Catherine’s Army and its Campaigns I

Equestrian portrait of Catherine in the Preobrazhensky Regiment‘s uniform, by Vigilius Eriksen

Catherine the Great ruled Russia for the final third of the eighteenth century. She earned her sobriquet “the Great” through relentless and successful territorial aggrandizement. Her career perfectly illustrates the opportunities and costs of foreign policy in an era of amoral balance-of-power politics. Contrary to theories that suggest balance-of-power politics produce stability, the eighteenth century in fact displays a ruthless and relentless struggle for military advantage and territorial expansion, with the only alternative decline and destruction. In that arena, Catherine employed Russia’s immense human resources well. Her reign demonstrated a mastery of effective and rational absolute rule. She took advantage of the increasing sophistication of Russia’s administrative machinery to extract resources and turn them efficiently to achieve foreign policy ends. Her power, and Russia’s power, were based on serfdom, but that was no hindrance. Before the Industrial Revolution, a servile labor force and an army drawn from unwilling and illiterate serfs was no handicap. Indeed, under Catherine Russia suffered fewer military consequences from its economic and social gap with western Europe than at any time in its history. Catherine suffered, during her lifetime and after, from lurid allegations about her notoriously immoral and disordered personal life. In fact, her personal life was quite ordered: temporary but passionate monogamous relationships with a series of court favorites. In that sense, she was as restrained as most European monarchs and more upright than many. Her personal conduct was noteworthy only because she was a woman. Had she been a man, no one would have noticed or cared. The true amorality (not immorality) of Catherine’s life was her conduct of foreign policy. She played the game by the rules of her time and played it very well.

Peter III ruled Russia only six months. He fell to a coup organized by and on behalf of his wife Catherine, with whom he shared only mutual detestation. Pregnant with another man’s child when Peter took the throne, Catherine knew herself to be extremely vulnerable. Peter’s German sympathies and withdrawal from the Seven Years’ War were highly unpopular with segments of the Russian elite, as was his confiscation of vast land holdings from the Orthodox Church. He moved Russia toward war with Denmark not in defense of Russian interests, but those of his ancestral home Holstein. Though Catherine later attempted to paint her husband as unstable, even insane, the contemporary evidence is more complex. All this was not itself enough to bring a coup. That required Catherine’s active intervention in the personal and factional politics at court. Catherine relied above all on contacts and friends among the officers of the guard’s regiments, with whom she seized power in St. Petersburg on 28 June/8 July 1762 before Peter, outside the city, even knew what was happening. After a brief attempt to flee, Peter meekly surrendered. Catherine’s co-conspirators then murdered him.

Peter’s brief reign produced a major change in the status of the Russian nobility, all of whom in principle were lifelong servants of the state, generally as military officers. In 1736, Tsar Anna Ivanovna had granted the right to retire after 25 years in service and had allowed noble families to keep one son home as estate manager. All tsars had in practice granted lengthy leaves to allow nobles to tend to their estates and families. Peter III went beyond that. On 18 February/1 March 1762, his emancipation of the nobility granted a host of rights that had before only been gifts of the tsar. No noble was obliged to serve, and nobles in service could generally retire whenever they wished. Peter’s goals were professionalizing the officer corps and improving estate management and local government through the greater physical presence of the nobility in the countryside. His emancipation ably served those goals and lasted much longer than Peter himself. As military service still brought prestige and social advancement, large numbers of nobles continued to serve, while the Russian army supplemented them as before with foreign professionals. Peter’s action was immensely popular among the nobility; the Senate voted to erect a golden statue in his honor.

Despite Catherine’s systematic effort to blacken her late husband’s name and character, she reversed none of his policies. She kept the lucrative church lands he confiscated, kept noble military service optional, and formally confirmed this right in her own Charter of the Nobility in 1785. Moreover, Catherine was in no hurry to bring Russia back into the Seven Years’ War. The war’s expense and her empty treasury led Catherine to embark on conservative consolidation. Catherine gracefully and delicately solidified her position on the throne while repairing the worst damage done by Peter’s arbitrary foreign policies.

Catherine retained oversight of foreign affairs, but gave its management to Nikita Ivanovich Panin. Panin’s foreign policy in the early years of Catherine’s reign was a “northern system.” This alliance with Prussia and Denmark was intended to counter the French-Austrian alliance in southern Europe, influence events in Poland, and prevent any attack by Sweden. Centered around a 1764 alliance with Prussia, Panin’s system functioned rather well. It protected Prussia against war with Austria, while providing both countries valuable time to recover from the Seven Years’ War. The system’s chief weakness, aside from British hostility, was the paradoxical nature of Catherine’s interests in Poland. On the one hand, as Russian tsars before her, she wanted a stable and weak Polish buffer state, a view shared by her new ally Frederick the Great. A number of Polish elites, however, recognized how vulnerable Poland’s weak central government made it and jockeyed to rewrite the Polish constitution to make Poland stronger and more capable. The harder Catherine worked to prevent constitutional reform in Poland and plant a reliably pro-Russian candidate on the Polish throne-through bribery, intimidation, and military intervention-the more she generated Polish resentment and efforts to eliminate Russian influence entirely.

The Russo-Turkish War, 1768-1774

The turmoil generated by Catherine’s meddling in Poland led to her first war, against the Ottoman Turks. An internal Polish dispute about the rights of Protestants and Orthodox in that predominantly Catholic country exploded into violence in volatile right-bank Ukraine. The combination of a Russian troop presence in Poland, the spillover of violence by Orthodox Cossacks into Crimean and Ottoman territory, and substantial support from France led the Ottoman Turks to demand full evacuation of Russian troops from Poland in October 1768. When Russia refused, the Turks declared war.

Catherine took an active and personal interest in the war, unlike her predecessors. She made a priority of territorial expansion; though the Turks started the war, the security and economic development of southern Russia depended on finishing it on Russian terms. Catherine was central to the war’s strategy and decision making, consulting regularly with key military and political advisors. Though Russia’s intervention in Poland left few troops for active operations in 1768, Russia was fundamentally in good shape for war. Army strength was roughly equivalent to that available to Peter the Great at his death in 1725: 200,000 regulars, plus irregular, militia, and Cossack units. Catherine expanded this by additional conscription from peasant households for lifetime service in the army. Despite Russia’s immense armed forces, maintaining troops in the distant theaters of the Turkish wars required repeated and painful levies of new peasant soldiers. Long marches through the war-ravaged and desolate territories of western Ukraine and the Balkans meant that a substantial proportion of any Russian army was lost well before reaching the theater of war.

The Russian and Turkish armies were both in the midst of long and difficult reforms to bring themselves up to modern standards. As the war’s campaigns demonstrated, the Russians were much further along. Enormous Turkish forces, greatly outnumbering their Russian opponents, were brittle and undisciplined, unable to sustain heavy combat. Part of this had to do with the high proportion of cavalry in Turkish armies, making flight from battle too easy while hindering positional defense. Furthermore, much of the Turkish cavalry consisted of a feudal levy, something the Russians had been gradually abandoning for over a century. The Russian officer corps had been hardened by the Seven Years’ War against the best army in Europe; the Turks were no match.

Count Pyotr Alexandrovich Rumyantsev-Zadunaisky

In particular, Peter Rumiantsev, Catherine’s most successful commander, was highly innovative and adaptable. In the wake of the Seven Years’ War, the Russian army had dramatically expanded its jäger light infantry, which Rumiantsev used to counter the maneuverable Tatar cavalry. He also emphasized discipline, organization, and shock, particularly night and bayonet attacks, to take advantage of poorly managed Turkish troops. His specific tactical innovation was the use of divisional squares in both defense and attack. These hollow squares, each consisting of several regiments of infantry and studded with field artillery, were used for both defense and attack. Their all-around defense protected them from circling multitudes of Turkish and Tatar cavalry, but allowed sufficient firepower and shock for attack. The firepower lost in forming squares as opposed to lines was a price worth paying against the Turks, though it would have been suicide against a Western army. In battle, Rumiantsev’s squares maintained open space between them to allow for maneuverability, while remaining close enough for mutual support. The gaps between squares were covered by cavalry or light infantry, which could if necessary take refuge inside the larger divisional squares. Given the brittle and relatively undisciplined Turkish troops, Rumiantsev disdained heavy cavalry as unwieldy, trusting instead in firepower and infantry attacks to break enemy will. Strategically, Rumiantsev avoided the crippling loss of time and resources involved in annual treks from winter quarters to the front by maintaining his forces as far forward as possible year-round.

Initial Russian operations in 1769 were extremely successful, so successful that Russian forces found themselves overextended. Over the course of 1769, a Russian army, under first Aleksandr Mikhailovich Golitsyn and then Rumiantsev, who replaced Golitsyn that autumn, swept south in a wide arc around the western edge of the Black Sea, crossing the series of rivers that ran into it: the Bug, the Dnestr, and the Prut. This left intact a series of major Turkish fortresses along the Black Sea coast: Ochakov, Akkerman, Izmail, and especially Bender on the Dnestr River. Failing to screen or reduce those fortresses left Russian armies vulnerable to being cut off deep in Turkish territory. As a result, Catherine’s government devised a new plan of campaign for 1770. The two Russian armies were to move in parallel, with Rumiantsev’s First Army moving slowly south farther inland, while the Second Army (led by Nikita Panin’s younger brother Peter) concentrated on clearing Turkish fortresses along the Black Sea coast.

Outnumbered by the Turks, Rumiantsev moved quickly to defeat separate Turkish contingents before they could unite into an overwhelming force. Russian aggressiveness also prevented the Turks from taking advantage of their superior manpower. Confident in the organization and discipline of his troops, Rumiantsev used rapid and night maneuvers to catch the Turks unawares. Rumiantsev’s tactics during this campaign, particularly his use of squares and clever employment of flanking attacks, were inspired. Rumiantsev’s 40,000 troops caught a Turkish army of 75,000 at Riabaia Mogila on 17/28 June 1770. Despite being outnumbered nearly two to one by Turkish troops in a strong position, Rumiantsev coordinated a multipronged attack. He led the bulk of Russian forces himself in a frontal assault, while a smaller detachment under Grigorii Aleksandrovich Potemkin crossed the Prut River shielding the Turkish left flank to place itself across the Turkish line of retreat. At the same time, a stronger detachment, including most of the Russian cavalry, attacked the Turkish right. Confronted by Russian firepower and attacked from three directions, the Turkish position dissolved into disordered flight. Rumiantsev maintained his aggressive tempo, moving down the Prut and catching a second Ottoman army where the Larga River flows into it. Behind the Larga 80,000 Turkish and Tatar soldiers were dug in. Using the cover of darkness, Rumiantsev crossed the Larga upstream with most of his forces to launch a surprise attack on the Turkish right flank. As the Turks shifted troops to their right, a smaller detachment Rumiantsev had left behind pushed directly across the Larga River, seizing the heart of the Turkish position. The Turkish army disintegrated in confusion. In both battles, Rumiantsev was so successful that he inflicted very few casualties on the Turkish forces. They broke and ran before Russian firepower could inflict significant damage.

While Panin’s army besieged Bender, Rumiantsev met the Turkish main forces on the Kagul (Kartal) River, north of the Danube River, on 21 July/ 1 August 1770. With only 40,000 troops to the Turkish grand vizier’s 150,000, Rumiantsev continued his offensive tactics, hoping to beat the Turkish main forces before the arrival of additional Tatar cavalry. Launching a frontal attack on the Turkish camp early in the morning, Rumiantsev’s strengthened right wing drove back the Turkish left, but a counterattack by the Turks’ fearsome janissary infantry smashed the center of the Russian line and temporarily tore a wide hole into the Russian formation. Rumiantsev himself joined the reserves hastily thrown in to plug the gap. Once the janissaries had been blasted into oblivion by Russian firepower, the rest of the Turkish army again broke and fled, leaving supplies and artillery behind them. Rumiantsev detached forces for an energetic pursuit, which caught the fleeing Turks at the Danube. Only a tiny fraction escaped to safety on the far side. From this point, the Turks were forced to remain entirely on the defensive, hoping for outside intervention to rescue them from the war they started.

The Turkish catastrophe was not finished. The Ottoman fortresses along the Black Sea fell rapidly into Russian hands after the Kagul victory: Izmail, Akkerman, and Bender. To make matters worse, Catherine’s lover Grigorii Orlov hatched an ambitious plan to bring a Russian fleet into the Mediterranean to attack the Turks from the south. This meant repairing and rebuilding the Russian fleet, dilapidated from decades of neglect, but Catherine threw immense financial and diplomatic resources into the project. When the Russian fleet arrived in Turkish waters in spring 1770, it attempted unsuccessfully to stir Greece into rebellion against Turkish rule. It finally brought the Turkish Aegean fleet to battle on 24 June/5 July 1770 at the fort of Chesme off the Anatolian coast. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the Russians’ attack threw the Turkish ships into confusion and disarray, and the Turks withdrew into Chesme harbor. A night raid into the harbor with fireboats torched the Turkish fleet, destroying it completely.

The overwhelming successes of 1770 were followed by a historic triumph in 1771. Rumiantsev’s First Army consolidated its position and continued to capture Turkish fortresses, but did not push decisively south across the Danube. Instead, the Russian Second Army, now commanded by Vasilii Mikhailovich Dolgorukii, pushed into the Crimea in June 1771 against scattered resistance and conquered it, a feat that had escaped every previous Russian army. Catherine set up a puppet khan and a treaty granting the Crimea formal independence, but committing it to eternal friendship and permitting Russian garrisons. Instead of a base for raids on southern Russia, the Crimea had become a de facto Russian possession.

Despite Catherine’s staggering run of successes, she was increasingly anxious for peace. Even victories were costly. Bubonic plague raged west of the Black Sea and even in Russia itself, where it killed hundreds of thousands. The conscription and taxes to maintain her army were increasingly unpopular. In addition, Austria and Prussia submerged their differences in common alarm over the extent of Russian victories and were eager to limit Russia’s gains. The Ottomans asked for Austrian and Prussian mediation in 1770; both governments moved with alacrity to assist, but peace negotiations went nowhere. Though Catherine wanted peace, she would not settle for less than her battlefield successes had earned.