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Dreaming of Tannu-Tuva: Soviet precursors to Russia’s hybrid warfare

The case of Tuva shows that Russia is no novice to hybrid warfare.

March 20, 2020 - Tomasz Kamusella - Articles and Commentary

The Centre of Asia monument in Kyzyl, Tuva. Photo: Zamunu45 (cc) wikimedia.org

In the annals of military history, the 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea by the ‘green little men’ (зелёные человечки zelionye chelovechki) of ‘unknown origin’ marks the first widely acknowledged use of hybrid warfare. When in 2012 I proposed to a colleague doing research on conflict and violence that she should have a good look at the Kremlin’s insistence that Ukraine give up a key lighthouse in the Crimean port city of Yalta, she just shrugged. ‘Real conflict’ was then in Iraq and Syria.

Yet, Russia is again at the forefront of world power politics. It is not leading in the fields of economic diversification, employment, effective welfare state provisions, or GDP growth, but instead in the imperial sphere of war. Hybrid warfare combines the supposedly soft power of language and culture, as mediated through the mass media and the internet, with military-scale disinformation and limited deployment of traditional troops. Soft power that is customised for hard military uses permits the aggressor to achieve its military objectives with minimal employment of force and few casualties, if any. However, if the situation is prolonged and casualties are unavoidable, the aggressor state can claim limited involvement. The role of aggressor is tactically attributed to local militias, who represent sentiments of the population in a breakaway region that are supposedly displeased with the central government. The aggressor state admits to providing only some non-combatant advisors to the militias. At the same time, the region’s civilian population is turned into sole victims of the military operations and are forced to become unwilling combatants. The separatist militias, doubling as the breakaway region’s government and administration, grow rich by taxing the impoverished population and ‘paying’ draftees in patriotic propaganda. In this type of conflict, characteristic, for instance, of eastern Ukraine under the undeclared Russian attack and occupation, risk is deftly outsourced. It is civilians who suffer the most casualties, not troops of the aggressor state that feigns no knowledge of what is going on next to its frontier.

Brutal cyberattacks and online disinformation are justified through the Kremlin’s ethnolinguistic ideology of the ‘Russian World’ (Русский Мир Russkii Mir), which proposes that all Russian-speakers, irrespective of their country of citizenship and residence, are members of the single Russian nation, and thus are obliged to be loyal only to Russia. The confusing socio-political context, blurred by such enhanced propaganda, provides a window of opportunity for launching an unannounced targeted deployment of limited forces. This is the gist of hybrid warfare. Russia, with its multilingual and highly educated population, has an upper hand in this game of managed obfuscation over the predominantly Anglophone west and the monolingual nation-states of central and eastern Europe. A typical Russian graduate, who staffs the Kremlin’s troll farms, has a personal experience of and necessary skills that allow her to operate in different languages, cultures and social contexts. What is more, Russia’s inhabitants are relatively impoverished in comparison to their western and central European counterparts. But courtesy of the mass media and the internet, Russians are well aware of the higher standard of living enjoyed by their western counterparts. Numerous Russians are appalled by this fact, because in line with the Kremlin’s propaganda, it was ‘their country’ (that is, the defunct Soviet Union), which contributed most to winning World War II, and thus saved the world from the specter of nazism. This official propaganda ‘explains’ that Russia was robbed by the ‘perfidious west’ of the due benefits of this victory. As a result, ideological indignation attracts Russians to troll farms and shadowy military IT units, where they proudly fulfill their patriotic duty. Furthermore, salaries in these places are considerably higher than that of a typical Russian teacher or medical doctor. Hence, thanks to following the Kremlin’s ideological appeals, not only is one recognised as a good patriot, but also one fulfills one’s paradoxical dream of achieving a western standard of living by fighting the west. Many Russian citizens are ready to risk their lives to avail themselves of this rare opportunity. The Russian authorities never acknowledge that a Russian soldier or operative died in action abroad in an undeclared hybrid conflict. They have never been on the army’s payroll. The deceased’s widow and children cannot thus count on any state pension, which as a matter of course, is due to families of regular soldiers who lost their lives on duty.

But is hybrid warfare anything new, apart from the addition of weaponised cyberspace as a new ‘place’ for conducting ‘military’ operations? Famously, Leon Trotsky, as the de facto organiser of the Red Army and its most successful early commander, chose a ‘hybrid’ manner of tactical obfuscation. After the 1918 signature of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers, he pronounced that this document established the state of ‘no war – no peace’ between these powers and Bolshevik Russia. This formulation is a clear precursor to George Orwell’s ‘war is peace’ in his prophetic novel 1984. The novel’s propaganda-twisted language, or Newspeak, closely emulated the bureaucratised Soviet abuse of Russian and other Soviet Union’s languages in the press and mass media. Politruks (политический руководитель politicheskii rukovoditel’ ‘political guide’), or political officers, were not a mere ‘add on’ to Red Army detachments, but a key aspect of the ideologised Soviet war effort. These officers were tasked to bring militarised class struggle to each soldier’s heart and mind. War never stopped at the actual military front, but continued in the rear against the ‘internal enemy,’ be it a bourgeois, kulak, priest, or counter-revolutionary thoughts in your own head. Military education became integral to the Soviet educational system. Each patriotic Soviet citizen was to serve as a soldier of communism, always watchful and ready to defend the achievements of this system, both with word and in armed struggle. Everyone knew that for the sake of a brilliant future, they must be ready to spread the good news of marxism-leninism abroad, on the ‘inevitable’ path toward a worldwide communist state.

For this ‘future good’ of global revolution, it was fine to lie and engage in subterfuge, as the most effective Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, did. Unsurprisingly, the beginnings, mechanisms and methods of today’s hybrid warfare, as erroneously assumed to have been ‘invented’ in the 21st century Russian Federation, actually date back to the Soviet times. Hybrid warfare is intrinsically connected to the Soviet belief and practice of perceiving social relations in a state through the lens of an all-encompassing class struggle. No one could ever feel safe and be off duty. The dawn of a communist tomorrow required never-ending sacrifices. Soviet citizens were tasked with building a new civilisation in accordance with the ‘immutable scientific laws of history,’ supposedly discovered by Karl Marx and fine-tuned by Vladimir Lenin.

That is the main difference in hybrid warfare, as practiced once by the Soviet Union and today by the Russian Federation. The modern Russian Federation’s leadership does not dangle a carrot of a radically different new civilisation in front of the Russian people’s eyes. The ideology of Russkii Mir does not call for a wholesale overhaul of all aspects of social, economic, political and cultural life across the entire world. It is just a re-run of the central European ideology of ethnolinguistic nationalism, customised for the Kremlin’s neo-imperial ambitions. The goal is to keep legitimising the incumbent leader’s rule by mobilising the patriotically agitated population around ‘strategic successes’ in the form of limited land grabs from the neighboring post-Soviet states. This is nothing like rebuilding the Soviet Union, to which the Kremlin alludes from time to time. That is why post-Soviet Russia has shirked away from annexing an entire independent state. The creation of the Russian protectorate of Transnistria (taken away from Moldova), alongside those in Abkhazia and South Ossetia (seized from Georgia) brought into Russia’s fold about 17,000 square kilometers of territory. This amounts to roughly half of the area of the smallest post-Soviet state of Moldova. Substantially bigger grabs began with the Russian war on Ukraine. Crimea and eastern Ukraine under Russian occupation add up to whooping 80,000 square kilometers, which is twice the size of Estonia.

However, these recent grabs turned out to be one step too far. They destabilised the economic and political situation in Europe and demoted Russia to the status of a pariah state. On the contrary, the Soviet Union could never be a pariah state, whatever decisions and actions it took, because these were to be judged in light of the future-oriented Soviet ideology of global communism. Criticisms emanating from ‘backward’ capitalist states did not matter and were summarily dismissed as ‘counter-revolutionary.’ On the contrary, present-day Russia takes care of the world’s opinion because the Kremlin depends on the global economic and political systems of the ‘old capitalist world,’ including the internet and SWIFT-enabled electronic money transfers. Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia is not building its own separate economic and political civilisation on which to fall back and thrive without any recourse to the capitalist world’s financial markets. Hence, showing resurgent Russia’s newly found neo-imperial might to the world and the country’s opponents is fine as long as such efforts do not harm the systems of economic and capital flows. The whispered guideline is ‘let us not rock the boat too much,’ otherwise all the funds meticulously and creatively siphoned out from Russia’s state coffers may turn out into pieces of paper and fun confetti. Kleptocracy, even of a neo-imperial kind, comes with certain limitations, if the thief intends to enjoy the fruits of his ill-gotten gains.

Sovietologists can point with ease to obvious cases of Soviet-style hybrid warfare. For instance, after entering the infamous alliance with Nazi Germany in 1939, the Soviet Union conquered the eastern half of central Europe (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova and eastern Poland), but unexpectedly failed to subdue Finland. In the case of Poland, the Kremlin claimed that the Red Army entered the country only to save the local Belarusians and Ukrainians from the invading German armies. This view ‘explained’ why the saved populations summarily requested their regions of residence to be united with Soviet Belarus and Soviet Ukraine, respectively. In turn, Moscow ‘convinced’ the three Baltic republics to accept its generous offer of security in the form of Soviet military bases. Subsequently, these three countries’ workers and peasants had no choice but to ask the Kremlin for making their bourgeois homelands into Soviet republics. Likewise, Moldova (Bessarabia), wrenched from Romania under the unsubtle threat of Soviet military attack, was transformed into another Soviet republic. But in the case of Finland, an uneasy peace followed, when the Red Army failed to defeat the Finnish troops. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union’s meager territorial gains at Finland’s expense were merged with the Karelian Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic (ASSR). In turn, this republic was elevated to the status of the Soviet Union’s union republic and renamed as the Karelo-Finnish Soviet Socialist Republic (SSR). It was to be the core of a future Soviet Finland. The Kremlin had another go at conquering Finland in 1944, but relented in light of the Western Allies’ disapproval and Helsinki’s surprisingly friendly overtures. Instead, Moscow received the Porkkala military base next door to the Finnish capital (similar to Russia’s Sevastopol military base in Ukraine’s Crimea). Had Finland turned anti-Soviet, Moscow’s reply would have been fast and merciless. The first détente after Stalin’s death led to the lessening of East-West tensions, including the evacuation of this base in 1955. A year later the menacing Karelo-Finnish SSR was demoted back to the friendly low-key Karelian ASSR. The Finns could breathe more easily. 

In 2012 Sergei Shoigu was nominated as Russia’s Minister of Defence. In the neo-imperial reality spawned by the ideology of Russkii Mir, the actual name of this position should be ‘Minister of War.’ Indeed, the war on Ukraine and the entailed massive land grabs took place on Shoigu’s watch. He is an ethnic Tuvan and was born in the Tuvan Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. “Where is that?” a flabbergasted reader may ask. Known as the Republic of Tyva since 1992, it is part of Russia, squeezed between Mongolia, the Altai Republic and the southern tip of the huge Krasnoiarsk Krai. Few people have heard about Tuva outside Russia and Mongolia. The United States theoretical physicist and renowned prankster, Richard Feynman, challenged his friend Ralph Leighton to go on a trip to the forgotten country of Tuva. The latter thought that Feynman was playing a prank on him. But when Leighton found out that Tuva did exist, the absurdities of late Soviet bureaucracy prevented the physicist, then dying of cancer, from experiencing his last big adventure. What remains from this infatuation interrupted is Leighton’s 1991 book Tuva or Bust!. It has not brought Tuva back to the west’s public awareness, but quite effectively popularised the country’s tradition of highly unusual throat singing.

Feynman and Tuva (Source: wikimedia)

How is it that this once independent state, the size of Greece or Uruguay, with a population equal to that of Malta, could disappear so utterly and completely from the political map of the globe and the modern world’s memory? The Tannu Tuva People’s Republic was founded in 1921. Alongside the Mongolian People’s Republic and the Soviet Union, Tannu Tuva was one of the interwar period’s three lone communist states. But western handbooks of modern history all too often fall prey to the interbellum Kremlin’s 1924 slogan of ‘building socialism (communism) in a single country.’ Despite quite a few interwar western atlases and maps that dutifully depict Tannu Tuva and Mongolia as communist polities alongside the Soviet Union, the aforementioned slogan has worked wonders. Under this influence, the west forgot about communist Mongolia and communist Tannu Tuva between the two world wars. Even better, this propaganda-induced oblivion erased any memories of Tannu Tuva as an independent state. Indeed, it was located in the hard-to-reach distant midst of Asia, far away from any seaports. An eager traveler had no obvious land route to follow, and Tuvan embassies were in short supply. No representative of Tannu Tuva sat in the League of Nations. But the country did exchange ambassadors with the fellow communist regimes of Mongolia and the Soviet Union.

Stamp issued in late independent Tuva (Source: wikimedia)

When the trusted Soviet ally, nazi Germany, attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, the Kremlin made the strategic decision not to coerce the Mongolian army to fight against the rapidly advancing Wehrmacht. World War II in Asia had already opened three years earlier, in 1939, with the Battle of Khalkha River, which then separated eastern Mongolia from Japan’s northeastern Chinese protectorate of Manchukuo. Mongolian troops were needed in the Far East to support the Red Army against any further Japanese incursions. On the other hand, in 1941, Tannu Tuva had no choice but to declare war on Germany in solidarity with the Soviet Union. Donations from the Tuvan budget were liberally transferred to the Kremlin, and soon all the country’s gold reserves were ‘gifted’ to the Soviet Union. Gold mining was Tannu Tuva’s main modern industry. In 1943 Tuvan volunteers joined the Red Army. Subsequently, outright mobilisation was announced. Eventually at least 8,000 Tuvans fought at the eastern front in Europe.

An airplane donated by Tannu Tuva to the Red Army (Source: wikimedia)
Tuvan volunteers, 1943 (Source: wikimedia)
Tuvan cavalrymen sent off to the front, Kyzyl, c 1943 (Source: wikimedia)

In the course of extending this fraternal help to the Kremlin, the direct Soviet administrative, economic, and military control over Tannu Tuva deepened and became pervasive. Overnight this Soviet protectorate morphed into a de facto colony. Not much was left to be done by the Tuvan government and parliament (Great Khural), apart from rubberstamping decisions sent from Moscow for swift approval. When the western Allies’ attention was occupied by the decisive final stages of the Second World War in August of 1944, Joseph Stalin ‘convinced’ Tannu Tuva to request membership in the Soviet Union. This request was graciously granted in October the same year. In return for helping the Soviet Union during the war, the country was made into an autonomous region (область oblast’), while the People’s Revolutionary Army of Tannu Tuva was transformed into a Separate 7th Cavalry Regiment of the Siberian Military District. Two years later, in 1946, this regiment was dissolved so that no trace of a distinct Tuvan national army would remain in the Soviet military. Tuvan soldiers returning home from the European front found their country disappeared without any announcement or explanation. All had to accept Soviet citizenship or were sent to a Gulag concentration camp for pondering their ideological error.

‘On the Adoption of the Tuvan People’s Republic into the USSR,’ October 11th 1944 (Source: wikimedia)

Neither western leaders nor the western public noticed the vanishing of an entire country in the middle of Asia. They seemed indifferent, although many actually did protest for interwar Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, states that similarly ‘disappeared’ into the Soviet Union in 1940. In this case, the Soviet leadership treaded carefully and decided to retain the distinctiveness of these three Baltic states by allowing them to become constitutive Soviet socialist republics. No such special treatment was reserved for Tuva. However, in the course of de-Stalinisation in 1961, this oblast’s status was slightly elevated to that of an autonomous Soviet socialist republic. It was a sort of consolation for Aleksandr (Saryk-Dongak) Chymba (1906-1984), the last leader of independent Tuva. Afterwards, he loyally served the Soviets as First Chairman of the Executive Committee of the Tuvan Autonomous Oblast until he was pushed out of politics in 1961. He was then tasked with the managing of Tuva’s mines. But even this post was too much of a distinction for an interwar state leader. Eventually, Chymba became Head of the Tuvan Archive, so that he could spend his last years reflecting on the old good times of independent Tuva. His thankless task was to erase any memories of this ‘incorrect’ independence from publications and from his fellow Tuvans’ minds.

The case of Tuva shows that Russia is no novice to hybrid warfare. Shoigu knows that well. Who remembers today about the 1944 Soviet Anschluss of Tuva? Before Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the late 1980s, the west had already given up on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. These three Baltic countries’ anti-Soviet émigré activists and organisations were barely tolerated in Sweden or the United States. That kind of indifference is exactly what the Kremlin counts on. Russia anticipated that the west would quickly forget about the ‘complication’ of the Russian Anschluss of Crimea, which ominously took place on the 70th anniversary of the annexation of Tuva. Captains of industry whisper the message of ‘forget and forgive’ into the ear of the democratic leaders in Europe and North America for the sake of continuing to do business as usual. The ongoing construction of the Nord Stream oil pipeline across the Baltic to Germany is the latest litmus test of whether the principles of democracy and solidarity within the European Union come first, or if money matters more. I have no high hopes in this regard. And I am sure that the utterly forgotten sad fate of Tuva has not caused any sleepless nights for the German Chancellor or the French President, either.

Tomasz Kamusella is a Reader (Professor Extraordinarius) in Modern Central and Eastern European History at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. His latest monograph Ethnic Cleansing during the Cold War: The Forgotten 1989 Expulsion of Turks from Communist Bulgaria was just published by Routledge. 

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