Tuesday, September 26, 2023

When Russia conquered Finland

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Sweden’s continued alliance with Great Britain caused concern in Russia, concerned about the growing British presence in the Baltic.

Without access to that sea, Russia could neither develop its economy nor dream of projecting its status as a great European power. In the mid-18th century, Russia consolidated its presence in the Baltic, closely linked to its imperial identity, with the aim of securing its trade routes with Western Europe and protecting the imperial capital, Saint Petersburg. For this, the conquest of Finland, then in the hands of the Swedes, was fundamental, but the outbreak of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars postponed the possible aspirations of Russia.

After the defeats suffered by Napoleon, the Russians lost faith in Great Britain, and in 1807, Emperor Alexander decided to take revenge by attacking one of Britain’s last allies, Sweden.

In November 1807, Alexander demanded that Sweden close the Baltic to all foreign (i.e. British) warships, but Gustavus Adolf IV of Sweden rejected these demands. Russia interpreted the refusal as a casus belli. The initial Russian strategy was to occupy as much territory as possible before starting peace negotiations. Despite the Russian mobilization, the Swedes did not prepare for the campaign, as they wanted to avoid inciting Russia to declare war. In addition, they assumed that hostilities would not break out until the late spring of 1808, by which time the Royal Navy would be able to lend support. The Russians would not venture into a painful winter war in Finland…On February 21, 1808, without a formal declaration of war, notification, or ultimatum (an omission the Swedes denounced as a violation of international law), the Russian army invaded Finland, urging the local population and Swedish soldiers to not to oppose the occupation. The bloodless conquest of southern Finland convinced the Russians that the campaign was virtually over. In April, Emperor Alexander published a manifesto requiring his new Finnish subjects to swear allegiance to him, in yet another violation of international law. But the war was far from over.

Swedish counterattacks

The inhospitable and impassable terrain and the cold, long winter made the Russian offensive difficult, while Swedish counterattacks encouraged the outbreak of popular uprisings in parts of Finland. Faced with the prospect of a guerrilla war, Alexander issued a proclamation in which he pledged to respect all the existing liberties of the Finnish territories and their people and to convene the Diet of Porvoo. It was not a mere concession. Russia had been trying to win the Finns to her cause for years and Finnish cooperation would be essential to bolster Russia’s precarious position in the Baltics .

With each setback in Finland, public opinion turned more against Gustavo. On Alexander’s orders, in October 1808 the Russian army advanced north: by the end of the year it had seized all of Finland. Within the Russian Empire, Finland enjoyed a special status, with a degree of self-government that Sweden had never allowed and that no other Russian region enjoyed.The Diet welcomed the Russian concessions and helped pacify the local population and called for collaboration. Eager to put a quick end to the feud with Sweden, Alexander ordered an invasion of the territory of Sweden itself. With no friends or money, the Swedish government suffered a coup that deposed the unpopular Gustaf and placed his uncle Charles XIII. Despite desperate attempts to turn the tide of the war, the Swedes had no choice but to agree to peace talks.The peace treaty was signed on September 17, 1809, and incorporated all Russian demands. It was a key moment in the history of Scandinavia: Sweden had lost almost half of its territory, while Russia established itself in the region and secured its positions in the Baltic Sea. In fact, the Finnish population, after more than six hundred years of Swedish hegemony, now found itself under new imperial masters.

The Treaty of Fredrikshamn also forced Sweden to recalibrate its foreign policy. So the Swedes chose to remove the ‘Finnish question’ from their strategic concerns and focus attention on Norway as a way of making up for what they lost in the east, which Russia would not necessarily object to. Events eventually proved that the old Danish fear that the Russian conquest of Finland would make Denmark a useless ally for Russia was more than justified.

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