December 6, 1240 AD: The Mongols, under the command of Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu Khan, invade Russia and make it part of their growing empire. The next year, in 1241, they took over Poland and Hungary.
With our concerns about Russia and Ukraine in the news, maybe it’s worth taking a few minutes to think how our ideas about West Asia are still being shaped by ancient and medieval fears.
Our fears have several ingredients, some of them contradicting each other. First and deepest, there’s a sense that Europe is always trying to catch up to more centrally located civilizations in Mesopotamia and Egypt that got started earlier and were until recently much richer than Europe. We know that these areas are poorer than Europe right now, but as China’s power grows and modern highways and trains cross Asia, will the trade advantage Europe got with sea trade last much longer?
Second, there’s the fear that the Greeks had of the Persian Empire, and that Austria had of the Ottoman Empire: our (not unjustified) fear of a united SW Asia that could invade Europe. We remember better than we want to that Eastern Europe has often been controlled from Asia.
We like SW Asia broken up into small powerless countries, always at war with each other, even as we pretend to condemn their wars and “help” them to find regional peace.
Third, medieval fears of SW Asian power under the Ayyubids and Seljuks led European rulers to make alliances with the Mongols, and we still often feel this way: we too make alliances with Russia, or we are tempted to, in order to control SW Asia. Forced to choose between Syria and Russia, we often choose Russia.
Not only that, France has often chosen to be friendly with Poland and Russia against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empires.
It may seem obvious that the United States is the natural enemy of Russia and Central Asian powers, but historically, that’s been mostly untrue.