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


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.

Vladimir Putin and the Sacred Ordinary

An exhibition in Dublin Castle to mark Holocaust Memorial Day, a few weeks before the beginning of Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine, documented one family’s sudden dislocation from normal life to unthinkable nightmare. The early photographs in the exhibition, of family gatherings, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, give way abruptly to pictures showing the public humiliation of old men and of children lining up for transport to their extermination. The exhibition’s curator, Oliver Sears, whose grandmother and mother lived through the horror, recounts a story told to him by survivor that happened during the first few days of the Nazi occupation of Poland.

Richard Urbanski was seventeen when the Nazi’s took over Warsaw. On his way home from school, he witnessed a flat bed truck parked next to a four-story apartment building, with German soldiers throwing Hasidic Jews, still alive and breathing, from the top floor windows onto the truck below.

The Nazi invasion was not simply occupation by an invading army. It was an abrupt elimination of the sacred ordinariness that had governed people’s lives until then – the sacred ordinariness of family life, of trips to town, of meetings with friends, the scared ordinariness of love and respect for life.

So too with Putin’s barbarism in Ukraine. Once again, the entire mental landscape of the sacred ordinary has been shattered, just as brutally as the landscape of bombed out maternity hospitals, schools and apartment blocks that we see in the images coming out of Ukraine daily. As with Hitler, the psychopathology of one deeply disordered mind has torn asunder the fabric of values that gives life meaning.

The concept of evil is one that we shy away from in our secular societies, with its ramifications of the supernatural, of demons and the Devil. But Putin is evil, and the source of his evil is much more mundane. Putin’s evil, like that of Hitler, Stalin. Mao, and so many other tyrants past and present, lies in his utter incapacity to live from the sacred ordinary.

The cultural historian and ecologist Thomas Berry wrote of a transformative experience he had as an eleven-year-old boy. His family has moved to a new home on the edge of town, overlooking a creek and a meadow. Berry recalls the first time that he descended the hill, crossed over the creek and stood in the meadow. It was early afternoon in mid-May and the field was full of white lilies rising above thick grass. He recalls crickets singing and woodlands in the near distance framed by scattered clouds in a clear blue sky. Berry recounts how this early experience had such a deep impact that it became normative for him: “Whatever preserves and enhances this meadow in the natural cycles of its transformation is good; whatever opposes this meadow or negates it is not good. My life orientation is that simple.”

While some of us might identify with Berry’s deep connection with nature, most of humanity identifies with a deep connection to other people. For most of us, our life orientations are simple too: whatever preserves or enhances those we love and our connections to them is good; whatever disrupts or destroys this sacred ordinariness is bad.

The roots of Putin’s evil lie in his incapacity to conceive of such an orientation as the basis for living. Over a century of studies on childhood development show clearly that adverse early experiences can leave individuals bereft of the capacity to relate to other people in empathic, loving or respectful ways. The labels that psychologists have for this condition varies, and includes malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, and psychopathy. Whatever the labels, the shared underlying reality for individuals with these conditions is an inability to relate to others as human beings, or to gain sustenance from the ordinary everyday interactions that give life meaning. Cut off from the world of normal human relationships, they seek solace instead in a relentless pursuit of wealth and power. If others will not love them, they will command respect and servitude through status, fear and control. Envious of the love they cannot partake in, they seek to destroy the bonds of love and care that bind the rest of us together.

The images from Ukraine of mass murder, of families torn apart, of children’s corpses, of the frail and elderly forced to flee for their lives, demand of us a deeper understanding of Putin’s evil. Evil, in encountering goodness, seeks to destroy it. Beneath his all-powerful dreams of Empire, of the restoration of Russian “greatness”, of his command of armies and nuclear arsenals capable of Armageddon, lies a banality of evil, terrifying too in its emptiness. Beneath the bravado, the ruined cities, the shattered lives – and potentially too, beneath the mushroom clouds – lies an incapacity to love and an all-consuming envy of love.

In his poem Darkness Invisible, Ukrainian poet Yuri Izdryk laments how evil had become invisible in the world, like mist in air, so that we can no longer say that evil is here, evil is there. The sacred ordinary names the space that mediates love, tenderness, security – all the things Putin has been deprived of in his dysfunctional life.

But Putin has made evil visible again, and the Ukrainians fighting him in their stand to defend the sacred ordinary have made the necessary response to evil equally clear.

Izdryk writes:

“while we two are together, I keep faith in light, love and warmth

and in mercy, which conquers invisible darkness

the shadows will fade, evil will surface – pathetic, a thing of no worth

and we two will laugh, we’ll laugh right in its face”

Understanding Putin’s Evil

With Putin’s barbaric unprovoked invasion of Ukraine, evil has been visited upon Europe on a scale, and at a level of threat, not seen since World War Two. Irish Prime Minster Michael Martin has called Putin an evil man, while Ukrainian President Zelensky has called on his fellow citizens to drive Putin’s evil out of their country.

Evil is a word that many people recoil from, with its metaphysical implications of demons and the Devil. But the reality of Putin’s evil is much more mundane. The source of his evil lies in the fact that Putin is an extremely damaged human being. That damage, which is variously called malignant narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder, or psychopathy, is manifest in one central aspect of his personality. Putin is incapable of normal human feeling. The damage that Putin suffered during his early childhood, when the essential capacities for relationships with, and empathy for, other human beings are usually formed, was such that he has been left bereft of any ability to see and relate to other people as people.

Putin’s mind, damaged beyond repair by severe abuse or neglect, has been frozen since childhood into a state devoid of empathy or love. Without these vital conduits for communication with the world of other people, and incapable of pursuing sustenance from the love and friendships that give life meaning, he has sought instead to force recognition and respect from others through terror, wealth and power.

Early in his career as a Communist revolutionary, Mao Zedong discovered his passion for cruelty. He realised that violence, which he found thrilling, terrified most normal people. This enormous advantage – his incapacity for human feeling and others’ terror at what came so easily to him – was something he exploited his entire life. When the Chinese Communist Party came to power, Mao’s first act was to order mass public executions in towns and cities right across China so that men, women and children could witness first-hand the mass terror one man can inflict if he is without feeling.

So too with Putin. His entire political career has been based on murder, war and the threat of terror. Now, with thousands of nuclear weapons under his control, he blithely threatens the world with nuclear war.

Our response to Putin is understandably to be terrified. But such a response plays into his hands. Putin is not an evil ‘genius’. Nor is he insane. He is simply an extremely damaged human being who is incapable of relating to other people with any semblance of humanity. His condition is untreatable. Only when we face this simple reality can we understand the nature of the threat we are facing.

When Putin sees the images of suffering coming out of Ukraine – of fathers in tears as they say goodbye to their wives and children because they have to stay and fight, of a female teacher splattered in blood because her apartment has been shelled, of a father weeping over the corpse of his teenage son – he does not feel sympathy or horror as we do. He feels contempt and satisfaction. He thinks, as Stalin did when he was signing the execution orders of tens of thousands of Russians, that no-one will remember this ‘riffraff’ a few years from now.

When Putin sees the bombed-out ruins of towns and cities, he doesn’t see the senseless destruction that we see. He sees beauty of a world bent to his will. While Ukrainians dream of reuniting with their families and living again in the peace they enjoyed before Putin unleashed his psychopathic violence, Putin dreams of the restoration of the Soviet Empire. This too is a reflection of his disorder. People with the dangerous personality disorder that Putin shares in common with Hitler have minds closed to change. Without the essential flow of benevolent and empathic human interaction with others, their minds do not grow. Instead, they fester for a lifetime on perceived injustices from decades past, fuelled by an unceasing paranoid hatred for the world. Hitler was fixated on Germany’s humiliation in the defeat of World War One, which he sought to rectify through the carnage of World War Two. Likewise, Putin is fixated on the ‘humiliation’ of the fall of the Soviet empire, the reversal of which he is prepared to pursue, quite likely, up to the point of nuclear war.

Commentators have suggested that power has corrupted him, or that he has changed in recent years. Both of these explanations miss the point. Putin’s damaged mind has been frozen, incapable of real learning or adaptation to a changing world, since he was a child. He has not changed, but the world has, leaving him more and more divorced from the reality around him – a 19th century mind in the 21st century as Angela Merkel described him. Rather than use his time in power to bring Russia forward into the future, his ossified mind is dragging it, and the world, back to the barbarism of its past.

Putin relates to the world by evoking terror because he lacks the human capacities to relate in any other way. The terror he evokes magnifies his power because it paralyses us and allows him to get his way. But the Ukrainian people, under President Zelensky, have shown us that beyond the terror, there is the need, and the will, to act. The world has allowed, yet again, a pathologically disordered man to rise to power and threaten the world. Such instances have been resolved in the past only through cataclysmic bloodshed. Let us hope that this time we can find another way. If and when we do get the chance to act, we must ensure, once and for all, that such damaged and disordered minds never again acquire power over us.

Ian Hughes is author of Disordered Minds: How Dangerous Personalities Are Destroying Democracy

Humanity Requires a Radically New Story

  • Language (particularly metaphor and story) shapes how we see the world, and how we think and act.

If you think this is esoteric, think of the consequences of the language used to target particular groups of people – as parasites, as swarms, floods, and marauders, as pollutants – to see the real world consequences of the language and metaphors we use.

This new book Metaphor, Sustainability, Transformation is an exploration of how this is the case when it comes to the challenges of climate change and ecological and environmental destruction – an exploration of how metaphor and story matter.

  • In the discussions among the book’s authors, two things quickly became evident that formed the foundational ideas for the book.

First, it became evident that we all shared a belief that the series of crises we face

– not only climate change, but also the erosion of democracy and the rise of authoritarianism, increasing geopolitical tensions and the threat of war that accompanies them, socially destabilizing levels of inequality, and – as the pandemic has shown, a persistent gulf between the rich world and the majority world

– that these crises require a transformation not only in technology but also more fundamentally in how we think and act.

The second thing we as authors agreed on was that, because of this profound uncertainty, it is essential to have the insights from every discipline around the table. Conversations and connections across discipline are not option, they are the way we will create a future that is both workable and crucially ethical

“The book is based on a belief that metaphors and stories we currently use can lead us to act inappropriately and that an active reimagining of our language is needed. In this spirit, the book offers a wide range of metaphors to illustrate the possibilities for such a reimagining”.

Please listen here to the launch event where wonderful story teller Jo Blake joins some of the book’s authors to discuss how story can change how we think and act, and might even safe us from ourselves.

Does our current model of global Capitalism deserve to survive in its current form?

I was delighted to be interviewed by the Age of Economics in their project to ask a diverse group of global thinkers 8 fundamental questions about economics and capitalist civilization. For me the most important question is whether the current paradigm in economics is going to further empower authoritarianism and nationalism – or is it going to empower a more creative response? Should global Capitalism survive in its current form? Listen to my interview here.

We urgently need to reimagine society if we are to contain sociopathic leaders

We are in a moment of deep institutional breakdown. Climate change, environmental degradation, marked increases in inequality, the rise of populism, rising geo-political tensions, and ongoing religious and ethnic conflicts provide clear evidence that current social institutions are not optimal, either for human flourishing or for addressing global challenges. Over recent decades, the culture within many organizations – in politics, economics, business, media, education and so on – has changed to fit the sociopathic profile of narcissists and psychopaths, granting them enormous influence over our societies and making sociopathic values the norm. Our current moment of deep transition, as well as being a time of danger, presents an opportunity for positive renewal. For such positive renewal to occur, however, existing social institutions must be critiqued and re-imagined based on a shift from values of hierarchy, inequality, coercion and private gain, toward values of equity, cooperation, and public good. This new paper explores what this might mean in practice.