Market Mad House

In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule. Friedrich Nietzsche

Historical Insanity

Russia is the Sick Man of the World

Russia is now “The Sick Man of the World.” The phrase is a play on the 19th century term “The Sick Man of Europe.”

The Sick Man of Europe was the Ottoman Empire, once the more feared nation on Earth. However, by the early 19th century Europeans saw the Ottoman Empire as backward and terminally ill. For example, the once invincible Turkish military was incapable of defending the empire.

Ironically, Czar Nicholas I of Russia (a hero of Vladimir Putin) invented the term “Sick Man of Europe.” The Czar was complaining about the weak Ottoman Empire, that the British Empire and France were propping up.

The Third Rome

To explain, in the 19th century, the Ottoman Empire was slowly collapsing as its military might withered. Much as the Russian Federation is withering today as its military might collapses. However, the Ottoman Empire survived because other great powers were propping it up to contain Russia.

In particular, the British did not want the Russians seizing Constantinople and the Dardanelles, which could give the Czar’s navy access to the Mediterranean. Moreover, Nicholas I felt he had a holy duty to seize Constantinople because it had been the capitol of the Greek Orthodox Byzantine Empire. As Czar, Nicholas regarded himself as the modern successor to the Byzantine Emperors.

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Additionally, the Czar felt God had given him a mandate to protect the Ottoman Empire’s Orthodox Christian subjects. To explain, Russia was an Orthodox country and Moscow was the Third Rome, the third capitol of the Christian Roman Empire after Rome and Constantinople. Czar Ivan the Terrible had proclaimed himself Byzantine Emperor in the 16th century.

Nicholas I’s grandmother, Catherine the Great, went farther and named her grandson Constantine after Byzantine Emperors. The implication being that Constantine would one day rule as Greek Emperor in Constantinople.

The status quo frustrated Nicholas because the Islamic Ottoman Empire ruled Constantinople. Worse, the Ottoman Sultans, like the Czar, claimed to be successors of the Roman Emperors.

The Sick Man of Europe

Most Europeans considered the Ottoman Empire a Great Power and a military threat until 1798.

In July 1798, Napoleon Bonaparte, then an ambitious general of the French Republic, led an invasion of Egypt, an important Ottoman territory. Bonaparte’s forces easily defeated Egypt’s defenders, the Mamelukes. Moreover, the Ottoman government in Constantinople did not try to defend Egypt or drive the French out.

Instead, it was the Royal Navy’s Lord Nelson who ended Napoleon’s dream by destroying the French fleet at the Battle of the Nile. When the Ottomans finally counterattacked, it was with British help.

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Napoleon showed the Ottomans were incapable of defending their empire and vulnerable to invasion. Fortunately, for the Ottomans, the Europeans were too busy killing each other in the Napoleonic Wars for the next 20 years to attack Turkey.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Europeans began attacking the Ottoman Empire. First, the British, French, and Russians intervened in the Greek War of Independence.

In particular, the Royal Navy sank an Egyptian and Ottoman fleet that was coming to attack the Greeks at the Battle of Navarino in 1827. Then in 1828, a French expeditionary force convinced the commanders of an Egyptian Army that was intervening on the Ottoman side to withdraw. Finally, in 1830, Greece became independent. To Nicholas II’s frustration, a German prince became King of Greece.

The Sick Man Takes a long Time to die

After the Greek War of Independence, many people assumed it was only a matter of time before the European powers carved up the Ottoman Empire. Nicholas I, in particular, was eager to seize as much Ottoman territory as possible.

Ironically, it would take almost a century for the Sick Man of Europe to die. It was not until World War I that the Ottoman Empire finally collapsed. After Ottoman defeat in 1918, the British and French divided Turkey’s territory in the Middle East.

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Bizarrely, the Ottoman Empire outlasted Nicholas I’s Russian Empire. The Russian Empire ended with the abdication of the Czar’s grandson Nicholas II in 1918. The last Sultan Mehmed VI did not abdicate until 1 November 1922.

Hence, Sick Men can take a long time to die.

The Sick Man of the World

Today’s Sick Man of the World is Vladimir Putin’s Russian Federation. Russia has been collapsing since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

In recent years, Putin has been trying to reestablish Russia’s power in clumsy ways. Interestingly, some of Putin’s efforts to reestablish Russian power advertise Russian weakness. For example, the clumsy Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Russia is a very weak country that is propped up by three things. Those things are nuclear weapons, oil, and the People’s Republic of China.

I think Russia’s nuclear weapons are the only thing preventing American and British intervention in Ukraine. Without nuclear weapons, American and British planes would use the Russian forces for target practice.

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Oil is Russia’s principal source of revenue. The International Energy Agency estimates Russia made around $20 billion from oil exports in May 2022, Reuters reports. Without oil, Russia would have no money or economy.

The Chinese are propping up Russia as a counterweight to the United States and the European Union. Much as the British propped up the Ottoman Empire as a counterweight to the Russian Empire in the 19th century.

One reason Chinese President Xi Jinping is giving Vladimir Putin lukewarm support is to tie down American and European weapons and forces. Another is to weaken Russia and force Putin to sell oil and natural resources to Chinese companies at low prices.

China and the Sick Man

Cynics will note that if Russia collapses because of the Ukraine War. The Chinese could dash in and occupy Siberia and the Maritime Provinces (the region around Vladivostok). Notably, much of that area was part of China until 1860.

An interesting point here. It is in China’s favor to draw out the Ukraine War as long as possible to weaken Russia. Every Russian death in Ukraine makes China stronger. Every Russian humiliation drives the Kremlin closer to the People’s Republic.

Hence, I predict the Chinese will move to help Ukraine if Russian victory becomes possible. For example, the People’s Republic could join the USA in sending weapons to the Ukraine. Similarly, expect Xi Jinping to pop up in Kiev and offer his support if Russia’s victory becomes apparent.

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Supporting Ukraine would be a brilliant public relations move for the Chinese. The People’s Republic could go from bogeyman to hero in the Western media by helping the brave people of Ukraine. However, the Chinese will stay out as long as the war is a stalemate.

Notably, in 1854, the British, French, and Italians went to war to defend the Ottoman Empire from Russian invasion in the Crimean War. British, French, Turkish, and Italian (Piedmont-Sardinian) forces fought in the Crimea to protect Constantinople. Tellingly, the Crimean War was the only major European conflict the British Army engaged in between the Napoleonic Wars and World War I.

The Ottoman Sick Man destabilized Europe in the 19th century and led to several wars. The Russian Sick Man is repeating that history in the 21st century.

The frightening difference is that the Russian Sick Man has his finger on the nuclear trigger. Which is the only reason the world tolerates his existence. Russian nuclear weapons are the only thing keeping the People’s Liberation Army out of Vladivostok, for instance.

The world will have to deal with the Sick Man of Russia if we want peace.