It is shown that a small amount of dissipation, caused by current flow in a lossy external circuit, can produce a disruption of steady‐state cycloidal electron flow in a crossed‐field gap, leading to the establishment of a turbulent steady state that is close to, but not exactly, Brillouin flow. This disruption, which has nothing to do with a diocotron or cyclotron instability, is fundamentally caused by the failure of a subset of the emitted electrons to return to the cathode surface as a result of resistive dissipation. This mechanism was revealed in particle simulations, and was confirmed by an analytic theory. These near‐Brillouin states differ in several interesting respects from classic Brillouin flow, the most important of which is the presence of a microsheath and a time‐varying potential minimum very close to the cathode surface. They are essentially identical to that produced when (i) injected current exceeds a certain critical value [P. J. Christenson and Y. Y. Lau, Phys. Plasmas 1, 3725 (1994)] or (ii) a small rf electric field is applied to the gap [P. J. Christenson and Y. Y. Lau, Phys. Rev. Lett. 76, 3324 (1996)]. It is speculated that such near‐Brillouin states are generic in vacuum crossed‐field devices, due to the ease with which the cycloidal equilibrium can be disrupted. Another novel aspect of this paper is the introduction of transformations by which the nonlinear, coupled partial differential equations in the Eulerian description (equation of motion, continuity equation, Poisson equation, and the circuit equation) are reduced to an equivalent system of very simple linear ordinary differential equations. © 1996 American Institute of Physics.