Russia and Sweden

The Swedish Victory at Narva by Gustaf Cederström, painted 1910

Peter could not make war on Sweden until his peace with the Turks was secure, but Denmark and King Augustus had no such obstacles. The latter began operations in February with a surprise move against Riga which failed to take the city, but Denmark fared even worse. Charles XII knocked the Danish king out of the war in a few weeks. Peter kept up the pretense in public that all was in order with Sweden, and no war was coming, even reassuring Kniper personally of his pacific intentions. Kniper could not quite believe that the war would really happen, but he dutifully reported the rumors that war was coming as well as Russian military preparations. Peter could not be sure of the Turkish response, and so in April he decided on an ambassador to Sweden. The eventual choice was Prince Andrei Khilkov, a relative of Prince Romodanovskii and Golovin. Khilkov would have an even more difficult task than he expected, but at the time the rumor was not that he would have the post, but instead Prince Iakov Fyodorovich Dolgorukii, only a few months before in bad odor with Peter over the inadequacies of the campaigns in the south against the Tatars. Kniper went so far as to ask his brother Boris if the rumor was true, and prince Boris denied it: Prince Iakov had too little of the tsar’s confidence for such an important post. Prince Boris was partly wrong, however, for Peter had originally chosen Iakov for the post, changing his mind a week later and appointing Khilkov. Peter preferred to keep Prince Iakov with the army and he remained in the position of general military commissar. In the summer Peter replaced Lefort in his capacity as an army commander with General Adam Weyde and appointed the Georgian Prince Alexander Archilovich of Imeretia to command the Russian artillery.

After the official Russian declaration of war on 19 August, Peter lost no time in ordering his army to besiege Narva. The choice showed Peter’s desire for a ready-made port, since Narva was not part of the lands lost to Sweden in 1617. It lay across the old border in the Swedish province of Estonia, and had been the object of Ivan the Terrible’s wars in the sixteenth century. The army command was a mixture of old and new. In June the story was that the supreme commander was to be Sheremetev, and the prince of Imeretia was to command the artillery. In August, however, Peter appointed as Field marshal the boyar and admiral, F. A. Golovin, proven as a capable diplomat and administrator but hardly a military man. Sheremetev received the cavalry, largely the traditional gentry cavalry from Novgorod and some Ukrainian Cossacks. Under Golovin the army was divided into three generalships under three full generals, Avtomon Golovin, Adam Weyde, and Prince Nikita Ivanovich Repnin. All three of them had served before in the Preobrazhenskii guards. The aristocratic Golovin was the same who had commanded at Azov, and before that the two guards regiments. Prince Repnin, who had served as a captain in the same regiment, was still on the road from Novgorod with part of his troops at the time of the battle, so Prince Ivan Iur’evich Trubetskoi replaced him in the line. Prince Trubetskoi was rather different from the former guards officers. A boyar since 1692, he had commanded part of the Azov feet in 1696 and in 1699 was named governor of Novgorod. It was he who signed the messages to the Narva garrison asking them to surrender. As in the case of Iakov Dolgorukii, his relations with the tsar had been troubled, but in spite of that he too received a major command. In the middle of the siege Peter appointed another Field marshal to carry out actual operations. This was Charles Eugene, the duke de Croy (1651-1702), an Imperial general originally from the southern Netherlands who was out of work after the peace of Karlowitz. De Croy was recommended to Peter by King Augustus with a group of other foreign officers, and arrived when the Russian army was already before Narva.

For Peter the siege of Narva in 1700 became a famous disaster. Fresh from his lightning victory over Denmark, Charles XII landed in Estonia in October. As this news reached the Russians, Peter left the army with Fyodor Golovin to return to Moscow, putting de Croy in supreme command. On the next day, 19/30 November, Charles attacked in the snow, and to tremendous effect. He smashed the Russian army, capturing de Croy, A. M. Golovin, Trubetskoi, Weyde, Hallart, Dolgorukii, Prince Alexander of Imeretia, and other Russian generals. Only Sheremetev’s cavalry, the guards, and some of the infantry escaped more or less intact. To Prince Repnin fell the job of reorganizing them and taking up position in Novgorod.


Peter had more immediate concerns. The boyars were not pleased with the defeat at Narva, blaming the Danish ambassador Heins for persuading Peter to break so suddenly with Sweden. Prince Boris Golitsyn was prominent among the discontented, not surprisingly as he had opposed the war from the beginning. Fortunately, Charles had withdrawn to winter quarters, so the tsar had a breathing space to reorganize. Immediately after the defeat the tsar ordered Sheremetev with the cavalry to harry the enemy in Livonia. Peter recruited new troops and assembled more artillery and powder, and sent Tikhon Streshnev, the head of the Razriad and the new Military Chancellery, to the Swedish border to supervise. Repnin was assigned to take the remaining troops under his command and help Augustus in Poland. The tsar also took care of the financial basis of the war. In January he revived the Monastery Chancellery under Ivan Musin-Pushkin, with the charge of taking control of the monastery estates, giving a stipend to the monks and the rest to the war chest. He also ordered the churches to sacrifice some of their bells so as to make cannon from the metal. He established a tax on beards, which Pleyer at least saw as a revenue device, not merely a cultural matter. All of these financial moves had the potential to create discontent, especially among the clergy and the pious. These and other recent measures also demonstrated Peter’s desire to move along in a more European direction, as Heins had noticed. Europe, he thought, ought to take care to go easy with Russia rather than reject it, for only time would tell what would become of the country under Peter’s tutelage.

During the Great Northern War (1700–1721) Sheremetev proved to be a capable but cautious and sluggish military leader. During the war he was the commander-in-chief and most senior officer in the Russian army. Sheremetev was very cautious in his movements but proved more effective than the younger Prince Menshikov, the 2nd in command whose impulsiveness was not always successful.

In June 1701, Sheremetev was appointed the supreme commander of the Russian troops facing Livonia, clearly in the full expectation of war in the region with the king of Sweden himself. That was not to be, for in July Charles defeated the Saxons before Riga and moved south into Kurland, toward Poland, the object of his attention for the next five years. Livonia was left alone to face Peter, and his forces did not wait long. While Charles was making his decision and Sheremetev assembling his army, the Swedish navy make an attempt on Archangel, but it was beaten off. The Swedish attempt reminded Peter of those who went to Egypt in search of mummies and were turned into mummies themselves by the sandy winds of the desert. In the next few years the Cossacks, the Kalmyks, and Sheremetev’s army would lay waste the land to Peter’s great satisfaction. The Swedish commander Schlippenbach was able to win small gains against the Russians, but on 30 December 1701 Sheremetev won his first victory at Errestfer. There were more to follow.

Peter was grateful to Sheremetev, for his ministers of state continued to be unhappy with the war. He sent Menshikov to present the Field marshal with the new order of St. Andrew and other gifts. Sheremetev himself came back to Moscow to celebrate:

Before the last Easter holidays the knight [sc. of Malta] Sheremetev came here himself and in the past Easter week held a meal and ball, which the tsar with most of the Boyars and great men of the country attended, but since the tsar showed himself there to be disturbed and unsatisfied against his custom and soon left, the gaiety was rather disturbed and Sheremetev takes it much to heart.

Even success in war did not bring harmony to the relationship of Field marshal and tsar, a state of affairs that may have rejected Peter’s general dissatisfaction with the management and command of his army. The tsar’s attempt to reorganize his army along European lines proceeded slowly, and the boyars were no help, for they were careless and lacked the necessary experience. Peter hoped for better things in the future, for he insisted that the young sons of the Russian princes and boyars go abroad to serve in foreign armies, not just to travel and observe. He considered plans to reorganize the administration of the Russian army into a German-type military commissariat, but for the time being left matters in the hands of the Military Chancellery.


In summer 1702, Sheremetev defeated a Swedish army again at Hummelshof near Dorpat, and in the fall the whole Russian force moved for its first great prize, Nöteborg. The voevoda of Novgorod, Petr Apraksin (the tsar’s brother-in-law), began the campaign by clearing the Neva of Swedish troops. Peter brought with him the two guards regiments, twelve regiments of infantry, and massive artillery, all under the command of Sheremetev. General John Chambers commanded the two guards regiments, Prince Nikita Ivanovich Repnin the rest of the infantry and Iakov Bruce the artillery. The siege began in October, and after a few days of fighting the Russian army entered the fortress on 14 October, its first major conquest of the war. The two guards regiments had borne the brunt of the struggle. The tsar ordered that the fortress bear a new name, not the old Russian name Oreshek but instead Schlüsselburg. Its fortifications were hastily prepared and a small exploratory expedition went down river to Nyenskans. Peter decided to postpone its capture to the following year. He set himself to return to Moscow and order new uniforms for the guards, but not before dealing with his commanders. Menshikov received the rank of general, his first important promotion since he became the supervisor of the tsarevich. Peter also cashiered both General Repnin and General Apraksin for corruption (‘einige Malversationes’) and for Repnin’s refusal to serve under Sheremetev. These were the first of many such cases, and both generals were soon to return to important positions.

The New Year 1703 brought the completion of the Russian conquest of Ingria, and with it the further rise of Menshikov and greater jealousy of his position in the state. This year the military operations were not so complicated. Menshikov continued work to improve the fortifications of Schlüsselburg and to build boats. By early spring Peter had a large army in the area, the main force under Sheremetev, Chambers, and Prince Repnin and a covering detachment under Petr Apraksin. Nyenskans fell on 1/12 May, and the other Ingrian towns, Iam and Kopor’e, in the course of the summer. The construction of the new city down the river from Nyenskans began almost immediately with the construction of a fortress. The new town would be St. Petersburg.


Imperial Russia and the Caucasus

Count Pavel Tsitsianov.

This painting once decorated the Abbas Mirza’s palace. Depicted on this huge canvas is the defeat of the Russian Trinity Infantry Regiment in the battle near Sultanabad, which took place on 13 February 1812. Persian soldiers wearing European uniforms and bearing Persian banners, on which a lion holds a sabre in its paw against a background of the rising sun.


This painting by Franz Roubaud illustrates an episode when 493 Russians for two weeks repelled attacks by a 20,000-strong Persian army. They made a “live bridge”, so that two cannons could be transported over their bodies.

Imperial Russia had not forgotten the dreams of Peter the Great: the conquest of the Caucasus, domination of Iran and the Persian Gulf with ambitions towards British India. Fathali Shah and Iran would soon be facing the might of imperial Russia, a military challenge for which the armies of the Qajars were wholly unprepared.

Iran was ruled by a series of princes in the major cities and provinces as well as tribes beholden to their leaders. The country would be stable so long as these forces acknowledged the shah’s authority, however the large degree of autonomy in the provinces did facilitate rebellion against the government or center. When Iran faced the armies of Russia, a series of rebellions broke out in the northeast (Khorasan) as well as the north (Astarabad and Mazandaran). These types of rebellions often forced the diversion of troops to provincial areas when they could otherwise have been used in critical battles against foreign armies. An example of fickle khans and the threats these posed to Qajar military activities in Khorasan as late as 1832 is provided by Hedayat’s Fihrist ol Tavareekh. Iran was to eventually lose all of the Caucasus due to a combination of Qajar mismanagement, outdated technology, and opportunistic khans who were willing to side with the Russians in hopes of increasing their personal wealth and status.

Agha Mohammad Khan’s assassination left his conquests in Georgia unconsolidated, inviting the Russians to forcibly pursue the establishment of their preferred Russo-Iranian border, as far south as the Kura River and even the Araxes River bordering Azarbaijan. There are indications that Fathali Shah did seek better relations with the Russians, especially in the earlier days of his rule. Tsar Paul was willing to accommodate Fathali Shah’s overtures and reciprocated by agreeing that Russian merchants should pay duties on goods they imported to Iran, the export of 18,000 tons of iron into Iran and that Russian warships not enter the port of Anzali arbitrarily. Despite these constructive acts of accommodation, the thorny issue of Georgia remained. No Iranian shah could conceive of ruling just a part of Iran by abandoning its other provinces, a practice which had occurred at the time of Karim Khan and Shahrokh Afshar. Fathali viewed Georgia as a prized province that had to be restored to the Iranian state. Tsar Paul I in turn was determined to treat Georgia as his protectorate, making the prospect of war all but inevitable.

The pattern of events unfolded as they had before. Fathali Shah wrote a highly threatening letter to Giorgi XII (son of Heraclius who had died in 1798), the new king of Karli-Kakheti, in the summer of 1798 ordering him to submit to his authority or face the prospect of “doubly increased subjection… Georgia will again be annihilated… Georgian people given to our wrath.” Giorgi XII sent emissaries to St. Petersburg in September 1800 in order to negotiate a new pact with Tsar Paul I (r. 1796–1801), The pact entitled Paul I to nominate himself as the tsar of Russia and Georgia, thereby considering the latter as a Russian protectorate. Giorgi also demanded that his eldest son David succeed him as king of Georgia.

Confrontation was also hastened by Russian imperialist ambitions. Andreeva has noted that “Territorial aggrandizement … would make the empire rich and … the empire could in return benefit subject peoples by introducing them to civilization and Christianity.”  Russia was a major European power, thanks to her “absorption of western technology and military skills…” as well as her participation in the Napoleonic wars and European politics. From St. Petersburg, Iran and her Caucasian possessions looked ripe for imperial conquest and economic domination.

Catherine the Great had considered Georgia as the lynchpin of Russian foreign policy to her south. From Georgia Russia could project its military power against both the Iranians and the Ottomans. The Russian navy would also benefit greatly from having access to Georgia’s western ports along the Black Sea. With ports already established in southern Russia, access to Georgian seaports would transform the Black Sea into a Russian-dominated lake. As Georgia and the Caucasus stood at the crossroads between Europe and Asia, control of this region would greatly benefit Russian commerce. Control of Georgia as well as the khanates to its east and south would allow the Russians to dominate the maritime trade of both the Black and Caspian seas. Control of the Caspian Sea would allow the Russians to extend their maritime and commercial interests into northern Iran and Central Asia.

Russian Expansion under the Czars

After the decline of Mongol control, Moscow emerged as a political center rather than Kiev. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Moscow was the center of the Eastern Orthodox Church. This ended up establishing a cultural boundary between Russia and Europe that would continue through political divides. Ivan the Great came to the Muscovy throne in the 1400s and began to establish a sense of a Russian nation and to expand its borders. In other words, Ivan began the process of creating the modern region of Russia and central Asia through a process of expansion and consolidation.

Russian expansion into Siberia greatly expanded in the late sixteenth century and the seventeenth century. This expansion was prompted by the lure of various furs from animals native to Siberia. These furs provided income for the government and individuals through export to western Europe, but increasing Russian colonization of Siberia led to a decline among the native population. The desire for greater numbers of furs also caused the fur-bearing animal population to nearly disappear, with significant ecological consequences for Siberia.

In Russia, the emergence of the powerful Muscovite Rus led to the spread of eastern Slavs across the Eurasian plains. Grand Duke Ivan III (1462-1505) pushed Russian expansion south and west, Tsar Ivan IV (1530-1584) supported Russian expansion to the east, and Tsar Alexis (1645-1676) established Russian outposts on the Pacific Ocean littoral. This expansion was accompanied by the gradual migration of Russian traders to the vast expanse of Siberia. More important was the Russian government’s efforts to encourage southward movement of the Russian population (most of whom were serfs owned by noble landlords), which displaced local nomadic tribes.

Beginning in the 1530s, the Russian tsars embarked on a massive program of expansion into eastern Europe and across Asia. By the late seventeenth century the Russian empire stretched from Finland and Ukraine in the west to the Bering Sea and the Sea of Okhotsk in the east and from the Arctic Ocean in the north to China in the south. The reasons for this expansion are manifold: population pressures, enticements for Russian settlers to migrate, the exploration for and exploitation of natural resources, geopolitical strategy, and military glory. The regions that Russia incorporated were not empty wastelands but rather the homelands of numerous indigenous peoples with their own cultures and ways of life. When and where Russians and indigenous peoples met, changes to traditional indigenous life were bound to occur. Often, these changes were marked by the decline of indigenous populations in the interests of Russian imperial power.

The decline of indigenous populations took various forms. As historian Andreas Kappeler notes in The Russian Empire: A Multi-Ethnic History, Russia’s imperial expansion was flexible in its approach. The Russian tsars used a range of strategies, which included conventional diplomacy, the creation of protectorates that the tsars later annexed completely, purchasing smaller territories, and the overt use of military suppression, among other tactics. The nature of indigenous population decline often corresponded to the particular form of expansion used by Russia in a specific case. For example, many Yakuts were assimilated, forced to flee Russian territory, or simply killed as Russian forces conquered their territory. Other populations, such as certain Finnish- and Turkic-speaking peoples, were simply absorbed into Russia’s dominant culture. As Russian settlers gradually expropriated their lands, Russian Orthodox missionaries converted them to Christianity, and Russian traders forced them to learn Russian to survive economically.

Frequently, the decline of indigenous populations in the expanding Russian empire was simply due to competition for scarce resources. Much of central Asia was already partly depopulated as a result of Mongol conquests from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries and the impact of the Black Death from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. Indigenous peoples throughout much of Siberia and other parts of what would become the Russian empire subsisted on hunting, fishing, and herding, as agriculture was limited due to the frequently harsh weather conditions. To survive on the relatively scarce natural resources, indigenous populations tended to be nomadic. However, as Russian settlers moved into an area, they appropriated as much land as they could to eke out an existence, competing for other resources, such as furs, with the indigenous population and severely limiting the area available for indigenous nomadic subsistence. The more numerous Russians, backed by the military might of the Russian state, invariably won this competition, forcing the indigenous inhabitants to flee, assimilate, or face starvation. As a result, the Russian empire became increasingly “Russian” in both culture and ethnicity despite its incorporation of more and more previously diverse lands. Though many ethnic minorities did not completely die out in the face of Russian imperial expansion, their numbers dwindled, and their survival was increasingly dependent on the will of the Russian state.

The expansion was first into the north, which increased coastal access, and then to the Urals and into Siberia. This territory was sparsely populated, and Russians began a process of settlement, expanding their territory through relocation. By the beginning of the seventeenth century Russian villages extended hundreds of miles east of the Urals, and state-sponsored trade in furs had become quite important. The rivers of this region were key to integrating this area, since they enabled Russian settlers to travel long distances. The orientation of Russia shifted over time. While the religious institutions and political structures of Russia differed from those of Europe and much of Russia’s expansion was to the east, Russia sometimes shifted its cultural emphasis toward Europe. Peter the Great built St. Petersburg on territory taken from Sweden, and moving the capital of Russia to St. Petersburg was an intentional effort to associate with the West. The city’s noble families spoke French by the nineteenth century. Thus, the boundary between Europe and Russia has not been static, since Russia has expanded and acquired European territory, and the starkness of the difference between western Europe and Russia has sometimes seemed dramatic and at other times less so.

As serfdom weakened in Europe, in part because of the Black Plague, Russia’s reliance on serfs increased, as did aristocratic power over them. Serf labor was central to the production of grains and cereals, which eventually were major exports for the region. In addition to increasing agricultural production, Peter also cultivated the exploitation of mineral resources. During his reign, Russian minerals were surveyed and mined, a new economic development that shifted the Russian economic center toward the Ural Mountains.

During the period of European imperial expansion, Russia expanded to the south and the east and eventually reached the Bering Sea north of China. Much of the territory, such as the Khanates of Bukhara and Khiva, both east of the Caspian Sea, was established as dependent territories or vassal states, thus assuming a subordinate position to the Russian state, which was not trying to fully integrate the diverse populations. In addition, this model of expansion left in place existing political and social frameworks that allowed minority cultural identities to reproduce themselves while local elites maintained some degree of power. Russian expansion differed from European expansion in that it was directed toward contiguous territory rather than more distant regions. Theirs was a land-based imperialism as opposed to the sea-based ventures of the west European states.

Russia and the region that it dominates and shapes continues to have global influence, in part because of its size and history but also because of its stores of minerals and fossil fuels.

Soldiers of the Crimean War (1853-56)

PRINCIPAL COMBATANTS: Ottoman Empire, Britain, France, Sardinia, Austria, and Prussia, vs. Russia


DECLARATION: October 4, 1853, Ottoman Empire against Russia

MAJOR ISSUES AND OBJECTIVES: Russia claimed an exclusive right to protect Orthodox Christians within the territory of the Ottoman Empire; the Ottomans rejected this, and the Russians responded by invading Moldavia and Wallachia, whereupon the Ottoman Empire declared war. Fearing Russian seizure of Constantinople and the Dardanelles, the Western powers, led by Britain and France, allied themselves with the Ottomans.

OUTCOME: Russia renounced its role as protector of the Orthodox; the autonomy of Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia was guaranteed; doctrines upholding the principle of freedom of the seas were affirmed.

APPROXIMATE MAXIMUM NUMBER OF MEN UNDER ARMS: Russia, 888,000; France, 309,268; Britain, 97,864; Ottoman Empire, 165,000; Sardinia, 21,000

CASUALTIES: Russia, 73,125 battle deaths; France, 20,240 battle deaths; Britain, 4,602 battle deaths; Ottoman Empire, 20,900 battle deaths; Sardinia, 28 battle deaths; many more soldiers died of illness, for a total of 615,378 dead on all sides.

TREATIES: Treaty of Paris, March 30, 1856

The Crimean War is noteworthy on at least two counts: first, as the only European war Britain fought after the conclusion of the NAPOLEONIC WARS in 1815 and before the opening of WORLD WAR I in 1914, and second, as a showcase of logistical incompetence and poor generalship on all sides.

The war began as a dispute between Russian Orthodox priests and French Catholics over who had precedence at the holy places in Jerusalem and Nazareth. After the dispute turned violent, Russia’s czar, Nicholas I (1796-1855), asserted his nation’s duty and right to protect Orthodox Christians as well as Christian shrines in the Holy Land and elsewhere within the Ottoman realm. To show that he meant business, Nicholas invaded Wallachia and Moldavia, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire. On November 5, 1853, a Russian naval squadron attacked and destroyed a Turkish flotilla off Sinope in the Black Sea. British newspapers reported-falsely-that the Russians had purposely fired on wounded Turkish sailors. Presumably, the news reports were planted by the British government, which wanted an excuse to declare war on the Russians in order to forestall their domination of Constantinople and the Dardanelles Strait. For his part, French emperor Napoleon III (1808-73) was eager for a war that would give him an opportunity to emulate the military prowess of his uncle, Napoleon I (1769-1821). Moreover, he felt an obligation to protect the French monks in Jerusalem. Thus, each for their own reasons, Britain and France allied themselves with the Ottoman Empire against Russia.

A combined British and French fleet sailed into the Black Sea and ordered the Russians to withdraw from Wallachia and Moldavia. When Russia refused, war was declared. Austria allied itself with Prussia and, securing Ottoman permission, invaded Moldavia and Wallachia, driving the Russians out by the summer of 1854. This should have brought an end to the war, but Britain and France decided that the major Russian naval base at Sevastopol was a threat to the region and to freedom of the seas. Accordingly, in September 1854 a combined expeditionary force of British, French, Sardinian, and Turkish soldiers landed on the Crimean Peninsula and moved against Sevastopol. The principal British commander was the superannuated Fitzroy James Henry Somerset, lord Raglan (1788-1855), who had not seen service since the Battle of Waterloo.

By the time the allies landed at Calamita Bay on September 13, 1854, many had fallen ill with cholera and dysentery; disease would prove the deadliest foe in this war. The landing was managed poorly, and the British were particularly disorganized. Fortunately for the allies, the landings were unopposed. Three rivers lay between Calamita Bay and Sevastopol. At the second of these, the Alma, a Russian army under Prince Aleksandr Mentschikoff (1787-1869) took its stand. Not only did the Russians enjoy superiority of numbers, they commanded a narrow pass and held ground that was well defended. It should have been an easy victory for them, but in the confusion of battle they misread the strength of the Highland Brigade. These superbly trained troops conducted a fighting advance, firing while advancing. It was a maneuver unknown to the Russians, who panicked and fell back. Thanks to the Highlanders, the Battle of the Alma became a Russian rout.

Defeated, the Russians retreated inland and, as the siege of Sevastopol began, they regrouped along the British flank. As the British and French laboriously prepared their siege works, the Russians struck against the British right flank. Once again, it was Colin Cambell’s (1792-1863) Highlanders who drove off the first wave of Russian cavalry, but an even larger body of Russian cavalry advanced against the British headquarters. The British cavalry was led by General Sir James Scarlett (1799- 1871), who ordered a charge into the much stronger Russians. Tactically, it approached being a suicide mission, yet its ferocity and execution overwhelmed the numerically superior Russians, who retreated.

The battlefield at Balaclava was extremely hilly, and Lord Raglan was anxious to gain the high ground. Accordingly, he ordered George Charles Bingham, lord Lucan (1800-88), the commander of the cavalry, to regain the heights at any cost. Because infantry support failed to materialize, Lucan refused to move. When the Russians began to remove the guns they had captured from British positions, Raglan demanded that Lucan prevent their removal-again at all costs. Lucan in turn ordered the Light Brigade, led by James Thomas Brudenell, lord Cardigan (1797-1868), to take the lead. The Light Brigade advanced into a trap of massed Russian infantry and cavalry on both sides of the valley and ahead of them. When Cardigan protested the folly of charging an unassailable position, Lucan reminded him that his orders came directly from Lord Raglan, the commander in chief. Without further protest, then, Cardigan ordered the bugler to sound the charge, and the Light Brigade advanced into what Alfred, lord Tennyson (1809-92), in his famous poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” would call the “valley of death.” Of the 673 men who advanced, fewer than 200 returned, and most of these were wounded.

The British claimed the Battle of Balaklava as a victory, but, in fact, they had failed to dislodge the Russians from the strategic position of the Causeway Heights. Nevertheless, the principal Russian forces had been flung back. The Russians counterattacked at the Battle of Inkerman, which was fought largely hand-to-hand in a thick fog. A slugfest, the battle resulted in yet another Russian retreat. From this point on the Allies advanced slowly upon Sevastopol, enduring, as they inched forward, a bitter winter. The great scandal of the war was the corruption, heartlessness, and general incompetence of the British commissary department, which failed properly to clothe, feed, and shelter the freezing troops. It was in this context that the British nurse Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) campaigned so vigorously for sanitary and decent treatment of the sick and wounded at the hospital in Scutari.

In the meantime, Malakov and Redan, the two main Russian fortifications overlooking Sevastopol, fell on September 8 and 9, 1855. This led to the fall of Sevastopol itself, whereupon Czar Alexander II (1818-81), who had succeeded his father, Nicholas I, opened peace negotiations-even as the war continued to rage in the Caucasus. The Russian siege of Kars, an Ottoman fortress, proved successful, the Turks succumbing mostly to starvation and disease. However, British and French naval bombardment of Russia’s Baltic fortresses continued unremittingly, and Alexander at last agreed to the Treaty of Paris, signed on March 30, 1856.

Russia relinquished its self-proclaimed role as protector of the Orthodox in the Ottoman realms, and the Russians as well as the Turks agreed to recognize self-government in Moldavia, Wallachia, and Serbia. Issues relating to domination of the Dardanelles were also resolved, with all sides agreeing to recognize a general principle of freedom of the seas.

Further reading: Deborah Bachrach, Crimean War (Detroit: Gale Research, 1997); Winfried Baumgart, Crimean War, 1853-1856 (London: Hodder Arnold, 1999); Trevor Royle, Crimea: The Great Crimean War, 1854-1856 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000); Philip Warner, The Crimean War: A Reappraisal (London: Wordsworth Editions, 2000).

The Russian Navy 1695-1900

Eugene Lanceray. Fleet of Peter the Great (1709).

The Russian Navy was founded by Peter the Great (1682-1725) in the Baltic to protect Russia from then powerful Sweden and on the Sea of Azov to counter the Ottoman Empire. Catherine the Great extended Russia’s control to the Black Sea by adding a fleet based at Sevastopol. Russia maintained small flotillas on the Caspian and White Seas. By the end of the eighteenth century there was also a Pacific Squadron that supported the Russian-American Company colony in Alaska. From Catherine II’s reign until the late 1820s, periods of friendly relations with Britain allowed the Baltic Fleet to deploy to the Mediterranean in a series of campaigns against the Ottomans. A Russian squadron joined an Anglo-French fleet in the victory over Mehmet Ali at Navarino in 1827. Thereafter until the 1854-56 Crimean War, the Baltic Fleet declined into the autocrat’s naval parading force. At the same time the professionalization of the Black Sea developed apace as a result of superior leadership, notably Admiral M. P. Lazarev, and continuous operations in support of Russia’s protracted war with Caucasian mountaineers. Nakhimov’s overwhelming victory against a Turkish Squadron at Sinope in late 1853, which brought Anglo-French intervention in the Crimean War, was, in fact, a continuation of the Black Sea Fleet’s mission to isolate the Caucasian theater of operations from maritime supply.

The 1856 defeat that saw the Black Sea Fleet abolished and made very clear the need for rail connections to link south Russia with the Moscow-St. Petersburg core and to avoid a Baltic blockade, also came at the crucial time when the great steam-and-steel revolution was taking place. This coincided with the scrapping of the IRN’s sailing ships and their replacement both by modern warships, such as those which visited the United States in 1863-64, and in a revival of concern with naval strategy and tactics. Though reduced in size to one thirty-sixth of the million-man army, the 28,000 men in the navy were much more technically proficient and efficient.

Between the beginning (1696) and the end (1917) of its history, the Imperial Navy had far more influence than its modest size and marginal role would suggest. Three key themes emerge. The first concerns the role of the navy in national strategy; the second the relationship between the navy and the process of technological modernization and Westernization; and the third the issue of the professionalization of the officer corps. By the mid-nineteenth century the latter involved the development of a system of advanced schooling for officers, the cultivation of a shared vision of the service through publications for the officer corps (the official and unofficial sections of Morskoi sbornik), and the unsuccessful resolution of the especially difficult question of officer advancement (chinoproizvodstvo) which turned on the conflict between promotion based on bureaucratic seniority or talent and achievement.

The navies that Peter built on the Sea of Azov and in the Baltic were fleets in being that, as in the later Soviet case until the 1950s, had deterrent value, but also served as a “second arm” supporting amphibious operations against hostile shores, a mission that the Black Sea Fleet also developed. Given the demands of maintaining a continental army, the navy had few levers to use to extract bigger budgets. After the early combined operations under Peter, the navy languished until the reign of Catherine II, when it once again dominated the Baltic and won command of the Black Sea. In this period the IRN did venture out of the Baltic and enjoyed some success in battle. Because of the nature of the final struggle with Napoleon, a continental war fought in alliance with Britain and as a result of the debt incurred in prosecuting that war, the navy once again went into decline. The exception to this being the mounting of scientific expeditions and round-the world cruises. Russian naval officers came to see such deployments as necessary for the training of professional naval officers.

The history of the navy from Petrine days to the end of its second century reflected the patterns and tensions between repressive, militaristic autocracy and thoughtful, visionary obshchestvo (educated society). The Crimean War dealt a heavy blow to that structure, challenged its institutions and stimulated the Great Reforms, which included the emancipation of the serfs as a basic move toward a more productive economy and the needs of the armed forces.

In this the admiral, General-Admiral Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolaevieh, played an important role from 1854 in protecting and training five future ministers in bureaucratic politics and administration and instilling in them the hope that virtue and talent would triumph. He also cultivated an alliance with the naval officers who had been proteges of Admiral Lazarev and brought them into the senior leadership of the navy. With no Black Sea Fleet because of the demilitarization of the Black Sea, this leadership focused its attention on the modernization of the Baltic Fleet and the development of a Pacific Squadron. The visits to the United States in 1863 of Baltic and Pacific squadrons were part of a new naval strategy that embraced such deployments as a deterrent threat to British trade.

By the time of the Great Reforms (1856-70) following the Crimean defeat, the navy was allowed to play a wider role through modernization so as to help the Russian Army preserve the country’s great-power status. From 1856, then, the Russian Navy developed in parallel with Western naval forces and created its own industrial base in alliance with private enterprise. This development rested upon the cultivation of a professional officer corps, where initiative and experience took precedence over seniority. In 1877-78 the Black Sea Fleet, which was almost non-existent-remilitarization had only become possible in 1870 and there were no yards or mills in the South to build modern ironclads-managed to neutralize a much larger Turkish Navy through the aggressive use of mines and torpedoes.

Believing that he should, unlike most Russians, consult affected parties, the grand duke turned Morskoi sbornik (Naval Digest) from a dull official bulletin into a lively journal of discussions, which helped clarify the confusions and the liberations of the Great Reforms.

These abolished the ancien regime and introduced a new world in which local organizations governed what was within their ken. This very much affected the army deprived of its privileged aristocratic officers and its serf soldiers. It also touched an increasingly technological steam and steel navy after 1860. At the same time the implications of the reform process frightened many conservatives in the Imperial family (notably the heir to the throne, the future Alexander III, the bureaucracy, and society). Konstantin Nikolaevich was for them a “red,” a dangerous figure whose ideas could lead to the undermining of the autocracy itself. After the death of Alexander II, the new tsar moved to remove the grand duke from his post as general-admiral and other state offices.

With the grand duke’s departure from leadership of the navy, leadership of the Naval Ministry passed into the hands of men who once again cultivated appearances at the expense of accomplishments and saw initiative and experience as grave dangers to institutional stability. The naval counter reforms, especially the tsenz (promotion based on positions held and time in service) created a bureaucratized force. The Naval Ministry reverted to the purchase of major combatants abroad and failed to develop a staff system to guide the navy in preparation for war. The full implications of this decline were only revealed by the destruction of the Russian squadron at Port Arthur and the defeat of Rozhestvennsky’s squadron at Tsushima (1905).

In the great intellectual debate of the nineteenth century between Westernizers and Slavophiles, the navy proved to be one of the most controversial institutions because it had no roots in Muscovite Russia but was closely tied to the Petrine transformation. It was the ultimate product of Westernization. Slavophiles regarded it as an artificial imposition of an alien state.

Today, the heirs of the Slavophiles have embraced geopolitics and Eurasianism and condemn Russia’s contemporary experiment with democracy and an open society. They speak of a profound cultural and political struggle between Russia as a continental power and the West as an alien maritime world. Eutasian ideologues, such as Alexander Dugin and Alexander Panarin, speak in terms of a decisive contest between a hegemonie thalassocracy, led by the United States with the “pirate” values of “Atlanticism, globalism [mondializm], and liberalism” and a Russian tellurocracy that is Eurasian, anti-Western, and anti-liberal. For these ideologues of the “conservative revolution,” the Petrine transformation and the Great Reforms were nothing more than the seduction of Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, centre, sits on board a bathyscaphe as it plunges into the Black sea along the coast of Sevastopol, Crimea, Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2015. President Vladimir Putin plunged into the Black Sea to see the wreckage of a sunk ancient merchant ship which was found in the end of May.

The Imperial Russian Army’s Recovery, September 1915-February 1917

By late September 1915 the stalemate of trench warfare at last appeared to be gripping the Eastern Front, and the world’s attention returned to the dreary struggle of the Western Front, the debacle at Gallipoli, and the destruction of Serbia. The tsar’s armies now rested and were rebuilt with better logistics while he and his son toured the front to raise morale. In the Caucasus, the world had been shocked by the Turkish massacre of Armenians in spring 1915. By July this had permitted a Russian advance to Van, but that city was soon again abandoned. In December, however, Yudenich opened a major offensive in Armenia which led to the storming on 16 February 1916 of the strategic fortress of Ezerum after three days of bitter fighting. The Turks continued to retreat and by 21 February 1916 General D. K. Abatsiev’s forces had taken the major strongpoint of Bitlis, and in July Erzingan. In the meantime Liakhov’s Coastal Detachment, well supported by the Black Sea Fleet, had advanced down the Caucasian coast and on 4-5 April, he seized the major Ottoman supply port of Trebizond.

The tsar’s forces also entered Ottoman Persia in fall 1915 in order to divert the Turks by linking up with the British. This advance passed through Kasvin, Hamadan, and on 13 February 1916, Kirmanshah. The Russians then turned westward to threaten the Turkish flank in Mesopotamia and help relieve the besieged British force at Kut. Their march continued after the fall of Kut (16 April) to Khanikin and Rowanduz while another detachment joined the British on the Tigris. These successes compared favorably with the Allied failure at the Dardanelies and a secret Anglo-Franco-Russian treaty carving up Asiatic Turkey therefore awarded Russia Armenia, part of Kurdistan, and all of northern Anatolia. This pact supplemented the March 1915 promise that Russia would receive Constantinople and the Straits, and it demonstrates the importance still accorded Russia by Allied statesmen. Inter-allied cooperation was further strengthened by the dispatch of a Russian brigade to the Western Front while on 15 July 1916 another joined the Allies at Salonika. And in spite of Turkish recovery of Khanikin, Kirmanshah, Hamadan, Musg, and Bitlis, the Russians ended 1916 confident of future success in both Persia and the Caucasus. Moreover, Admiral A. V Kolchak, the new commander-in-chief of the Black Sea Fleet, had initiated an aggressive mining policy that had blocked the Bosphorus and returned control of that sea to the Russians.

Signs of improvement appeared elsewhere as well. On 23-25 November 1915 Stavka’s representatives in France met the Allies near Chantilly to coordinate plans for 1916 plans, and in December 1915 the Eleventh Corps on the Russian European Front launched a limited local offensive along the River Strypa. If the latter failed to break through enemy trenches and had no effect upon German planning, it was a sign that the Russian Army was far from destroyed. Nonetheless, on 8 February 1916 General von Falkenhayn opened the German campaign to destroy the French on the anvil of Verdun, while the Austrians now focused on routing the Italians in the Trentino.

By March 1916 the Russians were sufficiently recovered to respond to a French appeal with a major, two-pronged assault on the German entrenchments at Lake Naroch and Visjnevskoe, south of Dvinsk. In spite of a two-day bombardment, this 1915-style attack failed utterly. Whatever relief it gave the French at Verdun, the cost was perhaps 110,000 Russian casualties to 20,000 Germans, and it showed clearly that conditions on the Eastern Front paralleled fully the trench war in the West. Most generals now assumed that preliminary bombardments, followed by massive infantry assaults to produce breakthroughs to be exploited by cavalry, were the solution to the stalemate the Russians called “position warfare.” When these tactics failed, the generals again blamed shortages of munitions. So for a new offensive in the Vilnius area, the local command had demanded even more guns and shells. But these concentrations had precluded surprise at Naroch, and the bombardment on a very narrow front merely turned the battlefield into a muddy morass on which defensive firepower allowed even inferior forces of defenders to inflict stupendous losses upon the attackers.

Fortunately for the Russians, the generals gathered around Brusilov, now commanding the Southwestern Front, had pondered recent failures and developed new sets of operational and tactical approaches. These envisaged employing infantry assaults simultaneously at several different places with a minimum of artillery preparation. In fact, since Stavka was supporting the offensives in the north, when Brusilov proposed launching a secondary offensive, he was forced to achieve surprise by using only the forces in place for his planned strike toward the Carpathians. This was to take place along a 14-mile front at Lutsk, supported by attacks on smaller sectors at Tarnopol and Yazlovetsa, and a demonstration toward Lvov. Aerial photographs were used to brief his troops on opposing trench systems while secrecy was preserved by effective camouflage and building large underground bunkers, in which to hide the attackers. He also dispensed with the always visible cavalry, usually concentrated in masses behind the front, at the risk of not being able to support a breakthrough.

In the meantime the ltalians had appealed for help after the Austrians overran their positions in the Trentino. Consequendy, Brusilov launched his offensive 11 days early, on 22 May 1916. His armies struck along a 300-mile front in Galicia and Bukovina, with the important rail center at Kovel as their target. Because Stavka had withheld artillery support, Brusilov’s own guns fired only 250 rounds each in the first two days as compared to 600 rounds used daily on the Somme. Surprise was complete and the Austrian lines were ruptured, Lutsk recaptured, and the battle joined along the Strypa River (29 May-17 June). The Hapsburg forces were completely disorganized and demoralized, forcing the Germans once more to come to their aid. Making efficient use of the rail net, the Germans attacked the northern edge of the Lutsk salient. This stabilized the front, but not before Chernowitz fell to Brusilov’s Russians. Meanwhile, to the north, Stavka had attacked from Baranovichi. But like the simultaneous Battle of the Somme in France, this assault failed to break the opposing line, although the fighting lasted only 12 days. As for Brusilov, he now reverted to employing heavy bombardments and massive infantry attacks that failed to take the Kovno railhead. He declared his offensive ended on 31 July, though some heavy fighting continued thereafter, and his forces suffered 500,000 casualties in all. Yet his opponents had lost 1.5 million men and 582 guns.

Unfortunately Brusilov’s successes were quickly balanced by defeats elsewhere. After prolonged negotiations, Allied promises and Russia’s Galician victories persuaded the Rumanians to enter the war on 14 August 1916. Against Russian advice, they at once attacked Hungarian Transylvania, where Germans and Bulgarians under von Mackensen and von Falkenhayn quickly surrounded their forces at Hermannstadt. Having then captured the port of Constanza, the two German-Ied forces broke through the Carpathian passes into Wallachia and advanced upon Bucharest, which the Rumanians abandoned. As a result, Brusilov was soon forced to thin and extend his front some 300 miles to the southeast to open his own Rumanian front. The Rumanian retreat finally ended on the Sereth River in January 1917, but it left the Germans in control of Rumanian wheat and oil.

Despite this setback, the Allied meeting at Chantilly in November 1916 remained optimistic due to the German failure at Verdun and Brusilov’s success in the East. Although Alekseev was concerned over the Balkans, the Allies put that region in second place in their plans for victory in 1917. Nicholas 11 shared this view and Stavka began implementing the Chantilly plan for simultaneous offensives in France, Italy, and Russia. To keep the Germans off balance, in late December Russia’s Northern Front struck silendy through the fog to open the Mitau Operation, which recaptured and held Riga in a five-day batde. But on 9 January 1917 the Germans counterattacked and in time recovered most of the lost ground. Nevertheless, by the month’s end the 12th Army had stopped the Germans and held before Riga. The Mitau Operation, the last offensive of the tsar’s Stavka, demonstrated that Brusilov’s methods had spread throughout the Imperial Army, that it was still capable of defeating both Austrians and Germans, and that it could cooperate in the Allies’ planned offensives.

That this was possible was thanks to the industrial mobilization carried out under the aegis of the Special Council for State Defense. Since 1914 the Russian economy had expanded, not collapsed, with growth rates over 110 percent annually. The tsar wisely resisted Stavka’s proposal of mid-1916 for a military dictatorship. By 1917 the output of rifles was up 1,100 percent, that of shells by 2,000 percent, and in October 1917 the victorious Bolsheviks inherited a reserve of 18 million shells. The story was similar in other areas of production and by January 1917 Russian soldiers finally were entering battle fully equipped with even reserve gasmasks. What gaps remained promised to be filled by Allied aid after the Inter-Allied conference that opened in Petrograd on 19 January 1917. Manpower demands had slackened with only 3,048,000 men having been added in 1916. But if this gave a grand total of 14,648,000 since August 1914, most of these new troops were of declining quality, and war-weariness was sapping civilian morale. Most important, in June 1916 an order to draft 400,000 inhabitants from Turkestan and Central Asia provoked a major rebellion that sucked off forces to put it down.

At the same time, rapid industrialization had brought urban overcrowding, wartime shortages, and inflation. The value of the paper ruble, which increased in circulation six times as compared to 1914, had dropped from 56 to 27 kopecks by 1917. Most significant of all was the crisis provoked by the overloaded and aging railway system. The tsar and his ministers sought fixes that would prevent breakdowns, food shortages, and riots. Yet Nicholas’ attempt to have the new chairman of the Council of Ministers, Prince M. D. Golytsyn, reorganize the transport system failed, and this led directly to the food riots in Petrograd that sparked the revolution and forestalled the regime’s remedial measures.

If Russia’s leaders still had room for optimism in January 1917, their efforts were being undercut by the pessimism reigning in unofficial Russian political circles. This last was a major factor in the February Revolution. It stemmed from a general war-weariness, but also from the persistent “antiblack forces” campaign. This last had made it difficult for the monarch to find acceptable ministers even since the reconvening of the Duma in February 1916. Though Nicholas apparently ignored his wife’s advice, Rasputin’s claims of influence gave credence to mounting rumors. Then in October, the Progressive Bloc’s bureau resolved to attack the government in the person of Chairman of the Council of Ministers R. V. Sturmer, whom they saw as a German protege of Rasputin. When the Duma reassembled in November 1916, both the Kadet leader P. N. Miliukov on the Left, and V. V. Shulgin and V. A. Malakov on the Right, delivered seditious speeches accusing the government of conduct that was either stupid or treasonous. Rumors of a separate peace increased, and this despite formal denials by the ministers for war and the navy. Nicholas’ changes of other ministers brought little relief and, faced with further opposition demands, the tsar stood firm.

On the night before the Duma adjourned in late 1916, highly placed conspirators assassinated Rasputin. But this achieved nothing and, by early 1917, Imperial Russia presented a strange picture. Its successful industrial mobilization and recent military achievements had little impact on the pessimism in the rear. Even as Nicholas struggled with the railway and provisioning crisis, the French and British ambassadors overstepped diplomatic bounds and advised him to make concessions. Rumors were rife that the tsar was under pressure to abdicate, and that plans were afoot for a palace military coup d’etat. Even Grand Duke Nikolai failed to tell the tsar that the mayor of Tiflis had proposed that he lead an anti-tsarist coup, but that he had refused on the grounds that the army would not follow him. Thus the Empire entered a new period of winter shortages as a house divided against itself.


Austria’s last Turkish War 1788–1790

Clash between Russo-Austrian and Turkish troops in the Battle of Rymnik

The Crimea was not the only trouble spot in the strained relations between St. Petersburg and Constantinople; and its annexation certainly did not quench Russia’s thirst for expansion. The Caucasian kingdom of Georgia, which had submitted to Russian suzerainty in 1783–84, was another problem area. A major offensive by Catherine and Joseph II against the moribund Ottoman Empire was widely expected. To many observers it seemed an ill omen that in spring 1787 the Emperor undertook a second journey to Russia to accompany the Czarina on her inspection tour through the Crimea which she had been able to annex not least thanks to Austrian backing. Vienna did its very best to restrain Russia: as long as Prussia had not been dealt with, the Austrians argued, the Turkish question could not be tackled without the risk of a wide-ranging war.

In the end, it was the Porte that in August 1787, after numerous Russian provocations, declared war on Catherine II. Despite all its sabre-rattling and partition plans, Russia was unprepared for the decisive confrontation, but at least the conflict could now be presented to the European public as a defensive war against an aggressor. Turkish aggression also made it much more difficult for France to continue its traditional role as the Sultan’s protector against Russian rapacity.

In view of the beginning of unrest in Belgium (p. 387), war could not have come at a more inopportune moment for the Emperor, who in accordance with the 1781 alliance was obliged to assist the Russians with his full might, and Vienna felt that it had to act promptly so as not to annoy the Czarina. What Joseph had to make sure this time was that Austria did not come away empty-handed again, as over the Crimea in 1783–84. In essence, Austria’s only vaguely defined war aims corresponded to Joseph’s counter-demands as presented in his response to Catherine’s ‘Greek Project’ back in 1782: the re-establishment of the borderline as defined by the peace of Passarowitz in 1718 (with Belgrade, northern Serbia and Little Walachia), the whole of Bosnia and the fortress of Khotin – not forgetting the Venetian possessions, especially Dalmatia. This would limit Russian gains in the region and secure maximum expansion at Turkish cost.

By September 1787 mobilization throughout the Habsburg Monarchy was in full swing but the relatively cautious strategy adopted for 1788 stood in stark contrast to the Emperor’s extremely ambitious war aims. According to a plan devised by the unpopular military reformer Lacy, Joseph’s éminence grise in all matters military, no fewer than six armies of varying strength were to cover the whole stretch of the Habsburg-Ottoman frontier, from the Adriatic to the Dniester: first, the main army under the personal command of Joseph II (assisted by Lacy) concentrating around Semlin opposite Belgrade; second, the Una army in Croatia; third, an army corps operating along the Sava in Slavonia; fourth, a corps to cover the Banat; fifth, another corps protecting Transylvania; sixth, an army under Friedrich Josias of Sachsen-Coburg deployed in Galicia and the Bukovina. All in all some 245,000 men with 898 field guns and 252 siege guns were mobilized along the Turkish front; later, the number was to rise further to 294,000 men but a sizeable proportion of the army had to stay behind in the north to guard the frontier with Prussia.

The main army was to capture Belgrade first, while by means of a pincer movement the Croatian and Slavonian corps were to invade Bosnia via the Una and Sava. Together with the corps in Transylvania, Sachsen-Coburg’s Bukovina army was to undertake diversions towards the Danube further east and capture Khotin on the Dniester. It was hoped rather naively that after the first campaign the left bank of the Danube would be under Austrian control as far as its confluence with the river Aluta; that done, the road to the Ottoman capital would be open. But soon the usual problems of coalition warfare surfaced once again. Cooperation was made difficult by differing strategic emphases and subsequent problems of coordination fuelled by mutual distrust; in the absence of any significant synergy the partnership’s respective operations each appeared mere diversions. While Joseph II placed the main strategic emphasis on the Danube between Belgrade, Orşova and Vidin, the Russians – once Oczakov, the first goal of the campaign, had been captured – would concentrate on the lower reaches and the estuaries of the rivers Dniester, Pruth and Danube.

Accordingly, the Russians assembled two operating armies: the main force under Prince Potemkin was to advance towards Oczakov in the Dnieper estuary, while a second corps was to cover the main army’s flank in the Ukraine and, joining the extreme Austrian left wing in Galicia and the Bukovina, could invade Moldavia. Although goaded on by Vienna, Russia was very slow to mobilize fully. It was not until summer 1788 that Potemkin really began the siege of Oczakov – time enough for the Turks to concentrate on repelling the Austrian attack on Belgrade. Fearing as much, the Emperor had tried to put off his formal declaration of war until his army would be ready to strike. In December 1787 and again in January 1788 the Austrians even tried to capture the fortress of Belgrade by a treacherous coup de main. In both cases, however, the attempt was thwarted by bad weather and poor visibility. Attempts to incite and support revolts against Turkish rule in the Balkans, especially in Montenegro, were also of little avail: the Russians no doubt were in a better position to win the hearts of their Orthodox brothers. At the beginning of February 1788, the formal Austrian declaration of war was handed over at Constantinople.

In the first campaign the Austrian forces at first did not fare much better either. Little progress was made along the Una and Sava, while the main army under Joseph II dug itself in around Belgrade but without seriously starting the siege; with 200–300 men falling ill per day, disease and summer heat were already taking their toll. Meanwhile, the Turkish vanguard had reached the Danube at Vidin in July 1788. At the beginning of August the Turks crossed the river and broke into the Banat, driving back the Austrian army corps there. Accompanied by some 20,000 soldiers from his main army, Joseph II hurried to the relief of the retreating Banat corps and took up a defensive position in the upper valley of the Temeş to stop the Ottoman advance. By mid-September, however, most checkpoints on the Danube’s northern bank had been lost: the whole river as far as Belgrade was now under Turkish control and the Banat thus lay wide open to Turkish incursions. On top of all that the enemy threatened to attack Joseph’s rear through Transylvania. At the end of September 1788 Joseph ordered his troops to withdraw to Caransebeş, while a false alarm sufficed to make the nervous army flood back in panic as far as Lugos. The Emperor returned to his camp before Belgrade in late October. By the end of the year, he was back in Vienna, demoralized by the withdrawal of September and visibly exhausted by what was to prove a fatal pulmonary disease.

The Turks in their turn did not advance further but rather began to clear the Banat after mid-October 1788, wreaking enormous havoc, as they moved: in the immediate border zone alone, 36,000 civilians were said to have been killed, abducted or forced to flee. Much of the laborious colonization work of the past decades had thus been destroyed within a few months; what was more, firmly based at Orşova north of the Danube the Turks might repeat their work of destruction whenever they wished.

Success in other theatres of war could hardly compensate for the embarrassing loss of face in the Banat. On the Una, at least, Dubica was taken in summer 1788, after Laudon had assumed command in Croatia and Slavonia. Novi followed in October, though it was not until July 1789 that Berbir finally surrendered to the Austrians. The army in Transylvania had initially gone on the offensive, invading the Turkish tributary principalities of Moldavia and Walachia. But soon, massive enemy counter-attacks directed against the mountain passes forced the Austrians on to the defensive. The most spectacular successes were achieved by the army in Galicia and the Bukovina under Sachsen-Coburg, who – ignoring the Emperor’s orders – took the offensive. Between April and July 1788, and again after September, Austrian troops occupied the Moldavian capital of Iaşi. In cooperation with Russian forces Sachsen-Coburg forced Khotin to capitulate in September 1788. St. Petersburg suggested that for the next campaign the Austrian troops in Transylvania should join the corps under Sachsen-Coburg and try to march further south towards the Danube. The underlying idea was to tie down Ottoman forces in that area in order to take pressure off the Russian operations against Bessarabia, which was expected to be the focus of a Turkish counter-attack. Joseph II, however, was furious: he had expected the Russians to occupy Walachia as far as the river Aluta and thus give the Austrians more freedom to capture Belgrade.

The weakened Emperor was unable to join his troops for the campaign of 1789, and so the 79-year-old field marshal Hadik, president of the Aulic War Council, assumed supreme command over the Austrian main army. Yet in spite of his past as a dashing leader of light troops he was no longer the man to capture Belgrade (which the Emperor desired as a pledge for peace negotiations with the Porte) and in late July 1789 the 72-year-old Laudon superseded him, despite his disappointing performance during the War of the Bavarian Succession. After pressing orders from Vienna, Laudon stormed Belgrade in mid-September. 62,000 Austrian soldiers faced a Turkish garrison of some 9,000 men, who finally capitulated on 8 October 1789.

Even in the other theatres of war, things went well that year. Renewed Turkish attacks on the Banat and Transylvania were repelled in the summer, while further east, in Moldavia, thanks to efficient cooperation, the allies had held the initiative ever since 1788. On 1 August 1789 Russians under Suvorov and Austrians under Sachsen-Coburg defeated the Turks at Focşani, followed by another decisive victory over the main Ottoman army under the grand vizier at Martineşti (22 September 1789). Thus, while Austrian forces were advancing down the Danube from the west, Walachia also lay open to invasion from the east. Even without the Russian auxiliary corps called away to the siege of Bender Sachsen-Coburg from the east and the Transylvanian corps from beyond the north occupied Walachia marching into Bucharest in November 1789. Meanwhile, the Russians secured the Dniester line by taking Akkerman (October 1789) and Bender (November 1789).

A high price had to be paid for these successes, which were impressive but not decisive: enormous war costs, heavy casualties among the civilian population of the Banat and equally high losses in the army decimated principally by illnesses and epidemics. Between June 1788 and May 1789 alone there were 172,000 sick and wounded on the army lists, 33,000 of whom died. By contrast the storming of Belgrade in autumn 1789 cost only 300 dead and 750 wounded. As a consequence of the steadily-rising demands of recruitment, unrest was growing in various Habsburg provinces. The exemptions granted to large sectors of society under the Konskription system had to be reduced in order to guarantee a regular supply of recruits, and this began to arouse resentment.

Kaunitz was at a loss to understand why, despite its modern equipment and high standard of training, the Austrian army found it so difficult to drive back ‘those barbarians’, as he called the Turks, into the recesses of the Balkans. No doubt psychological aspects still played a major role. The Turks remained the most dreaded enemy, and warfare in the Balkans continued to be markedly more savage than in a normal ‘cabinet war’ between Christian powders, the fate of Christian prisoners being particularly oppressive. The over-cautious and formalized western-style way of warfare proved woefully inadequate against charging hords of Turkish warriors whenever the undeniable superiority of drill and firepower on which the army’s self-confidence was essentially based could not be brought to bear. On principle, Lacy had strongly recommended a defensive posture and extreme caution: Spanish riders for the infantry, cuirasses and even the long-discarded helmets for the cavalry were once more produced from the armouries; fighting in large squares (en carré) was adopted for better safety in the open field. For the superiority of modern fighting methods to develop to the full, the rough terrain along much of Austria’s Turkish front was indeed considerably less suited than the wide open plains of Bessarabia or Moldavia, where the Russians but also Austrian forces under Sachsen-Coburg won spectacular victories over numerically far superior Turkish armies.

Austria’s rather bureaucratic way of waging war, very much concerned with preserving men and materiel, could not compete with the Russian variety of warfare merging modern western military organization with atavistic traits of ‘Asiatic’ ruthlessness (both against one’s own men and the enemy) which repeatedly shocked Europe. Moreover, unlike Russia, the Habsburg Monarchy was not separated from the Ottoman Empire by vast steppe zones that protected the more densely populated heartlands. Joseph II was thus forced to protect developed lands against immediate Turkish incursions along the immense common frontier with the Sultan and could not bring his military potential to bear on one point. In a further respect, Austria’s last Turkish war was clearly different from all former confrontations with the Ottoman Empire: it was a war conducted solely for power political reasons and aims and was not a defensive battle in the interest of Christendom. Hence neither the Reich nor individual German princes sent auxiliary troops, and some European states actually sympathized with the Turkish cause. Certainly the Sultan had started the war, but more in self-defence than anything else.