Let's talk a little bit about the nullsec lord-vassal relationship.
Back in the early Autumn, things were going very well for The Initiative alliance. With a bit of help from White Noise and a lot of help from Pandemic Legion, they were merrily rolling through the territories formerly occupied by Against All Authorities (-A-) and their renter alliance AAA Citizens.
And that, my friends, was a lot of space.
It's so much space, in fact, that The Initiative went in knowing they couldn't digest the whole thing. Not all at once, anyway. So, they did what smart invaders like William the Conqueror have done since time immemorial. They went out and found some ambitious fighters looking to upgrade their circumstances and offered them land in exchange for their support during the invasion and their fealty afterward. In this case, The Initiative chose two alliances; Circle of Two, a nullsec dwelling alliance from Providence, and Dead Terrorists (DT) a lowsec PvP alliance as their prospective new vassals.
As the fighting wound down and -A- was ejected from its territory, Co2 was installed as the new lords of Impass. For its loyal service, DT was granted the western half of Feythabolis, space taken from Red.Overlord during the -A- invasion, with the eastern half of the Region going to White Noise.
With -A- ejected from their former holdings and South Russian alliances largely pushed out of the desired regions, it looked like Miller time for the invaders. Nothing left to do but mop up the last pockets of resistance and wait for -A- to failscade. Surely, the leadership at The Initiative thought, a job our trusty new vassals can manage on their own. So, The Initiative turned its attention to consolidating its hold on Catch and settling into its vast new holdings, released Pandemic Legion from its contract and left DT and Co2 to manage post-invasion clean-up. So far, so good.
Or so it seemed.
Much has been written as to why -A- lost its territory so quickly. Much of that commentary dwells heavily on the "-A- decayed internally and, like a tree hollowed out by rot, broke and splintered when the winds of invasion blew" school of thought. Even today you'll hear reference in various forums and blogs to the Atlas and -A- failscades. However, -A- did not failscade. Facts on the ground suggest that, while the invasion occurred at a time when -A- was weakened by internal conflicts, it was by no means a dead-on-its-feet alliance.
It appears that the -A- leadership saw early on that their pre-Dominion fleets were not a match for the invading forces, particularly those of Pandemic Legion. Further, the invaders were leveraging the Dominion sov rules and attacking on many fronts, denying -A- the opportunity to concentrate their defensive forces save in a few pockets. Faced with this reality, -A- leadership gambled that they would be able to hold their forces together despite a loss of territory. Instead of spending their forces grinding out a system by system defense, the -A- forces largely withdrew to NPC nullsec and Stain Empire's sphere of influence. Thus, while The Initiative and their allies took -A-'s space with relative ease, -A- finished the invasion with their forces largely intact, on good terms with their Southern Russian allies, and within striking distance of The Initiative and their vassals Co2 and DT.
Rather than recognize the degree of threat this represented, The Initiative appears to have made the mistake of believing their own propaganda. Not only did they expect their new Vassals, one of which was new to nullsec, to deal with the seasoned Southern Russian coalition forces, they appear to have utterly mishandled the lord/vassal relationship.
Nullsec is not lowsec. Nullsec sovereignty wars run at an entirely different scale and tempo than anything that happens in lowsec. Even a good lowsec PvP outfit with some experience in the occasional POS bash is going to go through an adjustment period when they move into nullsec. If they're lucky, they get a little breathing room in which to settle into their systems and make the transition. If they're lucky, their host alliance will keep a close eye on them and make sure they're not getting overwhelmed during their transition.
DT was not lucky.
Once Pandemic Legion finished out its contract and left, the Southern Russian alliance began an offensive against DT and Co2. In one of the early engagements at AZN-D2, DT lost thirteen carriers, two supercarriers and a Titan. Despite their vassals being obviously outmatched and calling for assistance, The Initiative seemed slow to respond. Meanwhile, -A-, Stain Empire and Red.Overlord continued to tear at the DT and Co2 forces. By the time The Initiative mobilized forces to support their vassals, DT was reeling and showing the symptoms of near-collapse from a morale standpoint, with pilots failing to show for Calls To Arms (CTAs), failing to support coalition strategic objectives and, in some cases, demanding that the alliance return to lowsec.
This is the point where a smart warlord would recognize that they'd underestimated their enemies and overestimated their vassals. Obviously, some morale-building was in order. Both DT and C02 had been through the meat grinder. Co2, having cut its teeth in nullsec Providence had weathered the pressure better, but both Alliances were hurting and in need of back-up along with a little war-lord love and give-em-hell encouragement.
What they got was a big dose of blame and humiliation.
It a textbook example of how not to lead in a crisis, Initiative co-leader Codin Plaks excoriated his vassals, wondering why The Initiative should bother riding to their rescue given their incompetence. Most readers of The Edge will have seen the transcripts, taken from a coalition leadership convo. DT's Count Atreidies is pointedly singled out for public humiliation, effectively guaranteeing DT's withdrawal from the coalition. When DT did attempt to leave shortly after, they were declared KOS by The Initiative and hunted down by their former allies.
The above actions, while possibly satisfying for Plaks in the short term, have done The Initiative more harm than good. A leader who behaves in this way in a crisis is a leader not in control of the situation. It is a surprising show of weakness that will not have escaped the notice of the wolves of nullsec. Further, this undermines the loyalty and morale of The Initiative's other vassals and allies, who may doubt The Initiatives' willingness to follow through on promises of support, and leave Co2 wondering if they'll be hung out to dry the next time Plaks has a fit of temper.
While I've advocated bringing in vassal alliances to help control one's sphere of influence, I caution against assuming that the Lord/Vassal relationship is pretty much a one way street: The lord saying "Vassal, get thine spotty nether regions thence, and fetch unto me my croissant and coffee." And the vassal, falling at the lord's feet and cringing in a manner most pleasing to his liege, saying "I'faith, oh most potent of potentates, wouldst thou have a plain croissant, or a pan au chocolate?"
To be successful, the relationship between nullsec warlord and vassal must be reciprocal. This is New Eden, after all, and you have vassals only so long as they choose to serve you. Your relationship is not institutional as it is in the military, nor is it forced on one side or the other by accident of geography. It is a personal relationship in which obligation flows both ways, and it works best when each side trusts the other. A vassal who will tolerate your scorn is not a vassal worth having. If The Initiative continues in this vein, that is the only type of vassal they'll be able to attract.