11 Oct 22

This timely text provides a reminder that Russian leaders have long understood how to exploit western dependence on their raw materials, to fund high tech imports, or provide diplomatic leverage during wars of aggression. The ‘alliance’ that began when Peter the Great met King William III in 1697 was one of mutual convenience, rather than shared agendas. Russia secured access to western naval and military technology, in exchange for critical shipbuilding materials, timber, pitch, tar, hemp and flax, but within two decades Peter had transformed Russia into a major regional power, dominating the Baltic, and the regional supply of shipbuilding materials, in place of Sweden, while Russia’s reliance on British expertise enabled London to operate an effective intelligence organisation within the Russian Navy. Even as Anglo-Russian trade expanded, Britain deployed fleets and built regional links to maintain regional access, and a balance of power that supported the independence of other regional suppliers, Sweden and Poland. The autocratic Czarist system prevented the emergence of a commercial middle class, or a merchant shipping industry. This left the export trades in foreign hands, large expatriate communities in St. Petersburg and Tallinn handling business. The Trade Treaty of 1734 recognised reality, but the British rejected the Russian desire for a diplomatic link. Well aware of the dependence on Russian materials, which now included iron, for the ships of war, and the burgeoning merchant marine, the British were anxious to limit Russian leverage, avoiding a ‘continental commitment’.

The impact of that dependence became obvious during the Seven Year’s War (1756-1763), when Russia was at war with Britain’s Prussian ally. London carefully avoided open conflict with Russia, to the consternation of the Prussian King. Developing alternative sources of supply for critical items, the great masts needed for first rate ships of the line like HMS Victory, together with hemp and flax, for rope and canvas, were set back by the American Revolution. Russia was quick to exploit the situation. By 1790 Britain was looking to Poland as the obvious alternative, before Russia, Prussia and Austria partitioned the country. Russian expansion also threatened British interests in the Mediterranean and the Ottoman Empire.

Although the French Revolution provided the two powers with a common enemy, the brief reign of Czar Paul saw Russia align itself with France, dragging Prussia, Sweden and Denmark into the Armed Neutrality of the North, to exclude the Royal Navy from the Baltic, and effectively end the British blockade of France. The French and Spanish battlefleets had been effectively immobilised by their inability to access Russian supplies. Paul opened his campaign by seizing British merchant ships in Russian harbours, ships packed with shipbuilding stores, while assembling a combined Russian, Danish and Swedish fleet to keep the British out of the Baltic.

However, with the Russian economy dependent on British cash for liquidity the cessation of business alarmed many in the Russian elite. Paul was deposed and murdered. Britain reacted quickly, Nelson’s victory at Copenhagen opened the Baltic before the Russian and Swedish fleets could arrive, a success he exploited by taking the battlefleet into the Gulf of Finland, adding a strategic threat to economic distress. The attempt to exploit British resource dependency failed because Russia depended on the revenue from those sales, while the British state understood that any concessions to Russia would lead directly to a humiliating peace with France. With the Baltic reopened British trade resumed. In the interval further autarkic measures were taken in Canada and India, boosting non-Baltic supplies, while booming domestic iron production replaced Russian supplies.

In 1807 Czar Alexander joined Napoleon’s ‘Continental System’, designed to break the British economy by closing European markets. However, Russia needed British money, so the naval stores trade continued, under neutral flags and other subterfuges, while Russia excluded French imports, which were a net drain on the economy. When Napoleon demanded his ally live up to his treaty obligations the Czar refused, sparking the 1812 campaign. British money enabled the Russian army to advance from Moscow to Paris in 18 months.

The downfall of Napoleon prompted a major reconfiguration of British external policy. In April 1814 the Czar reviewed 120,000 Russian troops on the Champs de Mars in Paris, staking his claim to dominate Europe. The British responded by inviting his Imperial Majesty to attend a Royal Fleet Review at Spithead and visit Portsmouth Dockyard. At the Congress of Vienna Britain worked closely with Austria to block the westward advance of Russian military power and secure the international legal basis of maritime economic warfare, while new tariffs generated alternative sources of naval stores. After 1815 Anglo-Russian relations deteriorated, a consequence of the clash of economic and political models. Britain looked to access open markets in sovereign states, while Russia preferred conquering them and closing their economies to external activity. The flash point was the future of the extensive and economically attractive Ottoman Empire. Concern to secure access to this market led Britain to declare war on Russia in 1854, by which time iron, steam and new sources of supply had removed 18th century concerns about shipbuilding supplies. Maritime economic warfare broke the Russian economy, forcing a bankrupt Empire to sue for peace by December 1855. The combination of state bankruptcy and a potent naval threat to St. Petersburg, not the destruction of the naval base at Sevastopol, proved decisive.