.
C

onditions within Russia have historical parallels that portend a crisis of the Russian state in the not-too-distant future. From the protracted counteroffensive by Ukraine, the odd crisis of Wagner forces approaching Moscow’s outskirts, the terrifying risks of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, and the compounding instability of Russian military high commands, the crises of an ailing state are many.

Historical analogisms are a difficult and seldom trustworthy endeavor, but the similarities between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and today’s Russia bear examining. More importantly, the contrast of the two episodes should drive Western policymakers to consider the questions: what will Russia look like at the end of this crisis? And how should the international order prepare for that future amidst reorienting for a new era of strategic competition?

In World War I, the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict on the side of the belligerents and dragged Germany's vaunted military into repeated quagmires on account of its own warfighting ineptitude. The Ottoman Empire was colloquially known then as the “Sick Man of Europe.” A power in decline by 1914, the Ottoman Empire faded into history. Through economic stagnation, domestic and revolutionary forces undermining state control and institutions, and the increasingly complex European power structure foregoing ailing monarchical powers, liberalism and fascism began their international competition.

Today, Russia’s strategic plight mimics the Ottomans—though weighed by additional conditions which undermine a proud, yet troubled, power. In a far more connected world, the weakness of Russia permeates both Europe and Asia, and thus, any reference to a new “sick man” could fit the Eurasian arena. For many, Russia as a state is difficult to separate from Putin, and yet, this analysis is specific to the Russian State, not the figurehead. Certainly, Putin’s Kremlin enjoys the Western media’s misguided portrayal of his iron-handedness as a ruler, which inevitably depicts a form of strength and assurance. But the truth is that his ruthless efforts at control are indicative of how fractured and asthenic Russia truly is. That weakness stems from wealth inequality, corrupt and overly-centralized institutions, and nationalist ideologies. This is endemic to both the autocracy employed by Putin’s regime for more than two decades and is a result of the system which grew out of the civil chaos of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, many in the West were caught unprepared. As historian David Hoffman noted, “Sovietologists in the mid-1980s saw no possibility that the Soviet Union would change, let alone disappear. Conservative commentators postulated that the Soviet system was incapable of reform, and that it could only be altered through overthrow by an external force—an implausible prospect given the Soviet military’s vast nuclear arsenal.” But the Soviet Union indeed fell, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Leaving the world in a lurch and scrambling to adjust to the sudden unipolar moment.

Russia suffers from an ailing system of its own creation, one defined by Russian-expert Professor Mark Galeotti as, “…an almost medieval court perched atop a modern, bureaucratic state. In this ‘adhocracy,’ power is defined less by one’s formal role than by proximity to the monarch.” Further, Wagner leader Prigozhin’s bizarre protest now suggests that Putin’s regime will be “less able to cope with the next [crisis]. [Putin] must now fear the day when enough of them conclude that the risk of moving against him is outweighed by the danger of leaving him in power.”

If it seems eerily similar to other episodes in history, the thought has merit. Even Putin compared June’s Wagner uprising to a chaotic betrayal in 1917—also in Russia by non-state actors, hell-bent on removing the sitting power on the grounds of mistreatment and ineffectual military campaigns. Such events, whether successful or not, are still powerful enough to alter the course of history. The “special military operation” in Ukraine was a desperate and erratic effort to assert regional and international strength by a fragile regime—an effort that has teased the forces at play aiming to swing at the weakened Russian state monolith once again.

It's cliché to suggest the history repeating itself commentary, but the similarities bear examining, if only because state collapse seems tragically endemic to Russia. The 1917 collapse came when a monarchy failed to protect its people and tore itself apart in the final act of World War I. Seventy years later, it fell once again as its communist iteration of an autocratic system could no longer sustain itself. In both cases, amidst turmoil, another tyrant rose to take the place of the old autocracy. Today, the Russian state is bloodied and weakened by an illegitimate war whose domestic support wanes among a Russian population suffering for Putin’s ambitions.  

The international order isn’t considering what a sudden change in Russia’s power might look like, or anticipating the vacuum created in the wake of such a globally significant power falling. Therein lies the single greatest risk of this crisis: what will the nuclear-armed Russian state be replaced with? The answer is not easily deduced, which is typical of Western misconceptions about Russia and their autocrat—both sitting atop an increasingly fragile perch.

While history may not inform the world what will happen next with the Russian state, the precedents—from the Ottomans to the Tzarist regime to the Soviet Union—suggest that a difficult future awaits Russia, and the world, if and when the Russian state collapses again.

About
Ethan Brown
:
Ethan Brown is a Senior Fellow at the Mike Rogers Center and the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller; he can be found on twitter @LibertyStoic.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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Is the Decline of Russia's Institutional Health Terminal?

A hospital hallway. Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

July 21, 2023

The resilience and efficacy of Russia's institutions appear to be eroding rapidly, with few contemporary parallels. Instead, Russia's plight mimics that of the Ottoman Empire, including the possibility of collapse—rife with implications the West must consider carefully, writes Ethan Brown.

C

onditions within Russia have historical parallels that portend a crisis of the Russian state in the not-too-distant future. From the protracted counteroffensive by Ukraine, the odd crisis of Wagner forces approaching Moscow’s outskirts, the terrifying risks of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear facility, and the compounding instability of Russian military high commands, the crises of an ailing state are many.

Historical analogisms are a difficult and seldom trustworthy endeavor, but the similarities between the fall of the Ottoman Empire and today’s Russia bear examining. More importantly, the contrast of the two episodes should drive Western policymakers to consider the questions: what will Russia look like at the end of this crisis? And how should the international order prepare for that future amidst reorienting for a new era of strategic competition?

In World War I, the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict on the side of the belligerents and dragged Germany's vaunted military into repeated quagmires on account of its own warfighting ineptitude. The Ottoman Empire was colloquially known then as the “Sick Man of Europe.” A power in decline by 1914, the Ottoman Empire faded into history. Through economic stagnation, domestic and revolutionary forces undermining state control and institutions, and the increasingly complex European power structure foregoing ailing monarchical powers, liberalism and fascism began their international competition.

Today, Russia’s strategic plight mimics the Ottomans—though weighed by additional conditions which undermine a proud, yet troubled, power. In a far more connected world, the weakness of Russia permeates both Europe and Asia, and thus, any reference to a new “sick man” could fit the Eurasian arena. For many, Russia as a state is difficult to separate from Putin, and yet, this analysis is specific to the Russian State, not the figurehead. Certainly, Putin’s Kremlin enjoys the Western media’s misguided portrayal of his iron-handedness as a ruler, which inevitably depicts a form of strength and assurance. But the truth is that his ruthless efforts at control are indicative of how fractured and asthenic Russia truly is. That weakness stems from wealth inequality, corrupt and overly-centralized institutions, and nationalist ideologies. This is endemic to both the autocracy employed by Putin’s regime for more than two decades and is a result of the system which grew out of the civil chaos of the 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Union.

When the Soviet Union fell in 1991, many in the West were caught unprepared. As historian David Hoffman noted, “Sovietologists in the mid-1980s saw no possibility that the Soviet Union would change, let alone disappear. Conservative commentators postulated that the Soviet system was incapable of reform, and that it could only be altered through overthrow by an external force—an implausible prospect given the Soviet military’s vast nuclear arsenal.” But the Soviet Union indeed fell, not with a bang, but with a whimper. Leaving the world in a lurch and scrambling to adjust to the sudden unipolar moment.

Russia suffers from an ailing system of its own creation, one defined by Russian-expert Professor Mark Galeotti as, “…an almost medieval court perched atop a modern, bureaucratic state. In this ‘adhocracy,’ power is defined less by one’s formal role than by proximity to the monarch.” Further, Wagner leader Prigozhin’s bizarre protest now suggests that Putin’s regime will be “less able to cope with the next [crisis]. [Putin] must now fear the day when enough of them conclude that the risk of moving against him is outweighed by the danger of leaving him in power.”

If it seems eerily similar to other episodes in history, the thought has merit. Even Putin compared June’s Wagner uprising to a chaotic betrayal in 1917—also in Russia by non-state actors, hell-bent on removing the sitting power on the grounds of mistreatment and ineffectual military campaigns. Such events, whether successful or not, are still powerful enough to alter the course of history. The “special military operation” in Ukraine was a desperate and erratic effort to assert regional and international strength by a fragile regime—an effort that has teased the forces at play aiming to swing at the weakened Russian state monolith once again.

It's cliché to suggest the history repeating itself commentary, but the similarities bear examining, if only because state collapse seems tragically endemic to Russia. The 1917 collapse came when a monarchy failed to protect its people and tore itself apart in the final act of World War I. Seventy years later, it fell once again as its communist iteration of an autocratic system could no longer sustain itself. In both cases, amidst turmoil, another tyrant rose to take the place of the old autocracy. Today, the Russian state is bloodied and weakened by an illegitimate war whose domestic support wanes among a Russian population suffering for Putin’s ambitions.  

The international order isn’t considering what a sudden change in Russia’s power might look like, or anticipating the vacuum created in the wake of such a globally significant power falling. Therein lies the single greatest risk of this crisis: what will the nuclear-armed Russian state be replaced with? The answer is not easily deduced, which is typical of Western misconceptions about Russia and their autocrat—both sitting atop an increasingly fragile perch.

While history may not inform the world what will happen next with the Russian state, the precedents—from the Ottomans to the Tzarist regime to the Soviet Union—suggest that a difficult future awaits Russia, and the world, if and when the Russian state collapses again.

About
Ethan Brown
:
Ethan Brown is a Senior Fellow at the Mike Rogers Center and the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He is an 11-year veteran of the U.S. Air Force as a Special Operations Joint Terminal Attack Controller; he can be found on twitter @LibertyStoic.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.