Today in European history: the Battle of the Kalka River (1223)

If you’re interested in history and foreign affairs, Foreign Exchanges is the newsletter for you! Sign up for free today for regular updates on international news and US foreign policy, delivered straight to your email inbox, or subscribe and unlock the full FX experience:


The Mongols’ 1240 siege of Kyiv, an event we’ve also discussed here, occurred on their second incursion into the eastern European steppe. The Mongols’ first European invasion, which gives us today’s anniversary, was more a raid than an invasion, since there was no consideration given to actually conquering territory. But it stands as perhaps the most momentous raid in history. By 1221 the Mongols’ war against the Khwarazmian Empire was over, although that empire’s straggling remnants would survive for another decade. Instead of turning around and heading home, as most of the Mongol army was doing, two generals—Jebe and Subutai—asked Genghis Khan for permission to take 20,000 men on an extended (1-2 year) expedition further west. Their intent was not conquest but simply to scout out these western lands, assess the kingdoms controlling them, take whatever booty they could scrape up, and then return home a little richer and a lot better informed.

This was 20,000 mounted men campaigning entirely on their own, with no expectation of resupply or reinforcement, for two years. The fact that they pulled it off is a testament to the Mongols’ astounding military capabilities.

Map - Mongol Empire 1190-1400

The Mongol Empire and some of their most important campaigns. The solid red arrow that loops around the Caspian Sea and back east in 1223-1224 is the Jebe-Subutai excursion.

While they were awaiting an answer, Jebe and Subutai led their men through what is now western Iran, sacking city after city, and north into Azerbaijan, where they accepted a bribe to leave the wealthy city of Tabriz alone. They kept pushing north into the Caucasus, defeating a Georgian army despite being outnumbered, before turning south and campaigning in western Iran again. They considered attacking Baghdad, but instead decided to sack the Iranian city of Hamadan, an easier target. Later they pushed back into the Caucasus, and by the end of 1221 they’d defeated another Georgian army and were raiding that kingdom at will.

It was only at this point that Genghis Khan approved their request to campaign further west. Permission granted, they headed north again, emerging from the Caucasus only to find themselves opposed by an army about twice their size made up of Circassians, Alans (ancestors of modern Ossetians), and Lezgins (who mostly live in Dagestan today), along with the Cumans, a Turkic nomadic people. The Mongols, appealing to some Turko-Mongolian ethnic connections and promising them a big share of the booty, convinced the Cumans to abandon their allies. After they destroyed the Circassian-Alan-Lezgin army, the Mongols chased down the Cumans, killed a bunch of them too, and got the bribe money back.

The sudden arrival of the Mongols compelled the Kyivan Rus’ confederation to muster a large army with contributions from each of its principalities, the largest of which were Kyiv, Galicia–Volhynia (the western part of modern Ukraine), and Vladimir-Suzdal (the eastern part of the confederation, which eventually became the core of Muscovy). This army may have been as large as 80,000 men by some estimates, though others put it at something closer to 30,000 and the surviving Russian sources aren’t very helpful in sorting it all out. By this point in its history, we should note, the principalities of Kyivan Rus’ barely were on speaking terms with one another. It was remarkable that they managed to come together here and speaks to the power of an external threat to sweep internal discord under the rug.

Faced with a considerably larger enemy army, Jebe and Subutai initially decided to wait for reinforcements from another Mongolian army that was on campaign not too far away to the east. At some point, however, it became apparent that this other Mongol army wasn’t going to make it in time, and so the generals opted to send an embassy to the Kyivan prince Mstislav (not to be confused with the Galician prince, who was also named Mstislav). Mstislav (the Kyivan one) had the Mongolian ambassadors put to death. The Khwarazmians had done something similar about five years earlier, and it didn’t end well for them either.

Jebe and Subutai started the battle by doing what Mongolian armies often did at the start of major engagements: they retreated. The feigned retreat was one of the Mongols’ go-to tactics, because it suckered unprepared and overconfident opponents into the middle of what could quickly become a shooting gallery, as Mongolian horse archers surrounded them and began to pick them off at will. And the Kyivans were pretty overconfident, particularly after they were able to overwhelm the small Mongolian rearguard during the retreat. After several days of “retreating,” the Mongols turned to fight, and the two armies met near the Kalka River, which today is located in Ukraine’s breakaway Donetsk province, on May 31, 1223.

The Kyivans had a Cuman contingent fighting with them, but having seen this movie before they cut and run before the battle really started. The Kyivan lines had to open up to let them through, and those gaps were then exploited by Mongolian cavalry, which turned the battle into a rout. The Mongols, as they so often did, were able to surround the Kyivan army, closing off its avenues of retreat and annihilating it with barrages of arrow fire. In the fighting, Prince Mstislav of Chernigov (not to be confused with Mstislav of Kyiv or Mstislav of Galicia and, man, did the Kyivans run out of child names or something?) was killed.

Mstislav of Kyiv was able to lead his men back to their camp, but it was eventually overrun by the Mongols and he was captured, then executed. Since the Mongols were superstitious about spilling royal blood, it’s said that he was put under a giant wooden floor, upon which the Mongols danced and celebrated until Mstislav suffocated to death. I’m not sure how much credence to put in reports like that (and there are others like this recorded after other major Mongolian victories), but somebody—either the Mongols themselves or the people writing these accounts—sure could think of some imaginative ways to execute captured enemy royals. Jebe and Subutai did some raiding in the area, defeating a Volga Bulgar army and another Cuman army, before turning east. They met up with Genghis Khan and the main Mongolian force in 1224, with Jebe dying not long after. All told, they and their army had ridden more than 5500 miles in three years.

The tragedy of Kalka, at least from the standpoint of all the dead people, is that it probably didn’t need to happen. The Kyivans saw the Mongolian force as an army of conquest and acted accordingly, but Jebe and Subutai couldn’t have held any territory even if they’d wanted to. They were inevitably going to have to head back east again after raiding a few Kyivan cities, which is what happened after Kalka but is also exactly what would have happened if Kalka had never been fought. You can’t blame the Kyivans, because they had no real way of knowing what the Mongols’ intentions were and they probably believed that their superior numbers would be enough to hand the invaders a serious defeat. But, bottom line, tens of thousands of Kyivan soldiers died defending their homeland against an army that wasn’t really an existential threat to the confederation. Of course, the next time the Mongols came through the area it was with Subutai and Genghis Khan’s grandson Batu at the head of a 100,000+ man army, and that was a different story.