Russo-Swedish Wars Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As at the beginning of the eighteenth century, Russia and Sweden battled for supremacy in northern Europe at century’s end. Russia was victorious, preserving and expanding its imperial ambitions.

Summary of Event

The Russo-Swedish Wars were directly linked to the larger Europe-wide historical epoch of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) Most important, both Russia and Sweden were caught in the middle of an early nineteenth century geopolitical “cold war” that pitted Europe’s most dominant land power, France, against its strongest naval power, Great Britain: British-French conflicts[British French conflicts] French-British conflicts[French British conflicts] Napoleon Bonaparte’s major obstacle to creating his new empire was the British Royal Navy. His hopes of destroying Britain’s naval strength ended at the Battle of Trafalgar Trafalgar, Battle of (1805) (1805). There, off the coast of Spain, Admiral Lord Nelson defeated the combined navies of Spain and France. This decisive British victory both ended the hopes of a French invasion of the British Isles and ensured that Great Britain would continue to dominate the sea lanes for years to come. [kw]Russo-Swedish Wars (1788-Sept., 1809) [kw]Wars, Russo-Swedish (1788-Sept., 1809) [kw]Swedish Wars, Russo- (1788-Sept., 1809) Russian-Swedish Wars (1788-1809)[Russian Swedish Wars] Swedish-Russian conflicts[Swedish Russian conflicts] [g]Russia;1788-Sept., 1809: Russo-Swedish Wars[2760] [g]Sweden;1788-Sept., 1809: Russo-Swedish Wars[2760] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1788-Sept., 1809: Russo-Swedish Wars[2760] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1788-Sept., 1809: Russo-Swedish Wars[2760] Napoleon I Napoleon I;British navy Alexander I Gustavus IV Adolphus

The strategic situation between England and France continued to become more complex when Napoleon’s armies won decisive victories in 1805 against the Austrian and Russian armies at Austerlitz. The string of victories continued in 1806, when the French military defeated the formidable Prussian army at Jena and Auerstadt. As Napoleon’s armies occupied the Prussian capital, he issued the Berlin Decrees [p]Berlin Decrees (1806) forbidding his allies from importing British products. The following year, in 1807, France defeated the Russian army at Friedland, placing all of Germany under Napoleon’s control. Unable to continue to engage the French military, Czar Alexander I agreed to meet with Napoleon to discuss the future of the two nations. Russian-French relations[Russian French relations] French-Russian relations[French Russian relations] The two emperors met on a raft in the middle of the Nieman River, and on July 7, 1807, they signed the famous Treaty of Tilsit, Tilsit, Treaty of (1807) which created a Russian-French alliance against Great Britain.

The most important aspect of this agreement was the Continental System. Continental System Unable to defeat the British navy, Napoleon decided to expand the Berlin Decrees and declare economic warfare on the British Empire. By cutting off trade with Britain, Napoleon hoped to cripple the British economy, which he believed would eventually lead to domestic unrest and revolution. Czar Alexander I and Napoleon agreed that Russia would use military force to make Sweden comply with the Continental System.

The king of Sweden, Gustavus IV Adolphus, harbored great animosity toward Napoleon for his brutal kidnapping and execution of a member of the Bourbon royal family. International tensions grew when Sweden refused French-Swedish relations[French Swedish relations] Swedish-French relations[Swedish French relations] to join the blockade and England responded by giving financial aid to its newfound ally. Russia took advantage of the situation by announcing that it was going to annex Finland Finland to the Russian Empire. The Finnish people had enjoyed a four-hundred-year relationship with the nation of Sweden. Politically, they were under the control of the Swedish government but had always been allowed to keep their own cultural identity. Czar Alexander I looked upon this action against Finland as a win/win situation. The Russian nation would not only add important territory to its empire but would also have another opportunity to degrade the international standing of its most important rival in northern Europe.

The contrast between the two nations’ militaries Military;French Military;Russian reflected the vast differences in the political and social makeup of the two countries. The Swedish army consisted mostly of free men who joined the military in exchange for the opportunity to become independent yeoman farmers. Sweden’s landowning class was directed by the royal family to provide each soldier with land, seed, and the implements needed to cultivate their farms. The vast majority of these farmer/soldiers regarded themselves as agriculturalists first and warriors second. Neither the government nor the landed gentry provided these men with quality military training, so for the most part the Swedish army was totally unprepared for combat. The officer corps was not much better and reflected a lack of confidence and aggressive attitude that would be needed to fight a successful war against Russia.

The Russian officer corps, on the other hand, had the confidence and esprit de corps of a military organization that, though it had been defeated by a superior French force, had learned the lessons of modern warfare and were ready to put these new skills to the test. The Russian high command had modified the structure of its tactical formations based upon the French model of dispersing light artillery and cavalry among large infantry formations. This early nineteenth century combined arms model allowed commanders to exploit weak spots in their opponent’s formations through the firepower of their artillery and the speed of their cavalry.

In addition, most of the members of both the officer and noncommissioned officer corps had experienced the reality of battle and were ready to engage the Swedish military. The major weakness in the Russian forces lay in their enlisted personnel. The ranks of the common infantry platoon were made up of serfs. These illiterate Russian peasants Peasantry;Russia led a slave-like existence and had been placed in the army by the landed aristocracy who owned them. They were not fighting for their own land or freedom but for the imperial expansion of the Russian Empire; thus, their morale was extremely low.

The initial strategy of the Swedish forces in Finland was to fight a defensive, delaying action against what they perceived to be superior Russian forces. This tactical approach was based upon belief in the impregnability of a series of fortifications at Sveaborg. The Swedish general staff planned to retreat behind and reinforce this defensive position and wait until reinforcements arrived from Sweden. The general staff hoped the Russian forces would become bogged down, expending significant amounts of men and material in an unsuccessful attempt to capture the fortification. The final part of the plan called for the Swedish navy to initially gain control of the waterways using their boats as floating platforms to shell Russian troop emplacements. In addition, these boats would be used to deliver Swedish troops behind Russian lines, attacking their avenues of supply.

The fortunes of the Swedish military began to decline almost immediately. When the Russian forces started to probe Sveaborg for possible weak points of attack, the commander misinterpreted the strength of the Russian army, and within a few days the panicked Swedish general surrendered the most extensive set of fortifications in northern Europe. The Russians, without launching one serious attack, captured Sveaborg along with 110 ships and almost seven thousand troops. Most important, the southern portion of Finland, which was the key to the military operation, was now completely open to a Russian military advance. Within a short period of time Helsinki, the ancient capital of Finland, was under the control of the Russian Empire.

As the Russian forces moved into the Finnish heartland, the Swedish soldiers began to gain some confidence and were able to inflict some serious casualities on their overaggressive opponents. The Russian troops were also battered by guerrilla tactics used against them by Finnish civilians who were becoming increasingly angry at the Russian occupation of their homeland. Unfortunately, the Swedish high command was never able to organize a comprehensive strategy. The Swedish king, Gustav IV, had made a series of incompetent decisions and was constantly at odds with his general staff. Every time it seemed as if the Swedes had a chance to knock their opponents out of the war, the Russian military would dig in and outfight their Swedish counterparts. In the end the Russian Empire was willing to take the necessary action and fight with more intensity than the Swedish military. The last decisive Russian victory came at the Battle of Oravais, and from that point on the Swedish forces lost all hope of success. A group of military officers led a successful coup against Gustav IV and the government eventually sued for peace.


The immediate impact of the Russian victory was that Alexander I acquired the geopolitical strength necessary for the immediate survival of his empire. The annexation of Finland provided Russia with the buffer zone it needed against any future military action by Sweden.

In the long run, the survival of Russia would be one of the primary reasons for the defeat of Napoleon. The French emperor’s Machiavellian diplomatic style began to undermine his alliance with Russia when he proposed to Sweden an offer to regain Finland if in fact it would help enforce the Continental System against Britain. This diplomatic maneuver created a sense of unease in the courts of both Russia and Sweden. Great Britain capitalized upon this situation and made offers of friendship to both nations. The French emperor would eventually turn on his Russian allies in an attempt to control the entire European continent. Russia, Sweden, and Great Britain would be part of a continent-wide alliance that would defeat the armies of France and restore order to the region.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chaliand, Gerard. The Art of War in World History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994. The best one-volume military history available to date. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nordstrom, Byron. Scandinavia Since 1500. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2000. This book is an excellent overview of modern Scandinavian history. Index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rothenberg, Gunther E. The Art of Warfare in the Age of Napoleon. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1980. This book is an excellent account of strategy, tactics, and battles during the Napoleonic Wars. Index.

Great Northern War

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Ottoman Wars with Russia, Venice, and Austria

Russo-Austrian War Against the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Wars with Russia

Partitioning of Poland

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Categories: History