each. Indeed, Peter often went outside the military council itself for suggestions and advice about operational and strategic questions. Sometimes such input was the product of espionage coups. In the midsummer of 1708 Peter’s envoy in the Hague, A. A. Matveev, wrote that he had learned by covert means that the Swede in view of the caution of the tsarist forces and in view also of the impossibility of attaining Smolensk, and equally because of the insufficiency of food and fodder, has taken the decision to go to the Ukraine; first, because this is a populous and rich country which has no regular fortifications with strong garrisons; second, because the Swede expects to find many adherents in the free Cossack population; and third, because proximity might allow for negotiation with the Crimean Khan to bring him into alliance, and with the Poles who take Leszcynski’s part; and fourth, finally, because it will be possible to dispatch Cossacks to Moscow to stir up a popular uprising.

This intelligence was an astonishingly accurate portrait of what Charles XII intended to do and why, and Peter made excellent use of it in preparing for his own Ukrainian campaign.

In certain respects the Petrine councils of war bear a resemblance to Peter’s administrative colleges, those functionally discrete central institutions Peter established on a Swedish model in 1717 to regulate trade, foreign affairs, mines, manufactures, and so forth. Like the colleges, the military councils had many members, encouraged the free exchange of views, and were repositories of expert advice. But there were two important dissimilarities. The colleges were formally chartered institutions, while the councils met on an ad hoc basis. Still more important, the colleges took decisions (even if they had to be confirmed by the tsar) on the basis of majority vote. There was no voting in the councils, for they were consultative and advisory boards only. Peter always made the final determination. Government by committee might be just barely possible; strategy by committee was inconceivable.

The conciliar system might seem to be a cumbrous and plodding technique for decision-making, yet it allowed Peter to ternper his own individual judgment with the best available outside advice. At the very least it ensured that strategy would emerge as the end product of analysis. A comparison with Charles XII is instructive. To be sure, that monarch convened military councils of his own; almost all European field commanders did. But the Swedish councils usually had no more intellectual weight and significance than puppet shows or other entertainments staged in the royal camp, since Charles kept his opinions to himself and was notorious for discarding the advice of others. For the Swedish King, alternately mercurial and saturnine, strategy was a matter of whim, inspiration, and improvisation. By contrast, whereas almost every other institution and policy in the Petrine state might have been frantically improvised, Petrine strategic planning was not. And in the end Peter’s confidence in stolid ratiocination was more justified than was Charles’s faith in the “inward eye.”

A second important feature of Peter’s overall strategic approach was his attempt to coordinate military action and diplomacy. Peter constantly struggled to deny Charles allies and struggled even more vigorously to find allies for himself. Why was Peter so eager to participate in anti-Swedish coalitions? Coalition warfare, of course, can be both complex and dangerous: coalition partners rarely have perfectly congruent war aims, and victory itself can quickly set former allies at odds. To some extent Peter’s belief in the necessity of coalitions was identical to that of his seventeenth-century forebears. Despite his military reforms, Russia was militarily weak, and Peter knew it. But another reason for an anti-Swedish alliance, Peter discovered, was that it could be used to make sure that the war would be fought somewhere other than Russia. In that regard, the deal Peter made with Augustus II at Birsen in 1701 was unquestionably Russia’s most important diplomatic achievement in the entire Great Northern War. Fresh from the humiliation of Narva, Peter had traveled to Birsen as a suppliant, ready to pay almost any price to coax Augustus back into an alliance. And the price was in fact steep, amounting to pledges of heavy financial and military aid in addition to the promises (in the end unkept) that the Saxon Elector should have all of Livonia and Estonia once the final victory had been won. But, as we have already noted, the cost was worth it, because the totality of Charles’s wrath now fell on Augustus. With all of Poland as his buckler, Peter could confidently undertake his program for the incremental conquest of the Baltic. The benefit of the alliance became more and more obvious to Peter as the years passed. Charles’s army might win victory after victory in Poland, but not a single one was meaningful if the Swedes could not knock Augustus out of the war. The corollary was simple: as long as Augustus continued to fight, no Swedish invasion of Russia was possible. It is because Peter grasped this fact that he made the most extraordinary efforts to prop up his ally. Peter sent a Russian expeditionary force to Saxony in 1704 to succor Augustus and occupied Grodno in 1705 in order to keep important Polish magnates loyal to him. After the Treaty of Altranstadt in 1706, when Saxony did leave the war, Peter and his confidants tried hard to induce someone else to step in and play Augustus’s indispensable role. Menshikov wanted Peter to arrange for yet another person to be proclaimed legitimate ruler of Poland. (“It is possible,” he wrote “to select another king.”) And at Zholkiev in late 1706 and early 1707, Peter eagerly conspired with members of the Sandomir Confederation in the hope that they could unleash so great a civil war that Charles XII would be penned up for months in eastern Poland. After Poltava, the Petrine government still welcomed the formation of enlarged anti-Carolinian alliances. Peter’s immediate objective was now a rapid end to the war, and he believed a new coalition might simply frighten King Charles into signing a peace treaty. This stratagem, of course, did not work, but it came close to succeeding, as the Åland island conference demonstrated.

On the other hand, Charles XII distinguished himself by spurning allies, overrating them, or generally failing to manage them. France was Sweden’s traditional diplomatic partner, yet it was in no position to lend Charles any help, embroiled as it was in the War of the Spanish Succession. With regard to Stanislas Leszcynski, it is clear that Charles’s decision to depose Augustus in the former’s favor was one of the worst he ever made. Unlike Augustus, Leszcynski had no independent power base outside of Poland. Stanislas was therefore a creature of Swedish foreign policy, a subordinate despite his royal crown who was always receiving more aid from Charles XII than he could ever repay. Further, by supporting him, Charles mired himself in the cesspool of Polish politics. His years of preoccupation with intrigue, treason, assassination, civil war, and the other normal features of the Commonwealth’s political life hugely benefited Peter the Great. The closest Charles ever came to securing allied assistance was in his dealings with the Turks. As a “guest” of the Ottoman Empire from 1709 to 1713, Charles repeatedly tried to incite the Turks into a war with Peter’s Russia. He did in fact help to stir up the Russo-Turkish war of 1711 and also had some influence in keeping Russo-Turkish relations tense for a year or so thereafter. But the Turks had an extensive foreign policy agenda of their own; they had no intention of letting a king without an army use them as an instrument of his personal revenge. Even after the death of Charles XII such meager foreign support as Stockholm could garner owed less to astute Swedish diplomacy than to Dutch and British fears about Russia’s growing preponderance of power in the Baltic.

A third characteristic of Petrine strategy in the Northern War was that the objectives it pursued were limited in at least two ways. They were limited in the sense that Clausewitz used the term, for Peter was never interested in total victory over Sweden. To be sure, after 1709 there were those who urged the tsar to settle with Sweden once and for all. The Danish resident at the Russian court, for example, devised an absurd scheme in 1711 for a joint Russo-Polish-Danish campaign of economic annihilation against Sweden. This campaign was to be conducted with such intensity and ruthlessness that the power of Sweden would be broken for generations. But Peter habitually ignored such irresponsible, crackpot ravings. Although his war with King Charles was a war of total effort, to borrow another of Clausewitz’s formulations, for him the purpose of the war was not the reduction of Stockholm to smoldering rubble. Rather, the war was over the Swedes’ possession of Baltic territories of which he wanted to despoil them. By 1704 Peter actually held the lands he had started the war to gain; for that reason he was thereafter constantly interested in a negotiated peace. He was in fact enough of a realist to offer Sweden concessions in order to clinch a bargain with it, although of course the extent of the sacrifices he was prepared to make depended on how well Russia was doing in the war. In January 1707 Peter prepared a set of draft instructions to guide his diplomats should Sweden express interest in concluding a peace. The document was written with an eye toward preventing a Swedish invasion of Russia; it represented Peter’s most generous offer. In it Peter explained that Russia should try to avoid returning more than the fortress of Dorpat. However, if the Swedes proved stubborn, Russia should be ready to give all of its conquests back with the sole exception of the city of St. Petersburg (“and about giving it back there is to be no thought”). Peter’s insistence that St. Petersburg be retained even if that caused negotiations to collapse reflected much more than his pride in his new capital, for his uncompromising stand on the issue also showed that he keenly appreciated the strategic importance of the Neva River. To hold St. Petersburg was to dominate the Neva, and to dominate the Neva was to possess an outlet to the Gulf of Finland. If Russia controlled even the narrowest corridor leading to the Gulf, it meant that Sweden’s Baltic Empire was cut in half. Russia could consequently renew the war any time it chose in the future under advantageous circumstances.

That highlights another facet of Petrine strategy, the fact that it most commonly focused on the acquisition of geographically important positions. Certain nationalistically minded Russian historians have denied this, of course. Desperate to make the case for the uniqueness of Peter’s military genius, they have asserted that Peter anticipated Napoleon in understanding that the enemy’s center of gravity was his army. Thus such scholars have claimed that Peter always saw the annihilation of the Swedish field army as his supreme goal, and therefore rejected the positional warfare that was the specialty of his most illustrious contemporaries, Marlborough and Prince Eugene. This, however, is to examine the Great Northern War through an acutely convex lens that grotesquely magnifies the Swedish invasion of 1707–9 while shriveling all the other campaigns into insignificance. In fact during most of the war Peter was interested in avoiding, not fighting, the main Swedish army; his military agenda was limited to the capture of towns, forts, harbors, and so forth. Russian seizure of such strategically important assets gave Peter advance bases for future operations; equally, holding them complicated Swedish communications and logistics, thereby constraining Swedish operations. Thus one purpose of the sieges of 1700–1704 was to box up Sweden’s increasingly inactive Baltic army in northern Germany. Similarly, Apraksin’s objective in the Finnish campaigns of 1712–14 was to cripple Swedish sea power by taking all the ports and harbors in southern Finland on which Sweden’s naval operations depended. Many other examples could be adduced.

Peter was thus conducting a war of limited objectives; Charles’s objectives, on the other hand, were unlimited, for he dreamed of no less than dismembering the Muscovite state. Whitworth, the British resident in Russia, reported that Swedish diplomats made the following statement about Charles’s war aims in 1707:

The king, their master, said they, would not make peace before he had entered the City of Moscow and dethroned his Czarist Majesty; that then he would divide his whole Empire into small Principalities and Provinces.

That program involved undoing hundreds of years of Russian history, reversing the entire process of “the gathering of the Russian lands” under the sway of Moscow. Such a megalomaniacal delusion on Charles’s part tells us a great deal about his mental image of Russia; he obviously believed that the Muscovite state was so weak, so riven by factional struggles and unrest, that one small push would bring it down like a column of toy building blocks. Charles utterly failed to know his enemy. He misunderstood Peter, underestimated Peter’s subjects, and saw Muscovy not as it was, but as it had been during the Smuta almost a century before. Charles’s fundamental misperception was one of the chief factors that impoverished his strategy. By contrast, Petrine offensive strategy after 1700 was devoted to the pursuit of limited goals and based on a realistic appraisal of his enemy.

During the Swedish invasion, however, Peter adopted a new strategy enshrined in his famous plan for active defense. He developed this plan gradually and incrementally, but the first steps toward it were taken at the Zholkiev council of war. Peter arrived at Zholkiev (a small hamlet near Lvov) on December 28, 1706; most of key advisers—Menshikov, Sheremet’ev, Dolgorukii, and Repnin—had already preceded him there. A council of war was immediately convened and took up the task of analyzing the grim strategic situation. There was now a great likelihood that the victorious Swedes would cross from Saxony into Poland and march east in search of the Russian army. The issue at hand, to quote one of the few surviving sources on this meeting, “was whether to give the enemy battle in Poland, or at our frontiers.” Sheremet’ev proposed, and all agreed, “not to give battle in Poland, since such a catastrophe might take place as to make a retreat difficult and for this reason it was decided to give battle at our frontiers when inescapable need would demand this.” This account strongly suggests that Peter and his intimates expected an early battle with the Swedes to result in a Russian defeat. Indeed, defeat would be almost impossible to avoid, given Swedish operational superiority and the manifold weaknesses of the Russian army. Even if Peter’s generals managed to flee after a defeat, they might not succeed in leading what remained of their forces back into Russia. The Prussian Ambassador, who was in Zholkiev at the time, later explained: “In the event of a defeat it would be impossible to rely on the mood of the inhabitants of Poland; while retreating [the] army might be subjected to great danger.” Although the fear that one or more of the private armies active in Poland might pounce on retreating Russian forces was authentic, the central reason Peter and his generals were jittery was their presumption that open battle would equal Russian defeat. As Peter later wrote in reference to the Swedish invasion, “to seek general battle is dangerous [since] all can be lost in one hour. Therefore a policy of retreat is better than limitless hazard.” That might sound like a coward’s credo; obviously no one ever won a war by the simple expedient of running away. But there was more to the Zholkiev plan than that, for a scorched earth policy in both Poland and Russia was to complement the retreat. On January 3, 1707, Peter wrote Admiral Apraksin to arrange the following: within a zone extending from Pskov to Cherkassk and 180 miles deep, all grain and all cattle were to be hidden by early spring, so that if the enemy penetrated the region “he will not find a thing anywhere.” If Peter had contented himself with this he still would have been conducting a mere war of negative aim, that is, a war in which the objective was survival and survival alone. Yet Peter always expected that the campaign would end with a battle. The battle would be fought, however, only after privation and need had so weakened the Swedish army that Russia’s forces could engage it with some prospects of success. The idea was to wear the Swedes down—to freeze them, sicken them, and starve them—and by so doing to reduce their military efficiency to the Russian level. At first Peter thought he might be able to take to the offensive quite early; in his letter to Apraksin he spoke of taking the Swedes from behind, apparently not too long after they had crossed the Russo-Polish border. Peter shortly realized that such an attack would be premature; general battle would have to be indefinitely postponed to allow attrition to do its work.

And work it did. The Swedish army already experienced a severe dearth of provisions while still in Poland. When Charles crossed the Berezina and entered Russia proper in June 1708, the food situation grew worse. The advancing Swedes encountered ruined village after ruined village: Peter’s soldiers would warn the peasants to flee, then burn everything—huts, furniture, and food—that could not be carried away. Even when the Swedes reached the Ukraine they were denied any benefit from its agricultural riches. If Swedish troops dispersed to forage, the probability was high that they would be massacred by one of Peter’s cavalry patrols. In September 1708, captured Swedish soldiers reported, “they have no provisions, and dare not go out for any because of the cozacks and the kalmucks; their chief diet was cabbage and turnips and that without bread and salt.” The supply of even these meager vegetables was precarious; most commonly they were obtained through the good fortune of stumbling across buried food hoards.

Although Charles had not imagined the full extent of the victualing crisis, he had to some extent foreseen that provisions would be scarce. Löwenhaupt’s mission, after all, had been to conduct an enormous wagon train laden with food from the Baltic to the Ukraine. The food under Löwenhaupt’s charge—enough to sustain the entire field army for two months—was the irreducible minimum Charles needed to keep his forces together. That was why the battle of Lesnaia had such strategic significance. By capturing all of Löwenhaupt’s baggage, Peter the Great had ruled out the last-minute deliverance of the Swedish army from want. That, combined with the destruction of Mazeppa’s grain reserve at Baturin, meant that there was no way for Charles to arrest the inexorable deterioration of his troops. Fever, dysentery, and cold now vied with hunger in tormenting the Swedes. The winter of 1708–9 was the bitterest anyone could remember; in December 1708 more than one thousand Swedes froze to death in a single night.

When Charles met Peter at Poltava the following summer, he was not in command of the same Swedish army he had led into Russia fourteen months before. In the first place, half of his soldiers were already dead. Whereas Charles’s original army of invasion had numbered over 41,000, there were fewer than 19,000 on its rolls by June 1709. The survivors were themselves suffering from fatigue, disease, and emaciation. There was almost no cavalry. Because so many of their horses had died, most of Charles’s squadrons fought dismounted. There was scarcely any artillery either. Owing to a lack of draft power and the shortage of powder, Charles had spiked and abandoned the majority of his cannon long before. Whereas Charles had but four guns at Poltava, Peter had seventy-two. That disparity itself goes a long way toward explaining the outcome of the battle. Indeed, Charles’s one bid for even partial victory (Löwenhaupt’s attack on the Russian fortified camp) was lost in the smoke of artillery salvoes as Peter’s batteries cut Löwenhaupt’s troops to pieces.

Peter’s troops may themselves have been hungry and ragged, but the outnumbered Swedes they confronted at Poltava were still worse off. In order to compensate for Russian military inferiority and to give an edge to his untrained army, Peter had used Russia itself as a weapon, converting the vast distances, poor agricultural productivity, and insalubrious climate into the instruments of Charles’s destruction. Of course, only a fool would accept this style of attritional warfare if there were any other choice. But the point is that Peter had no other choice, given the quality and characteristics of the army his military system had provided him. Peter knew that the typical Russian soldier could not outshoot or outmaneuver his Swedish counterpart, but perhaps he could outlast him. Even if he could not, it was no catastrophe, for he could readily be replaced, owing to the extraordinary capacity of Peter’s conscription network to generate fresh drafts of peasant manpower.

Peter, of course, was not infallible. He was throughout his life guilty of numerous political, military, and diplomatic mistakes, never more so than after 1709. His total mismanagement of the Prut campaign stemmed from overconfidence and muddy thinking. And his policies toward the north German petty states in the last years of his reign were contrived, contradictory, and the source of more evil than good. But Peter did win his Swedish war, and he did it largely because he grasped the fact that Russian backwardness could be the font of tremendous military power. The very things that made Russia backward and underdeveloped by comparison with Western Europe—autocracy, serfdom, poverty—could paradoxically translate into armed might. The ruthless application of autocratic power could mobilize the Russian economy for war. The result may not have been a cornucopia of foodstuffs and goods, but it was just enough to sustain protracted war. Similarly, because rural Russia was so unfree it could be tapped for money and, most important, for men. It did not matter that the recruits were raw, that rations were short, that equipment was missing. The peasant conscripts were already inured to hardship, and there were more where they came from.

There is no reason to suppose that Peter the Great was happy about the high rate of attrition in his army. But Peter could afford casualties and desertions on a scale other monarchs could not. Mercenaries were expensive, and the kings who employed them were understandably loath to lose many of them. Sweden, of course, had a conscript army of its own, which was one reason why that small country could be so militarily formidable. But by the time of Charles XII the Swedish conscription system was operating at almost its maximum capacity, given demographic realities. Charles therefore could not tolerate many casualties either. By contrast, Peter’s soldiers were dispensable as individuals; because of Russia’s enormous pool of “bound” peasants, new armies could always be raised. Quantity in this case could substitute for quality. “To thyself be sufficient,” says Ibsen’s troll king. That might aptly be applied as a motto to Peter’s entire military system, a system that could never produce overwhelming Russian military superiority, given the sparse resources that underpinned it, but could produce military sufficiency in the cheapest possible way.

Crucial to that sufficiency was Peter’s adaptation of strategy to suit the low capabilities of his malnourished, unskilled army. In a set piece battle, entrench and make the enemy come to you. If battle must be avoided, retreat, challenge the enemy to a duel of attrition, and let him exhaust himself wandering through the expanses of barren Russia. On the offensive, use superior numbers to capture strategically important positions, thus severing the enemies lines of supply, communication, and retreat. Simultaneously, employ bodies of picked troops for surprise attacks on the enemy’s flanks, or for strategic ambushes of entire enemy formations.

Peter the Great did not create the Russian regular army, but such an army was one of the most important legacies he left his successors. It was only under them that the tax, recruiting, and logistical systems started operating as Peter had initially intended. Once that happened, the Russian army improved and became truly regular. Its offensive power increased, and Russia won victory after victory. But even the regular army bore the stamp of its irregular Petrine origins. Because of Peter’s success, his successors understood that autocracy and serfdom equaled military power. That, of course, impeded social and political change—who would want to tinker with something that worked? Peter did partially modernize Russia because of military necessity, but the very magnitude of his military accomplishments was a sturdy barrier against further reform for well over a century. Thus, if it is true that military policy was an instrument of progress, a motor of Russian history, it is equally true that the policy has also served as a brake.


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