A New Line in Russian Strategic Thinking and in North Caucasia, by Sean Pollock

Russian and East European Historians’ Workshop
Harvard University
December 16, 2004 

“The fortification of the borders of our Fatherland between the
Terek River and the Azov Sea against the groups living by the
Caucasus Mountains is among the most memorable, and for
the Russian State, beneficial events to occur during the
glorious reign of wise CATHERINE.”  

--Johann Anton Güldenstädt, Mesiatsoslov na 1779 g.
“The newly built forts on the Mozdok Line are the main cause
of all the disturbances and raids that we have carried out on
Russia’s borders….”
--Kabardian chiefs, in a letter to Catherine II, 1782

As we saw in chapter 2, Russian foreign policy in the first decade of Catherine’s reign was chiefly concerned with events in Europe.  The government’s strategic priorities found their fullest reflection in the Northern System, which aimed at projecting Russian power into Poland and across the Baltic Sea.  The system seemed to work reasonably well, at least initially.  But the experience of the Russo-Ottoman war of 1768-74 showcased its limitations.  During the war, Russia lost ground to Prussia and Austria in Poland and to France in Sweden—the two outcomes the system had been specifically designed to avoid.  Perhaps more egregiously, the system left the empire vulnerable to attack in the South and without fighting allies in case of war with its traditional enemies, the Ottoman Porte and the Crimean Khanate.  Although the Ottoman military machine was no longer the dominant force it had once been, it was still capable, when combined with Crimean auxiliaries, of wreaking havoc in Russia’s southern borderlands, as the events of January 1769 amply demonstrated.

The war years brought to light other chinks in the Imperial strategic armor.  In North Caucasia, Kabardian and other native groups were determined to resist Russian attempts to subjugate them; that they had ties to the Porte and Crimea only made them appear more dangerous in the eyes of Russian policy-makers.  Further east, the success of Pugachev and his cohorts exposed the tenuousness of central authority in the Volga basin.  These events forced the central government to divert precious resources away from the main theater of military operations and thus served to underscore the relative weakness of Imperial defenses in the South.  

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