Subutai (1175 – 1248), known as “Bagatur” (The Valiant), was the Mongols’ most brilliant and successful general, and the main military strategist of both Genghis Khan and his successor, Ogedei. Hailing from a humble background, he rose through the ranks, and eventually directed over 20 campaigns, conquered or overran 32 nations, and won 65 battles. He holds the distinction of having conquered more territory than any other commander in history.
Subutai left home at age 14 to join the Mongol army. Genghis Khan liked him and appointed him his door attendant, and it from that close proximity to the Khan, Subutai learned the basics of strategy and the Mongol art of war. In his first assignment, he convinced an enemy garrison that he was a deserter from the Mongol army, won their confidence and lulled them into letting down their guard, then signaled the Mongols to attack. Deception would be a hallmark of his military success, as he would exhibit, on a larger scale, in 1211 when he secured a major victory for Genghis over the Jin by a timely appearance to surprise the enemy with a flank attack, after convincing them that he was hundreds of miles away.
He also led the Mongol vanguard in the conquest of Khwarezm, chased its emir to his death, and after that campaign, led a reconnaissance in force on a circular route around the Caspian to the north en route back to Mongolia, while Genghis returned via a circular southern route that would brush against India.
Subutai’s route led through the Caucasus, where he twice defeated the Georgians, then subjugated the Cumans. That brought him into conflict with the Cumans’ Rus allies, so he and Jebe led them a merry chase for days in a feigned retreat, before destroying them at the Battle of Kalka River. They then returned to the east, where Subutai conducted successful campaigns against the Chinese for the next decade, before returning to the west and subjugating the Rus in late 1230.
After reducing the Rus to vassalage, Subutai invaded Eastern Europe in 1241, overseeing the operations of Mongol armies separated by hundreds of miles, and bringing them to victory over their respective opponents, in Poland and Hungary, within one day of each other. Subutai was in command of the Mongols at the second victory, the Battle of Mohi, which destroyed the Hungarian army and left Central Europe open. Subutai was drawing plans to advance along the Danube to Vienna, then subjugate the Holy Roman Empire, when news arrived of Khan Ogedei’s death.
Although he wanted to press on into Europe, politics necessitated the return of Subutai and his forces to Mongolia to participate in the selection of a new Khan. Subutai never returned, and spent his final years campaigning against the Song Dynasty in southern China – and thus Europe was spared the Mongol yoke that Russia would endure for centuries.