As in domestic politics, so also in foreign policy the reign of Catherine II was of fundamental importance in Russian history. Those plans for expansion towards the west and south, which Peter the Great had formulated, succeeding himself in carrying out the first part – the dismantling of Swedish dominance in the Baltic -, and laying the foundations for Russian dominance in Poland, were now taken up continuously. method and diplomatic skill, so that the march towards the Straits was resumed by Caterina and the Polish question was totally resolved.
It was precisely the latter that determined the general political orientation of the Tsarina and her advisers in the early years of the reign: since the succession to the Polish throne opened in 1763 due to the death of August III, Russia agreed with Prussia (treaty of covenant of April 1764). The Russo-Prussian alliance, which meant the decisive abandonment of the policy of close agreement with Austria, begun under Tsarina Anna and developed in the period of Queen Elizabeth, ensured the consent of Frederick the Great to the election as King of Poland of the candidate wanted by Petersburg, Stanislao Poniatowski; and Caterina, at first reluctant, had had to yield to it. And in reality the agreement meant overall a success for Prussia, which saw, in turn, recognized by the government of Petersburg a right to intervene in Polish affairs, and thus ensured a sharing in the profits, in the already well-foreseen case, of territorial mutilation of Poland; which, above all, saw itself insured against any Franco-Austrian offensive return and thus definitively consolidated its position as a great power of Central Europe.
The Polish problem, which had led Catherine on the path of Russian-Prussian agreements, thus determined a whole orientation of Russian foreign policy which would substantially survive, even after the end of the Polish question, and would have largely influenced the development of European history up to the last decades of the nineteenth century.
It is true that, taking advantage of the internal unrest in Poland (v.), Catherine tried to force the situation to her own exclusive advantage, by imposing on Poland that treaty of alliance which meant the complete submission of Poland to Russia: but, at this point, as already in the third decade of the century. XVIII, and again also following the skilful work of French diplomacy on the Polish question the Turkish question was grafted: Turkey went down again to war against the Muscovite empire (October 1768). The war – also important for the first appearance of a Russian fleet, coming from the Baltic, in the Mediterranean and for a great Russian naval victory (4 July 1770) – proceeded happily for the Russian arms, which in 1770 were masters of Moldavia and Wallachia ;
But, at this point, Catherine found herself facing Frederick II. With a close and most skilful diplomatic game, the king of Prussia approached Austria; and he succeeded in imposing on the Tsarina, worried about Austrian intentions (an Austro-Turkish alliance was imminent), the Russian-Austro-Prussian three-way agreement for the first partition of Poland (see Poland: History).
Catherine’s plan to remain the sole mistress on the Polish plain had thus failed. And yet Russia obtained, by virtue of the partition treaty of 1772, White Russia; while, in 1774, with the treaty of Kücük Kainarge, which put an end to the war against Turkey, he obtained, not only Azov and some other territories, but above all the right of free navigation in the Black Sea and free passage in the Aegean, and, essentially, the protection of Orthodox Christians living within the borders of the Ottoman Empire. A great success, therefore, which compensated Russia for the renunciation of total control over Poland and which assigned Russia the preponderant part in the “question of the East”.
With the agreement for the partition of Poland and the Austro-Russian rapprochement, the “system” that Catherine II and her minister Panin, inspired by the Russian ambassador in Copenhagen, Baron Korff, had wanted to put at the basis of politics had definitively disappeared. Russian foreign: that is, the so-called “northern agreement”.
The agreement was conceived, in 1764, as an alliance between Russia, Prussia, England, Holland, Sweden, Denmark, Saxony and Poland, to oppose a compact block of forces to the Franco-French grouping. Spanish-Austrian. It was then practically remained in the state of pure design, due to the strong opposition of Frederick II of Prussia.
The period following the peace of Kücük Kainarge was characterized above all by the Austro-Russian agreement on Turkey. The initiative started, also this time, as for the partition of Poland, not from Catherine II, who on the contrary, under the influence now of Potemkin, was meditating on the conquest of the Turkish empire, and in 1779, caressed the idea of the reconstitution of the Byzantine empire, headed by a Russian prince, but on the other side in question, that is, by Emperor Joseph II. Although in the war of the Bavarian succession the Russian attitude was not favorable to Austria, the court of Vienna decided to seek the Russian alliance: Joseph II went to visit Catherine II in 1780; in May 1781 the two states concluded the treaty which thus placed, alongside the Russo-Prussian alliance, the Russo-German alliance. Also this time, therefore, the primitive dreams of a total conquest on their own were replaced, at the moment of realization, by the partition project of the Turkish empire.
Thus Catherine II, who already in 1779 with the convention of Ainali Kawak had wrested other concessions from Turkey, could in April 1783 proclaim the annexation of Crimea, Taman and Kuban ′ to the Russian Empire (recognized by Turkey in the year below).
But on the way to Constantinople, the Russians and Austrians found England, which was beginning to replace France in protecting the Ottoman Empire against the two continental powers. And since Prussia too was now worried both about the Austro-Russian friendship, which had a new, blatant manifestation when Joseph II accompanied Catherine II on her journey to the Crimea in 1787, and about an increase in power of Austria following conquests. in the Balkans, the international situation became complicated in a way not favorable to Russian interests (Anglo-Prussian alliance of 1788). Thus, when at the end of 1787 the war between Russia and Austria on one side and Turkey on the other was rekindled, the former was attacked by Sweden (behind which now lay no longer France but England) and involved in a new Nordic war (1788-1790). Russian arms did indeed bring brilliant successes (counterbalanced by the Austrian failures): but the Anglo-Prussian pressure became at a certain point so clear and strong, that Catherine II, left alone at the last minute, because Austria was the first to conclude the peace with Turkey (Sistova, 1791), he had to decide to accept the setback in his expansion plans: the peace of Iaşi (1792) recognized the borders of Dniester for Russia, but for everything else it did nothing but confirm the previous treaties.
Stopped on the way to the Balkans, Catherine II sought compensation in Poland: the second partition of Poland (1793), between Russia and Prussia, added Volhynia, Podolia and the territory of Minsk to the Muscovite empire; the third and last partition, which took place in 1795, between Russia, Austria and Prussia, gave Lithuania and Courland to Catherine II. Thus, at the end of her reign, Catherine II had completed the Russian expansion towards the west.