Issue E012 of 30 June 2001

The Expansionist Policy of Catherine the Great towards the Ottoman Empire (1763-1796)

Fotini Orphanos
B.A. (Hist.)

Catherine the GreatIn the second half of the 18th century only one power dominated the affairs of the European continent: Russia. Russia with her policies and her wars tried to become a powerful state which would influence the fates of many European countries. It followed an expansionist policy at the expense of other powers and many of them tried to react. One of these was the Ottoman Empire, a power with long tradition in Europe, which had dominated European politics the previous centuries. Russia, under the rule of Catherine the Great tried to conquer the Turkish dominions in Europe and this policy, even if it did not bring the expected results for the Russians, proved to be successful as long as it gave momentum to the territorial expansion of Russia. Moreover, it gave them also the opportunity to intervene and control the domestic affairs of the Ottoman state. Catherine, following the guidelines of her predecessors but adjusting them to her needs and her personality, managed -if not successfully all the times- to remain a great power in respect to her targets. Even if she did not accomplish all of her aims she was not defeated in a period where the war with Turkey was only one of the fronts that Russia had to face.

If we want a historical perspective of the Russian foreign policy, we must go back to the times of Peter the Great, who in the 17th century tried and managed to transform Russia from a medieval isolated state into a promising great power that had the ability to confront successfully its enemies and entered the mentality of the "Balance of power systems". From then on, Russia with the appropriate diplomatic movements and mainly with the formation of alliances of its attacking attitude, managed to become one of the protagonists on the scene of European reality. Russian diplomats were always trying to pursue the best for their country and the wars that Russia conducted, brought considerable gains. In one of theses wars, in the "Seven Years War" in 1736- 1739, Russia, for the first time, came in conflict with Turkey, an old European power who was rather in decline. Peter the Great managed to settle the problems with Sweden; Catherine the Great will manage to settle the problem with Turkey (Riasanovsky, 1993: p250-253).

Before we go on, it is necessary to have a look at Catherine's personality, a personality that determined a lot the foreign policy of Russia. As Riasanovsky says: "The empress possessed high intelligence, a natural ability to administer and govern, a remarkable practical sense, energy to spare and an iron will." Catherine was convinced that she could be the winner in every case, so in the case of Turkey her actions were motivated from a desire to glorify the crown of Russia but rather by a personal struggle to be always the best, to be the winner in everything that she was doing, in order to have everything and everyone under control. Her character was a determining factor for the foreign policy of Russia as Long as she wanted to be the unchallenged sovereign ruler, a ruler who would not be responsible for the fates of Russian people only but also for the fates of all her neighboring countries. So, Catherine the Great, by paying personal attention to the matters of Russian reality, managed to leave her own stamp on the Russian state at the second half of the 18th century (Riasanovsky , 1993:p256).

So, in 1773, Catherine needed a peaceful period in order to strengthen her position on the Russian throne and restore the economy of the country. Then, the Russian minister of foreign affairs Nikita Panin, proposed the creation of an alliance system, the so-called "Northern system" whose purpose was the protection of Russia's western frontier. However , this scheme was not meant to work as Long as it was limited to the countries of Prussia, Russia and Denmark and because of Frederick's strong opposition who had in his mind an alliance between only Russia and Prussia, fearing that a third ally would strengthen Russians position. In other words, this system of alliances was a plan in order to strengthen the Russian state especially in the economic field, something that would help the maintenance of large armies, a mean required if Russia wanted to keep the status of the great power. However, there were not the systems of alliances that determined the international relations in the 18th century but rather a trend where the strong "was expanding at the expense of the weak". So between 1763 and 1795, the major territorial changes in Eastern Europe took the form of forced acquisitions of land mainly from Poland and from the Ottoman Empire (Stiles, 1991:p131-132 ).

Concerning the Ottoman Empire, the story starts when Russia decided to partition Poland. In 1764, Frederick the Great of Prussia concluded a treaty with Russia "reciprocally guaranteeing their territories" and promising mutual assistance in the case that one's territories were invaded. What followed this agreement was a decision for the dismemberment of Poland and its partition between them. Soon, Maria Theresa of Austria joined this "partnership" with the aim to gain something out of it. The Porte was strongly opposed to this policy, it protested but unfortunately for its interests, the complaints were in vain. The Russian government had a hostile attitude towards the Ottoman Empire as Long as it represented another world, a barbaric one, a world which did not have any place in Europe. Thus its attitude towards Turkey was rather provocative ( Eversley-Chirol,1969:p212-213 ).

Another reason for this attitude was, according to Huncrak, the Russian ambition to export a portion of grain production beyond the regions of the black Sea where it could be sold in higher prices. This ambition came in contrast with the ottoman fear that high prices could cause public disturbances in the empire 50 they had to strive to weaken the Russian power concerning her ambitions for the regions of the Black sea and the Straits (Huncrak, 1974:p213-214 )

Nevertheless, the hostilities between these two countries started from a rather unimportant incident which proved to be the motive for the first Russo-Turkish war. The story goes back when Russia intervened in Poland on behalf of the orthodox Dissidents. This intervention lead to the formation of the anti-Russian Confederation of Bar in 1768. In the guerrilla war that followed, a group of orthodox Cossacks crossed the Ottoman borders in order to catch some Polish Confederates and in their effort to catch them, they caused important damages. The Ottoman government had already been complained to the Russians for their occupation of polish lands but this incident showed clearly that the Russian troops were not going to withdraw from Poland, on the contrary more and more troops were arriving in Poland, operating very close to the ottoman borders, putting in danger the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire. In 1768 the Sultan issued an ultimatum and he demanded the immediate withdrawal of Russian forces from the territories of Poland, implying in this way, the end of Russian protection to the Polish Dissidents. As it was expected, the Russian delegate rejected all these demands and as a result he was imprisoned. This imprisonment meant automatically the beginning of a war between these two countries ( Stiles, 1991 :p132 ).

This war started certainly with more advantages for Turkey than for Russia. First of all, Turks had under their control the Crimean peninsula, an important part for their powers as Long as it gave them an entrance to the Russian mainland. Furthermore, the Black sea was under Ottoman control, a fact that made possible the easier access of the supplies at any point along the coast and gave them the main choice for the theater of the military operations. Last, the Ottoman armies were nearer their bases while on the contrary, the Russian ones were far from their country, they had to walk many miles and transport along them their supplies. (Madariaga, 1981 :p207 ). However, all those advantages of the Ottomans, proved to be inefficient in this war with the Russians. In 1770, the Ottoman sea-power suffered heavy losses despite the fact that the only Russian access to the sea was through the Baltic Sea. There happened several battles between them and in One of those the entire Ottoman fleet was destroyed by the fleet of Alexei Orlov , and eleven thousand people died. Nevertheless, the success of the Russian fleet did not have any continuity as Long as its effort to blockade the Dardaneles, an important post for them, failed. The next year, the most important military success for the Russians , was the occupation of Crimea. This occupation occurred because the Khan of Crimea ( Crimea was a vassal state in the Ottoman Empire ) decided to seek refugee in the Ottoman Empire. So he left his successors to open negotiations with Russia. These discussions ended in the next year with the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardjii where the two countries proclaimed their "eternal friendship" and Crimea was proclaimed independent. (Stiles, 1991 : 132-133 ) .

Nevertheless, no matter the gains for Russians, Catherine desired a peace with the Porte because the losses for her were in reality more than the gains. Catherine, a realist personality as she was, had understood that this war had caused many economic problems to Russia because the expenses for the army were devastating. The imposed taxes had created social unrest and the plague which had hit Moscow had created unrest to the masses. Furthermore, being involved in this war, did not allow her to control the actions of Prussia and Austria in Poland. Neither of these two countries wanted a strong Russia that would take a part of the Ottoman Empire. Thus, Austria, had forced a secret alliance with the Ottomans and in case of Russian territorial conquests Austria would try to return them by any means back to the Ottoman Empire. When Catherine learned about this secret agreement, she tried and finally managed to make Maria Theresa change her mind by promising her a part of Poland (Stiles, 1991 :p134 ). As we see, Catherine cleverly enough was trying above all to secure her interests and she did not insisted so much on territorial gains when she realized that other problems were more important for the future of Russia.

Thus, in 1772, a temporary truce was agreed between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, where Catherine was extremely insisting on proposing the peace terms. In One of her letters, she writes: "On no account do I wish that the Turks should dictate to me what ships I may OF may not have on the Black Sea. The Turks are beaten, it is not for them to lay down the law to us". However, the hostilities started again in 1773 and ended in 1774 when Russian troops crossed the Danube and came upon a main body of the Turkish army, an army which could not resist to the Russians and it was completely destroyed. The Ottomans had no other choice but to conclude a peace. The peace was signed in 1774 and it was totally humiliating for the Ottoman Empire ( Stiles, 1991 :p134-135 ).

The terms of the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji which was on July 16 177 4 were extremely important for the territorial expansion of Russia as Long as it gave her an exit to Mediterranean Sea. In the article 11 of the treaty, it says:

For the profit and benefit of both empires there will be free and unhindered navigation for merchant vessel belonging to the two contracting powers in all seas washing their lands; and the sublime Porte will permit Russian merchant vessels to have free passage from the black Dea to White ( i.e Mediterranean )... (Vernadsky et. al., 1972:p407 )

So, from the above article, one can understand that Russia was free to navigate in the Black Sea and the Danube something of great importance as Long as it was gaining more "space" in the struggle for territorial expansion. Moreover, the left bank of Dneiper "remains in the complete eternal and unquestioned possession of the Russian Empire". Further, Russia acquired the city of Arof, an important trade center in the black Sea. However, the importance of the treaty of "Kutchuk Kainardji" is not lying on the fact that Russia had some territorial gains out of this conflict, Russia had also to give to the Ottomans some territories such as Bessarabia, Wallachiia and Moldavia ( Vernadsky et. al., 1972:p407 ).

The great significance of the treaty lies on the fact that Russia had managed to interfere in the domestic affairs of the Ottoman Empire. In the clause 16 of the treaty it says:

Not to hinder in any manner whatsoever the absolutely free profession of the Christian faith OF the erection of new churches and the repair of old ones to recognize and respect the clergy with the honor due his class."

According to this clause Russia had the right to regulate the internal affairs of the Ottomans, having as pretext the protection of Christian populations. So there Porte had to accept a permanent Russian ambassador and in addition Russian consuls could be put wherever the tsar thought appropriate. (Fisher, 1990:p244, Vernadsky et. al., 1972:p407). Furthermore, with this treaty, Russia gives another blow to the Porte as long as we have the declaration of the Crimean independence, previously part of the Ottoman Empire, inhabited by Muslim populations. Even though it did not go in the hands of Russians, the loss of Crimea was a great hit for Turkey. (Eversley-Chirol, 1969:p221) In a letter addressed to Catherine by her general Potemkin, it is stressed the importance of Crimea as Long as its acquisition would give security to the Russian Empire. If Catherine's policy could influence the inhabitants of Crimea, then Russia would have another ally on her side, a valuable ally situated at the borders of the two empires (Vernadsky et. al., 1972:p411). So if we want to have a spherical view for the importance of the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji, we see that it signifies in a way the beginning for the partition of the Ottoman Empire. This treaty "tore" a part which was a Muslim province, moreover it gave to Russia the right of intervention on behalf of all Christian populations, starting a humiliation for the Porte that would be continued the next century as well and putting the foundation for future claims of Russia.

The treaty of Kutchuck Kainardji was a great victory for Russia and one would expect that Catherine would be satisfied with its clauses. However, Catherine had hoped to expel the Ottomans from the European territories that is why she considered her plans as incomplete and she persisted with her provocative policy from 1780-1782. She started "playing" with the so called "Greek project" which aimed at the partitioning of the Ottoman state in the area of the Balkans in such a way as to keep the balance of power in eastern Europe and at the same time revive the Byzantine Empire. The treaty of 1774 gave the right to Russia to intervene in Turkey for the protection of the Christian populations. This protection could become easier with the occupation of Constantinople (modern Instanbul), the previous capital of the Byzantine Empire. The acquisition of Constantinople would also include a part of Greece as well as the Balkan principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia which would become the independent state of Dacia. There, Potemkin would become prince in order to assure Russian influence. Furthermore, Joseph of Austria (an ally of Russians) would also receive for himself the western Balkans. Catherine's plans against the Ottoman Empire did not include assaults only against its northern territories but as Kitromilides says "provided also for the incitement of the Sublime Porte's Christian subjects to revolt in order to divert Ottoman forces from the main fronts."( Kitromilides, 1994:p354/Stiles, 1991 :p136-137 ).

Catherine would also provide the Emperor of this revived Byzantine empire, planning to put her grandson Constantine in this post so that to assure her influence (Wren, 1963: 309 ). As we see, Catherine had in her mind a good idea for the shifting of the balance of power, as Long as she had many appeal from the orthodox populations of the Balkans-especially from the Greeks- so she would not face any problem with the native populations as Long as the Balkan part of the Ottoman Empire had a different mentality from the Ottomans due to the different religion and the ties between these two people were not very strong. (Kitromilides, 1994: p 356 )

Yet, Russia was not alone in this effort. Joseph II of Austria had his own ideas and interests concerning the partition of Turkey. His aim was to push his country's borders beyond Belgrade and get the Turkish provinces at the north end of the Adriatic. These suggestions were not much liked by Catherine and the two powers came at a dead look for the "disposition of the spoils". It is doubtful whether the Ottoman Empire could have faced an attack from these two countries because at this point it had internal problems and certainly it was not at the zenith of its military power ( Wren, 1963:p309-31 0 ) Thus in other words , this scheme was proved to be impracticable because it required a high degree of co-operation between Catherine and Joseph and an equally high degree of not intervention from the other European Powers (Prussia ).

But Catherine's plans did not stop here. She found another way to provoke Turkey: by annexing Crimea. The annexation of Crimea was completed in 1783. The idea had started with the treaty of 1774 when Prussia had promised to treat the Crimean tartars as an independent nation "accountable to God only for their internal government". The whole story with the Russia intervention in Crimea started when the Tartars elected as their Khan a man who was not very much influenced by the Russian plans so the Russians organized revolts against him and made these troubles the pretext for intervening in the affairs of Crimea. Soon after this event, new elections were proclaimed, a pro-Russian was elected who was not however very much liked by the people of this country. So, the new leader asked for the help of Catherine and Catherine responded. The Sultan was very weak to begin a war so in 1779 a convention was signed between Russia and Turkey in order to renew the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji which also recognized the pro-Russian leader as Khan. In 1781 another revolt broke out and Potemkin advised Catherine to put an end to the problem of Crimea by annexing it. Catherine followed his advice and in April 1783 she issued a manifest proclaiming the Russian annexation of Crimea ( Creasy, 1968:p42-423 ).

After this event one would expect that the Turks would react. However, they did not respond militarily. They were not in a position to react as Long as there were not any allies to support them. France was occupied with the war against Britain, while Austria feared that a possible assistance to Turkey would bring Russian troops in her territories, moreover, as Stiles writes "there was a growing feeling among the major European powers that the Ottoman Empire was hardly worth saving". Yet, Austria issued a declaration saying that in a possible war between Russia and Turkey, Austria would support Russia. Under these circumstances in January 1784, the Ottomans recognized the Russian annexation of Crimea. A large part of the Ottoman Empire had been added in Catherine's lands and the balance of power in the Black sea was shifting in an obvious way in favor of Catherine. However, this annexation was not the only plan that Catherine had in her mind for the further expansion of her territories at the expense of the Turkish ones. In 1783 she had signed a treaty with the most important kingdoms of Georgia, transforming in this way the whole area into a Russian protectorate. Russian troops were send there for the building of a fortress which would serve them as their base for further conquests in the area of Caucasus, Potemkin became the ruler of Crimea in 1785 and along with the Black sea lands he had under his dominion an area starting from the river Bug up to the Caspian sea. He was proved to be an ambitious man who was however acting on behalf of Catherine. Catherine was also planning the further acquisitions of Armenia and Azerbaijan but these plans did not work because a new war between Russia and Turkey broke out (Stiles, 1991 :138-139 )

In the autumn of 1886 the dispute between Turkey and Russia became more acute as Long as the first were deeply concerned for the Russian expansion in the Caucasus, Russian's interference in the Ottoman trade and their involvement in the administrative affairs of the Balkans (Madariaga, 1981 :p393 ). In the summer of 1787, Catherine received an ultimatum from the Ottomans that she had to remove her troops from Georgia and in addition she was asked to allow the Porte to search the Russian ships that were sailing in Turkish waters and to accept the appointment of a Turkish consul at Crimea. Few days later the Porte denounced all the treaties with Russia and demanded the return of Crimea. The ultimatum was given to the Russian delegate in Constantinople but he refused to accept it. So three days later he was imprisoned and the war begun. The Turkish declaration of war was issued on 24 August 1787 and Catherine had on her side only Joseph of Austria who was hoping to limit in this way the Russian expansion at the expense of Turkey .So, in February 1788 he entered a war "to be fought in those accursed countries in the midst of every disease of plague and of hunger, and all to gain little. " ( Stiles, 1991 : 139-140 )

Nevertheless, the declaration of this war was coming at a moment where Catherine was facing economic problems but above all the danger that was coming from Sweden. Sweden taking advantage of the Russian preparations for the war in the south, launched an attack in July 1788 and St. Petersburg was in danger of capture. The Swedish threat did not last Long but it was a serious distraction to the Russian efforts at the beginning of the war against the ottomans. After this threat the Russian forces were totally devoted in their effort to push back their enemies. The Russian army was consisting of a cavalry force of 62000 men, 244 field guns and 178 siege guns. The Russian navy was divided into the Black sea and the Baltic sea fleets, while on the Danube there was a flotilla of small boats and a fleet of 3 frigates. (Madariaga, 1981 : 295-296 )

The war between these two powers started but Catherine did not have the successes of the first war. The new fleet won some battles but it lost a large number of ships from a Black sea storm. Furthermore the Russian troops crossed the Dniester but it was hard for them to go against a re-organized and relatively strong Turkish army. On the other hand the Balkan campaign proved to be more successful with Russians victory at Rimnic. Austrians were also advancing and they captured Belgrade and Bucharest. So Catherine seemed to be successful in a war where she had to face not only Turkey but also other powers such as Britain , France and Prussia that were determined to resist any further upset in the balance of power in the East. Suddenly the Emperor of Austria died leaving Russia alone for the final attack to Turkey .In 1790, Russians got the fortress of Ismail on the Danube while the Russian fleet caused a series of devastating blows to the Turkish fleet. After all these the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire will be forced to ask for a peace (Lentin, 1973: p95-96).

The end of the second Russo-Turkish war lead immediately to the treaty of Jassy where the two powers settled their differences. This treaty added little to the gains of Kutchuk Kainardji. The "de facto" annexation of Crimea was recognized "de jure" and some territorial gains were made on the part of Russia extending her territories from the coast of the black Sea to the Dneister .On the other hand , Russians maintained their rule within Turkish Empire while the Russian advances in the heartland of the Ottoman Empire and especially at the area of the straits was halted. In other words Russia kept Ochakov and the land between the Bug and the Dneister rivers but returned her Balkan conquests back to the ottomans while the Ottomans accepted officially the Russian annexation of Crimea. ( Kirchnev 1964:p121-122 ).

The treaty of Jassy brought Catherine far less than she had hoped for. Her main target at the beginning of her policy was to get rid of the Ottomans, to expel them from the European continent and conquer their lands, in other words to "condense" in a way the size of the empire.

The treaty of Jassy did not stop Catherine from her ambitious, she continued her struggle to occupy the Dardanells so in 1795 she agreed upon a treaty with the New Austrian emperor, Francis 11 in order to accomplish her plans. Unfortunately for her, this plan d id not work as Long as the French revolution had broken out, an event which absorbed the interest of almost all European powers including of course Russia. Finally, her death in 1796 put an end to Russian plans for the disaster of the Ottoman Empire, however temporarily because in the turning of the next century Alexander I will come back and will continue the policy of his predecessors. ( Stiles, 1991 :p137- 138)

The evaluation of Catherine's expansionist policy towards the Ottoman Empire leads to multiple conclusions. First of all, one may say that the personality of Catherine was a decisive factor for the success of the Russian wars. Her vigor, her flexibility and persistence made possible the expansion of her country at the expense of her neighbors. All these qualities enabled her to "extend her own greatness and power and therefore satisfy her incredible vanity". ( Curran, 1987:p333 ). No matter how weak, disorganized and disunited her neighbors were, Russia could not have made these territorial gains without Catherine's determination and her ability to use the European diplomacy the way she wanted. It is undeniable that Russia under Catherine's Rule achieved a considerable expansion towards the West and the South. BY establishing its presence on the Black and the Baltic seas it could develop more easily its commercial and political relations with Europe and not only. Its ships could now pass freely through the Bosporus and the Dardanelles to the Mediterranean Sea, something very desirable for her trade ambitious. Moreover, with the treaty of Kutchuk Kainardji she gained the opportunity to intervene more actively in the internal affairs of Turkey, always on behalf of the Christian populations. Thus, after all these results One might say the policy of Catherine the Great was successful; even if she had not accomplished her principal aim, she managed to have the respect of the other European powers who viewed Russia as a power which could play a decisive role in the relations of Europe with the East. So Catherine, the inspirator of the Russian foreign policy in the second half of the 18th century managed to limit at a considerable degree the power of the Ottoman empire, an empire which had lost much of the meaning of this word and was becoming little by little the "buty" of the European competition.


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