01/29/2022, 20.04
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The Tatar legacy

by Stefano Caprio

In the Ukraine battleground, the great Asian empire wins again. No one has ever equalled it, neither the British with their Commonwealth, nor the Americans who tried to “export democracy” last century. However, a break with the West would leave Russia all alone vis-à-vis China. And the two Asian empires will have to show their cards.

Rome (AsiaNews) – As the saying goes, hope for the best, but prepare for the worse; as things stand now, war between Russia and Ukraine, between East and West, is a real possibility.

Although no invasion has taken place, nor any popular resistance, or flying drones and nuclear bombs and extermination, the hostilities are already out in the open.

Russia is opposed to the Western world again. This time it is worse than the Cold War in the 20th century; troop deployments already echo past events such as the Cuba missile crisis of 1961 and the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, which set in motion the Soviet Union’s final fall.

For the past month, all sorts of predictions have been made, that Russia would invade before Christmas, after the New Year, during Orthodox Christmas; now some expect the attack to come after the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, whilst others think it will be in May, after the snow melts, to avoid tanks getting bogged down in the mud.

If no armed confrontation occurs, the standoff will probably be seen as a remake of the Great Stand on the Ugra River (Russian Угорщина, romanized: Ugorshchina) in October-November 1480, which ended two centuries of Tatar yoke in Russia.

Since January of that year, two armies, that of Grand Prince Ivan III of Muscovy and that of Akhmat Khan of the Great Horde, confronted each other; on the Ugra River, along today’s border with the Ukraine, they faced off on opposite banks with neither side attacking. By November, the Tatars withdrew, no longer able to collect tribute from the lands they long dominated.

It should be noted that the forces of the two medieval contenders were a hodgepodge. On the Muscovy side, Russian troops were aligned with Asian forces, as well as Western principalities, while the Tatars were expecting reinforcements from the Baltic and Poland.

This brings us back to today's history, for it is not clear how many Europeans are really ready to resist Putin's threats, or to what extent Xi Jinping's China is really willing to side with Moscow, as explained in AsiaNews’s latest Red Lanterns article.

The Ugorshchina helped Muscovy to finally become “Holy Russia”, gathering together its lands and seizing the imperial insignia (following Byzantium fall to the Ottomans), thus dreaming of becoming the “Third Rome”.

Today, the gathering (Russian: соборность, romanised: sobornost) of lands remains one of the great dreams of Putin's Russia. After the annexation Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine should at least see the two separatist republics of Luhansk (Lugansk) and Donetsk, which constitute the Donbass, Ukraine’s industrial heartland, split away.

In recent days, in Moscow, the Duma is already discussing recognising their independence, as it did in 2008 with South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two Georgian regions now under Russia control.

Fighting in the breakaway Georgian regions continued until 2011, with rather weak attempts by the West to find a peaceful solution. It is no coincidence that the Georgians believe that the Russians will not stop at Ukraine but will also break through again in the Caucasus.

Russian troops thus appear as the “threat from the East”, taking on the mantle of the Tatar-Mongol hordes that ruled Russia starting with the destruction of Kyiv (Kiev) and ancient Rus' in 1240, an event that split Eastern and Western Russians, with the latter coming under the rule of Poland-Lithuania, or forced into the southern lands of the Ukrainian Cossacks.

For eight centuries, this confrontation and division has persisted. It would be too long to sum up all the tragic ins and outs that left an indelible scar on the face of Europe, of which Ukraine, according to some versions, is the geographical centre, halfway “between the Atlantic and the Urals”.

The fall of the Iron Curtain raised many hopes for unity, a European sobornost whose blueprint never materialised. If Europe fails to go beyond the Dnieper, 3,000 kilometres from the Urals, it will still be “half a continent”, not only geographically and politically but also culturally and spiritually.

One of Russia's most authoritative military experts, Sergey Karaganov, did not mince his words. NATO, for him, is “a real cancer”; indeed, “it is useless to continue to call the disease from which we must heal, a partner...”.

The Tatars win again, imposing the great Asian empire that no one has ever equalled, neither the British with their Commonwealth, nor the Americans who tried to “export democracy” last century, nor the Atlantic alliance today, so close to failure.

The heirs of Genghis Khan, who died in 1226, split into the five great khanates that morphed into the five states that are involved in today’s division power. The Great Mongol Khanate of Karakorum became the China of Kublai Khan's Yuan dynasty, an inspiration for Xi Jinping's “Sinicisation” and desire to turn China into the world's leading power.

The Golden Horde spread over Russia and the Turkic lands, dividing into the Blue Horde and the White Horde, the two parts that historically vie for control over the borderlands between Asia and Europe, East Slavia, the Sublime Porte and the Khwarazm of Central Asia.

The Ilkhanate of Persia and the Middle East was the first to convert to Islam in the early 14th century, while the Chagatai Khanate, birthplace of Genghis Khan himself, held present-day Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and the Siberian lands up to the Altai Mountains, bordering China and India.

Russia, China, Turkey, India, Central Asia and the Middle East are the lands that surround Ukraine and Europe in the East, and are today waiting to know the fate of “Putin Khan”, who seems to be less interested in European tsardom than in the sceptre of Karakorum, in the conquest of Kyiv and the subjugation of the lands of Eurasia.

Putin’s arrogant resourcefulness is closely monitored by the seemingly good-natured smile of the ruler of the Celestial Empire, which has a score to settle with Russia that goes back centuries and which might be within reach at present.

However the break with the West might go, Russia will be left completely alone vis-à-vis China, and the two Asian empires will be forced to show their cards. At first glance, comparison is absolutely unequal: the Russians are a tenth the size of the Chinese . . . and the Indians. Yet, geography and size seem to favour Moscow.

Even though Siberia is historically disputed between the two powers, China's economic prowess has already largely turned it into one of its branch plants. Overall, the economic balance of power is decidedly in Beijing's favour, while in military terms, Moscow is still ahead.

Despite the unequal alliance, Russians are not scared. Neither side appears to benefit enough from it; in fact, both prefer doing business with the West. About 18 per cent of Russia's foreign trade is with China, but 60 per cent is with the EU, the US, Great Britain, Canada, Japan and South Korea.

The Russian market would be crushed if the break with Western countries were total; US threats look like they might do as much damage as those against Iran. Russia’s US$ 600 billion in foreign exchange reserves, accumulated over the past 20 years, would probably melt like snow in the spring if push comes to shove.

Russia’s oligarchs and its class of super-rich would lose much of the assets they accumulated along the sea and mountain resorts of half the world, whilst inflation would force the mass of the population to live in conditions not dissimilar from those experienced in the dying days of the Soviet Union when even vodka became a rarity on supermarket shelves.

In such a scenario, could China export to Russia consumer goods produced under US and European licences? That paradox would be hard to unravel. China is used to waiting for bodies to wash up on riverbanks, those of its enemies, but above all those of its “friends”.

Over the centuries, Russia has tried to prevail over the emperors in Beijing in so many ways. The construction in the late 19th century of the Trans-Siberian Railway, which celebrated Moscow’s empire as the vanguard of the industrialised world, is still an open wound in China.

Losses in war and clumsy tsars saw railway lines built north of the Amur River, but resentment remains for the territorial overlapping. The Chinese city of Harbin was founded by Russians, and became the home to the anti-Soviet diaspora in the East, while the Chinese city of Hǎishēnwǎi, (Sea-cucumber cliffs) was sliced off from the motherland by Russian colonisation and is now known as Vladivostok, the “Lord” or “Ruler of the East”.

In 1949 Stalin was the first to recognise the People's Republic of China a day after its founding by Mao Zedong. He signed a pact of friendship and mutual aid with the new regime with the Soviet Union acting as China’s “big sister", generously handing over to Beijing its network of spies and control in Asia.

After Stalin's death and Khrushchev's denunciation of his crimes, relations broke down. Mao denounced Soviet “revisionism” and defended the legacy of the Georgian dictator, universal leader of the communist movement, going so far as to consider the USSR a “servant of capitalism”.

Relations improved only years later under Gorbachev, and in the years 2000, meetings between Putin and his Chinese counterparts became an annual event, along with agreements of friendship and collaboration.

Russia was the first country Xi Jinping visited as president of the People's Republic in 2015, guest of honour on top of Lenin's mausoleum to mark the 70th anniversary of the Victory in the Great Patriotic War.

That was just seven years ago but now seems so long ago, partly because of the pandemic. Now everything is up for grabs on the borders between Asia and Europe.

Perhaps officials in the Russian Ministry of Culture and Education are not wrong, when they propose to rewrite school textbooks; in their view, ancient and recent history will have to be rewritten, based on what happens in the coming future.




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