Streetwise Professor

April 5, 2022

Vlad the Accursed

Filed under: History,Military,Politics,Russia — cpirrong @ 6:25 pm

Apologies for the hiatus. Was traveling in Europe for my annual teaching gig in Geneva. Other than the unseasonably cold weather in Geneva it was a great trip.

And now that I am pretty much recovered from the travel, some new material:

Vladimir Putin no doubt imagines a sobriquet being attached to his name. You know, like “the Great,” as in Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, or Vladimir I the Great. He probably wouldn’t even mind “Grozny,” as in Ivan IV Grozny–under either of the offered translations of “Formidable” or “Terrible.”

What are some other possibilities that would appeal to his penchant for history?

Well, I think we can definitely rule out “the Humblest” (Alexei Mikhailovich). We can also clearly rule out “the Peacemaker” (Alexander III).

Putin no doubt views himself as “the Liberator” like Alexander II, who earned that nickname not for freeing the serfs, but for freeing the Balkans: Putin thinks he is liberating Russians in Ukraine and Georgia from a foreign yoke, and no doubt yearns to do the same in the Baltics. He also no doubt dreams of being known as “the Blessed” after Alexander I, who defeated the hated westerners (namely Napoleon), enforced autocratic rule in eastern Europe, and made Russia a world power.

But the trajectory of events suggests that other historical sobriquets are more likely to stick. “The Bloodstained” (Nicholas II) is certainly in the running. But I think that the best candidate is . . . “the Accursed” (after Sviatopolk, a Kievan prince, ironically).

Yes, Putin is riding a wave of popularity in Russia right now. But he is clearly cursed in Ukraine, the rest of eastern Europe, and much of the world. And I think that once the propaganda fueled euphoria fades, and reality intrudes, Putin will be known as The Accursed in Russia as well.

The invasion of Ukraine is a bloody fiasco. Stymied on the battlefield, Russia is resorting to indiscriminate bombardment. In the wake of its withdrawal from the Kievan front, evidence of atrocities is mounting. And just as the Soviets responded to German announcements of the discovery of mass graves at Katyn by claiming that the Germans were the actual murderers, the Russians claim that the mass graves and civilian corpses littering the streets of places like Bucha were not their doing, but the Ukrainians’, thereby proving Russia to be the true successor state to the USSR–and wrecking even further Russia’s already dismal credibility.

Russia had become a pariah state before these revelations. Russians going all Russian has made it even more of one, and it will always remain such as long as Putin is in power. This will relegate the country to persistent penury that propaganda will not be able to paper over for much longer. To maintain his stubby little fingers’ hold on power, Putin will resort to even more draconian measures and oppressions. Defeat (or even Pyrrhic victory), poverty, isolation, and oppression will, sooner or later, make Putin Vladimir the Accursed even in his own land.

As for the military situation, Russia has clearly experienced a major defeat in the north, to the west, north, and east of Kyiv/Kiev. It is withdrawing post haste from those areas, leaving the Ukrainians in control–and allowing them to uncover and broadcast the evidence of Russian atrocities.

One narrative is that the withdrawing units will be redeployed to the Donbas front, and bring a victory there by Victory Day (May 9). Quite frankly, this is delusional bullshit. Claims of redeployment are as convincing as Michael Palin’s insistence that the dead parrot is merely resting.

Units that have been as thoroughly thrashed as those around Kyiv/Kiev take weeks, if not months, to regenerate. And doing so requires a stream of men–which Russia does not have. (Note the extreme difficulty that the US had in keeping infantry units up to strength in the ETO during WWII.) No doubt Putin will find some way to circumvent the legal obstacle against deploying conscripts outside of Russia (e.g., by dragooning them into “volunteering” as kontraktniki, or claiming that Donbas is really Russia), but the new lot of conscripts are just being called up, and it will take them months just to figure out how to put on their gear and find the latrines. And once they are integrated into these units, why should it be expected that they will be any more militarily competent than their predecessors who died in droves while accomplishing nothing? Indeed, the experience of their predecessors means that they will no doubt start out with morale at rock bottom levels, even before they see any of their comrades incinerated by a Ukrainian ATGM. And their training will be, frankly, shit. They will be missile fodder, and nothing more.

Further, there are stories that replacement stocks of equipment are largely unusable. Not that that really matters, I guess, given how ineffective the front line equipment has proved to be. The best stuff blowed up real good. Just think what’s in store for the not so good stuff.

Moreover, if the Russians can redeploy, so can the Ukrainians now that the threat to the north has been reduced. And they can do so with less attrited units, and on interior lines. Adding more mass to the Donbas front–especially given the low quality of the mass to be added–will just add to the body count.

Putin’s alleged focus on 9 May/Victory Day is pathetic, and illustrates Marx’s maxim about history repeating, first as tragedy, then as farce. Even if by some miracle the Russians achieve some simulacrum of a tactical victory in Donbas . . . it is still Donbas, not Berlin–or even Kyiv/Kiev. A farcical achievement, at best.

So Putin is doomed to either a humiliating climb down (which I doubt he will choose, precisely because it would be humiliating), continuing a grinding, pointless battle that will kill thousands of Russians and Ukrainians (and bring more atrocities in its wake), or heaven forbid, escalating with nuclear or chemical weapons.

Whatever option he chooses, he will be cursed for it. By virtually the entire non-Russian world certainly, and eventually in the Russian world as well. He is deserving of the sobriquet The Accursed, but what death and destruction and poverty he will cause in order to well and truly earn it.

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  1. I can’t believe how wrong I’ve been. It’s been jaw-dropping to see the long lines of destroyed military vehicles and the signs of desperation throughout. I don’t see much of the same kind of military asset destruction on the Ukrainian side, but I am sure it is there. Their cities are clearly blown to bits, but they still have an army that has created an effective formula that will only get stronger. As you suggest, Russia’s army could be mortally wounded at this point. I don’t see how they rally from this unless they simply resort to missile barrages and that would be truly disastrous for them just as much as for Ukraine.

    It will be very interesting to see if Ukraine could crawl back and take back the east and south. They have the momentum, the motivation, and the world on their side. I hesitate to predict the future based on my poor record, but Ukraine seems to have the wherewithal to push Russia out entirely. I hope that the front in the south can revive. Mariupol has taken a terrible beating. Depending on these new campaigns go, could Ukraine take back Luhansk and Donbas? Do they want to? Would they ever go after Crimea? (should they even?) There are virtually no natural borders in that area, so long-term security will become a critical issue. (I drove across the border in that region and it’s mostly flat as a pancake). Meanwhile, I need to contain myself because this has a long way to go and unintended consequences could be huge. I see so many chain reactions that could occur to our own severe detriment.

    Lastly, as a bystander, it has been fascinating to witness a European land war in my lifetime. Those were only supposed to be in history books I can’t keep my eyes off it.

    Comment by Howard Roark — April 5, 2022 @ 9:29 pm

  2. I expect the modern Russian tradition of mass draft-dodging to continue with this latest callup, and even to intensify.

    Also, Putin appears to have unified Ukraine like nobody ever has before, which is richly ironic. Even the so-called pro-Russian Ukrainians are against this invasion. Putinist blogs (like “The Saker”) have had to admit that the locals weren’t joyfully greeting their liberators. Of course, they attribute it to “Nazi brainwashing” when the simple, obvious explanation is that people don’t like having their country invaded. But at least they admit it. Talk about an own goal!

    Comment by Emperor of Ice Cream — April 5, 2022 @ 9:54 pm

  3. Putin was given every opportunity to participate with the West in setting a unified (or globalist, if you will) agenda. He chose – instead – to pursue proto-imperialist dreams of exceptionalism. The advantages of associating with this exceptionalism were never explained, not to the outside world, or to the former members of the Warsaw Pact, or to newly-independent ex-Soviet states, or to the CIS (Conf. of Independent States), or to the various nationalities that supplement Russian populations inside the Russian Federation.

    It’s not enough to declare that you want a multi-polar world; you have to explain why it’s worthwhile to gravitate to the pole you represent. Putin never did succeeded in that, because Russia never had a unifying ideal, like the Soviet Union did.

    Today’s Russia just doesn’t provide any appealing benefits to would-be associates. In fact, it has demonstrably only become a threat, one that it behooves the world to grind down, militarily and economically.

    Putin is not the only one who can seize opportunities.

    Comment by I.M.Pembroke — April 6, 2022 @ 2:09 am

  4. I like the suggestion I read in a newspaper letters column, which was that the west should simply buy Putin’s army.

    Individual defector: $10,000 and a western passport and language lessons as required
    Unit of section size or more: as above plus $20,000 to share
    Per vehicle destroyed or abandoned as provably immobilised (you’ve brought the rotor arm, you’ve filmed yourself pouring a 40lb sack of sugar into the gas tank while the engine was running, etc): $25,000
    Per vehicle brought over: $50,000

    So a four-man tank crew that immobilised the rest of the company (what, eight tanks?) and defected in the remaining tank would share $310,000.

    $77,500 and safety. Or they could stay where they are and get killed for Vlad the Accursed. Hmm. Let me think.

    Much, much cheaper than sanctions, saves lives, and frankly, it would be a hoot. It would be like playing Civilization II against an opponent who accumulates money instead of weaponry and bribes all your cities and units instead of attacking them. Actually it wouldn’t be **like** that, it **is** that.

    Once we have bought his army the next step would be to start buying his cities. How about a billion quid for St Petersburg to secede and apply to become part of the UK? They could have the Queen as their head of state, be grandfathered into NATO, and start using the pound. It’s the same as Vlad wanting Alaska, except that in this case there would actually be something in it for St Petersburg.

    Comment by Green As Grass — April 6, 2022 @ 3:29 am

  5. @GaG: Ukraine is already doing this. A cool million dollars (and Ukranian citizenship, likely to be EU citizenship in under a decade) for defecting with a combat jet, half a million for a helicopter and smaller sums for armoured vehicles. They claim to have had one tank and one KA-52 helicopter so far, but who knows… I think the main problem is that Russians A: Really seem to have bought into this Nazi nonsense and B: Would fear retaliation against their families.

    I’m getting really annoyed by the European response. My parents’ generation stood idly by during the slaughter and torture in Bosnia. Ours should not. I see that the Czechs are sending tanks and APCs, that’s great, but why aren’t the rest of us helping? Do we really believe that Poo-tin will nuke Paris if we sell a few Leclerc tanks for $1 each? Russia sells weapons to whomever they please, why can’t we? We started off well with a decent set of sanctions, and it is the US holding back those MiGs not us, fine, but we can do a hell of a lot more – or the Russians will create a new Bucha every day for us to discover later…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — April 6, 2022 @ 4:06 am

  6. The whole conflict has rapidly morphed into a total war, akin to that fought by the actual Nazis in that part of the world, the Russian forces reverting to type and viewing everyone as a potential combatant or obstacle to their progress. If I were a Ukrainian civilian I’d either get my ass out of Dodge and give the Ukrainian military a clear field of fire, or find whatever weapons I can and stand and fight (giving no quarter, fully aware that none will be returned).

    Bucha has been a watershed of sorts in that it has given the wavering west Europeans a much-needed kick in the gonads, they having spent the best part of the last fortnight trying to force Zelensky to cut a deal. Now hopefully the taps will be opened and all manner of mil hardware will be made available.

    Regarding Putin escalating with WMD, I think the prospects of this are now vanishingly small. If he’d been minded to use them he would have done so by now e.g. rather than face the humiliation of withdrawal around Kyiv. No, he’s going to try and grind out a result in the Donbas and then use this as a platform for a resumed push on the rest of the country, maybe some years down the line. For NATO this is going to be the mother-of-all proxy wars (no need to hold back then..), also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those eastern European nations to clear out their legacy Soviet kit and replace it with knock-down priced American seconds.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 6, 2022 @ 5:18 am

  7. @Hoberno: I suspect a lot more was agreed at the NATO conference last week than is being made public, them having learnt the hard way following the MiG debacle. It’s noteworthy that Zelensky has gone quiet on this subject. Personally I’d give them everything they asked for and then some – after all, it is being used to degrade our principal adversary here in Europe, so why hold back?

    Comment by David Mercer — April 6, 2022 @ 5:32 am

  8. Hi SWP, I posted here yesterday. It was there for a while and now it’s gone . Do you know what happened? Thanks.

    Comment by Howard Roark — April 6, 2022 @ 6:43 am

  9. I can imagine many pairs of trousers in Moscow have been soiled with the realisation that the army’s entire fleet of armoured vehicles – each and every one of the tens of thousands of them – is not only obsolete but is also a death trap for the poor Gopniks operating it.

    ‘The audit of war’ has revealed the Russians, their strategy, their tactics and their equipment to be woeful. I think that is the most surprising outcome of the invasion.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 6, 2022 @ 7:11 am

  10. … AND their military, civil and political intelligence collection and analysis. They completely misread the situation in the country, which, given Ukraine’s proximity and cultural similarity, is an unforgivable failure.

    Comment by Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break — April 6, 2022 @ 7:14 am

  11. @Ex: The runes were definitely there to be read. I for one had seen nothing from the Russian mil’s over recent years which has made me believe their military is anything but second-rate (and that’s being generous). Ukraine’s military, by contrast, was much more of an unknown quantity, but then again the signs were there. Those Brit/American/Canadian trainers no doubt knew whether this horse was worth backing, given their recent experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Ukrainian mil have proven themselves to be steely-eyed warriors, more than a match for the mushy pile of sh*t that is the Russian mil.

    Comment by David Mercer — April 6, 2022 @ 9:27 am

  12. @Green as Grass. Good idea. Except I think it would be possible to strike far better bargains.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 6, 2022 @ 12:33 pm

  13. @Howard–Since you hadn’t posted in a while the spam filter snagged your comment. I’ve restored it.

    Welcome back. Good to hear from you. Hope all’s well.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 6, 2022 @ 12:34 pm

  14. @Ex-Global Super-Regulator on Lunch Break. It’s a full spectrum, all-of-government failure.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 6, 2022 @ 12:35 pm

  15. I’ve probably asked this before (forgive me, I’m mushy-headed with Covid) but why haven’t the Russians stocked up with US weapons bought from the Taliban?

    Comment by dearieme — April 6, 2022 @ 3:02 pm

  16. A major way the sunny and far-away countries of Spain, Portugal and Italy could help Ukraine would be to take in the brunt of Russian defectors, supplying them with money, refugee status, and/or passports. A Russian from beyond the Urals could easily be enticed by life in Martinique, Guadeloupe, or the Canary Islands.

    Comment by I.M. Pembroke — April 6, 2022 @ 8:20 pm

  17. I imagine Vlad will pour a little of option one after a heavy dose of option two. Russian leaders value their soldiers only as much as the weapon they’re carrying. Dragging the fight out for months or years would certainly be a bloody catastrophe, but he doesn’t care AND knows the nuclear ace up his sleeve will keep the west at bay. Eyeballs will avert themselves over time. Germany (greedy) and France (desperate to be relevant) will begin skirting sanctions vis a vis China. Vlad will occupy Donbas and scale back without ever stopping. Perpetual conflict serves him well at home.

    Comment by Pat Surin — April 6, 2022 @ 8:48 pm

  18. “life in Martinique, Guadeloupe, or the Canary Islands.”

    … except that Martinique and Guadeloupe are French possessions and the local population is mostly the descendants of African slaves. Not to mention some volcanic activity.

    Don’t think a Russian from beyond the Urals would be interested much.

    RE: purchasing St. Petersburg – I would rather start with Konigsberg and the whole North East Prussia enclave. There are already lots of Russians living in Germany so it is not a big deal to have some more.

    Comment by LL — April 7, 2022 @ 5:14 am

  19. To right a historical wrong, perhaps we should arrange to give back Crimea to the Tartars, if there are enough left after Stalin’s deportations. Currently Ukrainians are a small minority there so reattachment to Ukraine doesn’t look like a long term solution.

    Comment by philip — April 7, 2022 @ 8:15 am

  20. @David: Let’s hope you’re right that more help is being given in the shadows…

    Comment by HibernoFrog — April 7, 2022 @ 9:45 am

  21. maybe Vlad Dracul Putler would be the proper sobriquet

    anyway for what it’s worth, most Russians do not realize that Catherine was NOT Russian:

    Catherine was born in Stettin, Province of Pomerania, Kingdom of Prussia, Holy Roman Empire, as Princess Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg. Her mother was Johanna Elizabeth of Holstein-Gottorp. Her father, Christian August, Prince of Anhalt-Zerbst, belonged to the ruling German family of Anhalt.[3] He failed to become the duke of Duchy of Courland and Semigallia and at the time of his daughter’s birth held the rank of a Prussian general in his capacity as governor of the city of Stettin. But because her second cousin Peter III converted to Orthodox Christianity, two of her first cousins became Kings of Sweden: Gustav III and Charles XIII.[4] In accordance with the custom then prevailing in the ruling dynasties of Germany, she received her education chiefly from a French governess and from tutors. According to her memoirs, Sophie was regarded as a tomboy, and trained herself to master a sword.

    Comment by elmer — April 8, 2022 @ 10:41 am


    Russia has just issued a genocide handbook for its war on Ukraine. The Russian official press agency “RIA Novosti” published last Sunday an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. It is still available for viewing, and has now been translated several times into English.

    As I have been saying since the war began, “denazification” in official Russian usage just means the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation. A “Nazi,” as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian. According to the handbook, the establishment of a Ukrainian state thirty years ago was the “nazification of Ukraine.” Indeed “any attempt to build such a state” has to be a “Nazi” act. Ukrainians are “Nazis” because they fail to accept “the necessity that the people support Russia.” Ukrainians should suffer for believing that they exist as a separate people; only this can lead to the “redemption of guilt.”

    For anyone still out there who believes that Putin’s Russia opposes the extreme right in Ukraine or anywhere else, the genocide program is a chance to reconsider. Putin’s Russian regime talks of “Nazis” not because it opposes the extreme right, which it most certainly does not, but as a rhetorical device to justify unprovoked war and genocidal policies. Putin’s regime is the extreme right. It is the world center of fascism. It supports fascists and extreme-right authoritarians around the world. In traducing the meaning of words like “Nazi,” Putin and his propagandists are creating more rhetorical and political space for fascists in Russia and elsewhere.

    The genocide handbook explains that the Russian policy of “denazification” is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used. The handbook grants, with no hesitation, that there is no evidence that Nazism, as generally understood, is important in Ukraine. It operates within the special Russian definition of “Nazi”: a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian. The “Nazism” in question is “amorphous and ambivalent”; one must, for example, be able to see beneath the world of appearance and decode the affinity for Ukrainian culture or for the European Union as “Nazism.”

    Comment by elmer — April 8, 2022 @ 10:52 am

  23. I hate to not join the crowd on this issue.

    The thing about defeats such as those suffered by Russia in its ill-conceived assault on Kyiv is that it forces the top guy to dismiss the old functionaries who were in command (comfortable, complacent and sitting out their years until retirement) and appoint some more imaginative, energetic, junior guys. This is their main chance! Can you imagine? Success in Ukraine could make you the next President of Russia!

    The Russian military has been through this process of defeat before. Finland 1939. The Nazi invasion 1941. Things turn around.
    Ruthlessness and brutality will get you a long way in the practice of war.

    As for the treatment of the Russian privates, one acquaintance who had extensive experience of both told me that the military is way, way worse than the prisons. So … you know … nothing new under the sun

    Comment by Simple Simon — April 10, 2022 @ 10:44 am

  24. @Simple Simon. The reason that functionaries are in charge now is precisely because autocrats prefer them to hard chargers who could pose a threat. Putin doesn’t want to promote potential challengers.

    And the problems at the pointy end of the spear–i.e., the abysmal treatment of privates–sharply limits what any hard charger can accomplish.

    You may be right, but I seriously doubt that there is any likely fix of the broken Russian military. The rot is too deep.

    Comment by cpirrong — April 10, 2022 @ 5:40 pm

  25. To cut to the chase, Vlad is a bureaucratic thug, the kind that can order mass murders remotely because he doesn’t have to deal with reality (think Himler vomiting at an SS execution of Jews) who believes his own shit.

    Comment by Sotosy1 — April 20, 2022 @ 3:12 pm

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