3 August 2010, 11:16

Russian-French relations in Napoleon's time

Russian-French relations in Napoleon's time
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The issue of Russian-French relations ahead of and during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 is of great interest to contemporaries, because both Alexander I and Napoleon, the two countries’ then-leaders, have always been believed to be charismatic persons.

The issue of Russian-French relations ahead of and during the French invasion of Russia in 1812 is of great interest to contemporaries, because both Alexander I and Napoleon, the two countries’ then-leaders, have always been believed to be charismatic persons. The focus of our story is a sheaf of major agreements between Russia and France, as well as other countries, which affected the two countries’ national interests. We will specifically concentrate on historical background that was in place in Russia and France in the run-up to the agreements’ conclusion. 

The beginning of the 19th century saw the United Kingdom turned into France’s arch foe in what became the result of the 25-year war between Napoleon’s French Empire and European countries. Unlike Prussia, Austria, Spain and Italy, Britain did not yield to the enemy and proved to be the only country which signaled its determination to continue war against France indefinitely. 

At the same time, Napoleon knew full well that only the interference of a third country with a powerful army may decide the battle, especially given that France and Britain were on par with each other in terms of their defense capabilities. This is why one of Napoleon’s priority foreign policy tasks was to establish warm ties with Russia, which hit the headlines in 1799-1800, when Russian troops under Generalissimo Alexander Suvorov crossed the Alps. Small wonder, the early 1800s saw Napoleon’s ever-increasing attempts to cultivate ties with Russia.

For his part, then-Russian Emperor Pavel I has repeatedly called for the closer ties between Russia and France, which he said should be one of his country’s priorities in the face of Austria’s growing clout. In 1800, Pavel I officially announced a political course aimed at mending fences with France, and on March 27 of the same year, Suvorov had to suspend hostilities against the French Empire. Paris was quick to respond to the move by notably signaling its readiness to start negotiating the release of Russian POWs. During the negotiations on October 7, 1800, Pavel I initiated the so-called note of Rostopchin, which stipulated the implementation of at least five conditions to contribute to boosting ties between the two countries. These included the return of Malta to Maltese Order, the restoration of power of the Sardinia King, the integrity of territory under the King of Sicily, Bavaria and Vurtenberg plus the return of Egypt and Turkey. Napoleon did not think twice before signing the document, which he believed will add significantly to a full-fledged fence-mending between Russia and France. 

Upon being briefed on a coup in Russia in March 1801, when Pavel I was assassinated by a group of plotters in his residence, Napoleon could not but express exasperation about the matter. He lamented the fact that his incessant efforts to improve ties with Russia were brought to naught. “The Britons missed the mark in Paris only to succeed in St.Petersburg”, he said at the time in a clear nod to Britain’s involvement in Pavel I’s assassination. In fact, some experts say, Russia and France ceased to be staunch allies the moment the plotters came in Pavel I’s bedroom so as to force him abdicate. As for Napoleon, the 1801 coup in Russia led to his mulling an about-face in France’s foreign policy, with the main focus being on the improvement of relations with Britain. 

Apart from clinching a peace agreement with Russia, France continued to grapple with an array of other foreign policy issues. On September 30, 1801, Paris and Washington signed a bilateral cooperation accord, which was preceded by talks between France and Spain in Saint Ildeoria in March 1801, when the sides inked a mutually beneficial peace treaty. The document specifically stipulated Spain’s handover of Louisiana to the United States, as well as Madrid’s occupation of Portugal.

As to Austria, it has repeatedly demonstrated its unwillingness to sit at the negotiating table with France, which, however, managed to lure Vienna into signing a bilateral peace treaty in Luneville on February 9, 1801. The move came in the wake of an unsuccessful attempt to kill Napoleon on December 24, 1800. The French leader then decided to finally bury the hatchet with the UK in order “to contribute to his country’s prosperity and global security”. In the meantime, Russia continued to strike a spate of peace deals with Sweden and Denmark, which led to the creation of the Northern League in late 1800, with Prussia joining the organization on December 18, 1801.

As some countries decided to form a coalition against Britain, London and Paris signaled their readiness to stop the war and conclude a peace treaty, which was ultimately inked in Amiens, France on March 27, 1802. The document envisaged a number of concessions from Italy, with the most outstanding issues yet to be resolved. Both sides knew perfectly well that the treaty is nothing but a brief respite from the two countries’ protracted war. On May 12, 1803, diplomatic relations between Britain and France were broken off and hostilities resumed. 

Historians called the French-Spanish war “a single combat between a lion and a whale”, pointing to the fact that France failed to eliminate sophisticated British Fleet, while Britain desperately tried to prevail over Spain’s land forces. Both countries were mulling ways to attract more staunch allies, including Russia, with whom France again started to cultivate relations. For his part, Napoleon has repeatedly indicated intent to improve ties with Russia, a policy that got a fresh impetus following the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, when Napoleon moved to halt hostilities against Russia. What’s more, he called for an immediate release of Russian POWs, who were earlier captured by the French military. Napoleon remained committed to his foreign policy line, which he mapped out in 1800 and which stipulated, among other things, the creation of an alliance with Russia.

At the same time, Paris continued its peace talks with Britain, which was propped up by Prussia back then, and which called France’s peace proposals “an unacceptable move”. September 15, 1806 saw the creation of the fourth coalition of Britain, Prussia, Russia and Sweden, which demanded that France should immediately withdraw its troops from the territory adjacent to the Rheine River. In the meantime, France said that it was at war with Prussia as Napoleon inked a raft of decrees on continental blockade in Berlin on November 21, 1806, documents that specifically cautioned against trading with Britain. Prussia was quick to urge France to start peace negotiations, which in turn could help Napoleon cement collaboration with Russia – a sensitive issue he had been dealing with for years. Nevertheless, Napoleon’s irreconcilable stance on Prussia rode roughshod over the just-formed coalition, with Prussia calling for Russia to help protect its national interests by notably sending Russian troops to Poland.

Russia’s Emperor Alexander I and Friedrich Wilhelm III of Prussia clinched a new bilateral collaboration agreement in Bartenstein on April 25, 1807. The document admonished attempts to sit down with Bonaparte for parleys, including those dealing with peace proposals earlier initiated by the French Emperor. Alexander I had, however, to engage with Napoleon after Russia lost the Battle of Friedland on June 14, 1807, a defeat that prompted the Russian Emperor to sit at the negotiating table with his French counterpart to discuss a cease-fire. The talks to this effect were due to be held in Tilsit. 

And now we would like to dwell on the Treaties of Tilsit and Erfurt Russia and France signed in the early 1800s to develop bilateral ties, which were regulated by three main acts, including a Peace Treaty, a sheaf of Secret Clauses and a Covert Alliance Treaty. The documents helped Napoleon and Alexander I create a mechanism to jointly resolve a wide range of issues of mutual interest. Regardless of joint steps with respect to Britain and Turkey, the Covert Treaty stipulated the creation of both offensive and defensive alliance. 

In several clauses of the Peace Treaty, Alexander I assured Napoleon of Russia’s adherence to a package of agreements clinched ahead of 1806. In particular, Russia said a ‘yes’ to France’s push for border enlargement, Sweden being a vassal and the French Emperor turning into a patron of the Russian confederation. The Peace Treaty kept mum on Austria, stipulating, though, Napoleon taking full control of other European countries, located south of Saxony and Thüringen, east of the Rheine River and west of the Netherlands. 

Separately, both Emperors pledged to consult each other on a number of issues pertaining to Britain and Turkey, not least the division of the Ottoman Empire. The Peace Treaty obliged both sides to discuss the topic during relevant talks, which France, a major global player, was able to speed up, stall and even torpedo. In light of this, Napoleon reserved the right to capitalize on the matter, which France used as a bargaining chip in its Britain-related talks with Russia. 

The Treaty of Tilsit contributed to a chill in ties between Britain and Russia, which joined the continental blockade in a move that damaged interests of Russian nobility and exporters of timber, grain and other goods that were supplied to the UK across the Baltic and Black Seas. Many knew only too well that France could hardly replace Britain in terms of adding to the development of the Russian economy. The Treaty of Tilsit saw a significant reduction in Russian exports to Britain, with bilateral trade and economic relations swiftly coming to a standstill. In Moscow, Andrei Yanovsky of the State Historical Museum gives his thoughts about the matter.

“Many historians and diplomats feel that Russia failed to benefit from the Treaty of Tilsit,” Andrei Yanovsky said, “piling praise on Alexander I’s efforts to uphold his country’s national interests during the Tilsit talks. But for the Russian Emperor’s personal charisma, the Treaty of Tilsit could have been a humiliation for Russia,” Yanovsky argues, citing Napoleon’s victory in the Battle of Friedland. “Still, the Tilsit negotiations saw France and Russia be on par with each other, not least because of Alexander I’s brilliant diplomatic drive.” 

As far as the Treaty of Erfurt is concerned, it was signed in Germany in October 1808. The aim was to clinch “a comprehensive peace agreement between Germany and Russia, which additionally urged the resolution of the continental blockade of Britain. Given that the blockade rode roughshod over Russia’s national interests, the sides agreed to start negotiations on the topic, something that Russia and France said should be conducted on an equal and transparent basis. The sides pledged to act “in full accord” and discuss the subject “in an unbiased way”. 

Napoleon was, in turn, loath to perceive the Treaty of Erfurt as a document that could help add to ever-lasting warm ties between Russia and France, as well as map out a joint action plan concerning Britain.  The Treaty was little more than a first peace accord, which prompted the sides to initiate further talks to hammer out mechanisms of influence on the UK. The Clause No.12 specifically envisaged the beginning of fresh parleys between St.Petersburg and  Paris on the issue. The Treaty of Tilsit warned the signatories against declassifying a full text of the document in the next ten years from the moment it was inked. On the whole, the Treaty failed to contribute to a full-scale bilateral fence-mending, with some issues of common interest being resolved, though. It is safe to assume, therefore, that the Treaty of Erfurt did little to cement the Russian-French ties and tackle the Tilsit gridlock. 

Now, we will focus on the crisis of the Russia-France alliance and the beginning of war between Paris and St.Petersburg. 

Napoleon knew perfectly well that his country’s alliance with Russia is doomed due to an array of factors, including Russia’s ever-increasing global clout. Russia’s occupation of Prussian and German territories, its irreconcilable stance on Poland and the burgeoning bridge-building with the UK could not but anger Napoleon at the time. Upon signing the Treaty of Erfurt, Alexander I returned to St.Petersburg with the Russian-French fence-mending on his mind. In contrast, the Russian nobility in Moscow and St.Petersburg was up in arms against the domestic and foreign policy pursued by Alexander I, who quitted attempts to contribute to the Russia-France alliance in 1810. It was clear that the collapse of the alliance is just a matter of time. 

For his part, Napoleon started mulling a war with Russia in early 1811, when he specifically centered on a Russian customs tax on goods, which France supplied to Russia. Bonaparte was sure that Russians covertly helped the British-made products to be supplied to Germany, Austria and Poland, which he realized brought to naught efforts to continue the continental blockade of Britain. Napoleon raised the issue during a diplomatic reception on August 15, 1811, when he urged Russia’s Prince Kurakin to sign an agreement that Bonaparte hoped will help fix the problem. Kurakin, however, signaled his unwillingness to ink the document which he insisted should be nodded by Russia’s high-level officials. The incident clearly indicated the fact that the war between Russia and France is already in the air. 

Napoleon gradually turned its vassal Germany into a spring-board for a potential attack against Russia. In addition, he prodded de jure independent Prussia and Austria to establish an alliance with France, with an agreement to this effect signed by the three countries on February 24, 1812. Under the accord, Prussia was obliged to send 20,000 troops to the French Army, while Austria was compelled to dispatch a 30,000-strong contingent. 

As for the UK, it was unlikely to disturb Napoleon’s plans with respect to Russia, especially given that the year of 1812 saw a war between the United States and Britain, which was badly hit by economic turmoil at the time. Contributing to the war was no other than Napoleon, who successfully played both ends against the middle. 

In a sign that Prussia will not support Russia, Friedrich Wilhelm III declined to send back a special convention, signed on October 17, 1812 and initially sent to Wilhelm by Alexander I. In view of this, the Russian Emperor began to ponder waging a defensive war as he inked a relevant treaty between his country and Sweden on April 9, 1812, a document that clearly damaged Russia’s national interests. In particular, Russia was compelled to render logistical support to Sweden in case of its possible war with Denmark. 

At the time, Russia demanded an immediate withdrawal of the French troops from the territories Alexander I felt could be used by Napoleon as a spring-board for an attack on Russia. Alexander I believed that the move was almost sure to prompt the announcement of war by France, which he felt will say no to his demand. Instead, Napoleon announced a full diplomatic break with Russia, urging it to adhere to a new agreement, which stipulated the following:

Russia should stick to the continental blockade of Britain, which may be eased in the near future;

A trade treaty on a Russian customs tariff should not contain clauses which could damage France’s national interests;

And Russia should tackle the Oldenburg case by adopting a relevant accord, which would not contain demands to present a disgraced prince with plots of land located in Danzig or Warsaw. 

According to Napoleon, Russia supporting the blockade of Britain indicated its return to the initial Russia-France alliance. Alexander I was, in turn, eager to clinch a peace agreement with Turkey, which he felt could be a positive factor during Russia’s looming war with France. 

Alexander I wanted Turkey to okay Russia’s foreign policy and shore up its war effort. Needles to say, Napoleon was irked by a peace treaty between Russia and Turkey, which added further to Bonaparte’s determination to unleash a war against the Russian Empire. He finally signed a whole array of decrees, in which he officially announced the beginning of a war with Russia. On June 24, 1812, Napoleon ordered French troops to start crossing the Neman River in a step that signaled a start of his Russian campaign of 1812. 

In conclusion, we would like to center on the developments that came in the wake of the defeat of the Napoleon Army in late 1812. On June 4, 1813, a cease-fire agreement was signed in Pleiswitz, with neither Napoleon nor allies wanting the document to contribute to promoting stable peace. By nodding an armistice, Alexander I, in turn, tried to win time so as to help the Russian Army recover from the war. On October 12, 1813, Russia and France ultimately arrived at a political accommodation by signing an alliance convention, which was followed by an armistice between Russian and Prussian troops on December 30, 1813. Inked in the eastern Prussian city of Taurogene, the document notably stipulated making join efforts to liberate Germany. Napoleon got an ultimatum, which was approved by the leaders of Austria, Prussia and Russia.

It only remains to add that the developments in Europe between 1813 and 1814 contributed significantly to the end of French domination there. 

On March 13, 1815, European governments adopted a joint declaration, which branded Napoleon “an enemy of the mankind”, who is “on the wrong side of the law”.  As for Russia’s victory in the 1812 Patriotic War, it added greatly to the disintegration of the Napoleon Empire and Bonaparte’s subsequent exile to the St.Helen Island, where he died in 1825. 


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