The Popski Syndrome – Allied Defeat Turns into Ukraine Battlefield Fantasies

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Yves here. As John Helmer mentions below, many Collective West leaders (wellie, if you can call Kaja Kallas a leader), pundits and spokescritters have been making all sorts of threats to Do Something so Ukraine can win, like sending in their own forces. There’s been a bit of a climbdown as some NATO leaders have voiced opposition. For instance, Germany’s Olaf Scholz, who normally Could be browbeaten into supporting US escalation, has been holding firm for some time and just said that Germany has no more weapons to send. Nevertheless, Ukraine (almost certainly with little green men assisting) has taken to lobbing drones at some very important Russian defensive assets, “over the horizon” monitoring systems designed to provide early warning of ICBM, as in potentially nuclear, strike. The lack of any sign of Russian emergency meetings is consistent with claims on Russian Telegram that these drone attacks did only very minor damage. Nevertheless, Russia could easily treat these strikes as a very big escalation.

By John Helmer, the longest continuously serving foreign correspondent in Russia, and the only western journalist to direct his own bureau independent of single national or commercial ties. Helmer has also been a professor of political science, and an advisor to government heads in Greece, the United States, and Asia. He is the first and only member of a US presidential administration (Jimmy Carter) to establish himself in Russia. Originally published at Dances with Bears

In war, exaggeration is a killer. In the media, exaggeration is a bestseller. In the current war there is a dearth of military and political analysts who for truth or money will tell the difference.

Instead, when the mentality of the war fighters is a combination of racial superiority and spetsnaz derring-do, what you get is the conviction that with one more brilliant operation and one more super-weapon, victory can be snatched from every indicator of defeat because the adversary will be persuaded to accept negotiations as he loses his nerve.

This is the meaning of the Anglo-American publicity which burst over the long Bank Holiday and Memorial Day weekend, as summer campaigning began in earnest for the July and November elections in the UK and US — with the incumbent in the former running 21 points behind,  and the incumbent in the latter trailing on an approval margin of minus-16 points.

The Reuters propaganda agency, based in New York, is claiming to have found four Russians from “a senior level in the political and business worlds” to be talkative about what they say they know of the Kremlin’s end-of-war plans. “[President Vladimir] Putin can fight for as long as it takes, but Putin is also ready for a ceasefire – to freeze the war… Putin would, however, be ready to settle for what land he has now and freeze the conflict at the current front lines, four of the sources said. ‘Putin will say that we won, that NATO attacked us and we kept our sovereignty, that we have a land corridor to Crimea, which is true,’ one of them said, giving their own analysis.”

With just one more successful push from the Ukrainian side, Reuters and its four Russians believe, Putin will agree to give up his war.  This push,  which the western media have been amplifying this week,  is the drone attacks on Russian radar stations for early warning of nuclear missile attack at Armavir, Krasnodar, and Orsk, Orenburg.

Although Russian military sources claim these attacks were pinpricks, and the second of them was shot out of the sky before detonation, western media are reporting that it is now the battle strategy of the US, the British, and the Ukrainians to provoke Putin into retaliation, crossing the red line of tactical nuclear warfare. That’s a red line, the allies are calculating, which Putin would rather negotiate end-of-war terms than cross.

A retired Moscow military analyst warns against the exaggeration, not of the attacks themselves, but of Putin’s power to decide end-of-war terms over the opposition of the General Staff and the new Defense Ministry. “It is obvious the Ukrainians have had a string of successful breakthroughs,” the source acknowledges, “– against ships, airfields, refineries, and now this radar site. We also understand it is not the Ukrainians: all target selection, identification, guidance, and the hardware are American or European. Where the command control of these launch sites is, we do not know but it might well not be in Ukraine.”

“But the Russian response will not be nuclear. That is impossible. There are a thousand options between doing nothing and going nuclear, and we can be sure the General Staff are working on all of them. So when people say this is provocation for a nuclear strike and that [Ukrainian President Vladimir] Zelensky is provoking it, we understand that, first, NATO planners know Putin will not go nuclear because he and his generals are too rational and sane. And second, Zelensky is not the one making the provocations. So the real red line now is not the nuclear arms provocations from the NATO side. That’s a fantasy of theirs. Just so, in response, I think it’s time Putin stops making threats and strikes at the source of these operations.”

When desperate weakness triggers battlefield fantasies, call this the Popski Syndrome.

Popski was the call sign and unit nickname assigned by the British Army headquarters in Cairo to a tiny unit of behind-the-lines special forces operating against the Italian and German armies in the Libyan deserts from late in 1941 until September 1943, when the war moved on to Italy, taking Popski with it. Popski’s unit numbered 24 men to start in Libya; in Italy, by the war’s end, it had reached 80.

Vladimir Peniakoff was Popski, born to wealthy Jewish Russians who fled the Revolution to install their aluminium business and themselves in Belgium, then the UK.  With London publisher Jonathan Cape, Peniakoff imagined he could turn his small guerrilla war in the Libyan and Tunisian deserts into something approaching the bestsellerdom of the Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T.E.Lawrence’s story of the war of the Arabian peninsula tribes against the Turks between 1916 and 1918; first published in 1926.

Only Peniakoff’s wisdom turned out to be a combination of cynical racism towards his Arab allies; fondness for his German enemies; and exaggerated self-importance in commando or special forces operations, whose strategic rationale Peniakoff accepted enthusiastically without a second thought. But that thought does appear in the very last lines of the book after “Popski’s Private Army” — as it was called at the time,  and on the book jacket  — had manipulated, then betrayed the Libyan Arab and Berber tribes; promoted General Bernard Montgomery’s reputation for military genius;  and drew the tender ministrations of New Zealand and Canadian girls working in the rear casualty hospitals where Peniakoff lost first a finger and then his left hand.

Left. Vladimir Peniakoff’s book;    Right: Peniakoff (front) in action. At first establishment in March 1942 Peniakoff’s Popski’s Private Army (PPA) comprised 24 men, including Peniakoff. Most of the troops were Libyan Arabs. According to Peniakoff, he told a conference of sheikhs of the Obaidi tribe: “My Government wants your help, and they want to help you…I told them that my Government had solemnly undertaken never  to let their country come again under Italian rule  after the victorious  conclusion of the war.” This was a cynical lie. At the Potsdam Conference of the US, UK, and Soviet leaders in July 1945, the British and Americans were so nervous at the rise of the Communist Party in Italy, and of the parallel rise of Arab nationalism in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria, they offered to restore Italy’s colonial administration in Libya until Stalin insisted on a Soviet trusteeship of the territory to prepare the Libyans for independence. This story has been told in The Jackals’ Wedding, American Power, Arab Revolt – Chapter 7.  A new history of Libya based on the records of the Obaidi tribe is being prepared. Popski’s betrayal of the Obaidi was the common Anglo-American policy in Libya until Muammar Qaddafi’s revolution of September 1, 1969.

Peniakoff’s last lines describe himself in his jeep in the train of a British cavalry unit on an Austrian alpine road crowded with German troops begging to surrender before the Russian Army, advancing a few kilometres away,  caught up with them. Peniakoff, who could also speak fluent Russian, Arabic, French, Italian, and German,   was stopped in the road by “the mass of a tank ahead of me, covered with a red Soviet flag.” According to Peniakoff, the tank commander “delivered a speech. He ended: ‘There is nothing that can destroy our solidarity’.”

Peniakoff doesn’t report what he told the Russian in reply at the time. Instead, he concludes his book with this rumination and threat. “‘The war was over’, I thought, ‘I might now well see to that’.”  This was Peniakoff’s personal fantasy of continuing his war-fighting. But there was no role for him, or the 80 men his unit had grown to in Italy, to play as lightly armed demolition raiders against the Red Army.

It didn’t occur to him that in his three years of fighting in Arab North Africa, then Italy, he had betrayed, not only the Obaidi tribesmen of Libya, but also the Italian Communist and Socialist partisans who had fought with him, also on his post-war promises. Turning his back on them, Peniakoff was ready to go to war with Moscow until a brain tumour stopped him in 1951, the year after he had published his story.

But the Anglo-American idea of war with Russia is alive and kicking this week, as it’s the Ukrainian troops who are running away from the advance of the Russian Army.

The idea of Popski’s Private Army against Russia which Peniakoff was gung-ho to fight is now on the edge of nuclear attacks – first by Ukrainian artillery on the Zaporozhye nuclear power plant, and since that has failed to generate a radioactive explosion,   drone attacks on Russian radar stations at Armavir and Orsk whose job it is to detect nuclear armed missile launches and trigger Russian nuclear retaliation.

Post-attack pictures of the damage at the Armavir radar station in Krasnodar.  Russian military assessment of the drone attack is in marked contrast to the hype of western reporting. "We may be talking about partial shrapnel damage to the high-voltage power lines of the transceiver modules. At the same time, the blocks of transceiver modules themselves (together with amplifiers, phase shifters and cooling circuits) could receive minimal damage, as indicated by the absence of traces of direct hits from drones into active antenna arrays. Considering the modular design of Voronezh-DM (and all stations of this type), we can expect a prompt restoration of the complex and its return to combat duty… The station serves as a means of monitoring ballistic missile launches at a distance of 6 thousand km and also detects high-altitude hypersonic aerodynamic means of aerospace attack. What kind of drone could be used to attack the radar? Initially, it was believed that for the strike on Voronezh-DM, the Main Intelligence Directorate simulated a complex low-altitude flight route for drones of the Lyuty or UJ-26 Beaver type, skirting the radar viewing sectors of the Russian Aerospace Forces anti-aircraft missile systems. However, later information appeared that British-Portuguese Tekever AR3 drones were used for the strike. Interestingly, this drone is designed using VTOL (vertical take-off) technology and could be deployed near the radar, probably several kilometres away. However, launch from the territory of Ukraine is not excluded. To build routes bypassing air defence systems, reconnaissance information from the US Air Force RQ-4 Global Hawk drone could be used. Let us recall that for several months now the focus of attention of the US Air Force RQ-4B data has been shifted specifically to the Krasnodar Territory, as can be seen from the flight route. What conclusion can be drawn? The strike on the Armavir station (and a likely attempt to hit another Voronezh-type radar 25 km from Orsk) may be part of a single operation to inflict painful media attacks. The use of British-Portuguese drones in this case may be the fundamental point since it is the British who are considered the ‘architects’ of many GUR [Ukrainian military intelligence] actions: attempts to land in Crimea and other campaigns in which the planned result was never achieved.”  

A veteran US military observer is not sanguine about the rationality of the US and British officers directing Ukrainian operations. He warns that the British, and also the CIA, have an inordinate faith in special operations to turn the tide, and in their own cleverness to think them up. “What we’re seeing — with Israel, too,” according to this source, “is years of impunity resulting in an epic, murderous tantrum that’s having the opposite of its intended effect. It’s certainly not beyond either of them to play nuclear chicken. Most people would say that if you do that, you’re insane. But they think a special operation playing nuclear chicken with the Russians is clever, potentially effective.”

“And so I think there’s going to be a nuclear war. The people who run things in the West have made up their minds that if they can’t rule, there will be nothing to rule. I guess we must figure now whether British and Ukrainian madness will prevail over US cowardice.”

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  1. digi_owl

    I do wonder if that is from an actual game, or if it is some meme that has done a few rounds (jpeg degradation is evident).

    1. yep

      I did reverse image search. The game is called Epic Battle Fantasy, which matches the title of the article. ;)

    2. OliverN

      Wow, I never thought I’d be on NC and see a photo of Epic Battle Fantasy! And furthermore a screencap of Epic Battle Fantasy with politician heads juxtaposed over those of the characters. I’ve played all five games and I’ve got no idea why he did this specifically, any allegory here is lost on me.

      To the gamers in the comments who like their rpgs, I do recommend you try this one out if you haven’t already (probably not for your first game Lambert! If you’re still new to games, there are better starting ones, this one is for when you know what you enjoy most in games and want more of that specifically). It used to be a flash game in its earliest iterations, now it’s on Steam, it’s an indie game done by one dev (he outsources music, but I think that’s all). I would start with Epic Battle Fantasy 5, being the most recent one which is also a refresh of the story and characters. The story is very standard fare, but the real strengths are the battle system (turn-based rpg, heavily based around swapping your equipment mid-battle to counter enemy weaknesses and resist their attacks, lots of unique abilities/summons/ultimate attacks) and the exploration (move around the map, find secrets, get equipment later in the game that opens new paths in earlier areas, find unique weapons/armour/summons that help in the battle system I mentioned above, and getting crafting materials to max out their levels). If you’ve played other rpgs, there’s a lot of references. Very fun, very comfy.

      Steam sales will be around the end of June, you can probably grab it on Steam at that time at a big discount.

  2. Joker

    Launches of US ICBMs would appear on the Internet before they appear on Russian OTH radars.

    1. digi_owl

      Now i envision some soldier posting a video of themselves turning that ignition key…

    2. ilsm

      Minuteman ICBM’s are old and less than fully functioning, why Obama went for a 2 trillion buck plan…..

      Trident from submarines is scarcely newer!

      B-52’s are almost 70 years old and B-2 was not suitable for more than 20….

      1. digi_owl

        Those B-52s are so overhauled they are in ship of Theseus territory.

        And a replacement for the B-2, the B-21 Raider, is in the works.

        But yeah, i hear they basically have to reverse engineer how the minuteman was made to refurbish them. As both the equipment and people from back then are gone.

    3. ian

      I don’t understand the compulsion to deride the Russians as having inferior technology or being incompetent? Isn’t it safer to assume the opposite?

      1. Polar Socialist

        The paradigm here is good vs. evil, garden vs. jungle, civilization vs barbarism, democracy vs autocracy. They have inferior technology because they are inferior: evil barbarians living in a jungle autocracy.

        And besides, we have better values, too. \s

      2. Joker

        The joke is about unfeasibility of a surpise nuclear attack in the modern day & age. Way too many people on the Internet have been rasing panic about US first strike “after radars are taken out”.

        As far as your questions go, I don’t think that I’m quailfied to answer, being not-from-greatest-country and hence on the inferior part of the compulsion.

      3. CA

        “I don’t understand the compulsion to deride the Russians as having inferior technology or being incompetent?”

        A very important observation, the answer to which seems to me the turning of Russians to a “lesser” ethnicity. The intense disdain for Russians cultivated after the Cold War strikes me as ethnicity based, simply prejudice.

        Again, for me, the same holds for the way in which the Chinese are portrayed; not the Chinese government but the Chinese people. Reporting on China in the New York Times is now just a more polished version of the way the Chinese were portrayed at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882).

  3. Candide

    I’m reminded that the book, “Armed Madhouse” by Greg Palast is probably of the same genre as this discussion. My timely reading at this website may yet lead me back to books I wish I’d read.

  4. Louis Fyne

    Western technocrats have a fetish for the special-ops “Ubermensch” which is going to lead the West to geopolitical-military doom (seriously), when special forces get sent into missions-wars which they are not suited for.

    Special forces tick all the right and wrong boxes: Small labor footprint, expensive per person, reinforces a sense of national-superiority….(one of our guys is worth 5 of theirs.)

    Special forces are very excellent, expensive scalpels. Real war is won with meat cleavers.

    1. digi_owl

      Reminds me that the SAS was set up to give Churchill something to play with so he stopped interfering with the war planning. Thankfully the Germans never came up with anything similar to keep Hitler busy.

      1. Alex Cox

        Also leCarre adaptations by the BBC. Hollywood and the Beeb have been prepping us for this for a long time.

    2. skippy

      Russia is using special ops members to lead small groups of strike teams consisting of regulars with good results. Its very much like the old days of having a hardened staff Sgt directing well trained soldiers that lack the experience aspect.

      Conversely the Ukrainians have chewed through heaps of experienced sorts all whilst sending, basically civilians, too the front to get shot or blown up in a few weeks – very high attrition rate.

      Then to top it all off Mfg of 152/155mm guided artillery shells is out producing the entire West, improved FABs are also making life hard for Ukrainians.

      So it seems the need to strike a few targets in Russia proper is just for some MSM hopuim because of the realities on the battlefield. Zman must be pondering his bagman exit strategy, or upping his blow use …

  5. Carolinian

    whether British and Ukrainian madness will prevail over US cowardice

    Ah yes the madman syndrome beloved of Nixon and Henry. Patrick Lawrence quotes Hersh quoting one of his CIA folk that Putin is ready to negotiate which is different from wanting to “freeze” although perhaps not to Hersh. But the problem for Putin has always been the rationality gap on the other side. Compared to Biden and Blinken Nixon was a genius.

    What to do in order to finally convince the NATO clowns they are beaten?

  6. Nordberg

    So a well-timed read on my part: The Unvanquished
    The Untold Story of Lincoln’s Special Forces, the Manhunt for Mosby’s Rangers, and the Shadow War That Forged America’s Special Operations. I guess this is part of imparting the love of spycraft, espionage, derring-do, and supply-line harassment to the next generation.

  7. Cristobal

    Good to have Helmer back. He gets excited sometimes with his análisis, but I think he knows more than most about what is going on in Russia. It’s all connected.

  8. Lefty Godot

    Wouldn’t the most obvious escalation be taking out those US/NATO reconnaisance planes that briefly stand up over the Black Sea to give target spotting directions to the Ukrainians? Or make the Black Sea a no fly zone for military aircraft other than those of Russia and Tukiye? No nukes needed, but still high impact.

    At the current rate of attrition, Ukraine should see another 100,000 AFU troops KIA by the time the US election rolls around. I’m not sure what special forces ops can rescue them from that. If they could stage an orderly withdrawal to the Dnieper, that would be the best option for conserving their remaining forces, but it may be too late for doing that and being able to cover their retreat.

    1. juno mas

      There is no way the Uks can cover a retreat. They can’t cover the transfer of troops to the Kharkiv area of combat contact.

  9. Bill R

    It is looking very much like the West in general, and UK & US in particular, are acting like a little spoiled child who has a new toy who tries to set the rules for the game. If they can’t win, then no-one else can – rather than realize they don’t control the world anymore, the West would rather destroy it.

    1. Chris Cosmos

      I don’t think, like many in the dissident community, that the West is going to “lose” much if anything after the defeat of the Ukrainians. The US is now firmly in the position of winning wars by losing them–victory is no longer necessary as long as the common folk are hypnotized by mainstream narratives. The most dramatic losses since WWII have been Vietnam and Afghanistan (though I count Iraq as a loss of sorts) and nothing changed in US policy in the medium to long-term and loyalists were rewarded from being dramatically wrong within the official government and in the official media. The dissidents within and without government were penalized and “cancelled.”

      1. Frank

        No, this is a fundamentally different situation. Losing this war will lead to the end of NATO, and likely the rest of the entire American empire. It will roll up quickly, like the Soviet Union did a generation ago. The war is existential for NATO, the American empire, Russia and Ukraine. There will be no negotiated settlement, any victory will be total.

  10. John W.

    Helmer is verbose and hard to follow. The summary is that Helmer is saying that the drones were launched by the CIA/etc from within Russia.

    1. Bugs

      Yeah, he’s really not an easy read and doesn’t always make sense. I think Yves runs him because he’s a decent comrade and an intellectual.

    2. Ignacio

      Well he also makes the point that these attacks follow what he calls the “Popsky syndrome”, which can be interpreted as impotence to do anything to prevent defeat except not-so-clever, in fact very dumb, special operations. But don’t worry, getting one concept for each reading is not that bad. This is my case very often!

  11. Ignacio

    That last sentence from the US military observer is ominous. Yet I believe that among the people who run things in the West those that might choose “to leave nothing to rule if they cannot rule” are almost certainly only a handful of crazed paranoids and not exactly the most influential. We cannot rule out absolutely a Dr.Strangelove moment but this seems to me highly unlikely.

  12. Aurelien

    I suppose it’s worth pointing out that, as well as the British tradition of small-unit actions, there was also the inconvenient fact in WW2 that from the summer of 1940 until the end of 1942, there wasn’t much the British could do militarily against the Germans, and when they tried (Greece, Crete) they came off second best. The original concept of the SAS (small units parachuted behind enemy lines in North Africa to destroy aircraft on the ground) was reasonable enough in the circumstances, since there was little else that could be done. Later iterations (the Jedburgh groups that trained French Resistance fighters to support the 1944 invasions, weren’t a bad idea either, in the circumstances.

  13. Kalen

    If this is not approaching Cuban missile crisis type moment I don’t know what is. US has deployed missiles capable and intended to attack strategic nuclear installations in Russia clearly provocatively trying to unbalance MAD doctrine. That kind of action can’t be tolerated by Russia or China or America or India or even Pakistan or Israel as it attacks a core of their national security doctrine.

    There is a cool, rational VALID military assessment that attacks on those early warning strategic installations constitute preparation for all out US nuclear attack on Russian Federation. Such real and present danger amid open western political declaration of clear intentions to destroy Russian Federation rationally demands immediate proportional retaliatory response.

    Why Russia is not reacting loudly publicly to such extreme threat escalation and demanding to immediately withdraw all NATO missiles from Ukraine like US did in 1961in Cuba is very puzzling and troubling unless such retaliatory actions are being prepared against US early warning installations in US or elsewhere. If Russia ignores those attacks they de facto encourage nuclear war because US won’t stop as Eurasia in eyes of US ruling neocons constitutes existential threat to US hegemony.

    Also no one should call a hegemon like US that’s fighting to defend its hegemony irrational as it is hegemony that provides political and economic foundations for its imperial power. Losing it means likely disintegration of a hegemon itself.

    We can however as I do call EU military and politicians as delusional psychotics with a death wish supporting lose-lose American proposition of fighting Russians instead of being ardent advocates for peace. Performance of some of US and EU politicians or high government officials suffices for unequivocal clinical diagnosis of a DSM-5/mental disorder.

    American policy vs Russia is nothing but an exercise of extreme psychological warfare using art of endless deceptions and provocations. All supreme crimes against peace. American war against Russia (and China) is in full swing rights now. US propaganda wants us blinded to maximum US economic aggression, maximum financial aggression, maximum political aggression, maximum diplomatic aggression, maximum cultural aggression, maximum propaganda aggression and now we are approaching maximum military aggression including nuclear aggression.

    Psychological cycle of war driven by doubling down on failures as poker like strategy of wining is based on perception of escalatory dominance. As U.S. does not have escalatory dominance in Ukraine nuclear escalation is what US is left with.

    I don’t see any other alternative to nuclear annihilation but mass american protest and general strike against not just nuclear war but specifically NATO and US aggression in Europe as it is the only aggressor in this conflict. We would have peace next day after U.S. backed off. Where is anti war movement in US? Already Dead before first nuke arrived?

    I can’t believe that I have to write this after my family was devastated by WWII and Cold War when everyone seemed to understand senseless horror of war.

    1. John Zelnicker

      Kalen – I have to agree that we are very close to a Cuban Missile Crisis moment. Unfortunately, the Collective West does not have any statesmen(women) who are intelligent enough to realize how close to the precipice we are right now.

      As someone who was deeply involved in the antiwar movement of the 60’s and 70’s, I can give you a few ideas about why it doesn’t exist now.

      One of the most important reasons is that there is no draft. The threat of being drafted and sent to Vietnam was a fate to be avoided at all costs and a big motivator of the antiwar movement on college campuses. Most of my college friends, including myself, knew a childhood friend who had been killed in Nam. I was ready to flee to Canada, but was able to take advantage of certain circumstances that allowed me to avoid being drafted. (But that’s another story.)

      A second, almost as important reason, is that the number of veterans is declining rapidly leaving few who can tell first-person stories of the horrors of war. Vietnam was the last war in which over a half-million American soldiers were involved.

      You can add all of the social problems affecting our youth, which have been extensively detailed elsewhere, e.g., overuse of social media with its hypnotic/addictive potential.

    2. Aesop's fables

      Obama finished off the anti-war movt’s IIRC

      What bills itself as antiwar is in fact pro-war from what I’ve read.

  14. Piotr Berman

    Striking at Russian territory with Ukrainian hands (at least, on deniability level) sounds like a marvelous idea because Russians cannot retaliate except by pummeling already pummeled Ukrainians. Apart from ethics, this assumes that Russia does not have ability to retaliate symmetrically: with her weapons but with hands of someone else who will proudly take responsibility. Even Iran would not take the risk.


    1. yep

      “Symmetrically” is the key word, that many fail to acknowledge. France can’t retalite symmetricaly for losing colonies in Africa. USA can’t retalite symmetricaly for losing control of Red Sea. USA can’t react symmetricaly against China taking over World’s EV market. This hybrid global conflict we got going on is multidomain, and asymmetrical in its essence.

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