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War on the Eve of Nations. Synopsis

War on the Eve of Nations

Conflicts and Militaries in Eastern Europe, 1450–1500


Dear friends, please find below a synopsis of the book as brief as possible.

Sincerely, V.Shirogorov



The background of events


In the geopolitical Grand Design of Eastern Europe, the year 1500 marked the passage between the Late Middle Ages and Early Modern Time. The territorial partition for the nation-building was fixed and a confrontation for hegemonic domination over the subcontinent started. The coalitional conflict of 1497–1503, including the pivotal Moscow–Lithuanian War that began in 1500, concluded the former epoch and opened the latter one. One great military event sharpened the edge: the battle of the river Vedrosha on 14 July 1500. The battle showed not only the tactical development of the belligerent armies but also the operative game of the campaign of 1500. Strategically, it demonstrated the crucial rift in Eastern Europe – which hasn't faded since – between its outer belt of the Baltic region, Poland, the Western Ukraine and Belarus, and the inner landmass of Russia.

In the battle of the Vedrosha, the capability of the combatants' military models was evaluated in the geopolitical outcome, and the fighting capacity of the clashing armies was compared in action. But the battle is poor in data and obscure in descriptions, although all of them accentuate its tremendous importance. The event could be fruitfully studied only being the outcome of the preceding epoch. The coalitional conflict in Eastern Europe of 1497–1503 became the mature play of forces that had been built up before.


In-depth research reveals that the epoch crowned with the battle of the Vedrosha is quite specific in Eastern European history. It started around 1450 with the rise of the early regular armies in the main military centres of the region, those of the kingdom of Poland and the Grand Principality of Moscow. Both emerging nations were striving – Poland to remain afloat and Moscow to survive – and sensed the inadequacy of their former forces to the urgent challenges. Their armies were self-styled armed agents of societies, lacking the special military organisation and inferior to more solid adversaries. The limited fighting capacity of the Polish magnate-led gentry levy and Moscow's communal militias coupled with elite horsemen of princely courts pushed the rulers to look for another solution.

New troops were born in conflicts – Poland's war against the Teutonic Order for Prussia in the 1450s–60s, the Dynastic War in Moscow and its rivalry with the Republic of Novgorod over the consolidation of North-Eastern Rus' in the 1430s–50s. New model troops were established, the national models for the regular service elaborated and the particular tactics of the professional troops introduced. The objectives of both nations were gained in hard campaigning.

The regular troops demonstrated fighting excellency, but their volumes were not sufficient to press for grand international changes. Effective mass armies were needed, but they were absent. This deficiency paralysed the Polish efforts in the conflict with Hungary for Silesia in the 1470s and led to the disaster of the Crusade venture against Moldavia and Crimea in 1497. The efforts to cut off the Crimean raiding in South-Eastern Poland and the Turkish advance along the Black Sea shores were ruined. The backbone of the levy fractured and Poland was devoid of the mass army until it found a new military model.

In Moscow, the military reforms cancelling the militia service led to a decrease in the army's numbers, and only due to political quickness and military luck the gains from the conflicts against the Novgorod Republic, the Khanate of Kazan and the Grand Horde were retained in the 1470–80s. Novgorod was conquered, Kazan subjugated and the Grand Horde repelled, but the question of the mass army remained urgent.

Soon Poland and Moscow became rivals over Lithuania. Lithuania was a giant country, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea steppes. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, it included the western half of former Rus' destroyed by the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. While Poland developed its ideology of being the bulwark of Western Catholic Christianity against the schismatic and Muslim East and slowly merged Lithuania in step-by-step Union arrangements, a contending idea was born in Moscow. That was the idea of All Rus' as the inheritance of the rulers of Moscow after their ancestors, the grand princes of Kiev and Vladimir. It was fed by unforgotten Rus' unity and the Orthodox belief.


Lithuania was split between the factions of merger with Poland and of independence. A fierce Civil War was fought between the Lithuanian factions in the 1430s, but the dispute wasn't settled. The conservative oligarchy of magnates took over rule of Lithuania and suppressed any social changes. The Lithuanian military stagnated and lagged behind its dynamic counterparts in Poland and Moscow.

It was the deadly moment when the aggressive Tatar Hordes of the Steppes revived under the Turkish umbrella to prey on Lithuania for spoil and slaves. In 1482 Kiev was burned and sacked by Crimean marauders. The South-Eastern Rus' was devastated. In the 1490s Crimean raiders penetrated the Lithuanian heartland of the Western Rus' and Lithuania proper.

The Lithuanian protectorate over the Republic of Novgorod and the Grand Principality of Tver was lost to Moscow in the 1450s–70s. The Grand Horde, a Lithuanian nomadic ally, was defeated by Moscow in 1480. The pro-Moscow insurgency spread over the semi-independent principalities of the Lithuanian South-East, and they switched their allegiance to Moscow. Since the middle of the 1470s, urgent political and military reforms were launched in Lithuania and a lot of progressive military forms introduced but the gap with the Polish, Moscow and Crimean fighting efficiency wasn't closed. Although Lithuania wasn't a decomposing polity, it fell under the contest over its partition.

The contest for Lithuania was more important to the geopolitics of the transition from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Time in Eastern Europe than the decay of the Teutonic Order, the decline of the Golden Horde in the Eurasian Steppes, the rise of the Swedish kingdom in the Baltic and the advance of Ottoman Turkey on the northern shores of the Black Sea. It was three centuries-long, fiercely fought and ideologically acute; it heavily influenced the construction of the Polish and Russian nations in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and it brought into being the contemporary nations of Ukraine and Belarus.

Poland and Moscow invested their fresh regular troops in the conflict and expected their mass national armies to prevail. They couldn't be created by simply reproducing regular troops on a larger scale because they needed another mobilisation base, administration, weaponry and morale. The quest for the mass army became the pinnacle of the military build-up of the last quarter of the fifteenth century: it would grant military superiority and geopolitical domination to the winner of the race.


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