Thoughts from Kyiv — evening March 2, 2022

In the Russian language and culture, one of the worst things one can experience is «pozor».

This word translates as «shame» but its connotation is much deeper. Russian culture is what organizational theorists call «vertically collectivist» — extremely hierarchical with pronounced tendency to group-think. Leadership in such a culture is all about machismo and metaphysical charisma.

The legitimacy of the «vozhd» (chief, boss, principal) is derived from the belief of followers in his «supernatural» (or at least visionary) qualities. These must be reinforced regularly through successful use of force and/or publicly acclaimed achievements.

When the vozhd fails, the effect is pozor — the worst possible loss of face. A leader who experiences pozor must self-ostricize, so as not to be publicly ridiculed. To do any less is equivalent to delegitimizing the entire group (company, organization, nation).

Now for an update on the situation in Ukraine:

— Crews of the Russian armored vehicles supposedly advancing on Kyiv are surrendering en masse. Inside the vehicles Ukrainians are finding instruction manuals (the crews are poorly trained) and food rations with expiry dates older than the soldiers themselves.

— Tanks and APC’s are regularly abandoned by crews after running out of fuel or due to breakdown. Several have been towed away by local farmers’ tractors to become elaborate lawn ornaments.

— Prior to the start of invasion Russian soldiers were issued rations for three days. On Day 7 they have run out of food and water, and have begun looting local stores and warehouses.

— Instead of being welcomed into Ukraine as liberators, Russian soldiers have been stopped by unarmed civilians. The valiant and courageous Ukrainian people have now gained global acclaim while Russians are being universally shunned.

For these and many other reasons, Putin is experiencing pozor. And because of vertical collectivism, all of Russia is beginning to feel shame.

Putin is a terrorist who is holding the world hostage.

We Ukrainians can rejoice in this, but it is also dangerous. In a vertically collectivist society, regicide (removal of the boss) is not only a mortal sin, it is never received positively by the group, even if successful. In other words, the perpetrators of any attempted coup in the Kremlin will not be heroes under any circumstances and they know it.

Secondly, a vozhd experiencing pozor understands intuitively that unless a major successful and very public undertaking can be achieved, his days in power are numbered. The collective will destroy him for not self-ostracizing and thereby shaming the whole group (nation).

So Putin has no choice but to escalate. Now the question: does he go for the nuclear option? And if he does, will we find that the command structure of Russia’s nuclear forces to be as rotten as that of its ground forces?

In 2013–14 a major overhaul of America’s nuclear forces was undertaken after discovery of problems with morale in the silos. Because use of the nuclear option had become such a remote possibility, officers thought of service in these forces as the epitomy of a dead-end career. When discovered, this was fixed in the US.

There is no reason to believe that analogous morale problems don’t plague Russia’s nuclear forces. And given the massive corruption that plagues the Russian army there is reasonable confidence that the morale and command problems have not been not fixed.

So, Russia is a paper tiger led by a failed leader who has shamed himself in an unprecedented way. To avoid pozor he must maintain his bluff.

Putin is a terrorist who is holding the world hostage.

Western leaders are deathly afraid to get their forces directly involved in the war in Ukraine, despite repeated pleas for air support, because Putin threatens them with nukes. Sadly, at the moment he is successful. The world is afraid of him. Score a win for the terrorist.

Again, Putin is a terrorist. He is threatening the use of nukes because the West is afraid of them. And as long as you are afraid, the terrorist wins.

Eventually however, someone will call the bluff. And then pozor will be total, including also all the western leaders who fell for it.

In the meantime, Ukraine fights. And wins.

Slava Ukrayini!

* Thoughts from Kyiv is a series of flash essays by Mychailo Wynnyckyj from February 2022

Author — Mychailo Wynnyckyj, Social Scientist, Public Intellectual. Academic Development Officer, Professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy.

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