Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Russian Expansion in the Kabinettskriege Era

Putin as Peter the Great

Russia has a long and complicated history with her eastern European neighbors. At the beginning of the Kabinettskriege era, in 1648, there was no reason to suspect that Russia would rise to the status of a European power. Indeed, in those days, there was no Russia, only the small state of Muscovy. All eyes were on Sweden. Her powerful army, and exceptional leadership, gave the Swedes control and domination of much of eastern Europe, particularly in the Baltic region. By the end of the Kabinettskriege era, Russia had displaced Sweden as the dominant power in eastern Europe, and was able to do this through a complex mix of factors.

Eastern Europe in the late 17th Century

Situation in 1648

Russia (Teal/Green) had a impressive territorial empire, but lacked strategic positions and resources. Russia also had a number of powerful enemies. The greatest of these, until 1721, was the Baltic empire of Sweden (pink). Another power opponent of Russian interests was the Ottoman empire (brown), and the Ottoman empire's client state, the Crimean Khanate (bright green). Directly to Muscovy's west, the Poland-Lithuanian commonwealth possessed much territory, but was showing signs of decline.

Muscovy itself had a number of problems. Muscovy had recent emerged from the time of troubles, a disastrous  period in Russian history, which saw much instability. The Russians had also managed to survive a series of long wars against the Mongols, but the army which defeated the Mongols was now outdated. In order make Russia into a great power state, the Russians needed: 1). A stronger army 2). powerful, skillful leadership, 3) and divided and weakened states in the rest of eastern Europe. By 1789, the end of the Kabinettskriege period, Russia would achieve all of these goals, and join the ranks of the European great powers.

Figurines of 17th Century Russian Streltsy

1). Reforming the Military
Until the turn of the eighteenth century, Russian military life was dominated by the type of soldier you see above, Streltsy. These soldiers were state of the art in 1550s, but by the 1650s, had begun to show their age. In order to join the ranks of European great powers, the Russians needed to reform their military along European lines.

They adopted the flintlock musket, as opposed to the primitive matchlock used by the Streltsy, and began to dress in French and German military fashion. For most of the Kabienttskriege era, the Russian military was one of the best in the world. By 1709, the time of the cataclysmic Battle of Poltava, the Russian army began to look a bit more like this:

Early 18th Century Russian Soldiers

Peter I of Russia, "the Great"
 2). Effective Leadership

The Russian army was modernized by a man who was not a masterful tactician, but a great leader: Peter I of Russia. He lost battles in the Great Northern War, but kept Russia in the fight when his allies deserted him. He was often a brutal leader, but his methods produced results. It was his influence, more than any other factor, which led Russia to embrace a distinctly European way of life and thinking.

He had other, very effective rulers follow him as well. Both Elizabeth Petranova, his daughter, and Katherine the Great of Russia followed in his mold of making Russia a first rate European power. Under Elizabeth, the Russians defeated Frederick the Great's Prussia in the Seven Years' War, and Prussia only survived this disastrous war by tenaciously hanging in the fight until Elizabeth's death in 1762.

Katherine the Great in military dress

 3). Weakened Neighbors in Eastern Europe

The Russians were able to achieve spectacular success, because of their great army and leadership, but also because of their diplomatic choices and options. Throughout the eighteenth century, Russia was able to isolate specific enemies, and destroy them in detail. This began with the Great Northern War in 1700, and would continue throughout the eighteenth century. In the Great Northern War, Russia was able to isolate Sweden, and attack it, in an alliance with Denmark and Poland.  This war was successful and Sweden's empire was dismantled. However, this achieved a dual purpose. In the course of the war, Poland was also weakened, both economically and militarily. This would lead to the partitions of Poland, later in the eighteenth century, where Russia, Prussia, and Austria would claim large swaths of Polish territory.

Another example of this is the Russian conflict with the Ottoman empire. The Russians used their common Christianity with the Austrians to gain powerful allies, and force the Ottomans to fight a two-front war. Many of the smaller states in eastern Europe, such as Courland or the Crimean Khanate, were snapped up in times of crisis, when larger powers were too busy to intervene.

 Practical Application Today

At first glance, it might seem as though Putin is a "new" Peter the Great, as the picture at the top implies. However, there are a number of historical differences which actually work in favor of the EU and their allies. First- in the twenty-first century, it is much more noticeable when large countries annex smaller ones, thanks to instantaneous communications, social networks, etc.

Second, Putin may be a charismatic strongman, and a capable strategic leader. His diplomatic maneuvering shows some skill, and his handling of the 2008 South Ossestia war show that he has the potential to force opponents to make mistakes, and back down. With that being said, he is no Peter the Great. While he may be attempting to revitalize the Russian armed forces, those forces are still years away from matching and exceeding first world armies, such as the United States, or even France and Germany. The fact that the dispute is happening in Russia's back yard, Ukraine, indicates that despite the saber rattling, NATO and their allies have Moscow on the back foot.

Third,  the Russian army, unlike the Russian army of the eighteenth century, is badly in need of reform. However, the Ukrainian forces they would be fighting are not much better off. With that being said, Russia should worry about more than just Ukraine, should it choose to invade. While the United States might not intervene, other powers, such as Poland, Lithuania, and the Baltic States, will certainly not take Ukrainian annexation lying down.

This brings us to the fourth and final point: Europe is not divided. This is not 1914. This is not 1938. The entire continent of Europe condemns what Moscow is doing, and should Moscow attempt the total annexation of Ukraine, will act to protect European interests. The Poles, particularly, will fight to keep independence.

Thanks for Reading,

Alex Burns


  1. Some interesting thoughts, thank you.

    1. Pierre- thanks for reading! I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Good food for thought. Too often we miss the historical perspective.