Armed Neutrality


While Russian seamen were waging war against the Turks, the Baltic Fleet was granted a respite. Accustomed to battle and reinforced with additional vessels, the Baltic Fleet had become a formidable force. Beyond territorial waters, however, Russia's vessels were less well-protected. Britain, France and Spain were constantly at war over colonized lands in the New World and used the hostilities as a pretext for raids on neutral merchant ships, Russian in particular. Having lost patience with such incidents, Catherine II, on February 28 1780, signed a special declaration in which she decreed the right of neutral merchant vessels to sail freely and asserted the safety of their cargoes.

Catherine II's Declaration of Armed Neutrality was directed at those nations that were engaged in brigandage and attacks on merchant vessels while at war with one another, namely England, France and Spain. In order to protect sea trade and "to free it from the oppressive restrictions imposed by these combative powers," the Empress "deems it her right to issue the following edict and compel its observance."

First, neutral ships shall travel freely and without restriction from one port to any other and along the coastlines of nations that may be at war. Second, possessions belonging to subjects of these combative powers, while aboard neutral ships, shall not be seized, impeded while in transit nor in any wise be considered the spoils of war, with the exception of goods prohibited by interdict. Third, goods under interdict shall be considered only such as are in the nature of armaments and military provisions.

Fourth, a blockaded port shall be considered only that port, the entry into which is restricted by the dangers posed by the presence or proximity of ships belonging to the combative nations. [A warning to neutral merchant vessels not to trade at such ports.]

Fifth, this Declaration in all its parts shall be observed in courts of law and shall govern the verdicts of such courts as shall have jurisdiction over piracy at sea and the dispensation of plundered goods. The Declaration further asserted the Tsarina's readiness to protect Russian ships with military force. Denmark, Sweden and Holland were among the first nations to support Catherine II's decree. In 1780 three powerful squadrons were ordered to make ready to enforce the Declaration's provisions. Rear Admiral Ivan Borisov took five ships of the line and two frigates into the Mediterranean, Commodore Nikolay Palibin brought five ships of the line and a frigate into the Atlantic, and Rear Admiral Alexander Kruse headed across the North Sea with another five ships of the line and a frigate. Russia enforced the Declaration of Armed Neutrality until 1783 when the Paris Peace Treaty put an end to the war in the Atlantic.

Although the Declaration was enforced for only three years, it was, nonetheless, an original doctrine of major significance. It contributed to the understanding among nations of the inviolability of peaceful merchant vessels, their right to be free from the threat of piracy and harassment, and that wanton disregard of such rights would not be tolerated by Russia and its allies. Enforcement of the Declaration by the Russian Navy confirmed that a powerful naval fleet commanded international respect and that Russia had become a maritime power that was able to support its policies and punish offenders. In effect, the Declaration of Armed Neutrality served to elevate the reputation of the Russian Navy. The Baltic Fleet gradually strengthened. As early as 1777 Admiral Greig had suggested a new table of ship's proportions and the refurbishing of ship armaments. The 54-gun vessels vanished from use, replaced by more powerful ones; 66- and 74-gun vessels with larger-calibre cannon became the base of the fleet. The strength of the Baltic Fleet was additionally reinforced by eight 100-gun, three-decked ships of the line, the first of which was the handsome Rostislav. In the year 1784 the Rostislav's dimensions were impressive-55 metres in length and a displacement of 3,500 tons. The next ships to be built were the Saratov, the Three Saints and the Saint Ioann Chrestitel, which proved their worth against the best-equipped vessels in the British and Swedish fleets.

In 1761 the weaponry of the Russian fleet was updated. More powerful shell-firing guns were installed on the lower decks, and in 1788 effective short-range cannon (carronades) were placed on the quarterdeck and forecastle of larger vessels. New copper sheathing protected ships' hulls and increased their speed. The fleet was regularly provided with officers from the Naval Cadet Corps (Naval Aca-demy), which graduated a hundred such officers annually.

Inasmuch as war against Sweden loomed on the horizon, Russia was well-advised to refurbish its Baltic Fleet. The Swedes were hesitant to concede their dominant position in the Baltic to Russia. Friedrick Chapman, considered one of the foremost shipwrights of his day, was commissioned by Sweden to build 64-gun ships of the line and 40-gun frigates with heavy 24- and 36-pound artillery on the lower-deck batteries. In addition, the Swedish rowing fleet was reinforced by well-armed smaller vessels-hemmems, turums, udems and light, maneuverable gun-boats. The King of Sweden, Gustav III, awaited an excuse to begin hostilities against Russia.