Episode 9: Catherine the Great: Russia’s Black Sea Expansion

Catherine II of Russia prided herself on being called ‘emperor’, not ‘empress’. Having dumped her weak husband, she deployed her lovers strategically: one she made king of Poland, one she sent to conquer Crimea, and one to rule over it. Here are the origins of Russia’s claims to Ukraine.

Dr Kelly O’Neill, an historian of Russia at Harvard University, and the author of Claiming Crimea: A History of Catherine the Great’s Southern Empire, joins Beatrice and Paul for this episode.

Coming from an aristocratic family of the Holy Roman Empire, Catherine II married the heir to the Russian imperial throne, but upon his accession, managed to seize power and reigned in her own right from 1762-1796. She plunged into European great power politics with great talent and sweeping strategic moves. Previously, Russia had not had access to the Black Sea and the Mediterranean trade beckoning beyond it. Catherine even had her eye on Constantinople, and dreamed of freeing it from Turkish occupation to restore it to Christendom under the rule of her grandson, fittingly named Constantine. While this did not come to pass, by the end of her reign, Russia had occupied a large part of the Polish Lithuanian empire, dominated the Black Sea and was a European great power. It was said that no cannon in Europe could be fired without her leave, a line that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov currently likes to use in his speeches: clearly, his master would like to restore this situation.

The views or statements expressed by guests are their own and their appearance on the podcast does not imply an endorsement of them or any entity they represent. Views and opinions expressed by RUSI employees are those of the employees and do not necessarily reflect the view of RUSI.


Paul O’Neill

Senior Research Fellow

Military Sciences

View profile

Beatrice Heuser

Senior Associate Fellow

View profile


Explore our related content