Understanding Russia: The Continuum of History
By Yameen Khan, edited by Pepe Escobar for The Saker
Information Clearing House
Wednesday, Jul 12, 2017
|The United States is actively committed to bring Russia into submission via encirclement and a two pronged attack.
NATO’s expansion of bases in vassal states right up to Russia’s borders, coupled with an attempt at encroachment in Syria, should allow The Hegemon to undermine Russia’s underbelly from the Caucasus to Central Asia.
To understand how Russians usually respond to Western power a little time travel, starting 1219 AD, is more than useful.
This was a time when a cataclysmic event left deep scars on the Russian character; an abiding fear of encirclement, whether by nomadic hordes then or by nuclear missile bases today.
Russia then was not a single state but consisted of a dozen principalities frequently at war with each other. Between 1219 and 1240 all these fell to the Genghis Khan hurricane, whose lightning-speed cavalry with his horse-borne archers, employing brilliant tactics unfamiliar to Europeans, caught army after army off guard and forced them into submission.
For more than 200 years Russians suffered under the Golden Horde of the Mongol – named after their great tent with golden poles. They left the Russian economy in ruins, brought commerce and industry to a halt, and reduced Russians to serfdom. Asiatic ways of administration and customs were superimposed on the existing Byzantine system.
Taking full advantage of its military weakness and of its reduced circumstances, Russia’s European neighbors started to help themselves to its territory, starting with German principalities, Lithuania, Poland, and Sweden. The Mongols couldn’t care less so long as they received their tribute. They were more concerned with their Asiatic dominions.
Still, European cities did not match the riches of Samarkand and Bukhara, Herat and Baghdad, whose incomparable wealth and splendor outshone wooden-built Russian cities.
Russia’s greatest fear begins here – crushed between their European foes to the West and the Mongols to the East. Russians were to develop a paranoid dread of invasion and encirclement which has tormented their foreign relations ever since. Hardly ever has an experience left such deep and ever-lasting scars on a nation’s psyche as this cataclysm did on Russians. This explains, among other things, their stoical acceptance of harsh rule at home.
And then came Ivan III – the man who freed the Russians from the Golden Horde.
Muscovy then was a small provincial town overshadowed by and subservient to its powerful neighbors. In return for allegiance and subservience locals were gradually entrusted with more power and freedom by the unsuspecting Mongols. Over time the Principality of Muscovy grew in strength and size, eventually to dominate all its neighbors.
In 1476 Ivan refused to pay the customary tribute to the grand Khan Ahmed. In a fit of rage Ivan trampled the portrait of Ahmed and put several of his envoys to death.
The showdown came in autumn 1480 when the Khan marched with his army to teach a vassal a lesson, but was astonished to find a large well-equipped force awaiting him on the far bank of the River Ugra, 150 miles from Moscow. For weeks the two armies glowered at one another, neither side wanting to make the first move.
The stakes were clear. Ivan did not need to cross the river. He would change the course of history if he did not lose. A stalemate could become a turning point in history.
For Ahmed Khan there is no choice. He must cross the river and engage. Win or die like Tariq ibin Ziyad in 711 AD, another age and time, when a brilliant Arab general landed on the ‘rock of Hercules’ subsequently called by Arab Historians ‘Jabal Tariq’, meaning the ‘mountain of Tariq’ and later anglicized as Gibraltar.
Tariq, by one master stratagem, with a much smaller force (12,000 against 90,000 Spaniards) at the Battle of Guadalete defeated Roderic and thus opened the road for the subsequent Arab commanders to march all the way to Tours in France.
With the arrival of winter, the river began to freeze. A ferocious battle appeared inevitable. And then something extraordinary happened. Perhaps a miracle. Without warning both sides turned and fled in panic. Despite their inglorious act, the Russians knew that their long subservience was over.
The Khan had lost his stomach for a fight. The once invincible Mongol might had evaporated. Their centralized authority in the West had now collapsed, leaving three widely separated khanates (Kazan, Astrakhan and Crimea) as their last remnants of the once mighty and the largest contiguous land empire in history.
It was in 1553 when Ivan the Terrible, a successor of Ivan III, thirsting for revenge, stormed the fortress of Kazan on the upper Volga, slaughtered its defenders and thus ended the Mongol rule. Two years later the Khanate of Astrakhan, where the Volga flows into the Caspian met with similar fate.
Starving Napoleon’s army
Fast forward to June 1812, and the fateful day, the 24th , when Napoleon’s Grande Armée crossed the Neman River in an attempt to engage and defeat the Russian army.
Napoleon’s aim was to compel Tsar Alexander I of Russia to stop trading with British merchants through proxies and bring about pressure on the United Kingdom to sue for peace. The overt political aim of the campaign was to liberate Poland from the threat of Russia (as the US claims of Eastern Europe today). Thus the campaign was named the Second Polish War to gain favor with the Poles and provide a political pretense for his actions.
The real aim was domination of Russia.
The Grande Armée was massive; 680,000 soldiers. Through a series of marches Napoleon rushed the army rapidly through Western Russia in an attempt to bring the Russian army to battle, and in August of that year winning a number of minor engagements and a major battle at Smolensk.
Any invading army must consider war in Russia as a war at sea. It is futile to occupy land or city or cities. The aim of an invading force must be to destroy the military machine of Russia. The aim of Russian commanders has always been to survive and use its vast land mass to exhaust its enemy, learn from him and defeat and annihilate him with his own tactics and stratagems, only better executed.
Napoleon engaged the Russian army for a decisive battle at Maloyaroslavets. The Russians would not commit themselves to a pitched battle. His troops exhausted, with few rations, no winter clothing, and his remaining horses in poor condition, Napoleon was forced to retreat.
He hoped to reach supplies at Smolensk and later at Vilnius. In the weeks that followed the Grande Armée starved and suffered from the onset of “General Winter”. Lack of food and fodder for the horses, hypothermia from the bitter cold and persistent attacks upon isolated troops from Russian peasants and Cossacks led to great losses in men, and a general loss of discipline and cohesion in the army.
When Napoleon’s army crossed the Berezina River in November, only 27,000 fit soldiers remained. The Grand Armée had lost some 380,000 men dead and 100,000 captured. A riveting defeat.
All those Afghan overt – and covert – wars
Four centuries after the cataclysm of the Mongol invasion, the Russian Empire had been steadily expanding at the rate of 55 square miles a day – or 20,000 square miles a year. At the dawn of the 19th century only 2,000 miles separated the British and the Russian empires in Asia.
Both the Russians and the East India Company (as in the British Indian Empire) sent their officers, businessmen in disguise, as Buddhist priests or Muslim holy men, to survey uncharted Central Asia.
One such chap was Captain Arthur Connolly of the 6th Bengal Light Cavalry in the service of the British East India Company. The East India Company was the British version of America’s Halliburton.
Connolly ended up beheaded as a spy by the orders of Alim Khan, the Emir of Bukhara. It was Connolly who coined the expression “The Great Game”, which Kipling immortalized in his novel “Kim”.
By the end of the 19th century the Tsars’ armies had swallowed one Khanate after another and only a few hundred miles separated the two empires. In some places the distance was only twenty miles.
The British feared that they would lose their Indian possessions – the ‘Jewel in the Crown’ – to the Tsar; and two theories emerged to defend the frontiers of British India.
The ‘forward policy’ and its proponents (hawks, today’s US neocons) argued to stop the Russians beyond India’s frontiers by getting there first, either by invasion, or by creating compliant ‘buffer’ states, or satellites, astride the likely invasion route.
But there were those who did not buy this proposition and did not believe that the Russians would invade India. The opponents of the ‘forward policy’ argued that India’s best defense lay in its unique geographical setting – bordered by impassable mountain ranges, mighty rivers, waterless deserts, and above all warlike tribes.
A Russian force which reached India surmounting all these obstacles would be so weakened by then that it would be no match for the waiting British Army. Therefore, it was more sensible to force an invader to overextend his lines of communications than for the British to risk theirs. And above all this policy was cheaper.
NATO today has a forward policy of deploying troops all over Eastern Europe and creating bases around Russia in an effort to encircle it. The final straw for the Russian Federation has been the occupation of Ukraine, by proxy, by Washington.
Guess who won the policy debate in 19th century Britain? The hawks (the US neocons of today), of course.
In 1838 Lord Auckland decided to replace the current Emir of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad Khan with Shuja-ul-Mulk.
One could easily replace Dost Muhammad of Afghanistan in 1838 with today’s Gaddafi of Libya or Saddam Hussein of Iraq or Bashar al-Assad of Syria. Or Putin of Russia. Or anyone who becomes an obstacle to the West’s geopolitical, geoeconomic domination.
And yet the British suffered a massive defeat after a year’s occupation of Afghanistan. The only soldier who eventually reached Jalalabad was William Brydon. The Afghans may have spared him so he would be able to tell the tale of this horrific defeat.
You would think the British would have learned from history. Not at all. They did it again.
Tension between Russia and Britain in Europe ended in June 1878 with the Congress of Berlin. Russia then turned its attention to Central Asia, promptly sending an uninvited diplomatic mission to Kabul.
Sher Ali Khan, the Emir of Afghanistan (the son of Emir Dost Muhammad Khan) tried unsuccessfully to keep them out. Russian envoys arrived in Kabul on July 22, 1878, and on August 14, the British demanded that Sher Ali accept a British mission too.
The Emir not only refused to receive a British mission under Neville Bowles Chamberlain, but threatened to stop it if it were dispatched. Lord Lytton, the viceroy, ordered a diplomatic mission to set out for Kabul in September 1878 but the mission was turned back as it approached the eastern entrance of the Khyber Pass, triggering the Second Anglo–Afghan War.
After several defeats in various battles except one, and thus abandoning the provocative policy of maintaining a British resident in Kabul, the British were forced to withdraw.
One would think the British would have enough sense to cease with the stupid policy of occupying Afghanistan. Not at all. They tried it for the third time.
The Third Afghan War began on May 6, 1919 and ended with an armistice on August 8, 1919. An Afghan victory, again.
The British finally abandoned their forward policy. It had failed – just as the American neocons “policy” is failing.
And yet, roughly 60 years later the Russians would don the madman’s (British) hat and on December 25th, 1979, launched a vertical envelopment and occupied Kabul.
Their main aim was the airbase at Shindand, about 200 miles as the crow flies from the Straits of Hormuz, the choke point of the Persian Gulf, through which at the time 90% of the world’s oil was flowing.
They placed 200 Bear Bombers – the equivalent of the US B-52’s – as if sending a message to President Carter: “Checkmate”. A certain game was over – and a covert war was about to begin.
As our historical trip takes us from The Great Game to the Cold War, by now it’s more than established that the United States took on the mantle of the British Empire and filled in the power vacuum left by the British. If Connolly were to come back during the Cold War he would be right at home – as the Cold War was a continuation of the Great Game.
In between, of course, there was a guy named Hitler.
After Napoleon, it was Hitler who considered the Russians as barbarians and despite a nonaggression pact invaded Russia.
The Second Great European War (GEW II) was in fact fought between Germany and the USSR. Germany deployed 80% of its economic and military resources on its Eastern Front compared to 20% against the rest of the allies on the Western Front, where it was merely a ‘fire brigade operation’ (Hitler’s words).
Paul Carell describes the moment when, at 0315 on June 22nd 1941, the massive ‘Operation Barbarossa’ over a 900-mile front went under way.
“As though a switch had been thrown a gigantic flash of lightening rent the night. Guns of all calibres simultaneously belched fire. The tracks of tracer shells streaked across the sky. As far as the eye could see the front on the Bug was a sea of flames and flashes. A moment later the deep thunder of the guns swept over the tower of Volka Dobrynska like a steamroller. The whine of the mortar batteries mingled eerily with the rumble of the guns. Beyond the Bug a sea of fire and smoke was raging. The narrow sickle of the moon was hidden by a veil of cloud. Peace was dead.”
Russians are masters of Sun Tzu: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
These principles were recently applied in Ukraine and Crimea. For background, one just needs to study the battle of Kursk as well as Operation Bagration.
The Soviet military doctrine of maskirovka was developed in the 1920s, and used by Zhukov in the 1939 Battles of Khalkhin Gol against Japan.
The Field Regulations of the Red Army (1929) stated that:
“Surprise has a stunning effect on the enemy. For this reason all troop operations must be accomplished with the greatest concealment and speed.”
Concealment was to be attained by confusing the enemy with movements, camouflage and use of terrain, speed, use of night and fog, and secrecy.
Operation Bagration – the Soviet destruction of the German Army Group Centre – was, arguably, the single most successful military action of the entire war. This vital Soviet offensive is symptomatic of the lack of public knowledge in the West about the war in the East. Whilst almost everyone has heard of D-Day, few people other than specialist historians know much about Operation Bagration.
Yet the sheer size of Bagration dwarfs that of D-Day.
“Army Group Centre was really the anchor of that whole German front,’ writes Professor Geoffrey Wawro, ‘blocking the shortest path to Berlin; and the Russians annihilated it at the same time as we were landing on D-Day and marching on, liberating Paris and then heading towards Germany. But the scope of the fighting was much bigger in the East.
You had ten times as many Russians fighting in Bagration as you had Anglo/American/Canadian troops landing on the Normandy beaches.
And you had three times as many Germans in action fighting trying to hold up the Russian advance as you had defending the Atlantic Wall.
So, it’s a perfect encapsulation of the problem (of lack of appreciation of the scale of fighting on the Eastern Front). I mean, think about it, when D-Day and Bagration jumped off, the allied armies in Normandy and the Russian armies on the Eastern Front were equidistant from Berlin, and in the German view they were sort of equal threats.
After Operation Bagration, Russia is seen as being the principal threat because they just kicked down the door altogether and reoccupied all the ground that was lost in 1941. They take most of Poland and they move into East Prussia and they’re at the very gates of Berlin while we’re still slogging our way through Normandy and towards Paris.”
Operation Bagration was a colossal victory for the Red Army. By the 3rd of July Soviet forces had recaptured Minsk, capital of Belorussia, a city which had been in German hands for three years. And by the end of July the Red Army had pushed into what had been, before the war, Polish territory, and had taken Lwow, the major cultural center of eastern Poland.
Before Operation Barbarossa, the German High Command masked the creation of the massive force arrayed to invade the USSR and heightened their diplomatic efforts to convince Joseph Stalin that they were about to launch a major attack on Britain.
Maskirovka (deception) was put into practice on a large scale in the Battle of Kursk, especially on the Steppe Front commanded by Ivan Konev.
The result was that the Germans attacked Russian forces four times stronger than they were expecting.
The German general Friedrich von Mellenthin wrote, “The horrible counter-attacks, in which huge masses of manpower and equipment took part, were an unpleasant surprise for us… The most clever camouflage of the Russians should be emphasized again. We did not .. detect even one minefield or anti-tank area until .. the first tank was blown up by a mine or the first Russian anti-tank guns opened fire”.
Broadly, military deception may take both strategic and tactical forms. Deception across a strategic battlefield was uncommon until the modern age (particularly in the world wars of the 20th century), but tactical deception (on individual battlefields) dates back to early history.
In a practical sense military deception employs visual misdirection, misinformation (for example, via double agents) and psychology to make the enemy believe something that is untrue. The use of military camouflage, especially on a large scale, is a form of deception.
The Russian loanword maskirovka (literally: masking) is used to describe the Soviet Union and Russia’s military doctrine of surprise through deception, in which camouflage plays a significant role.
There are numerous examples of deception activities employed throughout the history of warfare, such as: feigned retreat leading the enemy, through a false sense of security, into a pre-positioned ambush; fictional units creating entirely fictional forces or exaggerating the size of an army; smoke screen – a tactical deception involving smoke, fog, or other forms of cover to hide battlefield movements; Trojan Horse – gaining admittance to a fortified area under false pretenses, to later admit a larger attacking force; strategic envelopment – where a small force distracts the enemy while a much larger force moves to attack from the rear (that was a favored tactic of Napoleon’s).
And that brings us to Syria, and its importance to Russia.
The deep state in Washington wants to keep the entire spectrum from the Levant to the Indian sub-continent destabilized – shaping it as the platform to send sparks of terrorism North to Russia and East to China. At the same time the US military will keep a physical presence (if China, India and Russia will allow it) in Afghanistan, from where it can survey the Eurasian land mass. As a master geopolitical chess player, Putin is very much aware of all this.
Syria is right at the underbelly of Russia and would be strategically important if it were in the hands of remote-controlled thugs like Ukraine is today. It has the potential to destabilize Russia from the Caucasus to Central Asia – generating as many Salafi-jihadi terrorists as possible. The region from the Caucasus to Central Asia holds about 80 million Muslims. Russia has enough reasons to stop US advances in Syria and Ukraine. Not to mention that in Iraqi Kurdistan the Pentagon is aiming to build a mega base, a springboard to create mischief in Central Asia for both Russia and China, in the form, for instance, of an Uyghur uprising in Western China, like it has done in Ukraine for Russia.
Once again; it may be helpful to look back to the continuum of history. It tells us these current efforts to encircle and destabilize Russia are destined to fail.
Carell, Paul: Hitler’s War on Russia (George G. Harrap & Co. Ltd., London, 1964).
Fraser-Tytler, W.K.: Afghanistan: A Study of Political Developments in Central Asia (Oxford University Press, London, 1950).
Hopkirk, Peter: Foreign Devils on the Silk Road: The Search for Lost Cities and Treasures of Chinese Central Asia (First Published by John Murry (Publisher), 1980; First issued as an Oxford University Press, paperback 1980, Oxford).
Tzu, Sun: The Art of War (Edited with an introduction by Dallas Galvin; Translated from Chinese by Lionel Giles, First Published in 1910, Produced by Fine Creative Media, Inc. New Yor
Gibbon, Edward: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire Volume III (Random House Inc. Manufactured in the United States by H. Wolf).
Weatherford, Jack: Genghis Khan and the making of the Modern World (Three Rivers Press, New York).
Wawro, Geoffrey: WW2.com (Professor of Military History at the University of North Texas).
This article was first published by The Saker
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