This week, the West has been swift and clear in its military and diplomatic response to Vladimir Putin’s latest round of mass missile attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine’s cities. However, its response at the level of psychological warfare could well be improved, including by following the lead of Ukraine itself.
Bluntly put, Ukraine knows how to deal with a**holes. An old adage says: “God created a beautiful country called Ukraine. And to keep things balanced, He gave it the worst neighbor in the world.” Following at least one Russian invasion every century since the 12th century, Stalin’s forced famine that killed more than 5 million Ukrainians in the 1930s, and decades of Soviet Russification and political repression, Ukrainians know what best works when confronted with an authoritarian dictator and the warped and wicked imperial culture that Vladimir Putin presides over.
Ukraine’s methods actually align with some of the thinking of Stanford professor of organizational behavior, Dr Robert Sutton, who has devoted an entire academic career to the topic of, literally, dealing with a**holes. He has gathered reams of empirical data on what makes for vindictive jerks and bullies in organizations and how best to protect oneself from them. His work translates well in the context of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
To start with, Sutton’s definition of a**hole fits Putin well: “An a**hole is someone who leaves us feeling demeaned, de-energized, disrespected, and/or oppressed. In other words, someone who makes you feel like dirt. They want to make you feel hurt and upset; they take pleasure in it.”
How to respond to an a**hole? Here are some distilled insights from Sutton’s work, as well as from basic concepts of counter-propaganda and psychological warfare that this writer was trained in by the U.S. Army as long ago as the 1980s.
Ignore a**holes. Sutton calls this “tactical avoidance”: when one does everything to steer clear of and not engage with an a**hole’s behavior. This in turn denies them the validation, credibility and, especially, emotional power over others that they crave. He told an interviewer: “One of the simplest – but admittedly hardest – things you can do is simply learn not to give a shit. Not giving a shit takes the wind out of an a**hole’s sails.”
In psy-op terms, going back to Sun Tzu, this is also about choosing to fight on your preferred battlefield not on your foe’s. Ukraine has mastered this strategy with Putin. It doesn’t directly engage with his blatant lies, “consistently inconsistent” claims, propaganda narratives, or political showmanship. Rather, Ukraine deploys a straightforward but smart method to starve Putin of the psychological control, narcissistic reward and political objectives he most seeks: status as a global player and “master strategist.”
That is, Ukraine simply refuses to take Putin seriously, give him any substantive recognition, or show any sign of intimidation. In the midst of a brutal war, it laughs at and mocks Putin. Starting from its man-of-the-moment comedian, President Volodymyr Zelensky, through to the official social media feeds of its government and military, and down to the vast citizen army of content creators and meme makers, Putin is just a joke. Ukraine even actively positions a small, cute, bomb-sniffing Jack Russell Terrier – named Ammo – as a happy and humorous contrast to Putin’s faux machismo.
This effective tactic of denial and dismissal is, regretfully, in contrast to that of some world leaders, including those of France, Germany and Italy. Despite having been burnt time and time again, they continue to engage with Putin on a publicly respectful and peer-like level. It’s stupid in practical terms because it has, in eight years and eight months, achieved nothing for their interests, no less Ukraine’s; it’s repugnant in moral terms to give acknowledgement to a war criminal and state terrorist, as deemed by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe this week. In contrast to even tiny and distant Australia’s firm stance, the Europeans are bizarrely happy to work with a man who is happy to see their societies in chaos and destruction.
Fight back. Sutton argues that if your a**hole is particularly exploitative and malicious, there is a need to fight them – while maintaining emotional distance as per his above advice. He told an interviewer:
“Sometimes you have to speak to the a**hole in the only language they understand and that means you have to get your hands dirty… If somebody has a long history of hurting you, and they have a Machiavellian personality, the only thing they understand is a display of force. If that’s the case, the best way to protect yourself is to fire back with everything you’ve got… If you’re going to fight, you need a plan and a posse, you need to collect your evidence, and then you have to take your chances.”
While Ukrainian authorities or behind-the-lines partisans have made no claims about the Kerch Bridge – or, for that matter, airfields and ammo dumps that continue to go up in flames in Russia itself – it would be logical if the destruction of such objects has not only military and logistical validity, but massive psy-ops impact as well.
A key part of U.S. Army psy-ops training was the importance of understanding your target audience/foe’s psychological, emotional and cultural make-up, and utilizing their iconic symbols, dates, places and opportunities in one’s efforts to influence and impact. Or, as Sutton writes: “You need to know your a**hole.”
Through history and geography, Ukrainians know Russia and Russians better than anyone else. Unlike blundering Western European politicians who wrongly assume Russia holds “European” values such as democracy, Ukrainians know Russia to be unique and different – and actually know what makes it tick at an emotional and psychological level.
From the farmer to the policy maker, Ukrainians know, for example, that shame and glory are the flip sides of the coin that is Russian political culture over the centuries. Since the Russo-Japanese War, each of Russia’s regime changes or involvements in a war can be explained as either an attempt to avert national shame or to seek imperial glory. (Arguably, the Bolshevik Revolution was somehow “democratic,” but even that was largely a reaction to the humiliations of World War I.)
Moreover, following the chaos of Yeltsin, Putin’s entire domestic political project has been founded on the concept of glory: projecting Russian power to the world while promoting to Russians the personal “glory” of crass individual materialism. Glory is the uniting and controlling principle.
It is also the soft, very fat and very exposed underbelly of Putin, his corrupt mafia cohorts, and the sick society that chooses to be manipulated by them. At every turn, Ukrainians kick that belly very hard by deploying “weapons of mass humiliation.” The strategic goal is to trigger shame – shame that impairs sober decision-making in the war, and provokes internal criticism and dissent against Putin. Putin’s end, they know, is the best prospect for peace.
By way of contrast, too many Western leaders still think they can manage their way through this historic moment and return to some status quo; they seem slow to see the opportunity to manifest a better global order without an erratic Putin. Their mentality of compromise and accommodation empowers Putin and prolongs the war – and the associated nuclear posturing. Belief in victory, and the actions it enables – such as provision of air defense systems and Ukrainian successes on the battlefield – prorogues it.
Ukrainians assail Putin’s narcissism and poke the Russian ego into overcompensation and missteps by means of tactics like: parading destroyed Russian military hardware on the main squares of their cities; publicizing the embarrassing lack of training and supplies given to Russian soldiers; targeting and destroying highly symbolic objects like the Moskva battleship (or say the Kerch Bridge) in which the Putin posse is emotionally invested; promoting the bravery of Ukrainian fighters and volunteers – women, gays, non-Christians, and people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds – who are a stark contrast to patriarchal and fascist Putinism; and, demonstrating unshakeable optimism and confidence in their own democratic values, emotional strength, warrior skills and future victory.
Is it working? Has the wisdom of someone like Sutton applied? Each of the 110 cruise missiles and 40 kamikaze drones fired by Russia this week – when those missiles are running low and their conventional forces are withdrawing near Kherson and in the east of Ukraine – ironically says yes. The a**hole is being pushed out and pushed down. This is because, for all the physical damage and destruction of the attacks on Ukraine’s cities, they also speak of psychological desperation. Not on the part of Ukraine – but of Putin.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.
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