The Second Crimean War: When Decaying Empires Strike Back

Rein Taagepera, recipient of Skytte Prize 2008, is Professor Emeritus of political science at the University of Tartu, and the University of California, Irvine, USA.

Cole Thomas. The Course of Empire Destruction. 1836

“Destruction”, the forth painting in a five-part series of paintings entitled “The Course of Empire”, created by Thomas Cole in the years 1833-36. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Crimean War began 160 years ago, 80 years after Russia seized Crimea from Turkey. The war theater covered all of northern and eastern Black Sea coast, and even reached the Gulf of Finland, but its focus was Franco-British-Sardinian siege and capture of Sevastopol. Why on earth would West European allies wish to get stuck on the Black Sea? They tried to keep Russia from cutting off too large a slice of the decaying Ottoman Turkish Empire. This empire kept on decaying, anyway. Counter-attacks by the empire and its opportunistic allies barely slowed down the process. Turkey did not recover Crimea.

Now another decaying empire tries to strike back, and it started with Crimea. Journalists and political scientists tend to have short time horizons. Anything without precedent since 1990, or 1945 at most, may be called “unprecedented”. In this view, an international system essentially stable since times immemorial has lately become disrupted. Future has become uncertain, the past offering no guidance. This means, of course, the past since the creation of the political world, in 1990 – or in 1945, if one was born that long ago.

“New Realities in the Making” sounds of course catchier than déjà vu, but systematic political science should embed short-term new realities in a broader framework, making use a longer historical perspective. This would improve our predictive power. Some political scientists pride themselves of never making predictions, but they must mean specific predictions. Separating the possible from the unlikely also is prediction. So is separating actions that look successful, short-term, from those that actually are, in the long term.

Why should society be interested in funding an endeavor completely devoid of prediction? Historians beat political scientists in describing what endures. Journalists beat them in instant postdiction. If political scientists publish only median-term analyses – too late for daily decision-making but outdated within ten years – what would their function be?

This note focuses on the long term, offering a sketch of patterns of stabilization and destabilization of international system. It largely shuffles mentally through a high school history book, but my quantitative studies on empire growth and decay over the last 5000 years may add insights. The outcome is a mapping of the present situation in a broader historical context. Mapping alone does not get us out of the woods. But with faulty mapping we may move deeper into the woods.

A classification of destabilizing circumstances

Stabilized international systems may become unstable under two circumstances: when an emerging power demands a larger slice of the pie, and when an existing empire undergoes decay, leaving a power vacuum. Germany in 1870-1945 and China now exemplify the first process. Socio-economic expansion leads to new confidence, demands for more voice, and also territorial claims. Resulting conflict may bring success or reverses and new attempts. Germany’s double failure in 1914-18 and in 1938-1945 by no means predicts a similar pattern for China. It merely predicts a protracted period of challenges, until a new steady state is reached, with some winners and losers.

Modern examples of decay of existing empires include colonial overseas empires with European cores, but also empires with disparate contiguous holdings: Polish-Lithuanian, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian. The Ottoman Empire offers most parallels to the Russian, for reasons presented soon. Like Germany for China, Turkey offers no precise prediction for Russia. However, Turkey’s experience largely precludes some avenues that might look possible for Russia in a perspective limited to 1990 or 1945.

Overseas territories are easier to give up psychologically, once they are lost. The geographical separation line is clear. The lost lands are not right behind the border, almost within physical reach. Few Englishmen dreamed of reincorporating the United States in the early 1800s. Losing Indochina, then Algeria, deeply unsettled France, but reconquering those territories was unthinkable. This is not to say that shedding colonies was painless for France, Britain, Portugal or even The Netherlands and Belgium. Post-colonial trauma lasted for years and sometimes decades. But the idea of reconquesta did not enter.

Decay of contiguous empires

This was different for contiguous areas, which at times were repeatedly seized, lost and seized again. What was once lost and recovered, could conceivably be recovered again. What remained next door could conceivably be recovered. The Polish-Lithuanian, Austrian, Ottoman, and Russian empires all lost vigor long before marked territorial losses. While the visible effects were political, I’d rather characterize it as loss of social and/or economic capability.

Before final collapse, Poland-Lithuania and Austria-Hungary largely maintained their territory. At the eve of the three successive partitions (1772-1795), just 23 years apart, Poland was only slightly smaller than at its peak size. Austria actually achieved its largest extent barely 10 years before collapse, when it formally annexed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1908.

These collapses were sudden and thorough. Austria survived as a rump state saddled with a huge capital city. It showed little will to continue as a separate state, much less restoring empire. Poland was erased from the map effectively in 1795 and formally after the uprising of 1863. Dreams of restoring Poland remained alive, and they included areas beyond its ethnic borders. Such hopes weakened the restored post-1918 Poland by pitting it against almost all its neighbors.

In contrast, Ottoman Empire, which sharply expanded in the 1500s and reached its peak size by 1680, slowly began to lose ground already in the 1700s. Later changes look small on historical maps, because losses of valuable real estate in the Balkans, around the Black Sea and the Maghreb were compensated by deeper penetration into the Saharan sands. But the trend was unmistakable.

Since early Ottoman losses were Russian and Austrian gains, Britain and France initially were motivated to prop up the decaying empire. This stand peaked with the Crimean War. Later, Britain and France participated in sharing the spoils in Africa and almost came to blows over Sudan. Italy, late in the game, seized Libya. Still, maintaining status quo was more in everyone’ s interest than the uncertainties of complete partition. So the “sick man of Europe” was maintained by international mutual consent, until it collapsed internally in the face of the stresses of the First World War.

The striking difference with Poland and Austria was that, after collapse, Turkey maintained an appreciable territory, partly even outside the predominantly ethnic Turkish area. This was possible because, under Kemal Atatürk’s leadership, Turkey explicitly gave up on the rest of the empire, turned a page, and focused on building a new nation state – in contrast to Poland, who in 1920 could not forget its former empire. Among overseas colonial powers, only Charles de Gaulle managed a comparably sharp reversal. France has maintained occasional military interference in its “Near Abroad” in Black Africa. Turkey has not – not only because of lack of opportunity but also lack of desire.

Ottoman and Russian commonalities

Russia reached its peak size in the very late 1800s, when conquest of Central Asia was completed. In its Soviet reincarnation, gains in Galicia and Tuva could not compensate for loss of Finland and Poland. In terms of external power and influence the Soviet Union certainly more than matched imperial Russia, but its peacetime collapse uncovered hidden socio-economic weakness on an unprecedented scale.

It took joint action by all three major neighbors to finish off Poland. It took a major war to break down Austrian and Ottoman empires. In contrast, it took no foreign activity (beyond nuclear arms race) to bring down the Soviet Union. This might be the first purely internal collapse since the demise of the Maya states and civilization one thousand years earlier.

In this perspective, the Bolshevik revolution bought territorial re-consolidation of the collapsed tsarist empire only at the cost of ever deepening social decay. The tsarist empire was actually modernizing at a faster clip than it is usually given credit for, under the influence of Soviet propaganda. Moreover, its economic modernization was more in step with social modernization. Soviet rule stopped real social modernization – hence the collapse in plain peacetime.

If one compares the Russian trajectory with the previous three, the Ottoman trajectory looks the closest. Both included vast territory, some of it densely inhabited, some almost empty. Loss of territory over the first century or two of retreat was fitful and involved some of the most densely inhabited parts – the Balkans, then Egypt for Turkey, Poland, then the western, Caucasian and Central Asian union republics for Russia.

Prior to final collapse, Turkey was reduced to ethnic core area, Fertile Crescent, and the wastelands (from the pre-naphtha viewpoint) of the Arabian Peninsula; and it had fallen far behind in economic development, compared to other world powers. As of now, Russia is reduced to ethnic core area, Caucasus, and the wastelands of Siberia; and it has fallen far behind in economic development, compared to other world powers. It would be foolhardy to conclude that collapse is imminent. Statistics based on a sample of one comparable case is poor statistics. And even then it took a war the Ottoman Empire did not initiate, to bring it down.

The parallels are more remote. Empires rarely can stand still. They initially outrun their internal flaws through external expansion. Once an empire stops growing, internal flaws accumulate. Expansion is self-reinforcing, and so is decay. It seems extremely hard to change such a course, short of giving up on previous glory and starting anew. Like Atatürk and de Gaulle. Unlike Putin.

Atatürk, de Gaulle, and Putin

This shift was easier for Atatürk. He could shift focus from Islam to ethnic Turkishness. Suleiman’s pretext for vastly expanding the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s had been to gather in all Muslim lands. This motive had lost luster. Linguistically based nationalism was the new wave, and Atatürk rode it masterfully, replacing Arab script with Latin and purging Turkish language from Arabisms. The post-Soviet Russian leaders had no such alternative. Ever since the gathering in of Russian lands justified Moscow’s early conquests, linguistically based nationalism was at the very core of the empire, even before this term was coined.

De Gaulle offers a more feasible script for Russia’s emancipation from its past. He hid his interpretation of grandeur française until he reached the peak. The colonialist diehards who carried him there were flabbergasted when de Gaulle indicated that, in the modern world, colonies were a burden to be dispensed of. Russia is still waiting for such a leader. And contiguity makes it harder to forget about Ukraine, compared to Algeria, not to mention letting Northern Caucasia and Tatarstan go.

Decaying empires rarely recover

Does history ever show empires that stumble and then catch a new breath? This may look so for the Egyptian, Assyrian and Hittite repeat empires. But on closer look these are new formations, after thorough breakdown, on the same cultural grounds. French colonial empire comes closest to a second breath. After being kicked out from Canada, Louisiana and India, France built up a second empire in Africa. Due to geographical distance, the loss of first colonies had a muted impact on the center. In particular, France did not remain obsessed with reclaiming the same colonies. It turned its sights elsewhere. Unlike Putin.

Short of reaching the Moon, today’s Russia does not have the option of new territories elsewhere. Striking back in its habitual sphere of domination only wastes resources that should go into starting afresh. Like pre-WWI Ottoman Empire (and the Austrian), Russia is stuck in the stage of half-hearted reforms alternating with retrenchment, all the while trying to recover past glory.

Like during the Ottoman decay, no external power wishes to promote a collapse of Russia – the result would be too messy and unpredictable. Short of outside jolts, such empires can last. But external jolts do occur. Sometimes the decaying empire unintentionally triggers them by trying to strike back. Germany did not unleash the First World War; Austria did – technologically third class, poorly organized, inept but pugnacious Austria. This was akin to today’s Russia, apart from nuclear weapons, another feature Russia inherited from better days.

This is the broader framework for viewing Russia’s recent actions. We have here another case of a socio-economically decaying society, still mired in nostalgia, still waiting for its Atatürk or de Gaulle. This decaying structure is still capable of considerable mischief.

Challenge by a team of ascending and decaying powers

International systems may become unstable when an emerging power demands a larger slice of the pie, or when an existing empire undergoes decay. Hitler’s challenge was an episode of the first type. Putin’s challenge is of the second type. In comparison, the previous Soviet challenge looked like the first type but turned out to be of the second type.

When both types combine the system becomes doubly unstable. The alliance of an ascending Germany with a decaying Austria was a main ingredient for World War One. This alliance encouraged Austria to lash out against Serbia, and Austria could not be contained without drawing in Germany. The tail wagged the dog.

The present constellation is vaguely analogous: an ascending China in a marriage of convenience with decaying Russia. The analogy should not be stretched too far. Germany and Austria shared a language and culture. Russia and China are strangers and competitors, momentarily drawn together by opposition to the world’s dominant coalition, for opposite reasons.

China sees the dominant coalition as an impediment to its rise. Yet by flexing its muscles, China forces ever more of its neighbors to join the coalition. Russia sees the West as actively encroaching on its space, rather than recognizing that Russia’s own weakness is creating a vacuum the West is reluctantly drawn into. By clumsily trying to strike back, Russia too is inducing a defensive circle around it. Putin’s seizure of Crimea forced the US to station troops in the Baltic states. As Russia sees itself encircled in the west and China in the southeast, by what they see as the same opponent, these two are motivated to paper over their inherent differences over the Russian Far East, which is Chinese on ancient maps and increasingly Chinese in its population.

It looks far-fetched to imagine that, in its gamble against the West, Russia could make mistakes that could draw in China, like Austria drew in Germany. But the latter scenario also looked far-fetched even in spring 1914. The main message for the West is: In reacting to Russia in Europe and Caucasus, always be on the lookout against unintentionally putting China in a bind.

How do US troops in the Baltic states and missile shield in Poland inadvertently affect far-away China? A pipeline from Central Asia to Europe through Transcaucasia makes sense in circumventing Russia; but how would it affect China’s energy balance? Or more to the point: how could it look, as viewed from China?

Conclusion: Elastic response

We are not on entirely new grounds. International systems have been challenged before. Can we learn from previous responses? Confrontation, containment or appeasement – these are the broad choices, or rather a palette from which to mix suitable responses.

Even though the international system faces a combined Chinese-Russian challenge, I overlook here the specifically Chinese aspects. What does history of decaying empires tell us about Russia? First, it is up to Russia to free itself from the chains of imperial history. Understandably, this takes time – generations, unless speeded up by some de Gaulle. Meanwhile, the tension has to be managed.

One must understand Russia’s frustration over so many of its former dependencies turning toward the West. What Putin sees as his Near Abroad is slipping away through peaceful means – through attraction of democracy and Western culture, and through lack of attraction of old Russian model. Understandably, Putin sees this as active Western interference, because his imperial mindset does not allow for former dependencies to have a mind of their own. While trying to counter-attack, Putin genuinely feels on the defensive.

But understanding does not mean justifying. Attacks must be resisted, even when launched by understandably frustrated leaders and countries. But one can afford a more elastic response when facing a decaying empire rather than an expanding one. Unlike Austria’s Anschluss, Crimea’s is not a steppingstone toward some string of further conquests. The decaying empire has the will for going further, but not the capability. For containment, active use of force is not needed. It suffices to refuse to recognize conquests and to reinforce defenses elsewhere, waiting for the empire either to reform or crumble. Time is on the side of containing powers.

Crimea was at the center of a major counter-attack on behalf of the decaying Ottoman Empire, 160 years ago. It is now the main booty in a major counter-attack by the decaying Russian Empire. Here the similarities end, apart from supplying a flashy title. The second Crimean war did not take place. The West, including the new western-oriented Ukrainian regime, chose not to fight but use a more elastic defense. Turkey did not recover Crimea, 160 years ago, and Russia’s present hold on Crimea remains pointless.

See the University of Tartu’s master’s programmes in political and social sciences: Baltic Sea Region Studies, Democracy and Governance, European Union – Russia Studies, International Relations and Regional Studies.

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  • Wayne Sandholtz

    Rein Taagepera has offered multiple insights, grounded in historical awareness that few these days can match. The essay concludes that “Russia’s present hold on Crimea remains pointless.” Would the same be true of Russia’s apparent hold on eastern Ukraine? These land grabs may be pointless in terms of the larger international system, but they may well prove costly to Russia itself. No matter how much these territorial grabs sooth nationalist egos, they will require large-scale Russian investment over many years. Russia’s price tag for Crimea and eastern Ukraine may turn out to be large indeed.