Written by Nigel Huckle
Was it really ‘the shot heard ‘round the world’ if it was not heard by Catherine the Great? The sheer vastness of space between Russia and the New World in the American Colonies meant that the news of the first battles of the American Revolutionary War took weeks to arrive to the Russian empress.
However, how exactly she greeted such news has been described with significant disagreement in the domain of historical debate in the almost two-and-a-half centuries since. Though Catherine was a noteworthy monarchical patron of the Enlightenment movement, some accounts posit that she took the colonists’ revolt as an unacceptable affront to autocracy, while others still maintain that she always saw the inevitability of the Colonies’ independence from Britain, and even welcomed the possibilities of a duly-sovereign America.
Regardless of her reception of the news, Catherine’s worldview that foreign policy is comprised of ‘circumstances, suppositions and chance’ certainly explains why a war thousands of miles away could drive the creation of the empress’s signature League of Armed Neutrality, which diplomatically isolated Great Britain in the denouement of the War.
Through an exploration of both Catherine’s desire for recovery after a long series of wars and her quest for geopolitical stability in continental Europe, this essay will argue that Catherine the Great took a position of strategic disinterest in the American Revolutionary War.
Not six months after the first shot was fired at Concord, even before the signing and issuing of the Declaration of Independence, Catherine’s denial of Britain’s multiple requests for Russian troops was an early landmark of her aversion to engagement with the Anglo-American dilemma.
The year 1775 marked the beginning of what Catherine had planned to be a significant time of retrenchment of her troops. The Russo-Turkish War of 1768 was the first military test of her reign, and one in which the Russian forces tallied a series of unexpected victories (with the naval assistance of the British, no less). After the ensuing Partition of Poland in 1772 and the Pugachev Uprising in the homeland in 1773, understanding Catherine’s reluctance to commit her troops to another theatre of war is a rather uncomplicated task.
She explained such sentiments to King George III in her response to his request for Russian troops to be sent to Canada: ‘I am just beginning to enjoy peace.’ What is interesting to note in this letter is that she uses very flowery language with the King, whom she greets in her salutation as ‘My Brother’.
There is copious deference to their ‘friendship’, even in calling the Revolution ‘a rebellion which no foreign power supports’. She uses very Eurocentric reasoning as to why she is unable to commit her troops, even referencing ‘affairs with Sweden’ despite the fact that the last Russo-Swedish War ended in 1741, more than thirty years prior.
In a weaker ruler, such reasoning for the withholding of her troops could almost be labelled as excuses, but all of this quasi-apathetic language gives reason to believe that Catherine felt a military response to the rebellion was not in the national interests to commit Russian troops to the American question.
A further two requests were made to Catherine to commit troops to the War effort: once in early 1779 after Spain had joined on the side of the Americans, and again in November 1779 in a letter from British Minister to St Petersburg Sir James Harris acknowledging the serious disadvantage they faced, and willing to accept any terms Catherine should impose. Embarrassingly, they were both denied, and Catherine remained steadfast in refusing to commit her weary troops.
The opportunities offered to Catherine’s vision for European affairs by a Britain ensnared in trans-Atlantic conflict added another layer to her disinterest in directly engaging with the American issue. It is important to note that his essays follows the following definition for disinterest: ‘absence of personal involvement or bias’.
When it is supplemented with the word strategic, the favourable circumstances that Catherine saw in Britain’s intransigence become all the more apparent. The empress saw a window later in the War to mediate a peace agreement between the belligerent powers, with the goal of enhancing her reputation and placing her in good stead in Europe’s political affairs. Such a position historian Hans Rogger aptly called ‘patient neutrality’. Clearly, she had hoped such neutrality to be a utility to further her diplomatic prestige on the continent.
Such an opportunity arose when Britain signalled its openness to negotiation in October 1780, to be mediated by Catherine and Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, and on the condition that France and Spain were to end their assistance to the American independence efforts.
Embarrassingly, for Catherine, the conditions she proposed in her response, particularly that America be invited to the negotiating table and that France was to adhere to British directives in the agreement, were declined by all parties. In distilling such a turn of events, it is meaningful to note how sparse the discussion is regarding Catherine’s involvement with such a failed attempt at mediation—and in her involvement with the American Revolution in general—due to the historiographical acclaim that her foreign policy record traditionally enjoys.
It seemingly did not take long for her to learn from such a blunder. Her longtime foreign policy adviser, Nikita Panin, who before the empress’s response cautioned her ‘not to show partiality for either side’ in approaching the mediation effort, was promptly replaced by her favourite Grigori Potemkin.
This conflict between Catherine’s and Panin’s worldviews is fittingly accentuated by historian David M Griffiths, who contrasts Panin’s desire for ‘peace’ with Catherine’s pursuit of ‘equilibrium’. ‘Equilibrium’ being more active, it is a fitting assessment as Potemkin takes the mantle in guiding Catherine’s ensuing expansionist phase.
While Catherine’s position on Russian neutrality was sturdy, America had some blame to share in repelling her from engaging in their Revolution. In November 1778, an American privateer ship General Mifflin made its way to the North Sea and plundered a British merchant ship, incensing the empress and disturbing vital shipping lines.
According to Griffiths, it was after this incident that Catherine shifted her rhetoric to labelling the Americans as ‘rebels’ in an effort to put her neutrality on display to the British. And so, owing to ‘interference last year in the navigation and trade of foreign nations in our northern ports… which was caused by an American privateer’ she issued a ukase—a tsarist decree—to her navy to begin patrolling the North Sea, giving them permission to take on offending vessels by force.
It is important to observe that while this order was arguably retaliatory, it was not a direct move to punish these American privateers. Instead, in the aftermath of significant harassment by other navies party to the War, particularly the dominant British, the patrolling of Russian waters signalled a warning to all belligerent powers that Catherine’s interpretation of neutrality would be forthrightly active—a force of its own. With the partnership of the Swedish and the Danes, a more comprehensive enactment of such neutrality was in order.
Catherine’s strategy of noninterference saw its full display as she sought to rectify the harassment of Russia’s merchant shipping lines at home in Europe. If ‘patient neutrality’ was Catherine’s first position, ‘armed neutrality’ was its obvious successor.
With Britain continuing to flout the maritime rules put in place by the empress’s patrol of the North Sea, on 28 February 1780 the Declaration of Catherine II on Armed Neutrality was issued, in which she asserted that the most recent war with the Ottoman Empire taught her the value of the ‘rights of neutrality’. In it she decreed that she would be within such rights to deploy her forces if neutral countries’ merchant ships were to continue to be seized upon without warrant by belligerent powers France, Spain and Britain.
It was shortly thereafter joined by Sweden and Denmark. Then Austria in 1781, having considered an effort to balance against Prussia by aligning with France and England, saw the American conflict as ruinous to such an endeavour, so they remained neutral and joined onto Catherine’s Declaration. Prussia, Portugal and the Ottoman Empire joined by 1782, and by then the neutral powers had a full-blown League.
It is interesting to explore the repercussions of the creation of the League: Britain’s naval force was enough to outnumber all of the League’s navies combined, but the sheer diplomatic isolation with which Catherine had weighed them down was enough to cripple them as the War approached its culmination.
Essentially, with the Spanish and the French on the side of the Americans, and the rest of Europe on no one’s side at all, British surrender became all the more inevitable. In fact, British political journalist Henry Fairlie argues that the League’s neutrality gave a de facto recognition to America’s independence by formally refusing to support Britain, though it is peculiar to observe the tenuous ground on which that places these monarchs: this sort of position essentially supported revolution. Regardless, the League of Armed Neutrality dissipated in 1783 when the Treaty of Paris was signed, ending the War and recognising America’s independence.
Throughout this all, Catherine managed to keep herself above the direct engagement with the American question, particularly as the newborn America began its campaign to establish diplomatic relations. In 1780, still three years before the signing of the Treaty of Paris, Francis Dana was sent as the first American Minister to St Petersburg, but in fact his credentials were never accepted by Catherine.
By sanctioning Dana as a minister plenipotentiary, Catherine would have recognised American independence, which essentially would have been considered an act of aggression against Britain, and thus would have severely disrupted her goal of equilibrium in Europe.
But it was not just diplomatic assistance that Catherine withheld from America. Later in 1780, in response to intelligence that an Englishman was constructing a ship for the Colonies in the Russian province of Archangel, Catherine wrote its Governor-General that such an individual was to be reported on immediately.
By calling such assistance in her letter ‘illicit’, she further codifies her commitment to the peaceful affairs of Europe by suppressing any hint of favour to the American cause. It would be another twenty-three years before the Russian Empire recognised the United States in 1803, and formal diplomatic relations were established in 1809 under the first accredited United States Minister to St Petersburg, John Quincy Adams.
By and large, the American Revolution was indeed a noteworthy topic of international discussion at its outbreak, but you would not have known had you had public audience with Russian Empress Catherine the Great. It is true that the American colonists enjoyed some sympathy from the well-educated elite in Russia, even from Catherine’s son Paul, but without a doubt, Catherine’s foreign policy strategies showed a monarch with an aversion to the redeployment of her troops for a conflict in which she saw no cause to invoke the national interest.
Her refusal to British King George III enunciates as much. Further, though her mediation efforts were a failure in raising her esteem, her objective and her seizure of the historic moment to bring Europe in alignment and balance against the dominant British through the League of Armed Neutrality was more than enough to firmly stake her place as a leader for eighteenth century Europe.
Amidst such active foreign policy, she managed to hold strong to diplomatic integrity by withholding her recognition of America’s sovereignty before it was ceded by Britain. As evidenced, this essay maintains that Catherine was disinterested in the affairs of the American Revolution, but held herself strategically to make use of the moment in her reign.
It is interesting to what extent it could be argued that Russia aided in America’s independence, but even more interesting to consider how dramatically that relationship has evolved in the almost quarter millennium since.
With thanks to Dr Julie Fedor, Senior Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Melbourne, for her constructive critiques on this piece.
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