Why Calling Putin’s Actions in Ukraine “Genocide” Matters

“God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.” Francis Bacon

Introduction

Joe Biden and Immanuel Macron have disagreed on whether to call Putin’s war in Ukraine genocide- which is defined as the intent to destroy either in whole or on part a particular group of people. Biden has suggested that Russia’s actions are indeed genocide, saying “it sure seems that way to me.’ Macron, for his part, has cautioned against the use of the term. A number of arguments have been put forward against naming Putin’s actions as genocide. These arguments include the fear that such language could damage diplomatic efforts for a ceasefire and an eventual negotiated settlement; the danger of driving ruthless paranoid leader further into a corner by confirming Putin’s long held view that the West is intent on his removal from power; and the recognition that if genocide is acknowledged to be taking place, it morally obliges the US and NATO to do more to stop Putin’s barbarity, thus risking direct conflict with Russia.

While these arguments need to be taken seriously, the question remains – are Putin’s actions in Ukraine genocide? And if so, what does that tell us about Putin’s mindset?

The evidence

Putin and Russia’s stated intent

In early April, the Russian official press agency RIA Novosti” published an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation. Historian Timothy Synder has called the RIA Novosti statement one of the most openly genocidal documents he has ever seen. The statement calls  for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, and the abolition of any organization that has any association with Ukraine. As Snyder explains, the statement also labels as a “Nazi” anyone who self-identifies as Ukrainian, and brands any act that contributes to an independent Ukrainian state as a “Nazi” act.

The document makes clear that Putin’s policy of “denazification” of Ukraine is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used. It is directly instead against every Ukrainian who opposes Russia’s programme of forceful incorporation into Russia. This Orwellian double speak explains why President Zelenskyi, a Jew with family members who fought in the Red Army and died in the Holocaust, can be called a Nazi. Zelenskyi identifies as a Ukrainian and believes in an independent Ukrainian state, and that now what “Nazi” means.

The RIA Novosti statement further asserts that “a significant number of common people are also guilty of being passive Nazis and Nazi accomplices…” (That is, the majority of Ukrainian citizens also identify as Ukrainian and believe in an independent Ukrainian state). As a direct corollary,  the entire Ukrainian people, in Putin’s pathological logic, are “Nazis”. Survivors of Russia’s “special military operation” will therefore need to undergo “further denazification” through mass re-education once Russia’s invasion is complete. Finally, the Russian official press agency states that the very name “Ukraine” must disappear.

Not surprisingly, given his control over official media, the RIA Novosti statement reflects Putin’s own expressed views and intent. In his essay of July 2021, Putin argued that there was no Ukrainian nation. The West, he claimed, had confused Ukrainians to believe that they had their own separate identity, but that could be corrected – by Russia.

Putin’s War Crimes in Ukraine

The evidence of Russian war crimes fits with Putin’s stated intent of eliminating Ukraine as a sovereign nation and eradicating Ukrainian as a valid national identity. The United Nations human rights office has highlighted growing evidence of Russian war crimes in Ukraine, including indiscriminate shelling of populated areas including hospitals and schools, and summary executions of civilians. The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kyiv region at the beginning of April revealed the scale of civilian casualties in Bucha, where an estimated three hundred civilians were killed, with bodies left lining the streets. The discovery of mass graves, in Bucha and elsewhere, point to the systemic murder of civilians by the Russia throughout the territory of Ukraine that they have captured. Ukraine has accused Russia of attempting to cover up the killing of possibly “tens of thousands of civilians” in the besieged city of Mariupol, by using mobile crematoriums to burn the remains of victims.

Photo by Mikhail Volkov on Unsplash

What the evidence points to

In Disordered Minds, I drew on the insight of political scientist Betty Glad that a mixture of psychopathic, narcissistic and paranoid features provides the most complete description of the basic character structure of the tyrant. The critical importance of this insight is twofold. First, it provides an understanding of the programme that a tyrant typically pursues once in power. Second, it gives an insight into the mindset that propels the tyrant’s actions.

In terms of the programme they pursue, tyrants typically follow a simple blueprint, elucidated by Eric Hoffer in The True Believer.  In difficult times, the leader espouses a narcissistic vision of a glorious national future which taps into the population’s yearning for change. But standing in the way of this brighter future are enemies of the people – ‘obstacles’ that must be removed. These obstacles, be they foreigners, Jews, infidels – or Ukrainians – become the focus of the tyrant’s intolerance, hatred and eventual violence, which is aimed at their elimination by whatever means necessary.

This combination of narcissism (restoring the glory of the nation), paranoia (enemies both real and imagined) and psychopathy (the use of unlimited violence in the form of war crimes, death camps and genocide) has been the standard playbook for tyrants including Hitler, Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, and many others. It is also, it appears, the playbook for Vladimir Putin in Ukraine.

The second important insight that can be gleaned from Betty Glad’s characterisation of the tyrant is the insight it gives into the mindset of such dangerous leaders. In Disordered Minds, I found that every tyrant I researched was propelled by a pathological inner vision which had a mix of narcissistic, paranoid and psychopathic elements. This vision is typically formed in early adulthood and remains unchanged (and unchangeable) throughout their lifetime. Each tyrant viewed the pursuit of this pathological vision as their life mission, and often waited for decades until circumstances allowed them to attempt to impose their calamitous vision on the world. 

Hitler’s life vision, for example, was the restoration of German glory, lost in the defeat of World War One. Between Germany’s rightful greatness and its fulfilment stood the obstacle of an impure German nation, polluted by Jews, the disabled, gays, and Roma who had to be eliminated so that a pure German nation could realise its true might. Hitler dreamed too of being the Emperor of Europe, which necessitated the conquest of foreign lands which would be cleansed of their inferior populations so the superior German race could enjoy its rightful living space (Lebensraum). The psychopathic means of achieving Hitler’s vision included total war, genocide in eastern Europe and Russia, and the Holocaust.

Stalin and Mao had similar inner visions animating their reigns of power. For Stalin it was the dream of a greater Russia exceeding the West in terms of economic, technological and military power. In pursuit of this dream, enemies had to be continually eliminated (through unending purges and the Great Terror), and the Soviet Union’s workforce had to be harnessed through the mass use of slave labour (Stalin’s Gulag). For Mao too the dream was of China overtaking the West as the world’s most powerful nation, in pursuit of which he said he was willing to allow half of China to die. In Mao’s Famine, a catastrophic attempt at accelerated modernisation, at least 45 million Chinese people were worked, starved or beaten to death. That is more deaths than all the trench warfare of World War One, and perhaps as many deaths as happened in all the bombing raids, gas chambers and atomic bombings of World War Two combined.

The implications for Putin’s actions in Ukraine

“Calling things by their names is essential for standing up to evil.” President Zelensky

Given the fact that Putin is following the tyrants’ playbook by signalling intent to eliminate Ukraine as a sovereign nation and Ukrainian as a recognised national identity, the disagreement between Biden and Macron as to whether to use the term genocide is clearly about more than the niceties of language. It is an argument about whether or not to recognise the pathological nature of Putin’s mind and the true danger that he represents. Tyrants with the combination of characteristics that Glad highlights – psychopathy, and pathological narcissism and paranoia – do not change their minds. Instead, their minds are frozen is a state of certainty and intent that does not waver, even as they bring their nations, and the world, to destruction. This much is clear from history. The challenge for Biden and the leaders of the other nations currently facing Putin down, is to weaken Putin’s capacity to pursue his genocidal intent, even though that risks Putin escalating the conflict to a direct confrontation the US and NATO. To do otherwise will be to allow Putin to continue to impose his “dream of his own imagination for a pattern of the world”, a dream that is utterly devoid of conscience.

1 thought on “Why Calling Putin’s Actions in Ukraine “Genocide” Matters

  1. No, they had ‘ideological masks’. Hitler didn’t give a damn about Germany and wanted it destroyed when it was clear he was going to be defeated. Stalin’s ideology changed to suit the needs of the moment. Nationalism is just an ideological mask. Neither Trump nor Putin give a damn about their respective nations. Self-aggrandizement, wealth, power, control – all the usual suspects.

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