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UMD Expert: Putin’s ‘Cakewalk’ Illusion in Ukraine Gave Way to Attacks on Civilians

Psychology Professor Expects Leader to Double Down in Face of Ukrainian Resolve

By Liam Farrell

Two women walk amid debris in Kyiv, Ukraine

Residents walk amid debris of their destroyed houses in the village of Moshchun, northwest of Kyiv, on Wednesday. Such targeting of defenseless civilians may stem in part from an urge by Russian troops to regain a sense of power and significance after meeting defeat at the hands of Ukrainian forces, according to a UMD psychology researcher who studies extremism.

Photo by Genya Savilov/AFP via Getty Images

In the almost two months since the Russian invasion of Ukraine shook the post-World War II international order, mainstream media and social networks have given the world an unprecedented view of the ongoing horrors and tragedy—not to mention the relentless propaganda campaigns—that accompany modern warfare.

Arie Kruglanski headshot

As gruesome photographs and stories of atrocities committed against Ukrainian civilians chronicled the Russian army’s retreat from its failed advance on the capital of Kyiv, Maryland Today spoke with Arie Kruglanski, a distinguished university professor in the Department of Psychology. Kruglanski, an expert on extremism and a Holocaust survivor, talked about the current state of the conflict, how and why soldiers turn violent against noncombatants, and what Western allies’ objective should be.

What conclusions can be drawn at this point from the war?
There is a consensus that the Russian military was unprepared, that the Ukraine military showed very staunch and effective resistance, and that the West came together to a large extent to support Ukraine. All of this must have been a great surprise to (Russian President Vladimir) Putin. He expected this to be an easy, cakewalk campaign. It turned out to be the opposite.

I always thought the key would be the resistance of the Ukrainian people. Putin would disregard the sanctions and find solutions with China and other nations. Sooner or later, despite his so-far effective control of the information flow, Russian people will realize the magnitude of the disaster that befell them.

What do you believe are the reasons for the brutality toward civilians?
When your dignity is insulted, as it is for the Russian soldiers—they feel they are defeated, the Ukrainians are rendering them ineffective—this is extremely humiliating. They are outraged and the way to restore their sense of power is lashing out against whoever they can. The defenseless civilians are there.

Putin himself is a violent man. He believes in beating up his enemies, he believes in the power of violence to get what you want. His invasion of Crimea (in 2014) went unpunished; he was widely supported by the Russian people. This is the kind of narrative that the soldiers are fed:

This is a fight against “Nazis”—they are threatening Russia, that if this preventive war did not take place, NATO countries would encircle Russia. A large proportion of them support that narrative, the information channels echo that narrative, so there is a network of support. There’s very little dissent, and the dissent is of people who are not particularly popular.

Do you see a potential breaking point where members of the Russian government or Russian people would begin to openly oppose Putin and the war?
Putin is resolved to intensify the campaign in all its aspects, including its propaganda. He’s an extremely ambitious person, and this is going to be a great personal disaster for him. He’s not going to accept it lying down, he’s going to do all he can in the “Plan B” of eastern Ukraine to unleash tremendous force.

Once the extent of the disaster, the number of Russian lives lost, becomes popular knowledge, you will see a change in the Russian mood. They already lost more people here than they did in their war in Afghanistan. At some point the resistance movement will gain momentum.

How should Western nations be thinking about Russia and a potential endgame?
The whole thing about NATO encircling Russia really frightens the Russian people. It’s not just a specious argument. NATO, according to some reports, once promised to not extend eastward and it has. Sweden and Finland are talking about joining. Russia is a nuclear power, and Putin can be unpredictable.

We cannot disregard the Russian point of view in all of this. We cannot demonize them to the point we are becoming irrational about it. Ukraine pledging not to join NATO might be a face-saving way to get Putin to some kind of agreement. At the end of the day, diplomacy has to be the extension of war.

Do you believe the “genocide” label, publicly used by President Biden, is accurate for the killings of Ukrainian civilians?
The word “genocide” has to be reserved for very extreme and systematic attempts at annihilation. What you see here are atrocities perpetrated by soldiers and bombings of cities.

One should not throw about the word “genocide” too readily. The Holocaust was a genocide, the Armenian genocide was a genocide; this is not the case here.

Would eventually holding Putin accountable for war crimes even be possible?
Many nations do not cooperate with the West in condemning Putin right now. He has much more power and influence than (former Serbia and Yugoslavia president Slobodan) Milošević and other Serbian leaders who were held accountable. To the extent that Putin remains in power, it will remain very difficult to do that.

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