image missing
Date: 2024-06-12 Page is: DBtxt003.php txt00025655

Russia’s Farcical Mutiny Is Deadly Serious for China and Iran ... Today’s geopolitics and economics have more in common with the 17th century than the 20th. Is that a greater threat to the democracies or the autocracies?

The embattled tsar. Photographer: Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images

Original article:
Peter Burgess COMMENTARY

Peter Burgess
Russia’s Farcical Mutiny Is Deadly Serious for China and Iran Today’s geopolitics and economics have more in common with the 17th century than the 20th. Is that a greater threat to the democracies or the autocracies? Written by Niall Ferguson ... Columnist ... Niall Ferguson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.” July 2, 2023 at 12:00 AM EDT In Friedrich Schiller’s The Death of Wallenstein, the downfall of a mercenary has a dark, tragic majesty. It was the first play I ever saw in a German theater, in Hamburg in the late 1980s, and I still remember the way Schiller’s verse thundered through the auditorium, the quintessence of Sturm und Drang. Albrecht von Wallenstein was one of the towering figures of the Thirty Years’ War. Born into a poor Bohemian Protestant family, he converted to Roman Catholicism and acquired wealth, power and ducal status in the service of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand II. In a singularly bloody career, he fought the Turks, the Venetians, the Danes, the Swedes and even his own countrymen — in short, he fought whomever the emperor paid him to fight. But Wallenstein’s unauthorized attempt to negotiate peace in 1633 finally convinced Ferdinand — who already suspected him of plotting a coup — to dispense with his overmighty commander. In 1634, Wallenstein was charged with high treason and, within a week, assassinated. It remains to be seen if a similar fate awaits Yevgeny Prigozhin, the modern-day Wallenstein who last weekend briefly but spectacularly defied Russia’s would-be emperor, Vladimir Putin, by proclaiming a mutiny, seizing control of the city of Rostov, and sending a well-armed convoy of his Wagner Group cutthroats northward toward Moscow. The genius of a Schiller will not be required, should anyone ever decide to dramatize the Prigozhin putsch. This strange affair was not so much Sturm und Drang as Rowan Martin. Readers old enough to have watched NBC’s late-‘60s comedy show may remember the bespectacled German soldier who would lisp from behind a potted plant: “Very interesting … but stupid.” That pretty much sums up the Putin Prigozhin Laugh-In. At the height of the farce, Putin gave an address that was fire and brimstone. “Exorbitant ambitions and personal interests have led to treason,” he declared. “Our actions to defend the state will be harsh.” Russians should remember that the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 had led to “an enormous collapse, the destruction of the army and the fall of the state, the loss of huge territories, and in the end, the tragedy of civil war.” But this was more The Godfather than Battleship Potemkin: a blustering attempt by the capo dei capi to put a rebellious mafioso in his place. The reality is that the abortive mutiny revealed how badly Putin’s failed invasion of Ukraine has eroded his domestic power base.

His military leaders were divided, some condemning Prigozhin, others lying low and waiting to see what happened. As Anne Applebaum observed, ordinary Russians watched the antics of Wagner in Rostov with a mixture of apathy and excitement, taking selfies of themselves with Prigozhin and his men. You don’t do that sort of thing if you really fear the Godfather in the Kremlin. Never has the English journalist Xan Smiley’s old line describing the Soviet Union as “Upper Volta with rockets” seemed more apt.

What is the wider significance of the crisis in Russia? Two weeks ago, I warned that the geopolitics of Cold War II seemed to be pitting Halford J. Mackinder’s vast Eurasian “Heartland” against Nicholas J. Spykman’s “Rimland.” If the Heartland consists of a new “Axis” of China, Russia and Iran, the Rimland is the coalition the US has formed with its European and Asian allies to support Ukraine. But I worried that the Rimland was showing signs of division. A couple of officials in President Joe Biden’s administration took the time to challenge my argument. The Prigozhin mutiny seems to have proved them right. Maybe it’s the Heartland, not the Rimland, that’s cracking up.

The striking point about the past year is that all three members of the new Heartland Axis are afflicted with internal problems. It’s not just that a mercenary warlord could march on Moscow apparently unimpeded. Last year, the Iranian regime was rocked by the protests that followed the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, just the latest bout of popular unrest following episodes in 2009, 2012, 2017, 2018 and 2019. And the Chinese Communist Party was forced to abandon zero-Covid in the face of a wave of student protests — not the first time in Chinese history that Beijing undergraduates have challenged the country’s leadership. All in all, this is pretty heartening for Team Biden. It would appear that the major authoritarian regimes are afflicted with the usual pathologies of unrepresentative government.

But what if democracies are also vulnerable to such internal crises? After all, it’s not that long ago that a coup of sorts was attempted in the US, not forgetting the copycat affair in Brazil. Even if he did not plot an insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, Donald Trump tried in several ways to challenge the 2020 election result. He has just been indicted for wrongfully retaining highly classified documents in his possession, sharing their contents with people who lacked appropriate clearances, and then seeking to cover up these actions. And yet none of this appears to have dented his popularity with Republican primary voters.

Meanwhile, Biden is falling over himself to make nice with Narendra Modi, whose government in India looks increasingly like one of those illiberal democracies that Fareed Zakaria warned us about back in the 1990s. Like Hungary. Or Turkey. All in all, it might be said, there are quite a few “mini Putins” among America’s allies. A significant number, including Modi, don’t seem especially keen to help Ukraine beat Russia.

Confused? Well, my framework for understanding what is going on today is not 20th-century, but three centuries older. Sorry, Putin, the events of last weekend were not your version of 1917, with Prigozhin as Lenin to your Nicholas II. (Or Kornilov to your Kerensky? To be frank, I’m not sure where Putin was going with that analogy.) I suspect Russia is heading rapidly toward a new Time of Troubles, the period of anarchy between 1598 and 1613 that followed the death of Ivan the Terrible. When Putin falls, I predict there will be more than one claimant to the throne, just as there were multiple “false Dmitrys” in the early 1600s, all pretending to be Ivan’s youngest son.

The early 17th century was a time of troubles in many places. In Europe it culminated in the Thirty Years War, which dragged on for another 14 years after Wallenstein’s assassination, reducing Germany to one vast charnel house. In the British Isles, it was a time of internecine conflict — known variously as the Great Rebellion, the Puritan Revolution, the English Civil War, the English Revolution, or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms — that produced just under five years of republican government (the Commonwealth), followed by dictatorship under the “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell. In France, Cardinal Richelieu battled the Protestant Huguenots at home and the Catholic Emperor Ferdinand abroad. In China, the same period saw the fall of the Ming dynasty, its control of northern China lost to the Jurched leader Nurhaci, its fate sealed in 1644, when the rebel Li Zicheng captured Beijing and the last Ming emperor hanged himself.

Why was this such a time of crisis? When I was an undergraduate, historians liked to blame it on cooling global temperatures — the “Little Ice Age” — though the role climate change played has probably been overstated. As the chart below shows, temperatures in Central Europe trended lower in the 17th century, compared with the previous and subsequent centuries.

Germany Cools Off

Source: R. Glaser and D. Riemann; Journal of Quaternary Science, 24

Note: 11-year moving average

Even if one does not buy the evidence of global cooling, it was certainly an era of plagues, of famines and of inflation. This chart shows the spike of inflation in the German lands in the 1620s, when coin debasement was rampant — the memorably named Kipper- und Wipperzeit, literally “the Tipper and See-saw time”:

The Thirty Years’ War and Inflation

Source: Paul Schmelzing

Note: Seven-year averages.

At the root of the crisis in the Western world, however, was technological change. The printing press had spread throughout much of Europe in the course of the 16th century, propelling not only religious reformation but also religious war. Improvements in naval technology, meanwhile, were allowing European traders to cover ever larger distances in their voyages and European warships to win ever more battles. On land, as the historians Michael Roberts and Geoffrey Parker have described, a military revolution produced standing armies and significant improvements in weaponry.

Taken together, these changes weakened the hold of established medieval institutions such as the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire. All the great kingdoms of Europe found themselves, at least for a time, in a state of chaos. Power could be seized by warlords such as Wallenstein and Cromwell.

Most commentators on current affairs are weighed down by their knowledge of the 20th century, which is taught to excess in schools and colleges. This distorts our perspective, leading us to underestimate the profound differences that have arisen since our grandfathers were young men. The 20th century was a time of astonishing centralization of both economic and political life, which made possible feats of mobilization — not only the world wars but also grandiose and generally disastrous economic plans of Stalin, Hitler and Mao — that are unthinkable today. The most the 21st-century state can do, as became clear in 2020, is to lock people up in their homes. And only the Chinese were truly serious about lockdowns. (In the West, there was rampant cheating of the sort that would have got you shot or at least jailed during World War II.)

As Nadia Schadlow argues in an excellent new essay for the Atlantic, the US federal government today operates at a snail’s pace. The 20th-century national security state gave us the Manhattan Project, the Marshall Plan, the interstates, the Apollo program. Such feats are unimaginable today. Just replenishing existing weapons stocks takes years.

By contrast, I think there is no period in history more akin to our own than the 17th century. In our time, as has often been remarked, the internet has played the role of the printing press. The drastically reduced cost of reproducing text and images broke the church’s monopoly on both, just as the internet has enabled everybody who wishes to express and disseminate an opinion to do so — no matter how idiotic or illiterate.

In the 17th century, a certain amount of what was printed contributed to what ultimately became a Scientific Revolution. But a great deal more was devoted to alchemy, astrology, witch-finding and obscure arguments about the difference between transubstantiation and consubstantiation — in short, to superstition. (Wallenstein was one of many people who based his decisions on bogus horoscopes.) In our time, I have long marveled at how much more attention is paid on social media to conspiracy theories than to theories based on evidence.

Four hundred years ago, it was regarded as perfectly normal that a monarch might delegate economic and military functions to private actors such as monopoly trading companies and mercenaries (or, at sea, “privateers,” a category not wholly distinct from pirates). No corporations in the 20th century were as powerful as the Dutch and English East India Companies in their heyday.

In our time, too, power has seeped away from the state, back to private corporate entities. Wagner, whose mercenaries have been deployed from Syria to Mozambique to Venezuela, is only one of many nonstate actors engaged in organized violence around the world. And, of course, the big tech companies now dominate the innovation frontier in artificial intelligence, as well as owning a rising proportion of the communications infrastructure on which modern states rely.

As American University’s Audrey Kurth Cronin argues in a new paper, “companies such as Alibaba, Amazon, Apple, ByteDance, Meta (Facebook), Google (Alphabet), Microsoft and Tencent are geopolitical actors with more resources and power than most nation-states.”1 Think only of the role of SpaceX’s Starlink, Elon Musk’s brainchild, in helping the Ukrainians defend their country.

As Cronin notes:
The Starlink satellite app was Ukraine’s top downloaded app in March 2022, and it kept President Zelenskyy online, even when high earth orbit Viasat satellites went down. There are some 15,000 Starlink user kits in Ukraine, mostly donated by SpaceX or by private sources — though USAID may have paid for some 1,300 of them. … And when Elon Musk decided that Starlink should not be used for offensive targeting against Russians [e.g., in Crimea], the US government was powerless to change its stance.
This is not a world Vannevar Bush would recognize. Cronin shares my view that it much more closely resembles the world of the 17th century. If Prigozhin is a poor man’s Wallenstein, then Musk’s satellite network resembles the East India Company’s merchant fleet. It was “John Company,” not the First Lord of the Treasury, who decided the extent of Britain’s Indian Empire. It is SpaceX that determines the battlespace in Ukraine.

It goes against the 21st-century grain to be told we have anything in common with the men and women of Shakespeare’s time. But I was reminded by the German author Andrea Wulf earlier this month — when we participated in a fascinating conference at the Santa Fe Institute — that Shakespeare had periods of unfashionability after his death. He owed his revival in the 19th century partly to German Romantics, notably his translator into German, August Wilhelm Schlegel (one of the many flamboyant literary types brought to life in Wulf’s book Magnificent Rebels). In the 20th century, George Bernard Shaw sneered at “bardolatry.” I have a hunch that today’s audiences get more from, say, The Tempest than audiences in the 1920s.

As Henry Kissinger argued in a remarkable essay published in the Atlantic five years ago, the rapid progress of artificial intelligence may well herald the end of the Enlightenment. “Paradoxically,” he wrote, “as the world becomes more transparent, it will also become increasingly mysterious. … What will become of human consciousness if its own explanatory power is surpassed by AI, and societies are no longer able to interpret the world they inhabit in terms that are meaningful to them?”

That sounds a lot like the world before the Scientific Revolution, never mind the Enlightenment — a world in which much of what goes on is as mysterious to most people as the happenings on Prospero’s magical island.


The great anarchy of the 17th century came to an end in 1648, as the European states agreed (in the two treaties known as the Peace of Westphalia) on new terms that tended to strengthen the sinews of sovereignty, limit interference in neighboring states’ religious arrangements, and bring the instruments of violence back under state control. Even so, much of the European expansion in the rest of the world remained the domain of private corporations until the mid-19th century.

It is not clear how near or far a comparable Westphalian moment is today. But my hunch is that the world is much closer to the Death of Wallenstein than to the Birth of Westphalia.

More From Bloomberg Opinion:
  • And Now Putin Decides Which Bugs to Crush: Andreas Kluth
  • Russia’s Uprising Is a Serious Threat to China as Well: Hal Brands
  • The Fates of Ukraine and Putin Turn on 7 Forces of History: Niall Ferguson
Audrey Kurth Cronin, “How Private Tech Companies Reshape Great Power Military Competition,” Draft Working Paper, March 10, 2023.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story: Niall Ferguson at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tobin Harshaw at

Niall Ferguson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the author, most recently, of “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.” BloombergOpinion Katy Perry’s $225 Million Payday Began in 1908 Our Current Bond Crisis Should Scare You A US Armada Is Growing Off Israel's Shore. What's Next? Sports Are Part of the College Curriculum, Too

SITE COUNT Amazing and shiny stats
Copyright © 2005-2021 Peter Burgess. All rights reserved. This material may only be used for limited low profit purposes: e.g. socio-enviro-economic performance analysis, education and training.